Cultural Studies and the Ethics of Everyday Life — Elizabeth Walden

After having been discredited by positivism in the earlier part of the last century and the various strands of anti-humanist critique in the later part, ethics has returned recently as a key term in all manner of discussion. Public discourse, especially in the US (such as it is) seems obsessed with ethics. Long a minor sub-field in philosophy, ethics, especially medical and business ethics, has become a savvy professional niche; and in the wake of post-structuralism, ethics has made a return to critical discourse. Unsurprisingly, then, there has been a lot of concerned meta-theoretical reflection about the meaning of this ‘turn to ethics’.

The most pressing question regarding this turn is whether it represents a turn away from politics? The question is urgent; if the answer were yes, this emerging problematic would be antithetical to the intrinsically political practice of Cultural Studies. And, indeed, the question seems plausible if we translate it this way: is the language of ethics used to distract from more complex political mappings of issues in ways that are socially regressive? And to this question we can only concede that, yes, much of the public display of what we might understand as ethical concern is so used. The best examples are the most familiar. The destruction of welfare, the affirmation of the death penalty, the drug war and all its awful consequences (including the mass incarceration and political disenfranchisement of African-Americans), all of these are defended with fiercely moral language in the US. And in the midst of all this, as life has become less secure for most and more brutal for many, personal virtue has been touted in a number of prominent books as an answer to social ills.1Even George W. Bush, lest we forget, is a ‘compassionate conservative’.

In such cases the appeal to ethics seems little more than an alibi for the heartlessness of right-wing policies, but it would be a mistake to miss the underlying significance of this appeal. Consider that in the last US presidential election, polls indicated that on major specific issues Bush’s Democratic Party opponent, Al Gore, was substantially more popular, but that a majority of white working-class voters voted for Bush anyway, in part because they viewed him as sharing their values (Levison).2 This situation involves complex issues beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice it say that while successful at election time, the right’s appeal to morality privatizes the ethical, employing it tactically in public affairs, in a way that obviates the sort of reflection (about the good, about the good life) that the ethical tradition represents. By giving the church3 (and, of course, the prison system) responsibility for social ills, the right rejects the political role in such and, given the separation of church and state in the US, places ethical discourse off limits. Ironically, the appeal to morality functions to clear political discourse of ethical reflection altogether. And this is redoubled by the fact that the right’s most powerful ideological tool, neo-liberalism, precludes ethical debate by being represented as part of a process of rationalization pure and simple, inevitable and incontrovertible. The right, then, eludes the ethical both by slipping beneath it, with its moralism, and by transcending it, appealing to the rationalism implicit in an economistic world-view.

Hence, while it is not necessarily the case that the turn to ethics is a turn away from politics, the question remains whether the turn to ethics is productive in supporting the project of Cultural Studies. Clearly, any productive ethical turn cannot accept the terms of debate presented within the existing system of tactical morality and strategic rationalism: it would require the subversion of the neat division of labor between morality and rationality and the tired duality of private and public, emotion and reason, and female and male implicit within it. While the critique of dualism is commonplace in theoretical circles, there is still a reluctance to affirm the consequence of the critique – namely, that our epistemological commitments and our methods are not simply more complete, less bourgeois, postmodern etc., they are chosen in affirmation of a particular ethical view. The reluctance to defend what we do in ethical terms is understandable given the impoverished moral discourse of our age, but I think that the ethical turn holds great promise for us, especially at this political juncture. Much of what is taking place under the rubric of globalism, for example, cannot be and is not explicitly defended, but depends upon mass-media consensus about its inevitability. By insisting that the system as a whole be accountable within ethical terms, by pointing out that the various alibis that obviate ethical reflection are themselves part of an ethical position that no one could explicitly defend, the turn to ethics can bring into critical discourse reflection upon cultural values that are otherwise disparate, free-floating and cynically manipulated.

What I want to do in the remainder of this paper is to draw attention to how epistemology and ethics are inextricably linked and to call for an affirmation of this link. As Cultural Studies is becoming increasingly institutionalized in the US, it is in danger of neglecting its critique of traditional disciplinarity4 and of succumbing to the lure of expertise. In this context it seems worthwhile to reflect upon the unique position of Cultural Studies with regard to its objects and to be clear about the ethical commitment such involves. In particular I will look at two epistemological models of engagement with everyday life in order to consider the epistemological underpinning of the critique of disciplinarity and to focus upon the intersection of the epistemological and the ethical. Everyday life is not just a hitherto neglected sphere of inquiry; by cutting across the dualities upon which the system of tactical morality and strategic rationalism depend, it exposes a system built upon the structural invisibility of everyday life. By undertaking the work necessary to make everyday life visible, Cultural Studies affirms an ethics of everyday life.

First, I want to look at the project of Henri Lefebvre. He is an important figure for a discussion of everyday life, because he has a clear sense of the significance of making everyday life visible and recognizes to some extent the epistemological difficulties that its study entails. He also, I’ll argue, serves well to exemplify how the commitment to traditional disciplinarity, regardless of explicit political commitments, entails a failure of ethical vision. In Everyday Life in the Modern World, his most systematic treatment of everyday life, Lefebvre calls for philosophy to return to everyday life in order to rescue it from its present alienation and, in turn, to save philosophy from irrelevance. Everyday life, he says, has become reified by ‘the bureaucratic society of controlled consumption’, which requires that philosophy return to everyday life, the intrinsically non-philosophical, from its abstractions and speculations, to sublate theory and practice and open the way for a radical freedom. Lefebvre’s narrative is inspiring, but also misleading. He initially proposes an encounter between philosophy and everyday life that will be mutually transforming, but his ultimate proposal is that philosophy critique everyday life, a proposal that fixes a one-way relation between everyday life and a discourse of philosophy, which transcends it.

Everyday life, Lefebvre explains, has to be prepared for incorporation by philosophy through the ‘invention of language’: ‘everyday life translated into language becomes a different everyday life by becoming clear (1984: 202). But this translation is precisely what prevents his ethical engagement with it – this clarity, is clarity only for a particular end. What Lefebvre gives us is philosophy as usual – its clear apprehension of its (new) proper object, analysis, and conceptual transformation. All of which, together with his strong utopian strain, sounds momentous and yet amounts to little. While Lefebvre recognizes the importance of making everyday life visible and incorporating it into our understanding, he does not see that his commitment to the discourse of philosophy and the epistemological presumptions that go along with it, prevent him from grasping everyday life in terms which justify his enthusiasm about it. By opting for the enrichment of philosophy over the enrichment of everyday life, Lefebvre preserves disciplinarity at the cost of an ethics of everyday life.

That his treatment of everyday life constitutes an ethical failure becomes more plain when we notice that the process of transforming everyday life into discourse is gendered for Lefebvre. He makes clear that women are excluded by definition from philosophy by their position within everyday life. He informs us,

Everyday life weighs heaviest on women. … Some are bogged down by its peculiar cloying substance, others escape into make-believe, close their eyes to their surroundings, to the bog into which they are sinking and simply ignore it; they complain–about men, the human condition, life, God and the gods–but they are always beside the point; they are the subject of everyday life and its victims or objects and substitutes (beauty, femininity, fashion, etc.) …. Because of their ambiguous position in everyday life–which is specifically part of everyday life and modernity–they are incapable of understanding it.

(1984: 73)

If it is difficult to think of the epistemological pose of Lefebvre’s philosophy as an ethical failure, it is less difficult to condemn his relegation of women to a state incapable of understanding. These are two faces of the same gesture, however. Faced with something that exceeds the grasp of his model of philosophy, he responds with a translation that erases it, at the expense of the everyday and of women, both of which are seen as alienated and in need of rescue from outside their proper realm. (And one can only speculate as to women’s role in everyday life when it becomes a festival, as Lefebvre hopes.) Lefebvre’s conclusion shows precisely where rationalism trumps ethics: by precluding the need for ethical reflection in matters of epistemology, he is able to make simple knowledge claims, e.g. women are incapable of understanding, about matters with profound political and ethical implications. Philosophy, according to Lefebvre, critiques everyday life, but this means objectifying it rather that learning from it. Like a husband who seeks to improve his wife by chastising her, Lefebvre neglects the opportunity for understanding and solidarity that might allow for change from below.

Stanley Cavell has said in a discussion of Wittgenstein, that it is as if the everyday is what philosophy ‘seeks to deny’. Cavell ultimately concludes that this elision of everyday life is unavoidable; he says, ‘the denial of the human, the wish to escape the conditions of humanity, call them conditions of finitude, is itself only human (1981: 147). And this is perhaps the conclusion that follows from the affirmation of the discourse of philosophy, which for the purposes of this paper represents the disciplinary discourse par excellence. But Cavell’s conclusion renders the ethical issue at the center of his observations invisible. If disciplinary study implicitly denies the human, the conditions of humanity and our finitude, then we need to rethink our epistemological stance, not our humanity. Cavell is able to draw his conclusion, as he recognizes, because his engagement with everyday life makes the transcendence of the ordinary visible, and it is this visiblity, which forces an ethical decision upon us: either to continue to attempt to deny and escape the conditions of humanity or to work to make them visible and to launch our critique from outside of disciplinary space.

Many feminist theorists have explored the epistemological implications of affirming a standpoint within everyday life. Sociologist Dorothy Smith, for example, agrees with Lefebvre that women and men have a different position vis-à-vis everyday life and that this shapes their understanding of the world. Contrary to Lefebvre, however, Smith views the position of women as the epistemologically superior one and argues for a sociology that begins from the standpoint of women. Smith draws upon the work of Alfred Schutz and others who suggest that there are different cognitive domains that structure our realities. But whereas Schutz describes two alternative realities, a paramount reality and the domain of science, Smith describes an abstracted mode of science that is always located within the world of local and material actualities, but which implicitly disavows this location (1987: 84-85).

A ‘conceptual mode of action’ that transcends and neglects the local and the material is promoted by our society at the expense of the everyday. It is still largely women’s work to attend to the details of everyday life and to ‘facilitate men’s occupation of the conceptual mode of action.’ And this is true even though women are not excluded from the conceptual mode of action. There are – Lefebvre’s categorical exclusion aside – women philosophers, political theorists, and social actors of all sorts, of course. Women are never, in any case, simply creatures of everyday life. This means, however, given our social organization, that women occupy two distinct and often conflicting cognitive spaces and as a result, according to Smith, have a bifurcated consciousness. This bifurcated consciousness may appear from the space of the conceptual mode of action as an epistemological liability, because it prevents the completed entry into the space of abstracted rationalistic explanation that transcends the particularity of locality and bodily existence, the terrain of everyday life. Smith says,

Beginning from the standpoint of women locates a subject who begins in a material and local world. It shows the different cognitive domains structuring our realities . . . as a bifurcation of consciousness, with a world directly experienced from oneself as center (in the body) on the one hand and a world organized in the abstracted conceptual mode, external to the local and particular places of one’s bodily existence. The abstracted mode of the scientific province is always located in the local and material actualities. . . . The organization that divides the two becomes visible from this base. It is not visible from within the others. (1987: 84-85)

Smith’s model, which I think defines the epistemological terrain upon which Cultural Studies should proceed, dignifies everyday life revealing it as that realm from which knowledge emerges and to which it inevitably returns. It democratizes knowledge; it is, as she says, ‘capable of explicating for members of the society the social organization of their experienced world, including in that experience the ways in which it passes beyond what is immediately and directly known, including also, therefore, the structure of bifurcated consciousness (1987: 89). That is, it provides a model of explanation for the way in which everyday life tends to be rendered invisible in both intellectual and political discourse. And it explains why everyday concerns seem so distant from scientific knowledge and political and corporate policy that nevertheless directly impact the character and quality of everyday life. There is a deep ethical commitment reflected here and it should be affirmed as such. Pierre Bourdieu has said that we need an economics of happiness with which to respond to the tyranny of the market. This response requires a discourse that can simultaneously subvert the implicit rationalism of an economistic world-view and respond to a petty moralism with a strong ethical vision that affirms the primacy, epistemological, ethical and political, of everyday life.


1 Among the many: Steele, S. (1991) The Content of our Character: A New Vision of Race in America. NY: Harperperennial; Bennett, W. J. (1993) The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories. NY: Simon & Schuster Trade; Shalit, W. (2000) A Return to Modesty: Discovery of the Lost Virtue. NY: The Free Press.

2 This same source also cites a mistrust of ‘big-government’ in general as a key factor in the election results.

3 One of Bush’s first acts in office was to promise federal support of ‘faith-based initiatives’, that is church-sponsored programs that deal with social need.

4 In this respect, the British and American traditions of Cultural Studies are somewhat distinct. I am identifying here with the strongly anti-disciplinary model of Cultural Studies advocated by Henry Giroux, David Shumway, Paul Smith and others.


Bourdieu, P. (1998) ‘The Globalization Myth and the Welfare State,’ in Acts of Resistance Against the Tyranny of the Market. New York: The New Press.

Cavell, S. (1981) ‘An Emerson Mood,’ in The Senses of Walden. Expanded ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 139-160.

Giroux, H. et al. ‘The Need for Cultural Studies: Resisting Intellectuals and Oppositional Public Spheres.’

Lefebvre, H. (1984) Everyday Life in the Modern World. New Brunswick: Transaction Press.

Levision, A. (2001) ‘Who Lost the Working Class?’ The Nation (May 14).

Schutz, A. & Luckmann, T. (1973) The Structures of the Lifeworld. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Smith, D. (1987) The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

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