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Remembering the Alamo

Alamo_replica

by Amias Maldonado

As a child born and raised in San Antonio, I too remember the silence.  On one side of the muted chasm, there was the Alamo of the Texas history schoolbooks; the Alamo of the class field trip; the Alamo in “Alamo: The Price of Freedom,” displaying the nefarious dictator Santa Anna and the independence-loving Texans.  On the other side, there was life in San Antonio: diverse, multiethnic, celebratory of Mexican culture, coexistent.  How these two worlds informed each other was something you decided for yourself.  The meeting of history and memory and how they inform our present(s) is something any visitor to San Antonio must uncover for themselves; that is, until a reading of Remembering The Alamo.

Richard Flores’s Remembering the Alamo is not so much an attendant to historical inaccuracies – although it certainly does that as well – as an examination of why and how inaccuracies were produced and codified in the service of changing socioeconomic power relations between Anglos and Mexicans during the beginning of the period Flores terms “The Texas Modern.”  According to Flores, post-annexation Texas utilized the Mexican ranching social structure to manage increasing ethnic tensions, producing a peace that allowed new systems of relations – specifically racial and labor segregation brought upon by capitalism and technological advance – to eventually reify by the late 19th century.  These new systems of social inequality required a rationale: they needed a devalued Mexican Other to justify the new structures which privileged Anglos.  In to this breach, argues Flores, steps the Alamo.

The brilliance in Flores’s scholarship lies in his positioning of the Alamo as a place and as a project.  The Alamo and its accompanying “approved legends” are doused in the baubles of historical evidence, but it exists not as a historical site but as a living cultural memory that “reinforces a collective memory of Texan superiority” (Flores 33).  The Alamo narrative, presented as fact, is actually a cultural production representing the interests of the elite – which of course would come as no surprise to Marx.  Furthermore, as an active site, the Alamo invites the viewer to produce connections between the lived present and the past – creating an ahistorical space in existing social relations that are rechristened and rejustified.  Flores’s detailing of the Alamo’s dialectical relationship between history and culture, as well as the importance it plays in shaping the ways Anglo-Mexican society interacts, was to me the most illuminating section of the book.

Flores spends the remainder of the book introducing evidence that supports the theoretical claim outlined above.  The relocation of Mexican cultural space to the Alamo area as well as the repurposing of open plaza space under the rubric of private property helps Flores demonstrate other ways in which the “Texas Modern” used spatial relations to signify and reify social inequalities.  A careful mapping of the political fights between the De Zavala and Driscoll wings of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas gives the reader a tipping point at which the romantic, rugged individualist Alamo narrative was codified.  While I was originally skeptical, Flores’s analysis of both women’s literary works does indeed bolster his case, demonstrating Driscoll’s social outlook and need to absolve herself from the economic displacement of Mexicans as well as the ways in which De Zavala’s legends and letters demonstrate how she used her pursuit of history to manage contradictory identities.  I found Flores’s rumination on “Texan” as an identity that holds the contradiction between Mexican and American in tension highly perceptive here.

After demonstrating what the Alamo represents, why it is used as representation, and who benefits, Flores moves to the “how” of the question through a content analysis of prominent Alamo movies.  Flores shows the ways in which the Alamo is refashioned according to the historical moment, although always justifying existing social relations between Anglo and Mexican is central until the 1960 John Wayne picture, where Flores argues the Alamo has already arrived as a master symbol and instead serves as a Cold War endorsement of American liberty and personal freedom.  The depiction of Mexicans as sexually deviant strongly connects the cinematic narratives with Driscoll’s own project.  Theoretically, I found this section equally insightful, especially his point that “the partialities of the visually projected are taken as complete or whole truths” (Flores 98-9) and his discussion of the role of voice in producing whiteness through cinema.

Unlike other works that rely heavily on deep literary or cinematic analysis, I found little to disagree with in Remembering the Alamo.  Flores goes to pains to create connections between the work of Driscoll, De Zavala, or the filmmakers and the lived social and economic conditions, thereby bolstering their case.  He produces a vision of an Alamo that is superficially historic.  After his analysis peels this veneer away, however, we are left with a cultural production, a master symbol that justifies and produces domination.  Like Flores and me, and like generations of children after, part of being Texan is to come to this mission and expose yourself to a collective mythology, a mythology that is draped in the past but is enacted every day in the streets of San Antonio.  Thanks to Flores, Sam Houston’s call to “Remember the Alamo!” takes on new meaning.  The Alamo – the project, not the place – is now something I will never forget.

Re)Membering the Body: the 21st Annual Conference on Emerging Scholarship in Women’s and Gender Studies.

Re)Membering the Body: the 21st Annual Conference on Emerging Scholarship in Women’s and Gender Studies.

From March 20-21, 2014

WGSConf

The CWGS graduate student run conference offers both undergraduate and graduate students at any recognized university the opportunity to share their research highlighting issues in women’s, gender, and/or sexuality studies with the students and faculty affiliates of CWGS, The University of Texas at Austin community, and CWGS community partners.

CWGS’s 2013-2014 conference theme is “(Re)Membering the Body.” What are the limits of history and memory? How do we remember/recover that which the archive has erased? What are the implications of embodied history, embodied storytelling, embodied memory? Proposals for papers or posters that address these questions (or pose related ones) using the lenses of gender, race, sexuality, ability, performance or other feminist, womanist, queer or anti-racist methodologies will be presented. Abstracts of Presentations

Research Q&A: Dr. Penny Green and Austin Americana

A "picking circle" in Luckenbach, TX
A “picking circle” in Luckenbach, TX

                 Recently, faculty member Dr. Penny Green embarked on a research project looking at Austin’s unique music community.  We sent our intrepid blog editor to find out more in this edition of “Research Q&A.”

What’s your project about?

My project looks at the Central Texas Americana music community and how it has changed since the mid 1970s when Austin declared itself the “Live Music Capitol of the World”.  I’m focusing largely, though not exclusively, on these musicians’ economic positioning and quality of life, and how these have changed over time.

How did you get interested in this project?

Although I’ve enjoyed the “Austin Sound” since I was in grad school here in the 1970s and 1980s, I got interested in the Centex Americana music scene in about May of 2009.  I got to know some musicians who introduced me to other musicians, and I kept hearing the same thing over and over.  I kept hearing that the pay was staying the same as it had been for years and that it was getting more and more difficult to live in the Austin area.  So I figured it was time to find out whether I just happened to be talking to a small handful of disgruntled musicians or if there’s a pattern.

How does this compare to other cities?  I know that here in Austin, we’ve got some things like HAAM to try and help struggling musicians, but I can’t imagine that being enough.

I can’t presently answer that question in any definitive manner; it’s one of the things I’ll be looking at in the research.   But there was at least one musician who told me that he and his family moved to Lafayette, LA because they get paid better for the gigs and the cost of living is considerably lower.  He frequently plays in the Austin area, but Lafayette is now his home base.

Wow, that’s not good for the aforementioned “Live Music Capitol of the World” tagline.  Why is that going on?

That’s what I’m trying to find out in the research.

Do you have any hypotheses?

I’m thinking that perhaps more of the bars and other venues are no longer owned by local people; perhaps they’ve gone under corporate control.  There are also other things happening.  Americana musicians and their audiences seem to be predominantly white; at IMG_0873 (2)least that’s what I’ve observed.  As the region becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, it’s possible they’re being marginalized as the Austin music scene grows more diverse.  There’s also an age issue.  When I go to Americana live gigs, most the people there are in their mid-thirties, or older.  If you go to the Kerrville Folk Festival, for example, you’ll see a lot of gray hair.  If the population of Austin is getting younger, then that could be contributing to the marginalization process.   By the same token, we know that Austin, and perhaps much of Central Texas, is a beacon for retiring Baby Boomers; the size of the 65+ population has definitely increased over the last 10 years.  I haven’t had a chance to systematically analyze the numbers to see what’s happening to the age structure of the population.  And don’t forget about widening income inequality.  One of its most problematic consequences is an increase in the cost of living, especially the cost of housing; widening inequality is inflationary.  That’s definitely hitting musicians hard.  Another component of widening inequality is wage stagnation for most people, except those at the very top.  What appears to be happening to Americana musicians may be a special case of this more general phenomenon.

For someone who’s not familiar with the genre, how would you define Americana?

Well, that’s one of the questions we’re asking the musicians.  [laughs]  But my understanding is that Americana is a mixture of bluegrass, country western, blues, some jazz, and gospel….there’s a heavy emphasis in Americana on lyrics.  This is not “ear candy”.  It seems to appeal to an older, more mature audience.  It’s a more serious kind of music.

IMG_1141 (2)So it’s kind of building off that folk tradition of political and social activism in the lyrics?

You can definitely pick up an undercurrent of activist themes in some of the music, but not all.

What places in Austin can you still find this music?

In Austin, you can find Americana at the Cactus Café and Threadgill’s.  You can find it at the Continental Club and the Broken Spoke.  You can find it at Waterloo Icehouse.  Looking at Central Texas more broadly, you can find it at Poodie’s IMG_0726 (2)Roadhouse out Highway 71 west, Hondo’s in Fredericksburg, River City Bar and Grill in Marble Falls, and the Badu House in Llano.  There are Americana venues in San Marcos and New Braunfels.  And, of course, you can hear it in Luckenbach.   Americana musicians also play a lot of house concerts.

And if we think back 20 years ago, we would find more of this kind of music happening within Austin at places like the Armadillo World Headquarters or Threadgill’s…

The late, great Armadillo World Headquarters.  Photo courtesy of Steve Hopson Photography
The late, great Armadillo World Headquarters. Photo courtesy of Steve Hopson Photography

The Armadillo and Threadgill’s on North Lamar are two key venues where the “Austin Sound” was born in the early to mid-1970s.  Unfortunately, the Armadillo was torn down and replaced by a city building, I think in the early 1980s.  But as I mentioned previously, you can still hear really good Americana at Threadgill’s, both north and south.

But a lot of the downtown, central Austin action has been taken over by other music whether that be for business, cultural, or demographic reasons, as you said earlier.

That’s what I suspect, but I don’t know for sure yet.

And how are you going to know “for sure”?  What’s your methodological strategy?

Sociology Undergraduate Advisor Debbie Rothschild (left) strumming the guitar fantastic.
Sociology Undergraduate Advisor Debbie Rothschild (left) strumming the guitar fantastic.

I’ll be doing a number of things.  First of all, I’m conducting interviews with Central Texas Americana musicians, using snowball sampling.  I’m also looking at demographic changes that have occurred in an 11-13 county region around Austin, as well as income inequality data for those counties.  I want to see how the distribution of income and cost of living have changed over time.  I also want to interview other members of the music business: producers, maybe some members of the Austin Music Commission and probably some venue owners.  But I haven’t gotten that far yet.

I see that you have a guitar here in your office.  Do you play as well?

Dr. Penny Green
Dr. Penny Green

I played as a kid; and now I’m taking lessons from Tommy Byrd, a very talented singer-songwriter here in Austin.  Debbie Rothschild, who is a very talented Americana singer/musician, has also been helping me. I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.  I’m also trying my hand at songwriting.  I want to immerse myself, as much as time permits (laugh), into the community that I’m studying.  One thing I’ve already learned is that, when you hold a full time job, as many musicians do, it’s real hard to find time to work on your music.  I look forward to continuing my work on this project.

Excellent! 

Andrew Krebs, Vintner in residence

Finding the Time to Make the Wine
by Andrew Krebs
Andrew’s full article Social Logical Austin

Grapefruit 1I would like to take this opportunity to share my balancing approach. For the past couple of years, I have been passionately involved in making my own wine. In a lot of ways, being a graduate student is like being a vintner. Really, there are just so many parallels. The more I think about it, the more I see that in order to make a fine wine, you’ve got to plan, prepare and look for inspiration. How is that not like conducting social science research? For instance, winemakers keep detailed notes about their recipes. Without a written log, the wine cannot be replicated or even tweaked for future attempts. Researchers, ring a bell? Winemakers, like published academics, also need to have patience through the process. Those of us who make wine understand that you can’t drink the solution right away. Similarly, most researchers can’t publish without a few rounds of revisions.

Hannah Arendt

hannaharendt

By Kevin Hsu

In May 1960, a high-ranking Nazi SS officer who had escaped from US custody after the war and been in hiding with his family in Buenos Aires for ten years was found and captured by agents of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. In April the next year he was brought to trial in Jerusalem for his involvement from 1942-44 in the overseeing of the deportation of close to 500,000 Jews to ghettos and extermination camps. He was indicted on a number of charges, one of them being crimes against humanity.

At the time, a prominent professor in the Department of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research (as it was called then), and a Jewish refugee from Germany herself, offered to travel to Jerusalem, to the very ‘Beth Hamishpath’—House of Justice (though some people say it should be more accurately translated as ‘House of Judgment’)—to cover the trial for The New Yorker, claiming it would be her last opportunity to see a major Nazi ‘in the flesh.’ Her report, published in 1963 and later as a book, engendered a great deal of controversy that led to a string of personal and professional falling-outs.

This is the subject of the movie Hannah Arendt.

I remember when I was in graduate school I went to a seminar by Margarethe von Trotta, the director of the movie. I hadn’t heard of her before. The students had just seen a new movie by Volker Schlöndorff the previous night. I didn’t think too much of it, so when I learned von Trotta had been married to him, I can’t well say I didn’t harbor some prejudices already before attending the seminar.

Actually I don’t remember much from the seminar, except von Trotta herself. Even though it was August, the weather in the Swiss Alps was cold and wet. She wore a red fringed shawl over a black linen blazer, a black turtleneck sweater, black suit pants, and flats, also black. About sixty years old, she had on dangling, gold and red coral earrings, a fountain of platinum-tinted silver hair splashing onto her shoulders, framing a squarish, lined, somewhat coarse face—razor lips, scythe nose, blue-gray eyes shining, as if with the gleam of a sword just drawn. There were a red coral bangle and thin gold bracelet on her left wrist. She had a habit of pushing the sleeves of her blazer up with her hands as she talked, like she was getting ready to dig deeply into something, and every time she did so the bangle and bracelet on her wrist clanged and clacked, stringing together a beaded curtain through which her low hoary voice would pace back and forth. 

In the next three days we watched The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, The Second Awakening of Christa Klages, Marianne and Juliane, Rosa Luxemburg (the actress who played Hannah Arendt, Barbara Sukowa, was also the lead in those two movies), and Rosenstrasse, another film about the Holocaust. It was practically a crash course in New German Cinema.

Honestly I can’t say I like her movies, including Hannah Arendt. By ‘art house’ standards, they don’t stand out in terms of aesthetics or style. By Hollywood standards, there aren’t enough, if any, explosions, car chases, special effects, beautiful actors, beautiful actresses, plot twists, or product, or ‘lifestyle,’ placements. Von Trotta’s movies tend to be ‘just enough’ movies—just enough historical backdrop, just enough close-up moments, just enough plotting and intrigue, just enough presenting of different perspectives, just profound enough dialogue, just memorable enough actors, just enough music, just enough ambiguity. They cover all the bases. It’s as if she were merely ticking off a list. They are very ‘efficient’ movies. If they had a temperature, it would be 70°F—standard room temperature. In person, however, she is very likeable—affable and generous, yet straightforward and sharp. Just very genuine, real. Very 98.6°F. It’s as if her works took her warmth and coolness, poured them into the same pot and made them simply lukewarm. I like her more than her movies. Often you like somebody’s work only to be disappointed, even disgusted, when you finally see the man or woman ‘behind the candelabra’ (like Heidegger); more rarely, it seems, does who they are actually surprise you by being better, and more interesting, than what they do. If I had a choice I would definitely choose to meet and be the latter.    

Hannah Arendt in the book Eichmann in Jerusalem coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil,’ about how people can depersonalize and dehumanize other people when they simply follow the rules, or ‘follow orders.’ Then all sorts of acts and atrocities can be justified and committed against a number, a statistic, an abstract entity, or something ‘unworthy,’ in the name of whatever the rules and orders serve—often ‘the Good,’ with everything ‘the Good’ is against then coming to be seen as ‘bad,’ or even ‘evil.’ Arendt attributed Eichmann’s actions and these kinds of actions in general to the perpetrators’ ‘inability to think.’ However, a lot of people, for some reason, seem to leave off what she said immediately after that—‘namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.’

Frankly put, what Arendt is talking about is really selfishness.

Osamu Dazai in 1948 wrote a story about a woman in dire financial straits and at the end of her rope who was desperately trying to plead with a banker for help, but the banker, a model husband and father who arrived home from work punctually every day, simply told her he had to get off of work at 5 pm and to come back the next day during normal business hours. The woman, having nowhere to go, committed suicide that evening. Osamu Dazai’s conclusion was: ‘Home is the root of all evil.’

Arendt herself observed that Eichmann was an irreproachable husband, father, brother, son, and friend. But it was exactly for those closest to him and for himself that he carried out those actions. When we put our welfare, career, ‘pursuit of happiness,’ or what we think is good, and that of the people ‘inside our circle,’ above and to the exclusion of everything and everyone ‘outside our circle,’ we shut them out. Our pound of iron becomes heavier than their pound of feathers. It’s easy then to justify actions against anything in our way, and accept, even advocate, rules and ideas that support those actions, using them as shields. And no one can blame us, because we’re ‘in the right,’ or, simply, we’re just ‘playing by the rules.’

Thinking from the standpoint of somebody else doesn’t mean agreeing with them, or even trying to find agreements with them. It doesn’t mean understanding or identifying, or even empathizing with them. It means something much simpler. It just means ‘listening.’

There is a scene in the movie, where we see Arendt’s face, pensive, with brows furled, eyes squinting; a few seconds later, sounds rush in, and we realize she is listening to a news broadcast on the trial. The expression of thinking is the expression of listening.

Only when we listen, can we allow ourselves to open up. And only when we allow ourselves to open up, can we begin to think.

Violencia en Los Margenes: Javier Auyero and Concatenations of Violence

Photo courtesy of Gabriela Brunetti
Photo courtesy of Gabriela Brunetti

By Pamela Neumann

It wasn’t supposed to be a book about violence at all. When Prof. Javier Auyero and his co-author Maria Fernanda Berti (a local school teacher) began conducting research in a poor neighborhood in Buenos Aires called Arquitecto Tucho they thought they’d be writing about environmental contamination, a topic Auyero has written about extensively in the past. But, after two and a half years of fieldwork, they had a completely different story to tell, one that revolves around the many forms of interpersonal violence that are part and parcel of residents’ everyday lives. Last week Auyero spoke about the book, entitled “Violencia en Los Margenes,” at a presentation organized by the Lozano Long Institute for Latin American Studies.

3354730According to Auyero, one of the book’s principal arguments is that interpersonal violence is not merely dyadic, or retaliatory, but rather connected in “chains” or concatenations. In other words, what may begin as an incident between two drug dealers on the street is connected to the violent disciplinary action taken by a mother against her son, or the abuse a man later inflicts on his female partner. In this conceptualization, not only are there many “uses” of violence, these uses are also connected to one another in ways that transcend the typical public/private divide in how violence has been studied by many other scholars.

Hearing Auyero describe these connections between so-called “public” and “private” violence, I was reminded of the fundamental feminist insight that the division between the public and private spheres is an artificial one, a historical construction used to justify and maintain gender hierarchies. This division between public and private has not only been used repeatedly to confine women to the home (where their “proper” roles are supposedly located), but it has also been used to construct hierarchies of violence. For example, “public” forms of violence such as murder, robbery, or gang activity has historically attracted the iron fist of the state, while “private” forms of violence, particularly that which is perpetuated against women and children in the home were, up until the last 30 years or so (Tierney 1982), almost entirely ignored—a classic case of what anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1993) has called the state’s “averted gaze”.

A second argument that Auyero described as central to the book is precisely the role of the Javier Auyero_7state in encouraging the very violence it ostensibly ought to be preventing–or at least punishing. For example, the same state that provides welfare assistance to families is also represented by local police officers who participate in the local drug trade. This suggests a state whose presence is highly contradictory—and through its selective responses to violence in the community may in fact be contributing to the normalization and legitimacy of violence.  Thinking “like a state” (Scott 1999) for a moment, what purpose could such a seemingly contradictory stance serve? What is the logic that might explain the state’s action and inaction in this context?

Some recent scholarship on the neoliberal state in the United States argues that the rollback of welfare and the mass incarceration of poor (mostly minority) men are two sides of the same coin: a broader project to “punish the poor” (Wacquant 2009). Is there a similar state project underway in Argentina? Or is the massive increase in violence simply one inevitable result of long term social and economic changes, such as the decreasing access to formal employment and in-migration to the neighborhood? How do these structural conditions relate not only to the increase in violence, but also its interconnected manifestations? These are some of the questions that Auyero hopes to answer—in his next book.

DREAMs of Social Activism in Texas: NIYA and the Provocation of Protest

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Participants in the Dream 30 crossing look across the border fence to the United States. Courtesy of NIYA.

By Michael Young and Eric Borja

Under the Obama administration, nearly two million people have been deported, with no end in sight. NIYA – the National Immigrant Youth Association – is tired of seeing families ripped apart by these deportations. And on Monday September 30th, the same day the government shutdown occurred, 30 undocumented migrants – the Dream 30 – crossed the US-Mexico border at the Laredo, Texas port of entry. This is the second time the organization has successfully organized such an act of civil disobedience – with the first occurring on Monday July 22, 2013 when 9 undocumented migrants (the Dream 9) crossed the US-Mexico border near the Nogales border patrol station. Since the Dream 9, NIYA has successfully crossed 15 undocumented migrants, but 24 of the Dream 30 remain detained.

Our very own Dr. Michael Young has worked closely with NIYA, and was present during the Dream 30 crossing. Below, we present his op-ed piece on the Dream 30 originally published in the Houston Chronicle on October 3rd:

In the middle of last week, they started to arrive in Nuevo Laredo, across the Texas-Mexico border from Laredo.

By the weekend, there were 34 of them gathered in a Catholic shelter for migrants.

Each had a different story of how they had gotten to this point, but they all shared a dream – actually, more of a desperation – to come home.

From the roof of the shelter, they could see the Rio Grande. On the other side of the river: Home.

For three days, they sat in workshops led by Benito, an organizer for the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. They role-played what would happen on Monday. They told their stories to each other. They cried, they laughed, they bonded.

On Monday morning, they embraced in “a burning ring of fire” and took turns jumping into the center telling the group what they meant to each other. They used the word “love” freely. Standing next to them, I believed they meant and felt those words as intensely as a human can.

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The Dream 30. Courtesy of NIYA

Who are these people?

In the way they spoke English, in the way they dressed, in their mannerisms, they were just like the kids at my children’s public school in South Austin. They were mostly 20-somethings, but also a few minors. They were gay, straight, jocks, nerds, junior ROTC, evangelical, Catholic, atheist – all raised in the U.S., all undocumented, brought here as young children by their parents, and all unafraid.

Around noon, they gathered at the central plaza in Nuevo Laredo.

“Was this the place that they (the Zetas) shot the mayor, or was it the sheriff?” “Is this the place where they brought the decapitated heads?” The kids put graduation caps and gowns on – the DREAMer uniform. Benito assembled them in a line. He interspersed the innate leaders with the anxious. He put the strongest one in the middle of the line, building a column that would not break.

One last check: Benito touched each one on their shoulders and looked them in their eyes for a long moment, saying not a word. They were ready.

With four pesos in hand, they walked one block north from the plaza to the pedestrian “Bridge No. 1” linking the two Laredos. They paid their toll on the Mexican side. Mexican soldiers stood by letting them cross without a word, barely a glance.

When they got halfway across, the chants began in a call and response. DREAMers who had gathered on the U.S. side of the bridge chanted, “Undocumented!” The crossers responded, “Unafraid!” They got louder.

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Dream 30 group crosses into Laredo, Texas with Bring Them Home banner Photo: Steve Pavey/NIYA

The U.S. Border Patrol agents in boats under the bridge gunned their engines, drowning out the chants for a moment.

A flash of fear spread through the column, but only for a moment. The chants from the U.S. steeled their nerves.

The crowd on the U.S. side called returnees’ names, one by one: “When Javier comes under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back! When Alberto comes under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”

They arrived at the U.S. point of entry, where Border Patrol agents stopped them.

The DREAMers’ lawyer presented boxes of documents – petitions for asylum for each young person. The chants continued.

They stood for a half-hour, maybe more, in the Texas heat and then they were taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention.

I had never seen such a protest – a brilliant, beautiful and heartbreaking protest. In all my years of studying protests, I know of little to compare it to.

Of course, most Americans know nothing of the day’s event. The news cycle has room for only one big story.

That was Monday.

By the next day, the minors had been released on humanitarian parole along with their parents. But 25 remain in ICE detention, now housed in an El Paso facility.

American kids, back in America, but behind guarded walls dressed in prison jump suits.

Their crime? They went back to Mexico to bury loved ones, to care for sick family members, to finish an education they couldn’t finish here, to follow a parent who couldn’t find work.

What they found there is something we all already know, even if some of us won’t admit it: Mexico is not the home of these kids raised in America.

Now they are home and now they must be set free.

The government may be shut down, but its prisons are still at work jailing kids who just want to come home.

Bring them home.

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Some of the Dream 30, as they prepared to cross the border Monday morning. Photo: Steve Pavey/NIYA

 

For further information, NIYA’s website can be found at http://theniya.org/ and please visit http://action.dreamactivist.org/bringthemhome/educators/ to sign a petition supporting the DREAMers.

Better Know a Sociologist : 10 Questions with Harel Shapira

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Here at the UT Sociology Blog, we strive to find new and interesting ways to highlight the people and research in our department.  To that end, we present to you “Better Know A Sociologist,” where we ask 10 general questions to one of our illustrious faculty members.  Today we spoke to one of our newest faculty members, Dr. Harel Shapira.  

What first attracted you to sociology?

I remember being in high school and reading this book by Randall Collins.  I believe it was called Sociological Insight or Thinking about Sociology, it’s one of those basic introductory books.  Not a textbook so much as a collection of essays, each one dealing with a topic and showing how sociologists think about it.  For example, one was on love, one was on religion, another was the economy.  I think I was always drawn towards the historical, political science world of thinking.  And I remember reading this and it was just…it was incredibly counter-intuitive, but there’s also this sort of obviousness about it, right?  And I think that’s so wonderful about sociology.  On the one hand, it’s obvious: you read it and you say, “OK, that sort of makes sense.”  But at the same time, you have this reaction of “Oh, I didn’t think about it that way,” you know?  And I just remember reading this book and each one of these essays made me have that reaction towards the topic, like “Oh, so religion is actually about that?  That’s what we’re doing when we’re sitting around the table during Thanksgiving, that’s its significance?”  And the same for love, for the economy, and all those things.  So I think that that book just got me very excited about this thing called sociology that I’d never heard of and it also helped that Randall Collins is a beautiful writer and that the book was wonderfully written, and that it was short.  I just thought, “Wow, there are these people that do these things , this is what they do” and I was really drawn to it and took a few more sociology classes.  I should say that I was lucky enough that in my high school, there were actual sociology classes.

Yeah, that’s surprising.

Yeah, it was very cool.  We had these set of classes – this was in upstate New York – where the classes were actually connected to Syracuse University, so you took half of the class in high school and then half of the class at the actual university.  So it was really amazing and fortunate that they did actually have a proper sociology class.

So you got your Bachelor’s degree in sociology then?

I got my Bachelor’s in sociology from the University of Chicago.  I should say that over there, as much as my “concentration,” as they call it there, was sociology, there is a very serious core curriculum and many classes are cross listed, so I took a number of classes in very different fields.  As much of my education was in philosophy and history and even biology as it was in proper sociology.

But that’s another great thing about sociology, it’s that all of those different backgrounds contribute to the strength of your own sociological perspective.

Absolutely.  Yeah, that’s definitely another wonderful thing about sociology.

What did you do your dissertation on?

I wrote my dissertation about the border militia group called the Minutemen, who I assume you’ve heard of.  They’re this volunteer group that patrols the border between the US and Mexico trying to stop immigrants from coming across.  I was drawn to it for a couple of reasons.  One is a purely biographical reason: immigration and borders have played a really prominent role in my own life.  My grandparents immigrated to Israel from Europe and my parents immigrated to the United States. And of course in Israel, borders and security and militarization are incredibly prominent.  So in a sense, borders have been what my life has been about and I wanted to write and learn about it.  But there’s this other dimension, which is that we – and by we, I mean the social sciences, sociology – we don’t put enough energy into writing about and researching the right wing.  There was a movement in the 1950s with folks like Daniel Bell who wrote about conservative, right wing politics and then there was this amazing pause for almost 50 years.  There’s Kathleen Blee now at the University of Pittsburgh who has done some great work. But over all we know very little, and what we do know comes from the archives.  So there was also this motivation to just try and fill in this gap that exists.  So I was drawn to it for those two reasons and really, I guess there’s a  third one that’s very basic, and that’s that a lot of stuff I’m interested in has to do with how people tick in ways that I find very different than myself.  How people go about and do something that I don’t do and that I would never do and trying to figure out how it is that they do this and I don’t do it, what’s different about us.  But at the same time, also trying figure out what is actually similar about us yet leads us in different pathways and different directions.

At the same time, I’ve heard you speak about Waiting for Jose, the book that came out of your dissertation, and one of the most interesting things you discussed was the how a loss of community and the sense of anomie that comes out of it is partly why these men band together along the border, which links to some of what people like Robert Putnam have said about contemporary society.  But it sounds like that wasn’t really what you thought you were going to find or what you were originally interested in when you went to the field.

Yeah, I know!  I think I had the good fortune of having a few professors around me at Columbia where I did my dissertation who for the most part let me just go out and get my hands dirty without very much pregiven analytical or even theoretical frames.  Just to sort of go there and see what I find, see what’s interesting, see what strikes me, and it was in the process of going down there and then coming back and looking through field notes, talking with friends and professors that I came to figure out what the sort of story I want to tell about them is, what kind of story is the one that captures who these folks are. And what came out is that they have this diagnosis about America that is very far away from downloadwhat we think about when we think about right wing, conservative extremist politics.  I mean, there’s certainly things that they say that fit that mold, the mold people like Bell and Hofstadter talk about, but they also say so many things that don’t fit that mold that in fact fit – and here’s where Putnam comes up – that fit things that Robert Putnam says and talks about.  Not just Putnam, but Putnam is a great example because so many of us embrace Putnam in terms of giving a diagnosis of what is happening in America, what is wrong with America, what we might need to do to make it better.  So that was sort of this moment where I needed to pause, and really think, “wait a minute, what is going on here?  This is not what I expected.  How do I make sense of it?”  And from there it became about actually trying to figure out not just these people’s beliefs, their diagnosis of America, but trying to comprehend how even though they think things that are not so different from “the rest of us”, how come they arrive at such a different place.  It’s very easy to say “Oh, people believe these things that are very different from me and that’s why they do different things,” but it becomes much more difficult and I think actually much more accurate to say “Oh, they think things that are not that different but yet they get to a different place.“ And from there, not just thinking about their beliefs about immigration or America but thinking about their life experiences, their pasts, and seeing how much their experience of being soldiers – these are almost all military veterans and people who served for 25, 30, 35 years, essentially their whole lives as soldiers and are now aging veterans – seeing how these past experiences make this activity of patrolling the Border a really meaningful in a way that can not be reduced to simply an expression of ideology.

Why did you decide to work here at the University of Texas?

Well, it helped that they offered me a job. [laughs] Well, OK, first, it’s a serious research institution.  People are doing serious work here, I got that feeling from the beginning.  People are dedicated to doing really serious research. Not just in the sociology department, I felt that was true across campus.  So it was great to feel like you’re coming to a place where it’s not just your department where you can find people doing interesting things.  You know, the history department here is extremely strong, American Studies, the law school, the business school, the economics department.  There’s so many powerful, important institutions here, the Harry Ransom Center, the LBJ and Benson Libraries.  It’s just very exciting to be at a place where there are so many resources and so many interesting things happening.  It was also important for me to come to a place where I like the city and so the fact that it was in Austin was very important to me.

What’s been your overall experience of Austin?  Do you have any likes or dislikes?

Um, it’s incredibly hot.  I still don’t get what they mean by “dry heat.”  I’ve spent a lot of time in Tel Aviv, and it’s funny because there are ways in which Austin reminds me of Tel Aviv, by which I mean it’s very hot and it’s kind of a utilitarian, plain looking city in terms of architecture and the highways with all these big concrete buildings.  But you know, you see these ramshackle little bungalows but then you go inside them and the houses are beautiful.  You see these restaurants that look dilapidated and then you go inside and it’s amazing inside: the architecture, the food, the people, everything.  So it reminds me of Tel Aviv in the sense that externally, it’s kind of ugly but internally, there’s a lot of character and quality and beauty.  I’ve also been struck by how young this city is.  I find myself every now and then driving and trying to see if I can spot anyone who is 60 or over and I swear, I don’t think I’ve found one old person in this city yet.  And that’s – no offense to old people – kind of exciting to always be around young people who bring all this energy.  For example, people are always biking around everywhere, which I really like.  It’s just got this sort of flavor to it and I don’t think there’s that many cities in America that have flavor, you know?  It’s got character.  You come to Austin and you go, “Ah, OK, this place is different than most places, it’s got something going on” and I think that is just a really, really exciting thing to be around.

If you could teach one sociological concept to the world, what would it be?

I don’t know if this is a sociological concept; more like a way of thinking about the world.  But I would just say…I’m teaching Introductory Sociology this semester and if I can get one thing across to the students – and this applies not just to the students but to anyone – it’s just to recognize how powerful society is.  To recognize as social these things in the world that are social. Let’s take the example of the institution of the University.  The University is something that we’ve created, right?  People got together and they said “we need education, let’s have these criteria for education, let’s produce this thing called the University,” which sort of came from religious training and so forth, “let’s have these criteria for admission, what are the criteria for admission, etc.”  There’s so much that gets rolled up in these things.  And you know, you can go all the way down.  Then you get the sports team, the paraphernalia around the sports team, you get burnt orange, which comes to signify so much.  And that flows into all these sorts of political questions.  Affirmative action was a big issue here recently, for example.  These are all profoundly social things that we have created.  They weren’t always there and I think it’s so important to step back and recognize the existence of these things and how powerful they are in shaping our lives.  Obviously, we could go on and on down the list: gender, race, etc.  Just to recognize that these are social things.  We’ve produced them, they change over time, and look how they influence our lives.  And I think so often – and this kind of goes back to my experiences with the Randall Collins book and its counter-intuitiveness – we go through our everyday lives living with these things without recognizing that we’ve created them or that these things have a history and that these things are impacting us in ways that we kind of take for granted and don’t even reflect on.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Getting paid to think.  I mean that honestly.  I think getting paid to think and do research is such an amazing luxury.  Our conversation right now, I’m getting a paycheck for this conversation.  That is just amazing.  And it’s an incredible luxury and I think we are so fortunate to be in this position.  So many people would love to be doing this, but they don’t have the luxury to do it.  Getting paid to do this wonderful thing is remarkable.  I think about my parents and how much they paid for my education, or how much anyone or anyone’s parents pays to go to school.  But right now, we’re getting paid to go to school, right?  It’s actually mind blowing and I think it’s such an amazing thing.  And related to that I guess is being around all these remarkable people who are smart, interesting, and you like too.  Certainly there are some jerks in academia, but at least they’re interesting jerks. [laughs]  I think being surrounded by people who are so interesting and smart and have committed their lives to thinking and doing research is incredibly rewarding in itself.

Who is one person in the department besides yourself that is doing really interesting work and what is it?

Actually, I want to give two people, and these are my fellow members of the “new faculty cohort,” as we like to refer to ourselves.  I think both Ken and Dani are doing really amazing work.  In a  way, I think their work is kind of connected to each other.  Dani does this beautiful ethnographic work where, you know, we tend to think of the economy as a thing that naturally exists, right?  There’s this economy, it’s out there in the world and we’re economic actors.  Everyone is born trying to maximize their profits and to minimize their costs and we, by our so called nature, know how to be economic people.  It’s in our blood, it’s who we are.  You know that you’re supposed to get more money and lose less money.  And Dani does this amazing things where he says “actually, no, this is something we’re socialized into doing.  One becomes an economic actor.  One learns how to act economically in an economic society.”  And he has this great ethnographic project which looks at how people participated in these “Get Rich” clubs where they’re taught about how to invest their money.  I think it’s wonderful because again, it’s counter-intuitive: we take for granted the idea that everybody knows how to be an economic actor but actually we don’t.  And I love his research because when I first read it, it made me recall how my grandfather’s brother in Israel would always keep his money in his mattress.  He was afraid to give money to the bank.  What do you do with your money?  You put it under your mattress.  And I remember my father having this conversation and saying “Look, if you put the money in the bank you can get interest.”  But he didn’t trust the bank and he didn’t understand the concept of interest.  However, as a result of these conversations he finally put the money in the bank.  So in a sense, he’s kind of became this new economic actor.  But for the last twenty years of his life, the guy would wake up every morning at 6am, take a hour-long bus ride to the head office of the bank, ask to see the manager, and ask for a detailed receipt showing that his money was there.  He wanted to “see” the money.  It was hard for him to grasp this ethereal thing of his money being stored in the bank.  So that’s just a long way of saying I also like Dani’s work because I can make connections between it and some of the things I’ve thought about in my own life, which I think is a hallmark of all good sociology.  And then with Ken, I think he does something in a way that’s similar which is to talk about how the new economy today is so driven by finance.  First of all, finance is this thing where no one even knows what it is.  My friend says he’s an investment banker: I have no idea what that is.  So I think part of what Ken does is give some substance to it, and he does that by talking about the consequences of finance to the way our society is organized.  For example, one of the interesting things that he shows is how the increased emphasis on finance, the way the economy is driven by finance has consequences for say, labor unions, for people’s sense of themselves as workers and for what kind of work we value.  That “traditional” work, in a sense, has been really devalued as a consequence of this new finance-driven economy.

What are you current research interests?  What are you looking at these days?

I’m doing an ethnographic project right now on gun owners, focusing primarily in Texas.  At a basic level, I want to know why folks own guns.  I’m not a gun owner myself, but there’s an incredibly large population in America and especially in Texas that are gun owners.  I want to try and make sense of that.  When I was doing my dissertation, I had the chance to experience being around people who were all gun owners, and I remember sleeping in this tent at one point.  There were four people in the tent, and there were a whole bunch of guns around us.  We slept around guns and I couldn’t sleep the entire night.  I was terrified.  There were these guns around me and I was terrified.  And I remember thinking “for these folks, having the gun gives them a good night’s sleep.”  And again, I find that really amazing: how is it that for me, if I had a gun in my house today, I would be completely ill at ease, but for other people, it’s the precise opposite?  Trying to make sense of that is part of what I’m interested in and also I’m sort of interested in that following George Zimmerman, we have this discourse of self-defense in America.  We talk about self-defense so much and of course, in the trial what the jury was asked to decide was whether he was acting in self-defense or not, and I wonder the extent to which, when we talk about self-defense, we’re missing out on the fact that it’s not just about the individual.  When we think of self-defense, we often think of the individual who is defending themselves but actually a lot of times, when people act out of “self-defense,” they’re thinking about a larger group, right?  Often a group that has historical and collective memories, in other words, it’s not just about some crime or encounter happening at the moment, but something that happened a long time ago.  So they’re not owning the gun just to protect themselves but to protect something much bigger.

What’s one book you’ve read over the past year that you’ve really enjoyed and why?

Katherine Boo has this book called “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers” and it’s about slum dwellers in Bombay, India near the airport which is a relatively new slum as far as slums go.  I think it’s about 10-15 years old.  It emerged because of the fact that Bombay built this new airport and all these slum dwellers from other slums moved there because they do a lot of scavenging and could find a lot of construction materials from the builders and things that they could take and then sell.  Lo and behold, fast forward 10-15 years and now 3,000 are living in this slum.  And Katherine Boo – a journalist that’s written a lot for the New Yorker – goes and lives for a few years in the slum.  And she tells this story about the people living in the slum.  First of all, the book is beautifully written.  But also, even though she’s a journalist, it’s some of the best sociology that I’ve read in the past year.  The thing that I think she does really well beyond the amazing writing is it’s a book that on the one hand, is a story about suffering.  Incredible, incredible suffering.  But you can’t help but see at the same time this amazing resiliency.  And you leave with both those feelings, right?  You feel “this is awful, I can’t believe this exists” and without a doubt you leave thinking “wow, this is such an awful situation for these people and their lives within this slum” but you also leave with this – and I don’t want to sound too Oprah Winfrey – this renewed sense of hope or renewed sense of the power of humans to exist and love.

And that kind of overlaps with your own work, too.  For the Minutemen, they had these feeling of profound disaffection, alienation, and loss of structure and therefore were fashioning meaning and connection in the ways that they could.  And there’s a certain heroism in that as well.

Definitely, good point!

What do you like to do in your free time?

Netflix and fly fishing.

Netflix and fly fishing?

Yeah.  I’m still looking for places to go fly fishing in Texas.  In the northeast, I would go to upstate New York, the Catskills, or Pennsylvania.  I’ve heard rumors that there are some places in Texas to go fly fishing…

What exactly is required for fly fishing?  Do you need a fast moving river?  A deep river?  Just a river period?

There are different things, but yeah, you need a steam that is relatively fast moving and most importantly you need fish in it…..

Yeah, I imagine that’s important.

Mostly I went trout fishing, and yeah, I just love it because it’s….first of all, it’s an activity that I prefer doing by myself as opposed to other people, and that might be the only activity where that’s the case for me.  Also, it’s incredibly calming and frustrating at the same time.  And just sitting in the amazing scenery it’s a great way to see things.  I love just driving around with your fly rod in the car and you see a stream and you just stop and go in there for an hour or so and then you keep going to the next spot.  And I also just like it because Hemingway liked it, and he’s my favorite writer.

 

Bureaucracies & Backpacks in the Big City

By Dan Jaster

Bureaucracies surround us every day. They help make things smoother, or irritate us to no end with their meticulous demand for control over even the finest details. As Max Weber noted in his famous essay “Bureaucracy,” it is this duality that makes bureaucratic systems so interesting: in their quest for control they help put social processes on autopilot, but this is not without consequence. Often we become dependent on them, and disrupting their rationalistic logics makes life more difficult. We reify bureaucracies (and they reify themselves) through our very dependence on the system once it is in place.

While this view may be frightening, we should also take solace in the very irrationalities that these hyper-rational systems produce, particularly when faced with real-world complexities outside of their influence. I was recently in New York for a Rural Sociology conference. I don’t want the multi-faceted irony of this conference to slip by the reader: we met to discuss rural people in one of the most urban areas of the country; the theme was also focused on “land-grabs” by corporations against small-scale farmers, and these outraged sociologists discussed how to help farmers resist such actions mere blocks away from the heart of the financial sector that was fueling these land-grabs. Of course, that assumes that large-scale financing even has a heart; I like to imagine big-bankers’ lives resembling Edward Hopper’s depictions. During my off-hours, I played the tourist; it was during one of these trips that I experienced the difference between an institutional rationality and an everyday rationality.

“Land is such a good investment opportunity. I can’t believe people want to live and work on it.” Office in a Small City, Edward Hopper
“Land is such a good investment opportunity. I can’t believe people want to live and work on it.” Office in a Small City, Edward Hopper

One must-see during my stay in New York was the Metropolitan Museum of Art (i.e., the Met). As I presented that morning, I had my backpack and laptop with me. While in line, I ran into my first bureaucratic jeu. The Met has a $25 suggested admission price, but you can go lower if you like; it also has a $12 student price. Being a grad student, I asked for a student ticket. Bureaucracies like to track and record as many things as possible, so I figured I should help them accurately understand who was visiting the museum. The teller dolefully told me that the price was $12, but I could pay less if I liked. He probably thought I was being cheap: I looked sharp for my presentation, and I was staying in Queens, meaning I didn’t have time to change before arriving at the Met. Knowing that the admission price is suggested, I suggested $0; New York is expensive, and grad students don’t make a lot of money. The teller then informed me that $0 was not an option. I ran into the first built-in contradiction in the system: the price of admission was suggested, but suggestible doesn’t mean you can suggest anything.

A reasonable depiction of how I looked that day.
A reasonable depiction of how I looked that day.

With my ticket in hand (I opted for $10), I started towards the galleries. As I entered, I was informed that my backpack was too large. I had to check it in at the coat-check. Once I got to the coat check, I was informed that they would not check in my bag if it had my laptop in it. I was struck by the irony. The only reason I had my backpack was to carry my laptop (which I needed for my presentation). However, they wouldn’t let me enter the gallery with my backpack, and they wouldn’t check in my bag with my laptop inside it; I thus had to carry the laptop in my hands, which was the circumstance I had hoped to avoid by bringing my backpack in the first place.

By themselves, these rules make sense: big backpacks take up space and are a source of potential thievery within the museum, and keeping electronics out of the coat-check area not only keeps the museum from dealing with possible theft but also helps them avoid the potential for damaged personal property complaints. However, the beauty and bane of bureaucracies is that each rational rule does not exist independent of the others in the system: sometimes they interact and contradict or problematize each other, particularly when confronted with the complexities of the world outside the system. These interactions are the sources of our hassles (or amusing anecdotes) with bureaucracies. I laughed, and told the coat-check clerk about the irony. He didn’t laugh. Those on the lower levels of the hierarchy have less power and agency, so they can only follow the rules; he likely has heard that complaint before from people who failed to see the humor. With my laptop in my hands, and backpack in the coat-check, I toured the Met. But, hey, at least the bureaucracy was able to maintain its rationality at the expense of my own.

Sources Cited:

Weber, Max. 1946. “Bureaucracy.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

For the moral implications of bureaucracies, see:

Sjoberg, Gideon, Ted R. Vaughan, and Norma Williams. 1984. “Bureaucracy as a Moral Issue.” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 20:441-453.

Journeys with Jaster: Exploring the Prison Economy of Huntsville, TX

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By Dan Jaster

In an attempt to distance myself both mentally and physically from graduate life and sociology (a key skill to have if one is to successfully navigate the passage between the Charybdis of performing personal research an the Scylla of teaching/classwork responsibilities), I recently spent 36 hours in Huntsville, Texas. I opted to take the camera that my partner and I share and do what I love to do most: wander about taking pictures, documenting the beauty and banality of life.

Since many may not be familiar with Huntsville, it is largely known for three things: 1) it DSC_0551was the home of Sam Houston (See photo at right); 2) consequently, it is home of Sam Houston State University (SHSU); and 3) it is a hub for the Texas state prison system. I figured this would be a prime chance to observe life in a town where the prison was a central cultural landmark.

As has been documented by Foucalt (1977), the prison is site of ultimate domination: everything is observed and controlled. While the Huntsville units were not panoptic in the strict sense, the boundaries of this control were not limited to within its brick-lined walls. As Comfort (2007) illustrated, the controlling tentacles of the prison system extend beyond the lives of the prisons, shaping and regulating the lives of prisoners’ significant others and families. Indeed, the power of the prison system permeates throughout Huntsville, oddly juxtaposing its past and current history with the ideals associated with the man that made the town famous.

My first experience with the permeable boundaries of the prison domination complex was related to the very thing that I was using to temporarily free myself from the weight of graduate school: my photography. The most well-known and easily identifiable prison in the Huntsville complex (the Walls Unit) was within walking distance of the SHSU campus; you can see the prison from campus, and hear the sirens when shift changes are occurring

View of an abandoned prison building across from the Walls Unit
View of an abandoned prison building across from the Walls Unit

In the sticky East Texas summer heat, I wandered the town in the early evening to see what was within near the hotel. Initially, the guards were friendly enough: I waved hello to them, and they waved back. It wasn’t until the next day that I was to truly experience how the prison controls all who surround it, even if they know nobody inside.

The next morning, I wandered back to the prison. I noticed a bunch of men wearing white jumpsuits working on a drainage ditch. Having toured the (inter)nationally famous Criminal Justice program building, I recognized them as prisoners. Huntsville uses the prisoners as cheap (captive) labor; as Wacquant (2009) noted, the state uses prisoners as a source of cheap labor, a much-needed commodity in the neoliberal era. Indeed, these prisoners provide not only cheap labor for basic city maintenance (I saw my fair share of prison buses transporting workers throughout the city), but it also uses them to build and maintain the historical buildings that draw tourists in. Whether or not this is exploitative is up to the reader: these men are learning skills, but wages and choice are questionable (and some skills, such as rebuilding a log cabin from remains, seem anachronistic in the modern economy). DSC_0599

As I approached the front of the prison, a guard in a watchtower confronted me. It turns out that taking pictures of a prison is suspicious activity (in full disclosure, this makes sense based on my outward appearance: I am fully bearded, and was wearing sunglasses and a fatigued baseball cap). He told me that taking photographs of the prison was only allowed in one area; I couldn’t understand where that area was, but it seemed to be in the general direction of the front of the prison. I continued on my way.

When I arrived at the front of the prison, another guard confronted me. Again, I was warned about taking pictures of the prison. She seemed to indicate that the area allowing photographs wasn’t the front, but somewhere else; that being said, I better understood where I WASN’T allowed to take pictures (the other three sides). The interrogation didn’t end there: she wanted to know why I was taking pictures. I explained to her that I like wandering around and taking pictures, but this didn’t satisfy her curiosity; it wasn’t until I explained that I had never been to Huntsville before that she reiterated where I wasn’t allowed to take pictures and let me on my way, albeit with a suspicious gaze. I knew at that point that around each complex, the prison would dictate where I was allowed to go due to my possession of a camera.

These experiences make Huntsville a city of seemingly contradictory fame. On the one hand, the prison system dominates the local economy and rhythms of life. The prison employs many people, and prisoners supply cheap labor for the maintenance of the tourism industry (additionally, while I wasn’t able to make it, one could visit the Texas State Prison Museum). The presence of the prison is ubiquitous; its specter haunts and looms over almost every aspect of the town. However, the town is also well known for its association with Sam Houston, a key leader in the fight for Texas’ independence. The city thus constitutes an awkward juxtaposition for the tourist: it is a place to celebrate a hero and a group of people fighting for their freedom, while also highlighting their dependence on and enslavement by the incarceration system. Ultimately, this juxtaposition also symbolizes a sociologist’s relationship with society: while one can attempt to gain temporary solace from the sociological imagination, it can be difficult to turn off one’s mind, involuntarily illuminating the social world around us.

 

Sources cited:

Comfort, Megan. 2007. Doing Time Together: Love and family in the shadow of the prison. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2009. Punishing the Poor. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.