How can everyday life be defined? It surrounds us, it besieges us, on all sides and from all directions. We are inside it and outside it. No so-called ‘elevated’ activity can be reduced to it, nor can it be separated from it. Its activities are born, they grow and emerge; once they have left the nourishing earth of their native land, not one of them can be formed and fulfilled on its own account. In this earth they are born. If they emerge, it is because they have grown and prospered. It is the heart of the everyday that projects become works of creativity. [i]Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, vol. 2
Few philosophers have wrestled with understanding the importance of everyday life more than Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991). Living a life that encompassed nearly a century, Lefebvre sought to understand the intersection between our ideas and the space where those ideas are implemented—everyday life. Indeed, what Lefebvre sought was an answer to the question: “How do people live?” Surely, this is a simple question with profound implications. The difficulty this question poses is one that emerges once we consider the complexity of everyday life. It’s that complexity that drove much of Lefebvre’s work. Moreover, his philosophical and sociological thought is masterful for helping us discover the complex within what most consider simple. For example, he describes the question of everyday life as a question that
may be difficult to answer, but that does not make it any the less clear. In another sense nothing could be more superficial: it is banality, triviality, repetitiveness. And in yet another sense nothing could be more profound. It is existence and ‘lived’, revealed as they are before speculative thought has transcribed them: what must be changed and what is the hardest of all to change. [ii]
For Lefebvre, everyday life—in all its rawness and ambiguity—offers a more realistic picture of the world than the high and lofty ideals of philosophy. Life, in all its messiness, suggests that everydayness is neither illusionary nor fallacious, but represents our best and most authentic tool for understanding and learning. Thus, the question posed by the everyday challenges us to actually consider existence in actuality rather than theory. It helps us to avoid, as Lefebvre describes it, “false consciousness or permanent bad faith” [iii]. Or in other words, everyday life keeps us honest about what we really know about ourselves and the world around us.
In a manner of speaking, Lefebvre encourages us to embrace life, not reject it as some accidental byproduct of history. And this escape from life can take a variety of forms—all of which amount to the same result. Lefebvre writes, “Escape from life or rejection of life, recourse to outmoded or exhausted ways of life, nostalgia for the past or dreams of a superhuman future, these positions are basically identical” [iv]. Idealism for the future or the longing for the past are both two sides of the same coin—an abandonment of the here and now. Consequently, both amount to an “action against life”[v].
Such an abandonment of everyday life—and consequently the people who comprise it—has more than just intellectual implications. Indeed, as Lefebvre repeatedly shows, life amounts to a number of intersecting and overlaying social spaces. Work, home, culture, politics, and religion (to name a few) aren’t neatly tucked away in their own realms. Rather, all of it—every bit of the mess we call ‘life’—is a mashup of several different social spaces. Granted some may be more important than others, but each ultimately exerts some degree of influence on what we do (and vice versa). In our everyday lives, we’re both the producers and the products of our environment. According to Lefebvre,
(Social) space is not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather it subsumes things produced, and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity – their (relative) order and/or (relative) disorder…Itself the outcome of past actions, social space is what permits fresh actions to occur, while suggesting others and prohibiting yet others. [vi]
Herein lies the importance of everyday life—one we frequently miss either willfully or blindly—it’s that the everyday is the realm of possibility. Undoubtedly, these possibilities maybe good, bad, or somewhere in-between. And yet, the joy of the everyday is one where anything might happen—even in the most routine of circumstances.
This space, which we call everyday life, holds both “platitude and profoundness, banality and drama. In one respect everyday life is nothing but triviality or an accumulation of commonplaces . . . And yet it is in the everyday that human dramas ravel and unravel, or remain unravelled [vii].” In all its joys, drama, and downright weirdness, everyday life carries an authenticity we all to often miss—it’s the small day-by-day occurrences that mold and shape us into the people we are today. Thus, the failure to regard the importance of the everyday (or to ignore it entirely) is ultimately a failure at understanding our world, our neighbors, and ourselves. Therefore, the question—How do people live?—becomes at best one shrouded in mystery and ignorance, at worst it’s misappropriated and abused. In either case we lose the importance of the everyday.
Writing in 1961, Lefebvre worried about the loss or “trivialization” of everyday life due to technology and mass media. Worried about the disjointed and disconnected world created by television and modern appliances, Lefebvre feared that “the horizon of the modern world dawns the black sun of boredom” [viii] What concerned Lefebvre the most was the wide-scale passivity this new mass media world offered. Much of this he blamed on television. Lefebvre writes,
Television allows every household to look at the spectacle of the world, but it is precisely this mode of looking at the world as a spectacle which introduces non-participation and receptive passivity. . . . The mass media strip the magic of presence from what was the presence of magic: participation—real, active, or potential. Sitting in his armchair, surrounded by his wife and children, the television viewer witnesses the universe. [ix]
Within passive viewership the everyday is lost. Undeniably, Lefebvre witnessed only a small fraction of what mass media would ultimately become in the present. The internet and social media would extend this passivity beyond the living room and into public space. Truly, today the “art of presenting the everyday by taking it from its context, emphasizing it, making it appear unusual or picturesque and overloading it with meaning, has become highly [skillful]” [x]. As a result, the everyday is alienated from context, suddenly everyone has access to lives and experiences across the globe. We’re able to view and immerse ourselves in the environments of others from virtually anywhere. And yet when bombarded by the everyday of others we lose ourselves—our own everyday life. As a result, the private life is generalized to the point of becoming a caricature of itself. Privacy becomes superficial, the social loses cohesion, and everyday life loses its depth.
To lose the depth of life is to lose life’s spontaneity and spice. The flavor of life, its delights and pleasures—along with its miseries and disappointments—make life worth living. The depth of life is the joy of the unexpected within the expected. It’s the condition to be surprised and find enjoyment. The depth, Lefebvre explains, is what makes everyday life so remarkable. Within the everyday we encounter and experience untold triumphs and failures, but it’s the possibility—the potential to be either/or—which makes the everyday so special. Thus, Lefebvre laments that it’s this depth, which we only find within the everyday, that is slipping away. It’s fading away into the over-compartmentalization of life brought about by technology, mass construction, and hyper-capitalism.
Suddenly, everything we do boils down to its function. Today, we’re ushered forward and re-purposed to fulfill daily and lackluster functions like cogs in a machine. Our lives our re-packaged neatly into work, commercialism, and home (in that order). We complete our daily tasks in jobs that seem lackluster and unfulfilling, which allows us to then complete our other function as the buyers and commercial drones that run the economy. Finally, at the end of the day, we return to homes that amount to “well-constructed ‘machines for living in'” that function as “a machine for the upkeep of life outside work” [xi]. Lefebvre continues,
Everyday life sees itself treated like packaging: a vast machine seizes the worker’s time outside work and folds it in a wrapping as sterile as the protective cellophane round a commodity. People are separated from group to group (workers, craftsmen, technicians) and from each other, each in his [or her] box for living in, and this modernity organizes their repeated gestures. [xii]
Both the machinery of humanity and the generalization of private life work in conjunction to compartmentalize, isolate, and devalue the everyday. Machinery reduces spontaneity while the private becomes a spectacle. Missing from both are those moments of participating, loving and sharing, and ultimately living. Consequently, the creativity of the everyday is replaced with order and the organized choreography of social media. Thus, the everyday is reduced to a function. Today, everyday life is what’s done in private, carefully cordoned off from work and tinged with capitalistic fervor. And yet, this privacy becomes public as seemingly everyday experiences are given publicity and showmanship through social media. As a result, the authenticity that permeates the everyday is lost. Separated and disjointed, our experiences boil down to the vicarious experiences we gain as viewers of other people’s lives. What’s left of the everyday when work, commercialism, and viewership occupy what’s left of the social experience?
And yet, everyday life remains. People do carry on with the act of living. Everyday, people get married, have children, share meals with others, laugh, play, and enjoy that little time that has been allotted to them. For that spontaneity—that precious depth of existence—can never be fully blotted out. And this is in part what Lefebvre hoped to show in his work. While technology and culture change, the everyday still carries on. The question “How do people live?” is still worth exploring. The great questions of life carry on, albeit in new forms and conditions. Lefebvre writes, “When the world the sun shines on is always new, how could everyday life be forever unchangeable, unchangeable in its boredom, its greyness, its repetition of the same actions [xiii]?” Everyday life is still worth exploring as the questions it raises persist still. For despite mechanization, technolization, and commercialization, people still want to know what life is all about. The pleasures and anxieties that comprise everyday existence still rack our brains. And this search for understanding is perhaps the greatest guarantee that religion and philosophy will continue to exist (at least in some form). Yet, Lefebvre refused to see this as a positive thing. Lefebvre was by no means sympathetic to religion, and laments this prospect stating,
Theological faith is dead, metaphysical reason is dead. And yet they live on, they take on new life—insanely, absurdly—because the situation and the human conflicts from which they were born have not been resolved. Now these conflicts are not in the realm of thought alone, but in everyday life. [xiv]
Religious and lofty philosophical ideals (i.e. metaphysics) held little interest for Lefebvre. For him, both (particularly religion) represented a destructive path. Religion, he argues, “accumulates all man’s helplessness. It offers a critique of life; it is itself that critique: a reactionary, destructive critique” [xv]. Lefebvre emphasized the practical understanding that came with participating in and embracing the everyday, qualities he didn’t see within the escapism offered by religion. Accordingly,
To see things properly, it is not enough simply to look. People who look at life—purely as witness, spectators—are not rare; and one of the strangest lessons to be learnt from our literature is that professional spectators, judges by vocation and witnesses by predestination, contemplate life with less understanding and grasp of its rich content than anyone else. There really is no substitute for participation! [xvi]
Despite Lefebvre’s irreverence toward religion, he unbeknownst offers theologians a important gift for better understanding our world. Lefebvre helps us to better realize that knowledge isn’t the sole property of professional intellectuals—those paid to look at society from afar. Indeed, universities are already awash with people who are very good at looking at life. Instead, Lefebvre encourages us to participate in it. But in order to do so we must rediscover the everyday. We must rediscover its simple joys as well as its disappointments. Thus, we must put away our viewership and grasp the world around us. The question, “How do people live?” isn’t just one for the philosophers and sociologists. For theologians, the question of the everyday is the ultimate theological question. As such, the everyday should be our guide for understanding and encountering God in the world. A God who isn’t satisfied with remaining afar, but who instead enters the everyday and participates within the life of the other.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [xvii]
This is the first in a series of essays that will explore the importance and necessity of everyday life. As we move forward, we’ll continue our look at the everyday through Michel de Certeau, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard, and more. Ultimately, we’ll move this forward toward a better understanding of the liminal.
[i] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life: Foundations for a Sociology of the Everyday, vol. 2, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 2008), 41.
[ii] vol. 2, 47. Italics in the original.
[iii] vol. 2, 58.
[iv] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life: Introduction, vol.1, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 2008), 130.
[v] vol. 1, 130.
[vi] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 73.
[vii] vol. 2, 65.
[viii] vol 2, 75.
[ix] vol. 2, 76.
[x] vol. 2, 76.
[xi] vol. 2, 78-79.
[xii] vol. 2, 79.
[xiii] vol. 1, 228.
[xiv] vol. 1, 141. Italics in the original.
[xv] vol. 1, 227. Italics in the original.
[xvi] vol. 1, 237.
[xvii] Philippians 2:6-8 (English Standard Version)