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Mundane Lost, Mundane Regained: Considerations for a New Iraqi Paradigm

In this essay I will discuss the reconstitution of forms mundanity in Iraq. I endeavor to offer this discussion as a non-political one that focuses on process rather than on politics, rhetorics or moralities. I contend that extraordinary and historic events are short-lived while mundanity lasts. Ultimately, some pattern of mundane existence will be restored in Iraq. After the combat, looting and civil disorder, people yearn for everyday life experience. The re-formulation of patterns of ordinary existence in Iraq provides an opportunity to discuss the challenges of mundanity and to apply some of the lessons learned from our JMB.

War in Iraq will be followed by another kind of struggle. That struggle will not so much be about “liberators” or “invaders,” the conflicts of groups, institution building, or economic restructuring. It will be about the reconstitution of mundane life patterns in that unfortunate country. Hardly, anyone will notice this battle. By its very nature, routinization is not a topic of common discussion. Yet the lived actualities of anomie, cultural disintegration, and civil disorder are all consequences of a shattered mundanity.

While the threads of everyday Iraqi life unraveled suddenly, the restoration of the mundane will be a painstaking, long-term affair requiring focus and fortitude that ordinary Iraqis themselves will have to display. Once a police presence is felt, after the exhaustion of jubilation and the accommodation to loss is felt, the anger and violence of retribution finished, extreme feelings will dissolve into a desire for commonplace experience. The requirements of mundane life will eventually preoccupy people and will be observable in the reconstructed places of Iraq’s vibrant street life, and patterned reciprocities of commercial and social activity. Culture, religion, ethnicity and tradition will all play a role, but it will be the resilience of the people themselves that will be tested and surely the Iraqis will rise to the occasion as do all surviving peoples. After all, what is their alternative to the restoration of everyday life?

The question for us is to what extent and in what ways is the general study of mundanity relevant to its reconstitution in the context of Iraq, a nation that is historically, politically and culturally distinctive? As a flood of technical experts, modern-day carpetbaggers descend upon Baghdad and the other cities of this devastated country, will anyone consider how to produce a structure of everyday routines? Of necessity, routine will emerge, initially in the form of mindless, automatic behavior and then as intentional action. What are the lessons that can be taken from our journal’s study of mundanity that can inform the administrative apparatus and the actions of everyone and anyone on the scene who is concerned with preserving what’s left and moving toward a living Iraqi society?

1) Focus on the apparently insignificant The global significance of the transformation of Iraqi society should not distract us from the bland underpinnings of that process. It will not be the great, newsworthy events, the earthshaking policies of an interim administration, or the new personalities that come to the forefront that will determine the responses of the overwhelming majority of the population. It will be the sum of the tedious, unexciting routines that make the daily life of shopkeepers, electricians, construction workers, office personnel and all others feasible, mildly satisfactory or at least tolerable. When Iraqi’s are muddling through their days experiencing featureless and inconsequential events with total cool, we can say that a mundane paradigm has been reaffirmed and the people will endure.

2) Identity and collectivity Broad categorizations of ethnic/cultural/religious/tribal/ political identities may well be misleading. How Iraqis actually self-identify may have little to do with the external, easy labels, particularly because of the enormous pressures exerted by partisan groups. “Spokespersons” may not represent the orientations of members of their groups. Only ordinary persons can fully and appropriately stand for their own identities. Many Iraqis are striving for new identities, engaging in grass-roots organizing, creating voluntary affiliations, and seeking empowerment in order to carry on their lives. Can these emergent collectivities co-exist in a volatile environment cross-cut by so many compelling and contradictory interests? Although formal entities will claim center stage, there are many other relatively informal social networks observable in the daily operations of businesses, families, organizations, politics, religion, etc.

3) Seeing the spaces The cultural gaps that are barely noticeable may prove beneficial for a new Iraqi mundanity. This divided and troubled society may stabilize because of the unnoted, apparently insignificant but common spaces between the differences among groups. The marketplace will play a central role in mediating the tangle of divergences. However, it is not primarily in the shops where mingling will occur because they may have sectarian appeal. It is rather in the marketplace itself where the stalls are located, that the passersby interact and collaborate to produce a synchronized and highly orchestrated parade of shoppers. If the marketplace functions effectively, it is not because of the items for sale or the economic activity per se, rather it is a product of the subtle social scheme of pedestrian traffic patterns, queuing, eyeing, and innocent brushings. If the communities can collaborate in consummating small matters, mundanity can be achieved.

4) Mundane reconciliation We must not limit our view of the problem of Iraq to one of a fractioned people recovering from the trauma of 30 years of dictatorial rule, suffering under the onslaught of the military technology of a superpower, and facing all sorts of humanitarian deprivations. Rather we must see the issues in terms of a set of actual and potential communities looking for ways of creating an everydayness that is familiar yet responsive to changed circumstances. Mundane life is structured by the interpreted rules, layouts, and the schema of daily life and these frameworks affect the entire range of relationships, emotions and attitudes. Even as competing ideologies and intergroup conflict divide the population, ordinary situations require peaceful interactions and accommodation among the groups. The mundane world may bring together in some kinds of arrangements those who are formally separated by party, religion, culture and class. It will be in the practices and constitution of everyday life that the divisions of Iraqi society can be reconciled.

5) Dynamics of mundanity The war, with its all its destructive power, dramatically altered the daily existence of most Iraqis. These upheavals of everyday life routines were entirely disheartening to many yet some saw the disruption as opportunity for developing innovative forms of interaction. While different forces will seek to shape the patterns of everyday conduct according to their agendas, the actual outcomes will also reflect such factors as the physical organization of public spaces, the kinds of technologies commonly available, the level of economic activity generated, and, of course, security concerns in particular places. Thus, the characteristics of public settings will have influence how things will happen in everyday life. Certainly, the dynamism of mundanity in Iraq in the current time frame is unique. Rarely do students of the mundane have the opportunity to see changes in mundane behavior in response to the interplay of macro and micro processes. In the case of Iraq, we can foresee that such dynamisms are at work, although the specific directions of change cannot be predicted.

6) Micro-politics The politics of everyday Iraqi life will certainly become vibrant bringing issues and processes to the fore that were previously taken-for-granted. The ambiguity of circumstance will produce a welter of interaction patterns, at least in the short run. Different communities will intersect in public places each clearly supporting distinctive codes of conduct in the public domain. Scenes of striking contrast are likely with varieties of sanctions imposed as communal groups dispute over their claims to mundane predominance. Concretely, the competing claims of religious, ethnic and regional groups, political parties, and other collectivities will be played out in the streets, bazaars, and in all sorts of public places. Calls for order will alternate with disruptions that will confuse, frighten and discourage ordinary people. Ultimately and inevitability, particular forms mundanity will prevail, extinguish counter-forms, and everyday situations will become stabilized. Everyday conflicts will be expressed subtly and sometimes violently as people go about their daily business. Expressions of micro-political issues will be severe, highly localized, enormously consequential, but are ultimately resolvable through negotiation.

7) Recovering ordinary trust Mundane life demands a kind of integrity and trust that is frequently and oddly lacking in more private domains. While talk of “democracy” and governmental issues at the macro-level receive the most attention, the daily actualities of mundane interaction affect people more directly. The demand for order in everyday life is of immediate concern to the small businessperson, consumer, traveler, student, employee, parent, etc. The strength of the community will be found in the ordinary people who exhibit the trust and faith in pursuing daily tasks in the midst of the uncertainty and strife. Courage, fortitude, and perseverance have and will continue to come to the foreground in very explicit ways as ordinary Iraqi citizens recover the sense of trust that permits them to walk the streets, shop, and carry on business. And they must do this to make their lives possible.

8) Commitment to the mundane A kind of courage is required for ordinary Iraqi’s to conduct themselves in activities that are considered mundane. The folks who step forward and carry on the routines of everyday life despite fears and uncertainties exhibit true courage. They are creating a new mundane paradigm through their halting efforts. People who walk the streets unarmed seeking to assemble the necessities of life despite the surrounding tumult deserve respect and support. As a result of self and socially defined misdeeds, some ordinary Iraqis may have to grapple with feelings of shame and self-negation. The intense emotions of individuals who have so recently and deeply experienced desperation and degradation may cause them to retreat from the world for a time. However, the urgent and compelling need to survive will eventually propel both those who are shamed and those who are deeply angered persons back into the mundane world to mingle with each other and begin reconciling their lives.

Students of the mundane knew the outcome of the war even before the events unfolded in Iraq. Regardless of how military force is applied or resisted, in the long run it is ordinary life that prevails. Through whatever catastrophes strike, the mundane endures in some form. Mundane paradigms shift slowly or are suddenly ruptured, but mundane life by its very nature reformulates itself.

Major events have been happening since the start of hostilities and will likely continue, until small events take precedence. At some point, the unimportant will become the paramount concern as large issues and broad expectations for social reform fade. Making a living, at least making do will come to the forefront shaping behavior and structuring the lives of the mass of Iraqi people. Having to cope with permanent loss, intense frustration, and unspeakable hardship, the people will turn to the sphere of the mundane as refuge from the agony of recent events. This will signal progress for the people as the struggle shifts from the broad public domain to the personal. Ironically, it may be that everyday events will significantly influence the fate of the nation.

We will sense the intangible alternation; it will be observable in the behavior of Iraqi citizens going about their business with apparent unconcern. Soon the media reporters in Iraq will have little to report and will move on to more dramatic, more newsworthy areas. At that point, writers for JMB will note that ordinary life in Iraq has become interesting once again. We shall then turn to how people queue up, organize themselves in elevators, view media, engage in ordinary sex, experience the atrocities of everyday life, and so on and we will feel right at home.

Author: Myron Orleans is in early retirement from California State University, Fullerton and is also associated with Chapman University College, Irvine Campus, California. He fears that the U.S. administration in Iraq, after reading this article, may not feel the need to request his consultation.

Published inIssue 4.1Issues
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