“Gentrification” As Fig Leaf

In a discussion as mystified as the one around gentrification, it can behoove us to break things down into oversimple terms.

I like Matt Bruenig’s take, where he reduces gentrification to three essential facets: inequality, market competition, and property commodification. When framed this way, he points out, solutions to the problem of gentrification quickly become clear – stymie any one of these facets, and gentrification slows or stops.

Moments of analytical clarity like this are useful in a superficial conversation dominated by self-help (at first, “20 Ways Not To Be a Gentrifier”, and then, confronted with reality, “Five Ways To Be a Good Gentrifier”) and consternation (finally, “There’s Basically No Way Not to Be a Gentrifier”) . They remind us of both the breadth of potential solutions, as well as the political conditions that limit us from them. But why are these moments so hard to come by? Why are discussions of gentrification so narrative and confessional? Why is so much ink spilled on the subject while at the same time, so much of it avoids the word “capitalism?”

Gavin Mueller notes that “[Liberal discourse] buries the structural forces at work and choreographs a dance about individual choice to perform on the grave… Gentrification becomes a culture war, a battle over consumer choices.” Discussion about gentrification, along with the term “gentrification” itself, becomes sacked of its structural content. To take things a step further – what is the mechanism by which this happens?

Someone hit the nail on the head at the local Jacobin reading group, where we discussed Mueller’s article – “gentrification” merely points towards the lived experiences of the urban middle class. Your archetypal gentrifier – middle-class, professional or “creative,” probably white, with family depending on age cohort – does not get to decide in a meaningful sense what neighborhood they live in. This is decided, rather, in the board rooms and council chambers of corporations and municipal governments. The little influence gentrifiers do have is dampened by their status as newcomers, as well as their secure place in the socioeconomic hierarchy. But most of all, it’s dampened by the fact that real policies combating gentrification entail constraining the growth potential of real estate capital, something for which there is little desire to take up among the gentrifying classes.

Facing alienation from municipal politics and unwilling to engage in anticapitalist politics, gentrifiers retreat into the private sphere. Gentrification is then experienced as a series of consumer choices, first and foremost the choice of where to make one’s home. It’s experienced as an inexorable process that, like so many other things in contemporary American life, the individual has no control over. Even the choice of the purchase is substantially constrained – do you want to go to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts? Columbia Heights or Shaw?

But we experience relatively little angst over our coffee purchases. There are few topics, on the other hand, that inspire more liberal hand-wringing than that of gentrification. Unlike the coffee industry, where guilt can be assuaged with fair-trade marketing, the violence of gentrification is geographically and economically immediate. Even when the white middle class tries to be “good,” it can’t help but carry out the next step in a centuries-long program of racialized poverty and oppression. It can’t rest easy with the knowledge that overt programs of segregation in the Jim Crow South are waiting to be toppled. Racism is built into the very economic arrangements that structure our lives – economic arrangements that it has no effective control over.

Faced with an injustice that they cannot look away from but refuse to address, the middle and upper classes respond with “gentrification” – a fig leaf suspended over the cycle of appropriation and the class, race, and political dynamics that drive it. And just like all fig leaves, we intuitively know what lies beneath it. In lieu of confronting that which we believe to be out of our hands, we talk about “gentrification” as a process suited to urban “hacks” and technocratic “solutions.”

More importantly, the fig leaf of gentrification produces fig leaf policies – namely, inclusionary zoning. Samuel Stein’s summary of its outcomes echoes perfectly gentrification-as-fig-leaf: “Inclusionary zoning might displace more poor people than it houses, but when the system’s casualties aren’t counted, they aren’t seen.” It’s a policy that doesn’t stop gentrification, but only grafts a few low-income families onto otherwise renovated communities. But what matters more than the displaced poor, for all the beneficiaries of gentrification, is that there is a fig leaf to cover up a problem that otherwise demands concrete, anticapitalist action.

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A Defense of Kitsch Criticism

Some kitsch criticism certainly deserves criticism itself. When a major leftist publication devotes a whole issue to the analysis of Lana del Rey, it’s hard not to start tut-tutting, as Ross Wolfe does, citing art critic Harold Rosenberg. Reading the collection of think pieces, that indispensable tool of pop-culture criticism, one can’t help but wonder what’s being accomplished. It’s hard to shake the feeling that such analysis isn’t the same sleight-of-hand that it tries to pin on the starlet herself.

Contemporary discourse is saturated with pop culture analysis. The explosion of new digital media has taken kitsch criticism as its bread and butter, so much so that it’s hard not to find oneself not reflexively passing over the latest Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones analysis. Most left-intellectuals at least dabble in it, the exemplar of whom is Slavoj Žižek, who regularly deploys it in his lectures and even makes whole movies devoted to it.

This isn’t without reason. For those wanting to mount criticisms of capitalism, kitsch is an obvious port of entry – kitsch is ubiquitous, doesn’t need special training to consume or discuss, and is a uniquely capitalist phenomenon. But the amount of ink devoted to it results in, as Wolfe puts it, “that odd situation where a piece of writing or commentary comes to resemble the [pop-culture] object it supposedly critiques: dull, ephemeral, and ultimately forgettable.”

That kitsch criticism strays into becoming kitsch itself isn’t being contested here. What I am offering, though, is a corrective for Wolfe’s post – a reminder that, though we might risk straying into counterproductive irrelevance, we can’t cede kitsch as an ideological battleground. Kitsch is there, and like Rosenberg’s malarial mosquito, we have to grapple with it until we have the means to reshape the landscape and do away with it entirely (between 1946 and 1950, a massive project was undertaken – successfully – to rid Sardinia of malaria and the mosquitos that carried it; it involved a substantial draining of swampland on the island).

Among the more relevant examples of this are two of the articles that Wolfe cites, “Death to the Gamer” and “In Defense of Gamers”, both of which address Gamergate. Gamergate is a recent scandal in the video game community, ostensibly about journalistic ethics, but in reality an excuse to carry out a campaign of terroristic misogyny against certain women and their supporters. The scandal has also resulted in a large volume of writing, both about it and about gender and video games more broadly.

I’ve read and written a great deal about Gamergate. And, sure, I too have to make an editorial disclosure that I play video games. But what struck me most about the discussion surrounding Gamergate were the narratives being offered up by different parties of different analytical stripes. For feminists, Gamergate was fundamentally about misogyny, specifically the misogyny native to and cultivated by video game culture. This is true, but after the initial shockwaves passed, anticapitalist voices came forward offering an additional interpretation – Gamergate was also a political-economic phenomenon, one inextricably linked to video games as a capitalistic enterprise, and one that was indicative of broader trends in the cultural commodification of late capitalism.

This discussion about what Gamergate is, exactly, is one that has both theoretical and pragmatic implications. If we accept the mainstream analyses, we risk succumbing to the same problems that afflict neoliberal feminism – a bias for identitarian concerns and a blindness to how those intersect with class dimensions. This blindness limits us to merely demanding more from a capital that retains all the same proclivities that produced Gamergate in the first place. If we acknowledge that there is a class component, on the other hand, it opens up the possibility of not just demanding more, but of reshaping the industry root and branch into something that precludes terroristic misogyny from the outset.

It was just so with the malarial mosquito. Aggressive applications of DDT were not what eradicated it. It was, as Rosenberg himself pointed out, the reshaping of the Sardinian landscape itself, which required an understanding of the insect and how it reproduced.

All this to say: video games may be kitsch through and through, but moments like Gamergate reveal them also as a point of contradiction, which brings us to that core technique of anticapitalist, and particularly Marxist, critique. Crises like Gamergate are analogous to capitalist crises of accumulation – they are cracks in the armor of capitalist social reproduction. To engage kitsch on this point isn’t to suss out “the wisdom secreted in bad movies” or to “test the pollution in the water.” It’s to grapple with the terms of capitalism itself, and understand how they bear on our humanist and socialist praxis within it. And that is criticism worth undertaking.

Gateways

It’s hard to imagine how the gateways to thinking and writing publicly felt once upon a time. I know the gist of them – broadsheet, a comparatively rare university education, the funds for self-publishing.

One by one, late modernity has knocked down or replaced these early modern forms. Self-publishing became impracticable as an intelligentsia was divested of its aristocratic funding and publishers became gatekeepers. Education was democratized and disciplined – in a literal sense, with intellectual projects being parcelled-out to various career destinations with ever-increasing specificity. Finally, print itself came under sudden and vicious attack by a chaotic stew of web publishing technologies.

However these old forms felt for those who wanted to have a public voice, todays forms surely feel different. Now we are “creatives” producing “content,” stuck in perpetual internships, blogging and tweeting and posting without an end in sight. And always for a pervasive, anonymous Other we can only call the Internet.

The problem isn’t, and never has been, I suspect, that too many clamoring for too few spots on the panel. There has always been less bandwidth than those who’d like to take part. Nor is the problem that the hyperdemocratic accessibility of web publishing produces too much chaff to wheat – again, it’s easy to forget that eras past had plenty of chaff, too.

The problem unique to digital capitalism is, rather, that there are fewer gatekeepers and more gates.

It’s a familiar enough problem for members of the audience. Most any web-literate person today will remember the controversies over Wikipedia citations. They’ll also probably know the pains of managing one’s Facebook feed, of checking the veracity of anonymous users’ claims, of being confronted with yet another social network vying for their attention (most recently, Ello).

But it’s also a problem for those who want to voice themselves in public way. What outlet or outlets does one choose? Where is your intended audience, and how do you get them to come to you? What’s the best way to establish web presence and increase your cachet? What’s the best way to comport yourself? What voice do you use?

It’s with these questions in mind that I start this blog. Here, I’ll mainly be writing about technology, late capitalism, and not a little about Marx and his Marxists. I’ll be writing about both old kings in the Old World, and new petty-kings in their private consumerist gardens. I’ll touch on gender and race and class and ideology – really anything to emulate, to some small extent, the all-encompassing breadth of vision that Marx and others have brought to bear on understanding capitalist modernity. And to meet the challenges and pass through the gateways that it confronts us with.