Richard Dobbs

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I first met Mr. Dobbs, an affable man in his early sixties, in October, 1992. Betsy had given me his telephone number and recommended I speak to him because of his position on the Lancaster Planning Commission. Betsy met Mr. Dobbs at a Planning Commission meeting when home owners in her tract mobilized against the building of further low-income housing in their neighborhood. He had been helpful to her and proved so to me as well. For the most part, I sought out Mr. Dobbs for his knowledge as a Planning Commissioner and his long-term perspective as a twenty-six year resident of Antelope Valley. Though we did speak of his feelings about the community and his reasons for becoming involved in planning, I never interviewed Mr. Dobbs as a home owner, nor did I visit his house. Our relationship has consisted of one four hour interview conducted at his office, and several telephone conversations in which I asked him for information and advice. Thus, because of our relative unfamiliarity, and the difference in our ages, I have chosen not to refer to him by his first name as I do with my other informants.

Mr. Dobbs is an insurance agent with State Farm Insurance in Lancaster. He "grew up in Muncie, industrial factory town that manufactured Warner transmissions and fenders for Chevrolets". After living and working in Phoenix, Arizona for seven years, he moved to Lancaster in 1966 because he was working "for a company that had an opening here". In the following excerpt from our interview, Mr. Dobbs explains how he came to be appointed to the Planning Commission:

"The way I got involved in it is that back before the incorporation, back in the middle sixties, I moved here and got involved. I've always been interested in government.....Got involved in the North LA County General Plan process that's mandated by law that every five years a general plan has to be evaluated and got involved in that with some of the people that are currently involved in the politics.....and then, I've helped different politicians, it's a political appointment to some degree......and I've helped different people that have been running for city council......back in '87, one of the city councilmen's appointments needed to be replaced and I was a kind of like a middle choice person. I bring together two different groups...... ......And, then, after one year's experience, then I was removed because the new politicians that were elected didn't approve of my.....uh.......and that usually happens and.......most often when a person is elected they have their own choice anyway. So that's not a........a problem......So I was off the Planning Commission and then two years later one of the newly elected city council persons uh.....asked me then to be his appointment also. .....The city council member that appointed me appointed someone else originally,.....who he thought would be a strong advocate for his opinion, I suspect......and the person that he appointed turned out to be too strong of an advocate.....his behavior wasn't acceptable.... and then I was the choice of the person that could, well, bring things together a little better, rather than be an adversarial position, I would be more of a conciliatory position. So, I'm proud of know..... that's why I explain it to you, is that I'm proud that I can be a business person and.....but still relate to home owners' situations and be their advocate as well as.......understand what's going on on both sides of the fence."

As this passage shows, Mr. Dobbs has long-standing ties to Antelope Valley's political and business communities and to homeowners' groups. His knowledge of the area's history, as well as his specialized knowledge as an insurer of houses, has supplied me with the kind of contextual information invaluable to ethnographic inquiry.


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When I met Debra in 1992, she was working for Kaufman and Broad, the largest builder of single-family homes in California. I had asked Mr. Dobbs to help me get permission to video-tape in the model homes and he put me in touch with one of Kaufman and Broad's Vice-Presidents. Mr. Dobb's name clearly carried some weight with this Vice-President, for he immediately and graciously granted me permission to film, not only the models, but also the on-going construction. I chose to video-tape the models at the California Traditions development because I was familiar with them and knew the houses were mid-range in the price spectrum of new housing in Antelope Valley. Debra was one of the sales representatives at California Traditions.

My research relationship with Debra has consisted of: two video-taped interviews, each about an hour; a week of observing her "on the job"; three "lunches" over which we discussed my research; and several casual conversations. Of all my primary informants, I am least close to Debra. No doubt, this has to do with the fact that it was her boss who asked her to accommodate my requests for assistance. During most of our interactions, Debra maintained her "sales persona" and for this reason I included a number of her statements in my analysis of the discourse of supply. Yet, Debra has a specialist's knowledge of the concerns and proclivities of home buyers and so, her statements have also informed my analysis of the discourse of demand.

Debra moved to Antelope Valley from Mammoth Lakes, California in 1983. At the time, she and her (now ex-) husband were working "in construction" and moved because they "got a job promotion". From 1983 to 1989, she and her husband continued to work for the same building contractor they had in Mammoth, he as a "site supervisor. . .in charge of how all the houses go up and how they're built", she in sales and administration. The couple moved from Mammoth while their first child, a daughter, was still an infant and, in 1987, they had a second child, this time a son. Together they built and lived in three different "custom" houses (i.e. not in a tract). However, at the time I met Debra, she was living "in an apartment, due to a divorce". In the following excerpt, which illustrates her tendency to use "sales talk" even when speaking of her personal life, Debra details her future housing plans:

DEB: I will be buying a Kaufmann and Broad home once I can get a few things put behind me. I believe that much in the product that I'm willing to buy one, and I just can't think of a better investment for anyone.

ME: Which model are you interested in?

DEB: I would go with The Coventry, the island, the nice family room and the big kitchen and the island...that's just a central gathering area for a family. And that is our most popular plan for families. We're seeing more and more that families are becoming more of a unit. They come home at the end of the day and they're all together in the family room watching TV., or in the kitchen cooking and it affords them...... instead of everybody going off to different rooms, they can all be together in one big room...and...we're finding that young families are leaning towards that plan more than any of the others for that reason, and I'm the same way...I have two small kids and it's just great!

ME: You can keep an eye on them while cooking huh?

DEB: Oh, exactly. They're not off in the other room tearing pillows apart or painting their fingernails on the furniture or other [laughs] strange things. So, but you like knowing they're right there, too, while you're doing the work that you've got to do at the end of the day. Everybody can still spend time together and that's important.

As this excerpt indicates, Debra shares the goal of homeownership and the concern for "family" which, as I discuss in the next section, are two themes that arise in the discourse of demand.

The Discourse of Demand: Capitulation or Critique?

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In recent years, a number of works on cultural reproduction have cast the issue as a question of whether a particular group's reception of, response to, a dominant ideology ought to be viewed as resistance or accommodation. Many of these works examine oral, folk or popular cultural forms and identify therein a host of "counter-discourses" raised in more or less (usually less) effective opposition to the hegemonic order. For example, in Veiled Sentiments (1986) Lila Abu-Lughod makes a compelling case that women's poetry among the Bedouin be seen as a "counter-discourse", an "anti-structure", opposing the dominant , patriarchal ideology of honor. Yet, she also acknowledges that this counter-discourse is sanctioned, indeed glorified, within the dominant discourse; and that these "two ideologies", paradoxically, are mutually supporting and share the central value of autonomy (1986: 258). As Abu-Lughod explains:

This ambivalence about poetry is significant, and it makes sense only in terms of the cultural meaning of opposition. Because ordinary discourse is informed by the values of honor and modesty, the moral correlates of the ideology that upholds the [Bedouin] social and political system, we would expect the antistructural poetic discourse. . . to be informed by an opposing set of values. This is not the case. Poetry as a discourse of defiance of the system symbolizes freedom--the ultimate value of the system and the essential entailment of the honor code. (1986: 252, emphasis added)

Abu-Lughod resolves this paradoxical tension between discourse and counter-discourse by arguing that her analysis of oral poetry as "cultural critique from the inside" is revealing because it shows that ideology must not be conceived of as "monolithic", determining of experience, and that human actors cannot be reduced "to automatons" (1986: 258). To some extent, this is the sort of argument I will be making about the discourse of demand among my Antelope Valley informants. That is, I identify in this discourse a theme of opposition to--an embedded, enacted criticism of--the capitalist social order.

However, as with Bedouin poetry, this theme of opposition paradoxically supports the dominant social order because it shares with that order what Abu-Lughod (among others) calls a core "value". In Antelope Valley, and in my conception, this "value" is, rather, a core vocabulary of ideals, a shared model of morality and of social polity--in short, a common cultural "tool-kit" (footnote 25) which social actors take up in the countless and various labors that reproduce a mode of life. Among my Antelope Valley informants, this "tool-kit" shares many elements in common with the discourse of supply: the association of house and family; homeownership as a measure of status; a hierarchical vision of the "social ladder"; and a certain limited sense of community, to name but a few.

Like Abu-Lughod's, my analysis will identify a paradoxically inertial "critique" of the dominant social order; and like Abu-Lughod, I value the insight into ideology as a lived negotiation between purposeful human actors that such an analysis provides. Yet, the work of Willis (1977) and Holston (1991), discussed earlier, also examines the way critical insights and subversive capacities among the dominated classes, paradoxically, actualize the hegemonies of industrial, capitalist society. My analysis is closer to theirs than to Abu-Lughod's: like Willis and Holston, I am not concerned with identifying a coherent counter-discourse--hence my phrase theme of opposition--and I focus on a varied set of insights, articulations and behaviors, rather than a stable genre, such as poetry. My interest is in this theme of opposition as simultaneously critical and perpetuating of dominant ideologies.

However, I wish to argue further that the theme of opposition I describe is aesthetic in Holston's sense of aesthetic judgments as "embodiments of the imaginary representations we construct about our conditions of existence" (1991:448). Aesthetic here embraces the whole realm of imagination from "fantasy" to the most exalted ideals. It is in no way divorced from the practical (or moral) and, in fact, shapes our practical negotiations by incessantly articulating (and re-articulating) our conceptions of possible and impossible. In the pages that follow, I will first identify in the discourse of demand a theme of opposition which can be viewed as constituting a paradoxically inertial "critique" of the capitalist social order: a "critique" that sustains, instead of subverting. Second, I propose that understanding the aesthetic character of these counter-discourses gives insight into their contradictory role in the processes of cultural reproduction; and indicates that social scientists would do well to reconceive their notions of the aesthetic. Finally, in my concluding arguments, I will discuss this reconception of the aesthetic as intimately bound up with my earlier argument about the need to reconceive social theory as practice.

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