Pour mes biens ami(e)s…
These are trying times for someone committed to studying everyday life. You see, I’m moving. As some of you know from the announcement we sent out to the JMB mailing list, I’ve been offered and accepted a tenure-track position at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. This is great news – there are many recent PhDs in the world who feel light-years away from a “t-track” job, so I feel fortunate to finally have a position with some longer-term job security.
Of course, this presents a problem – I hate moving. Anyone who’s had to do this (and if you’ve never moved before, then you haven’t lived) knows what a pain in many body parts this endeavor can be. There’s a lot of coordination involved in moving – figuring out where you’re going, where you’re going to live, how you’re going to get your stuff there, what stuff you’re going to take, how you’re going to get yourself there, and all of those associated decisions. For the most part, this has all been taken care of – Lancaster PA, a great house, moving van, only half of my possessions, road trip…
But these aren’t the only concerns when one moves across country, especially a country as large as the US. There are also the “social life” concerns – how can one spend a decent amount of time with those people who have helped make their life in a city enjoyable? How much time do you spend with them? How do you handle what might appear to be inequities in the amount of time you spend with people? And, in some cases, how does one say goodbye for good? It’s all of these factors that make us go crazy when we move – we can’t spend an equal amount of time with everyone we know and love, so we prioritize, try to fit ourselves into other people’s (and our movers’) schedules, and work to get off at least a “I’ll see you soon… I promise” before hitting Route 66 for the stereotypical Trip Across America. We hope.
As you’ve learned over the last five issues, you know that when I write about something, there are really two somethings going on – the obvious one being discussed, and something deeper, more analytic (which, after all, is the point of this journal).
The real problem with moving – whether it’s across town or across a continent – is not with the scheduling, the coordination, the heavy lifting, or the missed opportunity to see a fondly-regarded someone. These things happen most every day in some degree. No, the real problem with moving is that it’s a radical form of social change. It disturbs our inertia, our security, our sense of well-being. It jars us from the routinized aspects of our daily lives and makes us acutely aware of how tenuous it all is.
Think about it: Even for those of us who have moved many times in our lives (and this is move number 15 for me and my third cross-country), we lose all sense of what’s normal around us. Two weekends ago, I was in Pennsylvania driving around town like a panicked fiend trying to find a place to live. Last weekend, I was in LA drinking and cavorting with most of my friends and acquaintances. Next weekend, I’ll be trying to explain to my almost-four-year-old niece what and where Pennsylvania is and why I’m going there. The following weekend, I’ll be somewhere around Oklahoma, followed by living who-knows-where… you get the picture. Until all of the boxes are unpacked, broken down, and you’re no longer getting mail with the US Postal Service forwarding stickers on it, there is no normalcy, no inertia, no routine – only upheaval and the anticipation of a renewed sense of usualness and security.
We work quite hard in our lives to attain a sense of the mundane – those droll aspects of our lives that, while we disparage them in our youth, make our adult lives actually work. We develop chore charts for our roommates in college to ensure that mold doesn’t grow in our sinks; we buy dividing organizers for our bills so we know when to pay what; we take months to figure out just where that pothos plant is supposed to go; and we set bedtimes and curfews for our children so they come to know the joys of regularity. And moving disturbs all of this – it forces us to struggle to deconstruct everything in our lives, from the alphabetization of our library to the IKEA shelves we stored the library on, ship it somewhere completely new, and then rebuild it in a completely foreign space.
We also end up having to completely rebuild and remodel our personal and social lives. Sure, moving somewhere new allows us to start afresh; but it also means that we have to work to develop regular friendships we can count on and to manage the relationships we’ve had in the past in a completely new way. We have to figure out where the good cafés, the good bars, the freshest hummus, and the Trader Joe’s are, which barista we can trust with our coffee, and the path of least traffic to the office.
Moving, in other words, is a completely destructive process – it annihilates every sense of mundanity we work to achieve. And in many respects, that’s a necessary evil, a means to a better end (a better job, a better life, or a better standard of living). But in the meantime, when one is foraging through tens of boxes that litter their apartment in order to find the dog food, it’s as if a neutron bomb went off in our lives, leaving only the physical artifacts of our lives intact and sealed in bubble wrap and packing tape.
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But all of this seems relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Since I last wrote here, we’ve had major protests in Québec and Sweden against global capitalism and a whole slew of other major newsworthy events that are much more historically important than my lil’ move to Amish country. So how dare I equate the change I’m going through with any of that?
This parallels a question I was asked on the MundaneTalk list about my own research interests – namely, how I can deign to study both social change and social movements and mundane behavior?
It’s quite simple, really – social change isn’t something that begins with 100,000 people in the streets of Québec City or Gothenburg; it only appears that way. In order for true, classical, sociologically observable “social change” to occur, or for a “social movement” to come into being, one thing is required: that people escape their inertia, their everyday ordinary lives, and do something different, something that might not necessarily benefit themselves (and may in fact get them hurt or killed).
By now, you’ve noticed that I keep saying “inertia” – by this, I’m intending it to sound as it is. In physics, inertia is a property of matter that compels it, once put in motion, to continue in motion until the object is stopped by some other force. In other words, inertia (for a cue ball in a pool game, or an automobile, or any other physical object) is the quality that keeps it going in the same direction, doing the same thing, until it’s stopped or changed by something else. Of course, once it’s stopped or its direction is changed by some force, it once again attains “inertia,” and so on.
People operate in the same way: We begin doing something and, by virtue of our inertia, continue doing it until we’re changed in some way or stopped from doing practice X, when we start doing something else and follow it through by this new inertia. We constantly move from impetus to action, to inertia during the action, to some new impetus – but, we do it consciously, even if unintentionally. We get “caught up” in things, whether it’s our job, our family lives, or a marathon session of Donkey Kong, and then we have to be poked and prodded into doing something else.
The same thing holds true for our participation in the larger scheme of things. We’re taught from an early age to work hard, save money, buy a house, have a family, make a home, show loyalty to the company (though this is less true these days), and then retire and die. So, we do these things – we go to school, graduate, go to university, get a degree, get a job, buy a house, and so on, without really looking at the whole process and whether it’s right. Take home ownership – and in southern California, you can have it: Someone who buys a house in Los Angeles indebts themselves for $300,000 to “purchase” said house, which ends up costing them $600,000 over the thirty years of the mortgage (meaning, quite literally, “dead pledge,” though the way I heard it as “death grip” was much more appropriate). Who makes that money? Where does it go? Why is it necessary?
These kinds of questions don’t often make it into our minds because we’re operating inertially – our parents, grandparents, and everyone back to the 14th century (the origin of the word) had mortgages and bought homes and paid the banks double the property’s worth, so why shouldn’t we? We operate in our daily lives as if the “is/ought” trap – that is, taking what is as what ought to be – doesn’t exist. “Might makes right,” we say; “tradition is tradition,” we think; “things have always been done this way, and who am I to question it?”, we live.
Some of the best social theorists of our time have dealt with this issue of inertia and how we can overcome it. Jean-Paul Sartre, in Critique of Dialectical Reason, spends hundreds of pages of turgid prose exploring the inertia involved in our social relations – from standing in a simple bus queue to our implication in systems of oppression because we don’t do anything to get out of them. Anthony Giddens – who’s now British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s golfing buddy and policy wonk – explores the “juggernaut” of modernity in his master work The Consequences of Modernity. And Pierre Bourdieu, who’s not just in the academic armchair but also in the streets of Paris on a fairly regular basis, makes his key concept the idea of habitus – the intellectual and practical capacities, transmitted by tradition, that help us to ensure that the world works, at least in part, in the way that we were taught it should work. All of these authors claim that the key to overcoming the inertia of our lives – and ultimately, the injustices that our inertial lives often help to perpetuate – is reflection, self-analysis, and then changing something about how we live, both by ourselves and with others.
The people who were in the streets in Québec and Gothenburg did just that – for whatever reason, they looked at the impact their lives, their inertia, had on the world and others in that world, and decided to hike it to Canada or Sweden and risk arrest, police beatings, and in the case of Gothenburg, even worse, all for the sake of figuring out a new way of living. Here, self-reflection – and maybe even pondering what appeared to be not worth pondering, i.e., the mundane – compelled people to act to change things. That is how social change begins; that is how social movements start; and that is why the everyday is worth looking at.
One of the motivating principles of JMB, at least for me, was the opportunity to evaluate the beneficence of how we live our everyday lives. Rather than just detailing the common, everyday occurrences in our existence, my interest in the mundane has been motivated by understanding it as a crucial component of any kind of project of social change. Is everything we do in an thought-free manner good for us, both individually and collectively? Should we try to revamp our everyday lives, to live as better people and as better members of the Big Blue Marble? How might we do this? For me, the only way to get to these kinds of questions – and to the point where we all can come to develop our own answers to them – is to explore the intricacies of daily existence.
If the key to changing the world, then, is to overcome our inertia, and if the key to overcoming our inertia is to reflect on our lives and to shake things up so we can make them better, then it would appear that moving – that long, laborious process filled with insecurity and a lack of predictability – is only a microcosm of this process. And if that’s the case, then maybe moving isn’t all that bad – we get to shake up our routine, purge ourselves of the various crap we’ve accumulated over the years, and to rebuild ourselves in a better way.
Move on, little doggies, move on…
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On to this issue: Again, we’ve put together an eclectic and intriguing set of analyses for your appreciation.
R. Keith Sawyer takes on the traditional sociological notion of ordinary interactions in his “The Improvisational Performance of Everyday Life.” Drawing from improvisational theater performances, Sawyer argues that earlier notions (such as those of Goffman) of script-based interactions are less for understanding how we comport ourselves than an improvisation metaphor. In this way, he argues, we can gain a better understanding of how our conversations and interactions draw from and support larger social structures.
Two pieces on pedagogy and the classroom appear in this issue. William Chandler and Mike Nelson take a simple, shareable task – a walk around the block – as the basis for developing a “dialogical” classroom, one in which students do not exist as mere receptacles for a professor’s knowledge, but rather as whole persons, complete with insecurities, goals, and aspirations that affect how and what they learn. Kevin Birth, in “Sitting There: Discourses of the Embodiment of Agency, Belonging, and Deference in the Classroom,” analyzes the ways in which students convey their perceptions of agency through the way they speak about “sitting.”
Completing an interview begun in JMB 1.3 (October 2000), Cesar Dominguez returns to speak about his post-prison experience. Drawing from his insights, we can understand the difficulties that those felons who do choose to return to “the straight life” face in achieving that goal and what they have to face in order to become good upstanding members of society again.
JMB presents its second photo essay in these pages. Peggy Diggs’ “The Bride, Off Duty.” In this essay, Diggs problematizes the commonsense conception of “the bride” – as half of a whole, as recipient and dependent – by photographing The Bride pumping gas, doing laundry, and throwing back shots of tequila. By showing The Bride as “half of the equation,” Diggs forces us to think about what the wedding ceremony hides – that women are traditionally socially constructed as the weaker half of the partnership.
Eric Laurier, Angus Whyte, and Kathy Buckner present us with the multimedia “An ethnography of a neighbourhood café: informality, table arrangements and background noise.” Striking a little bit close to my home, they analyze the ways in which people navigate not only the physical space of a local coffeehouse, but also the cultural and structural space and the social relations embedded in a neighborhood hang-out.
Gary McCarron will surely make some people mad with “Gratitude: Almighty Thanks.” Exploring Payne Stewart’s thanks to his god after the 1999 US Open and wondering if Stewart thanked God for saving a chip shot, McCarron breaks down the “chicken or egg” question in victorious public pronouncements of religious belief: did the winner thank God because God wanted them to win? Or was the winner simply trying to attribute their lucky victory to something known and named?
Christopher Ziguras provides our “mundane manifesto” for this issue, which focuses on America’s obsession with “mundane health behavior” – dieting, sexuality, and the like. Deconstructing what some have called America’s “cultural narcissism” – the quasi-mandated need in American society to be obsessed with oneself – Ziguras argues the creation of “the self” as a unique area of public expertise is in part responsible for the US’ “navel-gazing,” showing us that our conceptions of our selves are part and parcel of larger societal structures and patterns.
Finally, with this number, we issue the call for papers for our second special issue. Mundane Sex, which will appear as JMB 3.1 (February 2001), will focus on the more ordinary and unmarked aspects of sex, sexual conduct, and sexualities.
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With this issue, JMB makes a move as well. The editorial offices are moving with me to Millersville University in Pennsylvania, while the journal will remain on Cal State Fullerton’s website.
JMB will continue to maintain a strong relationship with CSUF during the coming years, while at the same time building an equally wonderful relationship with Millersville. The new contact information for the journal can be found on the editorial board page of this site.
I have been at Cal State Fullerton for three years now, and I am incredibly grateful to my friends and colleagues here who have made this a productive and beneficial experience. In particular, I am indebted to Ronald Hughes, chair of the Sociology department, for his mentoring and support during these years; Thomas Klammer, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, for demonstrating great interest in JMB and patience with me; and of course, my co-editor, Myron Orleans, who has slapped me back into reality (and inertia) more times than I care to count.
And of course, I thank you, as ever.
Author: Scott Schaffer