Poverty: A Critical Conscious Examination

CIIS

Anthropology and Social Change Ph.D.

Application Writing  Sample

Adam Hudson

2012

 

 

Poverty: A Critical Conscious Examination

 

 

The consciousness of poverty is growing. The dynamics of media, communications, and mobility have an effect of conscious compression upon our culture. Poverty, classically understood as class division, has existed in the hearts of sensitive people since the first city-states over two millennia ago. The difference in our contemporary order is how the dynamics of world compression have concentrated human consciousness upon the issue, especially as it is shared across our Earth and juxtaposed the existence of exorbitant wealth.

One of the effects that the concentration of consciousness is having upon our culture is a widening interpretation of poverty. Poverty is more than economic scarcity; it is multi-dimensional; it is psychic in the form of mental disorder, delusion, depression, and dementia; it is social in the form of hyper-isolation, race, gender, and class oppression, and multi-form alienation; it is consumerist in the form of obsession, fetish, dependency, and distraction; it is embodied in the form of mal-nutrition, disease, obesity, and cancer; it is environmental in the form of species extinction, erosion, desertification, industrial pollution, and climate change; it is ethical and civic in the form of greed, falsity, fear, resentment, and apathy. Poverty is overwhelming, cumulative, and it is shared with our companion species; it lives in the mind, body, and spirit of animals as well as humans; it is a shared phenomenon within ecosystems; it is a fundamental attribute of the anthropocene era.

 

This paper examines the complexity of poverty in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. As a city San Francisco represents one of the most important human centers in the world.[1] It is iconic within a global imaginary. Civic and technological creativity, social prosperity and privilege, US exceptionalism, liberalism, and the human potential movement all find a home here; even a mild climate graces the “White Castle” – the city of San Francisco. So, why, in the center of San Francisco does there exist such poverty?

Drawing from critical theory I highlight how poverty is an unintentional product of capitalist culture. I draw heavily from Foucault’s notion of biopower. I understand biopower to refer to the practices of administration, therapeutics, and surveillance of bodies that discursively constitute, increase, and manage the forces of living organism.[2] In this light, poverty is a systematic event that complicates, endangers, and orders our human world. Its nature is an interconnected complexity diffracted[3] through race, class, history, privilege, markets, law, politics, institutions of the state and self that work for the strict control of power and access. Poverty is a disturbing feature of society; viewed as a collective conscious phenomenon, the presence of poverty casts a societal shadow; viewed as an asymmetrical material process poverty makes visible the dark side of economic wealth, efficiency, progress, and the liberal, middle-class lifestyle; it is an externalized product flowing out of the very system obsessed with economic assent. I will insist that the broadest context of a city’s life, action, and production must ‘figure’[4] the defective, deficient, and destructive material effects of its own social and cultural experience.[5] This renders an extremely humbling picture – an emergent city consciousness that takes seriously its most disenfranchised persons as symbiotically linked to its present livelihood and potential. It points to the limit of present conditions to remedy the problem; it illustrates a center of impending implosion born from systematic failures, suffered as individual experience – read silenced pain, lived disempowerment, and suppressed rage.

Poverty in San Francisco marks a space unavailable for correction and therefore incredibly provocative, suspect, and fragile. Issues of contemporary subjectivity, containment, and privilege help frame my understanding of poverty. This understanding of poverty plays a central role in establishing the conviction that conscious liberation within underprivileged communities is the key to overcoming poverty and building stronger cities.

 

Subjectivity & Ideology

It is helpful to understand how our subjectivity is a product of history, of our stories, the socio-cultural matrix that constitutes our experience. These constitutive powers are part of a network of relationships that themselves are embedded within cultural ideology. The globalizing West operates along a secular-salvific ideology evident through dominate forms of subjectivity, especially in the case of the liberal, white, privileged, productive, individual. This interior dimension of the self, as matter of subjectivity, provides some context for the reproduction of poverty in the Tenderloin.

Inside the secularization of self and society the dominate subjectivity, especially evident in the affluent San Franciscan subject, is obsessive about commerce, maximization, and entertainment. In the States and abroad, these cultural habits push rules of civil engagement away from interruption, intervention, or social care and towards individualization and isolation. The founder of liberal economics, Adam Smith, corner-stoned this idea as the foundation upon with the liberal life-style would be pursued, ‘Each intends only his own gain’, but in the end ‘promotes that of society’ although this ‘was no part of his intention.’[6]  Despite the warning of Marx and a multitude of others, this liberal economic model has dominated global affairs since its fashioning and is co-extensive with the subject by whose actions both confirm and continually re-constitute its presence.

The consequences of unbalanced power dynamics are not new. The continual ‘successes’ of dominant liberal subjectivity is barely aware of the surroundings not immediately applicable to their own maximization; their privileges (by hard work or inheritance) allows them to ignore (have ignorance of) the pain and suffering happening within their own city space. Contemporary subjectivity can be read as a process of ignoring – ‘ignorance’ of the other – which Jacques Derrida dared to call the ‘demonic’.

In San Francisco the ‘other’ is literally outside the door, zombified, wondering streets of the Tenderloin black, homeless, hungry, angry. For the affluent, ‘thriving’[7] SF subject it has become normal to brush past the most basic needs of others. The power of this ‘other’ lies in its message for those living in affluence: to truly face the ‘other’ is to face the power of their own powerlessness; it is an intimate, utter disassociation, a shadow and a specter, which speaks volumes about inequality and class separation and at the same time exposes the difficulty of civic responsibility in a culture of privilege. As citizens leave the responsibility for others in the hands of either businesses, states, nonprofits, etc. the practice of community continues to segregate, atrophy, and democracy suffers.

The contemporary subject suffers internalized, subtle guilt, barely detectable because its cause is not through ‘wrong action,’ nothing so blatant as crime, but through omission – failure to see responsibility, to be conscious. In choosing a world of privilege and affluence, upper mobility and market value, they fail to see the worlds of suffering, worlds in need of greater care – a whole world whose afflictions will not simply evaporate, but will continue to way heavy on the freedom of society.[8]

For those people whose sensitivities call them to face the ‘other’ the power of Christian legacies of ethics, the good, notions of sacrifice and service achieve paramount significance. Within this ideological configuration the secular subject uses the Tenderloin as a local, available source of cathartic, altruistic, ceremonial ‘giving-back’. Social service operates along a secular Christian economy-of-action that depends on the Tenderloin and its strategic containment to fulfill the secular-salvific political promise.[9] The implicated and radical suggestion: poverty is maintained, legitimated, and normalized by the very subject whose commitments to the liberal model of economic ascent depends on fighting it. It is an ideological product of which the modernization strategies culminating in the 20th centuries post-war development frenzy where exemplary.[10] This calculus is fundamentally subversive and unconscious. It is a calculus inextricably linked to the identification of neglect, pain, suffering, and marginalization in order to legitimate its practice of ‘saving’, ‘helping’, ‘developing’ the people not included in ‘prosperity’. In a post-capital era, the Tenderloin is commodified for the sake of altruism. The privileged subject is at once barely concerned and comfortably distanced, civilly and politically docile, intimately linked to technological wombs including the i-phone and especially the vehicle. Community service opportunities are abundant, convenient, and local:  “See your neighborly Tenderloin district!” S/he represents more than a societal bane that marks our culture of quick-fix, fast-food, and immediate comfort/pleasure bio-technologies.[11] The Tenderloin makes that subject its point of departure, its reason for refusal, when it proves that the failure of this subject and its secular-salvific ideology, is the same failure writ large in the sociopolitical body.[12]

Poverty is a grand reproduction functioning as a societal reminder that ‘meaning’, ‘production’, and ‘aid’ are functioning as a biopolitical strategy linked to secular-salvific subjectivity and its constitutive discourses. In both mind and material worlds San Francisco is further invested in sustaining and containing areas of dependency, poverty, and disempowerment.

 

Biopower

The city environment, including its sociopolitical landscape, must be understood to systematically produce homelessness and poverty, as a part of its symbiotic life. The Tenderloin makes visible a citywide production of disciplinary biopower built to assimilate or eradicate all social and cultural life difference.[13] An efficient economy of biopower is at work in the city of San Francisco – specific, calculating, asserting, purposed. It exerts biopolitical control through economic, educational, institutional and individual governmentality – processes that include material/human injustice.

What is not seen in the affluent sections of San Francisco becomes visiblized in the Tenderloin as societal force. The Tenderloin community is operating within complete functional poverty – poverty allowed to exist because it functions as a form of strategic capital. It is functional as its resources are successfully incorporated into capital as investment, knowledge, and institutions. It is functional as the city utilizes the ‘backwards’, ‘criminal’, ‘mal-adjusted’ diagnosis as resources to manufacture stricter forms of surveillance, complex studies of systematic control including undercover police strategy, mental health analysis, medicines, technologies of SRO and Social Service management, and ultimately the subtle and blatant forms of communal and cultural assimilation or annihilation. In these ways the reproduction of enslavement is encouraged and found at the center of peak-performance civilization. Slavery becomes more defuse, more hidden and more systematic, more convincing.

The weakness of the city’s present biopolitical order resides in the Tenderloin’s making local criminality visible. San Francisco is a global city and reflects on a micro-level what exists globally on a macro-level. Indeed, the Tenderloin’s circumstance is shared across a global spectrum of social poverty – no longer do national boundaries organize affluence and poverty.[14] Access, affluence, privilege and power are divided by the block, the district, the city. In San Francisco the average household income in the Tenderloin is six times less than neighborhoods mere blocks away.[15] Throughout the extremes of financial disparity, the Tenderloin stands as a global obscenity – the proximity of poverty to affluence in San Francisco is extraordinary. In this circumstance ‘crime’ becomes an extension of social logics aimed to express and share lived disparity, discontent, refusal and rage. Perspectives of the other speak of segregation having long crossed the tracks to be divided by a mere few blocks from the center of empire – Union Square, San Francisco – the center of shopping (great products!), accumulation, access, fetish obsession, and cultural addiction manifest. The proximity of the Tenderloin to Union Square marks a fragile, unmanageable line of misunderstanding and danger. The poverty floods over the trolley tracks of Powell St. interrupting the serene vision of San Francisco tourism. SF poverty is completely comedic and written on the face of European tourists consuming San Francisco, wondering confusedly through the Tenderloin questioning the very poverty their tourism fails to understand or address.

The Tenderloin community experiences the margins through systematic, economic, and political disenfranchisement. Gentrification edges out its unwanted bodies, the histories that they conjure and the refusals they embody. Racism lives. The Tenderloin’s life is a cultural obscenity linked to the spectacle and the coliseum – the sublimation of outrage and aggression – controlled, used, assimilated, processed, figured in the Tenderloin.

As much as the Tenderloin is produced by the mechanics of biopower it is also an epicenter of refusal to dominate culture and control. The Tenderloin can be read as a subject of functional containment and systematic refusal. It refuses the affluence that makes tourism possible for some; it refuses the help flowing from the rich whose interest seems more for their own image than the ‘other’. This community of poverty practices an offensive refusal in/at the geographical center of ‘utopia’.

As the operations of biopower unfold to correct, manage, diagnosis and gentrify social disintegration the Tenderloin becomes a community of ‘contained’ criminals: diseased and dirtied drug addicts, users, pushers, rippers, prostitutes, illegal immigrants, and thieves. Containment is built through policy and disciplinary power. The Tenderloin is treated as an exception to the norm where, “unreasonable levels of crime, violence and drugs are tolerated so that such activities do not spread to upscale areas.“ [16] This community of criminality and containment is the internal 21st century equivalent of statist enemy, a monster, a traitor.[17] The Tenderloin functions as a “containment zone” for an anti-biopower. ‘Anti’-biopower because the Tenderloin exists opposed to the biopower that insists on its reform. In this sustained containment of criminality the weakness of a societal order is exposed.

Seamless and impenetrable as this incarnate biopolitical order supposes itself to be – a leveling hubris reveals its own powerlessness. The refusal the Tenderloin makes visible exposes the biopolitical techniques of subtle slavery and punishment that aim to assimilate or eradicate social and cultural difference. The discourse becomes centered on power because its refusal is beyond the techniques of the biopolitical capacity to manage. The Tenderloin’s life represents a blatant challenge to the structure of biopower. This power is reaching its point of limitation as it confronts a community of street dwellers, the ‘messy’ bodies refusing both assimilation and death. This different anti-biopower emboldens the Tenderloin community by subverting forms of biopower even as it capitulates to frameworks of poverty. This city’s implicit action of production and ignorance culminating in this poverty does not see the challenge that it itself is throwing down and which might one day be taken up: an interruption in the continuum of domination; a revolution against biopolitical orders of administration and management, a weakening exploitive capitalism, and a deconstruction of the mass social and cultural paralysis griping our citizenry. [18]

Pre 911, enthusiasms for Fukuymama’s ‘end of history’ scenario are vehemently confronted in the Tenderloin – an embodied city presence whose message is clear: “The current system is not working for us and we will not go away.” New forms of power emerge on the horizons of biopolitical weakness. Power cannot be assimilated or named for these aggrieved communities that stand at the edge of death and refusal. These edges give them perseverance and proximity to unique methods of survival. In the Tenderloin pain becomes a strategy for survival – it is a ‘method of action’ as Edward Said points out.[19] This is a message intimate with ‘death-torture’ – “the art of maintaining life in pain”.[20] The latent power of that fundamental resistance is overwhelming and blossoms in the most surprising ways: underground economies, unified groupings of recovery, access to free health care and hygiene kits, worship centers of hybridity – crossing boundaries of class, race, sex, and family commitments the Tenderloin community reveals a working microcosm of socialistic achievements, seeds of liberation grow unparalleled and unknown to the majority of this city’s citizenry and its governmentality. See San Francisco: another prerevolutionary situation mounting in material circumstance and finding a home in the ghetto populations of the United States.[21]

 

 

 

Conclusion

Consciousness of global, multi-dimensional poverty is accelerating. Poverty is very complex, but it is a product of capitalist culture, mediated through race, class, gender, geographic and especially subjectivity. Containment has been one of the primary ways poverty has been managed in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. The power of refusal living in the bodies of disenfranchised and desperate persons within the Tenderloin represent an increasingly fragile edge between order and chaos within San Francisco.

For decades thoughtful people have reminded us that our global resources are plenty to end the matter of poverty. The problem is more than material; it is a problem of consciousness. Our collective will to end poverty fails under the immature logics of paradigm, politics, economy, and infrastructure. As continuing support mounts and micro-shifts in structure accumulate, the courage of humanity to harness global resource equity will be unstoppable. In our present moment the human Earth community remains in a detrimental adolescence, poverty lives and must be challenged, deconstructed, and in the end overcome through Creativity.

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

Asad, Talal.  Formations of the Secular.  Stanford University.  Stanford, CA.  2003.

 

BeyondChron (www.beyondchron.org) “Can San Francisco Make Low-Income             Neighborhoods Desirable?”  by Randy Shaw, May  08, 2007

 

Burbach, Nunez, and Kagarlitsky.  Globalization and Its Discontents.  1997.              Crosscultural Issues Reader.  CIIS. Spring 2008.

 

Camacho, David.  Ed.  Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles: Race, Class, and             the Environment.  Duke University.  Durham & London.  1998.

 

Derrida, Jacques.  The Gift of Death.  University of Chicago.  Chicago, IL.  1992.

 

Foucault, Michel.  Language, Counter-Memory, Practice.  Cornell University Press,             Ithaca, NY.  1977.

 

Foucault, Michel.  Discipline & Punish and The Birth of the Prison.  Vintage. New York.  1975.

 

Gordon, Colin. Ed.  Power/Knowledge.  Pantheon Books.  New York.  1980.

 

Haraway, Donna J.  Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan             _Meets_OncoMouse  : Feminism and Technoscience.  Routledge.  New York.              1997.

 

Harris, Marvin.  Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture.  Vintage.              New York.

 

Marcuse, Herbert.  An Essay On Liberation.  Beacon Press.  Boston.  1969.

 

 

San Francisco Neighborhoods Socio-Economic Profiles

American Community Survey & San Francisco Planning Department May 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Recently, I caught the most recent advertisement for the University of San Francisco. Plastered on the top of a city cab was the words: “The University of the Best City in the World.” At the same moment outside of the window, I saw an elder man limping, clearly dispirited, probably homeless or in a shelter… and then another…  in the “Best City in the World.”

[2] I am grateful for Donna Haraway’s formulation of Foucault’s concept of biopower.

[3] On my use of the word “diffraction” and Donna Haraway’s influence: Patterns recording histories of interaction, interference, reinforcement – concerning heterogeneous history, differentiated consciousness, and strong objectivity at once critical, narrative, graphic, psychological, spiritual and political – a ‘technology’ for making consequential meanings – an anatomy of meanings.  “An optical metaphor for the effort to make a difference in the world…” Donna Haraway.  Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse pg 11. pg. 16, 34, 273

 

[4] By “figure” I make another appeal to Donna Haraway’s thinking. “Figure” is the French term for the face and involves “some kind of displacement that can trouble identifications and certainties.” Figuration has deep roots in the semiotics of Western Christian realism… those revealing the promise secular Christian technoscientific salvation stories make… also in the figure are graphic representations and visual forms that refuse literality to function as performative maps of knowledge, practice and power.  Donna Haraway.  Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse pg 11.

[5] Harris, Marvin.  Cutlural Materialism.  55.

[6] A. Smith. The Wealth of Nations. Book IV.

[7] One can’t help but notice the most captivating billboards in the last three years in San Francisco are those owned and painted with the name Keiser.  Simple words to communicate the clear message of biopower: “Thrive”.  Printed loudly with the symbolic figure of a child entering a pool.  At once baptismic, salvific, and secular this billboard marks the obscenity of its gesture: ‘health care’. ‘Care’ – for who?

[8] The unknown cause of significant rises in cancer rates in Marin, Co. California are puzzling to medical professionals, whose poverty of thinking fails to see the body as a biopsychosocial event. Understanding what constitutes the body one can view how unreflective privilege and affluence coupled with the specific type of cultivated consciousness in Marin Co. houses the formula for the slow but steady erosion of the body by cancer. Cancer is also primarily a biopsychosocial event. In Marin we have a conscious community of people afflicted with their own since of slavery, a slavery bound in their own privilege.

[9] “In secular redemptive politics…there is a readiness to cause pain to those who are to be saved by being humanized.  It is not merely that the object of violence is different; it is that the secular myth uses the element of violence to connect an optimistic project of universal empowerment with a pessimistic account of human motivation in which inertia and incorrigibility figure prominently.”  Talal Asad.  Christianity, Islam, Modernity.  62.

[10] Hoogvelt, Ankie. Globalizaiton and the Postcolonial World. 31.  Also:  Anna Tsing. The Global Situation.

[11] “Writing, in Western culture automatically dictates that we place ourselves in the virtual space of self-representation and reduplication…”  Michel Foucault.  Language, Counter-Memory, Practice.  56.  The critique of the San Franciscan subject is also an intimate critique of myself, despite the fact that I don’t have a car.

[12] The ideological discourse of secular-salvation is present not only in the San Franciscan subject, but in the accumulation of social service agencies all vying (Indeed, competing for the same funding!) to

‘heal/cure/develop’ the Tenderloin individual.

 

[13] Foucault, Michel.  Power/Knowledge.  105.

[14] Hoogvelt, Ankie. Globalization and the PostColonial World. 64. 57. “The concept of postimperialism, clarified by David Becker, refers to a still-nascent phase in the evolution of world capitalism in which relations of dominance and dependency between nations (the defining characteristic of imperialism) are being relegated to secondary importance. Instead, relations of capitalist domination and exploitation are conceptualized in terms of global class relations, which transcend national class structures.”

[15] San Francisco Neighborhoods Socio-Economic Profiles

American Community Survey & San Francisco Planning Department May 2011

[16]  “In San Francisco, neighborhoods that have defeated gentrification have been treated as “containment zones,” meaning that unreasonable levels of crime, violence and drugs are tolerated so that such activities do not spread to upscale areas.  From BeyondChron (www.beyondchron.org) “Can San Francisco Make Low-Income Neighborhoods Desirable?”  by Randy Shaw, May  08, 2007

 

[17] Foucault, Michel.  Discipline and Punish.  90.

[18] Foucault, Michel.  Discipline and Punish. 73.

[19] Said, Edward. Formations of the Secular. 69.

[20] Ibid.  33.

[21] Marcuse, Herbert.  An Essay on Liberation. 57.

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