THIS TEXT IS NOT LINEAR AND NEITHER IS PROGRESS

April 20, 2010

“Paper” #2

Filed under: Uncategorized — by kristaslc @ 4:00 pm

I wrote this once. The back story on it is that Jessica Valenti,

founder of the famous feminist blog, Feministing, was interviewed by

the New York Times and, commenting on feminist publications like Bust,

said that it used to be feminist-oriented, but was now more about “making

things out of yarn.” She laughed and told about how she tried knitting a

scarf “once…but threw it away after 15 minutes”. As a prolific knitter, I

was grouchy about her dismissive attitude regarding crafting. On my

personal knitting blog that I maintain with friends (yes, I have one of

those) I wrote this response.

Initially, I wrote this because I was annoyed, and then largely forgot

about it. Even my own comment on it reminds a friend of mine that I’m

working on my green sweater—not even really thinking about my

manifesta on D.I.Y. feminism anymore. It came up again though, in our

class discussion, spurred by the examination of Patagonia’s website. Other

students wrestled with the idea that something like Patagonia’s clothes

was “better than nothing” because they were at least somewhat

ecologically conscious; this, then, justified paying significantly more

money. I whispered, “Buy second hand!” which some students agreed with,

but others dismissed as “trendy” and thus, somehow, still consumerist. So,

pulling my knit shawl around my shoulders, I thought about that post

again. Then, I thought about Bowers. Then, I came up with this.

Only because I appreciate him so much, in order to annoy Bowers, I present this conglomeration of everything that’s contributed to my understanding of this topic, in a format he might feel uncomfortable with, to challenge while I affirm. With inspiration from Gloria Andalzua, because she told me to figure out my own definitions of text, language, and communication.

My Green Sweater and Bowers: On Eco-Justice and Fashion!

What strikes me from my initial blog post was how insightful I was about

fashion, which isn’t necessarily meant to pat myself on the back so much as to

comment on the working-class relationship to clothing and image. This has always

been true of my mother; she taught me how to dress on a budget but look like you

spent a lot. In fact, I got into an argument with a middle-class guy who informed me

I was “lying” about my background because of the nice clothing I was wearing. I

like to look nice, but on my terms. I’ve largely rejected normative fashion trends and

wear what I want; but still, I like to wear what I’ve made. This is my attempt to

understand my obsession with knitting and to clarify my place in the chain of

exploitation that is the modern fashion industry, using C.A. Bowers’s text to add

theoretical support to what I’ve already been writing. So, was I right about all that?

Knitting is thousands of years old. I learned it from my roommate in college,

who learned it from books and from her mother’s limited knowledge. My

grandmother tried to teach me to crochet when I was younger; like Jessica Valenti, I

held that hook awkwardly for about fifteen minutes and gave up. It wasn’t until

about seventeen years later that I tried again. Additionally, my seven-year-old sister

recently begged me to teach her how to knit. Ten minutes into it, she murmured,

“Um…Tia…this is kind of boring.” I had to pretend I didn’t hear it for the sake of our

relationship. I think that this attitude, both from me as a child, and Valenti as an

adult, a professional woman, is pervasive. Bowers’s analyses of consumerism and

consumer culture adequately accounts for this denial of the necessity of learning

fiber skills. Discussing childhood and adulthood, he explains:

“The pervasiveness of market-oriented relationships in the earliest years of childhood can be seen in the emphasis on clothes, entertainment, food, and health care” and “The culture of commodification now encompasses every aspect of adults’ lives” (159).

In fact, I think the only interesting part of learning to knit for my sister was

convincing our mother to buy her purple yarn and purple needles. Our relationship

was not based on the “the knowledge, skills, and patterns of social interaction that

contribute to participation in intergerationally connected and morally responsible

communities” (20). Rather, Faith was exhibiting what I had written about

earlier—the fear of “looking poor” in any way which leads to the drive to consume,

already on display in childhood. Bowers’s work was so cogent to me because, being

working-class, I have grown up around the effects of consumer culture—it is my

family’s knowledge and history as workers and crafts(wo)men that have been

destroyed and replaced with machines. Additionally, as a crafter myself, I have been

trying to cultivate a space in which to resist this.

While Bowers’s work makes frequent reference to indigenous cultures and their

intergenerational knowledge and traditions as being lost to consumer culture, at my

initial reading, I wrote in reaction that I felt there were intergenerational

knowledges and traditions of larger groups in the United States, such as the white

working class that were lost as well. I, too, suffered from having an inadequate

argument by not providing examples. Upon re-visiting both this text and my own

former writing, I am prepared to offer textile making as one such example. Others

include wood-working, which, due to a persistent older teacher at my elementary

school, was made an option for students who didn’t join band.

Unfortunately, it is not merely the intrinsic value imposed on

market/consumption relationships that makes the labor inherent in knitting or other

crafting unappealing (“um…kind of boring”). Rather, Bowers points out that specific

forms of labor are being devalued in our society. Like I conceded, it is easier to go

to Wal-Mart and buy a sweater than to labor over one yourself; I certainly know, it

takes me months sometimes to finish them. But I’ve realized—and this was even a

blind spot to me until I read Bowers’s text—sometimes it takes me that long to finish

it because I don’t work on them in class or in situations that require me to seem

“professional,” despite the fact that it wouldn’t take away from my concentration in

any way. I have given in to a middle-class ideal, while still clinging to an old

tradition: as Bowers says “Equating higher education with the forms of knowledge

needed to advance the national and global economy makes it more difficult for

people to earn an income from their natural talents and communally acquired skills”

(13).

In this way, I and others not only avoid taking work into our own hands, in

knitting, sewing, woodworking, whatever, because they are labor-intensive, but also

because intellectual work has been valorized over manual labor. I couldn’t help but

identify with Bowers’s critique of McLaren and Giroux’s approaches to critical

pedagogy, when he says, “there is little in the thinking of McLaren and Giroux that

can be used to challenge the current rush to turn everyone into a middle-class

consumer” (62). In fact, I think critical pedagogy, with its emphasis on critical

consciousness (an inherently intellectual work) can, at times, contribute to this

de-emphasis on the importance of manual labor. It seems to me, particularly, that in

this field the goal of education is to provide students with the “tools” to eventually

reach middle-class status. I have seen little to argue that the choice of a student to

go into a blue-collar manual labor job would be evidence of having developed

critical consciousness, since the emphasis is always on helping students “see what’s

out there.”

I would also like to make cross-textual connections to this fear of moving back

to traditional knowledge and practices to Thandeka’s notion of white shame and the

fear of moving down a class, as I wrote about in my other paper. In limiting this

analysis to Bowers, though, I am still left with a two-fold problem here: Bowers

attacks the “Globalization of Western technology that requires greater dependence

on consumerism” which has been “at the same time reducing the opportunity for

meaningful work” (123). This idea of “meaningful work,” I think, is inherently class

based. However, there is, in the case of knitting et al., a gender problem as well,

which is part of Bowers’s overall blind spot in his analysis. I not only believe that a

return to manual labor could signify some aspect of white shame, but also, knitting

is seen as domestic—antithetic to the feminist movement and the gains of women.

Having been a traditionally female-dominated domain, American/Western women

have come to avoid it as evidence of their liberation.

Unfortunately, the problem becomes, as Bowers notes, that this is passed on to 

other women who are exploited:

“The maquiladoras who experience the health consequences of the chemical contamination that stretches along the U.S.-Mexico border are not the only casualties of the southward flight of U.S. businesses. The workers on the U.S. side who have lost their jobs have also been victimized by a system that values profits above the health of the environment and its inhabitants” (154).

The clothing industry is thus indicative of the larger co-opting of feminism and

continued racist and classist exploitation of foreigners for the sake of the

development of consumerist culture in the United States (and the world). Patagonia,

inspiring our class discussion, tries to avoid the ecological impact of this industry in

some ways, through recycling, but does not prove they answer this human charge

brought by Bowers. This prompted class members to think of it as “better than

nothing;” to me, this is a return to Bowers’s initial point—consumer culture is so

embedded in every aspect of adult culture that avoiding consumption was not really

presented as an option. Instead, Patagonia was merely juxtaposed to Wal-Mart to

determine the lesser of two evils.

I have to end this piece, though, with a discussion of the fashion industry in

general. When I wrote that first blog post, I didn’t realize how heavily I would delve

into an indictment of fashion as an industry—I was just mad about knitting being

mocked. However, I have come to realize how perfectly this fits into Bowers’s

definition of an eco-justice pedagogy—and how god-awful that industry is for the

environment and human relations. Anyone needing proof of this should ask a poor

kid what the other kids think of her clothes. Fashion is all about excess; show off

what you can buy and use your very person, your existence, as a way of showing it.

It astounds me, then, that I’ve never considered this as integral to a critical

pedagogy. As Bowers notes, the question of, “how do we teach learning to live

within limits?” is central to eco-justice pedagogy, and clothing is one of the greatest

offenders of blind consumption (87).

As such, I return to my initial call for a movement to give up on the fashion

industry. As classmates pointed out, the idea of buying second hand is “trendy” in

some circles. Unfortunately, I think this is more indicative of their limited social

circles—as I said previously, the kids getting made fun of for their clothes are

probably wearing second hand (I was) and it’s not “trendy” except in the very tiny

sub-population of hipsters in cities. In any case, while this may still retain

“consumerist” elements, I look to Bowers for a justification of these practices

—knitting, crocheting, sewing, buying second hand—in his rejection of cultural

relativism in favor of a reference point, saying, “This grounding…lies in the

assessment of the impact that indigenous cultures have on the ecosystems on which

they and future generations depend” though, again, I would replace “indigenous

cultures” with “traditional practices of all kinds” (23).

Finally, as I noted in my blog, it may be awhile before these activities catch on

in the working class. However, I think dismissing them as “frivolous” or (ironically)

as “middle-class” activities misses the point. Rather, a return to these traditional

practices could be part of a larger movement in the middle and upper classes back

to valuing traditional knowledge. I think this is central to Bowers’s work—he doesn’t

advocate that those who are directly victims of injustice or dangerous eco-abuse are

the ones responsible for changing it. Instead, he views those in power as being

responsible for changing their behaviors, and schooling is one way to make this

possible.

When Bowers says “cultures that represent humans and nonhuman life forms

as parts of a single, interdependent process of creation are governed by moral

frameworks that severely limit market relationships,” he is demonstrating the ways

in which those who formerly practiced this traditional knowledge, or have

abandoned in to assimilate with those in power, are not the ones responsible for

changing the system—rather, they were viewed as a threat in the first place (35).

Without fashion being a way of representing one’s status—one’s worth—traditional

knowledge such as knitting, which, especially when using natural fibers, provides

significantly less ecological damage and removes the middle (wo)man of

exploitative labor, will never be accepted as valuable. Without those engaging in

intellectual work also embracing the work of those they seek to “enlighten” there

will be no equality of class roles. Clothing will always need to exist, but as long as

the labor involved is viewed as sexist or low class, it will always be oppressive.

Buying second hand is the best way to avoid the ecological problems involved in

clothing production—but, as Bowers wonders, will we ever be able to avoid the

consumerism inherent in us that prevents us from even viewing these as a viable

options in the first place? This requires us to “go back,” literally, to pre-consumption

times, to “go down” in class, in appearance and in behavior and labor. It is not a

linear change, but neither is progress.

In conclusion, I would like to make a quick note of the format of this paper. I

felt I couldn’t write about knitting without writing online and including all of my

positive experiences with technology. As my grandmother has gone blind and other

knitting relatives have died, I have had to learn this knowledge mostly from the

Internet. As such, this is my attempt to slightly challenge Bowers’s assertion of the

destruction of traditional knowledge via technology. While I mostly affirm this, I

want to acknowledge those who have found ways to revitalize these practices

through technology. I agree with Bowers that “computers can process and model

thought only in a decontextualized language system—which is profoundly different

from face-to-face communication” but absent these people and communities, this is

the best I’ve found, and I am grateful for my access (139). And today I will come

into class probably wearing a hand-knit green sweater and carrying a laptop.

I never said I wasn’t full of contradictions, but I’m trying.

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