- Excursions into Everyday Life
Perhaps it is one of the symptoms of our theory-saturated, post-everything moment that everyday life has recently become not just an object of cultural analysis, but a crucial interpretive category in its own right. Actually existing theory (by which I mean those forms of theorizing that reduce reality to textuality) is now adjudged by some commentators to be languishing not merely in a state of crisis, but of impending extinction. In a recent tract, one such critic, Terry Eagleton, advocates abandoning hitherto hegemonic theoretical excavations in favor of grounding cultural analysis in the deep soils of morality and metaphysics, among others. For his part, in a posthumously published polemic, the late Edward Said attempts to reclaim a beachhead of neo-humanistic terra firma from the murkily indeterminate waters of post-humanist theory, as well as from the slough of stagnant humanisms of the Samuel Huntington persuasion.
This search for socially relevant significance in theory’s aftermath is one of the contexts in which Ben Highmore—Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies at the University of the West of England—situates the revival of academic interest in everyday life that his Reader both heralds and enhances. Toward the end of the engaging essay that introduces his tome, Highmore notes that the emergence of what he dubs “everyday life studies” can be regarded as a response to the remorseless textualization of lived experience by apolitical strains of poststructuralism, as well as to the depthless exaltation of the present that characterizes the giddier celebrations of postmodernism (31). As Highmore has it, theory’s frequently self-enclosed spurning of sensuous life seems to have led to a reassertion of the bracingly real. What better way, perhaps, to dispel the mustiness of the House of Theory’s rooms than by opening up its windows and letting the limpid light of everyday life illuminate the dust motes?
But what is it precisely that the study of everyday life can shed light on? Whose everyday life are we talking about? Where can everyday life be located? How can it be accessed? Indeed, what exactly is meant by the terms “everyday life,” “the everyday,” “the daily,” and their many cognates? Before broaching these matters, it is well to point out that in the Anglophone academy, signs of the arrival of “everyday life studies” abound: among them, special issues of sundry learned journals devoted to the quotidian as problematic, numerous studies foregrounding a focus on the everyday in contexts as seemingly unrelated as Stalin’s Russia or London’s supermarkets, and the long-overdue translation into English of pioneering disquisitions on daily experience by the French polymath Henri Lefebvre. Further, the publication of a reader on the subject also marks its official academic acceptance, as Highmore himself almost ruefully observes (xiii).
But as the contributions by conceptual artists, avant-garde filmmakers, and amateur ethnographers collected here make clear, “everyday life studies” is not purely the purview of academics and scholars. Moreover, as befits an arena of study as vast as daily life, the Reader covers a correspondingly wide-ranging array of orientations and preoccupations. Thus, in addition to such talismanic meditations on the quotidian as Raymond Williams’s “Culture is Ordinary” and Erving Goffman’s discussion of “front and back regions” in the performance of daily self-representation, we find here newer material on topics such as the significance of everyday objects and practices like bags or cooking, as well as older but lesser known work on daily life, such as the auto-ethnographic reports of the Mass Observation project that briefly bloomed in 1930s and ‘40s Britain. Despite the anxiety of representativity that Highmore confesses to have felt in assembling the book, he has succeeded in bringing together between its covers an intertextually suggestive sample of extracts (xii). More importantly, the Reader announces the discovery of a connected cluster of cognitive energies whose reach and density betoken the existence of a hitherto concealed sector of the intellectual cosmos. Like a constellation of distant stars, the elements of this newly sighted portion of the heavens have been...