26.8.14

THE VAPIDITY OF CULTURAL STUDIES.

Book Review No. 8 is Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America.  Author Dianne Harris demonstrates that one need not test any hypotheses, let alone carefully frame any hypotheses, if the book's message reinforces the gatekeepers at the University of Minnesota Press in their prejudices.

I've done some reading on housing and suburbanization.  Cheap oil probably had something to do with it.  Standardized building, abetted or not by zoning codes, ditto.  Birds of a feather, perhaps.  That's what Ms Harris might be getting at, although she never learned how to formulate hypotheses.  Here's an excerpt -- not the most egregious -- from page 109.
When they looked to the popular magazines while they were shopping for the small houses they might one day afford, postwar Americans saw plans that fulfilled dreams.  But as they read the housing features, with their enticing drawings, they equally looked to the house to confirm identities, images of the self, and, perhaps more subtly, racial and class assignment (albeit undoubtedly troubling for some) of the dominance of heterosexual nuclear families.  The man pausing by his car in one image, or working in the garden as a leisure or a hobby activity in another, or an efficient and contented mother serving beverages from a tray, or the family swimming in the backyard pool -- all were part of this system of representing a classed, raced, and heteronormative world.
Silly me, to think that those images were simply the reality that came after the morale-building propaganda during the world war.  And that the efforts during the war produced The America That Worked(TM).  And that the point of Civil Rights was to give all Americans a shot at good houses (the fair housing ordinances) and good education (desegregation -- getting James Meredith into Ole Miss was about the institution's academic standing, before it became just another football factory).

But coherence is a Sin in the Culture Studies world.  (Apparently some architects are pushing back, as I noted last week.)  Thus can Ms Harris at one passage write of gardening as leisure or hobby, whilst devoting an entire chapter to landscaping, structured by such gems as "[L]andscapes and gardens are powerful conveyors of ideological content if we consider ideology according to conventional ways of understanding its operations."  (Page 265.  Whatever.)  Thus, keeping one's lawn tidy is either a way of distinguishing one's property from the disorderly dwellings of the Lower Orders, or a Major Time Suck.  But testing such an hypothesis is beyond Ms Harris's capabilities.

Likewise, she offers readers two kinds of Little White Houses.  A number of them are aspirational and Californian: open center courts, car-ports, swimming pools, vanity walls to hide the clothes-tree (installed washing and drying machines come later, deconstruct that).  Others are tract-house starter: Levittown, two-bedroom grown up cottages, Cape Cods.  All, though, presented in drawings that make them look roomy (compared to the places Jacob Riis documented, they were) and in uncluttered settings.

And here there may be more hypotheses left untested.  Crude form: would you, dear reader, rather live in Beach Boys California (that of the aspirational ads) or in the stratified, gated, potential flash point of today?  And those small starter houses: now that the aspirations are gone, do they look better in their current incarnation, with those postage-stamp yards filled with small wading pools, the basic day-fishing boat, perhaps a truck on blocks, and a Confederate Battle Flag to set the proper transgressive mood?

Be careful what you deconstruct, what comes after may not be better.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

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