Saturday, April 03, 2010

I Style My Hair With Surf Wax

My anthology arrived yesterday--I'd forgotten that there is a whole visual art section, which is exciting. I'm especially taken with "Starfish," the mixed-media piece by Hope Atherton, whose work is completely new to me. But I'm not going to try and do a mini review of the anthology now. I am going to attempt to respond to some of the comments left on the previous post. What a lot of you are suggesting, and I agree, is that the distinctions between suburban/urban aren't so clear cut--but some of you also point out that imaginary constructions of suburban/urban have real material ramifications. Looking through the anthology I think that an interrogation of some of these imaginary constructions is relevant to some of what the poems in here are doing.

Again, what I'm doing here is writing through some preliminary thoughts, thinking through these ideas as I write and as we all converse.

A large part of my interest in the coding of shared cultural references stems from the fact that growing up, I either lived in a very small town in Maine (graduating high school class had less than 100 people), or I lived outside of the United States--sometimes in isolated places like Papua New Guinea, and sometimes in huge, urban places. In high school and later in college,  I'd obsess about dumb things like how I'd read Naguib Mahfouz and Paul Bowles but not much Shakespeare, and I assumed this was because I'd had an education inferior to that of my peers. I was rather uptight. And getting back to Riot Grrrl music--I was listening to it, but I almost never went to shows, even when I was in college in DC. I was too spaced out, too uptight, taking ridiculously heavy course loads, spending 10-12 hours a week in Chinese class, and leaving the country whenever I could. Pam described her experiences with the Riot Grrrl scene as being peripheral--which is what mine were--and like her I also got the sense that it was an inclusive, coalition-building community.

Ana's comment about how, to quote her directly "city/authentic - suburb/inauthentic might not be the most useful or functional binary anymore"  resonates with me. I'm pretty wary of authenticity to begin with--in part for some of the reasons Ana goes on to mention: "one might conclude that only people who can't afford to make a choice are authentic, unadulterated. Unstained by having the privilege of choosing a brand."

The suburbs are actual places where many people live, grow up and experience the world. Now that I live in a suburb, I'm especially interested in cultural reference points and, yes, consumption choices of everyone else who also lives here--not surprisingly, some people are here because of their ability to choose and some people are here because they can't afford to make a choice.

Before I moved to Carlsbad and the San Diego area in general, I'd never really lived in a suburb, though I guess I did live in Gaithersburg, MD for a year. When I was 13, the distant Maryland suburbs of DC seemed like an exciting place because I could actually get to DC on my own via the Metro.

Pam and Joseph, in their comments, spoke a bit about the ways in which the differences between suburban and urban in LA--and I'd also include San Diego county--are collapsing, maybe have collapsed. The OC has urban density and cultural diversity with the infrastructure of something that feels more like a traditional suburb. San Diego has that same density (though not nearly on the same scale) and infrastructure, but it's not nearly as diverse as the OC or LA--it's significantly whiter, though that demographic is shifting.

What I'm getting to now is an idea Patrick and Pam articulated well. Patrick said: "Pam's remarks on appropriation illuminate the ways in which authenticity and sub-/urban imaginaries have material ramifications. I want to add a personal observation: that it works both ways." And he continues: "The temporary center serves as a figure ground relationship to the authenticity of one's relative privilege. If one marks their origins as suburban in some way, the "urban" becomes fated: the ground to the figure of purchasing power. And one strives to transform that into purchase on one's power of self-determination, despite it all. The point seems to understand that that privilege exists, for whom and how is it exercised."

Yes. For my 8th-grade self, the suburbs were cool because the suburbs were close to the city and offered a way to the urban. I marked my origins, somewhat arbitrarily, as rural, even though the were really a weird combination of rural and and global. Expat communities rework class in complex ways that, of course, imply colonialism: people who'd never be able or want to have servants can have servants, make more money, eat fancier food, and interact with people of a class they'd never be able to interact with at home. I was in school with then President Salinas de Gortari's son and went to a lot of ridiculous parties in everyone's huge houses in Polanco. My family didn't have a maid, but our apartment at Number 5 Plaza Carlos Finlay had a maid's room--my brother lived there over the summer before going back to live with my mom for the school year.

Ana's description of  how how "living in a very uniform Italian suburb in Long Island, after many years in Brooklyn, and this experience has actually jumpstarted [her] thinking about kitsch" also resonates with me. To be autobiographical, again: I went through a year in DC of maintaining a Stevie Nicks haircut, and I've always loved crochet ponchos and bell-sleeved shirts. Last year, I cut my hair short, but instead of it looking cool I decided that I looked like a perky soccer mom--not that I even really know what that means. I've at last embraced the beachy blondness of my hair, which I style with a product I've used since DC called "surf wax." Of course, it isn't really surf wax, and I don't surf, though I think that this summer will finally be the summer that I learn.


rodney k said...

Hi Lorraine,

Here in Portland, Matthew Stadler’s done a lot to bring attention to Thomas Sieverts (Googleable) and his idea of the Zwischenstadt, the “between city” that’s increasingly making irrelevant the urban/suburban split responsible for so much of our 20th-century ideas about what cities should be. Portland’s a great example: as the center increasingly gentrifies, the stuff we usually associate with city living—ethnic diversity, greater class spread, cultural heterogeneity, etc.—has pushed out to the once-suburban rim.

Sieverts’s idea, as I understand it, is that city planners are still beholden to the idea of the city, not the suburb, as the modern space par excellence. Public transport initiatives, urban redevelopment funds, and incentives to encourage walking, biking, shopping, flaneuring, etc. all slant toward city centers, and ignore the spaces at the edge that are more and more neither city nor suburb, but some new hybrid of the two. Might be relevant to the questions you’re asking; Stadler has a site——with a lot of these ideas on easy display.

pam said...

I think I've used that surf wax product too! Much better than real surf wax, which would be like rubbing your head with a candle stub...

Lorraine, you have brought up one of my all-time favorite topics ever. You have no idea how timely this talk of the suburban/urban is for me.

Thanks Rodney, for the link to Matthew Stadler's site. I'm reading some downloaded Sieverts papers right now. He'll get very far into this I'm sure, but one thing that his mention of the compact city brings up for me is the relatively new style of pedestrian-friendly alfresco shopping mall complex that's been sprouting up in CA cities and suburbs alike. SoCal people will recognize my references to the Spectrum mall in Irvine and the Grove Center in LA, adjacent to the Fairfax farmer's market. I like to call these sites "faux pedestrian zones" because of their incredibly contrived, corporatized, and inauthentic nature: they are designed to simulate a high-density urban experience in the midst of a landscape that either lacks a consumer/entertainment center (Irvine) or has been suburbanized into a patchwork of atomized strip malls by the automobile (LA). And yet you must drive for miles to these sites before you can get out to do your people-watching on foot (parking can be a challenge), and the upscale high-density social experience is policed at all times by security cameras and personnel.

When I first went to the Irvine Spectrum mall, I could hardly believe the thing existed. The parking lot alone seemed to take up acres, the cars enjoying more hillside real estate than the mall itself. I thought of Disneyland with its ersatz Main St. and sidewalk vendors. Yet the place was totally packed on a Saturday night; pretty much everyone in OC who hadn't fled to LA that night was at this mall. And I saw that the hunger for the experience of an urban high-density center was so great that people were willing to embrace even a cheesified surrogate. It was uplifting in a way, but also sad.