Wild adventures, erratic characters, strange scenes and impossible emotions are no longer required even in fiction. The ordinary man under ordinary circumstances interests us most because he is most akin to us.—Edwin E. Slosson, Introduction, The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans As Told By Themselves, p. 3.
My new favorite book is called The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans As Told By Themselves, though it’s not a new book at all. Originally published in 1906 (and re-issued last month), this book collects interviews with a number of ordinary Americans– African Americans, immigrants, factory and sweatshop workers, housewives, and others –first published in Hamilton ‘s reformist newspaper The New York Independent during the early 1900s. Their stories are, for the most part, unremarkable: how they got to the US, what they do with their days, what their aspirations are, how they think of America and their homelands. So what makes it my new favorite book? Precisely this: the stories are ordinary, reflecting the lives of most of the 30-odd millions who lived in this country at the turn of the last century. It’s the poignancy of this ordinariness that gets me when I read this book – this is all they are, and Undistinguished Lives captures it all without any kind of denigration, patronization, or the usual things one might expect when dealing with work of such a nature.
This is one of the reasons Journal of Mundane Behavior exists – to recapture the extraordinary essence of our everyday lives – and I want to welcome you to our inaugural issue. But we’ll get to that in a moment, for the months leading up to the launch of this issue have been anything but mundane. Back to the ordinary. To use a metaphor that will be familiar to many anthropologists and anthropology students (or anyone who’s seen Mars Attacks!, for that matter), if a “Martian anthropologist” came to Earth and took a look around at what we say about ourselves, look at what they’d get: besides the usual dosage of murder, rape and other criminal perversions depicted by television and many Hollywood films and reported on by the news media, they’d get wild confessions of kinky sexual relationships on Jerry Springer, people picking on other people for the mistakes they make, children sent to military-style boot camps by Sally Jesse Raphael, and other various and sundry forms of insanity. They would leave this planet thinking that we’re a bunch of freaks. We, on the other hand, have become used to having the media, purveyor of “stories about ourselves,” present us with something that simply doesn’t jibe with what we think of ourselves or of how we live our lives. We’ve learned to integrate it as “entertainment,” “an escape,” or we just ignore it; however, it does leave a strange legacy for us as well as providing us with a weird sense of what’s normal. We’ve learned to deal with excess and to make it, in a sense, mundane.
In this time of visual excess, information overload, and mass media blitzkriegs upon our senses, then, it seems strange that a journal devoted to studying “the mundane” would be established. This, too, is part of the reason for the establishment of Journal of Mundane Behavior: Most of us don’t live Jerry Springer lives. We get up at some ungodly hour, commute an insane distance to work, live in a 6-by-6-foot cubicle for 8 or more hours, reverse the insane commute, and go home to “our lives.” This amounts to probably 60% or more of our lives, and the editors here think that this vast amount of energy, effort, and in some cases sheer drudgery deserves some attention. But this is not the only part of our lives we consider “mundane”; in actuality (and this is not to be “post-modern” about it in any sense of the word) we’re not exactly sure what constitutes “the mundane.” A good thesaurus says that “mundane” doesn’t simply refer to the ordinary or everyday, but also the secular, the earthly, the worldly things in our lives, making it the opposite of “sacred.” How droll. The editors of Journal of Mundane Behavior believe that the everyday, the earthly, the worldly represents a part of what is sacred about our lives; and yet, as I’ve said before, all we get is the outlandish, the extraordinary, the distinguished.
But, in some respects, the overload of extreme depictions of our lives is mundane – if we’re exposed to it on a daily basis and evaluate ourselves in terms of what’s seen on Jerry Springer, then isn’t that mundane? One of the tasks of this journal is precisely this – to explore the various ways in which people consider parts of the world, social and political practices, artistic forms, and scientific research projects to be mundane. After all, it takes some degree of social and political coordination to decide en masse that some part of our life is “mundane” (and therefore not worth writing home about). One part of exploring mundane behavior involves working to understand how it is that “the mundane” is constructed in that way.
So, the task of this journal is threefold. First, we want to present intellectual work that explores mundane aspects or depictions of everyday life. There have been a large number of literary and artistic projects that have dealt with the ordinary and everyday lives of their subjects, and these often have large-scale political implications – some have even caused great political uproar. And while the papers presented in this issue of Journal of Mundane Behavior are more sociological in nature, it is our intention to solicit and publish works that deal with the literary, cinematic, artistic, and scientific approaches to and examinations of the mundane. Second, we want to deal with the method by which “the mundane” is studied. Normal scientific or social-scientific ways of approaching outlandish social practices, as Wayne Brekhus’ piece “A Mundane Manifesto” shows, do not necessarily work when studying the unmarked aspects of ourselves, and the editors of this journal have set ourselves the task of working to figure out inter- and non-disciplinary ways of studying the bulk of our everyday lives. Third, we want to embark on questioning what “mundanity” is. There are many social and political processes that go into creating some social practice or literary work as “normal,” and we’re generally presented with the inverse of that – the deviant. We want to understand how normal, everyday ideas, actions and interactions (and ideas about those interactions) go into the construction of some things in life as “mundane” and others as “extraordinary.” And we welcome – nay, thrive on – your participation in exploring these important issues.
On how mundanity becomes popular…
One of the strange things about establishing this journal has been the notoriety we’ve received. As of the press date, the editors have done three interviews regarding Journal of Mundane Behavior : with The Chronicle of Higher Education, the San Jose Mercury News, and the “As It Happens” show on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. One of the articles ran nationally and internationally, appearing in a large number of newspapers in the US, Canada, and the Philippines. At least four other media entities have expressed interest in running pieces on the journal. And over 4000 people have hit on our web site – something amazing in a profession where a good press run of a book is 2000 copies. Obviously, we’ve hit on something.
So what makes Journal of Mundane Behavior such an interesting phenomenon at this time? I think the key lies in two points discussed at the opening of these comments: The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans As Told By Themselves, and Jerry Springer-style media programming. What makes JMB so unique, I think, is that most everything we see in the world is extreme: women breaking up with their boyfriends to sleep with their sisters on Jerry Springer; transvestites and transsexuals on Ricki; the visual depiction of bloody homicides on a variety of television shows and movies and the reportage of similar homicides and genocides on local news programs and CNN… all these things, I believe, make people want to escape this mundane extremeness and to get back to understanding the everyday aspects of our lives. (Part of it, too, is that the name Journal of Mundane Behavior can’t help but make one laugh when they say it. And we have received a number of e-mails wondering if our journal is a hoax. It’s not. Really.) In other words, what makes us unique is that we’re mundane – a contradiction in terms, I know, but in fin de siècle America, a contradiction in terms isn’t a bad thing to be. I think.
Let me put this in another way. A couple of months ago, a friend of mine, upon hearing that this journal had been established, said the following: “If everything in the world is dysfunctional, isn’t dysfunctionality mundane?” Sure. And to take this a step further, if everything is dysfunctional and dysfunctionality has become mundane, then studying mundanity becomes a unique endeavor.
Granted, it’s been done before and in different ways. The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans As Told By Themselves did it almost one hundred years ago (in a very different fin de siècle context); sociologists who used ethnomethodology to study the ways in which we organize our lives, such as Goffman and Garfinkel, did it; and any good collection of 17th and 18th century letters shows that almost everyone paid careful attention to depicting the mundane aspects of their everyday lives. But we’ve lost that perspective, and we find the everyday trivialities of our lives to be boring and not worth mentioning. But these trivialities are worth talking about: that’s where the good stuff happens, and our task here is to capture these minutiae and make them the “big deal” they deserve to be.
Our first foray into recapturing the bizarreness and uniqueness of everyday life is contained herein. Along with these comments, my co-editor Myron Orleans has produced an exciting example of what depicting the mundane in itself is all about.
As far as content goes, we cover the gamut in this issue. Terry Caesar writes on elevator behavior in Japan, where against the uneasy silences we in the US suffer during the hellish ride to the 7th floor, the Japanese, he reports, see elevator rides as a respite from a norm-governed society – in effect, they reclaim the elevator as a temporally brief “private space.” Andy Crabtree analyzes the details of searching for a book in a library in an attempt to discern the implications of spatial organization on social action. Devorah Kalekin-Fishman eavesdrops on everyday conversations in order to show how “plain talk” helps reproduce shared understandings of what it means to be Israeli. And Michael John Pinfold’s plaintive “I’m sick of shaving every morning” leads to an analysis of the ways in which “masculinity” as a gender construct and a politicized tool of identity formation are presented through a person’s facial hair. In sum, then, the articles included in our inaugural issue achieve the first task JMB has set out: the examination of the political processes that go into the construction of the “mundane.”
As to method, we proudly present the first of our “mundane manifestoes”, statements from scholars in the broad schools of thought regarding their understanding of the study of the mundane. Wayne Brekhus, whose comment in the 1998 article “A Sociology of the Unmarked: Redirecting our Focus” lamenting the absence of a Journal of Mundane Behavior to counter the heavy influence of deviance studies inspired Myron and I to establish this journal, brings us a “mundane manifesto” from the social sciences. In this piece, Brekhus highlights the important philosophical foundations for the study of the mundane and uses them to develop a social-scientific method for studying the normal, ordinary, and depoliticized political aspects of our lives. In future issues, we will present similar manifestoes from scholars in the humanities, arts, and sciences, and we hope to solicit a parallel manifesto from a non-academic about life in the realm of the mundane as well as photo essays on the mundane aspects of everyday life.
In closing, then, we welcome you to the phenomenon of the study of the mundane in all its glory. Be this a prank, a fin de siècle move away from millennial fears and outlandishness, or an overt statement about the political possibilities inherent in our mundane lives, here we are: To mundanity and beyond…
Brekhus, Wayne. “A Sociology of the Unmarked: Redirecting our Focus.” Sociological Theory 16 (1998): 34-51.
Holt, Hamilton, ed. The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans As Told By Themselves. Introduced by Werner Sollors. New York and London: Routledge, 2000. back
Author: Scott Schaffer is the Founding and Managing Co-Editor of Journal of Mundane Behavior and an instructor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton. Now that his dissertation, Resisting Ethics, has been completed, he’s devoting his time to ironing out the tensions between the revolutionary and the mundane. And yes, that is him in the cover photo, cleaning up after his faithful canine companion, Bela.