Michael E. Gardiner (2000) Critiques of Everyday Life

New York and London: Routledge. ISBN: 0415113148

‘The familiar is not necessarily the known’

Liam McNamara

It is Michael E. Gardiner’s contention that the world of ‘everyday life’ is often overlooked in mainstream sociology. For Gardiner, everyday life is a potential repository of ‘human raw material’, and is therefore indivisible from the social powers inherent in unalienated production.[1] In his book Critiques of Everyday Life[2] he attempts to redress the balance by analyzing manifold studies of everyday life, looking at theorists such as Henri Lefebvre, the Situationists, and Agnes Heller. Gardiner’s fresh approach may be distinguished from mainstream sociology by two strands of analysis: firstly, he points out that his focus is on intersubjective ways in which individuals manage social and cultural material within the context of everyday life, involving a move from conventional totalizing perspectives to micrological approaches. He is exploring a less deterministic and schematic view of everyday life in favour of an account that is more qualitative and aware of the constitutive contradictions that structure the term. This entails a focus on the radical aspects of everyday life in order to expose the extraordinary in the ordinary. Secondly, Gardiner is trying to resurrect the revolutionary analysis of everyday life, pointing out that it cannot be examined in isolation from the power structures that have come to generate and influence it. This involves a retrenchment of the philosophical work on alienation developed by the early Marx of the ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844)’, shifting from positivism to Ideologiekritik and dialectics. This is a perilous manoeuvre on Gardiner’s part, considering humanist leanings of this stance, but this view is important for him in the formation of a critical reflexive view of culture and adopting values linked to praxis. Gardiner calls for the repoliticization of cultural studies, by invoking the dialectical materialist concept of the ‘total man’, and trying to expose the ‘good other’ of modernity by uncovering hidden aspects of everyday life in the marvellous or the potlatch.[3] It is worth pointing out that for Gardiner the political is synonymous with Marx’s theory of alienation, which has receded in importance in contemporary cultural studies.

Gardiner begins by analyzing the search for a poetics of everyday life undertaken by Dada and Surrealism. He sketches out the trajectory of their thinking, pointing out their opposition to the disenchantment of everyday life. This functions as an important precursor to the later chapters of the book that feature non-dogmatic reformulations of Marxism. For example, the Surrealist emphasis on the body and their distaste for work can be seen as non-Promethean forms of dialectical materialism. However, I think Gardiner places too much emphasis on the ‘constructive’ aspects of violent behaviour; following the work of Baudrillard, it may be that certain forms of violence cannot be assimilated as a form of creative praxis.[4]

Mikhail Bakhtin has been a recurring figure in Gardiner’s academic work, and he has a particular fondness and deep understanding of his theories. This is made evident in the chapter ‘Bakhtin’s Prosaic Imagination’. Bakhtin has pointed out how Western thinking has rejected ‘bodily, lived experience’ in favour of more sterile and remote theoretical notions, best exemplified by Platonism. Scientific rationality has converted the fecundity of everyday life, ‘being-as-event’, into dry theoretical abstractions. The result is the conventional Marxist eulogy for cultural participation, criticizing the egocentric subjectivity that has come into the ascendancy. Gardiner also points out how Bakhtin’s phenomenological stance has many affinities with the work of Heidegger, which is especially evident in Bakhtin’s understanding of how we transform our environment into a meaningful ‘world-for-me’. Clearly this has also similarities with the work of the early Marx, since the view of life privileged by modernity overlooks this fundamentally participative, creative and ethical aspect of everyday life. Therefore, Bakhtin surmises, everyday life is of great value and has a meaningful function all of its own, involving a kind of practical rationality, similar to Lefebvre’s concept of ‘giving one’s share’ when he discusses the use of the symbol in pre-capitalist societies. Science, the dialectic of History, the unconscious, are all abstractions that have alienated us from everyday life, and it is here that Bakhtin takes a major divergence from classical Marxism. For Bakhtin, only the ‘prosaic imagination’ can comprehend the radical alterity at the core of everyday life, since this rational kernel is lost in subject/object dialectics. Ultimately this is a form of historical materialism that drastically reconfigures Marx’s conception of praxis.

In order to clarify this point, the author has provided a lucid introduction to Bakhtin’s difficult concept of the ‘I-other’ relation. In everyday experience our attempts to make meaning of the world encounter difficulties, especially in relation to remote or obscure phenomena. Bakhtin places great emphasis on these moments of alterity, but the problem is that in trying to bestow meaning on the world around us we cannot envision ourselves from outside it; in order to do so we need another perspective in addition to our own. In other words, we have a unique perspective on the world, but cannot see the other, while the other can perceive things that we cannot see ourselves. So a kind of co-participation is required to see the social totality– this dialogical encounter of the I-other enables a truly authentic form of ethical behaviour. Bakhtin also links this process of reciprocity to the status of being truly human, since this arrangement facilitates a relationship of dialogue that benefits both parties. However, modernity precludes this development, since in scientific rationality we relate to the other, a subject, as an object; this leads to an impoverishment of human relations. Bakhtin calls this phenomenon a ‘surplus of vision’. Gardiner points out that this theory has similarities to the Frankfurt School critique of instrumental reason– this is an interesting point considering Adorno’s ambivalence towards dialectics, but Adorno sees the subject/object relation as a necessary ‘operative ideology’ in understanding reification (1978).

Gardiner then shifts attention to the linguistic turn in Bakhtin’s theory, opposing it to the dry Saussurean structuralist understanding of language. As mentioned above, dialogue is a means of initiating this self-other relationship, and Bakhtin therefore sees dialogue as an essentially ‘human’ activity. The monologic word ‘gravitates towards itself and its referential object’ (CEL,58); this is the realm of Hegelian teleology and the Saussurean conception of the word. Conversely, the dialogic word is closely involved in the word of an(other), and is fundamentally participative. So Bakhtin’s linguistic turn involves a move from phenomenology to a critical historical materialism, since the linguistic can be linked directly to the social. Monological structures have the potential to be dialogized through an understanding of the social and historical conditions that produce these monological discourses in the first place. These theories receive rigorous application in Bakhtin’s work on the novel, where he suggests that the author is secondary to the flux of voices that constitutes the literary text, reducing the agency of the author’s ego. By focusing too closely on authorial intention the literary establishment seeks to silence these other voices and impose a unitary viewpoint, leading to a repudiation of everyday life. Gardiner points out, ‘for Bakhtin language is unitary only in the abstract; in reality, there exists a irreducible plurality of ‘verbal-ideological and social belief systems’ (CEL,61). Bakhtin is attempting to politicize the site of everyday life into a struggle of counter-hegemonic languages against a dominant monological form of discourse. The novel is shaped out of everyday heteroglossia, therefore it can be a site of contention against a dominant culture. I think a good example of this could be the queer readings of canonical texts that disrupt heteronormative interpretations. In addition to this, the novel dispels epic elements in art, facilitating a transition from the immutable space of myth towards a more critical conception of everyday life.

The Bakhtinian valorization of marginalized folk cultures reaches its apotheosis in his work on Rabelais. Looking at popular medieval culture, Bakhtin conceives of ‘the flesh’ as a dialogizing force since it involves the interplay of self and other in orgiastic acts of sex, eating, and drinking. This work on the Festival constitutes the culmination of Bakhtin’s post-Cartesian stance. However, Gardiner points out that this can only lead to the fetishization of everyday life, since the lifeworld may already be colonized by modernity, meaning that the sharp distinction between dialogic and monologic practices may not be so simple. Despite this criticism, Gardiner explains how Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque extends his notion of the prosaic in a new direction, since it foregrounds the transformative experience of everyday life, where nature is brought closer to individuals through the engagement of self and other. If I had a criticism here, it is that in symbolic pre-capitalist societies nature is always a terrifying ominous force that must be propitiated through symbolic exchange. For Baudrillard, this gap between self and other is necessary in negotiating truly reciprocal forms of communication, and has been renounced in favour of indiscriminate mixing and commutability. This has forced us to hallucinate the other as a strategy to cope with its absence.[5] From Baudrillard’s point of view, the contemporary valorization of Bakhtin’s theory could be considered to be the uncritical celebration of a kind of ‘resurrection effect’ of a mortifying reality principle.

In Chapter Four Gardiner examines the oeuvre of the French Marxist Henri Lefebvre. Lefebvre also shares some of Bakhtin’s post-Cartesian themes, but the central difference is that Lefebvre’s ideas are totally immersed in the early Marx’s theory of alienation; for Lefebvre, everyday life is important because it also lies within the circuit of production. Like Bakhtin, Lefebvre valorizes pre-capitalist societies where work and leisure are more integrated, since due to the cultural differentiation and division of labour brought about by modernity it is now harder to fulfil human desires. The ‘total man’, analogous to the Marxian concept of ‘species being’, is best glimpsed in the Festival; we have foregone this in favour of the bureaucratic potlatch of the consumer society. For Lefebvre, an understanding of the social totality and the refutation of bourgeois idealism can only emerge through the analysis of everyday life. Lefebvre’s main tool of analysis is gained via his critical reading of Marx, and has similarities to the Surrealists and the Situationists. Gardiner points out how Lefebvre rejects a ‘metaphysics of labour’ in favour of a critical praxis that operates through poesis rather than work. However, Lefebvre also criticizes the tendency for Surrealism to strive for an escape from everyday life via the marvellous, rather than enabling its dialectical supersession. Many of these ideas are integrated into a critical theory of leisure, opposing an affective leisure to an instrumental, egocentric variant. I think these ideas constitute an important riposte to the work of the cultural theorist Daniel Miller, who has suggested that consumer’s use of mass culture can be considered to be an act of creative praxis. However, I think that Gardiner unfairly criticizes the ‘culture industry’ thesis of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (CEL,86); the caricature of these theorists as high cultural mandarins is somewhat false, since they point out that high culture emerged as a consequence of commodification, conceiving a fragile purity in a rarefied sphere. This is why Adorno says of high and low culture: ‘both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up’ (1994: 123). In this sense high culture reveals a commodity character analogous to low culture.

Theory emerging from Lefebvre’s later career takes a linguistic turn, but the focus remains on everyday life as an unfulfilled realm of human potentialities. Modernity is categorized as an impoverished realm where the affective powers of the symbol have been substituted by the ‘signal’ (sign) and metalanguage. This process of cybernetization vitiates everyday life, and the technocracy it helps usher in shows a total absence of Utopian vision. The most alarming development is the loss of referential meaning in language; meaning is decontextualized by the split of the signifier and signified, leading to their hasty fusion. This precludes any meaningful form of communication, and has close affinities with Roland Barthes’ view of contemporary myth as a secondary semiological system. Like Baudrillard, Lefebvre displays a salutary antipathy for structuralism, seeing it as a capitulation to semiological reduction. Interestingly, Gardiner makes cursory links to these ideas and Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality, but there are problems in doing this, as I shall explain at the end of this review.

The Situationists are the logical next step for Gardiner, since they occupy much of the same philosophical trajectory as Lefebvre. The Situationists can be seen as the inheritors of the Surrealist theme of cultural de-differentiation, through the formation of ‘situations’ as an attack on alienated production. The central concept of Situationism is ‘the spectacle’, which is conceived of as the materialization of ideology, leading to a kind of institutionalized philosophical idealism. This process of ‘banalization’ curtails the inherent potential of everyday life by fragmenting culture; Marc Augé’s theories of anthropology can be considered as an extension of this argument. The Situationist critique of ‘survivalism’ deepens this analysis, explaining how subjectivity has been proletarianized in the effort to indefinitely extend the lifespan of a moribund capitalism. Coupled with this theory there is a tendency to locate social change in working class praxis, with the Paris Commune of 1871 provided as the exemplary manifestation of this. This is probably the least interesting section of Gardiner’s book, since the work of the Situationists has been comprehensively covered elsewhere in the work of Sadie Plant and Greil Marcus. There are also serious problems with the Situationist critique of the spectacle that Gardiner doesn’t discuss– firstly, one of the means of resisting the fragmentation of everyday life inculcated by the spectacle is to look back to pre-capitalist societies. The potlatch is proposed as a model of ‘nonproductive expenditure’, and the Situationists see this as the indispensable feature of societies that are free of power relations. Not only does this seem a rather unrealistic model of society, it also shows a lack of emphasis on cruelty; both Lefebvre and Baudrillard see cruelty as an important feature of symbolic societies, opposing this to the overly moral and sanctimonious sentimental order of our own society. Secondly, Baudrillard’s critique of Hans Magnus Enzensberger practically nullifies the detournement of cultural material as an emancipatory practice. If ‘the medium is the message’, the media message always precludes a reciprocal response due to its unilateral sign form. Baudrillard says ‘one cannot break the monopoly of speech if one’s goal is simply to distribute it equally to everyone. Speech must be able to exchange, give and repay itself as is occasionally the case with looks and smiles. It cannot simply be interrupted, congealed, stockpiled, and redistributed in some corner of the social process’ (1981: 170). The vulgar Marxist democratization of the media on the part of the Situationists shows a profound ignorance of how media messages are transmitted and received.

The next chapter on Agnes Heller, a Hungarian Marxist and pupil of Georg Lukács, is of great interest due to her overlooked status. Heller is a kind of postmodern Marxist, critiquing the notion of a historical telos inherent in Marxist thinking and the devaluation of ‘bourgeois’ concepts such as ethics. Despite this, Heller is essentially a rationalist, since she retains a commitment to the notion of the intellectual and to certain underlying notions pertaining to historical materialism. For example, Heller, like Lefebvre, sees everyday life as increasingly detached from science and leisure. Gardiner points out how Francis Bacon derided everyday life, and from the Renaissance onwards human needs ceased to be organically grounded and increasingly issued from the specialized activities introduced by political economy. In opposition to this alienation, Heller strives for a Lukács-style ‘humanization’ of everyday life, but also employs a micrological approach in order to avoid reifying everyday life into a system. In order to understand the link between social reproduction and everyday life, Heller develops and reconceptualizes three key concepts linked by the Marxian notion of ‘work’ (i.e. how we appropriate cultural material): firstly, ‘objectivation-in-itself’, secondly ‘objectivation-for-itself’, and finally ‘objectivation-for-and-in-itself’. In the first category are located the basic tools of everyday life, such as objects and language. These tools constitute the essential foundation of everyday life and are often taken for granted. However, Heller reflexively employs these basic faculties, differentiating her approach from ahistorical structuralism. The second category describes how everyday life operates through affect, and is heterogeneous, unpredictable and repetitive. This form of cultural appropriation is highly pragmatic and geared towards the needs of the individual rather than the group. Capitalism has encouraged the more privatized aspects of this form of behaviour, so in our own era ‘objectivation-for-itself’ may be considered as crudely analogous to alienated production. However, there is potential in both for change– Gardiner says ‘daily life generates a ‘cognitive’ or ‘cultural surplus’ that can be translated into less heterodox and hence more ‘generic’ forms of human activity that concern the enrichment of species-being’ (CEL,137). Heller is invoking the early Marx, but is shifting the site of human expression from work as a form of praxis to everyday life. Heller introduces the Aristotlean notion of ‘phronesis’ in order to explain this process, whereby the particular is not lost in the general, and one acquires a ‘practical wisdom’ that provides a rational understanding of one’s unique potentialities. For Heller, species-being involves a shift from ‘objectivation-in-itself’ to ‘objectivation-for-itself’, and a concomitant focus on the positive aspects of each process as it is realized in everyday life, suspending the utilitarian features of both. The third category, ‘objectivation-for-and-in-itself’ is employed by the institutionalized sphere of science and instrumental rationality. Gardiner is interested in these ideas because they deepen Marx’s theory of alienation, but also give the study of everyday life an explicitly ethical and rational grounding. This can be attained through philosophy, art (providing glimpses of a non-reified world) and silence (memory and intimacy linked to forms of praxis). Gardiner’s interpretation of Heller intensifies these ethical aspects, allowing for pluralistic conceptions of Utopian thinking that may circumvent the cul-de-sac of the gulag archipelago. Lefebvre’s work has in the past been accused of being too consensual, or even Stalinist, and Heller is important for Gardiner since she effectively synthesises the Lefebvrean study of everyday life with a more ethical outlook.

The following chapter called ‘The Cunning of Unreason’ examines the work of Michel de Certeau. His work is less abstractly philosophical than many of his predecessors, and probably has the most in common with the British cultural moralists such as Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. De Certeau’s research has its most useful applications in the popular culture debate, through his attempts to show how academic views of ‘mass culture’ may reflect ideological interests, and his desire to shift criticism from technocratic domains to the terrain of everyday life. This constitutes a nascent heterology, but de Certeau has moved emancipatory acts away from the sublime valorized by the Situationists and Lefebvre to more prosaic activities such as eating and drinking. Of the theorists examined in this book, de Certeau’s work probably shows the least affinities with Marxism, since he locates resistance on the periphery of society, and not in the more collective Marxian concept of ‘species being’. However, de Certeau differs from a theorist such as Foucault in how he locates contestatory acts in active resistance rather than in the manipulation of cultural material. For example, de Certeau disagrees with Althusser’s theory of interpellation, since it denies consumers any kind of agency in acts of mass consumption.[6] Instead, showing affinities Stuart Hall, de Certeau wants to point out how consumption can be used as a form of resistance through a creative ‘transcription’ of the dominant code. This can be used as a means of letting the other speak through a more dispersed form of resistance, and a shift from praxis involving a creative individual to a form of creative practice, showing a distinct poststructuralist turn in the study of everyday life. De Certeau also applies this theory of cultural appropriation to the text, so that new meanings may be derived from canonical readings of literature. At the time, this approach constituted a novel attempt to repudiate the decontextualized structuralist hegemony in textual analysis. Certeau’s support of ‘tactics’ as opposed to more proactive ‘strategies’ of resistance also shows interesting affinities with Baudrillard’s valorization of inertial forms of social revolt.

The final chapter covers the work of the feminist theorist of everyday life Dorothy E.Smith. Gardiner points out her work attempts a critique of sociology as a discipline, as Smith tries to formulate a sociology for women out of her findings. Smith feels sociology has an ‘extralocal’ bias since it is too abstracted from everyday life; traditionally sociologists see everyday life as being unworthy of close attention. For Smith, sociology is in essence an exclusionary practice, only capable of providing a distorted view of everyday life. Gardiner gives the example of mental illness, where institutions operate via a normalizing practice that allows difficult cases to be fitted into the neutralized Procrustean beds of sociological thought. In opposition to this, Smith encourages an emphasis on ‘primary narratives’, which are the points of view of the social actors themselves that are involved in everyday life. The ideological stance of ‘malestream’ sociology has affected women more than men, and like Lefebvre, Smith feels everyday life influences women the most. However, this is not an essentializing view, but an acknowledgement of how gender is the result of a socio-historical matrix, and how traditionally such practices as advertizing are aimed at women more than men. This commitment to class and basic Marxist concepts means that her work, like many of the theorists of everyday life featured in Gardiner’s book, has a Utopian dimension absent in current postmodern feminism (e.g. Judith Butler).

Overall, Gardiner has produced an exemplary study of the under-researched field of everyday life and its core thinkers, and has attempted a salutary radicalization of cultural studies. The main criticism I would make is that the work of Baudrillard has exposed the world of everyday life as an alibi of the social; his radical contention is that it never really existed. In a society circumscribed by the political economy of the sign, everyday life ceases to exist, indeed if it ever did. For Baudrillard, a commitment to ‘the real’ constitutes the core of the ideological process, problematizing the whole concept of everyday life. It is only in societies that practicing symbolic exchange, that are structured around ambivalence as opposed to accumulation, that a truly authentic relation to the real (i.e. its non-existence) may be found. There is no ‘human’ desire to be liberated, merely the cycle of the gift in symbolic exchange. Perhaps this could provide the theme for a later work.


1 Therefore for Gardiner the study of everyday life is not simply about popular culture, but it synonymous with the ‘early’ Marxist concept of sociality.

2 Hereafter cited as CEL.

3 See Joel Whitebook, Perversion and Utopia, p. 78, on the ‘good other’ of modernity.

4 See Lucy R. Lippard ed., Dadas on Art, p. 52, for Huelsenbeck’s thoughts on ‘the constructive’.

5 See Jean Baudrillard, ‘Plastic Surgery for the Other’.

6 However, this is a dubious point, since if you follow Lacan’s graphs of desire there is a point at which every interpellation fails.


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Baudrillard, J. (1975) The Mirror of Production. St Louis:Telos Press.

Baudrillard, J. (1981) For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. St Louis: Telos Press.

Baudrillard, J. ‘Plastic Surgery for the Other’, CTHEORY, http://www.ctheory.com/article/a033.html#bio

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Whitebook, J. (1996) Perversion and Utopia — A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press.

Liam McNamara is a PhD student in English Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, UK.