e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


Working-Class Studies Association Conference

A full day of conference activity, and I do mean FULL DAY. In the a.m. Paul Schadewald from Macalaster's Office of Civic Engagement led a tour of selected neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul, in part doing a show-and-tell of some of the key community agencies that "Mac" partners with in its service learning courses, in part taking us to some cool public art installations including a mural in one of the Latino areas depicting various icons (Rigoberta Menchu and Diego Rivera among others). A quick anecdote from the tour: Looking out over the Mississippi from the upper flats of St. Paul's westside, Schadewald pointed out several visible churches and made reference to an Irish-Catholic parish that had served some of the Latino community before the construction of a Latino parish. Racism at the Irish parish, he said, was among the factors that led some Latinos to start their own church. A middle-aged couple happened to be walking by and stopped to challenge Schadewald, the man--visibly bothered--saying his parents had attended the Irish church and had worked with various community groups to assist the new Latino community. His wife calmed the man down and then pressed a flustered Schadewald for some examples of racism at the church.

I don't point this out to criticize our tour guide, who was full of information about the twin cities, but rather to suggest that the exchange illustrates a difficulty and ethical dilemma inherent in articulating community critiques to actual community members. Here was a guy who grew up at this church, out for a walk with his wife, who happens to overhear someone who seems to be calling his home community racist. Our guide, full of knowledge and well-versed in identity politics, was at a loss for a way to talk to this particular community member. The CWCS Association is full of not only academics, but also community organizers, labor leaders, artists, and cultural workers of various ilk...so this wasn't a case of out-of-touch academics who can only communicate with other academics. This was something more complex about how we engage with physical spaces like cities and neighborhoods and communities.

The afternoon plenary session, "Working-Class Culture and Counter-Culture," attracted a large audience. Psychologist David Greene spoke about class as a "matrix of identity," a set of markers (little sense of entitlement, economic insecurity, minimization of the self, etc.) that inevitably fold in contradictory markers, some of which empower (male), and some of which disempower (gay). These paradoxes are disconcerting, Greene said, and lead many to fall into the dominant culture trap of "aspiring upward and denigrating downward."

The labor historian David Roediger served as a respondent of sorts to Greene's emphasis on class as culture. Roediger said the move toward humanistic approaches to class has caused the scholarly community to overlook a great deal of misery and called on the audience to foreground the question 'What is it that keeps workers from dreaming?' as we thought about class this week at the conference. One of the ways that Roediger answered that question was with the phrase "organized religion," and I thought back to the exchange in St. Paul earlier that day. Cool vocabulary word I learned during his talk: "homers," which refer to items that line workers steal and/or build for the express purpose of stealing. Notable example of this phenomenon from pop culture: the car parts that Johnny Cash's narrator swipes in "One Piece at a Time."

Batting clean-up at the plenary, Betsy Leondar-Wright, who gave a helpful review of Bernstein's elaborated vs. restricted code in order to talk about the possibilities of coalitions across class divides. In her work with various activist groups, Leondar-Wright said she's observed working-class organizations tending toward the indirect and the implicit while professional-managerial class organizations tend to spell things out explicitly. When faced with conflict, members of the w/c group might make a joke or go grab a drink, whereas the pm/c group is more likely to "get meta." This trend presents challenges to movements whose memberships are diverse in terms of class make-up, especially when pm/c leaders "impose inessential weirdness," or make moves that tend to turn off many w/c movement participants. She classified members of cross-class social movements as "traditionalists" and "rebels" and said that when groups consist of w/c traditionalists and pm/c traditionalists, things are usually cool. Likewise, when groups consist of w/c rebels and pm/c rebels, groups find commonalities. But when social movements consist of traditionalists (moderates, etc.) from one class and rebels (radicals, etc.) from another class, that's when significant conflict happens. The mixture of w/c traditionalists and pm/c rebels is particularly volatile.

Okay, enough play-by-play. I saw some screenings of works-in-progress including Jim Catano (who contributed to my book on working-class rhetorics)'s film about the attempt in Homestead, PA, to replace steel with heritage tourism as a community anchor. At the same session, Rosemary Feurer showed her new Mother Jones documentary. Very cool. In the evening, a night of poetry and fiction. Detroit's own Lolita Hernandez read from her Cadillac book. And a great poet from here in the twin cities, Bao Phi, read his work about Vietnamese-American identity, including an insanely good piece about Hurricane Katrina.

Hopefully, more updates tomorrow. I'm giving my paper tomorrow afternoon and need to go practice before hitting the sheets.

No comments: