Deconstructing The Dream Presentation


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A PowerPoint production to visually supplement the presentation of my honors thesis presented at the 2010 University of New Hampshire Undergraduate Research Conference

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  • In early 2007, our nation entered a real estate crisis sparked by falling home prices and rising mortgage delinquencies. The real estate crisis, more commonly referred to as the subprime mortgage crisis, triggered an economic recession within the United States – the likes of which had not been seen since the Great Depression. In researching the economic crisis, I noticed an increasing trend in the stories of minority borrowers that conveyed their desire to be part of the American Dream through homeownership. I became interested in how the single-family home was positioned the central object of desire representing the greater promise of the American Dream. Further, it became important to me to study how the American Dream, as a normalizing discourse, affected traditionally marginalized demographics through a structural denial of access to the Dream’s central object. Ultimately, I concluded that the position of the single-family home as the central object of desire within the American Dream created a particular moralism that linked the identity of homeowner with normativity. Thus, shame felt by the individuals who did not identify as homeowners and their subsequent idealization of the normative form resulted in a form of attachment Lauren Berlant has deemed as cruel optimism.
  • Critical to the understanding of how the single-family home became the central object of desire within the greater promise of the American dream is the concept of Governmentality and its relation to the origins of federal housing policy. According to Chris Barker, the population becomes socialized to particular forms of normative behavior through the decentralized structure of authoritative institutions within the greater social order. He argues that the concept of governmentality does not impose a way of being on the population through rule of law, but rather socializes them to normative behavior and dominant moralisms through self-policing activities. The interworking of how this phenomenon comes to be is perhaps best explained by Foucault himself. He explains that government recognizes, where previous forms of authority didn’t, that power is maintained through fostering a thriving and expanding population. For this reason, the state must provide for the needs of the population. However, in governmentality, the needs of the population are not determined by the population. As Foucault explains, it is through the decentralized institutions of authority that the population becomes aware of its implicitly state-constructed desires without the population understanding that the state has constructed them.
  • An exemplification of the concept of governmentality at work can be found in an examination of the associative state practices of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in relation to the origins of federal housing policy. Ellis Hawley explains that the associative model of governance would rely on a cooperative relationship between the state and the initiatives and enterprises of a citizenry in which the state leadership would encourage and support local action over the implementation of direct federal intervention. When the associative state is viewed through the theoretical lens of governmentality, it can be understood that Hoover’s associative state fostered a bureaucratic environment which did not impose a prescribed course of action upon the population, but rather used the population itself to promote a specific formula for the ‘good life’ in order to advance the ends of the economy and ease potential unrest amongst the population.
  • This was particularly relevant in Hoover’s housing initiatives during his tenure as secretary of commerce. The Better Homes in America campaign was a cooperative effort between the Department of Commerce and the Better Homes Organization in order to enhance demand for the single-family home. The campaign utilized a multiplicity of techniques to produce a national educational campaign to increase awareness of the value of the single-family home. This was beneficial to the state as it would help achieve the ultimate goal of government – fostering the prosperity and expansion of the population. It did this through increased job stability through construction industry stimulation and the creation of new avenues of consumption as the population purchased items to make home life easier. Enhanced domestic production and consumption fostered through the greater demand for the single-family home would increase the Gross Domestic Product, which measures economic growth in the country. This is representative of the key to governmentality as it shows the population and economy are thriving. The government, however, had to construct a desire for the home within the population. It did this through the perpetuation of a particular moralism about homeownership that linked the aesthetic of the home with the embodiment of the moral citizen. The reliance on this particular moralism positioned home owners as ‘good citizens,’ essentially connecting the definition of the sing-family home to a moral lifestyle and shaming those individuals who didn’t have access to the single-family home ideal.
  • Although we’ve come to understand that governmentality constructed the single family ideal, it is equally important to understand how the production process of this social construction functioned to stigmatize particular groups within the general population. As Michael Warner explains, there are multiple opposing moralisms within every society. What is considered morality is nothing more than a dominant moralism that has become hegemonic within the culture in which it exists. Warner argues that hegemonic moralisms seek to limit variations of the norm and set up hierarchies of shame. In the hierarchy, those who are considered less shameful are those who can meet the performances of normative morality. Those who are shamed are those who cannot meet those same performances. Thus, to avoid being stigmatized within the public sphere people seek to perform in normative ways. The Better Homes in America Movement’s positioning of the homeowner as an identity that embodies normative morality causes the general population to aspire to this performance and thus aspire to the ability to purchase a home. In this way, desire is created within the population for a policy that the state sees as beneficial to achieving the ends of economy while the population sees it as the assurance of the ‘good life’
  • Governmentality supports the perpetuation of the dominant moralism in that it inhibits the population from being able to question the underlying reasoning for the policy, but rather causes the debate about the policy itself. This leads the population down the path of the idealization of normal because they are unable to question why something has been positioned as normative, but only to know they want the same rights as others to achieve the normative. Thus, policy debates become about ensuring that Americans have access to tools necessary for purchasing the single-family home rather than understanding why that ideal is was constructed in the first place and what the implications are to those who may be denied access to that ideal.
  • Minority groups, in particular, were denied access to the central object of desire within the American Dream. After the Great Depression, it became harder for Americans to stay in their homes or aspire to the purchase of their homes because there wasn’t enough liquidity for lending or spending power to allow the individual to perform as consumer. As Foucault explains, however, once a desire is created within the population the state must ensure that the desire is fulfilled in order to maintain power. Thus, once the aesthetic of the home was perpetuated as representative of performance of normative morality and desire was subsequently created, the assurance that the population would be able to continue to own and purchase homes was instantiated as a need the government must fulfill in order to maintain power. So, when the population could no longer afford the home, the passage of the Federal Housing Act of 1934 ensued. This bill established policies to promote lending and make home ownership more affordable to the struggling nation. Kevin Fox Gotham explains however that these policies were racialized in that they sought to perpetuate racial subordination. He explains the advent of redlining in the real estate and lending industries after the passage of the act, claiming that real estate agents and lending companies targeted heavily populated minority areas as places where loans should not be given and that ultimately should be turned into business districts. The racialized policies of the Housing Act of 1934 denied access to the tools necessary to make homeownership affordable to minority demographics, thus stigmatizing them as the inequality perpetuated through public policies inhibited them from performing normative morality through the purchase and ownership of the single-family home.
  • Since Governmentality masks the underlying constructions that make the home the key to normative morality, minority groups end up idealizing the normal. The idealization of normal is another concept iterated by Warner in The Trouble with Normal . He argues, in relation to the concept of marriage, that normative institutions validate the normativity of some identities while stigmatizing the identities of others. He uses the term selective legitimacy to define this phenomenon. This concept is also at play in the provision of mortgages to some and the denial of them to others. In denying the tools necessary for homeownership to minorities, the Housing Act of 1934 legitimized the ‘morality’ of Whites while casting shame, and ultimately stigmatizing, prospective minority borrowers by inhibiting their ability to embody normativity. Governmentality however makes it hard for members of the population to question where their desire arises from, but rather why they are being denied access to the deniable. Since the desirable is representative of normative behavior, those denied the desirable idealize it, and idealize the normative status that comes with it. This is problematic in that it creates an attachment to an object that might ultimately be detrimental to the subject.
  • As we’ve seen, the marginalization of minorities through the denial of their access to the central object of desire representing the promise of the American Dream creates an idealization of normal. They attach to the object of the single-family home because of the promise that it represents – normalcy, morality, equality, prosperity, success, etc. This attachment is what gives way to the idealization of normal and the ultimate fight for equality in housing. Equality, however, is superficial in that arguing for equality does not address the underlying prejudices that created the inequality in the first place. It simply masks the prejudices. It can be inferred from previous points made in this discussion that prejudice derives itself from understanding of one’s normativity in relation to another’s stigmatization. Since normativity is so often linked with morality, one views themselves as a more moral person the more they can embody the performance of normativity. Thus, it is in the interest of the dominant class to maintain relations that promote inequality to perpetuate their own normativity. Douglas Massey explains this concept in Racial Discrimination in Housing : a Moving Target. He argues that, “The specific mechanisms by which racial stratification is achieved may thus be expected to change overtime as practices shift in response to civil rights enforcement. Whenever one discriminatory pathway is shut down, another is soon invented. Thus, if housing is a marker of normativity, and thus morality, if lending equality is enforced, it will give way to new methods of discrimination.
  • As we saw in the previous slide the idealization of normal gives way to a fight for equality which may lead to new forms of discrimination, ultimately showing that this kind of idealization of normal is a form of what Lauren Berlant has termed Cruel Optimism . Berlant defines cruel optimism as “a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility.” In other words, individuals attach to objects in order to stay in relation to the cluster of promises the object has come to represent to them. In the case of housing, all Americans have attached themselves to cultural forms that have continuously failed us.
  • Deconstructing The Dream Presentation

    1. 1. Deconstructing the Dream The Impact of Homeownership Rhetorics in Relation to Race and Class
    2. 2. Foreclosing the American Dream
    3. 3. Foucault and Governmentality <ul><li>State authority is maintained through population development rather than rule of law </li></ul><ul><li>State provides for needs of population </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Needs are constructed by the state </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Population is unaware </li></ul></ul>
    4. 4. Origins of Federal Housing Policy in Hoover’s Associative State <ul><li>Early 1920’s: Added to the agenda through an associative approach </li></ul><ul><li>Associative methods can be related to governmentality </li></ul>
    5. 5. Case Study: Better Homes in America <ul><li>Better Homes in America Campaign: a national educational campaign to increase awareness of the single-family home </li></ul><ul><li>Benefit to the State: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Enhanced housing demand creates job stability and new avenues for consumption; fosters GDP growth </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Government had to construct desire within the population </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Link between homeownership and morality </li></ul></ul>
    6. 6. Function of Shame in Promoting Homeownership <ul><li>Morality is a dominant moralism </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Seeks to limit alternative moralisms and set up ‘hierarchies of shame’ </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Link between home and normative morality creates desire in the population </li></ul>
    7. 7. Governmentality and the Single-Family Home Ideal <ul><li>Governmentality makes public discourse about how rather than why </li></ul><ul><li>Questions of homeownership became about how to obtain it rather than why it represented morality </li></ul>
    8. 8. Denial of the American Dream <ul><li>During the Great Depression, the Housing Act of 1934 was passed, creating the Federal Housing Administration </li></ul><ul><li>Redlining: Mortgages and loans were denied to minority lenders avoid racial mixing and racial conflict. </li></ul><ul><li>In denying access to the home, minorities were denied the ability to perform normative morality </li></ul>
    9. 9. Idealization of Normal <ul><li>Governmentality masks problematic origins of social norms </li></ul><ul><li>Stigmatized groups seek normativity through equality </li></ul><ul><li>Normative populations derive their normative through the existence of other groups shame </li></ul>
    10. 10. Idealization of Normal and Discrimination <ul><li>Minorities attach to the single-family home ideal because of what it represents </li></ul><ul><li>Achievement of equality doesn’t end discrimination </li></ul>
    11. 11. Failure of the Dream <ul><li>Early 1990’s – Reverse redlining in the lending and real estate industries. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Subprime products=higher interest rates, higher penalties, and quicker repayments </li></ul></ul><ul><li>2007 – Mortgage defaults lead to economic crisis. </li></ul><ul><ul><li>High mortgage default rates key to recession </li></ul></ul>
    12. 12. Cruel Optimism <ul><li>The attachment to the home is created through the idealization of normal </li></ul><ul><li>This attachment to the home, and thus normativity, led to the attachment to an object that was detrimental prior to loss </li></ul><ul><li>Homeownership has already failed us, but we continue to hold on to it. </li></ul>
    13. 13. Moving Forward <ul><li>It is important to understand the desire for the home is a tool for population management </li></ul><ul><li>It is important to understand how the desire creates cruel attachments. </li></ul>