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Introduction: September 12 and on – Recovering and rethinking the normal

When I last wrote in these pages, I was ranting about the problems involved in moving and the existential dread involved in essentially making it appear, at least to my housemate and landlord, that I’d never lived in the house. All that seems so long ago now…

Don’t think I haven’t adjusted to my new life in Lancaster PA – I have. It’s just taken a bit of work. After getting used to a town that “looks like Toronto and acts like my hometown,” one that exists in the fallout shadow of Three Mile Island, I settled into the routines of the profession – preparing for classes, marking papers, shopping at the cool Mediterranean grocery store. And then, things went awry.

Our first crisis, the first weekend of September, was the Klan coming to town. Yes, the Ku Klux Klan – and the entire town mobilized to battle the forces of hate, with the Unity Festival, the counter-protests on the courthouse steps, the campus forums on the history of hate crimes in southeastern Pennsylvania. And then the Klan didn’t show. There was something so… ordinary about their decision not to come to Lancaster (only 20 miles from the Mason-Dixon line, mind you). And yet, the admirable response of the townsfolk covered up something – the fact that the Klan could come to Lancaster, the fact that the people of Lancaster were so quick to mobilize the forces of tolerance, showed that there were significant problems with people relating to one another here. But those issues and discussions quickly faded; the Klan didn’t show, so everything is mostly alright now.

The next crisis wasn’t so quick to fade. Just three days after the Klan’s “arrival,” September 11 happened. (By now, “9/11” has become so well known, the events don’t need to be recounted.) Almost instantly, everything – every thing – changed for people in the US. America was no longer insulated from all the bad stuff that happened elsewhere in the world. Sure, we had our own problems – crime, poverty, inequality, rampant weapon ownership that exacerbates the first three problems in the list – but they weren’t problems from the outside. All of a sudden, the US really felt itself as part of the world – and that feeling was despair, dread, anxiety, and plain outright fear.

As the intelligence gathered after the attacks started filtering out to the public, the fear of planes flying overhead changed into a fear of the other. The people who had carried out these attacks had lived among us – been our neighbors, the people next to us in a bar or in front of us in line at the grocery store… Suddenly, we were afraid of one another. We didn’t know whom to trust, how to know “what a terrorist looked like,” or even if it was safe to open our doors and go outside. We became afraid, almost immediately, of the very thing that was supposed to be the shining beacon to the world – our diversity and our freedom.

Then, with the announcement of anthrax attacks on The Sun in Florida, the major networks, and Capitol Hill – and, more importantly, on the so-called “little people” who make those organizations possible – that fear moved inside our homes. We became afraid of the mail, of major brands of food, of other people – of anything that felt like a threat to our routine.

The Heroism of the Mundane

This same routine, one we found to be the source of fear, was also a source of heroism. Firefighters, police officers, and rescue personnel in both New York and Washington DC became heroes – only by virtue of having done their jobs. These professionals, many of who gave their lives in the course of their profession, became valorized, and for good reason. Most of us aren’t called upon to sacrifice our lives – or much of anything else – for the sake of our jobs, or even more generally for other people; yet these individuals, who knew the risk of rushing into a building that had just taken a 757 hit, did so without hesitation.

No one who worked emergency services on 9/11 sees themselves as a hero – “I was just doing my job” is the almost pat response when receiving a medal of valor – but their actions can show us two things. First, it can show us that one of the most mundane parts of our lives, our jobs, can be the site of a kind of heroism (something that my co-editor has mentioned many times in these pages). Second – and I think this is more instructive – we have seen the importance of self-sacrifice. To indulge a sudden tendency toward the cliché, when all the chips are down, we’re willing to give everything up for someone else – so why not make that an everyday part of our existence? Why not move past our tendency toward our own preservation over and against everyone else’s?

Falling Out of the Ordinary

The new watchword, at least if one follows the media, is “suspicion.” Anything suspicious is to be isolated, quarantined, reported, and feared. But what qualifies as suspicious? What quality would something have to have in order to be worthy of suspicion?

Being the inquisitive little cat I am, I checked on “suspicion.” Here’s what I’ve found: “suspicion” not only means suspecting something of wrongdoing (and to go one step further, “suspect” in its verb form means “to surmise to be true or probable,” “to imagine,” and “to have doubts about”), but also means “a state of uncertainty” and “a minute amount or trace”. It actually derives from the Latin word suspicere, meaning “to watch.”

Let me sum all this up: our new state of being, this “state of suspicion” we’re asked to live by in the US, is characterized by these qualities: being uncertain; doubting; imagining things to be true, or at least probable; and supposing that things around us are “wrong.”

To my mind, there are three things that this new state of being tells us. First, we no longer know how we’re supposed to act in the world. Not only for Americans, but for anyone who’s been impacted by terrorist acts anywhere in the world, the everyday is disrupted. Our routines are subject to question; the basic epistemological foundations of our world are no longer as solid as we thought they were; and we are forced to actually do work on our everyday lives. We rethink small decisions, like taking the elevator, which routes to take to work, and which letters we open.

But these are the small things. There are much bigger things we should be rethinking. We should rethink everything about how we live in the world – and this is no light task. While we’ve been convinced by the media that these attacks were on the essential bases of America – freedom, democracy, and the like – they aren’t. Terrorism may be about attacking big ideas, but it’s more prominently about attacking the routine elements of our lives, in order to try to get us to see that those routine elements are part of a larger way of life in some way damaging to others in the world. Leaving aside debates on the larger political issues, we have to find a new way of seeing ourselves with regard to the world, if only to maintain our sanity.

The second result of this new suspicious state is that we have to anticipate the unthinkable – or at least we’re supposed to. Many of us have probably already begun the process of reclaiming a sense of routine. But now, we have to figure out a way to incorporate what might have been completely inconceivable into our everyday activities. What used to be only the stuff of big-budget Hollywood films is now the stuff of our imagination – and our greatest fears. Years ago, the US Army enlisted the help of Hollywood in the development of possible attack scenarios and founded the Institute for Creative Technologies at University of Southern California; now, we end up turning to Hollywood – or even more surreally, the daily news broadcast – for more fodder for our imaginations and fears.

How do we grapple with this sense that the most bizarre thing thinkable is now the thing we have to take into account when driving across a bridge, going to a hockey game, or simply shopping at a mall?

The third result of our suspicious existence is that we presume everything is true – that is, everything we’re told by “reliable sources”. But, this might not always be the case. Everything is up for questioning these days, from the opinions of commentators (including myself, I might add) to what’s offered up as “the latest information” at press conferences in Washington DC. We should be suspicious of what we’re told – this should have already been a normal, ordinary way of being. But now, it’s even more clear that we need to approach information with a grain of salt.

One of the impacts of 9/11 in North America has been the quelling of any kind of dissent. Not to get all “Constitutional theory” or anything, but the generally accepted opinion of the US Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is that one of the things they hold most dear is the right to express dissenting opinions. Freedom of speech, in fact, was so prominent in the American Founding Fathers’ minds that they made it the very first clause in the First Amendment. Yet, almost immediately, dissent disappeared – in part, because people didn’t feel it was the time for dissent, but rather for mourning; in part, because individuals who might be prone to dissent felt constrained in that capacity; and in large part, because they knew the repercussions for dissenting in a time like this would be dramatic.

But, if engaging in a military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda “forces” is about “protecting America,” then we at home should do our part and act American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian, or as citizens of any other country around the world that claims to dignify individual opinion); that is, we need to ensure that the America that is protected by the military is the America we need to have. We need to encourage discussion and debate on the issues at hand – respectfully, of course, with a clear eye toward not berating or belittling others (or, as in the case of the University of North Carolina professors who held a teach-in, calling and requesting their “termination”) and with the encouragement of that all-too-American practice, the “marketplace of ideas,” as the ultimate goal. Otherwise, even the university, that almost sacrosanct place where ideas are freely exchanged, becomes a victim of a terrorism that has as a goal the demise of the American way of life – and once the ability to state our opinions disappears, we become complicit in ensuring that way of life is destroyed.

Rebuilding the Everyday

The United States has, like countless other places in the world have been and will continue to be until we figure out what “peace” actually is, gone through an incredible amount of trauma. This shouldn’t be taken as saying that America’s trauma is greater than anyone else’s; rather, it’s saying that the US now knows what Northern Ireland, Palestine, Israel, Iraq, and more countries than I care to list have been through – violence, insecurity, anxiety, and what a psychiatrist called a “paranoia of reality,” a feeling of paranoia that seems to indicate insanity but actually is grounded in reality.

But, with all the sadness, grief, and anger that the American people have felt over the last six weeks, we also have a golden opportunity. We have the chance to rebuild our everyday lives and to improve how we live with other people.

Think about it – our suspicion of everything that surrounds us now provides us with a chance to rebuild our lives in such a way that we can satisfy all the necessary challenges that we face today: anxiety about what to expect from others; a need to reclaim an element of trust in other people; and the need to act in our own lives to ensure that the US, Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, and other terrorized parts of the world no longer have to suffer through that terrorization. My advice – get cracking. We can no longer wait to improve the world around us.

* * * * *

This issue of Journal of Mundane Behavior follows the line of discussion above – it’s split between facing the realities of a changed world and an attempt to reclaim a sense of the ordinary.

On the first front, we offer up a special forum on “9/11 and Everyday Life.” The contributors to that forum – friends of the Journal, members of the editorial board – offer up their views on what is to be done from September 12 onward, how we can avoid future terrorist attacks, and how we can cope with the impacts of 9/11.

Myron Orleans, Founding Co-Editor of JMB, offers up his “manifesto” on life in a “post-terror” era. Dealing with some of the same issues here, Orleans offers up the unique perspective that only JMB can offer. We must, he claims, take a reasoned approach to the rebuilding process I’ve discussed above, neither bunkering in our homes nor putting ourselves at grave risk in an attempt to show “the terrorists” they haven’t won. In fact, Orleans seems to offer up the idea that this rebuilding process should be less about terrorism or terrorist attacks than it is about us and how we live our lives.

The next three articles explore not only the effects of 9/11, but also the ways of addressing the challenges facing everyone these days, from perspectives starting from the individual and working their way outward to the geopolitical realm. Ronald Pies takes an entirely different approach to examining 9/11 by focusing on the thought process of terrorists – or rather, how we can change that thought process. Pies’ psychiatric and philosophical approach to this, involving discussions of classical psycho-philosophical (one word, not two) ideas like ressentiment (Nietzschean envy and “impotent rage”) and Schadenfreude (the taking of joy in others’ misfortune), outlines for us one of the crucial elements of “solving” the problem of terrorism – getting people who could become terrorists to not think like terrorists.

Thomas Scheff, a specialist in the sociology of emotions, responds to a particular idea presented in JMB’s original statement on the events of 9/11 – in particular, our claim that “Since terrorism’s goal is to destroy everydayness by instilling fear, the only way to combat its effects is by maintaining a sense of normalcy in the face of any threat.” Scheff offers us another way of combating the effects of terrorism – by changing the ways in which we are socialized to deal with our emotions. Men, Scheff argues, act irrationally and violently in times of crisis, and women often support these modes of action through either their socialization of male children or through their silence in instances of irrational and violent action, all leading to a way of handling emotions that is damaging to all of us. Scheff’s point – we need to admit our fears and frustrations (especially now), give them voice, and figure out a way to live with them.

Severyn Bruyn provides us with an alternate view of the US approach to fighting terrorism. Arguing that the key to a successful defense of the US is not fighter jets buzzing the MCI Center in Washington DC, but rather through a citizen defense force and a greater adherence to and involvement in the development of global social justice, Bruyn’s work lays out a larger vision of the “what is to be done?” question, one that has as much to do with how citizens of the US and other countries involve themselves in governmental affairs as it does with the ways that the US government operates.

Pavaninder Mann, a counseling psychologist and a Sikh American, offers us a vignette of his life as an “un-American” American. Born and raised in southern California, Pavaninder is as American as they come, yet fears that the most harmful impact of 9/11 will be on the conception of “American-ness” itself – that it will no longer include peoples from around the world within its boundaries.

Jimmy Dean Smith closes this section with his discussion of the trials and tribulations of being an American Studies scholar in these times. For those not privy to the “culture wars” behind the ivy-covered walls, American Studies, by Smith’s own admission, tends to be “iffy” and waver between “the somber and silly, between Oedipus and Uncle Jed.” Now, though, Smith argues that this is when he is most at work – in trying to figure out how it is we walk between the clichés of “nothing will be the same” and “we must reclaim our typically American levity.” Put another way, for Smith, our times are the times in which scholars of America – be they of the idiosyncracies of American culture or of the mundane – have the most to offer all of us.

* * * * *

The second front of this sixth issue of JMB falls, I’m sure, to one end of Smith’s clichés, and most certainly to a show business cliché – the show must go on. We provide, with a heavy heart, our usual offering of insightful analyses of aspects of daily life, in the hopes of, as my faithful co-editor put it, “harnessing our productive awareness to the purposes of self-protection and maintenance of a mundane community existence.”

Anthony Rendon provides us with an exposition of Robert Venturi’s writings on Las Vegas-style architecture. This approach to architecture, which privileges “fun” and “playful” public spaces over older, more Modernist architectural styles, is one that has become much more prevalent of late, appearing in tourist attractions like CityWalk in Los Angeles and planned communities like Disney’s Celebration, Florida, and represents a kind of liberation from older forms of architecture in two ways – it is not as deterministic in terms of how people use these public spaces, and it allows the space’s users to decide for themselves what the space represents to them. By moving through what is arguably a dense discussion of the virtues of post-modernism, Rendon provides us with a way of understanding the new and quirky kinds of buildings and the ways in which we use public space.

Anders Persson’s tendency for eavesdropping pays off in his discussion of how people use cellular phones in public. Cell phone users appear, Persson argues, to rely on a kind of “intimacy among strangers” – a lack of concern that people we don’t know will hear intimate discussions we’re having. In fact, Persson claims, we might even be more likely to loosen up with others when we’re around strangers, in part because by talking on the phone, we remove ourselves in a way from the public space we find ourselves in.

Laura Ruggeri pulls a fast one on all of us in “Going to Singen? Which One?” A discussion of a public art project she pursued, “Going to Singen?” poses the question of how we know that tourism web sites are real. Ruggeri registers the domain names of five imaginary Singen in five different German-speaking countries and creates web sites to advertise those Singen to the world, posing the question of how we know what’s real in a form of the world where reality is possibly the last concern we have.

In “The Importance of the Mundane for ‘Reading’ American Holidays,” Roger Chapman tries to understand how his young daughter learns about aspects of different American holidays – Thanksgiving, Christmas, Halloween, and others. Following in the grand tradition of experimenting on our children à la Piaget, Chapman introduces his daughter to holidays through stories about those holidays, and wonders about the ways in which children come to understand the importance of holidays and the boundary between ordinary days and holi-days.

Taking seriously the idea that in a capitalist society money symbolizes a nation, Niyi Awofeso and Sue Green explore the ramifications of the representation of “Australian Aboriginals” on the Australian $2 coin. Drawing from a sample of people, the authors try to figure out how Australians respond to the representation of indigenous peoples, as well as the ways in which visual depictions of people on money both represents something “essential” about them and expresses a valuation of them. Taking at face value the desire of Australian authorities to represent the original peoples of the subcontinent, Awofeso and Green provide suggestions for making this representation a positive thing for Australian society – and a model for other societies around the world – rather than a source of controversy.

Following on the heels of this discussion of mundane stereotypes, Mark Lovas argues against “Slavic fatalism” in his contribution to this issue. Playing “Slavic fatalism” off of “American optimism” as two ideal-typical ways of looking at the world, Lovas explores the ways in which these two views impact on our understandings of processes of social change in Central Europe. Ultimately, Lovas argues that these ideal-typical categorizations are self-defeating, and that an appropriate approach to the world might be a combination of both optimism and fatalism.

The final piece in our regular section, Michael Zalot’s analysis of the importance of wall calendars, provides us with a deeper understanding of our approach to time and time management. Zalot argues that wall calendars represent a “modernist” approach to time – regimented, regularized – and a “postmodern” commodity to represent that approach to time – something disposable, limited in its usefulness by a kind of culturally accepted planned obsolescence. The problem with wall calendars – one that, strangely enough Zalot argues, is countered by the development of computer-based calendars – is that they contribute to a cultural loss of memory, since we can purge what we’ve done at the end of the year.

* * * * *

It’s strange to realize that this issue – the most difficult issue I’ve had to edit – comes at the end of Journal of Mundane Behavior’s second full year of existence. During this time, JMB’s mission has changed dramatically, from being a quirky antidote to academic seriousness, to being oriented to developing a “public intellectual” forum, to democratizing the production and consumption of knowledge, to, with this issue, grappling with the important practical implications of thinking about everyday life. During that time, many people have questioned the sanity of studying the banal, unmarked, unthought aspects of our daily existence. I’m sure I don’t need to restate that importance at this time.

As is our tradition, I want to thank those people who have participated in making Journal of Mundane Behavior the important forum it is. Our editorial board and review staffs have provided sound guidance and invaluable assistance in figuring out not only what we publish, but also our voice. Jamie O’Halloran, who has served as pep rally leader and proofreader on many occasions, deserves my gratitude for her work in dealing with the intricacies of the English language as written and thought by people in seventeen different countries to date. The support staff for our web server center at CSU Fullerton keeps us going as well as is possible, and our gratitude goes to them for their efforts in keeping us live. The Sociology/Anthropology department at Millersville University and the Sociology department at CSU Fullerton also deserve our gratitude; they have alternately tolerated, supported, accepted, and occasionally forgotten about JMB, allowing us to develop it as we have seen fit. And my thanks go to Myron, who lets me run to the end of my leash and then yanks me back in at the appropriate moment.

Most importantly, our thanks go to you, our readers. You have given us support, fodder for research, critical inquiries, honest evaluations, and above all, a new vision for intellectual work in the 21st century.

So here’s to our third year – hopefully a year in which life gets back to the mundane, and the mundane becomes a better place to be…

Author: Scott Schaffer

Published inIssue 2.3Issues
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