(I don’t have to make sense …do I?)

by Yule Heibel on November 10, 2004

I have heroes I forget about for long periods of time, and then something calls them back to mind. One of them is Wendy Ewald, for example. She’s a photographer who, among other things, works with children. More later — first this, another completely scatter-shot opinionated take on things. I posted something called It’s a theocracy a while back, and in “comments,” The Happy Tutor shared his experience of Church-going southern people’s identification with their particular brand of godliness. This started me thinking that one can consider piety as a kind of affirmation of the status quo — and given the right kind of dynamic social situation, piety can even be a one-upmanship mechanism. You know? It’s not really about how godly you are, but about what you’re trying to “protect” and maintain. It’s about keeping a status quo while climbing a social ladder. Another couple of days ago I also mentioned hearing Gwynne Dyer on CBC — I often listen to CBC when I’m driving on an errand, which means I usually only catch parts of the program. If I remember correctly, Dyer suggested that, since the end of the Cold War, the US has been at the height of its imperial power, but he added that everyone understands that a l-o-n-g slide downward tends to follow any apex. What we’re seeing currently, Dyer suggested (if I understood him correctly) is America attempting (in various ways) to entrench that moment (the “now”), because what will follow won’t shine with such glory. There’s much vehemence on the blogs (this one included) on the subject of voter fraud, stolen elections, “red states,” “blue states,” theocracy, endtimes, …you name it. I think it’s important to keep those discussions going: I don’t want to see the Creationists succeed in dumbing people down even further, nor do I want to see a woman’s right to choose impeded, nor see equal rights for homosexuals attacked. But The Happy Tutor‘s comment also summed up, I thought, an aspect of implied social-control and social-climbing in all this godliness that is just as strong in the secular camp. It’s a status question, and that makes it a status quo issue. It doesn’t necessarily have to have any connection to religion. I remembered how, when I moved from Vancouver to Boston in 1985, I was dumbfounded by the intense stratification of Boston-area society along college-affiliation lines. Subtly, oh so subtly, one’s neighbour might ask, “what college did you go to?” People at my husband’s place of work (a class-homogeneous high tech firm) did the same thing, and if they were Northeasterners, they ranked each other according to their undergraduate college’s location. I had no idea what these people were talking about — it took me forever to understand that Colby isn’t just a cheese, but a college which for reasons still completely obscure to me occupied a distinguished place in local minds. (…Colby? What the heck is that? Bowdoin? Smith? Didn’t some writer go there? Once? A long time ago? What of it?) Since I came from a country — and especially that part of it (British Columbia) — where private colleges didn’t exist, and since I was the first person in my family to be able to go to college (vs. having to apprentice or work somewhere), I really didn’t get what this was about. I was also conflicted and had much to think through with Harvard’s offer of admission. I was being coopted in a sense — the petit bourgeois chip on my shoulder grew to boulder size. Harvard: wasn’t that where the running dogs went? Ok, I was going for a PhD and I was still secure in the knowledge that I had gone to a really strong, rigorous Canadian public university (UBC) where no one gave a flying flick about colleges named for a cheese. But in the Boston area, the relentless querying over undergraduate pedigree never stopped. Once on campus, I met other graduate students and saw that this was what some of them cared about more than anything: where had I gone for my undergraduate degree? To a public school? (If yes, they quickly turned away and lost interest.) To a private one? (If yes, they could now play the one-upmanship game.) (n.b.: I gleefully blew the idiots out of the water by getting two articles — based on papers I’d written while I was still at UBC — published in peer-reviewed American & British journals, while I was still a grad student at Harvard. None of those other candy-asses managed that. Hunh, take that. And I had a book contract within 18 months of graduation, with no help from my Harvard advisor. Double hunh.) My best friend at Harvard had a BA from Washington University in St. Louis; she felt the same snooty East Coast disdain I felt, handed out by our fellows from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, …you name it, up and down the Northeastern seaboard. What Northeasterners — students, middle-aged adults, neighbours, colleagues — didn’t understand was that west of, say, western New York State, no one cared about Colby or Emerson or any of the literally hundreds of small and private and infightingly elite expensive colleges dotting the landscape. Only the Northeasterners believed, but they truly believed because they were invested, body and soul, with that part of themselves most sensitive to down- or upward swings: their pocketbooks. Undergraduate education’s social role was that of finishing school, and only private colleges really bestowed any rank, because private colleges — the more exclusive, the better — defined your family’s ability to pay (or at least borrow). What the undergrad college signified wasn’t an education as such, but arrival in a particular strata. Which brings me back to the question of maintaining the status quo. Northeasterners — “blue-bloods,” and whatever else they’ve been libelled as in the rightwingish press — aren’t any different from pray-for-money evangelical Bible-belters or cliquish southerners up to their ears in debt. It’s just that they’ve invested differently in maintaining their standing. The lot of them are over-extended, maxed out on credit cards, working two careers, and spending way too much time in the automobile. But while one part of the country has its churches and god, the other has its private schools. For parents and students in the latter, the admissions officer is god. The financial aid officer is second deity — or maybe first, depending on your finances. And the religion is growing: ask anyone in the Northeast who has kids. Forget about getting into the right undergraduate college — you need to get your kid into the right kindergarten in some communities. Otherwise, you’re ostracised before you even hit that private elementary school. So, maybe we should leave the red and blue maps aside. Americans have way more in common than they have in difference. They do have different things that define them in their status quo, and perhaps more than a few are afraid to change anything because it might just go downhill from now.

Back to Wendy Ewald, in a collage-y sort of way. I paged through her exhibition catalog Secret Games tonight — there are issues other than “red” and “blue” in America. I first saw her work in Massachusetts, at the Addison Gallery of American Art, a very wonderful art gallery in one those quintessentially New England snooty prep schools, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. The show was called Secret Games; Collaborative Works with Children 1969-1999. The exhibition (and book) covered collaborative work with children in Canada (Newfoundland), South Africa, The Netherlands, India, Morocco, Saudi Arabia (women & children; but in social status: little difference), Mexico (Chiapas), Columbia, and the U.S. (Kentucky, 1975-82; & Durham, NC, 1989-99). The aim of her workshops (“Visual literacy through photography”) is letting the children develop a sense of [visual] literacy that will allow them to tell their own stories.

One of the more difficult tasks was to persuade the [Kentucky/ Appalachian] children of the eloquence of their rough photographs. They hadn’t seen anything like the pictures they were about to take, not in subject matter, tonal range, or surface texture. The portraits they admired were slick album covers of Hank Williams or Dolly Parton; they liked the idyllic landscapes they saw in seed catalogues. But if my words did not always convince them of their gifts, they were able to encourage one another. (From the exh. cat., Secret Games, p.37.)

Ewald reprinted one child’s autobiography, wherein Johnny describes his large family torn apart by poverty, beatings, foster homes, drunkenness, early pregnancy, prison, lack of education. His father is in jail, and Johnny concludes, “When I get older, if anybody’s trying to break my family up, I’ll kill them. I know I will.” Johnny has a brother named Charles. This is one of Johnny’s pictures of his brother Charles; it’s called Charles and the quilts:

I know that the “cool hunters” have by now co-opted and appropriated Johnny’s “rough eloquence”; trailer trash had its fashion moment and now we don’t even see it anymore. Ditto for the amazing series, “Black Self/ White Self,” where black and white school children took pictures in which they recreated themselves as “the other.” (Also in the catalog Secret Games.) But with all the talking adults are doing, it might make sense to listen to children for a change, and to study their images. I wanted to show a few more pictures taken by Ewald’s students, but I’m having too hard a time scanning and then making the formatting behave. So if you can, get a hold of the book. Or better yet, hook up with children and find out if they “wanna take me a picture.”


maria November 11, 2004 at 10:08 pm

Yule: You are making lots of sense. It’s about picturing the world in new ways, and it’s refusing to say cheese for the shutter.

On another note, my son is applying to go to Colby (among other places, too). I don’t understand why … or how he even managed to find it attractive enough from all the way here. I can’t convince him that his experience with kids from those schools on East Coast at rowing camp in Princeton last summer was probably more the norm than the exception.

Yule Heibel November 14, 2004 at 1:38 am

Yikes, Maria, I guess I hadn’t planned on anyone reading this whose son or daughter was applying to Colby. I used C. as an example because it was one of those schools people really did mention, but about which I’ve never actually heard anything, except from its “fans” (the alums). …And in turn, those people never struck me as particularly interesting. I.e., I still don’t know what the attraction is, but maybe I didn’t look hard enough?

But here’s another story, from the sometimes inexhaustible supply courtesy of my petit-bourgeois chip-on-the-shoulder, which perhaps recounts a parallel case of (nearly fatal) attraction: when I was 17, I spent a shell-shocked 3 summer months hitch-hiking and travelling by train around Europe, with no idea whatsoever as to what I would do. I had the money for my peregrination from working as a waitress at the Empress Hotel (in Victoria) and from working for my father on construction jobs, but I had no real money (or plans, expectations, or encouragement) for further education. One day, after having been through Paris and Avignon and Venice and all points inbetween, I found myself — I can’t even remember how or why — in Austria on my way to Vienna, in a place called Klagenfurt. Ironic. Klage = lament, Furt = a kind of raised area in a river bed that allows crossings. Every house on this street in Klagenfurt looked like the house I never lived in, i.e., quite normal and postcard “perfect.” Window-boxes. Flowers. Well-kept yards. And I will never forget how I broke down and bawled like an infant in the middle of the street. Shocked the natives, you can imagine. But, whoah, it was cathartic (once I got past feeling like I’d lost my mind).

I was a pain in the ass, and I basically wanted to stay that way. I didn’t want to get religion, I sure didn’t want to settle down to …whatever. But what I saw in pretty Klagenfurt, which looked picturesque beyond words, was the artifice, the constructedness of it all, and I saw that it meant that some people had it without really meaning it. It struck me that some people manage to be assinine pains-in-the-butt and live in nice houses. Made me cry. (Doesn’t anymore, but did then.)

What I came up with to explain this weird nostalgia for something I’d never even had was this: if one knew how to go about it, “Klagenfurt” (and the place or thing is interchangeable, it’s really a fill-in-the-blanks state of mind) was something one could imagine having — i.e., it seemed just within reach. And if one went about getting it the right way, one could have it without getting a personality or brain transplant, converting to religion, or giving up garden-variety vices. And once you had it, you’d be fulfilled, or at least look it. You’d look good. Until then, I guess I thought you had to “be” a certain kind of person to have certain kinds of securities or things or values — you had to be a goody-two-shoes. But here was a whole town where perhaps half the population had a dirty past (hey, Austrians, 1974, anyone over 60 probably was a Nazi and not a few under 60 probably wanted to be), and they were living the “good life,” or at least a very attractively pretty one. That’s what seemed so unfair, too, and contributed to my crying jag. These people had faked their way into “Klagenfurt,” and there was no higher authority to boot them out.

I guess an East Coast college is harmless compared to a town full of Na…

It’s certainly better (in my view) than joining a cult.

If he goes to one of those colleges, he’ll benefit, especially if he uses the connections he can make. But there are plenty of connections to be made at other colleges, and if he’s determined to make a dent in his field, he’ll get into graduate schools of his choice irrespective of whether his undergraduate college was “ivy,” “Klagenfurt,” or something else.

Meanwhile, “Klagenfurt” continues to be something that one can imagine being just within reach. Tantalising, object of desire, and all that.

And “Klagenfurt” has been branded.

(And we all know that you never really buy the brand, right? The brand is just the promise of something that’s within reach, not the actual product. The actual product wears out and eventually goes into the great landfill in the sky.)

(Sorry about the long lag in responding, btw — I’ve been off the computer.)

maria November 14, 2004 at 10:52 pm

Oh what a great response and even better story! I thank you so much for it.

“Klagenfurt” is indeed a brand. I might have to pay you for rights to use it as a title for a poem.

As for Colby: in the wake of the grades he just got, I think that his “Klagenfurt” may lie somewhere else than Colby or the ivy-covered coveted places….

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: