Eran Dorfman: Foundations of The Everyday

Man-to Tang

Foundations of The Everyday: Shock, Deferral, Repetition Book Cover Foundations of The Everyday: Shock, Deferral, Repetition
Philosophical Projects
Eran Dorfman
Rowman & Littlefield
Softback £27.95 / $42.00

Reviewed by: Man-to Tang (Chinese University of Hong Kong)

The everyday offers foundations for us to remedy the crises of (late) modernity. There are two crises of modernity: first, the inability of acquiring anything new, and second, the sharp separation of the everyday and experience. The former is the practical crisis that people are devoured by mass production and are unable to create something new, whereas the latter is the theoretical crisis that the sharp separation cannot offer a faithful account of our life.

Eran Dorfman has two aims in the book. The first is to ‘provide a better theory of the everyday’ in order to show that the mechanisms of the everyday involve the possibility of acquiring anything new (5). The second is to argue that the everyday and the experience of it should not be conceived independently (9).

What competing theories of the everyday are worthy of criticism? Dorfman takes up Maurice Blanchot and Henri Lefebvre. Blanchot states that the everyday has three definitions. First, the everyday is a ‘self-enclosed circle that moves around itself with apparently no escape, no outside’, so it is ‘hardly graspable’ (7). Second, the everyday is ‘always open to changes, always transcending itself. It is never “finished”’ (7). These two definitions lead to the third and ambivalent definition of the everyday, which can be found in Lefebvre’s analysis. The third definition is that the everyday is characterized both ‘as a prison and as a lacking home’ (8). However, Dorfman argues that the first and second definitions are not mutually exclusive, so the third definition is not ambivalent but ambiguous. This ambiguity means the mechanisms of the everyday consist of that dual dimension, and the dual dimension refers to different moments of our lived experience of the everyday.

What is a better theory of the experience of the everyday? Dorfman explains clearly that the essential structure of the everyday is comprised of three interrelated mechanisms, namely shock, deferral and repetition. Firstly, shock refers to a movement that attempts to go ‘outside’ of the ordinary movement, for example, I may change the angle of my brushing when I am affected by my painful tooth (3). Secondly, to process shocks, another mechanism is needed, that is, deferral. Deferral is a suspension of the ordinary movement, for example, I may pause for a while before changing the angle when I am affected by my painful tooth (4). Thirdly, to understand whether the change is ‘suitable’ or not, another mechanism, repetition, is required. Repetition refers to a movement that reenacts the new into the old. For example, I may return to the ordinary way of brushing to check if my tooth is still painful (4). Throughout the book, Dorfman finds that the deferral mechanism of the everyday is a kind of reflection, but this kind of reflection is an immersed or embodied reflection. The shocking mechanism of the everyday is an attempt to go beyond the ordinary and acquire anything new. The repetition mechanism of the everyday is the integration of the new into the old and returns to the everyday. Thus, a better theory of the everyday can faithfully describe the dual dimension, namely self-enclosure and self-transcendence (as a prison and as a lacking home).

This book consists of five chapters, in which Dorfman attempts to justify his theory of the everyday and its solution for the crises of (late) modernity. In Chapter One, he starts his investigation with phenomenology. Husserl carries out the phenomenological reduction to bracket all everyday beliefs, judgments and activities, and to suspend the natural attitude of everyday life. Husserl’s aim is ‘back to the things themselves’. This ‘back’ means to reflect or to understand the essence of the things without falling into the trap of psychologism, naturalism and objectivism. Thus phenomenological reduction is a methodological tool for us to reflect upon the perceived object (33). Husserl later realizes ‘the impossibility of totally bracketing the natural attitude and abandoning it once and for all’ (38), and re-defines the natural attitude as the life-world, the spontaneous world of praxis. Nevertheless, on the one hand, this is only a preparation for the full exploration of the everyday. On the other hand, exploration of the everyday is not radicalizing enough because it is based upon an artificial act of contemplation.

Dorfman argues that if we explore the everyday radically enough, then we can realize that the mechanisms of the everyday already offer another version of the phenomenological reduction from within. Dorfman uses a holiday resort as an example to illustrate his point. The philosophical implication of the resort provides a partial detachment from my everyday life. It functions like the phenomenological reduction which permits one to suspend the usual and routine life, and reconsider it. More importantly, this is a partial detachment, as one is still ‘within’ the everyday without totally abandoning it once and for all. Therefore, it is possible to have a better understanding of our everyday life and return to it ‘from within’ the mechanism of the everyday.

Dorfman then traces Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein in Being and Time. ‘Instead of thematising the artificial world which results from the bracketing suggested by Husserl, Heidegger proposes to describe the world with which Dasein is most familiar – the world of the everyday’ (42). The everyday is the background for every activity in the sense that Dasein primordially lives with the practical interest instead of the theoretical interest. We would not suspend what we are doing and reflect upon what a hammer is unless the function of a hammer is missing. It means that when Dasein faces three empirical situations (disturbance, lack or obstacle) or the radical situation (death anxiety), which refer to ‘small’ and ‘big’ ‘negativity’ respectively, Dasein spontaneously suspends and reflects upon the everyday (59). Heidegger implicitly relates to shocks and deferral in the sense that ‘negativity’ gives a way to go ‘outside’ the ordinary and leads to a distance for reflection. How about repetition? ‘Repetition characterizes authentic temporality’ and contrasts with the inauthentic temporality which is blind from possibilities. It cannot repeat what has been, but only retains and receive the ‘actual’ which is left over (58). It means that repetition does not simply repeat itself from the actual but also renews my past and present and re-appropriates my future possibilities.

In Chapter Two, Dorfman continues the phenomenological exploration of the everyday through Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body. The body is not solely mine, serving as my private sphere, but also is out there in the world and can be seen by others. It is ontologically ambiguous. Instead of ‘arriving at pure life-world or authentic existence’, the body shows the ambitious character of the everyday. Dorfman pays attention to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh in his late writing. He takes dancing as an example, as dancing is always embodied without thematization of the body. Besides, dancing is always more than just moving the body around the environment. I dance in harmony with others, and reciprocally I become a part of their bodies (68). When I dance, ‘I constitute my environment and am constituted by it’ (73). I re-appreciate my habitual body through the always changing and new environment. Therefore, reflection is always ‘within’ the everyday because the mechanism of the everyday involves an embodied reflection. Dorfman suggests the embodied reflection or immersed reflection, implicit in Heidegger’s thought, as the intermediate kind of vision between a mere contemplation and practical looking (46). It is nothing but an everyday use of the phenomenological reduction. Yet Dorfman doubts the concept of projection ‘acts upon the past and changes it’ (80), and we thus cannot understand whether something new reflected on and integrated into the everyday.

As a result, Dorfman believes that phenomenology can indeed explicate the importance of negativity in order to make a distance for reflection. But there are two defects in the phenomenological analysis of the everyday. First, ‘phenomenology does not explicitly mention whether the ability to maintain an open enough everyday movement is related to particular moment in history’ (188). Second, ‘phenomenology considers negativity merely as the relay of deficiency, lack and finitude’ (188).

In Chapter Three, to further investigate the role of negativity in the mechanism of the everyday, Dorfman gives attention to Freud. Although Freud shares the first defect with phenomenology, he does not consider negativity as deficiency. The origin of sexual trauma can hardly be traced, and deferred retroaction seems to be failed. Accordingly, Freud moves from a theory of sexual trauma to a theory of indefinite shocks because the shocking is within the everyday but leads to a certain distance. Repetitions are responses to unspecific shocks (104). Freud states that child’s play is a way to integrate the shocked everyday and the shocking experience. This play is to play with absence and disturbance, which repetition is the re-experiencing or re-appreciation of something ordinary (120). What is the philosophical implication of Freud’s thought in the crises of modernity? Dorfman observes that Freud’s emphasis of unspecific shocks as negativity provides a possible way out in the realm of ‘too much’ modernity. However, Freud can only show the child’s possibility of the integration of shocks into the everyday, but the not adult’s. With this in mind, Dorfman introduces the last figure in this book, Benjamin.

Chapter Four shows that Benjamin does not only sort out the crises of modernity, but also faithfully describes the relation between the everyday, repetition and mass production and offers a solution to the crises (127). Dorfman finds that a Freudian framework can be found in Benjamin’s thought. In his doctrine of the decline of aura and tradition, Benjamin uses film to illustrate his point. Film is a work with no origin, and it is easy for the masses to watch whenever and wherever they want (147). The features of film are essential to understand the distinction between ‘long experience’ and ‘immediate experience’ (138). The function of the immediate experience is to parry shock before it arrives at the depth home of the long experience, where it will leave its trace. Although the shock is registered as an extraordinary event, it does not connect to long experience. As a result, ‘the modern everyday is full of “shocks” or “events” that nevertheless leave the impression that nothing “happens” and remains “outside”’ (139). Dorfman explains the relationship between shock and the aura. There are two important conditions for the creation of the aura. When an event or an object is totally new, it is perceived as shocking, on the one hand; the comprehension of it must be repeated, on the other hand. The first condition leads to the second condition, that is to say, there is a balance between distance and proximity. It means that the event or object remains partially ‘strange’ and partially ‘familiar.’ It is the key to rectify the first crisis of modernity, namely the inability of acquiring anything new.

In Chapter Five, Dorfman develops the aura of the habitual or the everyday, which is between the strange and the familiar, the distant and the proximal, each of which constitutes the foundation of the everyday. The aura of the habitual brings negativity to the fore through the shock image. The shock image arouses suspension and reflection of the everyday simultaneously. This reflection reveals both ordinary and extraordinary. He uses two examples to explain his founding. The first example is Paul Klee’s Angel Novus. Benjamin describes two special features of the angel. The angel is looking at our present and past, on the one hand, and moves forward to the future, on the other hand. The angel sees our time as holistic, and only then as separated into different temporal moments, but we ourselves see the present as composed of successive events, and forget that the present consists of parts of the holistic everyday. With every shock, every immediate experience or every catastrophe, we could be the angel. We could, through an everyday ‘fight against the present experience’, ‘give up any immediate experience in order to transform our past immediate experience in long experience’ (170-171).

The second example is Cindy Sherman’s photographs. Cindy Sherman’s photographs reproduce Sherman under another identity. Sometimes she is retrieving a book in a library with a tiny nurse uniform and gazing somewhere outside the frame. Sometimes she is walking on the middle of a highway alone and gazing somewhere outside the frame. Dorfman finds the photos ‘show infinite everyday possibilities that are true and false at the same time’ (174). These possibilities expose how everyday surroundings can be staged differently and lead to something anew. Through these reproductions of photography, Dorfman insightfully interprets that unlike Benjamin, Sherman uncovers that ‘the aura is revealed to be conditioned by the everyday: a meeting point of familiarity and strangeness, habituation and shock’ (175). The two examples show that the mass reproductive feature of modernity is full of the shocking. Through the experience of the shocking, we could defer the present life and re-experience it rather than parry it. Thus these mechanisms of the everyday reveal the condition of anything new, as we could never be otherwise without being completely the same.

It is not surprising that some may think Benjamin is the ‘final solution’ towards the crises of modernity. However, Dorfman’s path of thought is a long-route rather than a short-cut because phenomenology is an unavoidable starting point for the investigation of the everyday. Without the methodological procedure, we could hardly avoid unexamined prejudices and hardly make a faithful move ‘back to the everyday itself’. If we could faithfully understand the mechanisms of the everyday, then we could understand that the foundations of the everyday are the ‘antidote’ of the crises of modernity. For example, Dorfman clearly indicates that it is Heidegger’s inspiration that ‘the movement of use-suspension-reuse is the circular movement of everyday foundation’ (46). It explicates the essential structure of the everyday. Also, it is Merleau-Ponty’s inspiration that ‘the body is both subject and object, both the user of the tool and the tool itself. Ideally, there is a continuous link between the habitual body (static foundation) and the actual body (dynamic foundation), the one permitting the other and vice versa (76). The condition of possibility is founded in the everyday. More importantly, ‘rather than an objective representation, phenomenology should be a self-conscious process in which the unreflected is revealed but also created’ (87). Phenomenology paves the way for us to acquire anything new.

Throughout the book, ‘modernity’ is not a well-defined term. Dorfman sometimes draws a distinction between ‘modernity’ and ‘late modernity’, but he sometimes simply uses ‘modernity.’ If the two are different, then what is their difference? In addition, it is interesting to re-think the relationship between phenomenology and critical theory. Benjamin is regarded as one of the significant figures in the school of critical theory, which aims at criticizing the problems of modernity. Unlike Adorno’s radical criticism (1940: 4), Dorfman carefully uncovers the critical dimension in phenomenology through Husserl’s, Heidegger’s and Merleau-Ponty’s implicit analyses of ‘negativity’. In fact, critique of modernity is one of the main themes in the Crisis, where Husserl gives a diagnosis and explains how transcendental phenomenology offers a solution to the crisis. In the Kaizo articles, Husserl calls the motif a ‘renewal’ of the European spirit (HUA. XXVII: 3-94). And it marks a commonality between phenomenology and critical theory. If this is the full picture of phenomenology, than we may wonder to what extent it is correct for Dorfman to state that ‘this negativity tends to be ignored or repressed in the everyday by adopting objective categories – that is, by repeating the same old meaning without seeing the need to renew them. This everyday tendency makes all three phenomenologists finally abandon the everyday in favor of a sphere of authenticity or full experience’ (90). Apart from Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty do not simply repress the negativity in the everyday and abandon the everyday without renewing the old meaning. As Dorfman points out, Heidegger’s conception of negativity is founded in the everyday, and it could bring us to re-consider our everyday life. This reconsideration is never an abandonment of the everyday but a rebirth of the everyday. Heidegger claims that ‘[Death as a negativity] is only the “end” of Dasein; and, taken formally, it is just one of the ends by which Dasein’s totality is closed round. The other ‘end’, however, is the ‘beginning’, the ‘birth’. Only that entity which is ‘between’ birth and death presents the whole which we have been seeking (Being and Time: 425). In Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of Cézanne and Giacometti, unlike Cartesian space which is a mere representation of empirical observation, the painter’s body is both within space and functions as the core around which all space expands. He argues, ‘I do not see [space] according to its exterior envelope; I live in it from the inside; I am immersed in it. After all, the world is all around me, not in front of me’ (Eye and Mind: 178). This negativity of spatiality is not a deficiency or a lack, but opens up a potential meaning and dimension towards spatial and bodily relationships. Other than these three phenomenologists, could any other phenomenologist give a faithful account of negativity and the everyday without seeing them as deficiency? How about Sartre?



Adorno, T.W. (1940). “Husserl and the problem of idealism.” The Journal of Philosophy 37 (1): 5-18.

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