If We Could Turn Back Time… Things Would Still Be the Same

Boom: A Journal of California coverLast week, KPFA’s Against the Grain interviewed UC Press author Daniel Martinez HoSang about California’s fiscal crisis and the false narrative that economic hardship in the state is something new. In the KPFA interview, as well as in his article, “Race and the Mythology of California’s Lost Paradise,” published in the inaugural issue of Boom, HoSang challenges the notion of a lost Golden Age by examining the history of racialized ballot measures in California.

HoSang brings in the philosophies of Joan Didion and Roland Barthes to explain the state’s profound self-mythologization, and makes surprising connections between California and the American South.

To learn more about this controversial history and the longstanding practices that denied millions of residents access to public goods and services, pick up a copy of Boom: A Journal of California, or read HoSang’s book, Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California. An excerpt is available online.

Seeing the Invisible

Medical anthropologist Philippe Bourgois and photographer and graduate student Jeff Schonberg spent 12 years among homeless heroin users on the streets of San Francisco, embedded in a world that is usually invisible to outsiders. This world exists at the seams of the city, under freeways, in vacant lots and alleys, largely unseen by passersby.

In their book Righteous Dopefiend, Bourgois and Schonberg document the inner workings of this community, in which heroin functions as part of a moral economy, governing relationships, social structure, dignity, and survival. Using photo-ethnography, they bring the lives and suffering of the people they befriended into view, without judgment or spectacle, and reveal how this marginalized group fits into the larger structure of American society. In this interview with KPFA’s Against the Grain, they discuss how in this community and others in the backstreets of major cities, vast structural forces converge on vulnerable individuals.

Bourgois and Schonberg use photo-ethnography to represent this group, but no image is complete without asking the right questions: “What are we imposing? What are we missing? What are the stakes of exposure to a wider audience?”, they write in the book. Above all, they continue, “there is urgency to documenting the lives of the Edgewater homeless. They survive in perpetual crisis. Their everyday physical and psychic pain should not be allowed to remain invisible.”

View an audio slideshow of Schonberg’s photographs, narrated by Bourgois, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences. An exhibition of their work, “Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction and Poverty in Urban America”, is on display at the Penn Museum until May 2, 2011.

Listen to the KPFA Against the Grain interview with Schonberg and Bourgois.

Reclaiming Death as Part of Life

There is no place for death in most modern-day American homes. The “parlor”, where wakes used to be held, is now known as the “living room”, as author Nancy Scheper-Hughes notes in her essay “Death and Dying in Anxious America”, from Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Besteman’s edited volume The Insecure American. Scheper-Hughes finds that the more we relegate death to hospitals, nursing homes, and out of our concept of the human experience, the more anxious we become about this inevitable event, and the more difficult it is to accept.

In the essay, Scheper-Hughes writes about the concept of a “good death”—a concept she saw in action over and over again during her fieldwork in rural Ireland, when she was researching for her book Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics. In the town, a “‘good death’ was one experienced awake and aware, and in familiar surroundings, be it home or bog, or mountain, or farm,” she writes. It was a chance to make amends and say goodbye. A good death meant retaining some control over the experience—knowing it was coming, preparing for it, accepting it. Scheper-Hughes finds that the anxiety Americans tend to have about dying stems from a lack of control over one’s own death—not knowing where it will occur, the fear that important medical decisions might be made by a stranger, or that one might not be treated with respect.

In this interview on KPFA’s Against the Grain, Scheper-Hughes discusses Americans’ fear of death, and explores how we might assuage some of this fear by reclaiming death as a familiar part of the human experience.

Listen to the interview with Nancy Scheper-Hughes on KPFA’s Against the Grain