‘Everyday Life’ since the linguistic turn

The following was the opening historiographical and introduction given by Alex Campsie on the day of the conference.


My PhD is entitled ‘The New Left, The New Times and the re-making of British socialism, 1962-1991’. It focuses on a series of debates within the British New Left, charting how changing conceptions of what constituted ‘everyday life’ in modern society informed successive re-configurations of socialist thought over the latter half of the twentieth century. My aim is not to mechanistically describe how ‘near’ or ‘far away’ from the ‘real’ social world this image lay- because the assumption that political languages reflect ‘objective’ realities in this way is highly problematic. I instead look at how socialist thinkers actively constructed the idea of the ‘everyday’ through contact with different philosophical influences, sociological data and theories of political organisation. This allows us to open up these debates, giving a non-deterministic account of modern intellectual history free from hindsight or the baggage imposed by the many ‘instant histories’ produced by involved participants. Moreover, looking at which intellectuals were discussing ‘everyday life’, and where, helps to fix the arena of debate within a specific public sphere of the intellectual Left- affording a degree of distance and historicity which, as Guy Ortolano has pointed out, is crucial to the analysis of the very recent past.

In this sense the move away from merely describing political languages towards probing their more messy and unruly processes of construction, and the shift from emphasising the free, unrestrained play of discursive forms in favour of staking out their material limits (be they institutional, intellectual, social or political), is symptomatic of a much broader shift within the past two decades of history-writing. I want to go on to talk a little about these changes- particularly examining how our treatment of the ‘everyday’ has changed in the wake of what might broadly be termed the 1980s linguistic or cultural turn. In particular I will focus on the effects of a concomitant so-called ‘practice’ or ‘material’ turn taken in the early to mid-1990s in reaction to the perceived excesses of postmodern scholarship, looking at the various directions this has provoked in histories concerned with the everyday- as I feel it is this new wave which has inspired this symposium, and also that many of its insights are reflected in the makeup of its panels. I will look at some of the major new research questions and methodological approaches that have been opened up since the early 1990s and will touch upon the epistemological and historical challenges they present us, before giving a brief, self-indulgent commentary on how I hope this symposium will address them. I will try to pay respect to the highly inter-disciplinary and transnational nature of debates about the ‘everyday’ but, and apologies for the reductiveness, will mainly concentrate on how this has affected scholarship in the English-speaking world, given that this is a symposium based in Britain.

Much has been written about the ‘cultural turn’ within history-writing and the attendant battles over postmodernism and post-structuralist theory which raged in the 1980s. One important product of this moment was that it arguably defined the idea of ‘everyday life’ as it is most popularly considered today – as an inclusive, affective and interpretive concept which encompasses aspects of the past missed by the narrowly class-based of the 1960s and 1970s ‘new social history’. An obvious illustration of this can be seen in a group of intellectuals who explicitly adopted the term as a statement of intellectual identity- the German ‘alltagsgeschichte’, or ‘history of the everyday’ movement. Reacting against the Bielefeld school of social-scienific history which sought to empirically classify the everyday according to a variety of a priori social science categories, in the hands of alltagsgeschichte progenitor Alf Lüdtke history was an interpretive tool, designed to recover the affective and experiential dimensions of ‘the “nameless” multitudes in their workaday trials and tribulations, [and] their occasional outbursts’.

In France and in particular in Italy, with its own distinct traditions of investigating the folkloric and mythic past, this corresponded to a form of ‘micro-history’ which examined the feelings, thoughts, and emotions of ordinary people at, as the name suggests, a very micro-level. These were viewed as individual and mutable aspects of the past which could never be reducible to economistic understandings of class or macro-level narratives of social development. In Britain this project was arguably more politicised as, amidst the seeming collapse of the British Left, feminist historians, cultural and social historians and proponents of cultural studies sought new explanatory categories which could integrate the differing, non-class-based experiences of minorities previously ‘hidden from history’, in the words of Sheila Rowbotham. The ‘everyday’ was a means of opening up society, and examining the symbolic and discursive ways in which ordinary people , to paraphrase Dick Hebdige, ’resisted’ their assigned socio-economic positions through modes of representation and symbolic ‘ritual’. At a time when, in sheer numerical terms, the number of British people employed in manual labour was rapidly declining, this was viewed as politically valuable– a Left politics did not have to be cut adrift by a declining socio-economic base, but could work within these worlds of discourse, using an inclusive political language to weave together a heterogeneous ‘rainbow coalition’ against Thatcherism.

The linguistic turn in the 1980s thus opened up a new, more generous conception of everyday life- defining this concept as both more socially inclusive and more capable of capturing emotion, feeling and particularity than narrow social scientific or Marxist categories. Importantly these more flexible approaches to the everyday did not completely deny the link between representation and social reality, and still retained a degree of confidence about the recoverability of historical meaning. Whereas in the U.S. the ‘new cultural history’ as developed by Hayden White, Dominic LaCapra, Robert Darnton, Lynne Hunt and others suggested that all of history could be read as a text, to be decoded for any number of symbolic meanings, in Britain there was a scepticism towards throwing ‘history’ out as merely some kind of illusory, self-referencing language game.  In fact, since then many historians sympathetic to the linguistic turn have actively fought against what they imagined to be the sloppy, ahistorical application of post-structural theory to historical questions. It is out of this moment, and subsequently over the course of the 1990s, that a number of new perspectives on the everyday were opened up in critical dialogue with the linguistic turn. These all, in one way or another, sought to demonstrate the constructed and mediated nature of historical concepts, whilst simultaneously stressing their practical, material limits. It is this new, more wide-ranging examination of the everyday, and its epistemological implications, which led Laura and myself to think a symposium of this ilk would be important.

A prime example of this kind of work is that of Patrick Joyce and James Vernon who, drawing heavily on the Foucauldian concept of ‘governmentality’, mined the ways in which the ideological tenets of the British state became embedded in popular, material form. Gas, water and other welfare provisions were utilised as symbolic reminders of the populace’s deference to the rulers, object-based transmitters of heavily value-laden forms of knowledge. This work was important because it pushed everyday life beyond a simple kind of ‘vale of soulmaking’, as it had been in some forms of cultural studies, where individual actors were gleefully free to select their symbolic identities from a range of colourful options, and reminded us of the hard limits imposed upon ordinary people by power and inequality. Nonetheless, as many pointed out, this account placed too much faith in the all-powerful ability of language to re-shape people’s understandings of the world. Historians like Selina Todd, Kate Fischer, Claire Langhamer and Deborah Cohen have since stressed the importance of region, neighbourhood and family variance, in many cases drawing on the rich personal testimonies of everyday life held within the Mass-Observation archive to give agency to these voices. They see these more localised forms as pockets of difference with their own cultural logics, troubling the efforts of apparently universalising ‘governmental’ order. Performances of public authority are thus set in dialogue with the rival practices of home and locality, in a multi-layered competition to secure meaning in everyday life.

In both political and intellectual history a closer attention to the shape and form of discourse has opened up important new insights, as language is shown, not to re-construct everyday life in its image, but to articulate narratives with their very own ‘materiality’- they are embedded with rhetorical and intellectual assumptions which need to be unpicked and historicised. Mike Savage, Jon Lawrence, William Steinmetz and Selina Todd have variously shown how the expectations held by social observers, academics and politicians shape their accounts of society, leading them to findings reflective of an image of ‘everyday life’ which is as much screened through their own practices of research as ‘out there’ in the field. This suggests the need for a step back from the historical record and for us to think more carefully about the modulated, value-laden nature of communication, and how different techniques of analysis impact upon the presentation of objective knowledge. In assessing the ‘everyday’ we need to separate out its mediation through the vernacular and official, different modes of transmission and varying forms of conceptual lens.

From another angle, the continued entrenchment of the world neo-liberal order through the stratagems of globalisation, filtered through new work in world systems theory, political science and sociology which began to stress the importance of transnational linkages, have caused many historians to pay renewed attention to the large-scale historical networks which created the modern world. They have emphasised that the everyday was constructed through and by these contingent, overlapping processes of exchange. This has been done with great panache by historians of the Atlantic World. For example, Marcy Norton has shown how the modern European experience of ‘sweetness’ was eked out through a gradual transmission of products and experiences through world trade. On a more local level we might also think of Robert Biernacki’s The Fabrication of Labor, which demonstrates how conceptions of work differed in both Germany and the United Kingdom as a result of their own distinctive workplace organisations, occupational structures, economic systems and philosophical traditions. These studies are important as they resolutely show that the most ‘micro-historical’ of events are linked up to wider historical processes. Moreover, they also suggest that ‘everyday life’ does not have an inherent or essentialist meaning to be unveiled as historical time progresses, but that this meaning is itself constructed out of the various processes which make up ‘history’.

Indeed, this is an epistemological position which is quite different from the earlier, ‘everyday life as cultural difference’ perspectives which popularised the concept in the 1980s. Rather than a form of resistance or retreat from the external world, everyday life becomes suffused with wider, shiftier, claim-making dynamics. This strand of thought has been particularly successful in Science and Technology Studies where, for example, Elizabeth Shove has shown how new kitchen objects ‘scripted’ the rhythms of everyday household life in postwar Britain. Material objects and networks of exchange themselves deliver meaning to otherwise empty receptors. In the hands of Bruno Latour this re-thinking of the relationship between language, agency and meaning is taken even further, to suggest a ‘subject-less’ social order based around networks of practices, objects and institutions- one freed from illusions about the importance of the sovereign, humanist self which he argues have plagued Enlightenment-centred political and historiographical thought. We see therefore, that the role of everyday life has grown in prominence and has changed quite significantly since the 1980s. Having once been a site where ‘hidden’ voices lurked to be discovered, it is now the instance at which voices are themselves articulated in first form. Having previously been an escape from grand narratives, it is now where the grandest narratives of all come home to roost, are transformed and are re-broadcast. Above all, the idea that something can unproblematically be called ‘everyday’ has been challenged, and instead using the word itself makes a claim about the mediated nature of historical experience. This wealth of new approaches deserves sustained reflection, and I hope that this symposium will be able to provide this.

But I hope also that this symposium will begin to engage with this grander epistemological claim concerning the everyday and the individual subject. Because I feel that, if the last decade and more of scholarship has taught us that everyday life is a site of construction, and that the idea of selfhood is contingent, that this also places more, and not less, importance on a humanist ideal of the self. This does not mean a naïve faith in the power of ‘everydayness’ to change the course of history, but instead implies seeing the everyday as a site charged with potential, where ‘everyday’ people make choices and decisions which help create their sense of selves, and articulate ‘whole alternative futures’ for them to live out, to quote the Brazilian philosopher Roberto Unger. As much as everyday life is ‘scripted’ by the material world, it is also a place where people creatively engage with the objects around them to find meaning and comfort, as the work of the anthropologist Danny Miller and our very own keynote speaker Joe Moran have shown. And if it is the space where people express their identities then it is politically important and worthy of respect. Timothy Shenk recently argued that a ‘new’ New Left has grown up since the 2007 economic crash around the radical U.S. journals Dissent and Jacobin magazine, the ideas of the economist Thomas Piketty, and the energies of ‘fourth-wave’ feminism, a ‘new’ New Left with a potent deconstruction of the mind-addling, artificial fallacies and large-scale structural contradictions wielded by post-crash capitalist society. I think that if this account is to prove successful it must provide a countervailing understanding of the more specific processes which feed in to the creation of selfhood and identity- something which the historical study of ‘the everyday’ can help to achieve.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s