Interviews and Observations
…a cold analysis of violence somehow reproduces and participates in its horror
Truth and Beauty
According to Keats, this is all we need to know. In the shadow of one, beauty, tourists are forced to confront the other: truth. Since the beginning of civilization, the temples, the manifestations of a culture’s conception of beauty, attracted the poor, the beggar reliant upon the kindness of human nature for daily sustenance. In Europe, tourists are reminded in their perpetual guidebooks that according to tradition it is unlucky to pass a beggar on the church steps without tossing him or her a few coins. In America, rather than congregating outside of the churches or cathedrals, beggars, transients, hobos, homeless—whatever the term by which they are named—are drawn to the areas which most likely attract the tourists, those visitors on a the pilgrimage to amass tokens of remembrance which commemorate their ability to indulge in the luxury of leisurely travel.
Christ, on the evening before His arrest, rebuked Judas when he objected to the waste of costly oil Mary Magdalene used to anoint His feet. Judas pointed out that the oil, rather than being wasted on Christ, could have been sold and the proceeds humanly donated to the poor. Christ, in a moment of seemingly declaring the truth, responded, “The poor you will have with you always.” I was always poor. I didn’t begrudge Christ His oil. I learned my lesson early: sometimes the wealthy are generous, sometimes they aren’t. In His omniscience, He knew He was about to die. Let Christ have His oil, I thought. I didn’t mind. Even universal ethics, Zizek notes, is “obliged to draw a line and ignore some sort of suffering” (53).
Pedagogy of the Oppressed
As we walked through Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, my arm was extended to hook through my stepfather’s. My brother and I both frequently walked arm in arm with him. As we came across the inevitable blanket enshrouded figure on the curb, he warned us, “You needn’t be afraid of them, but whatever you do, don’t ever awaken them. Only then may they be unpredictable. Otherwise, they are harmless.”
“Why don’t they sleep in their cars like we do,” I asked?
“They aren’t lucky enough to have them. Many of them fought in ‘Nam, and when they returned, they couldn’t adjust to life.”
“But you fought in World War II, and we have your truck to sleep in,” I added.
“It was a different war,” he said, and pointed to the table filled with freshly ground peanut butter, took a five out of his pocket, and asked me to run and buy a tub of it. I had received yet another lesson in homeless etiquette. I learned several when I was young, including how to avoid detection from police officers who would be likely to, as my mother used to warn, “take you away if they ever figured out you were homeless.”
A few weeks after that lesson, we had picked enough blueberries on a local farm to pay the deposit and first month’s rent at our new apartment, so we moved the few suitcases, along with the blankets that had served as our beds for several weeks out of the back of the pickup.
My stepfather taught us the same principle that Zizek has noted; the abjectly poor homeless person, the Other, “is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive.” Zizek further adds, “What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed, which is a right to remain at a safe distance from others” (41). This is precisely why when Rudy Giuliani ran his 1993 New York City mayoral campaign, he felt free to promise to rid the “unclean streets” of the “’street tax’ paid to drunk and drug-ridden panhandlers.” Tourists were, Giuliani argued, repulsed by their presence and thereby avoided NY because of the overly aggressive homeless.
In the streets of Chicago, they are less intrusive, more likely to sit on a corner with their heads downcast holding a sign or quietly shake a McDonald’s cup filled with a handful of coins. As Chicago tourist, one may encounter the cultural “other” — those with darker or lighter skin, those who speak a different language, those who wear different style of clothing — while visiting the public art displays, but generally, since they, too, are tourists, they at least don’t have the added stigma of being of the class of “other.” They are tourists. They can afford to travel. They pose no threat to our “late-capitalist society.” They are attracted to the famous works of art so they can boast to their friends that they have had the pleasure of seeing the attraction. Yet, ironically, very few of the tourists know much about the art that surrounds them.
The Ring That Binds
On any given weekend across Chicago, you see them: wedding parties skipping from one location to another, the women carrying their shoes, the men carrying the women’s bags (more than likely bearing the makeup and change of clothes and shoes for the next photo shoot), and the photographers with their “seconds” in tow, carrying yet more bags. The wedding parties are as unavoidable as the tourists, curling around Anish Kapoor’s “Bean,” impervious of the supposed ban of professional photography on the sight because he claims it is a copyrighted image. They line up at America’s largest fountain, the one Kate Buckingham commissioned in memory of her brother after his death in 1926. They pose in front of SAIC graduate’s Dessa Kirk’s “Lilies,” which are constructed from Cadillacs that remind the artist of watching prostitutes work the streets as she was growing up in Anchorage. They perch on the steps of the Field Museum carefully positioned so the T-Rex and Whale banners can easily be cropped or photoshopped out their pictures. Not just banners and signs are cropped from the pictures. So are the homeless who are usually nearby, watching.
Their collections of bags, not to mention the estimated cost of the expensive designer wedding gowns, silently reveals what Zizek has identified as Marx’s point: “one cannot properly grasp the first (the social reality of material production and social interaction) without the second: it is the self-propelling metaphysical dance of capital that runs the show, that provides the key to real-life developments and catastrophes” (12). Ironically, with divorce rate currently at 50 percent, eventually one of the main subjects in the picture may be cropped out of the photos with a pair of scissors within just a few years, ripples in everyday experience which may later be recounted by the subjects in the photos as “real-life developments” or even “catastrophes.”
As the wedding parties head to the reception halls, are they ever aware that the value of their designer bags they carry are alone worth more than those who have silently watched are able to earn in a year? As the rift between impoverished and wealthy widens, are they aware that one in fifteen of the people they pass live below poverty line (Yen)? All are wedded by the “metaphysical dance” of which Zizek writes, all part of the “systemic violence” that constitutes the “subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation” (9). Can the abjectly poor, the ones Marx dismisses as “the ‘dangerous class,’ the social scum” ever strive toward the love Freud extends as the pleasure principle designed to heal civilization of its discontent (Marx 231)? According to Freud, the homeless, those Christ says society “will have with us always,” are driven to neuroses “because they cannot tolerate the degree of privation that society imposes on them” (46). Do they ever strive to obtain the type of “social interaction” these couples are seeking? And is the wonton display of wealth a subtle, systemic violent reminder to the impoverished that they are members of an inferior class?
“Don’t make eye contact.”
That is another rule I have learned regarding homeless etiquette. As people walk past the homeless, looking everywhere but at them, are they engaging in what Zizek would identify as “fetishist disavowal,” refusing to “fully assume the consequences of” acknowledging their suffering “so that I can continue acting as if I don’t know” they are in need of assistance (102:53)? Therein, though, lies the paradox, the multi-layered reaction that troubles us all, and which shapes the conundrum I face daily. If I walk past them, ignoring their presence entirely, am I breaching the “do unto others” ethics, am I embracing that “line” which allows my universal ethics to “ignore some sort of suffering?” Or, if I extend aid, am I potentially serving as enabler, both to the individual and to the capitalistic society that has oppressed them in the first place?
Even the act of limiting the homeless to a particular group, the act of naming or identifying them as such, is reductionary. Zizek, concisely summarizing Hegelian philosophy noting, “Language simplifies the designated thing, reducing it to a single feature. It dismembers the thing, destroying its organic unity, treating its parts and properties as autonomous” (102: 61). Baggy, dirty clothes, torn coat, overstuffed, slightly bedraggled bags are usually indicators, signs, designated things signifying homelessness. In a moment of telling irony, after tripping over my slightly longish coat while shooting the other day, I ripped out my hem. I had slipped my camera back into the bag I usually carry, an old, lightweight, torn black bag. Within a few blocks, Terry, a local resident at the Pacific Garden Mission, approached me, laughingly confessing that when he first caught sight of me, he had mistaken me for “the shortest gangsta he had ever seen.” I “purchased” three of his newspapers, as I always do, and he blew me a kiss.
That isn’t the first time I have been mistaken for a member of the homeless community. While sitting on a bench in Boulder with my dog and a sleeping bag (which I was going to donate to a homeless artist), a child approached me and asked whether or not he could pet my dog. I was waiting for my daughter, who had dashed inside the boutique to look at a scarf that caught her eye. Initially, his grandmother was openly receptive of me, asking me of my dog’s pedigree. When she caught sight of my aforementioned bag (which always intentionally masks the contents of over $1000 of my recording and shooting equipment) as well as the sleeping bag, she cringed, and hastily pulled her grandson away. I chuckled, picked up my sleeping bag, and delivered it to the artist who was sitting at the end of the next block.
The incident reflects my daily conundrum. As a closeted Marxist, I have a love-hate relationship with materialism: I love to shop, and my sense of style, the same which dictates that I wear my too-long, formal (yet now torn and bedraggled) coat as I walk through town, marks me as a materialist. Yet I hate rampant consumerism, and I despise how our “late-capitalistic society” has, as of late, “reached further into mainstream America” (Zizek, Yen). I am also a minimalist who prefers to keep only that which I will need within a course of a year, hence my desire to donate my sleeping bag, as well as my bed and all other household furnishings to the homeless before I relocated to Chicago.
Because of my childhood, in which I was homeless myself and had been taught that too many possessions are cumbersome and unnecessary, I was able to move to Chicago with all of my possessions in the back of a Honda Civic. Most of them were my books…not to mention my clothes and the aforementioned long, overly formal coat. When I move, I donate most everything I have to local shelters, believing that possessions only inhibit personal freedom. Zizek identifies the “death force” as violence, which “is not aggression as such, but its excess, which disturbs the normal run of things by desiring always more and more.” Although he is not speaking of material possession, per se, he alludes to it in his fascination with rubbish, as evidenced in the film, An Examined Life. In Violence, he adds, “The task becomes to get rid of this excess” (63). Is it my “death force,” then, which drives me to donate items to the homeless?
Master or Slave
According to Zizek, Friedrich Nietzsche pointed out that “Western civilization was moving in the direction of the Last Man,” which would produce an “apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment” who, “tired of life,” was unable to dream or take risks, “seeking only comfort and security” (Zizek 28). This comfort seeking creature is less likely “to follow sudden impulses, court danger, or indulge in spurts of violent rage, love, worship, gratitude or vengeance,” characteristics which mark not the slave class, but the noble (Nietzsche 449). Nietzsche further states that the master class “abroad in the wilderness” will revel “in the freedom from social constraint and…revert to the innocence of wild animals” (450). Thus, the homeless who choose to live on the street, bereft of “comfort and security,” are not the Slaves in society, but perhaps the Masters. Difficult concept to grasp, but when I return from my day of art and observation, shooting and colleting, I look over my shoulder as I pass the crows nest where two of my favorite people in Chicago spend their nights under a pile of blankets, texting their friends. From their perch on the lower level of one of Chicago’s multileveled streets, they have a gorgeous view of the lake, and the fresh smell of clean laundry from my apartment complex laundry room keeps them warm at night. I share half my sandwich with them since I hate eating alone.
All the World’s A Stage
I have made another erstwhile friend since moving to Chicago. I often meet her at the main tourist attractions, working the more popular works of art. She flashes her lanyard, smiles, and helpfully gives directions, smiling more effusively when she is given cash. She knows Chicago well, and the tourists are happy to have her help while trying to locate their next destination. A GPS, after all, isn’t reliable in a city where signals bounce off tall towers and streets bearing the same name are layered one on top of the other. She has learned to recognize me. I am easy to spot in a crowd because of my height and long lens — the one I use to create a sense of intimacy with my subjects while still retaining a remarkable distance. She nods, smiles wryly, pockets the cash, and walks away.
The first time I met her, my daughter, her girlfriend and I were sheltered under the Bean. We looked as though we played the part of typical wealthy tourists. Photographers by trade, all three of us had our canons strapped around our necks with our heavy bags of lenses thrown over our shoulders. In addition, we each carried canvases of Chicago’s skyline painted from varying perspectives and styles, the type one typically picks up at higher-end art store. We had spent the day painting, shooting, laughing and walking 6.5 miles in all. She approached us politely, asking us if we were enjoying our visit to Chicago, flashing a lanyard our direction with a name and a few other indistinguishable words printed below.
We smiled, and before I could point out that I lived in the area, she asked us for a donation for the women’s shelter in which she claimed she now lived. Interested in community service in the area, I asked a few questions about after school programs for the children housed in the shelter. She had all the right answers. My daughter’s girlfriend pointed out we never carry cash, but wondered if we could find the home online since many organizations now accept online donations. “No,” she responded, “our shelter hasn’t set that up yet. But I know where you can find an ATM nearby so you can get cash.” When I stated I lived in the area, she grew suddenly less animated, more reserved, and shortly thereafter walked away.
That night, we looked up the organization. It was legit. But at the end of the page, it clearly lists the link for online donations. Yes, the shelter is legit. She isn’t. But she knows how to work her audience.
This evening, as I walk past her, the curtain of night draws across my shutter, and I struggle to shoot moving actors on the darkening stage. As I walk away from her, my professor’s voice echoes through the empty streets, “Aren’t we all, to a certain extent, hustlers selling our goods?” I smile as wryly as the one she just flashed me, throw my camera over my shoulder, and head home to edit my material.
I walk into my building, greet my doorman, and head into my dark, empty apartment and turn on my computer so I can link into my “virtual simulacra,” immerse myself “in a global communication network,” and indulge in the next chapter of my “maturbat-a-thon” (Zizek 34). My bed is pressed tightly against the open window where the smell of drying laundry, mingled with the cinnamon scent of decaying autumn leaves masks the overwhelming smell of my neighbor’s stale curry. The hum of the city’s traffic coming through the open window mutes the incessant bark of their lonely, neglected dog which whines and scratches at their door as soon as I hear them leave for the night. In the morning, I will strap on my camera again, and hit the street to collect media for my next tag or my next paper, depending on how I choose to edit the raw material I collect throughout the day. As a workaholic, I am the Slave, analyzing the Master.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. 1930. Riviere, Joan, trans. Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing, 2010.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1848. Samuel Moore, trans. 1888. London: Penguin Books, 2002.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. 1887. Rpt in Classics of Western Thought, Volume III: The Modern World. 4th ed. Edgar E. Knoebel, ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Yen, Hope and Laura Wides-Munoz. “Poorest Poor in the US Hits Newest Record.” Yahoo! NEWS. 4 Nov 2011. Accessed 12 Nov 2011. http://news.yahoo.com/poorest-poor-us-hits-record-1-15-people-040233161.html
Zizek, Slavoj. Violence. New York: Picador, 2008.