Maggie: Homestead, Heritage and the Informant as Expert

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Maggie's discourse of demand expresses a more self-conscious and fully articulated oppositional theme than any of my other informants'. While she may simply be a more reflective person, I also believe this has to do with the length of our research relationship and her on-going work as a college student. I have been asking Maggie questions about her life, home, and Antelope Valley for three years, which gives a person ample time to reflect, consider, analyze, and generally think, about all the ideas and facts and feelings an anthropologist's questions will stir up. Further, the ideas and opinions Maggie conveyed in our interviews are deeply held: She has sought in her college coursework to learn more about the issues that concern her. All this, surely, factors into the heightened self-consciousness and criticality of her discourse.

However, before bringing out the oppositional motif in her discourse, let me first note the degree to which Maggie adopts the terms and notions of the discourse of supply and the dominant ideologies expressed therein. The following two excerpts, one from a 1990 interview, the other from 1992, show, not only Maggie's taking up of certain elements in the discourse of supply, but also her emerging critical perspective:

[July 11, 1990]

MAGGIE: . . .my dream home....our dream home would probably be three large rooms...and a sleeping loft where ......because we have such restricted time as a family....we would have few walls in the living area...so we could be together constantly while we were in the house...so we could have uninhibited views of each other and the whole time in the house we would be together. . .whether we were doing things autonomously, we would still be able to look and see each other as a family......

[Oct. 17, 1992]

ME: When you bought this home.....what .......what did you see as the benefit of having a home that was your own?

MAG: I thought it's where we would interact ....I thought that it would be....once my.....once James came home [her husband] this would be where we all ate together....this was really my naive picture.....this was a step-up from the last home that we lived in....it was better,....it was newer....I could make it mine, Molly [her daughter] could bring her friends here. James could have his business meetings here. It would be a place we could integrate as three people living together as a family.....and it didn't turn out that way.....it was a temporary stop like a railroad station in between schedules.....but again, a lot of that is naiveté on my part...

Two analytic themes of the discourse of supply appear in these excerpts. First, like Betsy, Maggie had hoped a new home would help fulfill her ideal of "the family"; and like Betsy's her hopes were thwarted. As I noted in her profile, Maggie and her husband were divorced at the end of 1991. (footnote 26) Second, Maggie's characterization of her new home as "a step-up" is a telling reflection of her adoption of the idea of the social ladder.

Like Vincent and Laura, Maggie also articulates in her home furnishing the ideal of a rustic past. Her furniture "doesn't really fit into a modern motif; it's old oak; it's re-upholstered couches, refinished round tables, the things that most replica antiques are fashioned after". Most of her furniture and decorating pieces (e.g. a porcelain pitcher and basin) were purchased at garage sales and antique stores. Further, Maggie invests a great deal of time and energy refinishing and working on these antique furnishings. In Maggie's discourse, this rustic ideal is associated, not only with self-sufficiency and home production, but also with a strong sense of heritage and community. Maggie frequently characterized Antelope Valley's recent housing boom as eroding "the dirt-town, pioneer spirit" that existed when she first moved there. The following interview excerpts give further illustration of the rustic ideal in her discourse:

ME: Is there a particular look or time period that this furniture...you know.....means, or signals to you?

MAGGIE: . . .I guess there's no period that I particularly love......I like the Colonial period because even though people had babies in order to have more farm workers... and make their lives more prosperous, they still took care of each other...and...uh...when they didn't have money their Sundays were around the fire......


ME: So, you really seem to have a community here, you know your neighbors really well.....

MAG: Really didn't until after James left....and now I do .....because uh......that old pioneer spirit of.......guess seeing a weepy old woman come out the door or something.....you know....everyone seemed to befriend me. . .it's probably real dramatic to compare this, but the parallel really is realistic ......when someone on the plains, the sparsely populated plains would have trouble........or.....husband would die or .....a baby would die......the whole community would come and feed you.....and do those simplistic things that.....was a type of stroking.....just warming...until you got over the initial.................that's exactly what happened......exactly what happened......and wherever I move.....as soon as I get my degree, we'll be leaving California. . . we'll find a real small community where those things are still possible......it's very idealistic, but I don't.........I don't think it's stupid.

As will be evident in my later discussion of Maggie's more explicit and self-conscious criticisms of our social order, this evocation of an ideal past entails a critique of the ideology of progress. That is, Maggie's taste for antique American furniture may be seen as representing her ideal of community, an imagined and desired closeness in social relationships which she finds lacking in contemporary society. Her expression of this ideal takes on an oppositional tone when considered in light of her criticisms of Antelope Valley. For example:

MAGGIE: there's not a lot of solidarity as far as small centered groups that are developing ....recreation, culture ....it seems to be work focused.....very transient....I'm seeing a faster pace.....individuals are less personal.

Yet, this criticism is inertial, partly because of its regressive nature which adopts quite thoroughly a Puritan ideal of social polity that is impracticable in contemporary society; and partly because it is expressed through consumer choices.

It is particularly interesting to consider Maggie's expression of her ideals in her furnishings in the context of commodity fetishism. From his analysis of the commodity as both a thing and a social relation, Marx derived his concept of commodity fetishism in which "the animate appearance of commodities provides testimony to the thing-like appearance of persons" (Taussig 1980:8). Maggie seems to invest her house and furnishings with animate qualities. For example, she "gouged out the bricks" of her fireplace and used paint flecks "to make it grayer, like ashes have stained it, so it looks like it's been used, actually a fireplace that families burn wood in, where people get warm". Thus, the fireplace is invested with "family warmth". Further, she speaks of her furniture as: "things that I grow old with that grow old with me that are companions, my couch is a companion". Yet, as the excerpt below shows, Maggie also seems to have some perception of the strange role reversal of persons and things that commodity fetishism entails:

MAGGIE: I just try to fit in...........the house does not fit into me, I seem to try to fit into the house, it seems to be bigger than I am........it seems to be the control....it's hard to........ do you understand what I'm saying?

ME:......uh.....I'm getting there.....it seems to.....uh.....what..... in what ways does it control you?

MAG: .....as if.......um.... the house draws your attention to it......instead of what happens inside of the house is where the attention is ......I think that's what I've been trying to say.

This perception of (and discomfort with) the seemingly animate power of the house is all the more interesting when compared with Maggie's investment of time and labor in such things as refinishing furniture.

As I have noted, Maggie has invested a great deal of time and labor in her home furnishing: she has stripped and refinished tables; re-upholstered chairs; and sewn linens. She speaks of this as "putting herself into" certain furnishings, but also tends to speak of particular pieces as reminding her of particular people: the couch reminds her of the person who helped re-upholster it; an antique artifact gives Maggie a feeling of connection to the relative who once owned it, in spite of the fact the two never met. For Maggie, the things in her house are symbolic of particular people and social relationships, but, as the excerpts below indicate, denying their commodity identity is necessary to their attaining symbolic status:

MAGGIE: My dining table...I used to teach fitness to senior citizens and one of my old seniors.....who was a garage sale hound found it for me and said "Maggie, Maggie...Come over you have to look at this old green table"...and we spent an hour looking at it...and I can remember that old woman getting underneath it and showing me it and saying, "This is a buy" and when I refinished it, I remember that, and when I sit down at it I think of her, not how I got it on sale for less than my neighbor. . .my sideboard....if the house burned, I'd take my animals and sideboard and let everything else go... because I put so much of myself into it...it's the first piece of furniture that I'll give to my daughter when she has a home of her own....and she watched me strip it....and she'd bring me new toothbrushes when the varnish ate my old toothbrushes away....and when she sees that she's going to remember me lovingly.....stripping that thing. It won't be "Oh what a cool antique, what is that valued at? How much have you got it insured for"....It will be, "Let me tell you how many months my mom worked on that and how much she loves it".....so. . .my daughter takes real good care of things for a child because she sees the number of hours that I put in on things. . .and I don't think it's the wrong way to teach the value of an object to a child....because.....it....an investment of time and love places a better value on it than just the tag....[emphasis added].

It seems that Maggie's symbolic association of objects with people, requires opposition to, negation of, the object's commodity status: Social connections are distinguished as important in opposition to the commodity identity of objects, i.e., not "how I got it on sale", not "how much is it valued at", not "the tag". This opposition acquires deeper significance when considered in the context of Maggie's more explicit and self-conscious criticisms of her society.

In the course of my research, Maggie expressed a wide variety of social criticisms, many of which were decidedly analytic and insightful. She spoke of the way the Antelope Valley's development had changed its "small town" atmosphere; the way contemporary social problems, such as divorce and child abuse, reflect the economic constraints of "two-parent working families"; and of social atomization. Below, I have strung together a few examples of this self-consciously critical discourse, to give a sense of its scope and insight:

ME: What do you think homeownership means, or signifies, what's the importance of homeownership?

MAGGIE: . . .I think that to the population in Lancaster it means a place to drive your car into, turn your porch light on, make a meal and wait until it's time to go to work again the next day.....I really believe that's what homeownership means to the majority of people um......you know. . . landscaping businesses are one of the most booming businesses in town...because people don't have time to garden, but they want the facial niceties, so they hire people at eighty dollars a month to make it look like someone lives there. . .these are things that in the disposable society I believe Lancaster has become.... these are things, they're necessary and they're needed.........I think if you checked how many day-care licenses had been, have been purchased or applied for in the last five years, you'd be astounded at the growth, because people need other people to raise their kids ........so I think that's what house means.....a place to say...uh ....this is homebase.......this is a place where my children wait for me to come home....look through the peephole and if they recognize me, they let me in.....you don't see a lot of families sitting out on the porch in the summertime with the garage doors up. . .


MAG: my focus the rest of my life is going to be on family... and family values and how important that really is to the future of the world.....I think it needs to be looked at ..... scientifically, in regard to technology.....I think the focus really has to be....what kind of human beings are developing now....and where is their base, or their foundation.....it is certainly not rooted in the same types of.....................things and uh........ schemas, as it was........fifty years ago .......I think it really needs to be looked at........I think that from inside .....I think it from negative and positive experiences I've had in my life......but I also think that more strongly from the classes that I've taken toward my teaching credential in science and technology ......and how.....these two elements have really affected......the family and the youth and.... the school system and everything that..... politics and economy is based on......I think it all comes back to that.

[Of an Antelope Valley post-card picturing a B-1 Bomber to represent Edwards Air Force Base and the "defense" industry, she says]

MAGGIE:. . .is it progress to have street people? Have we progressed to the point where we can have street people, where we can have people that aren't fed in the country and when our value base, family structure, is totally destroyed. Is that progress?.........We as a culture have to look and re-define progress ........and say do we choose to do this and that's what, I look at this and................ I think of all the meals and......... insurance........medical insurance......

Perhaps most insightful is Maggie's analysis of an event she witnessed while working as a teacher's aid in her daughter's classroom. Below, she presents both her observations and her analysis of them as indicators of social atomization:

MAGGIE: Another sign of the times......I wrote a letter home to all....the children's parents .....saying I need home-room money for parties.........three dollars a child will give me ninety dollars for the year....we can have five parties with that.............six envelopes came back, out of thirty children! ....So, I turned around and wrote a letter to the children... "If you bring three dollars from your parents....you can chew bubble-gum in class all day".....I bought five rolls of bubble-tape and gave it to the teacher ..........cleared it with the school, sent the ditto home......................I got twenty more envelopes the next week..............this says to me that children are having to be more autonomous.......that there is less integration under the roof of whatever house people live in now......that it's a business.....that it's a schedule, before it's a nucleus.......They approach their parent and say "I need this"...The parent says, "Here you are"......the parent doesn't sit down at dinnertime and say, "Show me what you did today...Do you have any letters from the home-room parent? Anything from school that I should be reading?".... It is now the child's responsibility.....they are their own autonomous unit of something that functions under a roof ......the nurturing seems to be kinda gone......

I view these statements, not merely as data, but as a clear and eloquent criticism of the market's penetration of social relationships--the family has become "a business, a schedule". Further, Maggie's interpretation of the home-room letters not being returned as a sign of social atomization-- "autonomous units that function under a roof"--is a sound and insightful piece of social analysis.

My point in discussing Maggie's and my other informant's discourse of demand in terms of their oppositional themes has been to demonstrate that social agents, human beings, do indeed have insight into the conditions of their existence. Social theories that assume or assert a view of human agency as passive, mystified, unthinking, risk significant descriptive error. Critical social theories, however, risk significantly more than this. Let me explain this assertion in terms of the Marxist social critique which has provided one main framework of analysis in this paper. More specifically, let me explain it in terms of one Marxist view of ideology and cultural reproduction.

Agency and Ideology

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In the ethnographic study of history and ideology entitled From Blessing to Violence (1986), Maurice Bloch describes the Marxist theory of ideology, writing:

Marx argued that if the expropriation by capitalists of the product of the worker's labour is to appear legitimate, the labourer must consider his work as insufficient for production. In other words, his work must be devalued by the representation of creativity as being principally the product of a supernatural force, which in the case of capitalism is capital. Once this mysterious fetishised force has been constructed, the worker must 'rightly' subject himself to the power-holders, in this case the capitalists, as they appear to have supplied the necessary conditions of his existence--capital. (Bloch 1986:176)

Because ideology functions to legitimate and perpetuate capitalist relations of production, some Marxists view it as a "plot" or "a falsehood" (Bloch: 177). Some speak of a "false-consciousness" of the oppressed which conceals from them the "true" nature of their existence. Bloch criticizes the view of ideology as a plot as "ridiculous" because it neglects the rich subtly of ideology and can not account for the fact that "in most cases the power-holders are as mystified as anybody else" (1986:177). He aptly criticizes the theory of ideology as falsehood for failing "to explain the compulsive power of the ideas it contains"(1986: 177). To me, the error of seeing ideology as a mystifying plot, or falsehood, stems from a failure to attend to the rich complexity of lived social relations. It stems from a failure to appreciate that individual human subjects are not mere dupes who passively adopt the dominant ideology because insight into the "true essence" of the system comes, supposedly, only from abstract, rationality. (footnote 27) Thus, I see these failures as intimately connected with an anti-empiricist tendency which, in assuming that experience yields only "pseudo-evidence", must take the greater part of humanity for dupes utterly without insight into the real conditions of their existence. This perspective eclipses human agency as much as it reduces the rich complexity of social phenomena. Moreover, it asks the wrong kinds of questions. Regarding ideology, for example, the first question ought not to be: "Why don't these people see things the way I (the social scientist) do?; but rather, "How do these people see things?" Answering this latter sort of question requires grounded, qualitative research and a view of human subjects as active agents who may well have some insight into the exploitative nature of their social relations. That these have been the chief strengths of the ethnographic method leads me to assert the need for ethnographic inquiry into cultural reproduction in industrial, consumer societies. Work like Bourdieu's is useful but, as I have argued, distorts the negotiations between culture and power that cultural reproduction entails.

Perhaps my chief criticism of the view of human subjects as passive and deluded is that such a view is highly inconsistent with the Marxist view of human labor as the source of value and the Marxist project of liberating people to see their productive forces as their own. Further, it all but extinguishes any possibility of changing capitalist relations of production, for such change depends on the insight and activity of the proletariat:

...a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class". (Marx and Engels 1965: 192-3)

If Marxist social science is to contribute to a mass consciousness of the exploitative nature of capitalism, it can not assume the masses have no insights of their own. Ironically, this elitist assumption perpetuates the division of mental and manual labor, which has stalled many a revolutionary movement. For Marxist social critics to hold such a view of human agency is not only contradictory, but also rhetorically and practically unsound: that is, it seriously hampers the possibility of their contributing to the development of the "communist consciousness". How can "the masses" be expected to listen to the pronouncements of scholars who take them to be dupes?

These ideas have guided my analysis of home owning in Antelope Valley. In the early stages of my project, I came to recognize the words and actions of my subjects as more than mere "data". In keeping with the ethnographic tradition, I have looked upon my informants' discourse of demand as expressing a specific cultural logic. This perspective has enabled me to see that ordinary people do indeed have insight into the nature of capitalist society and that their role in cultural reproduction is not merely passive and receptive. My Antelope Valley informants clearly perceive the penetration of the economic into all social relations; they are aware of their alienation and, in Maggie's case, of the ironic relation of "progress" to mass immiseration (the B-1 Bomber and "street people"). While my informants certainly do not possess the same understandings of capitalist society as Marxist scholars, examining their understandings and taking them to be the result of sound mental labor is prerequisite to forging a mass critical consciousness of capitalism--a consciousness which scholar and worker alike might share.

In taking up the above understanding of social agency, I have come to appreciate, and worked to illustrate, that the discourse of demand is informed by aesthetic judgment in that it expresses my informant's imaginary representations of their conditions of existence (Holston 1991: 448). Though Bourdieu's (1984) analysis casts the dominated classes' choice of furnishing and decor as a dominated "aesthetic" (footnote 28), mine works to recognize these choices as articulations possessed of their own cultural logic. Certainly, as my findings show, this logic is not all their own: it conversant with and draws upon the dominant ideologies of the discourse of supply. Yet, recognizing the activity and creativity of social agents is vital to understanding the power and complexity of ideology. In my concluding arguments, I will relate this conception of human agency, and the reconception of the aesthetic it implies, to the epistemological argument made at the outset of this paper about the need to reconceive social theory as practice.

Concluding Arguments

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At the beginning of this paper, I put forth the argument that scholars who seek to sustain the critical function of social inquiry amid academia's current crisis of paradigmatic authority, could further their objective by reforming their conception and practice of theory. Social theory, I argued, needs to move toward the model Charles Taylor proposes in Philosophy and the Human Sciences (1985). In this work, Taylor contends that social scientists have erred in following the natural science model of inquiry: he presents an alternative vision of social theory as practice. As I will explain below, Taylor's vision bears directly on my discussion of human agency in that revising social theory as practice requires recognition of the competence and creativity of social actors. Such recognition entails understanding, not only the quiescent and co-opted, but also the aesthetic aspects of cultural reproduction.

Basically, Taylor argues that the disanalogy of the natural and human sciences stems from the fact that social theory "is not about an independent object", but is always part of the object it aims to understand" (1985:98). Because of this, validation in social science amounts to something quite different than in natural science. Taylor observes that, in addition to description and explanation, theories also have "self-defining" uses, that is, they "define common understandings" and "help people orient themselves" (1985:107) He argues that social theories can be validated in their "self-defining use"; and that "validating a theory as self-definition is in an important sense primary, because understanding what is involved in such validation will frequently be essential to confirming a theory, even as an adequate description/explanation" (1985: 109).

This sort of validation consists of testing theories in practice to judge how practices fare when informed by them. It also involves investigating the self-definitions implicit in our dominant practices in order to judge their value, their pragmatic truth in bringing about desired ends (footnote 29):

What makes it the case that there is such a thing as the self-defining use of theory, and that it can be validated in practice, viz., the fact that human beings frame self-understandings which shape their activity, this same basic feature has to be taken into account wherever it is relevant when we are trying to explain human action in history. In other words, where and to the extent that social action has been informed by self-understanding, this will have to figure in any valid explanatory account, together with an assessment of the way and degree to which this understanding facilitated or impeded the action. (1985: 113)

As this passage indicates Taylor's conception of theory as practice relies on an understanding of human agency similar to that presented in my Antelope Valley analysis. It is because all people share and employ of the human capacity and propensity to make sense of the world that a social theory can be validated in its self-defining use.

The importance of this shared capacity to Taylor's view of theory as practice can be gleaned from further consideration of his argument. Taylor writes:

. . . we say that the practices which make up a society require certain self-descriptions on the part of participants. These self-descriptions can be called constitutive. And the understanding formulated in these can be called pre-theoretical, not in the sense that it is necessarily uninfluenced by theory, but in that it does not rely on theory. There may be no systematic formulation of the norms, and the conception of man and society which underlies them. The understanding is implicit in our ability to apply the appropriate descriptions to particular situations and actions. (1985:93, emphasis added)

Here, Taylor recognizes the contiguity of the lay person's self-understandings to the formulations of the social theorist. Granted, these two modes of understanding differ, but not in the sense that the first is inherently less insightful: it is pre-theoretical, not untheoretical. The continuum between ordinary and expert "theory" is further evident in the following passage from Taylor:

Just as our common sense pre-understanding was in part a knowing how to cope with the things around us, the explanatory theory which partly replaces and extends it must give us some of what we need to cope better. Theory relates to practice in an obvious way. We apply our knowledge of the underlying mechanisms to manipulate more effectively the features of our environment. (1985: 92)

In my analysis of the discourse of demand, I worked to demonstrate the insight of ordinary social actors into the conditions of their existence; and argued that their home-furnishing involves aesthetic judgment because it expresses ideal self-understandings. My argument here is that these conceptions of human agency and the aesthetic are integrally related to the reconceptualization of theory as practice that Taylor proposes. If the task of the social theorist is to inquire into the dominant self-understandings implicit in our social practices, in hopes of reforming those practices, such inquiry suffers from a failure to appreciate the subjective capacities of human beings. This failure not only risks descriptive error, it obstructs the communication necessary to bring theories back into the realm of practice--as I have already said, how can cultural critics embark upon social reform, how can they ground their hopes and brags for humanity, if they do not recognize in the subjective capacities of all human actors a certain equality of being? I take up this phrase from Raymond Williams' Culture and Society (1953). In many ways, my concluding arguments here are but an echo of one he puts forth so eloquently in the final pages of this book. Because they capture both the spirit and letter of all my arguments, and because they are so fine and powerful, I offer Williams' as the last words of my paper's critique of social criticism:

Wherever we have started from, we need to listen to others who have started from a different position. We need to consider every attachment, every value, with our whole attention; for we do not know the future, we can never be certain of what may enrich it; we can only, now, listen to and consider whatever may be offered and take up what we can. The practical liberty of thought and expression is less a natural right than a common necessity. The growth of understanding is so difficult that none of us can arrogate to himself, or to an institution or class, the right to determine its channels of advance. To deny these practical liberties is to burn the common seed. To tolerate only this or only that, according to some given formula, is to submit to the phantasy of having occupied the future and fenced it into fruitful or unfruitful ground. (1953: 334-5).

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