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Introduction: Trigger Happy Everyday Life

TAMPA, FL- Welcome to Year Four of the New Everydayness Plan that is Journal of Mundane Behavior. A bit of business first, before we get on with the fun. As I’m sure you’re aware by now, JMB has changed its format somewhat. The most striking change is that we have gone from a triennial format to a biennial publication schedule, and will be appearing in late May and late November for a while. In part, this makes the editorial staff’s lives a bit easier: two review cycles, two production cycles, two sets of press discussions we might have to deal with. In part, this decision also reflects our determination to publish only high quality work on mundane topics. For that, we need your well-considered contributions. So, please keep us in mind when you are reviewing outlets for your scholarly work.

Also, starting with our November issue, we will start building a book review section. We’re looking for books that have to do with everyday things – work, school, traffic, organizing one’s schedule, and so on. If you have suggestions for recent books (published in the last two years) that you would like to see reviewed, or know of someone whose book needs reviewing, please send me an email with the author’s name, the title, and the publisher’s information.

On to the fun…

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I have a new favorite TV show, though unless you’re a Comedy Central junkie (in the US – it airs world-wide), I doubt you’ve heard of it. Trigger Happy TV, a British import show that somehow has managed to maintain its quality in the translation into the American context, is by far one of the best shows on television today.

Its premise is simple: Destroy people’s expectations about how an everyday situation is supposed to happen, and catch it on camera.

No, that’s not quite it.

Or perhaps it is.

There have been other attempts to do this: sketch comedy shows such as The State, which appeared on MTV years ago, the Canadian classic Kids in the Hall, and Upright Citizens Brigade (formerly on Comedy Central), as well as other shows like Candid Camera, all used the fact that people tend to go through life on autopilot as the basis for their comedy. Candid Camera did it by disrupting someone’s expectations and then letting them in on the joke; The State, Kids in the Hall, and Upright Citizens Brigade did it by simply throwing those expectations out the window and introducing characters such as the cabbie who squashes people’s heads with his fingers, the businessmen’s meeting dance, and macabre depictions of work and love in a sausage factory for the sake of feeding one’s decrepit sausage-loving father (to cite three KITH examples). And I loved them all – well, except Candid Camera.

But Trigger Happy TV does something entirely different. It sends teams of quasi-Situationists out into the wild of cities in the UK and North America to bother regular everyday people just out doing their business and living their lives. Some examples from the most recent episode:

A bull-runner from Pamplona lays on a beach towel, only to find himself chased through Santa Monica by three people in bull costumes;
A woman, complaining about the noise pollution of car alarms, asks a couple sitting at an outdoor café to watch her baby so she can smash the window of the car whose alarm is sounding;
At a park, a very sad looking “penguin” is trying to have a birthday picnic, only to be beaten up by two dogs, a cat, and a mouse;
A “bank robber” (complete with mask and bag with a dollar sign on it) is waiting for a bus, until he realizes there’s a wanted poster up in the bus shelter with his face on it;
A man tries to board a bus completely naked, and when told he can’t ride, responds with “But I’ve got exact change”;
A “bear,” watched through a surveillance camera, goes grocery shopping with an announcement: “Attention customers: Please do not panic. Do not harass the bear.”
Here, the joke isn’t simply what the team members/characters are doing, which is the Situationism of it all; the characters are simply disturbing the regular rhythm of people’s everyday lives. The humor of it all is in people’s responses to the situation, and they tend to fall into two categories: the “what the hell?” response, involving either laughing or confused puppy-dog stares; or the “and so?” reaction, which is reminiscent of what sociologist Georg Simmel called “the blasé attitude,” one of diffidence or indifference. The folks who “get it,” the ones who laugh or look confused, are the ones who tend to look like they don’t belong in the urban setting – townies, tourists, whatever. The ones who show the blasé attitude, the “locals,” simply brush it off as “just another bizarre thing in this fair city of ours.” And if one were to keep score, the blasé folks would win.

In large part, as we’ve said for four years now, Journal of Mundane Behavior is about this – making the unmarked parts of our lives marked, strange, and engaging; reclaiming the importance of the seemingly inconsequential; and showing just how crucial the things we do thoughtlessly are for our successful and meaningful lives. Trigger Happy TV just makes it somewhat funnier than we do.

The point of this “sales pitch,” though, isn’t really to pitch the show or to display one of my quirks (late night British TV). It is to show, rather, that taking a comedic approach to the little things we do, whether it’s grocery shopping, responding to car alarms, or thinking politically is potentially the healthiest thing to do given the sad state of affairs we find ourselves in. As I’m reminded while I’m sitting at an international conference, it’s in the little things we do – the things we presume or take for granted when dealing with just about anyone – that we find the glorious diversity of human social life and the site of commonality. Taking a parodic approach to the banal and boring, as Trigger Happy TV does, is a real and genuine way of getting past those seemingly insurmountable barriers to living a good life.

* * * * *

But parody of late seems to have gone too far.

As a friend of mine remarked to me recently, “The problem with the Bush Administration is that it’s no longer possible to parody it. It does a good enough job on its own.”

Coming out of the throes of the Second Gulf War (since it hasn’t picked up a moniker just yet, I’ll use this), we find some seemingly surreal, or even Situationist, incidents flashing across our TV screens. The felling of statues of Saddam Hussein, for example, seems almost cliché now – remember the “wall chipmunks” who helped Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall? The statues of Lenin, Stalin, and other Warsaw Pact leaders brought down during the revolutions of 1989 and 1991? Now, in order to have a real liberation, it appears that a statue has to be brought down. But that scene was almost comedic: It took nearly 90 minutes to bring it down, with Iraqi men trying to fell it with a rope, and then the US Marine Corps to bring in a tank tow truck – which promptly broke down – to pull it down in the name of a “free Iraq.”

Now, the only news coming out of Iraq has to do with the lack of security – the looting of museums and government offices, shootouts between the Iraqi fedayeen and American forces, and the claims that US soldiers will now “shoot to kill” anyone found stealing. It strikes me there’s a parodic element to this: the US and UK sent a quarter of a million soldiers to Iraq to free the people, yet they didn’t think to do anything about providing security or ensuring the safety of historical artifacts that belong to both the nation of Iraq and our common history? Or the notion – what’s been called by Naomi Klein the “ah-hah” moment – that once bombs begin raining down on Iraq, Iraqis will realize that the bombs aren’t for them, but for Saddam? Bringing “shock and awe” down on Iraqis in the name of their liberation?

Note that this isn’t exactly a critique of the policy, but rather an insight into the ludicrousness of it all. All of the “sales pitches” offered up by the US and UK leadership – getting rid of the weapons of mass destruction; disarming Saddam Hussein; engaging in regime change; freeing the Iraqi people and enabling them to set up their own government – are almost immediately contradicted by the actions of those leaders. The old regime is gone, but no new regime is in place; and the claim that the US and the UK (at least in name) will run Iraq for “as long as necessary” – all these provide a sadly laughable element to the whole thing. Some have said the Second Gulf War was run like an infomercial; I think it’s more like a sad and inhumane version of Trigger Happy TV that thrusts people into absurd situations and glories in the resulting tumult. One might think that this is some insane social psychology experiment gone awry. However it’s playing live, not on Comedy Central, but your friendly news channels where it is passing for a reality of sorts. Perhaps at some point we’ll all get the intense humor, but for now the pathos is just overwhelming.

* * * * *

Just because Iraq has moved from the main part of the screen on CNN/MSNBC/Fox News to the ticker below doesn’t mean there isn’t still news. A quick scan of what’s on the ticker can give you the real deal; a quick search of international newspapers can fill in the blanks; and there are other sources available to gain insight into what’s happening on the ground in Iraq.

One such source is a web log kept by an Iraqi who goes by the pseudonym Salam Pax (loosely translated, “Peace peace” in Arabic and Latin). The web log isn’t just a result of the war; in fact, he’s kept this log since at least the start of the “Iraq Crisis” (archives go back to January). But the war made this “blog” one of the hottest sites on the Internet, precisely because it’s an account of the cause and effect relations between events on the ground in Iraq and the US/UK war and occupation policies. Up until the loss of electricity and telephone access in Baghdad, Salam Pax posted logs on at least a daily basis, updating the rest of the world on what was going on in the city. Much of it seemed remarkably quite ordinary: accounts of which shops were open, how much foodstuffs cost, power supplies, and other seemingly inconsequential details of daily life. A short excerpt from a post-invasion log:

It is even too late for last minute things to buy, there are too few shops open. We went again for a drive thru Baghdad’s main streets. Too depressing. I have never seen Baghdad like this. Today the Ba’ath party people started taking their places in the trenches and main squares and intersections, fully armed and freshly shaven. They looked too clean and well groomed to defend anything. And the most shocking thing was the number of kids. They couldn’t be older than 20, sitting in trenches sipping Miranda fizzy drinks and eating chocolate (that was at the end of our street) other places you would see them sitting bored in the sun. more cars with guns and loads of Kalashnikovs everywhere.

The worst is seeing and feeling the city come to a halt. Nothing. No buying, no selling, no people running after buses. We drove home quickly. At least inside it did not feel so sad.

The ultimatum ends at 4 in the morning her [sic] in Baghdad, and the big question is will the attack be at the same night or not. Stories about the first gulf war are being told for the 100th time. (Mar 20/2003)

But others capture the horrors of war and occupation in a way reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan:

Last night at around 11pm we turned off the electricity generator, I and my brother went upstairs. Minutes later there was a huge blast just behind our house, followed by the next and the next. So close my brother started muttering “they want us, they want us” absurdly. We ran downstairs hearing glass breaking and things falling on the roof. The nine of us were quickly together in the safe room huddled together. There were 20 blasts in all; with each one we would think the next will be a direct hit at the house. This lasted for about 20 minutes. No one dared move. Someone outside was shouting, “Civilians! Civilians! Don’t shoot”. After another 30 minutes when nothing more happened we went outside to check on the house and the neighbors. Everybody was on the street, for some reason we didn’t have as much smashed glass as the people next door and there were flames and smoke coming from the next street. Too scared to walk in the open street that night we waited until day broke. Today at 7 went out to check what happened. Three houses were turned to rubble, two more burned. Miraculously the three houses were empty. Their owners have moved out of Baghdad, the burned houses just kept burning the whole night and are still burning today. Three people got seriously injured. Couples with minor injuries were treated by people in the block. Smashed glass all over two cars caught fire but miraculously did not explode. The scene is not describable. Everybody in shock. Someone from further down asked “what? Did you have saddam as a house guest here?”. You can follow the trace of the shrapnel, it moves in a straight line across two streets. And what sort of a shell is that which blasts in mid air and sends big bits of shrapnel all over.

My uncle lives on the main street this is what they saw: A tank standing in front of their house, so close they could hear the soldiers speak. Started shelling in the direction of our block and went back. It is a miracle that no one was killed. (Apr 11/2003)

After a while of watching the war, I stopped – embedded reporters, if not giving away force strengths or positions, spouted the army line; talking heads on the news channels gave us the info we were supposed to get; and no one was really getting at what I was told was the heart of the matter: the Iraqi people and their liberation. Salam Pax was. He became my lifeline to Iraq, giving me the real truth in a way that American or British news could not.

To my mind, Salam Pax became the counterweight to the Trigger Happy Foreign Policy. His reportage of the impact of the Second Bush War on the everyday lives of his friends and family mostly (though neighbors and people in other cities also make appearances) gives us a side of this sad series of events that no one in power here really cared to be concerned about. And it is this side of the story that I find infinitely more compelling than the party line we’ve been offered.

And yes, I have thanked him.

[Postscript, May 30/2003: Salam Pax was recently interviewed for The Guardian (UK), and spends a good deal of time discussing what he had to go through to write and post his weblogs from Baghdad – in other words, he spends a good deal of time talking about the everydayness of risking one’s life under a totalitarian regime. Read it here.]

* * * * *

On to the issue:

My co-editor Myron Orleans offers us the other side of the above discussion. By showing us the ways in which the tasks Journal of Mundane Behavior has set itself can aid in the reconstruction of Iraq, Orleans lays out the barest fact of them all – that it is everyday life that ultimately triumphs over regime change, war and oppression.

David Boyns and Desiree Stephenson give us an analysis I feel I should have tried during “the war.” In “Understanding Television Without Television: A Study of Suspended Television Viewing,” Boyns and Stephenson report the results of their experiment in which students watched television without turning it on, showing us the ways in which television viewing has become a thoroughly routinized aspect of our daily lives.

Nicolas Guéguen and Alexandre Pascual get at a core experience of most city dwellers’ daily lives – rude people. By exploring the ways in which people responded to a request by a rude person based on that person’s status, “Status and people’s tolerance toward an ill-mannered person: A field study” shows us that depending on who the insolent one is, “piss and vinegar” can get just as much done as “sugar and honey.”

Niyi Awofeso’s “Burial rituals as noble lies: An Australian perspective” shows us that burial rituals serve more to support those who remain behind than those who have departed (something he intends to prove in 2034). Ensuring that normal social life can proceed after the death of a friend or loved one, the “noble lies” that are burial rituals support the normal operation of our everyday lives after that death.

Judson L. Jeffries and Harlan Hahn’s “Crime, Community and Urban Life” hits at a point close to home (at least for Americans during a “code orange”) – namely, that public anxieties about crime interfere as much with official responses to it. Eventually, Jeffries and Hahn argue, both crime and people’s anxieties about crime contribute to a decline in the quality of our daily lives.

Andrew Carlin provides us with this issue’s “mundane manifesto,” a set of insights into how sociologists operate. Mistaking an average person for a pickpocket in Brussels gives “Observation and membership categorization: Recognizing ‘normal appearances’ in public spaces” a unique perspective on how even sociologists, trained with a critical eye, can misread contexts and miscategorize people around us. By examining how it is we all categorize and prioritize people, Carlin provides us with an analogous discussion of how officials and citizens operate in this time of heightened security, random airport screenings, and racial profiling, and hopefully some insights into how to change those processes.

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A final thought, as I sit in a nearly empty terminal, waiting to board a flight back to the ordinariness that is life in Lancaster PA:

In a time when no one seems to flinch about heightened terror warnings, when Al Qaeda internet chatter can only be described as “spooky,” and when security checkpoint screeners reward the “randomly selected” with a pair of wool booties, it may seem that not much is mundane anymore. But it is – and while sometimes we adjust to a mundanity newly constructed for us, at other times we create them to suit our needs. Trigger Happy TV and CNN show us how absurd it all can be, but it’s up to us to decide if absurdity really is the best way to go about things.

Author’s Note: Scott Schaffer is Managing Editor of Journal of Mundane Behavior, a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team, and a professor of sociology at Millersville University. When he’s not sipping margaritas in thunderstorms at social theory conferences, he’s usually supporting the local coffee economy and shaking his head at the world. He’s also finishing his first book.

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