The Meaning Bus: Whose Road Am I On?

The Meaning Bus: Whose Road Am I On?

You see before you an image of an old bus stopped dead in a field, all trips a faded memory, the rack on its roof empty and rusting, the paint all but gone. What is the story of this bus? Why is it here? And why am I using it to represent my work in the field of Cultural Studies? 

Somewhere along the road on my cross-country journey from New Hampshire to Seattle, I saw that bus. A curious sight by anyone’s measure, I found it beautiful. As a photographer, it provided a visual delight – the faded yellow paint matching hues of the dead grass under its wheels, the horizontality of it making it right at home between sky and field. 

The bus is a mystery. I am drawn to it; it has history, and substance, and silent stories. It is part of a timeless and changing landscape. When I look at it, I bring to it my feelings, my stories, my desires and nostalgia. I see beauty in it. If I choose the common narrative, it’s a bus that isn’t going anywhere. It’s old. It’s stuck. In someone else’s narrative, it’s an old friend. A greenhouse. Art. It is our task to walk around that bus, to investigate is angles and colors and broken parts, to consider its location and seek to learn its past and the discourses within which it was created.   

In the words of Antonio Gramsci, “The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off…” Is not all meaning subject to change? The bus has meaning because of where it is in time, space, and culture. It has meaning because I give it meaning. 

I’ve chosen six topics within which I locate my work as a Cultural Studies scholar, and they comprise the tabs on this landing page. They are Narratives of Migration (in which I include my capstone project); Sense of Place; One Person's Story; The Senses: A New Kind of Listening; Art as Tool; and Reaching Youth. Each represents a unique aspect of me and my work; at the same time they all speak to each other and form what I hope to be a cohesive whole. The artifacts I have selected are located within each of these sections; together, they take that bus where I want it to go. They take it to a better me and maybe even a slightly better world. 

The Journey

When I look back over the past two years of my life and the work I have accomplished in the MACS program, I ask myself what it is that stands out the most for me. Of all the professors, humanists, scientists, writers, thinkers, artists, creators, optimists and pessimists we have encountered both in the classroom and in our readings, who has helped me to grow into the changed person I now feel I am? Which theories have truly resonated with me and how will I use them to move even closer to the work that fulfills me and contributes to my communities? 

The answers to these questions are not sparkling and clear. Like the work of interdisciplinary studies itself, they are intertwined, tangible and intangible, muddy, noisy, reverberating and sometimes silent. In the name of clarity and honesty, I will attempt to name them. 

I begin my quest for inspiration near the end of my MACS journey, with my capstone. Not satisfied with the trajectory of my original capstone project as I entered the second year of the program, I decided to abandon my proposal and begin anew. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to study: I was interested in immigrant populations, questions of community, and the stories that individuals could lend to a larger narrative. 

My patient capstone advisor, Christian Anderson, suggested that I “traverse urban space – pay attention – and this will tell you about the broader forces of capitalism…” I do not want to misquote him; I wrote down many pithy statements during our time together as advisor and advisee. Getting me to decide on a topic was a major undertaking. 

I began to read through articles that touched on these issues, hoping that the energy of something specific would pull me into in. The British sociologist Les Back provided that energy wiht his article “Researching community and its moral projects”, published in 2009 in the journal Twenty-First Century Society. The essay title alone had me enraptured – the concepts of morality and community and research all together in one place made me vibrate. In the abstract, Back states that his work “argues for a sensuous mode of scholarship in which the social relations of sound, smell, touch and taste can alert us to the ways in which community is inhabited and lived.” This clear connection between sensory experience and the everyday lives of people and community was exactly what I wanted to investigate. This link between the physical – one of the first words I use to describe myself – and the concept of community, felt just right. It felt possible and meaningful and good. 

Les Back helped me to recognize the relevance of other researchers and scholars as well. I had read Frantz Fanon in a previous class, and took notice of his work but didn’t pursue it further. Now, as I read him through Back’s analysis, I felt assured that my instincts had been keen. According to Back, Fanon “argued that colonized groups became integrated into a culture of racism so that they see others through the colonizers’ lens.” Suddenly, I was moving backward through the readings of our Formations in Cultural Studies class, and the work of Stuart Hall, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said were making sense in ways that were meaningful to me and the work I wanted and still want to do. 

I remember what it felt like to begin to understand the language of Stuart Hall and Michel Foucault. According to Hall, “to belong to a culture is to belong to the same conceptual and linguistic universe”; the role that language plays in terms of culture is not only about its ability to represent signifieds and signs, but also to produce knowledge. While it seems obvious now, it had never occurred to me, exactly, what it meant that things have meaning because of where they are in space, time and culture; Foucault reminds us that “knowledge is inherently rooted in contexts and histories.” My bus in the field had meaning because I gave it meaning - yes - but the meaning I gave it was rooted in the space, time and culture in which I have lived and experienced the world. 

Foucault writes about “the indignity of speaking for others”. This concept is something that came back to me repeatedly as I considered my research. Yes, we must go outside ourselves to that place of community Les Back aspires to; at the same time, we must move responsibly toward and around the experience of others. If I want to explore and research the sensory experience of immigrants, how do I go about that without falling into the easy trap of “othering”? For me, as a white person and one who belongs to a Eurocentric culture, how do I look outside that discourse to understand another set of experiences? Is that even possible? To return to the words of Frantz Fanon and the colonizers’ lens, I realized that I had to be aware of all sides of the coin (we think there are only two, but it’s not true); I had to be cognizant of my innate ability to put “the immigrant experience” into that pre-labeled category, rather than hearing each individual story for what it was – one unique story; and I had to consider the possibility that anyone I spoke to who had come to this country from somewhere else, was thinking through “the colonizers’ lens”, and thereby sifting through their own raw experience for meaning that would make sense in a western context. Both of these scenarios are problematic in that they unintentionally seek to affirm a “truth” determined by a source of power; both scenarios are also nearly impossible to avoid. 

Looking back further over the course of my studies in MACS, I’m able to internalize the words of so many scholars we read throughout the program. While struck by their power and insight when I encountered these writings, I was also often confused at the relevance to my own thoughts and ambitions. As I began to formulate the questions I wanted to explore in my capstone work, however, I was able to connect on a much deeper level with the ideas of thinkers including Pierre Bourdieu, Lawrence Grossberg, Wahneema Lubiano, Miranda Joseph, Paul Farmer, and many others whose works have given invaluable meaning to Cultural Studies. 

The racialized behavior that, by everyday standards, would be classified as racial difference, is what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “habitus” – a behaviorized result of symbolic violence that shows “how social structural power translates into intimate ways of being and everyday practices that legitimize social inequalitites” (Bourgois, Schonberg18). When originally reading about habitus in our Formations course, I was fascinated by it. It wasn’t until I studied it in depth in Johanna Crane’s class, “The Politics of Living and Dying”, that the concept truly resonated for me. Looking at it through the lived experience of homeless heroin addicts in San Francisco in Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg’s book Righteous Dopefiend – hearing their stories, seeing their faces - it suddenly had meaning and power for me. This speaks to my personal characteristics, as well, as someone who connects with visual images through photography, and who values nothing more than the intimate sharing of our individual stories. By connecting specific moments in Tina’s and Hank’s lives (members of the Edgewater encampment, the subject of Bourgois and Schonberg’s book) to the larger framework of habitus and then to the concepts of structural and symbolic violence, I was able to understand exactly how an individual is affected by systemic injustices at work in our society today. Making this connection, I became able to evaluate my own interactions with subjects of my research and with the messages I wanted my convey through my own work. 

My graduate program has ended, but my contribution to the many communities in which I include myself – my home, my neighborhood, my city, and the larger community of the globalized world – has in some ways just begun. As a Cultural Studies scholar, I feel I am so much more capable of making a difference in the world; through my ability to question the known narratives, to relate patterns in individual and societal behavior to structural and institutional systems, and to engage in focused and creative research when I need to know more. I now let the specific subjects of my work and my artifacts tell the rest of my story as a Cultural Studies scholar at University of Washington Bothell.