Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People / Edition 1

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Overview


Odd Tribes challenges theories of whiteness and critical race studies by examining the tangles of privilege, debasement, power, and stigma that constitute white identity. Considering the relation of phantasmatic cultural forms such as the racial stereotype “white trash” to the actual social conditions of poor whites, John Hartigan Jr. generates new insights into the ways that race, class, and gender are fundamentally interconnected. By tracing the historical interplay of stereotypes, popular cultural representations, and the social sciences’ objectifications of poverty, Hartigan demonstrates how constructions of whiteness continually depend on the vigilant maintenance of class and gender decorums.

Odd Tribes engages debates in history, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies over how race matters. Hartigan tracks the spread of “white trash” from an epithet used only in the South prior to the Civil War to one invoked throughout the country by the early twentieth century. He also recounts how the cultural figure of “white trash” influenced academic and popular writings on the urban poor from the 1880s through the 1990s. Hartigan’s critical reading of the historical uses of degrading images of poor whites to ratify lines of color in this country culminates in an analysis of how contemporary performers such as Eminem and Roseanne Barr challenge stereotypical representations of “white trash” by claiming the identity as their own. Odd Tribes presents a compelling vision of what cultural studies can be when diverse research methodologies and conceptual frameworks are brought to bear on pressing social issues.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Beautifully written, theoretically sophisticated, and passionately iconoclastic, Odd Tribes should be required reading for anyone interested in the study of race and social inequalities. Its difficult lessons—for both liberal academics and antiracist practitioners—need to be absorbed and understood.”—Matt Wray, coeditor of The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness

“For John Hartigan Jr., race is not a fixed, abstract social fact but a fluid, heterogeneous, situated field of racializing practices. Odd Tribes deftly develops this approach through a series of lively accounts of how lower-class whites have been racialized in ways that simultaneously normalize whiteness. An elegant, fresh, provocative, often surprising, and ultimately hopeful work that argues forcefully for a cultural perspective on racial matters.”—Susan Harding, author of The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822335979
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

John Hartigan Jr. is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin.

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Read an Excerpt

ODD TRIBES

TOWARD A CULTURAL ANALYSIS OF WHITE PEOPLE
By JOHN HARTIGAN JR.

DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2005 DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3584-9


Chapter One

PICTURING THE UNDERCLASS: MYTH MAKING IN THE INNER CITY

East London lay hidden from view behind a curtain on which were painted terrible pictures: starving children, suffering women, overworked men; horrors of drunkenness and vice; monsters and demons of inhumanity; giants of disease and despair. Did these pictures truly represent what lay behind, or did they bear to the facts a relation similar to that which the pictures outside a booth at some country fair bear to the performance or show within? -Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London

The starting point for the construction of the underclass is a willingness to believe, an a priori receptiveness to journalistic, anecdotal claims that could, after all, provoke skepticism just as easily as reflexive acceptance. -Adolph Reed Jr., Stirrings in the Jug

Monsters and cities go hand in hand, as inextricably intertwined as fact and fiction. From the Sphinx to King Kong, Godzilla to RoboCop, monsters have terrorized cities. But cities, as well, have spawned monsters. These creatures, such as Jack the Ripper and Jeffrey Dahmer, are of a different order, ostensibly human and partof a routinized violence, which jars the comfortable view of monsters as fiction. All of these figures, imagined and real, depict a line along which certainty about monstrosities waxes and wanes. Judged more real, the connotations of fantastic inhumanity recede into vague afterimage; regarded as imaginary, the real-life associations and conditions similarly fade from view. This alteration between fictive and factual is active today in depictions of another form of urban monstrosity: the "underclass." Representations of this population as alternately real subjects and imagined grotesque terrors, rendered in depictions that purposefully resist making clear distinctions between one or the other, are fundamental to the popularity of inner-city scenes in newscasts, reality shows, and fictive media such as films and novels.

Overarching concerns of this book-to critique representations of poverty while also producing social science knowledge claims about "the poor," and to grapple with the conflation of race and class in the realms of theory and of everyday life-are all broached in debates about the urban underclass. Obviously real in some sense, the underclass is also a statistical artifact of political interests in demonizing the urban poor and of the public's insatiable desire for images of contemptible yet threatening figures of debased humanity. This chapter thus pursues two distinct but related tasks. As it undertakes to deconstruct representations of the inner city it also presents a critical reassessment of how race and class are conceived in social science research in relation to objectifications of the urban underclass. In this chapter I build on powerful cultural critiques of representations of the urban underclass and suggest ways to reimagine the forces that constitute both the representational economy of the inner city and the real conditions of those who reside in such zones.

The problems with depictions of the underclass stem from the failure of social scientists to grasp the relational dynamics by which class identities are culturally constructed. As Michael Katz (1993, 442) argues, the social forces that created inner cities, "structural transformations of the economy; the working out of racism in time and space; the consequences of institutional developments; the reshaping of urban space; and the activities of the state," have transfigured the basis of class identity broadly in this country. But social scientists ignore these larger connections when they isolate the underclass as a subject of study. The fundamental distortion, Katz explains, is that in pursuing a class analysis based entirely on one class, social science "uses the language of class but misses or ignores its relational dimension. Indeed, it defines the underclass as outside of, beyond, or not part of the class structure" when it characterizes this population as distinctive based on behavioral rather than economic characteristics. Robin Kelley (1997, 18) expands this critique, noting that "most interpreters of the 'underclass' treat behavior as not only a symptom for culture but also as the determinant for class. In simple terms, what makes the 'underclass' as a class is members' common behavior-not their income, their poverty level, or the kind of work they do. It is a definition of class driven more by moral panic than by systematic analysis."

The problems with this behavioral focus are threefold. First, these behaviors permeate society: all classes produce teenage parents, female-headed households, and drug users; the sharp contrast lies in the resources (cultural and economic capital) that members of the respective classes can draw on to meet such contingencies. Second, the behaviors keyed on by social scientists are dynamic and situational, individual responses to specific circumstances rather than all-encompassing moral categories (see Reed 2000a). The urban poor are no more instinctual or predetermined in their responses to certain situations than are members of any other class, though their "choices" are often far more constrained by their economic and social conditions. Third, emphasizing "bad" behavior relies on and reinforces the notion that a natural form of etiquette governs all human behaviors, making transgressions seem an obvious basis for concern. Appeals to a neutral, generic register of behavior turn attention from the contested aspects of class identity and reinforces a fundamental misrecognition of the bodily dimension of class relations.

These critiques render knowledge claims about the underclass suspect and raise a larger concern: that class analysis fails to recognize that class, like race, is culturally constructed. These problems are compounded by both the excessive realness of the underclass and by middle-class audiences' credulity concerning depictions of the inner city. The extreme condition depicted by massive documentary and quantitative projects deployed in inner-city zones-and the way such objectifications are informed by and sanction popular cultural representations of the underclass-makes it unusually difficult to deconstruct such representations. So here I take a different tack, working instead to exploit the monstrous potential of the urban underclass (see Haraway 1992). Turning from the objectifying apparatuses deployed in documenting the underclass, I focus on the reservoir of anxiety that colors these representations. This view reveals urban monstrosities emerging from a voyeuristic middle-class Self that consumes such images. Instead of fearfully animating a sharp divide between "us and them," this view recognizes and depicts the intimate relations otherwise fundamentally distorted by representational techniques that place monsters in the city on parade. Simply put, the monsters there are of our own making, but recognizing this requires a bit of reflection and imagination.

To better imagine these relations, I turn to three powerful stories illustrating how the boundary maintenance work of class self-construction produces monstrosity effects in decimated urban spaces. I draw these stories from two periods when urban life underwent similar drastic transformations, which bracket the epoch of formal social science poverty research. The first centers on London in the 1880s and 1890s, the second features cities in the United States in their radical transformation during the 1980s and 1990s. Linking these periods and stories is the monstrous figure of the underclass. These stories both figure and critique the monstrosity of the underclass and, in the process, provoke a rethinking of the cultural construction of middle-class self-identity. Robert Louis Stevenson's drama Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886/1985) is a mythic account of how the social and geographic distances between classes become internalized, with images of the underclass playing a crucial role in materializing the boundaries of middle-class identity. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891/1974) depicts a dream of urban spectatorship where a respectable gentleman can traverse the nether world of the underclass, seeking pleasure and raw experience without bearing any contaminating physical traces as a result. Each of these tales has been told and retold in a variety of entertainment media because they compellingly figure nightmarish possibilities of losing self-control, which is a particularly potent problem for middle-class formation; each also titillates audiences with haunting images of the underclass. These tales, in turn, are referenced and revised in a fascinating drama from our recent era, the Wes Craven movie Candyman (1992), a thrilling, vampyric tale that unfolds across the class and racially segregated landscape of Chicago's inner city.

These stories all feature a Self turned monstrous that allows us to think imaginatively about how class identities are produced and experienced in relation to race. Each story dramatizes mythic dimensions of representations of poverty and relational dimensions of class and racial identities that are too often distorted to monstrous effects. I use these narratives as a means of framing the classed Imaginary that animates representations of poverty, even those of staid, detached social scientists. Ultimately, social scientific images of the poor are generated and consumed as part of the cultural construction of class identities, particularly the self-identity of the middle class. These tales offer an opportunity to reflect on the past hundred years of social science studies of poverty, asking What, if anything, have we learned from such work? Have such depictions ever not drawn from or played to popular anxieties and fascinations? and Is there a way we can represent inner-city conditions without feeding this appetite for monsters?

INNER-CITY LONDON OF THE 1890s

The critical link binding these tales is that they each respond to and dramatize similar drastic transformations of urban space. To grasp the striking correspondences between the transformations in these two periods-and the similarities in how social scientists tried to represent these conditions-I turn first to Charles Booth's (1902) mammoth social survey, The Life and Labour of the People in London, published between 1889 and 1902. Booth's study, especially the Poverty Series portion, offers a detailed view of the streets that Mr. Hyde and Dorian Gray haunted (see also Eckardt 1987). More important, his novel approach to analyzing the city, which initiated our current era of social research on poverty, provides an early incarnation of recent figurings of the underclass. As researchers do today, confronting an eerily similar decimation of city centers, Booth produced a delimited view of the possible threats posed by the poor. In place of the nebulous, spreading image of the "dangerous classes," he portrayed a smaller population, the "low class," as the source of danger in the city. The Poverty Series frames dynamics by which racialized populations in two periods of urban turmoil were scientifically objectified and moralized as monstrous threats.

As a foundational figure in sociology, Booth occupies an ambiguous position in the history of depicting and analyzing urban poverty (see Bales 1999; Marriott 1999; O'Day 1989; J. Walkowitz 1992). His lack of theoretical sophistication leaves him on the fringes of sociology's intellectual history, but his ability to spatially objectify and statistically represent the sprawling metropolis in an objective fashion ensured his enduring influence on urban researchers. Booth portrayed London in the first systematic, street-by-street account of the city, drawing on census data and school board visitors' reports, correlated with the impressions of teachers and his own ethnographic observations. As with previous researchers, such as Friedrich Engels and Henry Mayhew, Booth presented a combination of quantitative and first-hand accounts of the alien streets and humanity of London's interior. But his sophistication in fashioning a totalized view of the city-by deploying spatial, temporal, and attitudinal registers to detail the boundaries of class formations-distinguishes his depictions from earlier representations and resonates strongly with current efforts to conceptualize the inner city.

Through the course of the 1800s, an "inner city" was gradually hollowed out in central London through a combination of processes, including the decline of key industries, the vast exodus of the upper and middle classes from the city's center, and the general depopulation of the central city through a series of "slum removal" efforts which had the unintended effect of crowding the poor and the working classes into "degenerate" zones. The result is described by Gareth Stedman Jones (1984, 154) in Outcast London: "The inner industrial perimeter developed into an area of chronic male underemployment, female sweated labor, and low-paid, irregular artisan work in declining trades; an area associated with small dealing, petty criminality and social desolation so graphically portrayed by Booth in his Poverty Survey." As in the United States, the development of such an area was a lengthy process, which only gradually came to represent a threat of a completely different order to the nation at large. The central city of London emerged as the product of residential segregation by class, as an "immense geographic gulf" developed between rich and poor. "There had been increasing expression of anxiety about this phenomenon in the manufacturing towns ever since the early years of the industrial revolution. But nowhere had the process of segregation been carried further than in London" (247). As this social distance increased, "the old methods of social control based on the model of the squire, the parson, face to face relations, deference and paternalism, found less and less reflection in the urban reality. Vast tracts of working class housing were left to themselves, virtually bereft of any contact with authority except in the form of the policeman and the bailiff. The poor districts became an immense terra incognita, periodically mapped out by intrepid missionaries and explorers who catered to an insatiable middle-class demand for travelers' tales" (14). In the 1980s, William Julius Wilson (1987, 8) recapitulated both this argument and anxiety when he asserted that the underclass today is characterized by "social isolation," leading to a series of "concentration effects," which combine to generate "aberrant behaviors" in a group that is "collectively different" from mainstream society (Wilson's argument is critically examined in detail in chapter 5).

Prior to the drastic transformation of industrial cities, the urban poor were considered to be simply "demoralized," the result of individually hedonistic drives and sinful lifestyle choices, no longer countered by the "good example" set by the pious upper classes. As anxieties sharpened attention to this class, its character was imagined increasingly in terms of "degeneration." The middle class came to believe that "the savage and brutalizing conditions of the casual poor were the result of long exposure to the degenerating conditions of city life" (G. Jones 1984, 286). The effect of such conditions was construed as a threat to the imperial race of England; a weakened or contaminated racial stock would undermine the strength of English armies abroad. Descriptions of London laborers emphasized the constitutional weakness and an increasing loss of physical stature and stamina. Biologistic interpretations, rather than structural accounts of the economic transformation in the central city, found that urban existence was generating a lazy, obstinate, and perverse labor force. In a similar vein today, analyses and descriptions of the urban underclass key almost entirely on the questionable subject of behavior, while generally downplaying or ignoring the structural dynamics that have created this economic predicament.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from ODD TRIBES by JOHN HARTIGAN JR. Copyright © 2005 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Picturing the underclass : myth making in the Inner City 33
2 Blood will tell : the nationalization of white trash 59
3 Unpopular culture : the case of white trash 109
4 Reading trash : deliverance and the cultural poetics of white trash 135
5 Talking trash : white poverty and marked forms of whiteness 147
6 Green ghettos and the white underclass 167
7 Establishing the fact of whiteness 187
8 Locating white detroit 205
9 Object lessons in whiteness : antiracism and the study of white folks 231
10 Cultural analysis : the case of race 257
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