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Unformatted text preview: Ordinary Lives Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday by Ben Highmore 1 Ordinary Lives For Wendy Bonner, love of my life 2 Ordinary Lives But what sort of sense is constitutive of this everydayness? Surely this sense includes much that it is not sense so much as sensuousness, an embodied and somewhat automatic 'knowledge' that functions like peripheral vision, not studied contemplation, a knowledge that is imageric and sensate rather than ideational; as such it not only challenges practically all critical practice across the board of academic disciplines but is a knowledge that lies as much in the objects and spaces of observation as in the body and mind of the observer. (Taussig 1992: 141-2) Everyday life is a life lived on the level of surging affects, impacts suffered or barely avoided. It takes everything we have. But it also spawns a series of little somethings dreamed up in the course of things. (Stewart 2007: 9) 3 Ordinary Lives Contents Preface and Acknowledgements Introduction Everyday Aesthetics I Enlightenment Aesthetics II John Dewey and the Grain of Experience III Jacques Rancière and the Distribution of the Sensible Familiar Things Doing Time: Work Life Absentminded Media Senses of the Ordinary Conclusion: Towards a political aesthetics of everyday life Bibliography Index 4 Ordinary Lives Preface and Acknowledgements This book is about ordinary, everyday life and it is also about aesthetics. Because these two terms might not seem immediately compatible it is worth telegraphing an argument I will make in greater detail throughout the book. Once upon a time the word „aesthetics‟ was less freighted with the task of policing the corridors of art or evaluating the experiences associated with it. Initially it pointed, with imprecision and unease, to a messy world of sensate perception, a world irreducible to rational meanings or ideation. Aesthetics gestured thought towards the great left-over: the bodily creature; the paths of often unruly emotions; the whole sensual world in all its baseness and brilliance. Emerging as a named area of inquiry only in the mid-eighteenth century, the history of aesthetics can be seen to follow a wayward path of increased intellectual specialisation, increasingly limiting itself to only certain kinds of experience and feeling, and becoming more and more dedicated to finely wrought objects. Once taken out of their lively solution, such discrete objects (artworks, powerful feelings of awe in the face of nature) were left beached on the shores of disciplinary knowledge. Marooned by an attention designed to praise and appraise them, art objects were often shorn of the very thing that aesthetics originally sought to engage with – the sensual, material entanglement with the socio-natural world. The etymology of the term aesthetics stems from the Greek words aisthētikos and aisthēta, and refers to a fundamentally empiricist approach to the world that privileges a concern with sensation and „the network of physical perceptions‟ (Barilli 1993: 2). Such a root is lost when we associate aesthetics primarily with art, and it is lost when we find beauty parlours and cosmetic surgeons rebranded as „aesthetic‟ technicians. But it is commonly maintained, albeit in its negative form, in the term anaesthetics – the practice of making insensate or blocking painful sensations. (It is also maintained in less everyday terms such as synaesthesia and hyperaesthesia.) If anaesthetics befuddles and dulls us, causing us to not feel pain or pleasure, it would make sense to see aesthetics as the inverse of this: our lively sensitivity to stimulus from without and within; our sensate connectivity to a world of things and other people; our responsiveness to a world of feelings. 5 Ordinary Lives Aesthetics was born out of Enlightenment philosophy‟s attempt to understand human „nature‟. Reason alone could not explain the way people lived and loved, the way they sympathised or remained unmoved. Much European philosophical thought, from the seventeenth through to the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, was concerned with the passions and their moral management. Passions included what we would more routinely call emotions, feelings and affects, but also included phenomena such as imitation. Sometimes the invocation of the passions was designed to loosen the shackles of religiosity, sometimes it worked in tandem with religious belief, most often it seems to pull both ways at once. It is easy enough to critique Enlightenment attitudes towards virtue and the good life and to find them promoting values that are heavily classed, gendered and racialized, but I can‟t help marvelling at the sheer ambition of such an attempt to understand the cultural creatureliness of human life. If „aesthetics‟ only fully emerges as a philosophical term in 1750 in the work of Alexander Baumgarten, it designates an arena in European philosophy that was by then already fully established: this is the intersection of passions, tastes, sentiments and morality. Classical, Enlightenment philosophy couldn‟t simply describe these intersections it also felt the need to evaluate them. And it is, I will argue, the values, rather than the forms of attention, that are problematic for understanding the aesthetics of daily life. Some, if not most, of the evaluations from seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth-century philosophy will appear odd, patriarchal and aristocratic. But this is not something peculiar to aesthetic thinking. On the other hand classical aesthetics is wonderfully attuned to the sociality of subjective experience and to the way that passions and affects circulate across our human and thingly world. This is a dynamic world view, where passions provoke actions, where sympathy attaches us to feelings, and where our most „internal‟ feelings turn out to be a part of public culture. And it is this potential to attend to the dynamics of our interpersonal and transpersonal tunings that is so crucial for understanding the liveliness of ordinary life. But if this means that at times we need to turn aesthetics away from the art work and away from a consideration of beauty, it doesn‟t mean that we have to dispatch them to oblivion. In classical aesthetics (as in psychoanalysis) artworks are sometimes called upon to draw out a point and to enliven an account of a type 6 Ordinary Lives of experience. If they are used as objects of contemplation then they have to take their place alongside shoes, gardens, rivers, houses, faces, plants and so on. As part of our artificial, object world, however, books, plays, music and paintings aren‟t just objects of contemplation they are also part of the communal circulation of affects and passions. If this was true in the eighteenth-century it is even more evident today. Novels, poetry and paintings are today coupled with films, TV shows, radio and the internet to mark out an increasingly expansive terrain where culture presents itself passionately. News stories of tragedy and peril are routinely piped into our homes and places of work; sadness and joy animate every story and every song that syncopates daily life. The cultural world is an ecology of optimism and pessimism, of pleasure and pain, and it makes communal subjects of us all. Such objects don‟t require a narrow „aesthetic appreciation‟, but need to be recognised as a central realm where the orchestration of sentiment and affect takes place. This ecology of „presented passions‟ (what some would call the world of representation) is also the arena that has most insistently and viscerally attended to the patterns of everyday life. In The Practice of Everyday Life Michel de Certeau suggests that modernity witnesses increased intellectual specialisation. A classical inquiry about „leading the good life‟, about passions and affects, becomes atomised and hardened into discrete enclaves of activity and reflection (psychology, sociology, economics, a narrowly defined aesthetics and so on). As a result everyday life (as the subject of intellectual reflection) gets remaindered, falling through the cracks between disciplines. There is, however, one place where everyday life becomes more and more vivid – literature: As indexes of particulars – the poetic or tragic murmurings of the everyday – ways of operating enter massively into the novel or the short story, most notable into the nineteenth-century realist novel. They find there a new representational space, that of fiction, populated by everyday virtuosities that science doesn‟t know what to do with and which become the signatures, easily recognised by readers, of everyone‟s micro-stories. (de Certeau 1984: 70) 7 Ordinary Lives What literature (and we could add here film, TV, pop music and so on) does so well, of course, is to describe the details of life and the pulsings of affect: the risings and fallings of hope, love, hatred, and irritation; the minor and major disturbances of life set against and within a world of day-to-day habits, routines and collective sentiments. While in this book the arts have to be held in abeyance so that they can return as socially vivid matter, so beauty needs to be de-prioritized so that it can be recoded and re-valued. It would simply be mean-spirited to permanently delete beauty from the realm of the daily. While few could claim that their daily life was suffused with beauty, many would, I hope, have some sense of beauty punctuating their daily life. Beauty might be a value that is routinely set against the sometimes bland consistency of everyday life: a lovely meal, a wonderful sunset, a dog running in the park, a football match played exquisitely. Beauty can animate the daily and structure our experiences of it through its relative rarity. Beauty can initiate a sudden effervescence that casts a light which illuminates some things while casting shadows over others. But beauty also circulates in ordinary life as a normative value (think of such magazines as House Beautiful, Allure: the Beauty Expert, and so on) which is as likely to provoke envy as effervescence, as likely to produce anxiety as pleasure. Beauty is often a form of negative discrimination that propagates racial and age-specific values, reinforcing particular articulations of sexuality and gender. It is also tied to the increasingly unsustainable rhythms of commercial culture: three years ago that was beautiful, now it is dowdy. Aesthetics, once it has cut its ties with the automatic privileging of „beauty‟, might be able to find new forms of beauty in what had previously been passed off as dowdy and dull, ugly and uninteresting, routine and irregular. It might involve learning to appreciate new forms of beauty that could be more sustainable, more precarious, and more world-enlarging. Ordinary life maintains habitual values, but it is also where the body learns to like new things (new smells, new tastes, new sounds). The potential for opening up the senses to the unknown and new (the foreign, the different) is a way of moving away from a cross-cultural ecology that is driven by something as mealy-mouthed as „tolerance‟ (and tolerance only has positive connotations when it is spoken in a culture deeply marred by hostility: who would accept „being tolerated‟ as a positive value in any other situation?). 8 Ordinary Lives Aesthetic contact with another culture involves the passions. In what follows my aesthetic approach favours description over evaluation in the hope that such an orientation might result in new appreciations of habit and routine and new forms of inclination and aversion. In championing an older understanding of aesthetics, and in an endeavour to vitalise this so as to attend to ordinary life, this book finds its materials in a number of places. I use literature (particularly forms of autobiography), film and TV, alongside philosophy and critical theory (and for the most part purposefully fail to see any essential differences between them). What I value in literature is often what I value most in theory: the ability to call forth an experience through (sometimes exorbitant) description. Rather than this de-differentiating such a disparate stock of materials, it forfeits the often taken-for-granted demands of genre, focusing instead on the singularities and potential of a presentation. But this is not a book that provides a critical distance on debates so as to scrutinise them rigorously and critically for academic appraisal. My aim is generative: I want to mobilise aesthetics for the task of attending to ordinary life, and this means getting in amongst things. So while I use theory and literature I also theorise and present descriptions of everyday life that some might feel are far too literary. Literature and theory are rarely „correct‟ or „incorrect‟: instead both theory and literature put in play a set of values and accounts that we are invited to ascribe to or to recognise as in some ways true, adequate or productive. It is the test of recognition that I want to prize here. I am less interested in whether something can be generalised and applied universally, than if a description is recognisable and has a shape that is something like the shape of other experiences of the ordinary. This book is empirical (in the sense that Hume gave to the term) but it does not try to be representative (there are no focus groups, surveys, interviews, etc.). The book‟s task shares the ambition of classical aesthetics (to attend to human creaturely life) but also the modesty of literature (to attend to the singularities of ordinary existence). Such a task could only ever be partially successful: all I can hope is that any substantive achievements mitigates the falling-short that is the necessary outcome of attending to the ordinary. I have also stayed within the orbit of my local culture, which means that most of the examples are geographically English. In a globalised world this may seem peculiarly 9 Ordinary Lives provincial – I hope that it doesn‟t and that this sort of necessarily close work could be extended into other geographies. ____________________ Thanks are due to Simon During for supporting this project in a number of ways. Michael Gardiner and Gregory Seigworth are my mentors and fellow travellers in the misadventures of the everyday: thanks as ever. Working with Janice Winship on her course on „the culture of the everyday‟ reinvigorated my enthusiasm for this project and got me thinking in a more practical way about the everyday. Thanks to Ellie Harrison and all the artists involved in her Day-to-Day Data project. In no particular order (apart from alphabetical) the following have all been helpful in minor or major ways: Sara Ahmed, Ien Ang, Mark Bhatti, Caroline Bassett, Paul Betts, Paul Bowman, Ian Buchanan, Michael Bull, Adrian Carton, Constance Classen, Paola Di Cori, Jean Duruz, Marian Füssel, Danielle Gallegos, Rosalind Galt, Melissa Gregg, Jerome Hansen, Ramaswami Harindranath, Richard Hornsey, David Howes, Nick Hubble, Margaretta Jolly, Kate Lacey, Claire Langhamer, Scott McCracken, Andy Medhurst, Michael Morris, Sally Munt, Felicity Newman, Kate O'Riordan, Wendy Parkins, Elspeth Probyn, Louise Purbrick, Raiford Quins, Adam Ranson, Rhona Richman Kenneally, Polly Ruiz, Johanne Sloan, Will Straw, Deborah Sugg Ryan, Imre Szeman, Lizzie Thynne, and Amanda Wise. Michelle Henning and Gillian Swanson are my immediate writing-support group, and much else besides. I benefited from a number of invitations to talk about this project: the invitations came from Marquard Smith, Ian Buchanan, Judith Ash, Michael Hviid Jacobsen, Gen Doy, and Linda Kaljundi. The seminar that Linda Kaljundi invited me to in Tallin, Estonia, was especially productive in sharpening the focus of this inquiry. Routledge are, as always, a supportive and collegiate team. It is a pleasure to work with Natalie Foster and Charlie Wood. Chapter six owes a debt of gratitude to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) for research funding from the strategic initiative „Diasporas, Migration and Identities‟ programme. This book tries to show how the confusions, routines, intricacies, and surprises of daily life, that are felt so „personally‟, are always connecting us to a 10 Ordinary Lives realm of communal (and differentiated) life. Ordinary life is collective even when it is experienced as isolated and desolate. My ordinary life is far from isolated, far from desolate. It is collective in the most immediate, practical and affective way. So my last and greatest thanks have to go to those who are „nearest and dearest‟ (as usual the cliché exceeds its worn familiarity); to Zeb, Molly and Wendy (to whom this book is dedicated). I have included here passages that have been reworked and adapted from previously published work. These include: 'Homework: Routine, Social Aesthetics, and the Ambiguity of Everyday Life', in Cultural Studies, 18, 2-3, 2004, pp. 306-327 (with the permission of Taylor & Francis); 'Alimentary Agents: Food, Cultural Theory, and Multiculturalism', Journal of Intercultural Studies, 29, 4, 2008, pp. 381-398 (with the permission of Taylor & Francis); „Chair Memories (An Aesthetic Education of Sorts)‟Design, Philosophy, Politics (online journal) June 2009; 'The Taj Mahal in the High Street: The Indian Restaurant as Diasporic Popular Culture in Britain', Food, Culture and Society 12, 2, 2009, pp. 173-190 (with the permission of Berg). 11 Ordinary Lives Chapter 1 Introduction How does everyday life feel to you? Do the habits and routines of the dayto-day press down on you like a dull weight? Do they comfort you with their worn and tender familiarity, or do they pull irritably at you, rubbing your face in their lack of spontaneity and event? When cleaning or cooking does time ricochet past in the half-light of the daydream or stutter and collapse in the stupor of drudgery? Can domestic routines become precious moments snatched from more thoroughly exhaustive work practices, or do their rhythms constantly signal their lack of value? And how, supposing we wanted to, would we call attention to such 'nonevents', without betraying them, without disloyalty to the particularity of their experience, without simply turning them into 'events'? Somewhere a clock is ticking like it always does, you are getting hungry like you always do, the telephone is ringing like it always will, and the TV is playing in an empty room. Somewhere someone is dying, someone is being born, someone is making love; somewhere a war is being fought. Midwifes and morticians, paupers and princes, go about their everyday lives. Everything can become everyday, everything can become ordinary: it is our greatest blessing, our most human accomplishment, our greatest handicap, our most despicable complacency. The almost glacial movement of dust settling is too slow to watch, it's a constant drift of particles building up and becoming visible: however much you polish and vacuum its presence is relentless. The everyday is the accumulation of „small things‟ that constitute a more expansive but hard to register „big thing‟. But like fissures in a stream of constancy the everyday is also punctuated by interruptions and irruptions: a knock on the door, a stubbed toe, an argument, an unexpected present, a broken glass, a tear, a desperate embrace. Crowding round these syncopations is the background hiss of the ambient everyday. A mood, a rhythm, a feeling provides a stage on which the ordinary events and happenings of the everyday unfold. It is a field of experience constantly in flux: I was calm but now I am anxious; I was happy but now I am sad; I was daydreaming but now I 12 Ordinary Lives am just bored; I was frustrated but now I am indifferent. The everyday may be vague but it is not abstract. Abstractions, however, might allow some purchase on the amorphousness of what tends to pass, and what tends to get passed off in ordinary life. How could we say any...
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