Sunday, February 1, 2009


Cory Matheny

First Signifier

Prof. Ellis

Feb 1, 2009

Signifier Analysis

Here, in Baltimore, the urban landscape generates its own environments and experiences separate from the larger, and perhaps more obvious geographical features of the mid-Atlantic. For all the ecological and political fuss – deserved fuss – that surrounds the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore is equally, if not more so, nationally known for its ‘concrete’ issues. The violence and decay of Baltimore city is not special – 40 years ago Jane Jacobs in “The Life and Death of Great American Cities” noted the progression of our nation-wide urban decline – though it (Baltimore’s) is perhaps better publicized than most. For fifty years Baltimore has climbed each indicators list and now resides near, though not at, the top (thank you Detroit) of every enviable list: murder rate, crime rate, poverty, education, drug and domestic abuse.

Some of Baltimore’s more notorious neighborhoods – Pen Lucy, Glenmont, Brooklyn, Cherry Hill, amongst others – are, for varying reasons, some of the worst neighborhoods in the United States. It is certainly easy to write-off Cherry Hill, for example, as the obvious consequence of entrenched socio-economic issues that cannot be resolved – not now. However, Cherry Hill is the product of a more purposeful and systemic problem: irrelevance. Manuel Aalbers, a leading sociologist on the causes and effects of social decline argues:

The socio-spatial approach…sees the conflict between ‘abstract space’ (how government and real estate actors think about space for political or economic gain) and ‘social space’ (how people think about the place where they live) as a central issue in urban research…We can apply these ideas to neighborhood decline. Neighborhoods may be ‘written off’ by banks or landlords (abstract space), but can be considered desirable living environments for others (social space). (p. 1064)

Thus: “real estate actors [bankers and politicians] do not simply limit their risk in low-income neighborhoods, but actively or passively structure the process of neighborhood decline.” (p. 1081) It is reasonable then to argue that such slum areas, such blights on the urban landscape as Cherry Hill, are, at least partially, made – they do not simply ‘happen.’

Gloria Anzaldua’s “Borderlands/ La Frontera” tells her story from childhood to womanhood and along the way details her problems of place and person – the same problems found amongst the youth who are raised on Baltimore’s streets. Anzaldua, like all Chicanos – her parallel – exist as a ‘ghost,’ as a ‘non-person,’ because she is never permitted to commune with her environment. The land of the southwestern United States – formally Native American, formally Mexican, formally independent – has been callously claimed and disregarded by the nation: “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abieta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.

The land has been disregarded as irrelevant, at best, a danger most other times. The borderlands – all borderlands, urban and rural – have been partitioned by the American public and left to atrophy. This, of course, is fantastically problematic for those who were born, raised, and continue to live on these lands: “only through the body, through the pulling of flesh, can the human soul be transformed. And for images, words, stories to have this transformative power, they must arise from the human body – flesh and bone – and form the Earth body – stone, sky, liquid, soil.” (p. 97) Anzaldua testifies that her existence has been made problematic because the connection between her and her land was severed. She, as a result, is unable to realize her self, she is unable to transcend her ‘condition.’

Anzaldua, it may be argued, is the victim of a ‘cultural redlining’ that creates/ permits the social and personal problems now inherent to her heritage: “There are many defense strategies that the self uses to escape the agony of inadequacy and I have used all of them. I have split from and disowned those parts of myself that others rejected.” (p. 67) She, more than any other problem, rails against the loss of language, the violence of language, enacted upon her and all Chicanos while attending school. The process planted the seed of doubt in her perspective of her heritage: “if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity – I am my language” (p. 81) Of course the problem, which extends well beyond language, though language perhaps is the gateway to all such alienation, is that the individual is left without a cultural home to inhabit – without a historical self – without a self.

All such people are left with an inherent paradox: they wish to know, though are irrevocably scarred to acknowledge, their heritage and self. To do so, would be to accept the fundamental inadequacies and pain associated with it. (“ethnic identity and place identity are often the result of interaction between the self and external definition” (p. 1067)) Inadequacies and pain that are not the result of any internal insufficiency, but of perception thrust upon them by an uncaring and thus callous external force.

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