Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

The Black Box of Everyday Life: Entanglements of Stuff, Affects, and Activities

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

The Black Box of Everyday Life: Entanglements of Stuff, Affects, and Activities

Article excerpt

Taking Turns

One of the most striking characteristics of contemporary cultural analysis is the incessant production of "new turns," but the SIEF anniversary may be a good time for a quick retrospective look. The turn phenomenon has a history. It all began with the textual turn in the early 1970s (Chouliaraki 2008), which advocated that cultures, bodies, and people should be read as texts. One of the results of this was the strong impact that discourse analysis had over several decades. But turns create counter-turns and the hegemony of discourse analysis was challenged by new turns, such as the spatial, the material, and the affective turn. Many of these argue for greater attention to non-discursive or pre-discursive dimensions of everyday life, but also for a focus not on what people say but what they do.

So that is where we are now: twisted by a number of turns. How does this affect the ethnologic and folkloristic study of everyday life? And what could our contributions be to these discussions? In a sense, the focus on the material, the place-bound, and the emotional aspects sits well with us--they have long formed part of our approach. Nevertheless I find the new theoretical turns refreshing and challenging in many ways. They create cross-disciplinary dialogues, but also beg the question of how they could be combined or entangled in productive ways. This paper deals with some approaches to such entanglements, drawing on empirical examples from a classic research arena: the home.

Looking back on the making and remaking of turns over the last decades it is striking how different theoretical approaches have evolved. The interest in materialities, for example, has been developed by Actor Network Theory with its focus on the co-dependence of human and non-human actors. ANT is a tradition that has been increasingly influential in contemporary ethnology (Ren and Petersen 2013). Another strand is found in attempts to revitalize phenomenological traditions, as in, for example, the more down-to-earth perspectives of post-phenomenology that attempt to bring a classic philosophical tradition closer to the study of everyday activities by developing ethnographies--by doing a concrete phenomenology of specific life-worlds, rather than interpreting texts (Ingold 2011 and Verbeek 2009). A number of ethnologists have contributed to this phenomenological turn by studying experiences as situated everyday practices (see, for example, the recent studies in Frykman and Frykman, forthcoming).

Affective theory is also helpful here, viewing affects as forces and energies which shape the interaction between bodies. It explores the in-betweenness not only between human actors but also between humans and objects. Affect is about reactions and communications, which often are unconscious, driving us toward movement or thought, overwhelming or exciting us--a passing mood, a sudden sensibility, a creeping irritation or anxiety (Gregg and Seigworth 2010).

For the ethnological tradition of the cultural analysis of everyday life, I find the development of what has been called non-representational theory especially interesting. A somewhat clumsy term, it was first developed as an umbrella term among British cultural geographers (Thrift 2008; Anderson and Harrison 2010). It combines several theoretical and ethnographic perspectives and might more accurately be termed "more-than-representational theory." It focuses less on codes, representations, and discourses and more on everyday practices and skills, as well as sensibilities and feelings (drawing as it does on theories of materiality, performance and affect). In many ways it is grounded in the phenomenological imperative to start the analysis with "the how" rather than "the why" of social action. It means focusing on the constant making and remaking of everyday life. This interest does not, of course, exclude the symbolic and semiotic aspects of material objects; the boundaries between the non- or pre-representational and the representational are constantly blurred. …

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