by the Everyday Life in Middletown team

The Everyday Life in Middletown manifesto revolves around three concepts: experimental research methods and aesthetics, a democratic vision of inclusiveness and connectedness for Muncie, and everyday life itself. Drafted after the sixteen members of the EDLM team had spent a month reading intensively in everyday life theory and learning about Muncie’s history, economics, and social geography, the statement is marked by a Utopian strain that now looks naïve. But that’s okay: mission statements should be at least one part dream, and dreams are part of everyday life. Dreams informed this seminar in the form of Surrealism and its Freudian roots, which were among the angles we considered as we searched for ways of examining and representing the everyday. If Freud was right that dreams express wishes, our wishes — to “establish a new culture,” to “assemble a culture from the ordinary,” to “un-mire Middletown from its anthropological history and to hypothesize a future identity for our small city” — are noble, if idealistic and over-reaching.

Fortunately, our manifesto also had more concrete goals: to “create a documentary that displays everyday life in an experimental way, using collaged images and local perspectives to articulate an everyday collective, bolstered by individual agency,” and to create a website that provides “a space for local voices to express the obscure intricacies of their daily life.” On these we have been more successful. Despite the inevitable compromises that come with any project, we do feel that we stayed true to our commitments to local voices, to capturing the eccentricities of the everyday in a way that emphasizes connections among people, and to experimental methods.

In what follows, we take each of these themes — everyday life, experimental aesthetics, and a vision of a democratically inclusive Muncie — and evaluate the successes and shortcomings of our project.

 

I. Everyday Life

“The everyday is…the most universal and the most unique condition, the most social and the most individuated, the most obvious and the best hidden.”

-Henri Lefebvre, “The Everyday and Everydayness.”

You wake up from an obscure dream, which evaporates as you try to pin it down. You sit up on the side of the bed and let the cobwebs clear. The dog is at your feet, wanting to be walked. You pat her head, stand, and pad slowly to the bathroom. You switch on the light, which is harsh to your eyes. You pull your toothbrush from its holder and squirt a dab of red-and-white toothpaste on it.

This is everyday life. Each of these micro-activities is just as everyday — and therefore just as important to the study of everyday life — as the more intense and “meaningful” parts of your day. Indeed, every fleeting moment of your morning, of everyone’s morning, is potential grist for the study of everyday life.

Here lies the central problem of studying everyday life. The everyday is an infinite archive of such moments, most of which disappear without being recorded. As a result, our work has been less about making large, explanatory generalizations and more about rescuing such lucid, resonant, or perplexing moments and making a kind of sense of them.

The archive assembled on this website and the film produced by the EDLM team provide a wealth of such moments. Here you will encounter citizens of Muncie during their morning daydreams, their sweet and eccentric pet care rituals, their minor vexations, their workouts, their meals, their passing resolves and worries, and much more.

While the “Insights” section of the website stitches together some of these moments, and digs into their significance in a range of ways, our approach has not been to offer grand revelations about “Everyday Life in Middletown” but rather to place these luminous details in suggestive frameworks where you—the reader/listener/viewer — can discover connections and insights beyond the modest ones we offer.

The film is a case in point. The images are resolutely everyday — family breakfasts, commutes to work and school, personal grooming, daily prayers, boredom. On the soundtrack, you hear what people said to us when we asked them to talk about their everyday lives. In the gap between the images and the words — between, say, a retiree tending to her birds and her reflections on her family’s history in the factories of Muncie — lies the mystery of the everyday, the great question of the links between routine activities and consciousness, between the banality of breakfast and the significance of the stories we tell about ourselves.

If we have no great, totalizing theory about everyday life in Muncie to offer, we do have a treasury of such suggestive images. Our products are our invitation to you to explore the everyday.

 

II. Experimental methods and aesthetics.

“Aesthetic techniques, such as the surprising juxtapositions supplied by Surrealism, provide a productive resource for rescuing the everyday from conventional habits of mind. Similarly, if the everyday is conventionally perceived as homogenous, forms of artistic montage work to disturb such smooth surfaces. But this…aesthetic isn’t simply designed to ‘shock’ us out of our established forms of attention; its ambition is to register the everyday in ‘all’ its complexities and contradictions.”

-Ben Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction

The everyday is notoriously hard to pin down: both comforting and stifling, passing us by in the very moment that we would arrest it, largely unconscious, practically infinite.

In the first weeks of the seminar, we read Highmore’s Everyday Life and Cultural Theory and spent several days with him. We took to heart his account of how various thinkers, for the last hundred years, have consistently concluded that studying the everyday requires experimentation. No single methodology can access a sphere as varied and slippery as the everyday. Since so much of everyday life consists of activities we do without thinking, just making everyday consciousness visible at all is a primary challenge.

Accordingly, we reached consensus early on that studying and representing everyday life would require two things: eclectic methods that violate the boundary between art and social science, and experimental methods of representation. You will find eclecticism and experimentation on the “Insights” section of the website, where what started out as “theoretical essays” evolved in multiple and unpredictable directions (audio essay, informational graphic, creative prose sketch, and art comic, along with several variations on the more conventional expository essay). You will find them in the film, for instance in its play between realistic location shots and short, staged studio sequences.

The aesthetic principle that most insistently informs all of our work is that of montage — the juxtaposition of surprising or contrasting elements — which was foundational to Surrealism and to the development of cinema in the early twentieth century. Montage is inescapable in cinema, and in our film you will find surprising juxtapositions that we hope will provoke questions and insights for you about the everyday and its relations to the past, present, and future of our city. Taken in its entirety, our website constitutes a large montage of the everyday. Indeed, each visitor who navigates it will be making, in real time, a new montage of Everyday Life in Middletown.

 

III. “A radical practice of democracy.”

“[Everyday life is] democratic because it recognizes the paramount shared reality of a mundane, material embeddedness in the world. Everyone, from the most famous to the most humble, eats, sleeps, defecates; no one escapes the reach of the quotidian.”

-Rita Felski, “The Invention of Everyday Life.”

Any study of everyday life will ultimately be an unfinished project. It is in our most high-flown objective — that of bringing a degree of unity and social healing to the city — that Everyday Life in Middletown is most unfinished.

Yes, this is an idealistic goal. On a smaller scale though, “community” is at least as much a process as a place. Community is something that happens — when people gather to volunteer, to debate, to share a beer and argue about politics, to lunch together. Democracy, too, is more vibrant as a thing that you do — or try to do — than as a static theory or a codified form of government. This project has given us the opportunity to “do community” and to “do democracy.” The voices that we are making audible here will, we hope, stimulate thought and ultimately action on which aspects of Everyday Life in Middletown should be sustained and which need to be bolstered, reformed, liberated.

But in these small, everyday ways that community and democracy happen, we wish we had done more.

We would have liked to know our volunteer informants better — to eat with them, chat aimlessly with them, take a walk, share the rhythms of life in less time-bounded, prescribed ways than a formal interview or a questionnaire, or the email exchanges surrounding them. We would have liked to offer more chances for them to give us feedback during the process. We would have liked to let them further into our everyday lives: we shared our own, early day-diaries with some of our informants, but it would have been nice to do this in a more sustained way.

At an informal lunch one day, we had a fascinating but all-too-brief discussion with several of our collaborators. We talked about how keeping a diary makes you hyper-aware of the everyday and therefore changes it. We talked about Muncie’s history and economy. We talked at length about drug addiction, about meth and opiates. We wish that conversation could have gone on, included more people, and informed the project more completely.

We would have liked to spend more time at community events, getting a more detailed, concrete sense of how community and democracy are happening in Muncie.

On every objective, time has been our enemy. Both the film and the website represent the collision of expansive, creative ideas with the realities of logistics and time schedules. “Emotion colors time,” Highmore writes, “intensifying it, elongating it, syncopating it, truncating it and filling it.” We have felt this throughout the semester but especially now, as the voices assembled here begin to sound beyond the walls of the Kitselman Center.

We are left with the hopeful conviction that the everyday remains a place where the commonalities that unite us might be discovered and harnessed towards the common good. Undoubtedly, the divisions of class, race, and gender inform the everyday as profoundly as they do any other sphere of life. Amidst our divisions, though, the experience of the everyday may be as close to a universal as we are likely to experience. We all have bodies, senses, moods, thoughts: the everyday is where the world and the body collide and where thought, feeling, life happen. Everyone lives in this space. Everyone wakes up every day, and gets on with life.

In keeping with our methodology, we close this self-critique not with a summary but with an everyday moment, penned spontaneously by a team member on April 17:

I was driving home to Muncie today from my boyfriend’s house in Carmel. Usually we take the same car but we needed two cars today. I’m glad it happened because I started thinking about how both of us are using this road to get where we need to go. Then that got me thinking that me and so many other people using this road right now are doing the same, everyday thing–driving. I started singing a song playing in my car and wondered how many people in the world were listening to the same song, have the same car make, bought the same CD…. My little insight tonight is that studying the everyday makes one aware of how connected, not to mention on the same playing field, you are with anyone at any given moment in time. If you are crying, someone is crying with you. If you are happy, someone is happy with you. Studying the everyday makes the world that much smaller.

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