The Everyday Work of Lists

Rowan Wilken, Anthony McCosker



This article explores the work of lists in mediating the materiality and complexity of everyday life. In contemporary cultural contexts the endless proliferation of listing forms and practices takes on a “self-reflexivity” that signals their functional and productive role in negotiating the everyday. Grocery lists, to do lists, and other fragmentary notes work as personal tools for ordering and managing daily needs and activities. But what do these fragments tell us about the work of lists? Do they “merely” describe or provide analytical insight into the everyday?

To address these questions we explore the issues and anxieties raised by everyday consumption drawing on theories of everyday life. These concerns, which are examined in detail in the second part of the paper, lie at the heart of French writer Georges Perec’s interest in the “infra-ordinary”—that which resides within the everyday. In the parts of his writing that he designated in retrospect as “sociological,” Perec takes the form and function of lists as a starting point for a range of literary experiments that work as tools of discovery and invention capable in their seeming banality of both mapping and disrupting everyday life. Les Choses (Things) and Je Me Souviens (I Remember), for example, take the form of endless and repetitious lists of things, places, people, and memories, collections of fragments that aim to achieve a new kind of sociology of everyday life.

While this project may be contentious in terms of its “representativeness,” as a discursive method or mode of ethnographic practice (Becker) it points to the generative power of lists as both of the everyday and as an analytical tool of discovery for understanding the everyday. Perec’s sociology of the everyday is not, we argue, articulated as a form of a cohesive or generalizable characterisation of social institutions, but rather emerges as an “invent-ory” of the rich texture and disjunctures that populated his everyday spaces, personal encounters, and memories.

Lists and the Everyday

To see lists as tools of common use, to paraphrase Spufford (2), is to place the list squarely within the realm of the everyday. A particular feature of the everyday—its “special quality,” as Highmore puts it—is that it is characterised by “the unnoticed, the inconspicuous, the unobtrusive” (Highmore 1). The everyday is enigmatic, elusive, difficult to grasp, and important because of this. In Maurice Blanchot’s famous formulation, “whatever its other aspects, the everyday has this essential trait: it allows no hold. It escapes” (14). Its pervasiveness renders it as platitude, but, as Blanchot adds, “this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived” (13).  This tension poses special challenges for critics of the everyday who must register it as a part of, as inhering in, “manifold lived experience” without it “dissolving” into “statistics, properties, data” when it is “made the object of study” (Sheringham 360). In short, as Fran Martin (2) points out, “even though it surrounds us completely and takes up the vast majority of our time, the everyday is extremely difficult to pin down.” It is a predicament that is made all the more difficult in light of the complicated entanglement of the everyday and consumer capitalism (Jagose; Lury; Schor and Holt).

This close relationship between consumer objects—things—and everyday life (along with other historical factors), has profoundly shifted critical understanding of the processes of subject formation and identity performance. One influential formulation of these transformations, associated most strongly with the work of Giddens and Beck, is captured in the notion of “reflexive modernity.” This refers to the understanding that, increasingly, at a broader societal level, “the very idea of controllability, certainty or security” is being challenged (Beck, World Risk Society 2)—developments that impact directly on how self-identity is formed (Giddens), reformed and performed (Hall). Faced with such upheavals, it is suggested that the individual increasingly “must produce, stage and cobble together their biographies themselves” (Beck, “Reinvention” 13), they must self-reflexively “invent” themselves. As Slater puts it, individuals, by force of circumstance, are required to “choose, construct, interpret, negotiate, display who they are to be seen as” (84) using a wide array of resources, both material and symbolic.

Consumerism, it is widely argued, proffers its goods as solutions to these problems of identity (Slater 85). For instance, Adam Arvidsson notes how goods are used in the construction of “social relations, shared emotions, personal identity or forms of community” (18). This is particularly the case in relation to lifestyle consumption, which for Chaney (11) functions as a response to the loss of meaning in modern life following the sorts of larger societal upheavals described by Giddens and Beck and others. The general implication of lifestyle consumption across its various forms is that “‘every choice’ […] all acts of purchase or consumption, […] ‘are decisions not only about how to act but who to be’” (Warde in Slater 85). It is here that we can place the contemporary work of lists and the proliferation of list forms and practices.

Lists figure in vital ways within this context of consumer-based everyday life. At a general level, lists assist us in making sense of the activities, objects, and experiences that feed and constitute daily life. In this sense, the list is a crucial mediating device, a means of organising things and bringing the mundanities and the exigencies of the everyday under control:

The list categorises the ongoing chores of everyday life: organising and managing shopping, work, laundry, meetings, parking fines, and body management. (Crewe 33)

In relation to lifestyle consumption, lists and inventories constitute one key way in which “we attempt to organise and order consumption” (Crewe 29). In this sense, lists are, for Louise Crewe, important “scripting devices that help us to manage the mundanity and weighty materiality of consumption” (Crewe 29). The use of the phrase “scripting device” is important here insofar as it suggests a double-movement in which lists simultaneously serve as “devices for regulating and disciplining the consuming body” (that is, lists as “prompts” that encourage us to follow the “script” of consumer culture) and work productively to “narrate practice and desire” (part of the “scripting” of self-identity and performance) (Crewe 30).

In developing and illustrating these ideas, Crewe draws on Bill Keaggy’s found shopping lists project. Originally a blog, and subsequently a book entitled Milk Eggs Vodka, Keaggy gathers (and offers humorous commentary on) a wide array of discarded shopping lists that range from the mundane, to the bizarre, to the profound, each, in their own way, surprisingly rich and revealing of the scribes who penned them. Individually, the lists relay, through object names, places, actions, and prompts, the mundane landscape of everyday consumption. For example:

Zip lock



Fruit (Keaggy 42)






Food (Keaggy 205)

Keaggy’s collection comes to life, however, through his own careful organisation of these personal fragments into meaningful categories delineated by various playful and humorous characteristics. This listing of lists performs a certain transformation that works only in accumulation, in the book’s organisation, and through Keaggy’s humorous annotations. That is, Keaggy’s deliberate organisation of the lists into categories that highlight certain features over others, and his own annotations, introduces an element of invention and play, and delivers up many unexpected insights into their anonymous compilers’ lives. This dual process of utilising the list form as a creative and a critical tool for understanding the everyday also lies at the heart of Georges Perec’s literary and sociological project.

Georges Perec: Towards an Invent-ory of Everyday Life

The work of the French experimental writer Georges Perec is particularly instructive in understanding the generative potential of the act of listing. Perec was especially attuned to the effectiveness and significance of lists in revealing what is important in the mundane and quotidian—what he calls the “infra-ordinary” or “endotic” (as opposed to the “extraordinary” and “exotic”). As shall be detailed below, Perec’s creative recuperation of the list form as a textual device and critical tool leads us to a fuller appreciation of how, in Crewe’s words, “the most mundane, ordinary, invisible, and seemingly uninteresting things can be as significant and revealing as the most dramatic” (44).

Across Perec’s diverse literary output, lists figure repeatedly in ways that speak directly to their ability to shed light on the inner workings of the everyday—their ability to make the familiar strange (Highmore 12)—and to reveal the entangled interactions between everyday consumption and personal identity. It is in this second sense that lists operate in his novel Things: A Story of the Sixties (Les Choses, 1965), a book that the French philosopher Alain Badiou (20, note 1) describes as a “rigorous literary version of the Marxist theme of alienation—especially the prevalence of things over existence.” Things tells of the endeavours of Sylvie and Jérôme, a young Parisian couple who, in Bourdieu’s terms, attempt to improve their social position in part through the cultural capital resources they see as invested in consumer objects, in the “things” that they acquire and desire. Perec’s telling of this narrative is heavily populated with lists of these semiotically loaded objects of consumer desire, taste, and distinction. The book opens, for example, with a descriptive listing of the kinds of decorative elements that visitors would encounter in the entrance hall of an idealised, imagined Paris apartment the couple longed for:

Your eye, first of all, would glide over the grey fitted carpet in the narrow, long and high-ceilinged corridor. Its walls would be cupboards, in light-coloured wood, with fittings of gleaming brass. Three prints, depicting, respectively, the Derby winner Thunderbird, a paddle-steamer named Ville-de-Montereau, and a Stephenson locomotive, would lead to a leather curtain hanging on thick, black, grainy wooden rings which would slide back at the merest touch. (Perec, Things 21)

This (and other detailed) listing of idealised objects—which, as the book progresses, are set in stark opposition to their present lived reality—tells the reader a great deal about the two protagonists’ wants and desires (“they both possessed, alas, but a single passion, the passion for a higher standard of living, and it exhausted them”—Perec, Things 35), and wider collective identification with these desires. Indeed, such identifications clearly had wide social resonance in France (and elsewhere) with Things collecting the Prix Renaudot.

The ability of lists to speak to collective social (not just individual) experience was also explored by Perec in Je me souviens (1978), a book modelled on a project by Joe Brainard and which comprised a series of personal recollections of largely unremarkable events, which, nevertheless, at the time, had gained some form of purchase within the collective psyche of the French people—in Perec’s words, a random list of “little fragments of the everyday, things which, in such and such a year, everyone more or less the same age has seen, or lived, or share, and which have subsequently disappeared or been forgotten” (cited in Adair 178). For example:

(item 57)  I remember that Christian Jacque divorced Renée Faure in order to marry Martine Carol.

(item 247)  I remember that De Gaulle had a brother named Paul who was director of the Foire de Paris. (cited in Adair 179)

Both these texts are component parts in a larger project of Perec’s to develop “an anthropology of everyday life” (Perec, “Notes” 142 note §).

Howard Becker has offered a challenging, though also somewhat ambivalent, critique of Perec’s “sociological” method in these and other texts, contrasting Perec’s descriptive ethnography with the work that social scientists do. Becker takes aim at the way Perec’s detailed listing of objects, people, events, and memories eschews narrative and sociological design, referring to Perec’s method as “proto-ethnography,” or “detailed ‘raw description’” (73). Yet Becker is also drawn in by the end products of that method: “As you read Perec’s descriptions, you increasingly succumb to the feeling (at least I do, and I think others do as well) that this is important, though you can’t say how” (71). Ultimately, his criticism decries Perec’s failure to impose an explicit order on his lists and fragments, perhaps missing the significance of the way they are always bounded and underpinned by a conceptual principle: “It does not seem to have the kind of cohesion, at least not obviously, that social scientists like to ascribe to a culture, a similarity or interlocking or affinity of the parts to one another…” (74). That is, Perec’s lists stand as fragments, but fragments that do add up to something, as Becker admits: “The whole is more than the parts” (69). This ambivalence points to the analytical potential Perec found within those fragments, the “raw description,” that can only be understood through the end product. It could be argued that his lists defy the very possibility of presenting the everyday as a cohesive whole, and promote instead the everyday in its rich texture, as repetition and disjuncture. This project presents itself, in short, as a sociology of the everyday, whilst subverting the functionalist traditions of sociological observation and classification (Boyne).

As Perec asks of the habitual, “How are we to speak of [...] ‘common things,’ how to track them down rather, flush them out, wrest them from the dross in which they remain mired, how to give them a meaning, a tongue [...]?” (Perec, “Approaches” 210). Lists (alongside other forms of description) play a vital role in this project and provide a partial answer to the above questions, and this is why Perec’s lists actively seek out the banal or quotidian. In addition to the examples cited above, fascination with enumeration of this kind is most strikingly realised in his essay, “Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Four” (Реrес, “Attempt” 244-249), and his later radio broadcast, “An Attempt at а Description of Things Seen at Mabillon Junction on 19 Мау 1978” (Bellos 640).

At very least, Perec’s experiments serve as testimony to his ability to transform the trivial into the poetic—list-making as “invent-ory”. Importantly, however, Perec makes the shift from the inventory as a pragmatic listing form, “presenting a simple series of units,” “collected by a conceptual principle” (Belknap 2, 3), to a more transformative or analytical discursive practice. In all the above cases, Perec’s “accumulation is used in conjunction with other forms, devices, and intentions” (Bellos 670), such as, for instance, in the deployment of the list (the “invent-ory”) as an effective lever with which to pry open for inspection the seemingly inscrutable inner workings of everyday spaces, things, memories, in order that they might “speak of what is [and] of what we are” (Perec, “Approaches” 210).

In this way, Perec’s use of lists (and various forms of categorisation) can be understood as a critique of the very possibility of stable method applied to classificatory ordering systems. In its place he promotes a set of practices that are oriented towards, and appropriate to, investigations of the everyday, rather than establishing scientific universals. At points in his work Perec expresses discomfort or even anxiety in taking the act of classification as a “method.” He begins his essay “Think/Classify,” for instance, by lamenting the “discursive deficiency” of his own use of classification in grasping the everyday, which at the same time calls “the thinkable and the classifiable into question” (189). And, yet, the act of listing, situated as it is for Perec firmly within the material contexts of particular activities and spaces, ultimately offers a productive means by which to understand, and negotiate, the everyday.


In this paper we have examined the everyday work of lists and the functions that they serve in mediating the materiality and complexity of everyday life. In the first section of the paper, following Crewe, we explored the dual function of lists as scripting devices in simultaneously “disciplining” us as consumers as well and as a means of controlling the everyday in ways that also feed our sense of self-identity. In this sense lists are complex devices. Perec was especially attuned to the layers of complexity that attend our engagement with lists. In particular, as we explored in the second part of the paper, Perec saw lists as a critical and productive tool (an invent-ory) and used them to scrutinise common things in the hope that they might “speak of what is [and] of what we are” (Perec, “Approaches” 210). Lists remain, in this sense, an accessible discursive technology often surprising for their subtle revelations about the everyday even while they maintain adherence to an inherently recognisable form.

In setting out the importance of his own “project,” and the need to question the habitual, Perec provides a set of instructions (his “pedagogic strategy”—Adair 177), presented as an approach (if not a method), and which signals his desire to critique the traditions of social science as a method of material and social ordering and analysis. Perec’s appropriation of this approach, this discursive technology, also works as a provocation, as a “project” that others might adopt. He prompts his readers to “make an inventory of your pockets, your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out” (Perec, “Approaches” 210). This is a challenge that was built upon in different ways by a number of writers inspired by the esprit of Perec’s approach to the everyday, associated also with “a wider cultural shift from systems and structures to practices and performances” (Sherringham 292). Sherringham, for instance, traces the “redirection of ethnographic scrutiny from the far to the near” in the work of Augé, Ernaux, Maspero and Réda amongst others (292-359). Perec’s lists thus serve as a series of provocations which still hold critical purchase, and the full implications of which are still to be realised.


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lists; inventory; everyday; Perec

Copyright (c) 2012 Rowan Wilken, Anthony McCosker

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