Detroit and Commodification

In my Socio 100 class on wednesday we watched an episode of “Parts Unknown” by Anthony Bourdain. (side note: Do all CAP professors like Bourdai?) The episode focused on Detroit and the deindustrialization that occurred in the city leading to its decay. The episode journaled Bourdain’s travel around dilapidated Detroit as well as interviewing the citizens striving to survive in the city. He found not a city of helpless people, but a city of proud Detoriters who were adapting to new niche markets and did what they had to do to survive.

First let us address the elephant in the room. If you recall I was not that impressed by a previous episode Bourdain did in its catering to a western audience. Bourdain still carries his arrogance of being a world class chef. There is a  scene when he goes into a new upscale eatery in the “hipster” area of town and questions the chef’s sanity of moving back to Detroit as there was nothing here for him. The chef could be working in Las Vegas and instead he chooses to come back home to support him hometown. Bourdain seems unable to wrap his mind around this concept. However, perhaps Bourdain has taken a class in cultural appropriation because he seems much more respectful in this episode. This is probably attributed to the fact that Detroit is not a far away place like Nicaragua was and cannot be so easily “othered.” After all as Bourdain mentioned Detroit was once the manufacturing hub of the USA, pumping out weapons during WW2 and luxury cars after it, so it makes sense if he is familiar with it.

Much of Detroit is abandoned. The population fell from 1,850,000 in 1950 to 701,000 in 2013. There are many reasons why this happened, but a main factor is the rise of the suburbs and the hollowing of the urban core as white families fled in a phenomena dubbed “white flight.” This created a sparse spread out population with a lot of abandoned factories in-between. This led to the rise of  the “‘ruin porn‘ scene, in which tourists and others gawk at and take photos of the city’s abandoned and blighted buildings.” As this article by David Muller points out people from all around the world come to Detroit to take photos and explore this urban decay.

Let’s look at how this relates to commodification. Bourdain mentions the fact that film studios, professional photographers, wedding companies, and other media agencies  come to these abandoned locations to take “urban” and “gritty” photographs. However, they do not have to pay for doing this as it is abandoned. What these people fail to realize is that they are benefitting from other people’s suffering. Detroit does not want to be a poor city. They do not want to have to deal with bankruptcy. Detroit is not an empty city, it has culture, so by only showing the decay these people are furthering stereotypes. By taking pictures of “ruin porn” you are commodifying a living breathing city into a exhibit to serve your own purposes. There is something morally uncomfortable going in and profiting from people’s hardship just so you could get a “cool shot.” It shows a complete lack in respect.

Click here for a very interesting blog highlighting some of these issues.


What Audience?

In POLI 100 we watched two clips last week on garbage pickers in Nicaragua showing very different ideas.

In the first clip produced for Anthony Bourdain‘s show “No Reservations” where he tours the world dining and experiencing world cuisine and culture. In this particular episode we are showed his experience looking at the waste pickers, or “Churequeros” at La Chuerca dump. For the 300 families who live here, we are told that they live a life of extreme poverty, lack of basic education and sanitation. The waste pickers sort throughout the enormous amount of garbage every day. People hope to produce 1$ a day from the garbage picked by selling the recyclables. This is similar to here in BC where you get 5¢ per bottle that you return. Bourdain is horrified at the life that these people have to live. Feeling what we call “white guilt” he describes the paradox of people having to eat food from the dump and where he cooks decedent food for TV. That link refers to a direct response from white people to people of colour. However, we can extrapolate the definition of white guilt to include a western guilt.  He particularly he is upset by the fact that there are so many kids working at the dump. One of which is his daughter’s age.

While moving and provocative. There is something distinctively off-putting about the clip. Bourdain stands separate from the crowd talking to the camera as if nobody around him can hear him. He also is wearing sun glasses that block off his his eyes. It makes it all seem very zoo-like, as if he were standing outside a cage, but in fact he is standing in the middle of a crowd, and filming people most likely without their consent. It is a very western idea of individualization that a person can do whatever they want.

Bourdain’s reactions of “well I’m totally depressed” is understandable. Many of us would have the same reactions faced with people having to sort through garbage to meek out a basic existence. However, the way the clip is filmed and the way he narrates it clearly panders to a western sentiment of pity and guilt. That we are responsible for these people’s living conditions (of you look at it with a colonialist lens) and that we have to somehow fix and help these people. This is a very neo-colonial idea.

Now let’s look at another clip. This clip of the “First Congress of Latin American WastePickers” shows a completely contrasting view of the “Churequeros” that was shown in Bourdain’s video. Rather than hopeless people doing what they have to do survive. These people are an empowered multi-generational community that is proud of being who they are. They fight for the right to pick the garbage, because they play a key part in the economy-as recyclers.

Let’s discuss this in terms of “God Grew Tired of Us.” The film was portrayed in a similar matter as the Bordain clip. It showed how the “boys” were saved by America and how great the country was for doing that. It showed them as aliens in their surroundings by portraying them as clueless of an consumer society that they were not familiar with. Both films were made for western audience. They were both narrated and produced by American companies and portrayed western ideals such as freedom and the “american dream.” However, in the second clip it was meant for a variety of audiences. They film, while in Spanish, had English subtitles hinting on a trans-cultural dialogue, because they want to tell their side of the story. Instead of observing and making deductions as Bordain was doing, the creator of the second clip went and interviewed people.

What these two clips show is that it is important to be critical of the information we are given. Be critical of the intended audience and the different biases that are shown. Because while it is true that the Churequeros may not be working in safe conditions, it does not imply that they are doing it out of desperation.