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Diacritics 33.1 (2003) 23-40

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Everyday Life and the Challenge to History in Postwar France

Braudel, Lefebvre, Certeau

"The everyday: What is most difficult to discover." Far from a mere rhetorical captatio, these words of caution with which Maurice Blanchot opens his 1962 review essay on the work of Marxist sociologist Henri Lefebvre ["Everyday Speech" 12] define a concept whose corrosive power erodes all schemes of thought. Neither subject nor object, situated in a prelogical realm on the other side of authenticity and inauthenticity, the everyday points for Blanchot less to the real-world content of a perceiving consciousness than to the conditions of possibility of thought itself. If the everyday, much like the Heideggerian One (das Man) with which it shares an ontic priority, strikes the philosopher as a concept eminently "difficult to discover," it is precisely because at each moment of its becoming it "escapes" our attempts to comprehend it [14].

Until recently, the everyday had escaped our grasp in a sense quite distinct from the epistemological one Blanchot had in mind, namely as an object of modern intellectual history. Surely, in France, the decades following the Liberation suffered no dearth of writings on the conjoined themes of everydayness and everyday life. Lefebvre's three-volume Critique de la vie quotidienne (1947–81), well known in communist and leftist circles, took root in Marx's category of alienation and advocated an increased knowledge of present living conditions under modernization; from 1950 onward, advocating a history of the "long term" (longue durée), Fernand Braudel investigated the rhythms and incipient "structures of everyday life" characteristic of the preindustrial world; militants of the Situationist International (1957–72) called for a streetwise "revolution in everyday life" to disrupt the smooth functioning of productivist society through ludic intervention and the unearthing of hidden desire; finally, in the wake of the failed revolt of May 1968, anthropologists of culture such as Michel Maffesoli (1979) and Michel de Certeau (1980) placed their research in direct relation to the quotidian, the first emphasizing the ambiguity of social rites against the rational programming of daily existence, the second drawing attention to the inherent "inventiveness of the everyday" in order to redress the top-down bias of Foucault's critique of the microtechnologies of power. The influence of these thinkers aside, intellectual histories covering the years 1945–81 in France paidscant attention to the everyday as a category, privileging instead the legacy of existential phenomenology on the one hand and structuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis on the other.1 What Frané�ois Dosse coyly referred to as the chant du signe had [End Page 23] enough seductive power to lure critics into examining the discrete components of signifying systems while neglecting the contexts within which these systems evolved.2

It is a commonplace that each period rewrites intellectual history by projecting its own preoccupations onto periods past, and the present "cultural turn" is no exception in its promotion of the everyday as a working category. Over the past decade and a half, in an effort to make amends for the abstractions of French theory, notably for Baudrillard's postmodernism of simulacra and simulation, British and North American scholars trained in sociology, political theory, and literature have made significant inroads toward constituting what Michael Gardiner has called a "clandestine" history of the everyday [2]. Reasons for the current appeal of this category within critical thought are many. First among them is the perception of the limits of language-based paradigms—everyday life would seem reassuringly to stand on the side of reality and praxis—and the concomitant refusal to reduce experience to mediate representations—everyday life would resist translation into verbal and visual media, so many techniques that come to abolish, as Blanchot notes, the "'nothing happens' of the everyday" [18]. By virtue of its emphasis on anonymity, the everyday seems, second, to allow for a rehabilitation of ordinary practices while precluding the wholesale reinstatement of anthropocentrism. Third, one could adduce the frustrations generated by class-based ideology critique and by macrostructural explanations of...


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