Mrs Temple’s Watch

Issued: Tue, 24 May 2016 11:08:58 BST

In 1911 Mrs Temple, of Yoker Road, won a prize. The prize was given to her on account of her being the millionth visitor to a particular section of the Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art and Industry, which was held in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Park in that year. The Exhibition was a spectacular success: Mrs Temple was one of more ten million paying visitors recorded at the event.

There are at least two rather telling things to consider about this little snippet of social history.

The first is that Mrs. Temple’s prize was a watch.

This is interesting because the Exhibition itself, in common with many other similar expositions and world fairs which took place in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, was part of a process by which the free-time of ordinary men and women came to be dominated by activities in which they became the paying ‘audience’ for spectacles arranged by others.

Henri Lefebvre, the great French theorist, talks about this as a process in which ‘leisure’ becomes a form of ‘organized passivity’. In many ways those leisure activities, which appeared to promise a break from the world of work, recreated the experiences and arrangements of work. They imposed on their audiences many of the same bodily and mental disciplines that were also demanded by the new industrial division of labour. This is why it’s so interesting that Mrs. Temple’s prize was a watch: it’s a neat a symbol of the way in which the demands of ‘work-time’, as E.P. Thompson called them, were coming to infiltrate and order the promised liberties of ‘leisure’.

The second interesting thing is that Mrs. Temple won her watch for being the millionth visitor to the ‘West African village’.

This was a particular part of the exhibition, sited beside the ‘rifle range’ and the ‘mountain slide’, which housed a group of Senegalese weavers. The weavers spent their time playing out an imagined version of their everyday life for the entertainment of the paying visitors. Along with her watch Mrs. Temple was given a season ticket which allowed her to return to the ‘village’ as often as she wished.

The ‘living exhibition’ of colonized peoples was a prominent feature of events of this kind. They were an important part of the way in which the social relations of empire came to feature in ordinary life in the period. The imperial representation of colonized peoples could be suddenly encountered in all kinds of relatively mundane situations and objects: in adverts, in recipes, in the turn-of-the-century craze for ‘exotic’ postcards to be displayed on the mantelpiece.

These forms of ‘popular imperialism’ had an important double-edged quality. On the one hand, the postcard on the mantelpiece offered to the person who displayed it the feeling that they had some emotional stake in the grand imperial project. On the other hand, they simultaneously served to reconfirm that mantelpiece, that living room, as a space of belonging, as a home whose ‘homeliness’ could be appreciated all the more clearly by being juxtaposed with a distant ‘other’ world.

In short, we can see evidence of two different but intertwined historical processes here. The first is the process by which ‘everyday life’ comes to be subject to new forms of (always resisted) control in the modern world. The second is the way in which the idea of ‘everydayness’ itself (or ‘ordinariness’ or what’s considered ‘normal’ and ‘unremarkable’) comes to be understood and imagined through the racialized identities of empire.

What Mrs. Temple’s watch reminds us is that these two processes happened together. They were a part of each other. In the same moment as ‘everyday life’ is being made, ‘race’ is being made in and with it. ‘Race’ becomes ordinary just as domestic understandings of ‘ordinariness’ come to be racialized.

It’s this relationship which I’ve tried explore in a short new book called – appropriately – Racism and Everyday Life¸which takes its cue from the great black sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois. One of the crucial lessons of Du Bois’ classic study The Souls of Black Folk is, I argue, that if we wish to understand how racism works we have to pay attention to its banality. We have to understand ‘race’ as something reproduced in everyday ways: through what Du Bois calls ‘the 1001 little actions’ that make up social life.


These are not simply historical questions: there are urgent contemporary lessons to be learnt. We only have to look at recent ‘anti-terrorist’ and ‘anti-radicalization’ strategies in the UK and elsewhere to see the same relationship playing out. Documents like the 2011 Contest strategy present the goal of anti-terrorist strategy as a defence of people’s ability ‘go about their lives freely and with confidence’. But the same strategies insist that the necessary cost of protecting everyday life is the ever-fuller extension of state surveillance over that life.

We know what the outcomes of this are: the relentless, automated messages in train stations warning us to be alert to that which is ‘out of place’; the posters which depict a pair of eyes entitled ‘bomb detectors’; the ways in which the scrutiny of belonging becomes a part of the mundane practices of working life, so that academics, doctors, teachers are all placed in positions where they are expected to act as surrogate border agents for the state.

Here, just as in the ‘West African Village’, the ‘everyday’ is asserted as a fundamental border: it is in, and through, everyday life that we are told to identify those who are not ‘like us’, and who are taken as being the very reason why we need to give up ‘our’ everyday freedoms. At the same time as it becomes a border, in other words, ‘everyday life’ also becomes subject to a more thorough-going form of control.


But this is not the whole story.

As Lefebvre and Du Bois and Dorothy Smith, and all the other major theorists of the everyday have noted, there is something about everyday life that always evades the forces of control. The everyday describes a place of unregulated meetings and a space where practices of resistance can flourish. The everyday is disorderly.

And that means that it can also be in the meetings and relationships of everyday life that ‘the order of race’, the fateful intellectual inheritance of empire, can start to unravel. As Paul Gilroy puts it, it is in the messiness and encounters of mundane life that we might catch our best glimpse of the ‘feral beauty’ of a properly postcolonial society.