Most of us don't have to worry about sleeping with our husband's sister, talking our daughter out of becoming a child prostitute, or confessing to our lover that we secretly have sex with goats. But if you took your cue from godawful freak shows like Jerry Springer, you might think that's the norm, at least among trailer-trash society.
Enter the Journal of Mundane Behavior (www.mundanebehavior.org). Started last year by two sociology professors at Cal State Fullerton, the journal is devoted to examining such facets of mundane behavior as riding in elevators, checking out library books and shaving. Published exclusively as an online journal, the first issue came out in February. The second came out on June 25, and it includes scholarly examinations of minutiae like validating your merit in letters of application for employment and unpacking record collections. The articles, while unquestionably intellectual, are written in a non-jargony style that is deliberately accessible to members of the general public and ever so slightly tongue in cheek.
"When my grandmother died, the first thing my grandfather did was grow a beard," wrote contributor Michael John Pinfold in the first issue, introducing his analysis of the semiotic meaning behind the choice of whether or not to shave. "Now when he laughed, he was jolly, and when he was stern, he was God-like, the Christian God with claps of thunder and bolts of lightning, terrifying to behold. Had my intellectual references been up to it, I would also have seen in him Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and countless legions of patriarchs whose beliefs have come to be the orthodoxies of Western culture. His was the beard aligned with high Victorianism, of empire building and colonial exploitation, the rightness of his purpose caught in every single hair. His wife had been wrong to make him shave every day, and now he was proving that fact."
"We're realizing that with the vast amount of public interest the journal has attracted, we have an opportunity to bridge the gap between the Ivory Tower and Joe Everyday," said Scott Schaffer, the CSUF professor who edits the journal along with fellow sociologist Myron Orleans. "We've engaged in a lot of discussions with people who enjoy reading about themselves for once."
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And the interest the journal has aroused is phenomenal, especially for an infant publication from a relatively low-profile university. The journal has been mentioned in Time, the New York Times, the Associated Press, National Public Radio and a batch of other places. Since the first issue came out four months ago, the site has had 85,000 hits. And Schaffer is finding himself just a little overwhelmed —if thrilled—by all the attention.
OCWeekly:How did you first conceive of the idea of a journal to study mundaneness? Scott Schaffer:The original idea was in an article in Sociological Theory, one of the main theory journals, written by Wayne Brekhus, in which he called for a study of what goes unnoticed. He said something along the lines of how there are many journals devoted to the study of deviants but none to the study of normalcy. I looked at that and said, "Wow—what a great idea!" Why did you decide to publish on the Web instead of producing a hard-copy version?
There were a few reasons. One was we had no money, so we figured this was the most cost-effective way of ensuring an audience. We also figured that since our topic of study was everyday life, it was only fair to make that material accessible to the public—the people whose lives we were analyzing—and there's no way to do that with a traditional journal. We've talked about also going to a print format, but we would never leave the Web.
What kind of response did you get to the first issue?
I would say about 95 percent of the response has been overwhelmingly positive—it ranged from comments like "This is the most amazing thing since sliced bread" to "It seems like this should have been around for a hundred years." About 5 percent were somewhat hostile —one of the charges was that we're really just interested in publicly mentally masturbating. We've taken it all with a grain of salt—we're horribly fascinated with the vast response we've gotten.
The idea of studying mundane behavior seems to have really resonated with people, judging by the amount of press coverage you've received. Why do you think it appeals?
I think one of the reasons is that we now have an opportunity to take this collective sigh of relief. We made it through the bloodiest century in human history—World War II, the Cold War, and most recently the Y2K bug. Now we have a chance to take a moment, stop and smell the roses. I think that has allowed people to look at their everyday lives—how they get through each day—and think more reflectively about that.
How about the scholarly reaction?
The scholarly reaction has been very nice—they've been overwhelmingly supportive of what we're doing. I don't know if they're really too sure what online journals are capable of—whether they can create the same kind of cultural capital as print journals. So there's still some cautious watching going on. But I've spoken with a number of fairly big-name academics who have been willing to contribute works. That generally wouldn't happen with a brand-new journal, especially one started by what gets perceived as a lower-tier university.
On the site, you talk about the Jerry Springerization of society—why do you think that has happened?
We've backed away from that as a kind of manifesto position. We took Jerry Springer as the extreme example because he was the easiest target. But what's a little more subtle is that there is a mundane, ordinary structure to the show: the segments build to where the general public—i.e., the audience—gets to call all these freaks back to normalcy and tell them that what they're doing is wrong. And in the last segment, Jerry gets to talk about why middle-class, bourgeois values are a good thing—because they keep you off the Jerry Springer Show, in essence. We hadn't realized this, but it's almost as if it's a morality play.
The way Jerry Springer gets to the ordinary is through the extraordinary. The way we get to the ordinary is by trying to make it extraordinary—how bizarre and amazing it is that we can coordinate all these aspects of our existence so that we don't even think about it anymore. Somehow, our society and every other society does it. We want to get at that and show how amazing and wonderful and strange and wild that is.
Amaze Wyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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