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  • Thinking the Everyday:Genre, Form, Fiction
  • Alison James

“EVERYDAY LIFE”—“the everyday,” “the quotidian”—has emerged as one of the most productive categories in recent literary and cultural studies. The notion nevertheless remains stubbornly resistant to definition as theme, paradigm or conceptual scheme. The everyday is a boundary concept that makes visible the intersections of the literary field with other domains—specifically the relation of literature to modes of social scientific inquiry—while also confronting us with the question of the specificity of literature. How does literature, as literature, illuminate our understanding of daily life? Conversely, what does an emphasis on everydayness bring to our analysis of literature and literary thought?

The current preoccupation with interdisciplinarity carries the danger of defending literature only insofar as it is really something else. If literature thinks the everyday by resembling anthropology, sociology or ethnography, then the literary dimension may be reduced to a mere aesthetic residue, or become an alibi for methodological imprecision. The appeal to the everyday leaves open the question of literary form, while implicitly favoring certain approaches to the real. The following pages aim to reassert the specificity of literary approaches to the everyday, while also acknowledging that the ethnographic impulse has reconfigured the realm of literary thought—at least in the French context—since the 1980s. My aim is not to draw firm disciplinary or generic boundaries, but rather to bring into focus the varied formal resources of literature for representing and evaluating various spheres of human activity. I will consider some key texts that fall into two main thematic categories: the public space of the metro and the private space of the home. Within this division, three axes of analysis emerge: the problem of the “ethnographic” gaze, the role of literary form, and the possibilities of fiction.

The ineffable everyday?

As a realm of experience, the everyday is by definition familiar to everyone. As a conceptual tool and set of theories, it has its origins in certain strains of twentieth-century thought. In the past two decades, moreover, the quotidian has become a metaconceptual category that allows the retrospective grasp and subsequent redeployment within literary criticism of earlier discourses and intellectual traditions. Scholars of the everyday have turned to the work of Henri Lefebvre or Michel de Certeau for alternative models of “French [End Page 78] theory” suited to a post-poststructural moment. Thus, in the introduction to their 1987 special issue of Yale French Studies, Alice Kaplan and Kristin Ross contrast the critique of everyday life elaborated in France in the 1950s and 60s with the more immediately fashionable approaches of “structuralism and its various derivatives.”1 Derek Schilling highlights the social-scientific derivation of a concept that emerges in the French context from institutional structures that favor interdisciplinarity, “coupled with the rapid pace of modernization in the late 1950s and 1960s.”2 Tracing the history of this intellectual tradition back to surrealism, Michael Sheringham’s far-reaching Everyday Life marks an important event in recent French studies.3

Beyond the French context, the concept of the everyday is connected to the history of certain disciplinary configurations, notably cultural studies and the history of material culture.4 Ways of thinking the everyday thus become the object of intellectual history in their own right; yet it is also possible to celebrate the everyday as a counter-disciplinary principle, a notion characterized by its resistance to capture within systems of thought.5 If everyday experience in the modern world is an ambiguous realm of alienation and aspiration, the thinking of the everyday—la pensée du quotidien—is alternately a world of interdisciplinary thrills and an intercultural no-man’s land. Symptomatically, many scholars of the everyday place their work under the aegis of Maurice Blanchot’s understanding of the quotidian: the very definition of the everyday, for Blanchot, is that it escapes us; constituted by the fact of remaining unperceived, it is always beneath the level of representation in language.6 Blanchot’s account of the everyday transforms Lefebvre’s dialectical view into something like the Bataillian informe: a concept that is an anti-concept, constantly destabilizing classifications and boundaries.7 The texts privileged within this framework are...


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