Out of the Ordinary

"Mundane studies" comes of age


Not long ago a friend called my attention to an article by the British historian Colin Jones titled "Pulling Teeth in Eighteenth-Century Paris." I was glad she did. It would be wrong to say that I am captivated by teeth, but they do leave a lasting impression. I recall seeing as a child, in a display case at a museum, a hollow false tooth used by a spy to carry secret messages during the Revolutionary War (not successfully, it would seem). The Centers for Disease Control a few years back released a state-by-state study of tooth loss, the central finding of which I retain: in West Virginia, the most severely afflicted state, almost 50 percent of those over the age of sixty-five have no teeth at all. I can still summon the image, from a book of photographs, of a collection of teeth extracted by Czar Peter the Great, "who fancied himself a dentist," each from a different person, and each carefully labeled. I remember looking twice at an obituary headline that identified its subject as a "DENTIST AND HUMANITARIAN."

The ostensible subject of Colin Jones's article is a man known as le Grand Thomas, a freelance tooth puller of formidable girth who plied his trade from a cart on the Pont-Neuf for half a century, until the 1750s. He styled himself the "pearl of charlatans" and the "massive Aesculapius" and displayed a banner bearing the legend DENTEM SINON MAXILLAM ("The tooth, and if not, the jaw"). Tooth-pulling at the time was, like executions, a form of public entertainment. Jones situates Thomas at the beginning of a process that would lead not only to the emergence of modern dentistry but also, as a consequence, to much of the oral iconography of modern advertising.

"The mouth," Jones writes, "was becoming the imaginary site around which revolved both a nascent academic industry and a new and broader commercialism." Toothbrushes, toothpowder, and false teeth came into vogue in the eighteenth century among an expanding bourgeoisie. As teeth improved, a new phenomenon took hold in the realm of art. Ever since antiquity the convention had been to depict respectable people with their mouths closed and their teeth hidden; the open-mouthed, gap-toothed look was reserved for the depraved, the demented, and the vulgar. Now, in the 1780s, for the first time, the smile was flashed in formal portraiture, celebrating full sets of even white teeth.

Colin Jones's progression from the Pont-Neuf to the Pepsodent smile exemplifies a rapidly expanding genre. Its practitioners are drawn from many fields, and their interests range from the most pedestrian aspects of popular culture to the most rarefied precincts of serious history. The genre doesn't have a single name, but its manifestations could be lumped together under the rubric "mundane studies."

Consider two paths to enlightenment. One is to take subject matter that is vast and grand (the Middle Ages, say) and slice it into thin sections for analysis ("Glazed Pottery and Social Class in Ninth-Century Thuringia"). The other path leads from the particular to the general—it takes something seemingly unremarkable (a kind of food, an article of dress, a body part) and from it derives a larger world of meaning. In the mid-1970s the historian and John Adams biographer Page Smith and the biologist Charles Daniel published The Chicken Book, a conceptual vivisection of Gallus domesticus, and a tour de force. A decade and a half later the engineer Henry Petroski devoted an entire volume to the pencil. Last year the architect Witold Rybczynski produced One Good Turn, a history of the screwdriver and the screw. This approach—the mundane-studies approach—continues to gather momentum. The impetus comes partly from the rise of social history, with its focus on ordinary life. The challenge of extracting significance from some unlikely object provides the further incentive of a postmodernist daredevil thrill.

No subject is too small. A few years ago I received a letter from a man named Jay W. Stein, who, as a government archivist working with original Nazi and Soviet documents, had managed to assemble a museum-quality collection of the binders, fasteners, clamps, and clips that held the bureaucracies' papers together. Now a librarian, Stein had continued to pursue his passion, and he enclosed an article of his from the Law Library Journal—"Something Little and Shiny on the Judicial Stage: The Paper Clip." "What I discovered," Stein wrote in the article, "was that the paper clip is more taken for granted than almost anything in the judicial process"—despite the fact that case after case has hinged on this simple device. Paper clips have figured in deciding whether pages were part of wills. The fact that a document's edge was marked by paper clips has been accepted as evidence that the document was in fact read. Paper clips sometimes turn up as weapons. Stein observed,

Like the horseshoe nail that crippled the horse and thwarted its rider in battle, the paper clip is small compared to most things involved in litigation. Yet, how often it is mentioned suggests pausing to remind oneself how much the little things count.
Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage
A book by Cullen Murphy and William L. Rathje at Amazon.com.

The common potato seems like a little thing—ordinariness in tuber form. But I began to see potatoes differently after reading a recent essay, "The Potato in the Materialist Imagination," by Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt. As the potato became a European staple, 200 years ago, it also became the focus of a fierce intellectual debate. The pro-potato forces celebrated the potato's astonishing utility: it grew with little effort, and fed people and swine alike. The anti-potato forces found this repugnant—and they worried about an insidious social consequence. Bread, the traditional staple, caught people up in a complex web of interactions—growing, harvesting, threshing, milling, baking, selling. The potato required none of that. A vast rural proletariat in a state of utter isolation could feed on roots from the ground, breed, and degrade into dust.

Dust itself is the subject of a magisterial book by the historian Joseph Amato. Dust surveys many topics—medieval philosophy, Victorian technology, the cleanliness movement—but the central narrative concerns how dust came to lose its special status in the poetic and the scientific imagination. Only a few centuries ago, Amato writes, dust was regarded as "the finest thing the human eye could see ... a barrier between the visible and the invisible." Those motes dancing in shafts of sunlight represented an elemental condition to which all things would return. Then along came the microscope, revealing an "infinity of the infinitesimal." Dust was consigned to the dustbin (or the allergist).

I learned about Dust by way of an excerpt in the Journal of Mundane Behavior (www.mundanebehavior.org), a new peer-reviewed publication devoted to "research, theory and method regarding the very obvious features of our existence." The first few issues offered articles about the morning shave, elevator conversation, shopping at Wal-Mart, on-field prayer by athletes, and the use of the television remote control. One essay, "'When Nothing Happened'," made the point that days of yore consisted mostly of circumstances that rarely get attention—stability, boredom, day-dreaming, business as usual. A personal Web-cam version of ancient Babylon might look very familiar.

The journal is off to a promising start, but the task ahead is enormous. If I could give out Guggenheims for mundane studies, I'd channel young scholars toward certain potentially fruitful topics. For instance, a detailed study of the interstitial conversation in wiretap transcripts is long overdue. These documents have obvious short-term utility for what they reveal about criminal mayhem, but the long-term value lies in everything else. Here's Vincent Romano talking to John "Sideburns" Cerrella about his health: "Yeah, all right, the leg feels much better, much better, much, much better. I took a couple of glasses of tomato juice, you know, for potassium." Here's a disquisition on yogurt from Frank "Frankie California" Condo: "Brown Cow with the thick crust on top and you mix the crust, that's the, the bacteria. You mix that all in there ... Brown Cow. That's what all the health fiends eat. Brown Cow." Eating habits, folk remedies, amorous insights, movie reviews—this is a mundane-studies mother lode.

The inane use of quotation marks on menus, advertisements, and public signage—STEAKS AND BURGERS "FROM THE GRILL"; WHEN LEAVING THE BATHROOM "PLEASE TURN OFF THE LIGHT"—would be another prime focus of investigation. The development may not seem like an urgent public issue, but we would do well to assess its subtly corrosive effects. Even the cocktail napkins on Air Force One now bear a legend in quotation marks: "Aboard the Presidential Aircraft." What is the semiotic essence of this form of display? If nothing is being quoted, then what is "quotation" coming to mean?

Finally, there is the matter of the disappearing object. This linguistic tropism takes form in sentences like "The Yankees amaze" and "The movie fails to excite"—sentences in which a transitive verb, which takes a direct object, has been casually stripped of one. The Wall Street Journal recently published the following headline: "STOCK NIGHTMARES? HISTORY MAY COMFORT." Does the potential activity embodied in verbs like "amaze," "excite," and "comfort" exist as an independent force, swirling atmospherically, regardless of whether actual people or things are affected? Is the detachment of verb and object one more step toward a depersonalized world?

Sherlock Holmes boasted that he could infer Niagara Falls from a drop of water. William Blake wrote of seeing the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower. Colin Jones chose teeth. Other pioneers of mundane studies have chosen the tulip, the cod, the color mauve, longitude, phosphorus, the F word, the handshake, and the contents of garbage cans. The world is a mundane place if it is anything at all, and the possibilities ahead cannot fail to excite.