- Unhomely Wests: Meditations in Critical Archaeology
The alphabetical order erases everything, banishes every origin. . . . At certain moments the alphabet calls you to order (to disorder) and says: Cut! Resume the story in another way. . . .—Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes, 148
“Voy a ser uno de los ‘homeless,’” thinks Guatemalan refugee Antonio Bernal as he is evicted from his Los Angeles apartment at the outset of Héctor Tobar’s novel The Tattooed Soldier (1998). Since he cannot discover a Spanish equivalent to capture “the shame and sooty desperation of the condition,” this “compound, borrowed word would have to do: ‘home-less’” (5). Signifying polluted matter produced [End Page 31] by the incomplete combustion of coal, soot characterizes his abjection. In contrast to the jaguar tattoo marking the forearm of the soldier who killed his family, soot also connotes camouflage, thus underscoring a leitmotif in contemporary US West homeless literature: that of its invisibility or illegibility. Because he carries “the unbearable burden” of feeling responsible for the 1985 murders of his wife and son by a Guatemalan army death squad, and as exemplified when he gazes at reflecting surfaces and doesn’t recognize himself, Antonio’s cognitive dissonance erases the border between his domestic home and the lifeworld of a globalizing world system, between private and public spheres, and between his past and present hemispheric traumas.
The discourse of homelessness in the early 1980s describes “the new homeless” to underline the differences in age, race, gender, and ethnicity between this emergent population and the mostly white male homeless population spatially segregated into urban Skid Row areas during the years of the Great Depression and World War II (Depastino 226–27). Throughout Tobar’s novel “home-less” connotes poverty and unemployment. It also designates a status (of disaffiliation from kin, family, and citizenship); an existential condition (“desperation”); and an affective mode of being (“shame”). Both Antonio’s political exile and suddenly homeless state also expose a world that “has less to do with forcible eviction and more to do with the uncanny literary and social effects of enforced social accommodation, or historical migrations and cultural relocations” (Bhabha 141; also see Goodman). In its dialectical interplay with “home” and homesteading, (1) “homelessness” as theme or trope both relays an existential homelessness and indexes the uneven economic development, territorial divisions of labor, and deracination attendant upon gender, racial, and class inequalities in the postregional, global US West. (2) [End Page 32]
“The shape of the contemporary city,” claims Sze Tsung Leong, “is no longer cohered by physical, visible characteristics, such as form, iconography, or density, but arrived at by default, as the residue of ulterior motives,” chief among which is control (767). “Control space” constitutes a cartography of information grounded by technologies of surveillance: smart cards, radio frequency identity chips (RFID), demographic profiling and data mining, security apparatuses. Control spaces also produce interstitial “residual spaces,” obsolescent spaces of abandonment and ruin within and around which the debris of consumer capitalism accumulates. Analogous to what Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has called “junkspace,” the object world of residual spaces relays the dominant ideology’s valuation of instantaneity and of disposability (Harvey, Condition 286). Such values in the realm of commodity production lead to a monumental waste problem; such waste testifies to the transit and transience both of social relations and our affective attachments to commodities. (3) Contemporary literary representations of the material and human rubbish devolving from control spaces function much like Barthes’s photographic “punctum,” exposing a glimpse of a capitalist social totality founded on exclusion and the ephemeral (MacCannell, “Democracy’s Turn” 288–89).
Consider this assemblage in Luis Alberto Urrea’s autoethnographical account of life and death in the Tijuana landfill, By the Lake of Sleeping Children: ketchup bottles, Keds, and Kotex; wooden crosses, plastic flowers, cribs and coffins, cardboard boxes and toys; tractor tires used as temporary outhouses. All remnants of a trash mountain sealing the landfill’s narrow canyon, creating an artificial lake covering a makeshift children’s cemetery built on a hillside. In a grotesque antipastoral vision ironizing the resurrection of the dead and sacramental communion, Urrea describes how “the children themselves were...