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What’s happening?

Editor’s note: Today we are re-printing an essay EDLM Director Patrick Collier wrote for EssayDaily, a popular blog for and about non-fiction writers. The occasion for the post was EssayDaily’s June 21 project, in which more than 300 writers wrote essays recording their lives on June 21, 2018. You can read the essays and some discussions of the project at their website. Many thanks to EssayDaily editor Ander Monson for permission to reprint the essay.

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What’s happening?

If I met you on the street and asked this question, you might tell me about the meeting you’re running to, or about your workout at the gym this morning, or about some fun you have planned for the evening.

Just as likely, you would say, “Nothing much.” Or, “The usual.”

But let’s pause for a moment. What’s going on beneath the “Nothing much”? What is “the usual”?

A lot has, in fact, been happening. You woke, perhaps from a deep, sound sleep; perhaps from dreams, vivid or murky, pleasant or troubling. Perhaps you woke with a start to the sound of static-infused classical music. Or you woke naturally with the light, and nuzzled into your partner’s back.

You went to the bathroom and tended to your body. You ate breakfast: distractedly, like an American, with your IPod propped in front of you; or with gratitude and attention, like a monk; or somewhere in between.

While you were busy with these tasks, your body and your mind went about their own business, with minimal assent or consciousness from you. Your autonomic systems ran; your nerves processed sensations; acidic juices sloshed around in your guts. Your mind wandered, came into focus, went blank.

You heard songs on the radio. Or snatches of songs played in your head. You made plans, ran through lists. Somewhere in there, advertisers nudged their way, briefly, up to the line of your consciousness, whether in a targeted ad in your Facebook feed or in a scrap of a slogan that ran through your mind.

None of these routine tasks, ephemeral sensations, and half-thoughts might seem worth mentioning—particularly in a quick-cordial sidewalk conversation. In a literal sense a good deal of this material is beneath notice. But, as the British cultural critic Ben Highmore has argued, “nothing much” doesn’t quite cover it, either.

What is more, a great deal—a terrifying amount, depending on your point of view—of our lives passes while this “nothing much” is happening.

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In Muncie, Indiana, these days, a group of citizens has joined with some faculty at Ball State University to document, write about, and study the rich, fine-grained experiences we go through each day, experiences that might otherwise disappear beneath the shadow of that obfuscating phrase, “nothing much.”

Our project is called Everyday Life in Middletown. And it seeks not just to document and study ordinary lives as they’re lived in our city, but also to foster conversation around everyday life—to become a sort of online, public commons where we might connect over the shared experience of waking up day after day in this small, struggling city, shaking off the last night’s cobwebs, and getting on with it.

More than forty volunteers, varying widely in age, occupation, and background have signed on to complete three detailed, one-day diaries a year. The project finished its first year in its present form this month, and we’ve gathered almost a hundred diaries, in addition to more than fifty we collected in an earlier version of the project.

This summer, we’re working on ways to generate conversation around this growing archive of everyday life. We’re inviting our diarists and others to read around in the archive and post their thoughts to our blog. We’re hosting a public discussion of the diaries. And, since our archive is open-access, we’re experimenting with ways of using new search and visualization tools as ways of encouraging exploration and play amid the already formidable amount of detail we’ve amassed on everyday life in our town.

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We call the project Everyday Life in Middletown because, as it happens, Muncie is the “Middletown” of the best-selling, quasi-sociological masterpiece Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. Initially funded (and rejected) by the Rockefeller Foundation, the book became an international best-seller in 1929. This study, in turn, helped to inspire Mass Observation—a radical, monumental experiment in studying and mobilizing everyday life to progressive purposes, conceived in England in the late 1930s.

The founders of Mass Observation—a small cadre of young Cambridge graduates including a poet, a budding film-maker, and an anthropologist—recognized that the mass media of their day was mischaracterizing the lives and opinions of ordinary people. They observed a crisis of public information in their society: fascism had taken root in Europe, and a small outgrowth of it had popped up in Britain; public rhetoric was playing to the worst elements of our shared humanity; science and scholarship were capable of finding solutions to entrenched problems, but ordinary people had no means to access or understand them. Drawing on a heady mix of surrealism, psychoanalysis, literary creativity (a working title of Mass Observation was “Popular Poetry”), and anthropology, the Mass Observers enlisted thousands of British subjects to record their everyday lives via day diaries and questionnaires and others to spend time at pubs, factories, and public events, taking notes on everyday behavior. They generated a massive archive which is still used by scholars today.

After several transitions and a fallow period in the mid-twentieth century, Mass Observation reconstituted itself in the 1980s and has more than 300 volunteers providing information about their everyday lives today.

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Back at the start, one of Mass Observation’s first attention-getting projects was a collection of day diaries on May 12, 1937—the day of the coronation of George VI.

This was certainly not a day on which “nothing much” was happening. The abdication of Edward VIII was still fresh, and war with Germany was a constant fear. But what is striking about the resulting publication, May 12 1937: Mass-Observation Day Survey is how dramatically it shows the inadequacy of a headline such as “Subjects Cheer New Ruler of British Empire.”

Two-hundred miles away, a millworker who kept a day-diary was not cheering: he was worried about his brother, who was down with appendicitis; and he was seething over working and social conditions on the shop floor:

The frequent five-minute stares of the painter, allied to the fact that I was constantly on the go working hard, brought a feeling of resentment at the inequality of the distribution of work….I got the impression that the atmosphere, the electric lights burning all day (bad lights), everything combined had an effect on the temper of everyone, spinners, piecers, bobbin carriers, etc.

Back in London, a banker expressed to a junior colleague his intention to “stay as far away as possible” from the Coronation events. While the Coronation was sprinkled through the day’s conversations, they also included rugby and soccer. The banker started his day worrying about the news: the ambassador to Germany was said to have returned the Nazi salute to Germany’s Foreign Minister. Later, the banker lamented his inability to engage his colleagues in conversation about such issues:

Incidentally conversation rarely gets beyond the height of football pools and weather. During the day I endeavoured to get some conversation going on interesting subjects, mainly political, but as you see, failed dismally.

Certainly, our time differs in profound ways from England in 1937. But, like the Mass Observers and their volunteers, we are living in a period of intensified political anxiety and—without doubt—a crisis in the means and content of public discussion. If the Mass Observers were concerned about facile generalizations about public opinion (“England applauds Chamberlain”) and outright falsifications of diplomatic news, we have alternative facts, fake news (both practiced and, as a term, weaponized by the Trumpists), and a corrosive culture of verbal abuse that threatens to drown out civil political discussion.

Like the Mass Observers, our primary inspiration, we at Everyday Life in Middletown believe that a partial answer, or at least a salve, to our political illness lies in everyday life. And we want to mobilize the study and discussion of everyday life as a place where we might recognize our shared humanity and initiate some online, mediated conversation that focuses on that shared humanity. As an attendee at one of our recent events said, our archive of daily reports from ordinary citizens might serve as an “empathy machine.”

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Naturally, Essay Daily’s June 21 project spoke to us, especially the project’s “democratic, anyone-can-play approach,” as Editor Ander Monson put it. So did Ander’s intimation, in a recent post, that everyday life is centrally involved with the question of “attention….what attention is (especially when it’s paid, as we say in our odd turn of phrase, over an extended period).” In a May 21 post, Ander reads Harold Abramowitz and Andrea Quaid’s essay from the occasional magazine ATTN: in a way that goes to the root of the beauty and mystery of the day-diary: “What is today about? What is the point of a day, or of today, or of any day? Is ‘this day…like a little world?’ Is it ‘like leaving the world alone?’ Well, let us find out.”

These are big questions Ander (and Abramovitz and Quaid) are raising—and indeed, we have found that keeping day diaries, and reading others’ day diaries, will force big questions upon you. I don’t know what the June 21 project will show, but if my experience with day diaries is any indication, it will raise big questions but only gesture—fleetingly, in fragments, but with tantalizing suggestiveness—towards answers. And that in itself is good practice for democracy: increasing our capacity to stay in the place of searching and exploration, to entertain multiple and conflicting details (something like Keats’s “negative capability”). To quote my friend, sometime-Essay Daily scribe Jill Christman, there is value in “staying in the unknowing.” Paying heightened attention to the everyday, whether by writing or by reading others’ accounts of it, multiplies details and forces us into a place where answers are unfinished and the future is open.

In that spirit, rather than tying these thoughts up with a bow, I’d like to close by giving you a glimpse of what was attracting and (fleetingly) holding the attention of our friends in Muncie, Indiana on Nov. 14, 2017—the first diary day of the current Everyday Life in Middletown project.

Get ready: shower, make up, hair…I have a big meeting today, so I want to look right, which means I picked my red peekaboo pumps, which are going to hurt my feet, but they TOTALLY make the outfit. Sigh.

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…The dog was awake so I put her out. She’s getting old and wobbly, which makes me feel sad. My mom just died, so the dog is not allowed to die for awhile.

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This kid is good as gold, but so headstrong. I cajole with him to for-the-love-of-god change his socks. We debate over the Mario or the Pikachu shirt for today. I help him with his shoes. I convince him to actually wear his coat (major victory). We both go upstairs to say our goodbyes and I love yous to his father who is now up and getting ready for work….pausing in the midst of tying his necktie to get a big hug from the little guy. I fish my keys out of the swim bag in the foyer (son had swim lessons last night) and open the front door.

We step out into crisp, fresh air. It is beautiful today.

I feel a sense of victory/accomplishment/relief each day when we finally make it to the car and pull out.

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9:15 p.m. The boys are asleep. I was thankful for this. I debated on whether or not I should relax or be productive. These are my thoughts daily. I decided to be productive and finish up my documentation from work. This is going to be a long night.