Vagrancy, Vice, and Victimhood: The Evolution of Homeless Persecution.


In recent decades, the call to "clean up the streets" (1) has rarely escaped the political docket. Politicians from both sides of the aisle and academics alike have argued for projects of "urban renewal" that seek to restore a sense of "order and civility" to the modern city. Indeed, waves of development, commercialization, and privatization have resulted in the "noble goals" of "reinventing" the city space, although its manifestations differed across the United States. Conspicuously absent from these discussions is explicit mention of what--or who--is to be cleaned up and why. Projects instead utilize the abstract rhetoric of "restoration" and "renewal," which serves to sidestep larger questions about the nature of the city and life within it. That is, what is the idyllic version of the city that has been sought after by so many? What is the "proper use" of the urban space, and who is entitled to it? Perhaps most importantly, what exactly has been swept away in the countless efforts aimed at "revitalization?"

While many of these questions have remained without adequate answer, they have given rise to a multitude of new questions at the intersection of history, identity, culture, and spatiality. Complicating notions of objectivity, rationalism, and citizenship--these concerns have called into question the possibility of knowing that which no longer exists. Questions of the life in and of the city have problematized the ways that knowledge ought to be conceived of, evaluated, and verified, as well as the role that subjective phenomena such as affect have in shaping both what and how events are thought of and remembered. Little work has been done, it seems, to elucidate the ways in which intimate, personal relationships with spaces and ideas have dictated memory, as well as remained enmeshed within broader notions of space, trauma, and history.

Homelessness and urban space provide important insight into the ways in which discourse, spatiality, and performance intersect in the co-production of knowledge. It is for this reason that the city emerges as the backdrop upon which the chasms between personal experience and national identity's promises are projected. Engendering a myriad of concerns surrounding the complexity of urban space, (2) the subjects of economic devastation have what Paul Cloke and his colleagues termed "alternative cartographies" of how space ought to be used. This exposes the ways in which cities might be thought of as at once both spatial (3) and performative (4) sites, bringing into focus how meaning is subject to ritual processes of encoding (5) and re-enactment (6) in both literal and discursive ways. The homeless and their attendant relationships to space thus represent a means of mapping and re-mapping the geography of the city as it is traditionally understood, as well as the affective relationships that constitute it.

Through the examination of how urban space is constructed, one can see how the city testifies to the ways that history and memory--at once both literal and metaphysical--come to shape human experience and the vocabularies with which it is understood and remembered. (7) Remaining attentive to the ways in which history is both conceived of and challenged across spatial and temporal scales, this paper will explore the tensions between hegemonic conceptions of the city and the lived experiences of its inhabitants. (8) It will diverge from contemporary discussions of history and memory through an investigation of the roles of affect and social location have in shaping how the city is thought of and remembered differently. The questions posed by this discussion are the following: What forms of historical, social, and political erasure have shaped the public consciousness? What are the implications of these erasures, and how might they manifest themselves in discussions of homelessness and the city?

The first part of the paper will provide a review of recent scholarly literature both on homelessness and on the study of history and memory. It will then focus on their intersection, and compare historical constructions of city folk in an attempt to understand the role of hegemonic social, economic, and political conditions in the construction of "history." This following section draws on the work of affective communication theory, and analyzes how memory is impacted by homeless erasure through the lenses of discourse, spatiality, and performance. By juxtaposing the lived experience of homeless persons with these "collective memories" in the American city, this paper will conclude by using Jacques Derrida's conception of hauntology to prove that affect comes to inform all parts of the memory-making process, and argue that remaining attune to the keenly-felt absences of historical memories often bequeaths entirely new counter-histories of their own.

Literature Review

While substantial scholarship exists on the subjects of both homelessness and history and memory, little conversation has occurred across disciplines. Scholarly accounts of homelessness and urban space, for instance, are roughly bifurcated. One half focuses largely on ethnographic and narrative accounts of life on the streets. Irene Glasser and Kathleen Hirsch, as well as Jennifer Hoolachan and Megan Ravenhill focus on animating and "giving life" to the often flat, unidimensional renderings of homelessness today. (9) Their descriptions contrast and critique age-old tropes assigned to homeless individuals; that is, that their apparent poverty had been caused by their own immorality, laziness, or cultural and mental deficiencies. Instead, they serve to "personify" accounts of homelessness, and make intimate a topic that is so often avoided because of the anxiety and guilt associated with it.

The other half focuses on more structural accounts of homelessness, de-emphasizing the individual in favor of more holistic critiques of governmental and economic systems. Randall Amster and Stacey Murphy, for instance, use homelessness and dislocation as evidence of the failings of the neoliberal economic system. (10) They denounce the logics of growth, productivity, and capital, and argue that they are the cause of homelessness as well as the stigma attached to it within contemporary discourse. Michael Katz and Tony Sparks diverge in that they use homelessness as an example of governmental failings rather than strictly economic ones. (11) Their polemic against the state expands recent thought on biopolitics, as it serves to interrogate governmental obligations, as well as unpack politically-loaded notions of citizenship, and the concepts of a distinct public and private sphere.

In studies of history and memory, substantial work has been done to elucidate ties between individual and collective forms of historical truth. Renato Rosaldo and Dominick LaCapra outline the social and political processes that aggregate individual thoughts and experiences, transforming them into "social memories" that are shared among wider groups. (12) Marianne Hirsch, too, attempts to understand how personal, "organic" experiences converge and conflict with each other. (13) Svetlana Boym provides interesting nuance to this conversation, and argues that conflicting narratives necessitate an expanded conception of "objectivity" beyond the simple binary of true and false. (14)

Linking these seemingly unrelated fields is recent literature on behavioral and communication theory. Scholars such as Frederic Jameson and Edward Soja study the ways that emotions carry communicative significance, and analyze the ways that spaces themselves might capture and reflect these emotions. Described as "postmodern political geographers," their work attempts to bridge often discordant conversations at the intersection of history, ontology, and culture, in an attempt to understand what Gaston Bachelard has termed "the poetics of space." (15)

These diverse academic interventions provide fertile ground for both material and discursive analyses of homeless life. Engendering a broader set of questions about the complex entanglements that homeless individuals have with place, movement, and memory, these interventions explore the ways that meaning itself is inscribed, reproduced, and contested within particular spaces. However, each individually fails to answer the question of how memory--in both individual and collective terms--is continually iterated and reproduced, as well as into how different forms of "evidence" can either counter or corroborate "proper" and "true" historical testimonies.

More Money than Sense: Historical Constructions of the Home and Urban Space

Despite structuring current conversation surrounding "the homeless epidemic" and the "toll it has had on American cities," (16) analyses of economics, citizenship, and the family have often omitted the home's centrality in forming some of the nation's most deeply-respected cultural maxims. Fundamentally "American" values like privacy and autonomy, for example, have a crucial, yet often omitted, role in forming conceptions of property and the public, which are themselves enmeshed within centuries of various social and historical contexts. (17) Instead, this omission has resulted in the silencing of discussions of those who remain in opposition to it: that is, the home-less have been largely ignored in discourses national identity across time and space, as they are often seen as antithetical to the "posterity" of the American Dream.

This oversight requires a holistic understanding of how the home and urban space have been historically constructed in the Western world, as well as their effects. (18) Beginning in Europe in 1349, members of the social elite affixed culturally-laden notions of the home and the public to both legal and social definitions of what is perceived to be the problem of homelessness. It was because they were bereft of the steady...

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