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Story, First - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
Story, First
When I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I regularly attended demonstrations on Sproul Plaza. I had mixed feelings about the value of the spectacular approach to political activism. What had worked in 1960 or 1970 seemed to have become an impediment to working towards something useful. But I still turned out for most major protests and quite a few minor ones, out of respect for the history of the place. I felt like I was continuing the tradition of the Free Speech Movement, even if it was a tradition in crisis.

One day, as I was walking towards a demonstration on the steps of Sproul Hall from Bancroft and Telegraph, a large, elderly gentleman stopped me. He had seen the FMLN armband I wore -- one I'd actually designed, believe it or not -- and various other politically significant buttons and ribbons that festooned my decaying gray "elephant" jacket, famous for the holes in the lining that allowed one to store pens, pills, and pennies inside it for later extraction.

"Let me tell you something, sonny," he began. "I remember the protests here against the Marines going into Nicaragua, back in the early 30s."

I experienced the same strange sensation in my limbs that came over me when my German grandfather used to tell me about his experiences at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, an emotional electricity. I stopped my forward march, waiting for the pleasure of the old man's tale.

"I have something I need to ask you," he continued. I was feeling nostalgic, at ease. "What do your parents do?"

I answered without hesitating. "My father works for the American Chemical Society. My mother is a freelance editor."

His face darkened with blood as he pitched forward.

"Your blood won't be pure for generations."

At first, I didn't know what to say. I was dumbfounded. But I eventually regained enough composure to ask him what he meant.

"Your family is corrupt. Even if you went to work in a factory for the rest of your life, you'd still be part of the ruling class."

I tried to argue with him, to no avail. When I finally abandoned the effort, leaving him to stumble towards the next unsuspecting undergraduate, I consoled myself with the thought that he was probably insane.

Nevertheless, his prophet-like declaration clung to me, like the bad air from a nightclub that no amount of starlight walking will wear off. I've come back to his words over and over in the fifteen years since then. As much as I love the work of Pierre Bourdieu, for example, a part of me remains disturbed by my sense that Bourdieu's analysis of taste is a distant cousin of the old man's doom-filled pronouncement.

What I wonder, when I'm in that space of reflection, is whether the old man believed that the process worked in reverse. Would it also take generations for the blood of a working-class man or woman to become impure?

Tags: , ,
Mode: crescent
Muse: Seven Days - Cracker - Garage d'Or (Disc 1)

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Comments
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: January 11th, 2004 07:52 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Of defilement, other ruminations

Sometimes it's good to be troubled, have things we’d otherwise take for granted jerked into the light. I hear you on the Bourdieu and will send you an email exploring this at greater length.

I love the story but the old man’s language troubles me. To use a language of defilement--even in his critique of what, perhaps unarguably, does defile--still reinforces the idea that there once was something pure now lost. There was once something wholly, incontestably sacred, which if we could only get it back would never have to be thought through again. Now, I want to and do believe in progress, and utopia as they say is good for walking--some days I even get so Judeo-Christian in my language as to say I want to, even do believe that paradise can be regained. But I try to remember to be wary of the narratives of even these believings. They slide so easily into ones that mire people in loving an edenic origin they never get back to or a comparable future they by definition never quite attain. Could it ever be utopia if you could get there, or get back? Maybe maybe not. But that doesn't in the slightest mean that the present we live in is entirely not that, entirely inglorious. Couldn’t it be sacred even if it’s not perfection? Even if we know we made it sacred and are implicated in the gloss of imperfections? To hold it sacred, do we have to stop thinking about how we may at least in part have made it so?

The old man's right when he says purgation is hard and history more so, but you are too when you suggest that maybe we slip or fall into impurity with greater ease and faster. The better implication you make possible in your final question seems to be that maybe, given that, we'd do better not to focus so much on purity/impurity at all. The potential for corruption may be all around, but maybe we'd do better if we thought and talked instead about it not as potential for corruption but as potential for being different than we are right now, that is, for change...
From: (Anonymous) Date: November 8th, 2004 01:26 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
The old guy might have been right once, but needs to adjust for a half-century of change. It takes more than a job title to become a member of the "ruling class", and the title of "chemist", "editor" or "engineer" just does not have the same meaning it once had.

Somehow I am pretty sure that a member of the "ruling class" I am not.

--
Preston L. Bannister (http://bannister.us/)
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: November 8th, 2004 02:08 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Exactly. I wonder, though, to what extent editors and chemists every truly belonged to the ruling class. Abetters of it they were, surely. But members?
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