This conference will run for one month, through the 4th of November. On November 13th, at the Midwest MLA in Chicago, I will be chairing a Medieval Studies session devoted to the same topic as our current Interscripta session. The four presenters have agreed to make their papers available to us via the Labyrinth. I hope that some of you will be able to read and respond to these papers here and attend the session in Chicago. I'm very excited by the focus and broad participation that a dual conference of this sort makes possible.
I will also be placing a brief bibliography within the Labyrinth, devoted to the critical issues surrounding the concept of the Everyday in contemporary scholarship. Except for a few instances, I have not included studies of everyday phenomena, as this would expand the bibliography beyond usefulness. As relevant works come up in the course of the conversation, I will add these to the bibliography, with your annotations. Postings that are purely bibliographic in nature are appreciated, but might not be circulated publically.
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In literary studies, by contrast, the Everyday has received little attention. Discussions of orality, literacy, and manuscript culture, while vital, have not to my knowledge incorporated much reflection on the Everyday. Critical energy has instead been channeled into an interrogation of the popular. This approach raises issues of aesthetics, class, and canonicity that are only secondarily relevant to speculations about the relation between literature and the everyday.
This forum can help us to figure out where we stand, to isolate those current problems, approaches, and objects of study that might fruitfully be seen through the lens of the Everyday. Both the lens and the study will undoubtedly be refined. Some of us however may want to address the issue of the Everyday more directly; the rest of this excursus delineates one contemporary approach to the Everyday.
Study of the Everyday in literature and the social sciences may be enriched by considering the broader issue of representation (including issues of mimesis, 'realism,' and literary decorum more generally) and by a Cultural Studies that is increasingly influential. In spite of its near-exclusive focus on the modern and the post-modern Everyday as a product of late capitalism, its investigations of the Everyday are of great potential relevance for Medieval Studies, providing a theory of everyday practice, a broadened sense of culture, and a focus on representation. Cultural Studies may help redefine the object of inquiry so as to make it more visible to investigators of the medieval quotidian.
One example is the area of "practice." Traditional inquiries into the Everyday are frequently characterized by what I call the 'tyranny of the typical,' which renders both the medieval and modern Everyday ahistorical. The modern consumer is frequently thought to have fled history into the cocoon of private life, where 'nothing happens,' participating vicariously in 'events' created and transmitted by a mass media specializing in the banal. Human nature is seen as typical, statistical. Likewise, the medieval Everyday in Braudel's view is pre-historical, matter striving to become history. In her discussion of Braudel, Michelle Chilcoat calls attention to the Everyday as "the Other of History" in its "incapacity for active movement" and "the disorder that renders visibility difficult" (1-2).
The challenge for history is to envision an 'eventful Everyday' for the Middle Ages. While studies of the medieval Everyday have frequently focused on the type--the peasant, the dwelling--it might be productive to investigate what De Certeau calls "ways of operating": "the innumerable practices by means of which users [i.e.creative consumers] reappropriate the space organized by techniques of sociocultural production" (xiv). Chilcoat focuses on a rhetoric of walking that organizes a thirteenth-century French itinerary poem set in Paris. What examples of "everyday resistance" do we have to set against the Peasant's Rebellion? Simultaneity is another feature of everyday practice; Margery Kempe is involved simultaneously in economic and cultural productions, and biological reproduction. We know a great deal about types of everyday activity, but precious little about practices, which are rich precisely at the intersections, contradictions, and evasions of the typical.
In discussing an 'eventful Everyday,' one might also want to consider how the medieval Everyday comes to us on the back of the event. Braudel wrote that "every event, however brief, is certainly a testimony, it lights up some corner of the landscape of history, or even sometimes its profounder levels." (qtd. in CP 6). Pascal writes that "the everyday is that illuminated by the light of chance"; these random flashes of the eventful both uncover and distort the Everyday. For instance, archival evidence from legal records--depositions, suits, etc.--must be seen not in isolation but as part of a 'case.' Medieval representations of the Everyday are rarely innocent; they always appear within a context or frame. Mark Johnston for instance calls attention to the rhetoric that governs the insertion of the Everyday in medieval exempla. One might simply say, with Blanchot, that "the everyday escapes" (244).
The issue of literary representation raises a somewhat different set of concerns. The Everyday seems to recede before a literature that is above all eventful. Certain scenes in medieval literature are mimetic, or naturalistic, or realistic, while leaving the Everyday per se in the shadows. Where we see that combination of the iterative and the common, it serves to highlight an uncommon and singular event. Bruegel's Icarus (and Auden's response--"how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along") and Books of Hours are good examples of this. Elisa Rosales discusses quotidian transformations of epic in medieval Spanish ballads in this context. There are also special strategies for dealing with the iterative per se, in for instance Perceval's five-year absence from Arthur's court (and the narrative) in Chrtien de Troyes romance.
In general, one might ask: How is the category of the Everyday deployed in medieval literature? What is its relation to the "realistic?" What happens to the Everyday when it is subsumed by a literary event? And, as Rosemary Greentree asks in her discussion of lyrics on the measurement of time and care of the body, what about that vast corpus of everyday literature treating themes considered beneath representation, and inaccessible to canonical practices of close reading?
Certainly, the medieval Everyday forms a different object of inquiry than that suggested by Cultural Studies. A little word study might make this clear. The usual words for the Everyday in Middle English are "cotidian" or "ech-dai." Words that connote a modern sense of the Everyday--"banal" and "bore" (boredom is the trace of the Everyday, Blanchot writes)--don't appear in English until the eighteenth century. The origin of "banal" is instructive. Beginning as a noun referring to a common feudal service, "banal" evolves into the commonplace, beneath notice. "Common," like "banal" evolves from an adjective distinguishing man's existence as a species to one denoting his inability to rise above this existence. By the nineteenth century, both "banal" and "common" become jibes in the mouths of the upper classes. Class and the modern Everyday rise together. Were one to trace back a modern Everyday into the Middle Ages, one would have to return to the cradle of class, capital, private life, and the mob--to the medieval City.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Infinite Conversation (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P,
Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: U of Cal. P, 1984).
Chilcoat, A. Michelle. "'Walking Rhetorics': Articulations of Daily Life in Paris in some Thirteenth-Century Old French dits."
Constructing the Past: Essays in Historical Methodology. Jacques Le Goff and Pierre Nora, ed. Colin Lucas, intro. (Cambridge: CUP, 1985).
Greentree, Rosemary. "'Thirty Dayes hath Novembre': Time and Life in Middle English Verse."
Johnston, Mark. "Do Exempla Illustrate Everyday Life?"
Rosales, Elisa. "The Quotidian Motif in Medieval Spanish Ballads."