The value of trivial pursuits

March 2, 2007

Queuing, park railings, the history of crossing the road... Joe Moran's research into the 'bleeding obvious' yields fascinating insights into historical and political changes

Is the trivia of everyday life a fitting subject for academic research? I am often asked, with a certain benevolent bemusement, why I study arcane matters such as the history of crossing the road 1936-76, the phenomenon of the queue in postwar Britain or the cultural politics of the park railing. These projects certainly skirt perilously close to the "strangely neglected topic" that Lucky Jim is trying to shoehorn into a publishable article: "The economic influence of the development in shipbuilding techniques, 1450-1485" (which to me, of course, sounds quite interesting). Like Kingsley Amis's antihero, I have sometimes worried that my pained attentiveness to unpromising material might seem like nothing more than a form of tenured trainspotting, the self-indulgence of an academic anorak. Am I simply rediscovering what a certain strain of English pragmatism likes to call "the bleeding obvious"?

Academics have long been ambivalent about the subject of everyday life. The main problem is that we can't agree what it is. In English, the word "everyday" is vague and inclusive, being used to describe a huge range of commonplace activities, not simply those done every day. It is also loaded with ambiguous cultural meaning in much the way as similar words such as "banal" and "ordinary". It can refer to the eternally tedious or bathetically comic residue of modern life (the meaning preferred by all those hilarious stocking-filler books about "men and sheds" or "roundabouts of Great Britain"); or it can refer to the heroically democratic, non-elitist and normal (the meaning preferred by British politicians, ad nauseam).

Given this confusing matter of definition, the academic disciplines have tended to look at everyday life through the refracting mirror of their own specific concerns. Anthropologists mine it for meaningful rituals. Cultural studies scholars equate it with popular culture, consumption and lifestyle.

Sociologists see it as the terrain of social problems and conflicts.

Historians treat it as the raw material for "history from below", rescuing overlooked people and things from what E. P. Thompson called the "enormous condescension of posterity".

What these approaches have tended to miss out is the quotidian - a more precise word than "everyday", literally meaning to "mark time". As the geographer Doreen Massey argues, each historical era prefers to emphasise its own relentless novelty, accelerated pace and frantic transformations, but much of life for many people "still consists of waiting in a bus shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes". Over the past few years, I have been trying to find a critical language to talk about these empty, purposeless moments of daily life, filled with activities such as commuting and office routines, that we generally take for granted but that take up so much of our lives.

I have looked for inspiration to two intellectual movements, both of which had an uneasy relationship with academia. The first was Mass-Observation, the slightly chaotic research organisation formed in the 1930s that aimed to produce an "anthropology at home" by exploring everyday activities such as smoking, pub-going, reading horoscopes and doing the football pools. I first came across it as a graduate student at Sussex University, where the Mass-Observation archive is held. I liked its restlessly inquisitive, deadpan style, the way that it lavished the most banal topics with painstaking attention, not worrying about whether they had some pre-established scholarly significance. The reports files in the archive had wonderful headings, provided by someone who obviously had a quirky sense of humour: "Greyhounds and national unity", "People in the Co-op", "The application of face cream", "Upper and middle-class soup-eating habits".

But the fizzling out of Mass-Observation after the Second World War showed how difficult it was to sustain a long-term project on a nebulous subject such as the everyday. A new culture of consumption emerged, promising to relieve the drudgery of mundane life and tapping into the desires - for energy, abundance and glamour - that this life did not fulfil. One symptom of this change was that the study of consumer lifestyle choice began to displace the analysis of our less conscious daily habits. Mass-Observation itself became Mass-Observation UK Ltd, a more conventional market research company that eschewed domestic anthropology in favour of surveys about toothpaste and detergent.

The second movement to inspire me was a more recent French tradition of writing about la vie quotidienne , or what Parisians poetically call métro-boulot-dodo (commuting-working-sleeping). Georges Perec, one of the founders of this tradition, uses the term "infra-ordinary" to describe that part of our lives that is so routine as to become almost invisible, like infrared light. A feature of this kind of quotidian writing is the search for a fluid, essayistic style, combining anthropology, cultural history and reportage, that reflects the elusiveness and taken-for-grantedness of the everyday itself. Examples include Marc Augé's ethnography of the Paris metro system, Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop's account of their trip from Paris to Marseilles in a camper van, and François Bon's writing about his journeys on French commuter trains. This hybrid freeform type of research makes many academics uneasy. Academic writing relies fundamentally on the communication of specialist expertise, and it is hard to be an expert in such an indefinable subject as "everyday life".

Another French theorist, Henri Lefebvre, argues that the everyday is a kind of remaindered subject that evades traditional divisions of knowledge and is inherently messy and uneven. It is "defined by what is left over after all distinct, superior, specialised, structured activities have been singled out by analysis".

What is often interesting about the quotidian is the way in which it slips in and out of conventional patterns of thought in this way. To study it, you need to be something of a scholarly magpie, looking in unusual places and mopping up leftover bits from various disciplines.

Mass-Observation conducted its research during wartime and the years leading up to war, when simply getting through the day was a matter of great anxiety and discomfort. Lefebvre wrote his first book on everyday life in France in the late 1940s, when fuel, food and housing shortages created similar everyday difficulties. He continued this research in the France of the 1950s and 1960s, against the backdrop of dramatic changes in daily life created by postwar reconstruction and Americanised consumerism.

Michel de Certeau's writings on everyday life were partly an attempt to find new ways of thinking about political action and historical change after the 1968 evenements, a period in which "from everywhere emerged the treasures, either aslumber or tacit, of forever unspoken experiences". All these theorists argued that the supposedly static routines of daily life were the source of unnoticed historical changes.

The study of the everyday often leads into a study of a broader political culture, what Alexis de Tocqueville called the "habits of the heart", that invisibly sustain institutions and traditions. Modern British political discourse seems fixated with an invented version of everyday life, a "Middle England" inhabited by "hard-working families" or "ordinary" and "long-suffering" motorists, taxpayers and homeowners. Meanwhile, the profound changes to our actual daily lives in recent years have rarely been acknowledged as political at all.

The category of "everyday life" is where things get put when people decide that they are unproblematic and apolitical. What appears to be banal and routine is all the more likely to be a source of conflict and ambiguity because it is not recognised as such. The smallest details of mundane life can provide insights into much larger national and global changes; unconsidered trifles can be clues to more significant, subterranean changes in society.

So when I have spent hours researching some recherche aspect of motorway service stations, I tell myself that I am trying to understand this kind of sublimated politics and submerged historical change. Anyway, that's my explanation for my strange scholarly habits, and I'm sticking to it. Now, where did I leave my anorak?

Joe Moran is a reader in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. His book Queuing for Beginners is published by Profile Books in May.

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