Thoughts on a question

At the Visual Cultures Public Forum a couple weeks ago a question was asked. It has bugged me since. The question was from a senior academic, someone from across the Atlantic. The question pointed out that there might be a certain politics surrounding the panel (we were all white men from the Midlands area of the UK) and an issue of 'translation' in the (supposed) narrow focus of Cartwright's novels - issues of working class masculinity in the post-industrial Black Country.

There are two sides to this question. Firstly, the panel was not diverse. I knew that before I turned up. As the year's opening public forum perhaps this issue required more attention. However, I imagine I was selected as a panelist partly because of my familiarity with the area and supposed familiarity with Fisher's concepts of the eerie - not because of sharing a gender with the protagonists of Cartwright's books. The fact that the books tended for have male protagonists, and we were all male, did inevitably, for a small period, result in men talking about men's problems in economically depressed post industrial towns. However, would this issue (of lacking diversity on the panel) be raised with something like a feminist collective whereby all the members are women. I doubt it, and it shouldn't be. I'd also like to add that no one on the panel universalized the issues of masculinity - they were all couched under a headline of a certain type of person's problems (in this case fading sportsmen). Specificity is fine and acute foci are fine as long as they are not generalized. No one claimed that the character's of Cartwright's books embodied everyone in the region but it was claimed that they embodied the changing fates of working class men in the region. There is a world of difference.

The second side of the question is one of class and privilege. I am not going to make assumptions about individual histories. But the question came from someone who, if I described their country of origin, profession and basic political bias to relatives and friends in the Black Country they would be regarded as part of the liberal London elite. Of course, there is nothing one can do about privilege (or lack of) and, as the demographics of university attendance have shifted, the point might seem a moot one - surely everyone in the room has a degree of privilege (and there is a question of lack of working class representation in universities)? But it was the call for 'translation' that bothered me. Why should the problems of young working class men in a deindustrialised provincial region be framed and articulated in a language that people working/studying in London's universities can connect with? It is like the Lord insisting that the farm hand tell him his problems without dropping his H's. Let's flip the situation around and imagine I was to hold a senior position in a New York university (the transatlantic equivalent on London). Suppose I heard an author with a Detroit accent read from his books that featured mostly male and local narratives surrounding the collapse of the automobile industry. Suppose I, a British academic living and working in New York, then suggested that my unfamiliarity with the region and its cultures was problematic but still suggested a re-articulation of the local problems (be they male or otherwise) faced by disenfranchised work class people in a language that was accessible to a) under an altruistic guise those from other parts of the world than Detroit OR b) myself. I am not sure such a question is valid. I wouldn't ask it.  People have specific problems - articulation and exploration of these problems must not be requested to adhere to a different tone or lexicon. It is a liberal ruse, suggesting a less acute, local or specific elabouration of issues under the guise of diversity, inclusion and equality. It is precisely this smokescreen that obfuscates inequality - for if one had the option of referring to a different communicative pallet than the specific and exclusive (for some) then how deeply embedded in the local and specific problems of class, identity and social atomization and political isolation is one? The question of translation here is like a jet-set curator feeling they are somehow doing everyone a favour in requesting a homeless person's problems be articulated via the jargon of Relational Aesthetics.

Cartwright's books are about what he knows, and they are powerful because of this. This might not include matriarchal societies or collective living practices, but I suppose at least he cannot be blamed for cultural appropriation.      

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