Sunday, November 28, 2004

Seeing Constraints

I have always been fascinated by issues of scale. How do the personal and the social intersect? How do phenomena at the population and institutional level play out on the terrain of the body? What does it mean that individual participation in activism often feels so hopelessly miniscule compared to the enormity of the problems that we face as to be irrelevant, yet social movements as a whole can and do make positive changes?

One way of coming at those kinds of questions is how social forces constrain and shape daily lives. Anybody who has pretensions of being an ally can probably name some ways and that kind of intellectual recognition is an important step. But a more visceral appreciation for constraint -- for having the nexus of individual reality and social forces limit the space you can occupy and how you can use it -- is something else entirely. Of course you can never truly understand an oppression you don't experience, and even oppressions you do experience may not play out exactly the same for another. But the more general issue of life being constrained -- that is something we all feel at some point even if we have access to privilege of various kinds, and however incomplete a means it is of understanding experiences beyond our own it can still be politically edifying to take the time to understand those exeperiences we do have in a political light.

I'm saying this now, of course, because I'm feeling kind of constrained, and I am feeling like I have lots of personal fuel to construct examples.

I think I'll just use one: the built form of the city of Los Angeles. This is a city built around the automobile. I'm not even talking about the suburbs of Los Angeles, but the city proper: It is built in a way that assumes you will be travelling by car. Things are far apart. Pockets of street-level activity, enterprise, and culture are few and scattered. Public transportation networks are inadequate and because of the way that resources are distributed across the city, they have to cover a much larger scale than in most cities to get people to destinations that matter to them.

In the context of not owning a car (by choice in general, but reinforced by inability to afford one at the moment), providing primary care to a 15 month-old toddler during the week, and trying to write a book, this has certain consequences. Within the time that he is awake during the day, there are limited destinations that I can get to if I want to make sure I have his nap time for working at home. In combination with the time constraints mentioned above, it has certain impacts on my ability to get involved in social movement activity. It has a significant impact on the shape of the social networks that we are gradually developing in this city. It even shapes my conceptual picture of what Los Angeles is like by constraining how widely I can range within the city, and the source of inputs that I have from which to construct this picture.

In the short run, seeing constraints in this way may seem kind of pointless; they remain constraints, after all, no matter how you contextualize them. But there is something empowering as well, and something that pushes in the direction of solidarity. I have no illusions about the built form of the greater Los Angeles area being radically transformed during our tenure here, of course, but the mere fact that I can feel in my gut and see with crystal clarity in my imagination how social change could change my individual reality so pracitcally and drastically for the better is a more general reminder, in a time in which I am feeling relatively disconnected in a number of respects, of the ongoing and overall importance of staying engaged with the social.

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