Ordinary Lives

Howard S. Becker

“Nobody’s listening!” (“Le pays, en un mot, ne se sent pas représenté,” or literally, “The country, in a word, feels that it is not listened to.”) Pierre Rosanvallon, a professor of history at the Collège de France in Paris, makes that statement the cornerstone of an ambitious project (of which more shortly) to counter the growing troubles—political, economic, spiritual—of France and, he has no doubt, the rest of the world. People feel abandoned, forgotten, not understood, excluded from the world of politics, institutions, the media—in a word, invisible. As a result, they sense that they are not taken account of, not “recognized” in the specificity of their individual lives.

Still, representation abounds, in phony political and social scientific formulas, and especially in the word so often invoked magically by French politicians, “the People.” As though differences of condition and situation needn’t be thought about, described, or recognized in all their variety—the diversity of times of life, geographic locales, conditions of work, different pasts, different futures. People, in this sense, no longer really exist for the politicians, business executives, and “communicators” who collaborate to create the conditions of daily lives. The problems, experiences, or ideas of ordinary folks disappear. Stereotypes, statistical summaries, and theories replace  the complexity of every day life in caricatures: “bobos” (i.e., relatively well-off “bourgeois bohemians” with left-wing values), “banlieusards” (poor people, largely of North African origin, who live in the suburbs surrounding Paris and penetrate public consciousness mainly when they riot, burn cars, and trash stores), and many similar abstractions. Ordinary people understand, with some justice, that they aren’t taken into account, and resent it.

This January, Rosanvallon and his colleagues launched Raconter la vie (“telling about life,” we might say) to fill the hole this lack of representation creates. Rosanvallon found models for what he wanted to do in fiction, where he drew on writers from Balzac and Dickens to Faulkner, Woolf, Orwell, and Ellison; in social science, in Charles Booth’s multi-volume work on the life of the London poor, the Chicago School of sociology exemplified by Robert E. Park and Everett C. Hughes, and the investigations in France of Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Michel de Certeau; in the Federal Writers Project of the American Depression, and Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; and in Studs Terkel’s massive collections of radio interviews in books like Working, which collected, in hundreds of radio interviews, the testimony of people from every walk of life, every kind of work, and a long stretch of American history about their lives and experiences.

Rosanvallon’s multipart project consists of an ambitious book publishing program, co-directed by Pauline Peretz, and a website offering shorter récits, or stories, created by the readers Rosanvallon hopes to recruit as part of a growing community and accompanied by reader commentary and blogs. All are centered on giving readers both information and an imaginative sense of unfamiliar lives going on around them.

<i>Le Métro</i> (2008). Doug. Flickr

Under the imprint of Seuil, a major French publisher, Raconter will publish a dozen 80-page books a year, as ebooks (€2.99, or about four dollars) and in paper (€5.90, or eight dollars). The first five appeared in January and cover a lot of territory. The first, Rosanvallon’s The Parliament of the Invisible, presents the rationale for the project, as I’ve outlined it above but in much more detail.

Two others are first-person narratives. Me, Anthony, Today’s Worker tells the story of a young man who can’t—not because he hasn’t tried—find a steady job. The Daily Life of a Researcher, by the scientist Sébastien Balibar, describes the author’s finally successful struggle to get a specially constructed refrigerator as close as possible to absolute zero, in order to settle an important question in physics.

In The Cat Lady, Guillaume le Blanc narrates the story of Karine who, bored with her job as a minor tax official, begins to raise an exotic breed of Burmese cats for sale. It details the contingencies of such a business, the bureaucratic complexities involved, the relationships with customers, as well as how the main character manages her two overlapping occupations. To write Running Errands in the City, Eve Charrin spent several days with each of six truck drivers who drove and made deliveries for companies like FedEx and UPS, but also for companies dealing in larger quantities. You learn that making a few big deliveries is far better—three or four stops a day to make, long layovers while the recipient’s employees unload your truck, higher wages. Not surprising; but still, the logistical work of moving stuff around the world and the country wouldn’t be something you would have thought of if you hadn’t read it here.

The much shorter récits written by anyone who wants to submit one, and who are helped to get them in shape for publication by volunteer editors, run anywhere from eight hundred to over five thousand words and appear only on the project’s web site. (The description of each one on the site tells you how long it is and how many minutes it takes to read it.) If the books are a sandwich, the récits are a snack meant to be consumed in 10 or 15 minutes. When I counted on March 1st the site had 95 of these short stories to download and read. I read maybe 30 before I had had enough for a while. They are classified according to 10 different tags that give a general idea of what they contain. I chose the tag “Little-Known Kinds of Work” and dug in.

The récits were interesting. A middle-aged man describes a night he and some of his friends spent fishing for sardines with a fisherman and his crew who thought it would be fun to take these college boys out for a night of hard work. You never knew how sardines were caught? You do now. You can learn about a young Frenchwoman who came to New York for a good office job and is fired American-style (her computer locked up and keys taken away, and a security guard on hand to march her out of the office, just like in the movies—a thing that could never happen back home in Paris). You can learn what it’s like to drive a Metro train or start a bookstore that goes broke, or about the hatred a fast food worker can hardly contain for her customers, who never realize how their thoughtless eating creates unnecessary filth for her to clean up.

What do you learn from reading this kind of scattered fare? More than you’d think. The récits aren’t brilliant; it’s not like reading Balzac. Each in itself sustains a mild interest but no more than that. But as you read them you gradually build what psychologists call an “apperceptive mass,” a body of random knowledge that changes the way you see everything. You notice what you hadn’t noticed before; you see new associations between forms of work that seem on the surface different but are connected in ways you hadn’t thought of before.

The possibilities, coincidences, and pure randomness of working lives come through when you read, for instance, the story of the young man who loves to swim off the sunny beaches of his native Corsica, but moves to Paris to do better for himself; makes a kind of career as a lifeguard, and eventually a supervisor of other lifeguards, in municipal swimming pools; becomes bored by all that; and, finally, through a few unexpected contacts, becomes what we in America now call a “personal trainer.” Another young man likes to draw. So he goes to art school, only to discover that contemporary artists, at least those at his school, don’t value his skill at drawing much; that’s not what contemporary art is about. He quits, gets a job as a graphic designer, work he’s good at but doesn’t much like. One day, he meets a tattoo artist who asks him why, since since he draws well, he doesn’t try tattooing. Realizing it’s a way to do what he really wants to do—draw—he becomes a successful tattoo artist.

<i>McDonald’s France</i> (2009). Morten Josefsen. Flickr

The stories show that the everyday work of exalted professions also contains mundane contingencies. Take the specifics of research in the “hard sciences” from Sébastien Balibar’s book on the effort to reach absolute zero. The fate of his theories depended more than most people would imagine on things that have nothing to do with deep scientific thinking: everyday worries like whether the windows are letting in radio waves that are messing up his refrigerator’s performance, and the specific, highly skilled technicians who machine one-of-a-kind pieces of metal needed for a one-time-only emergency or blow a special glass piece to order.

Together, these stories supply material to question theories that explain why people of “this” kind necessarily end up doing the work they find themselves doing. The “this” might be a matter of personality, or “cultural capital” derived from being brought up in a specific social class, or whatever other theory you might be ready to credit without thinking about it much. Contingency is underrated. By almost pure chance, I read St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis the summer before I had to choose what to study in graduate school. I always wonder if I would have been a sociologist if I hadn’t picked it up.

A haphazard sampling of the other categories of récits (“Lack of Respect,” “Living Low-Cost,” and “Distress,” for example) serves up that idea too, but in quite different contexts. It’s something like learning to live in a new city or a new neighborhood. At first you can barely find your way. Then you pick up a few landmarks. After a while you feel more at home. Reading these short accounts creates this familiarity faster and on a larger scale across lives, and jobs, and times, and places. It becomes impossible to look blindly at the kid behind the counter at the fast food place; you understand and appreciate a story of the difficulties of job-hunting more than you might have before. More of what you see and hear in your daily life takes on meaning.


I have lived in France off and on for a number of years now, and thought I was used to the “cultural” differences between life there and life in the US, and especially to the intrusiveness and rigidity of France’s state bureaucracy. Still, I was astounded at its reach. In Anthony’s account of his job hunting, acronyms of great number and variety popped up everywhere, like candied fruit in a Christmas cake. Whenever he was hired he usually, like most essentially unskilled workers, got a CDD (a short-term contract, typically three months) or, when he got lucky, a CDI (a contract of unspecified length, i.e., a steady job). In either case, for the kind of jobs he could get he was paid the SMIC (the legal minimum wage). Anthony uses 14 different acronyms in the course of his 61-page memoir.

I was even more surprised by the way Anthony needed a “qualification” or a “diploma” for so many barely skilled jobs. He worked several times in an order-filling warehouse, the kind Amazon and so many other mail-order firms operate, where the workers run from one bin to another, collecting the various things you’ve ordered. It’s the worst job in the place. Stepping up a rung, he could drive a little truck around to pick up heavier or bulkier stuff. But in order to qualify, Anthony had to take a four-day course from a big business that “trains” people to drive one of those little trucks, for which he paid €600 (about $800) borrowed from his grandparents, and then take a test which, when he passed it, certified him to drive such a truck in the warehouse and gave him a diploma to confirm that he had passed it. Then, he could put that on the CV he had to submit with his application.

<i>Paris 18éme</i> (2006). Wilfrid Masse. Flickr

Likewise, the number of permits and other documents necessary to do almost anything multiply. Karine didn’t just decide to start raising cats and do it. She had to take courses, gain certification by a school of veterinary medicine, and fit out her prospective “cattery” in an approved way.

The stories build a picture of the traps created by bad jobs and bureaucracy, but also offer some avenues of escape through subjective enjoyment. A bookbinder describes her work as deeply fulfilling, even though some months her occasional commissions do not bring in even the minimum wage; the world of books is changing and people don’t keep the kind of personal libraries they used to. An artist makes a bare living doing architectural plans that aren’t exactly legal, because he doesn’t have a degree (though he could have been grandfathered into a real practice under a law designed for such cases). But, he says, his youthful enthusiasm in ’68 (a quasi-magical date in the autobiography of any French person of a certain age), which led him to skip finishing his schooling, has denied him that opportunity. Still, he likes the work he does, even though it’s somewhat under the table.

In other words, Raconter teaches readers—just a little bit—about the situations, problems, solutions, irritations, pleasures, and specific experiences that make up the “feel” of parts of the society hidden from one another. Remembering some of the people you read about will illuminate the variety concealed beneath political slogans and social science abstractions. And that’s what the project aims for.

There’s still more to the project, the parts designed to bring into being the potential community of readers whose sensitivities the narratives have nourished (supervised by the web editor, Pauline Miel). The Raconter community page describes itself as made up of “you, its readers, commentators, and authors.” The website contains a complete list, cross-referenced through hypertext links, of the two thousand or so people who have to date signed up to “talk about their own existence” and share “a community of experience aimed at knowledge of one another.” Their commentaries appear beneath the individual pieces and often excite extended discussion.

Finally, the website’s blog keeps participants up to date on the newest additions to the body of work, provides a place for participants to comment on the project and ask for stories on subjects that interest them, and gives the project’s managers a place to converse with the participants. The site works quietly and efficiently in the background, seldom leaving you wondering where you are, where you’ve been, or how you can get to what you were looking for.

Whether this kind of online discussion will lead to the revivification of communal discussion the founders envisage is, of course, still to be learned. Rosanvallon, in a blog post, sees as a happy sign that the comments have not turned into the garbage can of snotty remarks, quarrels, recitations of fixed positions and flame wars that many warned would be its fate (and that you find so often in the pages of the New York Times). The responsiveness of the editors to the readers seems to keep the comments flowing, building toward the beginnings of real discussion. It’s hard to gauge how broad the audience of and participants for these stories and discussions will be. A lot of writers, professors, social workers, and other members of the intelligentsia seem to be involved, but there are also substantial numbers of others. The signs are hopeful, and the project’s varied design supports its inclusive nature.

A substantial innovation in publishing, Raconter combines books of a length unusual in ordinary commercial and academic publishing with much shorter pieces that would hardly ever appear in the ordinary outlets for magazine writing. It solicits and accepts writing from people who might never have written before, certainly not for publication. Their work appears beside that of such well-known writers as the novelist Annie Ernaux and others who write professionally, some in addition to their other occupations. At a time when the troubles of conventional publishing raise questions about where new platforms for the dissemination of ideas and discussion will come from and how they will be managed and supported, Raconter la vie provides a potential model.

What if you don’t read French? The French online review La vie des idées (also started by Rosanvallon) has an English-language counterpart named Books and Ideas that publishes some of its content in English, but there’s no hint of such a development for Raconter la vie. And it’s hard to see how that could work. The books and stories take for granted that readers already have a background understanding of work contracts, government regulations, and all the other aspects of contemporary French society. And then adds new detail to that body of implicit knowledge, making it a little less parochial, giving an outlet to voices that don’t ordinarily get heard in the channels of public discourse, and perhaps (a big question mark here) creating some new forms of democratic communication and community.

Ultimately, the project’s interest might well be as a model to be imitated, a form that relaxes some of the constraints of today’s conventional publishing and welcomes the many people who have something they want to say but can’t find listeners. A publishing community of readers who are also writers, helping each other speak and be heard, wouldn’t change the world we live in, but it would cross some lines now almost unbridgeable. Readers outside France will probably not want to read about the details of these French lives, or have the cultural equipment required to do it. But they have what it takes to read similar stories about this country, and to write them too. Something to think with.