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    Review of:
    Ben Highmore, ed., The Everyday Life Reader. London: Routledge, 2002.

  1. Perhaps it is one of the symptoms of our theory-saturated, post-everything moment that everyday life has recently become not just an object of cultural analysis, but a crucial interpretive category in its own right. Actually existing theory (by which I mean those forms of theorizing that reduce reality to textuality) is now adjudged by some commentators to be languishing not merely in a state of crisis, but of impending extinction. In a recent tract, one such critic, Terry Eagleton, advocates abandoning hitherto hegemonic theoretical excavations in favor of grounding cultural analysis in the deep soils of morality and metaphysics, among others. For his part, in a posthumously published polemic, the late Edward Said attempts to reclaim a beachhead of neo-humanistic terra firma from the murkily indeterminate waters of post-humanist theory, as well as from the slough of stagnant humanisms of the Samuel Huntington persuasion.
  2. This search for socially relevant significance in theory's aftermath is one of the contexts in which Ben Highmore--Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies at the University of the West of England--situates the revival of academic interest in everyday life that his Reader both heralds and enhances. Toward the end of the engaging essay that introduces his tome, Highmore notes that the emergence of what he dubs "everyday life studies" can be regarded as a response to the remorseless textualization of lived experience by apolitical strains of poststructuralism, as well as to the depthless exaltation of the present that characterizes the giddier celebrations of postmodernism (31). As Highmore has it, theory's frequently self-enclosed spurning of sensuous life seems to have led to a reassertion of the bracingly real. What better way, perhaps, to dispel the mustiness of the House of Theory's rooms than by opening up its windows and letting the limpid light of everyday life illuminate the dust motes?
  3. But what is it precisely that the study of everyday life can shed light on? Whose everyday life are we talking about? Where can everyday life be located? How can it be accessed? Indeed, what exactly is meant by the terms "everyday life," "the everyday," "the daily," and their many cognates? Before broaching these matters, it is well to point out that in the Anglophone academy, signs of the arrival of "everyday life studies" abound: among them, special issues of sundry learned journals devoted to the quotidian as problematic, numerous studies foregrounding a focus on the everyday in contexts as seemingly unrelated as Stalin's Russia or London's supermarkets, and the long-overdue translation into English of pioneering disquisitions on daily experience by the French polymath Henri Lefebvre. Further, the publication of a reader on the subject also marks its official academic acceptance, as Highmore himself almost ruefully observes (xiii).
  4. But as the contributions by conceptual artists, avant-garde filmmakers, and amateur ethnographers collected here make clear, "everyday life studies" is not purely the purview of academics and scholars. Moreover, as befits an arena of study as vast as daily life, the Reader covers a correspondingly wide-ranging array of orientations and preoccupations. Thus, in addition to such talismanic meditations on the quotidian as Raymond Williams's "Culture is Ordinary" and Erving Goffman's discussion of "front and back regions" in the performance of daily self-representation, we find here newer material on topics such as the significance of everyday objects and practices like bags or cooking, as well as older but lesser known work on daily life, such as the auto-ethnographic reports of the Mass Observation project that briefly bloomed in 1930s and '40s Britain. Despite the anxiety of representativity that Highmore confesses to have felt in assembling the book, he has succeeded in bringing together between its covers an intertextually suggestive sample of extracts (xii). More importantly, the Reader announces the discovery of a connected cluster of cognitive energies whose reach and density betoken the existence of a hitherto concealed sector of the intellectual cosmos. Like a constellation of distant stars, the elements of this newly sighted portion of the heavens have been emitting photons for a long time, but their collective light-rays are only now reaching our retinas.
  5. Pursuing this cosmological metaphor, we can say that the general introduction to the Reader serves as a kind of Hubble telescope with which to acquire a sense of the dense diachronic and synchronic dimensions of this universe of discourse, while the terse introductions to the book's five sections and its thirty-eight chapters serve as precision prisms with which to scan the many bodies that constitute it, as well as the spaces that lie between them. In explaining the realities that these lenses espy, Highmore often avails himself of a neutral-sounding verb, "to register," and its cognates. This move often makes it seem as if the approximations to the study of everyday life that Highmore proffers perform in a manner akin to that of a primitive camera. That is, Highmore's use of "to register" may seem to suggest that the diverse approaches on display in the Reader passively record the assorted phenomena that make up the stuff of daily life, and that his own commentary on these approaches fulfills a similar function.
  6. But just as a photograph is more than the impression of light particles on contact paper, so of course is every act of registration an interpretative performance, whether consciously or no. Thus, Highmore does more than merely "register" the different approaches to everyday life that he makes available in the Reader. For one thing, through the five categories into which he organizes the various modalities of attending to the daily and through which he frames the field ("Situating the everyday," "Everyday life and 'national' culture," "Ethnography near and far," "Reclamation work," and "Everyday things"), Highmore implicitly foregrounds a certain set of emphases while eclipsing others, such as, for instance, the relationship between everyday life and political revolution. For another, in his own commentary Highmore also explicitly interprets the diverse origins and trajectories of these approaches, as well as their nature, usefulness, and potential. For instance, he is careful to note that portrayals of daily life do not provide a direct, unmediated, transparent picture of reality. In part this is so because day-to-day life is almost impossibly heterogeneous and heteroglossic. What is more, our methods of accessing the everyday are provisional and awkward, when not inadequate and opaque. Highmore repeatedly dwells on the diverse ways in which meditations on everydayness are couched, and he rightly notes that a focus on finding appropriate representational forms underlies the wide assortment of attempts to depict the quiddity of the quotidian.
  7. I now wish to enter a caveat: a brief review of a book as wide-ranging as The Everyday Life Reader can in no wise do justice to the smorgasbord of ideas, styles, and subjects that the book summons. Thus, instead of engaging in a Sisyphean struggle to describe the book's entire contents, in what follows I stress the significance of one tendency within everyday life studies that is represented in it: belief in the left-oppositional political value of focusing on day-to-day experience. In emphasizing this tendency, I am going against the grain of Highmore's endorsement of Michel de Certeau's view that any declaration of a politics of the everyday is as yet "simply premature" (13). At the same time, however, the remainder of my review takes advantage of the politically pluralist spirit that animates Highmore's editorial endeavor.
  8. Having said that, I should note another point of slippage between my review and one feature of its object. In a crucial sense, the cosmological figure with which I have represented the Reader as intellectual construct is not altogether apt. One of the understandings that underlie such disparate delvings into the daily as George Simmel's scrutiny of the fragment and Dorothy Smith's feminist sociology of subject-hood (see Chapters 29 and 27 respectively) is that the study of everyday life remits us not to the starry heavens, but to the teeming terrain of the social. Indeed, one way in which critical analysis of everyday life differs markedly from the more socially detached strains of sundry post-isms is in its rather old-fashioned faith that however culturally constructed or codified it may be, "the real" really exists and is neither a ragbag of mystifications nor a never-endingly deferred relay of textual effects. However, to accept this understanding of everyday life does not entail a reversion either to militant pre- or anti-theoretical fundamentalism, or to a naïvely reflectionist faith in one or another convention of realism. Rather, among other things, it entails an eye for the traces of social meaning in everyday phenomena and their forms, as well as an ear for the harmony that underpins the din of daily life and its representations. An awareness of poststructuralism's lessons about the ways in which regimes of representation operate can clearly be of assistance in this enterprise, as can a Marxist-inflected appreciation of contradiction. In this volume, Stuart Hall's essay on photographic representations of West Indian immigrants to Britain evinces a particularly telling instance of how the study of everyday life can effectively integrate textual and materialist analyses of people and their representations.
  9. Hall's merger of analytic modes is echoed in another text reproduced here, the introduction to a Yale French Studies special issue on everyday life. Editors Alice Kaplan and Kristin Ross aver that everyday life analysis can offer an alternative to the subject/object opposition that lies at the core of much European thought and is exemplified by such contrasting intellectual currents as phenomenology on one side of the divide and structuralism on the other. They further assert that, as against the subjectivist ascription of pure intentionality to social agents on the one hand and the dour designation of discursive determinism to structures and systems on the other, everyday life insists on the centrality of in-betweenness, on the irreducible liminality of lived experience, and on the mediational and strange-making mettle of many attempts at representing its character. Furthermore, they suggest that to read everyday life is as much an act of poeisis (understood as creative or transformational act), as it is of the realist representations of mimesis: "everyday life harbors the texture of social change; to perceive it at all is to recognize the necessity of its conscious transformation" (79).
  10. Questions of consciousness, creativity, and perception loom large in the work of one of the twentieth century's most influential and productive advocates of attending to the everyday, Sigmund Freud. Indeed, as Highmore notes, the notion of Everyday Life is analogous to the core Freudian concept of the Unconscious (6). Both are often understood in spatial terms, inasmuch as they designate a reality that hovers behind or below or above or aslant the seeming self-evidence of the senses, and both are only partly accessible to rational inquiry. As with the Unconscious, there is something at once searchingly intimate and stubbornly ungraspable about everyday life (and as Highmore suggests, about "every-night" life as well). Yet just as Freud ascribed preternatural powers to the Unconscious in his explanations of the well-springs of human action and emotion, so too do some of everyday life's most distinguished students accord the latter an originary primacy, in intellectual life as well as in our daily, non-specialized being-in-the-world. Indeed, for figures such as Agnes Heller (who is not featured here), everyday life is the ultimate source and horizon of knowledge, critique, and action. Moreover, the meanings of the real may reside not only at the official addresses to which its study has traditionally referred us, but also in such unsuspected locations as those zones of experience we habitually designate as being drearily devoid of significance--among them, anomie, ennui, and reverie. Furthermore, according to a prominent strain of everyday life studies to which I have already alluded, it is also in the realm of the seemingly superficial that indirect forms of resistance to dominant and oppressive socio-political and economic structures may be found. Thus, for instance, in certain contexts critical readings of clothing styles may yield as much politically relevant meaning as sober analyses of state-forms.
  11. At this point in my exposition of the Reader, it is perhaps pertinent to question the extent to which its content brings us genuine news. After all, to insist nowadays on the political significance of scrutinizing soap operas or on the celebration of style as subversion is to court a languid yawn of unsurprised assent in response. However, Highmore is quite alert to the fact that the everyday has been the object of scrutiny for decades across a range of disciplines and departments in the Humanities and Social Sciences, as well as in cultural practices such as literary writing and photography. In literature, Joyce's Ulysses stands as an early example of the critical privileging of the quotidian, even earlier instances of which may be found in Baudelaire's poems about Paris or in the photographs of daily Parisian scenes taken by his contemporary, Charles Negre. As for theoretical reflections on everyday life, the Reader reproduces work from the 1920s by Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Krackauer on topics as stolidly quotidian as repetitive labor and boredom. Thus, the insistence on the significance of the everyday is hardly novel. What is new, by contrast, is that hitherto disparate and diverse disciplinary and interdisciplinary approximations to the quotidian have within the past two decades begun to coalesce into a more or less coherent academic-artistic-intellectual formation, one that has established itself "in contradistinction to other tendencies within the human sciences" (31).
  12. In the English-speaking academy, this formation's most immediate institutional precursor was cultural studies. Highmore is particularly cognizant of the parallels between the work of cultural studies and the labor of bestowing significance upon quotidian life, and he notes the many points at which the modus operandi of both projects intersect. Indeed, Highmore's announced agenda is to develop a cultural studies approach to everyday life. What might such an approach entail? Highmore advances several methods as being particularly apposite in attacking the tangled underbrush of the everyday, among them, thick description in the ethnographic and sociological mode, and defamiliarization in the writing of history and literary criticism. In making the ordinary extraordinary, and the familiar unfamiliar, Highmore observes, artists and others can detach the dull veneer of everydayness that clings to daily life and masks the latter's manifold meanings (25).
  13. Again, at this juncture one might reasonably ask whether we have not been here before. Yes and no, Highmore seems to be saying. Yes, inasmuch as anthropological and sociological ethnographies, for instance, have been querying the quotidian for many a decade. No, insofar as they have not done so from the standpoint of the self-aware and pluralistic ingathering of intersecting perspectives that Highmore convenes under the rubrics of "everyday life theory" or "everyday life studies," both of which stand athwart conventional circumscriptions of knowledge production. Apropos this point, Highmore notes that academic engagement with the everyday constitutes itself not so much into a field tout court, as into a "para-" or "meta-" field, one that is often interstitial in aim and idiom. Furthermore, the sometimes surplus or supplementary status of everyday theorizing, he ventures, is consonant (or as he puts it, "contiguous") with the vague and vast nature of its problematic referent, which is by definition abundant in content and amorphous in shape.
  14. But neither the blurredness of everyday life's boundaries or its holdings, nor the imprecise ways in which we register its meanings, ought to result in resignation or self-recrimination, Highmore insists. Rather, to acknowledge the messiness of construction-work at the site of the everyday is to breathe the heady air that animates the building of a new conceptual edifice. Furthermore, this work is, or can be, at once the turf of skilled builder and bricoleur alike. What, then, is the purview of everyday life studies? How do its transdisciplinary modes of knowing clash or coalesce? In addressing the second of these questions, Highmore sketches out a vector of tendencies that typify the study of everyday life. In his view, such tendencies can be provisionally grouped into a series of dyads: particular/general, agency/structure, experiences/institutions, feelings/discourses, and resistance/power. In turn, these dyads are linked to the methodological operations of micro- and macro-analysis (5). Those aspects of daily life that are often approached through these conceptual and methodological rubrics also seem to lend themselves to binary enumeration: the street and the home, the private and the public, prescribed rites and spontaneous moments, among others. But these pairs are by no means to be regarded as fixed. Rather, to return to a point made earlier, they are to be understood relationally: it is in the state of flux between--or sparked by--such pairs that many everyday-life theories seek to find meaning.
  15. There is of course a tension between the desire to wrest concrete sense out of a phenomenon as enormous as everyday life and the shape shifting and hard-to-apprehend quality of its character. Highmore poses the question as to whether rigor and systemic analysis--an orientation and a practice beloved of social scientists in general and Marxists in particular--can be adequate to the task of reckoning with everyday life. Can the filigreed and fugitive meanings often associated with the realm of quotidian experience be properly captured by the freeze-framing operations of rigorous analysis? Conversely, how can the study of social minutiae transcend the mere cataloguing of heterogeneous data? In his own commentary, Highmore leaves these questions open, and collectively the texts assembled in the Reader provide us with no hard and fast answers either. Jacques Rancière--historian of proletarian dreams and desires--captures the tentative and exploratory nature of much everyday life theorizing: "those who venture into this labyrinth must be honestly forewarned that no answers will be supplied" (250).
  16. A need for cut-and-dried answers can sometimes give evidence of anxiety. Among leftists (such as this reviewer), such anxiety may derive from deep-rooted doubts about the political efficacy or desirability of researching or representing everyday life. If, as a Communist commentator whose work is presented here once observed, "life is conservative," and if, as he also noted, "art, by nature, is conservative; it is removed from life," then what for left-wingers would be the point of studying the one or practicing the other (86, 87)? The identity of that commentator supplies us with one possible answer. Leon Trotsky, Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army and theorist of permanent revolution, strongly advocated the study of everyday life, precisely because he thought that therein lay both the seeds of Russia's revolutionary transformation and the obstacles to the latter's realization. In fact, the Marxist canon provides contemporary leftist approaches to the study of quotidian experience with an ample archive of usable ideas and attitudes. After all, Das Kapital famously begins with an empirico-philosophical discussion of the ubiquitous presence and power of the commodity form in modern capitalist life. Commodities, as Marx taught us, lead a peculiar dual existence, and do so in at least two ways: first, by virtue of their Janus-faced identity as use- and exchange-values; second, by presenting a pristine face to consumers that often occludes their sullied origins at the point of production. As Highmore suggests, this classic Marxian insight is being rediscovered by a new generation of radicals who are denouncing the extensive structures of everyday neo-imperial exploitation that are typically obscured by the branding of such ostensibly banal objects as sneakers and bananas (18).
  17. Such commodities are often produced or assembled by young women who constitute a large component of the new supra-national proletariat that has emerged in the so-called Free-Trade Zones implanted by Northern financial institutions, governments, and corporations in Southern nations, in collusion with local comprador capital and neo-liberal regimes. Subjected to harsh working conditions and paid a pittance for their arduously repetitive labor, such women have also been at the forefront of efforts to organize against these and other forms of everyday exploitation. Kaplan and Ross note that everyday life "has always lain heavily on the shoulders of women" (78). It is no accident, therefore, that much of the most productive work on daily experience has been undertaken by women engaged in struggles for their emancipation from patriarchal paradigms and practices, such as the British feminist social historian Carolyn Steedman, whose writings on gendered narration and remembering are excerpted in Chapter 26. Often, such work has frowned upon the social remoteness of much theoretical discourse, even that of an avowedly feminist stripe. In "Notes toward a Politics of Location," the poet Adrienne Rich articulated an emblematic questioning of the priorities and protocols of certain strains within critical theory:

    theory--the seeing of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees--theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the rain cloud and returns to earth over and over. But if it doesn't smell of the earth, it isn't good for the earth. (213-14)

    In her essay, Rich also laments the distorting effects of material, "racial," and national privilege on the outlook of white North American feminists such as herself. Responding to stories about, and reflections by, working women the world over, she asks why their ideas and inclinations are rarely allowed admittance to the rather rarefied regions of First World theorizing.
  18. In 2004, twenty years after the first publication of Rich's essay, thousands of students at U.S. universities are involved in extracurricular efforts to reclaim the Commons by making common cause with workers in the archipelago of apparel-producing sweatshops scattered across the global South.[1] By so doing, these students are puncturing the bubble of their insulated privilege and effectively heeding Rich's appeal for the de-centering of Euro-American critical theories. Moreover, in supporting the struggles for justice waged by the producers of such everyday student garb as collegiate caps, anti-sweatshop activists take as their point of departure what their international allies themselves regard as just wages and working conditions. Simultaneously, they seek to educate university administrators, fellow students, and brand-shoppers about the troubled trajectory of the commodities that they purchase and endorse. Recently, the movement has moved a step further by paying attention to exploitative everyday economic relations on their own campuses. In its multi-pronged and knowledge-rich activism, the U.S. student-labor solidarity movement--and its counterparts abroad--evinces a profound practical and theoretical understanding of several motifs that mark the landscape of everyday life studies, among them the idea that alienated everyday life contains the seeds of its own de-alienation and the notion that heterogeneous regional and national responses to everyday modernity make manifest both the discontinuity of global capitalism's reach and the unitary nature of its expansion.
  19. How global in origin or identity is the study of everyday life? Highmore notes that, thus far, everyday life studies seems to be a resolutely Euro-American enterprise, and he worries that this might result in an unwelcome if unwitting ethnocentrism (xiii). A cursory scan of the table of contents indeed confirms that most of the excerpted texts are by British, French, German, and North American authors, and that those contributors whose national origins lie outside the Euro-American belt either labor within it or have their books published there. Nonetheless, perhaps Highmore is worrying unduly. For one thing, in these interconnected times, clear-cut divisions between North and South are as dated as unblurred genres. (Rural revolutionaries ensconced in the remote highlands of Mexico's Southeast have made this point evident by networking via border-crossing email with Northern urban internautas.) For another, the critical study of everyday life and its representation in cultural artifacts is already quite global in scope and has been for some time. In support of this claim, one could cite texts such as the short stories of the Argentinean writer, Julio Cortázar, with their quixotic explorations of the infra-ordinary world of quotidian existence, or the work by critical South African anthropologists on everyday forms of resistance to apartheid. Moreover, a new generation of anti-neo-liberal activists in the South--from Buenos Aires to Cochabamba to Delhi and beyond--is engaged in crafting novel political practices that are based on the need to satisfy with dignity the multiple daily demands of social reproduction. One such group, Johannesburg's Electricity Crisis Committee--whose "struggle electricians" illegally (and freely) reconnect to the grid indigent consumers who have been disconnected by newly privatized utility companies--exemplifies the everyday-focused ruses and strategies that have emerged in the counter-capitals of modernity. Thus while the fear that the study of everyday life can degenerate into self-regarding ethnocentric superficiality is not entirely baseless, an awareness of the daily work of border-crossing social movements makes it clear that things need not be so.
  20. Nonetheless, it remains the case that the study of everyday life does not in itself necessarily entail either an internationalist or a progressive outlook. The contrasting attitudes to everyday modernity evidenced by George Simmel (Chapter 29) and his student Walter Benjamin (Chapter 2) make this clear. In scrutinizing sundry signs and objects for their social significance, Benjamin was motivated by the stubborn optimism of one who believed that modernity's edifice could be rebuilt from the bricks strewn amid its rubble. Benjamin's onetime teacher Simmel also rummaged amid modernity's debris, but where his famous pupil espied evidence of salvation, Simmel drew repeated attention to the sharp shocks sustained by the human sensorium in the hurly burly of modern life. Still others, such as Guy Debord (Chapter 23), have spoken starkly about the all-embracing alienation that enervates daily experience while counterintuitively celebrating the utopian undercurrents that inhere in dailiness. Yet all three thinkers--along with myriad others--insist doggedly upon the importance of understanding the everydayness of everyday life. Moreover, while thus reiterating the significance of registering the quotidian, many such figures have resisted or rejected the will to conceptual coherence that often accompanies the championing of a paradigm. Whatever the reasons for this dual doggedness and demureness may be, and they are surely multiple, it is at least clear that any attempt to capture the totality of everyday life studies must perforce fall short of its aim. It is perhaps for this reason that many of those who attend to the everyday frequently express themselves metaphorically. Debord, for instance, denounced everyday life as "a sort of reservation for good natives who keep modern society running without understanding it" (240). But not all is opaque in the study of la vie quotidienne. Debord, after all, could also declare with lapidary limpidity that "everyday life is the measure of all things: of the fulfillment or rather the nonfulfillment of human relations; of the use of lived time; of artistic experimentation; of revolutionary politics" (239). Doubtless, the steering of a passage from social unreadability to readability (or from invisibility to visibility) is one of the governing tropes and operations among the panoply of perspectives represented in the Reader.
  21. At any rate, the Reader provides proof, if proof were still needed, of why everyday matters matter a great deal. (Newcomers to everyday life studies can complement their exploration of the Reader with a perusal of its companion volume, Highmore's Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction.) Located at the fountainhead of some of the most influential paradigms and procedures of knowledge production of the twentieth century--and now newly re-emergent in the first decade of the twenty-first--the concept of everyday life is enormously consequential for the study of human thought and action. That much, surely, is by now beyond doubt. What is still up for grabs, is how best to approach and assess its protean personality. With its wide-ranging selections and its thought-provoking framings, Highmore's Everyday Life Reader provides us with multiple points of entry into the study of that complex congeries of times, spaces, technologies, practices, institutions, ideologies, material conditions, emotional states, thoughts, sensations, signs, and symbols in the midst of whose force-field we all live.
  22. Department of English
    Grand Valley State University

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    1. For an overview of the movement's origins, activities, and goals, see Featherstone.

    Works Cited

    Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. New York: Basic, 2003.

    Featherstone, Liza, and United Students against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement. Students against Sweatshops. New York: Verso, 2002.

    Highmore, Ben. Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002.

    Said, Edward W. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Columbia UP, 2004.

    Rich, Adrienne. "Notes Toward a Politics of Location." Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985. New York: Norton, 1986.

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