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  • Everyday Life: How the Ordinary Became Extraordinary by Joseph A. Amato
  • John Brewer
Everyday Life: How the Ordinary Became Extraordinary. By Joseph A. Amato (London: Reaktion Books, 2016. 256 pp.).

Joseph Amato's Everyday Life is an escalating, high speed survey (in 200 pages!) of everyday life from pre-history to the present. But this, as his extended acknowledgements make clear, is not so much an overview as a lengthy (and polemical) reflection on his life's work as an historian of the local, the material and the everyday, designed to offer "reasons for studying and writing everyday life…[as] a humane craft" (240). For Amato, this task is a moral imperative, in which the historian should work "to secure…home and family in heart and hearth and to save the uniqueness of place as a reservoir of variety in a time when the local, rural and traditional lose out to the encroachment and encapsulation of national and global forces" (8). And it is also deeply personal, rooted, as he explains in a touching afterword, in the bosom of his own immigrant family and nostalgic memories of his childhood. Amato is too smart to deny that everyday life has been modernized: as he puts it, "as time, place, community, tradition and self, the composing atoms of daily life have been split, blasted to smithereens, so … the everyday—so mundane and ordinary—becomes unusual, even extraordinary (241). But it is clear that what he sometimes characterizes as a transformation and on other occasions as a loss is something that he regrets, and which fuels his writing as an act of recuperation. If theorists like Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau have seen everyday practices as forms of resistance to homogenizing modernization and its apparatus of technical domination, Amato (who says little about such critical theory) confers that task upon the working historian. He sees truth (though he could equally have used the term 'authenticity') "as embodied, ordinary and communal," what he calls a "counter-truth against the homogeneities of contemporary theory, ideology and programmes." This sounds very much like Lefebvre.

The historical account that underpins Amato's analysis is a pretty familiar one to any reader of social theory beholden to Ferdinand Tonnies and to kindred notions of modernization. It is a version of the story of the transition from Gemeinshaft to Gesellschaft, from community to society and economy, from circumstances in which "the everyday…is less and less experienced as static and predictable," belonging "more and more to change, design, individuality and subjectivity" (187), and from the closed world of the "enduring, isolated [End Page 1017] and autarkic peasant" to that of the "modern protean and globally connected self' (83). Its chronology is largely determined by the neo-malthusian views of the Annales school—Amato's debt to Braudel and Lucien Febvre is explicit—in which a medieval, static or, at best cyclical life of the peasantry lasting from the eighth to the eighteenth centuries was only ended by the industrial revolution when, as Amato graphically puts it, "everyday life exploded" (113).

Amato warns of how the complexity of the everyday before the French and industrial revolutions can be overlooked in the cliches about pre-modern life (89), but does not heed his own injunction. Peasants who were murdered by warriors and bandits, whose possessions were pillaged, and who died in the millions from epidemics like the Black Death, would be bemused to see themselves described as "isolated" and "autonomous", their experiences as "static and predictable" (187). The bold generalizations about an affectless, immobile, and autarkic peasantry that Amato endorses have over the last thirty years been modified or overtly rebutted in historical scholarship that reconstructs the emotions, familial relations, geographic mobility and engagement in the market of (certainly some) European peasants. And Amato's notion that micro-regulation by states and experts is a product of modernity (194-5) (again, there are strong echoes of Lefebvre here) conveniently forgets the detailed web of rules affecting private morality and sexual behavior, dress, residence and work, enforced by courts, manorial and ecclesiastical. Certainly, when Amato says of the Roman church that it "extended forgiveness and blessing to all" (52...


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