A Life Less Ordinary

In recent years, there has been a series of groundclearing works in what is now called ‘everyday life studies’. These works have sought to emphasize the range and richness of writings on the quotidian. Books by Michael Gardiner and Ben Highmore, for example, have shown that the everyday is a central concern in the work of many twentieth-century continental thinkers.[1] Michael Sheringham’s engrossing book is more specific and detailed in focus, stressing instead ‘the coherence of an intellectual tradition’ (6) within a particular country and period. It aims to show how the thoroughgoing analysis of le quotidien (a word which has rather more precision than the English ‘everyday’) developed in France in the decades after the Second World War.

Everyday Life seeks to provide ‘a genealogy for the remarkable “explosion” of interest in the everyday that characterized French culture in the 1980s and 1990s’ (14). The bulk of the book offers readings of four key theorists: Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, Michel de Certeau and Georges Perec. It deals with the period between 1960 and 1980 as ‘a phase of active, if often invisible, invention’ in the theorization of everyday life in France, when these writers produced their key works. The book’s final chapters focus on the period from 1980 to 2000 and beyond, a phase of ‘practice, variation, and dissemination’ (6) of these earlier theories and writings.

Sheringham begins by tracing how his four key authors drew on an earlier tradition of thinking about the everyday in the work of writers like André Breton, Michel Leiris and Raymond Queneau, as well as non-French thinkers such as Heidegger, Benjamin and Lukács. Sheringham argues that, unlike some of these earlier authors, the tradition of quotidian writing that emerged with Lefebvre refused ‘to polarize the ontological and the ontic, and reject[ed] the separation between background banality and momentary illumination’ (371). Through the use of cross-referencing and biographical background, Sheringham makes a compelling case that his four writers influenced each other greatly, particularly in their attempts to find a way out of the theoretical impasse of scientific sociology in the 1960s, with its suspicion of subjectivity and lived experience.

Sheringham goes on to argue that the pioneer works of ‘proximate ethnography’ – the most familiar example to English readers being Marc Augé’s work on the Paris métro – used this earlier work on the everyday as a way of responding to the crisis of intellectual authority in traditional anthropology. But the theorization of the quotidian also had an impact beyond academia, in the work of imaginative authors and artists in the 1980s and 1990s. Sheringham shows how it fed into the work of artists (Sophie Calle, Christian Boltanski) novelists (Jean Echenoz), poets (Anne Portugal), theatre practitioners (the ‘théâtre du quotidien’ of Michel Vinaver and Michel Deutsch) and unclassifiable non-fiction writers (Annie Ernaux, Jacques Réda).

By delineating an intellectual tradition in this careful way, reading all the works in the original and providing his own translations for the reader, Sheringham is partly aiming to address a deficiency in Anglo-American cultural studies which tends to select particular aspects of this tradition for its own purposes. Michel de Certeau’s notion of reading as ‘poaching’, for example, has been used in Anglophone cultural studies as a model for the semiotic inventiveness of the consumer. This work has thus tended to contrast the creative practices of everyday life – watching television, listening to personal stereos, shopping in malls – with the dull monotony of quotidian routine.

Sheringham makes clear instead that Certeau’s work is ‘not about popular culture, nor is it a study of consumer behaviour’ (213). He discusses the specifically French influences on Certeau’s work, only the obvious (Foucault’s Discipline and Punish) but also lesser-known texts such as Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant’s Les Ruses de l’intelligence: la métis des Grecs (1974). He also outlines the political (and not merely micropolitical) context for Certeau’s work, particularly in relation to Michel Maffesoli’s rival, politically quietest manifesto, La Conquête du présent: pour une sociologie de la vie quotidienne (1979).

Sheringham assumes a certain acquaintance with the work of his key figures in his English-speaking readers, and spends more time on texts which will be less familiar to them. He largely ignores Mythologies, moving on instead to two works – The Fashion System and The Empire of Signs – which reveal Barthes’s desire, shared with his other three main authors, ‘not to limit the sphere of the everyday to the false consciousness of consumerism’ (176). On the same principle, Sheringham focuses mainly on the second volume of Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life (published in English in 2002) rather than the first (translated in 1991). Oddly, though, he spends little time on the final, third volume of the Critique, which has just been published in English.

Sheringham seems particularly interested in the second volume because it is here that Lefebvre sets up the investigation of everyday life as a dissident tradition to sociology, social psychology and social anthropology (174). Throughout Sheringham’s book there is a tension between two different ways of registering and engaging with the everyday: the ‘sociological-ethnographic’ and the ‘philosophical-aesthetic’ (354). As a textual critic, his sympathies and interests seem to lie more with the latter. The everyday, as delineated by his reading of these writers, is defined above all by its openness, ambiguity and indeterminacy. It incorporates

continuity but also change, repetition but also variation and evolution. It is made up of routines, but major events … are also part of its fabric, as are festive moments, ‘mini-fêtes’. It is universal … but also variable, inflected by climate, class, and gender. (300)

The everyday is also ‘at once individual and collective, anonymous and embodied, spatial and temporal’ (260). Its seminal site is the street, a place that in the work of several of these authors is ‘poised between public and private spheres, a space where the intimate and personal is anonymized through chatter and hearsay’ (19).

The fluidity of the everyday, and its taken-for-granted, generic quality, mean that the central question is how it can be represented. The problem, as Lefebvre argued of the Surrealists, is that ‘if we go too far, the everyday ceases to be itself: it becomes the exceptional, the exotic, the marvellous’ (23). There is a tendency to analyse the everyday according to some notion of predetermined significance. Anthropologists might try to distinguish between meaningful ritual and mundane habit; sociologists might try to quantify daily life, only to find that ‘quotidienneté dissolves (into statistics, properties, data) when the everyday is made an object of scrutiny’ (360). Sheringham argues that his authors were instead fundamentally concerned with the question of representation, and sought a mode of analysis that would reflect the elusiveness of the everyday itself.

Sheringham sees the French writing and art of the quotidian that emerged at the end of the millennium as a similar engagement with the problem of form. Here the novel makes way for a hybrid, documentary-style genre melding autobiography, journal writing and travel literature. The favoured mode of many of these younger writers is the essay, which from Michel de Montaigne onwards has resisted the systematizations of science and scholasticism in ‘solidarity with the concrete, run-of-the-mill, experience of the ordinary mortal’ (48).

The master of this self-reflexive, essayistic form is Georges Perec, and Sheringham clearly sees one of his tasks as being to restore Perec to his rightful place in this intellectual tradition. Perhaps because his work is lighter and more playful in tone, it has received less attention than Lefebvre, Certeau and Barthes, particularly in Anglophone criticism. The writer Gilbert Adair did produce an Anglicized reworking of Je me souviens in his book Myths and Memories (1986), which also sought to introduce Barthes’s Mythologies to non-academic English readers, but Perec’s work remains relatively obscure.

Many of Perec’s stories and essays include encyclopaedic listings of places, objects and sensations. In Espèces d’espaces (1974), he makes a series of inventories of his bedroom, apartment and neighbourhood, and encourages his readers to think critically about how streets are named, houses are numbered and cars are parked: ‘You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless.’ The aim of these exercises is to access what Perec calls ‘the infra-ordinary’, the sphere of existence that lies beneath notice or comment, and within which ‘we sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep’.[2] In order to access this sphere, the world has to be observed as neutrally and contemplatively as possible, without pretensions or prejudgements.

Behind the deceptive simplicity of Perec’s work, its ‘two-way interaction between the work of attention and the generation of categories and oppositions’ (264), Sheringham argues that he is as politically and intellectually engaged as Lefebvre, Barthes and Certeau. In Je me souviens, a kind of ritualistic incantation of banal generational memories, Sheringham suggests that Perec uses the everyday as a route to a cultural memory stripped of sentimentalized nostalgia (259-60).

Sheringham sees Perec’s influence in the genre of quotidian travel writing that emerged in France in the 1980s and 1990s: Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlop’s account of their journey from Paris to Marseilles in a Volkswagen camper van, Jean Rolin’s adventures in the Parisian banlieues, Jacques Réda’s attempt to walk the line of the Paris meridian, and François Bon’s and François Maspero’s journeys on commuter trains. Like Perec, these authors treat routine journeys as intrepid adventures, and establish apparently arbitrary ground rules for each project as a way of engaging with the everyday, a sphere which necessitates indirection and generic instability in order to apprehend it.

Sheringham clearly has more sympathy with this genre of quotidian writing than the popular works of philosophy which have been most English readers’ encounter with the post-Perequian tradition, and whose nearest English equivalent are probably the works of Alain de Botton. Philippe Delerm’s bestselling La Première Gorgée de bière et autres plaisirs minuscules (1997), translated as The Small Pleasures of Life (1998), consists of a series of brief essays on daily pleasures such as shelling peas, reading on the beach or travelling on an old train. Delerm has also produced children’s books which, in a tone not markedly different from the adult versions, decode the delights of eating a hamburger, appearing in the school play or doing homework at the kitchen table. Even more successful in Britain have been Roger-Pol Droit’s 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life (2003) and How Are Things? A Philosophical Experience (2005). Droit devises a series of Perequian experiments, such as counting to a thousand or taking the métro without having a specific destination in mind, which are all designed to bring about a ‘petit déclic’ (little jolt) in how we see the world. At turns charming and banal, they view the everyday as a ‘gateway to the sublime’ (357) in a way which has more in common with self-help books than the critical tradition that Sheringham is examining.

Sheringham’s book is so obviously steeped in French writing and culture that his brief discussions of Anglo-American texts at the end – the film Groundhog Day, Lou Reed’s song, ‘Perfect Day’, and the work of the philosopher Stanley Cavell – seem slightly intrusive. I would also like to have read more about the shifts in French political and cultural life over the last few decades which might have necessitated new ways of theorizing the everyday, rather than simply the passing on of an intellectual tradition. The Lefebvrian tradition of writing about the quotidien centred on what he called ‘bureaucratic capitalism’, a new kind of managerial intervention into daily routines. Its context was a French tradition of political dirigisme, as well as a more general shift in western Europe in the postwar period, as the state became increasingly involved in housing, transport and urban reconstruction, producing what Lefebvre called ‘a parody of socialism, a communitarian fiction with a capitalist content’.[3] Sheringham acknowledges this context when he writes more generally about the everyday as ‘an ethical value that is constantly under threat’ from ‘bureaucratic reason’ and the ‘dangers of indifference and standardization’ (290).

The more recent ascendancy of neo-liberalism, reflected in a wave of privatization reform in France from the late 1990s onwards, brings a new perspective to the Lefebvrian critique of large-scale planning and technocratic expertise. The New Right’s ideological outmanoeuvring of the Left over the last few decades, in which it has appropriated an anti-statist rhetoric associated initially with progressive protest in the 1960s, has partly been fought on the terrain of everyday life. Sheringham’s careful unearthing of an intellectual tradition suggests a broad continuity in the work of these critics, writers and artists from the 1950s to the 1990s. Arguably, though, more recent transformations in daily life have been bound up with a different set of social and political problems.

In some ways, Sheringham’s book can be seen as a response and companion piece to Kristin Ross’s Fast Cars, Clean Bodies (1995), the periodization of which is less broad but overlaps with his. Ross’s study of the representations and mentalities of French daily life between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s uses a wider range of cultural texts than Sheringham – advertisements, novels, films, magazines, material culture – to suggest that the category of ‘the everyday’ in this period was a way of both imagining social change and defusing its politics. For Ross, this new understanding of the everyday rested on a separation of public from private life, typified by the work and commuting routines of a new, status-conscious class of jeunes cadres, and the ‘democracy of consumption’ of the Ideal Home. These new life patterns became a way of celebrating but also ‘reenfolding’ modernization, naturalizing it and making it unthreatening to the middle classes, allowing it to function as ‘the alibi of a class society’.[4] Ross argues that this version of everyday life served as both a distraction from the traumas of decolonization, and a reproduction of colonial logic in its dispersal of the working classes to the suburbs, and its policing of domestic space in the form of new concerns about household management.

Ross offers a series of brilliant, suggestive readings of cultural texts as an engagement with this historical problematic. She discusses many of the same theorists as Sheringham – Lefebvre, Perec, the Situationists – but sees them as offering a primarily negative, realist critique of dominant representations of the everyday, exposing the more complex, lived reality behind these idealizations. Through his more developed readings of these theorists, Sheringham argues that they sought to draw out the utopian elements of everyday life, and were not simply ‘realist’ in mode but concerned with the central problem of how to represent the everyday (10-11). Sheringham’s book has clearly involved years of considered thinking and reading on mundane life and its most indefatigable French theorists and critics. The readings of individual authors and texts are always careful and illuminating. His book is a distinguished addition to the growing academic literature on the everyday.

[1] Michael E. Gardiner, Critiques of Everyday Life, London, Routledge, 2000; Ben Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction, London, Routledge, 2002; Ben Highmore (ed.) The Everyday Life Reader, London, Routledge, 2002.

[2] Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. John Sturrock, London, Penguin, 1999, pp50, 210.

[3] Henri Lefebvre, The Explosion: Marxism and the French Revolution, trans. Alfred Ehrenfeld, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1969, p40.

[4] Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1995, pp89, 13.

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