August 5, 2020
One of my favorite French courses that I ever took was on twentieth-century quotidian literature. The syllabus included texts by writers such as André Breton, Francis Ponge, Georges Perec, and Annie Ernaux, in addition to philosophers and literary theorists working on and around the idea of the “everyday.” The course was taught in French, and it was frustratingly difficult to follow along, both linguistically and thematically—my professor was presenting complex ideas in a language that I didn’t fully understand. Thanks to these texts, though, I found myself questioning some of my most basic assumptions about literature. This is how I stopped thinking of literature and life in staunch opposition to one another, and began to conceive of their relationship as something more actively discursive: a dialogue, a conversation, a give-and-take that enriches and accentuates the arguments on both ends.
I enrolled in this course two years ago, while studying abroad in Paris at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. The French students in my class were perpetually unfazed by the pace of the course, which obeyed a scholastic rhythm that they had learned years ago. I tried to keep up with them, noting how they asked questions, organized their essays, and prepared for their oral presentations. It felt odd to be dissecting the everyday in Paris, because studying abroad was a decidedly un-quotidian experience. As I waited for the metro, ordered an espresso at the corner café, or browsed the shelves of Gibert Jeune on a Saturday afternoon, I had the slinking sense that this wasn’t my routine, really. I was just pretending. For me, Paris exuded impermanence, and I tried to forget that in a few months, this would all be over; I would go home to Ohio, and my life, the real one, would resume again.
The course was called “Traversées du quotidien,” named after the French translation of a book written by the UK academic Michael Sheringham (1948–2016): Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present, which was published in English in 2006 and in French in 2013. In this book, Sheringham traces the concept of the everyday through twentieth century French literature, beginning with the Surrealist movement in the 1920s. In contrast with literature that represents exceptional, singular, often “grand” events, the everyday seeks to depict the banal, ordinary moments that make up our lives. For example, a quotidian text might focus on a character’s commute (to and from work), the TV shows they watch in the evenings (once they’re finished with work), and the things they want to buy and do with their money (what they’re working for). One could argue that these everyday moments have become more uniform over the twentieth century due to the rise of consumerism, mass culture, and the onset of late capitalism. Some forms of everyday literature suggest that our existences are shared, even indistinguishable from one another, and that the experiences we deem to be personal are in fact more common than we like to imagine. This calls into question the very idea of the individual: how am I able to claim my life as my own; is having “my own life” even a material possibility?
Sociologists and philosophers, in turn, have added their own insights on the everyday. Some of the most notable interlocutors include Henri Lefebvre (Critique of Everyday Life, a three-volume Marxist study on the topic), Michel de Certeau (The Practice of Everyday Life, a consumer-oriented take on cultural studies), and Maurice Blanchot. In his article “Everyday Speech,” Blanchot suggests that the everyday is ambiguous, that it resists definition—“it escapes,” he says, “it is the unperceived.” For Blanchot, the everyday is characterized by its own indeterminacy, and it exists in neither a subjective nor objective realm. It is “the movement by which the individual is held, as though without knowing it, in human anonymity.” For these reasons, it is difficult to grasp hold of the everyday and properly analyze it. When we attempt to do so, we find that—to quote Bruce Bégout’s summary of Blanchot’s words – “what presents itself as the closest and most familiar is in reality the furthest and most peculiar” (La Décoverte du quotidien, 2005). Yet we must at least try to pay attention to these peculiarities, precisely because they so widespread. Michael Sheringham, a literary theorist, echoes this view in The Columbia History of Twentieth-Century French Thought, saying that “attention to the everyday . . . is not attention to the niceties of individual psychology but to a commonality of experience that is endlessly forming and reforming in human activities and encounters—if only we deign to notice it.”
While in Paris I tried to notice it, I really did. And the everyday was never more visible to me than when wandering the streets of the city alone. No one knew me, and I was free to be a nameless observer. I felt that I viscerally understood Blanchot’s claim that “the everyday is not at home in our dwelling-places, it is not in offices or churches, any more than in libraries or museums. It is in the street—if it is anywhere.” Philosophy had lost some of its abstraction, and I began to feel that it might have something to say about the world (in general) or even my life (in particular).
Over the past year or so, however, I have come to question many of my initial assumptions about the Blanchotian everyday. Reading the work of Annie Ernaux, a contemporary French life writer, I saw how she interrogates the boundaries between story and history through her economical descriptions of personal experiences. While Ernaux’s work does conform to some of the conventions of the “public” everyday, she also questions how class and gender disparities intersect with the idea of a shared quotidian existence. Blanchot is quick to claim that the everyday does not belong to the realm of private life, yet this discredits the experiences of those for whom the street is not a welcoming place. My memories of myself unreservedly ambling around Paris, I now realize, are not wholly accurate. I always needed to be alert and aware of my surroundings; I needed to care about where I was going and how I was going to get there. Sometimes, late at night, I was skittish when walking home alone. As a woman, I can never experience the freedom of the street in the way that men like Blanchot were able to. At the same time, though, I am advantaged by my whiteness, which makes certain spaces easier to navigate. Public life isn’t truly public, and aspects of race, class, education, gender, and sexuality (among other things) complicate the idea that the everyday is a shared, subjectless experience. To pay attention to the everyday is to observe how these structural inequalities complicate the “commonality of experience.”
It should not be shocking to say that Covid-19 has distorted the nature of everyday life. If “the everyday is, then, ourselves, ordinarily,” as Blanchot initially claims, what is the everyday now, when we are not ourselves, when all is not ordinary? Our first impulse may be to declare that the everyday has disappeared. The public and domestic spheres of life have collapsed into one another. We answer Zoom calls in our bedrooms (or at least I do, anyway), and it’s impossible to exist in the street as a face in the masses, for there are no masses, there’s nothing there anymore. The certainty of routine has vanished, along with the casual spontaneity that punctuated the rhythm of our days.
I am, of course, not referring to everyone, but only to those who are able to be sheltering at home. I belong to this category. I am living in Northeast Ohio, in a healthy environment surrounded by family, and I know that my Covid-19 experience hardly compares to that of an essential worker, a hospital staff member, a high-risk individual who has just contracted the virus, or that individual’s family. It is frustrating to me that, in spite of my privilege, I am not handling the pandemic very well. The things I consider myself to be good at in normal times—reading, writing, being sociable with my friends and creative academically—now feel insurmountable. I am struggling, and I feel guilty for doing so. I try to remind myself that it is possible to responsibly acknowledge your own sadness while also recognizing that the world is suffering. There’s room for it all, and unfortunately, we need the space.
We are still stewing in the everyday, but its locus is no longer in the public sphere (if it ever was there to begin with). It is as if we are looking at a photograph in the negative, seeing only the absence of things, the emptiness that is left behind. Lefebvre describes the everyday as the “residual,” but it feels more apt to apply this word to our current situation. We are living through a residual time. Unlike Lefebvre’s definition, this residuality makes the everyday more apparent than it was before—heightened, sharper, intensified. With routines disrupted, the peculiarities of our quotidian life are here in full focus. I am thinking, in particular, of the absurdities of the US healthcare system, debates about university endowments, and fact that essential workers are having to fight for hazard pay. Will these “unprecedented times” ever end, or will they transform into a new everyday: the residue of a residue; an altered image, unrecognizable from what was left behind?
The pandemic is a catastrophe but not an equalizer. It has exacerbated inequalities that have always been present in everyday life. Women in heterosexual partnerships are still contributing to the large share of domestic work; BIPOC are disproportionately affected by Covid-19, yet less likely to be administered testing. So far, in America, the pandemic has not established a vast form of intercultural awareness, only a rise of racism and xenophobia. Thus, to speak ethically about our shared existence, we must either redefine the everyday or recognize its limits. This may lead us to question the most basic assumptions that we make about daily life. Is everydayness inevitable? Is it desired? What would a world without the everyday look like? What aspects of the everyday would we choose to preserve, if given the choice?
Representing the everydayness of the pandemic may not feel like an aesthetic question, but it is, even now. When people write novels and memoirs and poetry about Covid-19, they will need to choose how to depict this moment through language. They will need to assess what expressions and syntactic devices can best approximate what it is like to live through this situation. I wonder, in particular, how to describe the “newness” of this everyday, this residual time – whether it is best to do so through a sort of mimetic realism, or to find a new aesthetic form entirely? But this is not solely a concern for the future. We should, in fact, already be asking ourselves these questions. What kinds of words and images are we using to talk about the pandemic—on Twitter, on TikTok and Instagram? Do these representations of the pandemic resonate with your life? Why or why not? Here a tension arises between the depiction of the everyday pandemic life with all of its personal intricacies, and the purported impossibility of being “individual” within these mediated environments. Literature, I believe, offers a way to articulate this ambivalence: to interrogate the boundary between the personal and collective, between people and their communities.
When in Paris, I thought that paying attention to the everyday meant paying attention to myself—to my routine (however performative it seemed), and to how my wants and needs and desires were reflected in the texts I was reading. If the everyday is a shared experience, then by noticing myself, wasn’t I also, by default, noticing others? Yet studying the everyday means accounting for its imperfections: dwelling in them, deigning to notice them, observing what the definition fails to include. It means being attuned to experiences that aren’t shared, and asking why this is the case. It is a relational, interpersonal act, a type of attention that is necessary now more than ever.
Editor’s note: This post was originally written in April 2020.