dot 21: [un]ordinary

It is the ordinary that is the only homeland.

 – Michael Foley –

The word ‘ordinary’ used to be a noun in the English language. Right up to the 19th century the noun ordinary was common and had an amazing amount of meanings which included: post, mail, fixed allowance, priest who visited people in the condemned cell, as well as tavern. Quite creative, wouldn’t you say?

Today, a Thesaurus search translates ordinary as:

accustomed, average, common, common-or-garden, commonplace, conventional, habitual, homespun, household, humble, humdrum, inconsequential, indifferent, inferior, mean, mediocre, modest, normal, pedestrian, plain, prevailing, prosaic, quotidian, regular, routine, run-of-the-mill, settled, simple, standard, stock, typical, undistinguished, unexceptional, unmemorable, unpretentious, unremarkable, usual, wonted, workday

Which artist in their right minds would want to be known either as ordinary, doing ordinary work, or being evenly remotely interested in the ordinary of every day life? Most would want to distance themselves in order to avoid contamination or, possibly worse, judgement from other creatives. Yet the author Michael Foley is taking his lessons from what he calls the ‘champions of everyday life.’

In his fascinating book Embracing The Ordinary: Lessons From the Champions of Everyday Life Foley explores what the everyday has to offer by way of literature, art and art history, neuroscience, anthropology and other disciplines. He implores us to start paying real attention to the present: ‘Nothing is more difficult to understand than the apparent obvious and nothing more difficult to see than what is directly before the eyes.’

In my own visual search this is certainly true. I am currently interested in eye-movement and the dynamics of sound and speech, and am attempting to track what is happening around me daily. Just as it happens in an ordinary day. By starting to pay attention to what is going on around me in a different way, I am starting to see my immediate surrounding differently. The outcome thereof is a visual language on paper that is both surprising and obvious at the same time. Speech happens virtually 24/7 around us and movement is continuous, yet perhaps because it constitutes part of what everyday life is, paying attention to it is surprisingly difficult. Foley quotes the novelist Georges Perec:

To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if it carried within it neither questions nor answers, as if it weren’t the bearer of information.

These are powerful words by Perec, as are Foley’s own when speaking about the ‘homeland of the ordinary.’ This got me thinking that perhaps the contemporary idea of ordinary ought to be substituted for the idea of unordinary. This automatically switches perspective because the problem, as Foley says ‘is in the perceiving and not in what is perceived.’ By entertaining the unordinary, I myself experience a heightened sense of curiosity, my attention automatically changes and I become aware of an anticipatory perception. This way of seeing effectively alters the way I look as well as what I see, constituting what can be said to be my own unique personal vision. (Having said this, I immediately have to remind myself that even the awareness of looking in this altered way, can itself become habitual. It is a place not to rest).

In the image below entitled connectome_4 I was sitting having coffee in a café, tracking the conversations happening around me. By being interested in the unfamiliar I have created a new ‘whole’ where, as Foley urges ‘everything is connected to everything else and nothing is isolated and separate, least of all one’s self.’

It’s kind of a connected space.

connectome_4 (detail)
connectome_4 (detail)                                                                         Photo: Sonya Rademeyer


  • Michael Foley:
  • Embracing the Ordinary: Lessons From the Champions of Everyday Life (2012) Publisher: Simon & Schuster / ISBN: 978-1-84983-913-6
  • John Ayto:
  •  Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins (1990) Publisher: Bloomsbury London / ISBN: 0-7475-0971-9
  • Other:
  • Chambers 20th Century Thesaurus (1986) ISBN: 0-550-10559-X

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