The black box of everyday life: entanglements of stuff, affects, and activities.

Author:Lofgren, Orvar
 
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Taking Turns

One of the most striking characteristics of contemporary cultural analysis is the incessant production of "new turns," but the SIEF anniversary may be a good time for a quick retrospective look. The turn phenomenon has a history. It all began with the textual turn in the early 1970s (Chouliaraki 2008), which advocated that cultures, bodies, and people should be read as texts. One of the results of this was the strong impact that discourse analysis had over several decades. But turns create counter-turns and the hegemony of discourse analysis was challenged by new turns, such as the spatial, the material, and the affective turn. Many of these argue for greater attention to non-discursive or pre-discursive dimensions of everyday life, but also for a focus not on what people say but what they do.

So that is where we are now: twisted by a number of turns. How does this affect the ethnologic and folkloristic study of everyday life? And what could our contributions be to these discussions? In a sense, the focus on the material, the place-bound, and the emotional aspects sits well with us--they have long formed part of our approach. Nevertheless I find the new theoretical turns refreshing and challenging in many ways. They create cross-disciplinary dialogues, but also beg the question of how they could be combined or entangled in productive ways. This paper deals with some approaches to such entanglements, drawing on empirical examples from a classic research arena: the home.

Looking back on the making and remaking of turns over the last decades it is striking how different theoretical approaches have evolved. The interest in materialities, for example, has been developed by Actor Network Theory with its focus on the co-dependence of human and non-human actors. ANT is a tradition that has been increasingly influential in contemporary ethnology (Ren and Petersen 2013). Another strand is found in attempts to revitalize phenomenological traditions, as in, for example, the more down-to-earth perspectives of post-phenomenology that attempt to bring a classic philosophical tradition closer to the study of everyday activities by developing ethnographies--by doing a concrete phenomenology of specific life-worlds, rather than interpreting texts (Ingold 2011 and Verbeek 2009). A number of ethnologists have contributed to this phenomenological turn by studying experiences as situated everyday practices (see, for example, the recent studies in Frykman and Frykman, forthcoming).

Affective theory is also helpful here, viewing affects as forces and energies which shape the interaction between bodies. It explores the in-betweenness not only between human actors but also between humans and objects. Affect is about reactions and communications, which often are unconscious, driving us toward movement or thought, overwhelming or exciting us--a passing mood, a sudden sensibility, a creeping irritation or anxiety (Gregg and Seigworth 2010).

For the ethnological tradition of the cultural analysis of everyday life, I find the development of what has been called non-representational theory especially interesting. A somewhat clumsy term, it was first developed as an umbrella term among British cultural geographers (Thrift 2008; Anderson and Harrison 2010). It combines several theoretical and ethnographic perspectives and might more accurately be termed "more-than-representational theory." It focuses less on codes, representations, and discourses and more on everyday practices and skills, as well as sensibilities and feelings (drawing as it does on theories of materiality, performance and affect). In many ways it is grounded in the phenomenological imperative to start the analysis with "the how" rather than "the why" of social action. It means focusing on the constant making and remaking of everyday life. This interest does not, of course, exclude the symbolic and semiotic aspects of material objects; the boundaries between the non- or pre-representational and the representational are constantly blurred.

In a sense, the most interesting part of non-representational studies is the methodological focus: an interest in a constant experimentation with methods to capture dimensions of actions that are hard to verbalize. As Philip Vannini (2015, 14) puts it, researchers "should try to dance a little more." This is often done through bricolage, combining different materials and approaches, inviting dialogues with art, popular culture, and fiction. The result is a strong interweaving of theory and methodological approaches in an attempt to find new ways of doing ethnography and often learning from approaches outside academia, such as artists experimenting with destabilising or provoking everyday life, for example (Thrift 2008).

Maybe I am interested in non-representational studies because they strike a familiar chord. We find similar attempts at opening up new research strategies among European ethnologists, but in a less organized form.

If methodology can be said to be the strength of non-representational studies, the same cannot be said about most affective theories. Although they have developed new perspectives on the study of feelings they usually do so within a framework of cultural studies or philosophy, which means that there is a lack of contextual ethnographic analysis, but also of historical perspectives. I would like to see more of affects at work in concrete situations, shaped by history, gender, class, etc. This is where I think ethnologists could make a contribution.

Thinking Outside the Box?

Behind the theoretical trends I have mentioned is also a heightened interest in the study of everyday life in a number of disciplines. It is no longer a terrain where we are alone; "everybody" seems to research everyday life today. In this general interest, however, there is a great deal of discourse, even in the handbooks, on the mundane, but much less close scrutiny of actual practices or thick descriptions of the everyday in action.

The interest in everyday life is not only intense in academia, but also in the job market. Corporations, government agencies, and NGOs look for good ethnographies of everyday life; ethnologists are brought in as consultants and are expected to unravel the secrets of everyday life and make the mundane exotic and surprising. In the fast growing world of applied ethnology, it is for this skill of doing ethnographies of the quotidian that ethnologists are most often hired (see Ehn, Lofgren, and Wilk 2015).

An example of this interest is discussed in a paper by Tine Damsholt and Astrid Jespersen (2015), two Danish ethnologists who were involved in a multidisciplinary project to study present and future consumer behaviour, together with a future studies consultancy, which was eager to create innovative scenarios of new consumer behaviour. When the ethnologists presented their in-depth observations and interviews about everyday life that they had carried out in a number of households, one of the consultants said, "Thanks! This is a fine material to have, but now it is to time 'think out of the box.'" He meant stepping outside of the constraints of everyday life that supposedly restrict our creative and innovative process.

For those consultants, and for many others, everyday life represents a box characterized by boring routines, predictable preferences, conservative or slow-changing traditions--a grey life of "more of the same," a stale status quo. For them, everyday life does not stand for the buzzwords of "creativity" and "innovation." The two ethnologists ask why their insights into everyday life were considered a box and a burden: what kind of box, and why a burden?

I have encountered the same attitude in an interdisciplinary attempt to create a research platform on "the mediatization of everyday life." It struck me that in talks on the impact of new media and other technologies, the everyday is often relegated to the role of a passive backdrop or scene-setter, but not an active actor. There is constant talk of how new technology--from digital media to 3D printing--will revolutionize everyday life. As ethnologists, we should turn the question around for a change. How does the quotidian revolutionize new technologies? Everyday life can be seen as a machinery that drastically changes the forms, functions and futures of, for example, new media. It chews and devours new technologies and some of them are spit out rapidly because they cannot be integrated into everyday practices and needs. Others are digested, tested, adapted, and changed. Many of these processes are hard to notice, difficult to verbalize and operate like slow accumulations of change.

As ethnologists we like to see ourselves as masters of the study of the everyday, but we still know surprisingly little about how this machinery works. One could argue that everyday life remains the black box of ethnology. Our understanding is still piecemeal and fragmented--a thought I find comforting--and there is still much to be discovered (to stay with a favourite ethnological metaphor). Without getting trapped in hunting for turns, the search for overlooked dimensions in the study of everyday life could help us to focus more on not only "new dimensions" but also on what Doreen Massey (2005) has called throwntogetherness. How do objects, people, feelings, sensibilities or activities co-exist? Her concept explores the ways in which diverse elements come to cohabit in a setting or a situation, often as unexpected neighbours. But in order to understand how these confrontations work, a few other theoretical tools are helpful. In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett analyses the agency and affective power of things, from a small collection of rubbish to a nationwide electricity grid, using Deleuze and Gattari's term assemblage as an example of a "confederate agency" (Bennett 2010). Maurizia Boscagli (2014) also tackles similar issues of affect and...

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