An Oppositional Poetics of Class


Question:

How can Toni Morrison’s concept of “othering” be applied to how social class is portrayed in literature, and using Erica Hunt’s ideas, what might an “oppositional poetics of class” look like?


Debi‘s Response:

Social narratives are usually told by the educated, dominant classes.  Who then speaks for the poor?   The poor and working-class are often marginalized and voiceless.  The rich and middle class are dominant and well voiced.  The poor lack the means and opportunities for expression of their plight and their reality.  The wealthier classes have the means and opportunities to acquire education and resources for communicating their lives and situations, while they have little—if any—real world contact with the lived realities of people in poverty.

In her essay “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,” Erica Hunt states, “Oppositional poetics and cultures form a field of related projects which have moved beyond speculation of skepticism to a critically active stance against forms of domination.  By oppositional, I intend, generously, dissident cultures as well as ‘marginalized’ cultures, cutting across class, race and gender.”[1]

While it is true there are scholars who study social class, this is usually done by upper and middle class well-educated individuals who mean well, but view the poor as the “other” and try to ask questions to unearth the truth of living in poverty.  There is a big difference between being a member of a group and studying that same group as an outsider.  In an article on psychotherapy and the poor, the authors state:  “[P]oor and working-class men and women have important ideas … and their voices must be heard if we are to challenge classism and accurately address class issues in our work.”[2]  The we in the previous statement is applied to psychotherapists working with poor clients, but the sentence could also be applied to writers and how the poor are represented in literature, the arts, and the media.  Are we challenging classism and accurately addressing class issues in our work?  Or are we perpetuating stereotypes that continue to “other” the poor and keep them marginalized from society?  Hunt states, “there is nothing inherent in language centered projects that gives them immunity from a partiality that reproduces the controlling ideas of dominant culture.”[3]

Toni Morrison asks in Playing in the Dark, “How does literary utterance arrange itself when it tries to imagine an Africanist other?  What are the signs, the codes, the literary strategies designed to accommodate this encounter?”[4]  I would ask what are the signs, codes, and strategies of “othering” according to social class or economics status that can be seen in today’s literature?  Readers are assumed to be white and middle class, and characters are assumed to be white and middle class unless otherwise specified.  Often the poor are secondary decorative and comedic characters.  Their lives are not normalized.  They are often represented by stereotypes that few readers think to question.  Lazy.  Dirty.  Disorganized.  Welfare and food stamps abusers.  Uneducated.  Religious zealots.  Bad teeth. Immoral.  Crude.  Irresponsible.

According to Appio et al, “The doubly oppressive experience of living with hardship and being stigmatized for it is well documented in qualitative studies that explore the lived experiences of poverty … This convergence of deleterious life conditions, lack of political and social power, and associated stigmatization can be understood as part of a broader experience of classism.”[5]

People are generally believed to be poor due to decisions or actions that are their own fault, and this is often communicated in literature and the entertainment media.  Portraying in our writing the attributes of irresponsibility or lack of motivation in poor characters perpetuates these negative classist stereotypes and fail to take into account the social conditions that may create barriers to following through on appointments or other commitments.  Childcare issues, transportation difficulties, and variable work hours can all come into play in the real world lived experiences of the poor and working-class.

Are we portraying that fuller picture or are we just making our poverty stricken character late for an important appointment once again?  Do we talk down to our characters?  Do we ridicule their religious beliefs as being backward and comedic?  Or do we present their religious communities as the source of strength, motivation, and hope that larger society often fails to offer them?

Morrison says about Nancy, a character from Will Carter’s Saphirra and the Slave Girl, that “Nancy has access to no one to whom she can complain, explain, object, or from who she can seek protection.  We must accept her total lack of initiative, for there are no exits.”[6]  The poor are often in a position where there are no exits from their continual battle with poverty.  Continually fighting a losing battle could easily kill the initiative in anyone.  Do we portray our poor or working class characters as courageously fighting battles they usually never win?  Is it laziness we present?  Or resignation?

How we frame our characters and their motivations matters.  We need to be sure that we are not just resorting to portraying dangerous classist stereotypes out of our own laziness as writers.  As Hunt says at the end of her essay, “writing itself … enhances our capacity to strategically read our condition more critically and creatively in order to interrupt and to join.”[7] We need to work through our writing and our art at restoring the humanity of all marginalized people, whether that marginalization is the result of race, class, gender, or orientation.


[1] Erica Hunt, 198.

[2] Lauren Appio, Debbie-Ann Chambers, Susan Mao, “Listening to the Voices of the Poor and Disrupting the Silence About Class Issues in Psychotherapy,” Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, Vol. 69(2), 152 (2013)

[3] Hunt, 204.

[4] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark, p. 16.

[5] Appio, 153.

[6] Morrison, 24.

[7] Hunt, 212.

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