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Introduction: On Intellectual Inferiority

One of the perks of editing a journal is that we get direct access to our readers. We get to speak directly to you: in the case of most academic and intellectual journals, in the occasional editorial comments at the start of each volume; in the case of Journal of Mundane Behavior, I have been fortunate to speak (or at least exchange e-mails) with many of you regarding our first issue, ideas for future issues, criticisms of our approach, and many other topics. These conversations have been wonderful for two reasons. First, I get to hear what you really think of this journal (a rare occurrence in the life of the academic, where feedback on our work generally ranges from pure vitriol to – and note, this hasn’t yet happened to me – “bootlicking” to sheer lack of concern for what we do). (Living in Los Angeles, a city where intellectualism is generally seen as a doomed profession unless one has a screenplay in development, has given me more of a sense of the latter.) And second, you have provided Myron and me with valuable suggestions about the direction of this journal, suggestions that we are beginning to incorporate into our mission and format.

But more on that later. For now, I’m going to talk about the five percent of responses to the journal that haven’t been so wonderful. We’ve had a few responses that can only politely be characterized as “unhappy”, and they’ve ranged from “how boring you are” to what we used to call in graduate school “mental masturbation” – the pursuit of a research project or line of argument solely for the sake of looking or sounding intelligent and satisfying some kind of Freudian id need for sexual release. The first kind of response – the boringness angle – I can handle; after all, none of the contributors to our journal necessarily do what can be called “sexy” research, and we do talk about our boring everyday lives. I had to laugh when I found out that we made a list of Top Ten Boring Web Sites in Metro, a free weekly handed out in the London Underground. It was too perfect – what some might consider an absolute slam against one’s work, Myron and I took as a celebration of what we’re about. There’s a real and joyous sense of irony in finding out that one’s work on mundanity is “boring.”

The second kind of response, though, really stings. When I was in graduate school (not all that long ago), we reserved “mental masturbation” for those academics who went on and on about work we felt was irrelevant, trite, or pursued only for the sake of hearing themselves speak. The group of friends I had in graduate school were those who pursued research that they wanted to have an impact on the world; we wanted, if not to change the world from the bottom-up, then certainly to have people’s awareness of how they lived their lives changed. We wanted to be relevant. We wanted to be productive, not just in the sense of having CVs (resumés) that ran the length of a novella, but in having our work mean something to and do something positive for the world outside the “ivory tower”. We were not “mental masturbators”; we were concerned citizens who did our bit of good for the world by trying to figure out how it really works.

So when I received an e-mail sent to one of our authors in the first issue accusing us of getting our jollies by talking about nothing publicly, I was stunned. My research interests are in social theory – not exactly the most obviously relevant subfield in sociology – but I never thought of myself as a “beard-puller,” one who thinks deep thoughts to themselves while stroking their professorial beard and saying “Hmmm.” My immediate response was that response that every academic has at one point in their lives: there’s an anti-intellectualism in the world today that makes us irrelevant, even if the work we do and the things we say really are relevant. It’s the “intellectual inferiority” complex that we have, though we don’t like to talk about it. Put simply, sometimes we feel that “the people” – the rest of the world – don’t really care at all about what we think are interesting, important, and relevant things to know about the world. Some of us do take this too far: They give up on helping the rest of the world through the creation of new knowledge; they decide that “the masses” are more concerned with their General Hospital, World Wrestling Federation and PlayStations than they are with whatever thing they’re on about, and so they give up on them. In other words, some academics take an inferiority complex – one that’s reinforced through low salaries, very little cultural capital, and very little recognition outside the litterati of National Public Radio and our own cadres – and turn it into a superiority complex; or, as my non-academic uncle put it some twenty-five years ago in a short note to my mother, they think “the masses are asses.”

It wasn’t without surprise, then, when I opened Harper’s 150th anniversary collector’s edition issue and saw Tom Wolfe’s essay, “In the Land of Rococo Marxists: Why is no one celebrating the Second American Century?”. Being an academic in whatever century this is (I’ve long given up trying to figure out if we’re in the last year of the 20th century or the first year of the 21st), I’ve become accustomed to ignoring the first half of any title with a colon in it (which is always the “sales pitch”) and looking to the second half, where the real idea of the piece is. So I was pulled in – after all, living in Canada reinforced the idea that American society is all about “America Number One”, and had wondered why no one had gone on about that in the post-Y2K hysteria. What I found in Mr. Wolfe’s piece, though, was something troubling: besides the problem that there’s no integration between the two halves of the piece (and the title), the implication was that I, the budding scholar who spent many moons trying to figure out how to help the world help itself, was at fault because no one was celebrating America’s hegemony (oops – dominance; you’ll see why I apologize soon) as we head into the 21st century.

Here’s how the argument goes: Mr. Wolfe laments the fact that no one – media, cultural figures or intellectuals alike – has constructed an ode to America in a fashion similar to that of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the presentation of the Statue of Liberty to the US by France, or any other manner. Then, he takes one of my favorite writers (Nietzsche) and uses his discussion of “decadence” – the decaying of world society and Truth and the death of God – to set the stage for the real point of his piece: the slamming of intellectuals. Going back to the work Emile Zola did on the Dreyfus Affair in France, Mr. Wolfe presents a kind of intellectual history about intellectuals. The gist of it is this: Intellectuals are those who speak on matters they know next to nothing about, and American intellectuals are particularly bad because they always play catch-up with European intellectuals, following their trends and ultimately their attitude toward the rest of society – sheer snobbery, reflected in H. L. Mencken’s discussion of the “booboisie.” And since intellectuals (rather than writers, poets, playwrights, or men and women of the cloth) are the only ones who get any press, Mr. Wolfe seems to claim, we’re basically screwed, as intellectuals today now look for some disadvantaged group to patronize (yes, I mean the double entendre), all the while maintaining their “cloud nine” position with regard to this very group.

Now, I’m not one to defend my profession in a knee-jerk fashion – I, too, have on occasion thought of my colleagues as “toilers,” writing only to read their own work and speaking only to hear their own voice. But Mr. Wolfe’s piece goes a bit far:

We are left, finally, with one question. What exactly do the intellectuals want out of their Rococo Marxist mental acrobatics? Is it change they want, change for all the para-proletariats whose ideological benefactors they proclaim themselves to be? Of course not. Actual change would involve irksome toil. So what do they want?

It’s a simple business, at bottom. All the intellectual wants, in his heart of hearts, is to hold on to what was magically given to him one shining moment a century ago. He asks for nothing more than to remain aloof, removed, as Revel once put it, from the mob, the philistines… “the middle class.” (Wolfe, 82)

And how do we know this, Mr. Wolfe? Well, Stanley Fish and Judith Butler, two of our most prominent intellectuals (as Mr. Wolfe puts it), are concerned with nothing more than playing the “theory-on-theory-on-theory” game: they like nothing more than to remove themselves completely from the real world, filled with BS that everyone has to deal with, and root out “deviationists … sexists… racists… classists (sic)… homophobes… ethnophobes…” (Wolfe ,81), all in the name of defending some group with whom they neither have nor want any real connection whatsoever. This “political correctness” – which is not only decried by Mr. Wolfe, but by commentators on such esteemed media outlets as NPR and The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel – is the governing rule of American society today, so we’re left completely socially unable to celebrate the Second American Century, the Pax Americana – and it’s all the intellectuals’ fault.

Now, I’m no fan of the works of either Stanley Fish or Judith Butler, nor am I a big believer in “political correctness.” (Hell, in my last year of university, having started at the height of the PC movement, having been trained that “mailmen” were “letter carriers” and that “women” were no longer such, but “womyn,” I wrote an essay that decried such linguistic exercises for the reason that they (a) continued the same kind of objectification and essentialism that the original terms contained, and (b) prevented any kind of discussion or discourse on how society should be changed because everyone was too wrapped up in the terminology to get to what people actually wanted.) But, aside from the mistakes I think Mr. Wolfe makes in his analysis of Nietzsche’s work and his perfect job of ignoring the engagement of French intellectuals such as Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Raymond Aron in their society, he makes an even greater error – he equates the kind of work done by people who do theory-on-theory-on-theory with the kind of work everyone else does, myself included. And this, Mr. Wolfe argues, is to blame for the anomie (oh, sorry, there’s that intellectualism again – how about “apathy”?) that makes it impossible to celebrate the achievements America has made in the last one hundred years.

If it’s not obvious from what I’ve said above, I genuinely think that there is a mutual relationship between academia and the rest of the world – or rather, there’s a mutual lack of relationship. Some academics abandon their “help the world” ideals when they realize (or at least begin to think) that the non-ivory tower folk don’t care about what they do; and “the masses” learn to ignore, hate or despise academia when they don’t get what we do (or the language we do it in). The anti-intellectualism in society, then, is because both sides get sick of dealing with each other – but this isn’t what Mr. Wolfe says. Instead, all the problems with relativism, the concerns for addressing the inequities in American society (he lambastes an unnamed professor who says that the US has much to learn about handling social cleavages from Mexico and Canada), and the lack of a celebration of our society are our fault; we intellectuals have become so concerned with Rococo Marxism (and for those of you who forgot their art history, Rococo was that obnoxious 18th-century obsession with gold-leaf and garishness) that we don’t matter any more, all the while forcing the rest of American society to lose concern with itself. And this is just wrong. All of us – ivory tower folk and the general public alike – play a part in the creation of our culture; and if that culture isn’t being celebrated, improved, radically changed, or played with in some way, then we all need to look at ourselves. And when the Southern Baptist Convention changes their “faith statement” to reinforce their contempt for homosexuality and abortion and to prevent women from serving their congregations in a capacity equal to men, all because we are in the same kind of “postmodern society” Mr. Wolfe attributes to the intellectuals, you know there is some change needed.

At Journal of Mundane Behavior, we work to get away from the difficulties Mr. Wolfe describes in his Harper’s article. If one reads his piece negatively, taking everything he says as the opposite of what he really would like to see (and I don’t think he would see things in that way), Mr. Wolfe would want to see a tighter bond between intellectuals and the people and more of a concern for the real problems experienced by the people on whom intellectuals write. Journal of Mundane Behavior takes that as its starting point. The works we publish look at aspects of everyday life and mundanity from a variety of perspectives, both scholarly and participant; in other words, we work to bring everyone to the same table to talk about their understandings of what we do on a mundane basis, how we understand the things we do, and how we talk about what we do (or, in many cases, don’t talk about it). But – and this is the key – we put everything we publish in dialogue with the general public. We intentionally, willfully, and ethically cross the line surrounding the “ivory tower” and work to ensure that what we do is relevant. And this is why Journal of Mundane Behavior isn’t like Mr. Wolfe’s Rococo Marxists – we live mundane lives, we think about our mundane lives, and we present our thoughts to others who live mundane lives.

But why do this kind of work? Simple – we think the best way to understand ourselves, others, and the ways in which we coexist and experience the world around us is to look at the most basic aspects of our lives. We’re not alone: there are a number of web sites devoted to people who think they live “boring” lives, as well as the countless web cams that show people actually going through their mundane lives; there are a variety of groups devoted to studying everyday life, from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction to le Bureau des Inspections Banalytiques (roughly translated, since it’s a pun, that’s “The Office of Banal Analytic Investigations”); and those witty commentaries on “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio, which tackle such thorny issues as the multiple meanings of the slang term “dog” and why children in a neighborhood knock on the commentator’s door rather than call her on the telephone. In other words, the importance we attribute to the normal, boring, unthought and unspoken parts of our everyday lives is an importance that many are beginning to give to the mundane – and an importance we think everyone should give it. Maybe we are in a time of societal reflection; maybe after surviving all of the various dramas, traumas, and media-hyped potential crises of the last 50 years, we can finally collectively take a breath, relax, and reflect on the world we’ve created and our position in it. And maybe that’s why no one is throwing a rager for the “Second American Century,” Mr. Wolfe.


* * * * *

Now back to the hum-drum introductory comments. Journal of Mundane Behavior has, as I said before, received many comments on its format, layout, and content. We’ve also received numerous submissions that range from the standard academic works we published in the first issue to photo and video exhibitions, watercolor art, and essays written by members of the general public. Since we started as a scholarly journal that wanted to reach the public, we were both pleased and a bit befuddled about our handling of these materials. We really do want to be a site of engagement between academics and members of the public, between scholars of diverse fields, between scholars and practitioners, and between all these groups and the artistic community. So, we’ve embarked on a progressive series of changes to bring all of these aspirations into being.

Starting with this issue, we begin integrating less academic essays (though certainly not any less insightful) into our offerings. There are three pieces here that are in this vein. The first, by Kelly Train, deals with one of the points raised by Wayne Brekhus’ piece in JMB 1.1 – the issue of “whiteness” as a mundane racial or ethnic category. Train’s piece shows one of the main points of “mundane studies” – that even those things that fall outside our usual perspectives are frequently contested. Here, she argues that “whiteness” is an ethnic category that has historically been changed or adjusted to suit the needs of whatever dominant “white” group has power; in Train’s case, the identity under examination is Jewish identity. Dr. Jackson Maddux chimes in here on the ways in which doctors and patients interact in the US. For those who haven’t been exposed to the joys of the HMO, the crucial commodity is time – physicians, Dr. Maddux reports, are overloaded with patients (and get financial incentives to remain overloaded), and patients, who expect someone to care for them (in both the medical and metaphysical senses), end up left without any sense of “care” at all. Dr. Maddux’s solution: get doctors to communicate more about everyday life, thereby reconnecting doctors and patients in a less-commodified relationship and allowing doctors to get at what really ails their patients. And Joel Schalit provides us with an insight into the everyday struggle of a musician and political activist – the relationship with the people who provide the material for his work. In letting us into the kinds of relationships activist intellectuals – and here, we’re talking more about Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals” than the kind Mr. Wolfe condemns in his piece – Schalit offers us an insight into the everydayness of ethical orientations to social change.

While we’re working to incorporate our wider readership into what we publish, we also want to keep the scholarly side of the journal alive. In this edition, we offer up another batch of academic forays into everyday life. John Shotter, in his piece on “Wittgenstein and the Everyday,” critiques the idea that most social scientists have about the world – namely, that there is an underlying structure of rules and schemas that undergirds our everyday interactions and sense of self. Arguing instead that Wittgenstein’s idea of “language games” – performed rituals of linguistic interaction – provides a better way of understanding our mundane actions and interactions, Shotter claims that we can best see our daily connections with people as unstructured patterns of linguistic usages. (For anyone who’s ever said “Fine” in response to “How are you doing today?”, even though they’re having their worst day ever, you can see where he’s coming from.) Timothy Dugdale’s “The Fan and (Auto)Biography” looks at how we, the fans of such celebrities as Lady Di, Elvis Presley, and Vangelis (Dugdale’s personal favorite), use their lives as tools for writing our own biographies – in other words, Dugdale argues that this writing of celebrities’ lives into our own reduces the “social distance” between us, and makes it possible for us to vicariously live celebrity lives through this integration of star biographies and our own narratives of everyday life.

Anat Rafaeli and Alona Harness take apart what might well be everyone’s least favorite part of gaining employment – the application letter. Using a textual analysis, Rafaeli and Harness examine the tools we use to validate the skills, qualities, and merit we claim so proudly (yet not so proudly as to be seen as arrogant) in the cover letters we write for job applications. And, for those of you who are not yet convinced of the relevance of our work, Rafaeli and Harness argue that there are indeed certain tools we can use that are more successful than others. Finally, to continue our series of articles geared toward showing how the study of mundanity is an interdisciplinary project, we present Naomi Mandel’s “The Mundane and the Limits of the Human.” Written from a variety of voices – literary criticism, conversational, and autobiographical, Mandel shows how literature and the study of literature provide insight into the realm of the everyday. Mandel claims in her piece that the stories we tell – and our recounting of everyday life is included in this – not only reveal who we are, but also hide aspects of our existence, and in actuality define the limits of what we consider to be “human.” Mandel’s piece, then, is ultimately not just about examining mundane life from a humanities perspective; it is also about the politics of that examination and how that examination embeds us in what is really a universal and human project.

In sum, JMB 1.2 affirms the expansion of the project set out in 1.1. This issue is much more interdisciplinary and, to my mind, more accessible than our first foray, and only begins our project of truly being a site for the encounter between the ivory tower and the public. In the coming months, we will further the grounds for this encounter. Currently, we are planning a revamp of our web site to include essays written by members of the general public as well as op-ed pieces on “current mundane affairs” written by members of JMB’s editorial board. We are also laying the technological groundwork for the inclusion of artwork, photographic, and video exhibitions within the journal, and with JMB 1.3 we will begin including some of these pieces within each issue. We are also announcing the first of what we hope to be many “special issues,” devoted to one topic in particular. Our February 2001 issue (2.1) will be an examination of “Media/Mundania” – on the relationships between the various forms of the media and ourselves in our everyday lives; on how mundane actions and interactions go into the production of the media; and on the ways in which the media constructs, plays with, and utilizes “mundanity” in the creation and marketing of its products. The call for papers, which will be open to anyone interested, is included in this issue; and the revisions we’ll be making to our web site will be up soon. And, as always, your comments are invited and appreciated. After all, it’s your feedback that makes this journal what it is, and makes Journal of Mundane Behavior the kind of thing that might make Mr. Wolfe smile.



Wolfe, Tom. “In the Land of Rococo Marxists: Why is no one celebrating the Second American Century?” Harper’s. June 2000: 73-82.

Author: Scott Schaffer is Managing Editor of Journal of Mundane Behavior and a Lecturer in Sociology at California State University, Fullerton. When not searching out the web for even more boring sites than JMB, Scott bides his time waiting for something really exciting to happen – like his car breaking down.

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