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Why the Mundane? Or, My “Unassailable Advantage”: Reflections on Wiseman’s Belfast, Maine

The Mundane as Accomplishment:

Like so many who would read this piece, the minor, redundant and commonplace scenes of life fascinate me. I am tempted to view it all with the safe mindlessness of indifference, but I can’t help thinking how marvelously architected and brilliant are the scenes that endlessly unfold before me. The generally excellent actors of everyday life dramas, extemporizing, maneuvering, engaging, moving through settings adeptly, but without explicit direction, are performing major feats in my view. Although a sociologist of many years, I still have difficulty fathoming the ingenuity and complexity displayed by so many, so unconsciously, so adroitly. Rarely, does anyone look into the camera and come out of character; few outtakes are seen, and so much collaborative work is done to maintain, repair and advance the scene that I am in awe of the entire production of the mundane.

The tangible sense that we all have to ignore the majesty of the obvious is itself puzzling. Why do we not continuously encounter others who are aware of their artistic work in constructing the routine routinely? I feel that I understand why we cannot allow a glimmer of the fragility of it all into our consciousness; but why can we not see ourselves as definers of significance, artisans of the obvious, revelers in the banal? We seem to get taken in by our own performances not only as credible but as true and serious. To view context within context and so forth, to highlight the subtle, profoundly constraining directives of ordinary life, however satisfying, is ultimately unnerving. For if we see that it’s all put there by us in unending intermixed streams of thoughts and actions, we fear that we or others may pull back and cease our unceasing efforts to project the everyday world from within our minds into our realities.

I argue that situational consciousness is threatening; it threatens us with the prospect of liberation while posing the possibility of chaos. With such consciousness, some actors may take a cynical turn toward everyday life. What would happen to customer service? Misanthropy would abound! Perhaps short of catastrophe, but nevertheless as threatening as political terrorism, widespread recognition of the constructive work of ordinary folk in everyday life may prove liberating as it bodes a kind of cognitive anarchy. I am reminded of social and political movements of the 1960’s urging us to laugh at `pigs’, generically defined as system representatives, in order to discredit and undermine authority. Perhaps taking the `system’ less seriously as an existing entity would promote personal autonomy. Situational consciousness might encourage us to subjectively dismantle the inner sense of structure that we have mislabeled as bureaucracy or society but which we experience as dominating. Thus, scrutiny of mundanity broaches the possibility of bringing human products back to their sources in consciousness.

To recognize that the power of the world is within all of us, consequences of our everyday thoughts and routines, is certainly no small bit of awareness. To claim authorship of mundanity is a substantial asset for mundane people. It fulfills the democratic ethos where it counts most, not in the circumscribed realm of formal politics, but in the innumerable swarm of life’s minutes. I feel the magnificence of the ordinary person seeing oneself as a self-conscious, self-appreciating sculptor of the mundane. I imagine a rational everyday calculus of the cost/benefit ratio of mundane participation, not unlike that processed by individuals considering retirement, except that this process is ongoing and the outcome an infinity of ordinary moments.

Additionally, a moral calculus of impact on others is a necessary complement to any self-aware activity in the mundane. The recognition of the humanity of the other is an essential ingredient in the moral community of the mundane. We know above all that we are in it together, that to make everyday life work we need more than the ruminations of those philosophically inclined. We need the love of each other, the tolerance, the good faith to trust that if we dedicate our art to the task, that others, sharing our human community and artistic bent, will want to participate in our world-constituting project.

Basically, I am in this to analyze and advocate for the ordinary as the site of prime interest in what is truly significant. It is where people live. It is where heroism is regularly visible, where fascism hides in a supposedly free society. It is where we all exist, no matter how exotic one or another feature our lives may be. The mundane is the venue for history, memory, and our foundation in the future. It is where we will die, hopefully without a whimper.

For the mighty and powerful, the celebrity and the rich, the mundane is still just that. The decisions they make, the actions they undertake may affect large numbers and be widely reported, known and recalled as having great and sometimes lasting consequences. Yet the elevated are acting in the mundane, as did the conferees at the Yalta Conference toward the end of World War II. Concerned as were these leaders with power aggrandizement and establishing a world order, they lived in a microcosm of infinite detail and petty concern. The results of this and other world-shaking parlays and like events may have impacted the lives of billions for decades, but the context within which they operated was small, difficult and quite like any other interactive scene.

Documenting the Mundane:

I come to the mundane from many obscure sources. Oddly, I think that to get to the obvious, you have to go in a roundabout way or you may never get there. I can refer to my many wonderful teachers, to those writers of the mundane in various fields of literature and in the social sciences who have enlightened me and at some point I will do so and thank each one for bringing me to the obvious. For now, let me celebrate the mundane by offering small narratives of scenes from the Frederick Wiseman documentary Belfast, Maine.

Clearly, Wiseman is too wise to include narration in any of his work. I, on the other hand, am too foolhardy to resist. I recognize Wiseman as the master of the filmic approach to the mundane. His all-too-brief 4-hour-plus film of everyday life in a rural town provides glimpses of the mundane that are poetically captured and made available for viewer interpretation. I offer my reading of the film as one entranced by the dull routines presented, unable to hide my admiration for the real life actors, yet always striving to see something there as one who is tuned into the obvious as a domain of analytic interest.

I relax with my feet up on the coffee table, notepad on my lap. I am drowsily aware of waiting for something to happen on the screen, some dramatic event, and some development. I am falling into the pattern of seeking distraction from the mundane which itself is the theme and resource through which the film demonstrates itself.

I find myself gaining interest in the skills displayed by the lobstermen and reaffirm my sense that the simplest tasks can be done with a style that is only veneered by efficiency. The same could be said of the dry cleaners in the scene that follows. I begin to dread that I will derive only one point from my viewing. However, I see the smiles easily coming to the faces of people as they chat; I briefly see the pleasure of trivial social communication and realize that I am seeing the essential function of work and commerce as social activities.

I note the fervor of townspeople involved in re-telling stories of personal events and feelings. To me these are discursive means by which people clarify their lives for themselves and for one another. The Belfast citizens are producing themselves for each other as they make sense of their own lives.

Community-building is visible in the depictions of older women’s talk regarding flower arranging. To me, the women are coping with the specter of aloneness by being together in common pursuit. The particulars count for little in contrast to the pleasure of collaboration itself. The serious purposelessness exhibited in the graceful acts of fidgeting with the flowers appeared to ennoble the women.

The labor of people working in a sardine-processing plant, patiently, systematically with a surprising discipline and appearance of acceptance if not contentment, conveys quietude amidst the grinding noise. None of the intellectual’s attribution of alienation is visible, only people working steadily.

Young boys and old men are shown fishing together off a pier. The image represents one way that generations may connect to each other through a common activity.

Humble service is depicted as a visiting health worker soothes an ailing man’s feet. Human commitment is manifest in the gentleness of her caresses. The personal concern and care graphically depicts the felt meaning of human community.

Juxtaposed are images of hunters weighing a kill for a community record. These hunters are placing themselves in a competitive hierarchy, participating in a status struggle that will enable them to locate themselves within their own scheme of significance. Men talk of trees assessing the relative merits of preservation and use of natural resources. Men tell their war stories, their hunting stories, the topics that allow men to be together. The bonding is tenuous, yet the mode of relating and the tools applied afford some level of tolerance for intimacy.

An elderly woman is cared for by the health worker who listens to her, laughs with her, is with her. The nurse fills out forms, but looks at the ailing woman while she completes the form. The clash of personalism and professionalism is apparent as the health worker makes the compromises needed in order to do the good she intends.

Throughout the film we see cars and other vehicles on the town’s roads traveling meaninglessly, going nowhere in particular. Unoccupied, unguided, they are machines complying with programming but without any connection to humanity.

We are shown a community health care conference. A speaker expresses herself fluently and informatively exposing her subject with restrained enthusiasm. Her mature audience is fully attentive. We see here one of the many orchestrated human performances constituting the community as one person is singled out to perform for others. She is supported and appreciated and all are emotionally rewarded for participation.

Young female ballet dancers are practicing gracefully, perfecting their skill, and enjoying their capabilities. Learning together, experiencing their physicality the girls seem to thrive under the tutelage. The human community is bringing into itself young members, providing tasks and skills that yield health and beauty, but most importantly involvement in common pursuit. Channeling individual potential and motivation within culturally-sanctioned activity, the dancing draws the girls to the collectivity and to themselves as it provides a context for the self.

Local politics is presented as talk of citizens and political leaders. What of hidden power dimensions? Are these not conversations potentially subject to graphic depiction as ordinary discourses of those in power? The town meeting conveyed a sense of participation, of significant involvement in the collective and rule-informed pursuit of just courses of action.

A practice session of a choral group, trying to make music, to harmonize, represented the efforts of members to actualize their sense of community with their voices. A music critic might say that the result was quite ordinary, but that is no putdown in my mind. A rehearsal session for an amateur production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” shows ordinary men with ordinary talents depicting an ordinary man in his struggle for life.

In an informal discussion of marriage a support group displayed its logics in discourse. Effective interactive speech permitted expression while reflexively constituting the experience of support through the talk of support. The participants likely thought that the group itself was supportive and would probably state this even though it was clearly the talk of the participants that created the feeling of support.

A pastry worker elegantly shapes and pats his dough. His trivial workmanship is productive and effective. We see the donuts stocked and sold in the store. Craftsmanship, small capitalism — perhaps the terms are grandiose, but we see the unity of production, sale and consumption in this setting.

Do the townsfolk forget the infirm, the elderly, and the weaker members of the community? The visiting nurse talks to an elderly man, affirming his action, giving him support in his decline, and does not judge him. A home for seniors appears clean and orderly; the residents are entertained. Poor and working poor people are enjoying their modest dinners in a soup kitchen. The work of the developmentally disabled in a sheltered environment exemplifies how contributing to the common wealth of the community is life enhancing. The words overheard are not specifically meaningful; rather the presence of readers conveys the message of care.

We see a number of public talks. A church sermon focuses on the congregation’s prayers for the ill and dying members who are not present. The mood is somber, they feel their bonds to fellow church members, and they are compassionate. An amateur historian talks to a community audience of the role of locals in the Civil War. His enthusiasm is heightened by his audience’s responsiveness. A strong connection to heritage, to the “Maine men”, to their forebears is expressed, reproduced and magnified through the talk.

A high school teacher speaks enthusiastically of the heroism of ordinary New England whalers in his discussion of “Moby Dick”. His students listen and learn from his fervent discourse on Ahab, “the tragic everyman” in pursuit of the democratic vision. The teacher talks about the “rise of the common man” inspiring respect for ordinary people in his students, tying this notion to great works of literature.

The viewer also sees entirely other sorts of scenes. A trapped wolf sees his doom as the hunter approaches. Foxes are skinned and left ingloriously hanging, uncovered. Recreational shooters take target practice. The ordinary life of a rural town in Maine includes scenes not part of the world of the urbane. Nevertheless, these scenes are mundane, taken-for-granted routines in the place depicted and serve to preserve the lifeworlds of the participants.

Toward the end of the film the camera pans to a bank building. A slogan is discernible, one that I feel captures the mundanity of Wiseman’s film, my paper and the import of this journal: “Excellence is an art of inches. Thousands of little things done right add up to the unassailable advantage” (unattributed).

Author: Myron Orleans self-identifies as a microsociologist, and serves both as co-editor of Journal of Mundane Behavior and as professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton. His current research emphasizes the use of ethnographic methods in the study of family. He has also conducted research on social adaptation to computers and organized a computer-tutoring project in an elementary school. His 13-year-old daughter wants to be a chef specializing in cookies and his 16-year-old son wants to drive a pickup truck as a lifestyle. He’s struggling to come to terms with this.

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