Here are short biographies of some of the thinkers whose understanding of everyday life informed this project.
Mass Observation was a collective of artists, film-makers, and poets who conducted a massive study of everyday life in Britain beginning in the late 1930s. These amateur sociologists were hoping to discover a politically progressive, collective unconscious through studying the everyday. They recruited more than a thousand informants, who kept day diaries, answered questionnaires, and recorded observations of their fellow citizens. They taught methods of observation to these non-professional volunteers and sought to break down the hierarchical relation between the observers and the observed. In the 1940s Mass Observation became part of the wartime propaganda effort. A new version of Mass Observation began in the 1980s and continues today.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was an English novelist, essayist, and publisher. Her novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) offers a singular vision of everyday life, using stream-of-consciousness narration to tell the story of a set of characters on a single day in London in 1923. Her posthumously published essay “Moments of Being” offers a concise theory of everyday life. There Woolf separates daily consciousness into “non-being”—a distracted semi-consciousness in which we perform routine tasks—and “being”—a fleeting state of intense awareness and perception, grounded in the physical details around us but connected to a deeper, quasi-mystical state of connection with others and with the universe.
Rita Felski is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She has written on a wide range of subjects but her most insistent intellectual move is to place women at the center of theory, literary history, and cultural studies. This emphasis informs the early essay, “The Invention of Everyday Life,” which has become a touchstone in everyday life studies. In it she disputes with Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, seeking a middle ground between Lefebvre’s dystopian view of they everyday as alienation (and women as the victims of everyday life) and de Certeau’s reading of the everyday as a sphere of resistance and self-expression. She insists that the everyday is constantly “both/and”—oppressive for some people more than for others, liberating at one moment and stultifying the next. Her essay provides the following durable analysis of the everyday: that its typical time-function is repetition; its typical space the home; and its typical mode of operation habit. Habit and repetition, her essay insists, are best understood as essential to the human ability to survive and thrive—not as symptoms of alienated modern living.
Henri Lefebvre (1901-1999) was a French philosopher and sociologist whose life-work includes the massive, three-volume Critique of Everyday Life (1947, 1961, and 1981). Lefebvre’s theories are too complex to be summarized easily, but they hinge on an understanding of the everyday as the sphere where the forces of history, politics, and economics collide with the life of the individual. A Marxist, Lefebvre insists on modern life as “alienated” and finds that even activities that seem very personal and individual—such as how we spend our leisure time—have been commodified under capitalist culture. In a much-cited essay on “Work and Leisure in Everyday Life,” Lefebvre argues that the separation of our waking lives into seemingly exclusive spheres of “work” and “leisure” is a mark of alienation: modern people see their lives subdivided into distinct activities rather than experiencing their lives as unified wholes. In this way the existence of modern leisure is, for Lefebvre, a critique of the everyday from within the everyday.
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German Jewish philosopher and critic of popular culture. Among his most influential works is The Arcades Project, a massive set of personal reflections based upon areas in Paris, France. Written between 1927 and 1940, it was never finished (and is unfinishable, says everyday life theorist Ben Highmore) but still remains an invaluable source for the theory of everyday life. In the Project and other works such as Illuminations, Benjamin speaks about the modern everyday as the “overstimulation” of the senses, likens the everyday to cinematic montage, and introduces the concept of the “dialectical image.” A dialectical image represents contending historical forces in miniature, freezing a moment where the past gave way to the future and making visible the social, economic, and political forces battling at that point of transition.
Michel de Certeau
Michel de Certeau (1925-1986) was Director d’Etudes at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and Visiting Professor of French and Comparative Literature at University of California, San Diego. De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life volume 1 sketches out a complex and ambitious theory of everyday life. Volume 2, co-authored with Luce Giard and Pierre Mayol, presents sociological studies based on the theoretical ideas of the first volume. The foremost theorist of everyday life, de Certeau distinguishes “tactics”—the small, improvisational, everyday decisions people make in order to make their lives livable—from “strategies”—the larger social forces (work, career, media) that determine and oppress individuals’ freedom. Strategies come from our workplaces, from the media, from society: the pressure to work hard, the rules of the workplace, and the media’s high expectations for living. Tactics are how we react to strategies, adapting to them in small, personal, and sometimes unconscious ways in order to cope and to enjoy life. While de Certeau’s thought has been considered obscure and idealistic, it remains unmatched in identifying and articulating in new ways the mysteries of the everyday.
Ben Highmore is a professor of cultural studies with an emphasis in media, film and popular culture at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. With seven books and dozens of articles to his credit, Highmore has been one of the most articulate voices in searching for ways of studying and representing everyday life for the last fifteen years. Key works include Everyday Life and Cultural Theory (2002), which works through the theories of a number of major figures, including Walter Benjamin and Michel de Certeau. Its companion volume, The Everyday Life Reader (also 2002), assembles excerpts from more than 25 scholars and groups who have worked on the study of everyday life. In later works such as: Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday and A Passion for Cultural Studies, Highmore turns from theory to practice, training his analysis on phenomena ranging from Indian food in British life to home decor, including a lyrical and critical meditation on an inexpensive, mass-produced chair from his parents’ house that now rests in his den. In Ordinary Lives, Highmore offers a description of the everyday as an “accumulation of ‘small things’ that constitute a more expansive but hard to register ‘big thing’.” Yet, the everyday is also “punctuated by interruptions and irruptions” such as a knock on the door, a stubbed toe, or an unexpected present among many examples. Highmore visited Muncie and took part in the seminar for two days in February.