Thursday, August 5, 2010

"The labor, as always, remains all theirs"

One of the articles in the twentieth-anniversary issue of differences that I recently read has got me revisiting some of the issues I raised in The Matter of Tongues, my Guest of Honor speech for WisCon 32. In "Here are the Dogs: Poverty in Theory," Gayle Salamon begins by remarking
We have a contemporary theoretical discourse about gender in the United States; we have a critical theoretical discourse about race. That these theoretical discourses are ever changing, often overlapping, and hotly contested from without an within is a barometer of their robustness. We have not produced a similar theoretical discourse on class, despite the legacy of Marxism and its insistence on the centrality of class in social analysis. That class has been the undertheorized member of the modifying triumvirate of race-gender-class within the contemporary politics of diversity has oft been noted, but this has not been sufficient to reinvigorate its waning presence in considerations of difference and identity. Why might this be so? How are class, identity, and voice linked-- or separated-- within contemporary narrative and memoir, and what theoretical presuppositions around each of these terms underlie such connections and disjunctions?(168)
In my speech, I named intelligibility has a key problem for writing and reading stories by/about various "others." In her article, Salamon goes on to look at an aspect of that particular problem. She starts by considering a work published in 2007:
In the introduction to Poor People, William Vollmann reflects on some of the canonical work in the literature on poverty and considers the conditions of their making. He tell us that writing on poverty cannot be done successfully by people who are themselves poor. The suggestion that the poor are the least able narrators of their own poverty offers from the outset a vexed relation between language and poverty, a vexation that inverts the relation between voice and authenticity that we have often come to expect form literatures of difference. Within this logic, Vollmann is able to write his book Poor People because he was never poor, Steinbeck succeeds with Grapes of Wrath because he transcends his "poorish" origins, and George Orwell, who was once poor, could only have written Down and Out in Paris and London because he escaped that condition. Books about the poor, Vollmann explains, are neither by nor for the poor, a circumstance to which he seems resigned. (168-169)
And what is his reasoning?
Those living in poverty, Vollmann propounds, cannot understand their condition, its complexity, or themselves. The poor, through no fault of their own, are a simple people. Poverty itself has simplified them, and thus the language used to both address and describe them, Volmann suggests, should be simple.

The assertion of this kind of moralist anti-aesthetic is astonishingly common when the subject is poverty. The contention that linguistic complexity invites or enacts a kind of corruption on the part of the writer and that language describing the poor must be mimetically impoverished, as bare and minimal as the lives of the poor themselves, is both a misrecognition of the lives of the poor and inattentive to the complexities of languages of poverty. (171)
Salamon then notes that Orwell is a vehement proponent of this point of view. She looks at Down and Out in Paris and London and sees him objectifying poverty and muses about the way in which he separates himself from "the poor with whom he works, lodges, and tramps": "It may only be the rich who look at the poor and see poverty. The poor certainly do not see one another that way." (172) Analyzing Orwell's language when writing about his personal experiences of poverty, she concludes
Language that is simple, direct, and clear is unmanageable in the grip of poverty, both for Orwell the writer and Orwell the down-and-out narrating character. Indeed, during the humiliations of his encounters with the laundress, the tobacconist, the shopkeeper, he does not once utter "I," settling back into it only after the present tense misery of those three weeks has passed.

In such texts as these, a disidentification with the poor is the only enabling term for speaking about the poor, even by the poor themselves. The experience of poverty is unspeakable in some profound way, Orwell's prose seems to suggest, but if it is unspeakable, if he is neither able to tell the laundress the truth of his situation nor able to summon the narrative "I" to help his description, every last mundane detail of his daily life is suddenly rendered vastly more intricate and impossible, and in a way that requires untruthfulness, "a net of lies" constantly. (173)
Salamon then returns to Vollmann-- and his confronting his subjects with the question "Why are you poor?" Vollman is apparently disgusted with the responses he gets. Apparently, since as Salamon says "Poverty, for Vollmann, is the only thing to be said about [a woman he is interviewing]," this is all he can think to ask. As she ripostes
One would not ask 'Why are you a woman?' Or, "Why are you black?'...To ask 'Why are you poor?' of a poor person does not absolve but rather holds him or her responsible for both his or her circumstance and its transparent narration. The question assumes that self-narration offers meaning that is then transparently available to the writer and his or her readers in turn. It asserts a great many things and then puts the weight of explanation on the poor; the labor, as always, remains all theirs. (175)

1 comment:

Josh said...

Thanks, Timmi! I went and read the essay--it's very well-written--and was impressed that it engages Orwell rather than just denouncing him Raymond Williams-fashion.

I look forward to Vollman's visiting nursing homes and asking people, "Why are you old?"