‘Everyday Life’ Symposium review

The following are the thoughts of Alex Campsie, co-organiser, on the symposium

In the 1980s historians of varying political hues and methodological backgrounds gravitated toward the concept of the ‘everyday’, seeing it as a more open-ended explanatory tool than economistic understandings of ‘class’ or social position. In subsequent decades we have seen a veritable explosion in different approaches towards not only apprehending the more ordinary aspects of life ‘as they were’- but also in unpicking their mediated, contingent nature; in exploring the non-human factors which shape our quotidian experiences; and in tracing the large-scale processes of exchange that knit together the ‘ordinary’ world around us.

On the 8th September 2014 at Trinity Hall College, University of Cambridge an inter-disciplinary group of scholars from across the U.K. gathered together in our own attempt to make sense of these historiographical trends, and to present original research into ‘everyday life’ both past and present.

In his 1997 A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History the Mexican philosopher Manuel de Landa proposed a history of the world in which the contours of human civilisation emerged gradually, ‘self-organized’ out of the ‘rhizomatic’ ebb and flow of biological matter, inorganic energy and climactic rhythms. De Landa might therefore be happy to know that a bright late summer sun and cloudless, clear blue skies helped to sculpt the cheerful dispositions and convivial atmosphere on show within the Trinity Hall Lecture Theatre- though in this case the human agency of the speakers and audience members were just as important ‘prime movers’ in making the symposium a success.

Panel 1: ‘Work and Play’

The first panel of Richard Hall (KCL/Cambridge), Jack Saunders (UCL) and Kate Whiston (Nottingham) could superficially have come from an early historiographical era. Their close studies of micro-level subcultures within post-Industrial Revolution Britain’s worlds of ‘work and play’ seemed to echo the ‘very best of British’ tradition of 1970s social history. Kate’s use of anthropological influences to comb the deeper symbolic meanings encoded within the noble working-class sport of pigeon fancying was a particularly pleasing example.

But in actual fact her subtle ‘thick description’ of a seemingly innocuous hobby, and the sympathetic examinations of both working-men’s clubs in post-war Britain (Richard) and Communist agitators at the Longbridge car plant in the 1970s (Jack) provided by her panellists, were more than just nostalgic celebrations. They offered up a highly nuanced examination of the ways in which ordinary people have sought to construct their own spaces against the sharper edges of industrialism and, as Richard (citing Chris Waters) pointed out, the destabilising forces of ‘modernity’.

However, these sites were not just a romantic retreat from capitalism. They were hybrid spaces of exchange, where both the laws of the market and the political gospel as laid down by the Kremlin (in Jack’s example)met and were re-broadcast within existing patterns of social life.

Intriguingly though, despite the mediated, constantly evolving nature of these cultural practices (as Richard potently highlighted, by showing the growing commercialisation of the working-men’s clubs), one constant was the desire to express oneself as an individual. As Stefan Collini, Donald Burrow and Peter Winch have argued, the sovereignty of the self within the civic sphere was a key facet of 18th and 19th century English political thought, and arguably its roots are deeper, stretching back to the Reformation and beyond. Our three panellists showed that this trope just as equally endured long into the 20th century– something to perhaps think more about as we hastily seek inspiration for a new political settlement to solve the seeming crisis of the British state…

Panel 2: ‘Home and family’

The next panel, comprising of Joe Day (Cambridge), Glen O’Hara (Oxford Brookes) and Greg Salter (Geffrye Museum), brought us back down to earth from these metaphysical musings, and reminded us of the hard ways in which the material world structures the free play of our identities. In particular, Glen’s paper on clean water supply in post-war British politics tapped into a rich stream (pun intended) of new research into how the provision of public commodities can be used and abused to make political claims about power, belonging and identity. Greg’s work on the contemporary home highlighted that this is equally true of even the most ‘everyday’ object. The seemingly unimportant question of who gets to sit in the biggest armchair round the television each night is itself negotiated through sets of conscious and unconscious power relations. Sensitively unpicking these complex dynamics can shed greater light into the structured nature of everyday experience.

Together, all three papers brought together a range of impressively eclectic methodological tools- statistical, linguistic, ethnographic and sociological- which we can use to ‘open up’ and re-interrogate the boundaries between public and private space, bringing to life the diverse ways in which these are contested in the ‘everyday’.

Keynote: Joe Moran on ‘Everyday Life’.

Next up was our hotly anticipated keynote speaker Joe Moran (LJMU). Joe’s unassuming, quietly passionate speech ranged compellingly from discussion of the formal, physical nature of the ‘everyday’ towards elaborating how we as writers can capture its fleeting essence, conceptually and stylistically.

Although he only alluded to this, I think it would be fair to say that at the core of his philosophy is a concept which the Romantics called the ‘sublime’, and that the social research organisation Mass-Observation termed the ‘poetic’. This is a realisation and an acceptance that our everyday existences are constantly caught between various transitory states- between the individual and the collective, between the public and the private, between the past and future, and, ultimately, between a conscious desire to ‘magically’ transcend this condition and a ‘material’ inability to do so (to paraphrase M-O founder Charles Madge).

Both Romantic poetry and the early, surrealist-inspired work of Mass-Observation sought to celebrate this sense of ‘half-longing’ (Madge again). They used literary techniques to simulate its affective impact, in turn provoking readers to look back in on themselves and to think more about the nature of their existences. To the Romantics this was form of critique against the harshness of the Industrial Revolution and its attendant social repression; to M-O it was a means of raising ‘social consciousness’ at a time when public discourse was increasingly impinged upon by authoritarian governments and plutocratic media barons.

Joe termed his style of writing ‘creative self-fiction’- a form concerned with burrowing down into the most banal spaces of everyday life and describing their messy, overlapping shapes, without seeking to uneasily mash them into a rigid argumentative template. In this way, he explained, a kaleidoscopic ‘sense of the modern’ could be depicted through an exploration of the ‘most humdrum and banal’. Importantly, we could also see how, this style of writing can help to unseat everyday routines from the pre-arranged categories imposed upon them by political structures– without necessarily re-inserting them into an equally unsatisfactory ‘alternative’ handed down from the Academy.

Panel 3: Public and private lives

It was quite fitting that we proceeded from a discussion of the inherent limits of ‘knowability’ onto a panel which in many ways eluded classification, comprising as it did of a highly diverse range of papers. First up was Anthony Buxton, who assuredly guided us, by way of Giddens on structuration, Bourdieu’s practice theory, and Rapoport on network analysis, through the way in which agricultural, climactic, season and economic ‘rhythms’  helped shape domestic practice in 17th century Thame, a market town in Oxfordshire.

Anthony’s portrayal of how everyday life was resolutely ‘tied to the land’, with all its earthy vagaries, might have seemed a world away from the subject of Charlotte Whalen’s (QMU) paper, which illustrated the role which the popular press and department stores played in helping to popularise a modernist aesthetic in 1910s America. But in both cases, we saw how patterns of exchange and transmission were crucial in shaping the ways in which people lived and thought about themselves– either through the mass market for popular commerce in 20th century American capitalism, or localised trade in pre-Industrial Revolution agrarian England.

This insistence on the ‘rhythmic’ nature of everyday life was brought home in delightful form by Kate Stobbart (Newcastle), who presented 917 phone-calls overheard during a year’s worth of travelling on the train. Snippets were ‘acted out’ by Kate in what can only be described as a profoundly hypnotic way, free from any commentary other than being loosely grouped according to content (‘Hello’, ‘Goodbyes’ etc.). ‘Massing’ the individual calls in this way was a highly effective technique. We were soon listening to a dulling cascade of recurring themes and motifs, out of which you could just about pick the heartfelt pleadings, routine affections, and intimate details that made up each individual call. This echoed Joe’s treatment of the ‘sublime’, but also led us to think about the ‘rhythmic’ nature of our own communication. How much of what we think is automatic, unconscious? Do we always really mean what we say? What patterns make up mass communication, and how do we disaggregate our individual identities from them? And just who could be listening as we pour our hearts out on the train?!

Panel 4: Emotions and Identity

As if to answer this question, the last panel was made up of three papers which each assessed the various ways in which ordinary people’s identities were and are collated from the chaotic flow of information that surrounds us in everyday life. Katherine Cook’s (York) study of differing conceptions of death in England and Barbados once more placed emphasis on exchange and interaction, but also offered a subtle reading of the material and emotional resources available to people as they attempted to make sense of life’s ‘great leveller’.

Holly Dunbar (Southampton) used debates over female smoking in the Irish press between 1912 and 1923 to provide an insightful examination of the construction of Irish ‘femininity’. As she argued, a media controversy like this can be read as much more than a simple ‘moral panic’. It acted as an instance where everyday actors were themselves able to enter the discursive fray, re-appropriating the symbolic capital deployed by the press to articulate their own, ‘complex and multiple everyday lives’.

Finally Hannah Woods (Cambridge) sought to explore the ‘somatic, cognitive’ aspects of urban life, exploring how emotions ‘coloured and shaped’ how ordinary people thought about themselves through a close reading of working-class autobiographies. Particularly fascinating was how one of her writers ‘read himself’ through the different works of philosophy he was consuming- feeling hospitable to his fellow city-dwellers as he indulged in the optimistic prose of Heine, before taking a darker turn during his self-confessed ‘Nietzsche phase’, irritation at his work-mates finding resonance in the German’s misanthropic outpourings.

All three papers offered a highly sophisticated exploration of the relationship between the abstract ‘signified’, which exists in conscious thought, and feeling, and the ‘signifier’, the cultural or social forms through which these are expressed in the material world of everyday life. Or rather they strongly denied that the link between thought and action can ever be so easily represented. They instead illustrated that it is mediated through processes of exchange, emotional dissonance, and the general, messy hubbub of everyday life.


Indeed, if the symposium had one overriding theme, it was to trouble the idea that the historian’s task is to simply ‘recover’ the lost voices of the everyday. Cultural history’s embrace of ‘everyday life’ as a means of exploring hitherto ‘hidden’ aspects of the past in the 1980s was immensely fruitful.

But at times this work strayed into merely holding up the latest micro-level curio or novelty, perceiving these as somehow inherently meaningful just because they had never been talked about before. It failed to acknowledge the wider structural forces and power dynamics which shape our existences. Moreover, it was, for a number of quite complex intellectual reasons, tinged with a philosophic idealism that presented pure, human artifice as the antithesis to the material world. Objects that men had made with their minds and their hands, such as clothes or pieces of art were viewed as the fullest expression of man’s conscious free will- and were thus privileged over the messier, more chaotic, and less easily classifiable forms of ‘culture’. Significantly, it also denied the possibility that the material world could itself influence the way we think and feel- or indeed that the processes by which we do both are in fact interrelated in a much more complex fashion than this stark division between mind and matter suggests.

Each and every one of our speakers took up these criticisms, using a range of sophisticated methodological and conceptual tools to do much more than simply celebrate the ‘everyday’ as colourful and diverse. Actor Network Theory, quantitative, climactic and economic analyses were all deployed to illustrate the much broader relationships which structure individual consciousness. These dynamics could be human just as non-human, and there were illuminating insights into how the material and the inorganic condition the realm of culture.

But equally, there was a much closer attention paid to the cognitive, emotional and discursive processes by which we attempt to make sense of the world. ‘Everyday’ culture was not merely treated as a ‘representation’ of ‘ordinary’ thought, but was shown to be entangled within the material, refracted through various media, and diffused through networks and markets.

Each paper saw the fallacy in searching for a pure, idealised ‘everyday’ amidst the seeming disorder of the world around us. By instead offering up a depiction of the mediated, structured and highly politicised nature of everyday existence, they managed to be more sympathetic to the ordinary individual. Just as Joe Moran advised, there was little attempt to shape the banal into something it was not, nor to celebrate the humdrum for its own sake. This made the instances where real human agency did shine through all the more powerful.

In short, I felt the symposium very usefully marked a transition from how we use the ‘everyday’. Initially, the concept helped to explore the various social or cultural phenomena which could not be explained by ‘class’ alone. Now, speaking of ‘everydayness’ brings into view a number of wider dynamics- the complex interrelations of thought, intention and actions; the role which large-scale networks and exchanges play in history; and the ways in which the material world structures our daily lives. Acknowledging these broader processes provides a more satisfying appreciation of human agency than uncritical, patronising ‘celebration’. These are all important aspects to ponder on, but above all I felt what shone through was a sensitivity to the human spirit and a delicacy with what are, after all, other people’s ‘everyday lives’ that should set future discussions in good stead.


A very many thanks must go to our four commentators Peter Mandler, Sian Pooley, Glen O’Hara and Lucy Delap, all of our speakers and delegates for participating, to the AHRC and to University Researcher Development Fund (History) for funding the event, and especially to all the catering and conferencing staff at Trinity Hall College for their hard work and for taking such good care of us.


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