- Critiquing "La Vie Quotidienne":Contemporary Approaches to the Everyday
In 2002, the cultural studies scholar Ben Highmore observed, "we are witnessing something of an academic boom in everyday life," and he was right.1 The concept of "everyday life" has indeed emerged as an important organizing principle and theoretical problem in literary and cultural studies, popular culture and media studies, sociology, and across the humanities in general. Recent years have seen the publication of Michael Gardiner's Critiques of Everyday Life (2000) and Highmore's own Everyday Life and Cultural Theory (2002), two excellent overviews of the major theories of everyday life. In 2002, New Literary History devoted a special issue to everyday life, while at the same moment, a special issue of Cultural Critique (Fall 2002) had precisely the same focus. When an area of inquiry gets its own "Reader" you know it has truly arrived, so perhaps the most prominent sign that a field we might think of as "everyday life studies" is beginning to be consolidated is Routledge's 2002 publication of The Everyday Life Reader. Edited by Highmore, this interdisciplinary anthology consists of important theoretical texts on everyday life by a wide variety of thinkers. Scholars devoted more [End Page 476] specifically to literature have gotten into the act, too; for example, in 2007, Cambridge University Press published Modernism, Daily Time, and Everyday Life, by Bryony Randall.
Given all this activity, it is not surprising that the critic Rita Felski wondered, "The everyday is everywhere in recent work in the humanities, but to what end?" As her comment suggests, as an object of critical inquiry, the "everyday" is still vaguely defined and hotly debated, the "theoretical issues and political questions" it raises "far from settled," and its utility for understanding contemporary culture and literature still open to question.2 This is precisely where Michael Sheringham's magisterial new study comes in. Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present offers a genealogy of the concept of everyday life in twentieth-century thought—particularly as it emerged from theoretical debates regarding la vie quotidienne in mid-century France—and investigates, thoroughly, and with admirable clarity and sophistication, its ramifications and complexities. Although one of the strengths of Sheringham's book is its emphasis on the specifically French aspects of this intellectual and literary tradition, it has great relevance and broad applicability to the study of contemporary literature in English. In particular, it is a crucial contribution to a growing trend in literary studies—the use of theories of everyday life to investigate how and why the representation of the everyday becomes such an abiding, complex concern for twentieth-century literature and culture.
Sheringham's capacious book examines an array of theorists and writers who all strive, in one way or another, to "rescue the everyday from the neglect and oblivion to which it is customarily consigned" (1–2). Although the book provides a panoramic view and treats a daunting range of writers, Sheringham places four French figures at the heart of the tradition he is tracing: Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, Michel de Certeau, and Georges Perec. Together, these writers offer a powerful retort to the denigration of everyday life as a significant level of human experience found in much [End Page 477] Western philosophy, social theory, art, and literature. Convinced that our blindness to the everyday undermines our ability to live fully and freely, they declare that no act or element of daily life is devoid of information or lacking in value, meaning, or political resonance. In their work, they present a variety of approaches to critically understanding—and even methods of transforming—the nature of everyday life in modernity. Within this tradition, attending to everyday life is viewed as a task endowed with the utmost political urgency: informed by, and often critically responding to, Marxist thought, these theorists advocate forms of radical critique that would force us to be more conscious of the connections between lived, daily experience in the twentieth century and the oppressive economic and...