By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
To combat them, Phillips aims ”to replace black-and-white reductionist views of gang members with ones that allow for color, contrast and contradiction.“ She describes graffiti as first of all political, not merely representing gang members’ attempts to demarcate territory, but ”to negotiate relationships with both the society from which they are disempowered and others within their own groups.“ If it is not overtly political in the way that European and Latin American graffiti tend to be (my favorite, spotted last year on a Roman wall: ”Abortiamo il Papa!“), Phillips argues, it is because gang members‘ disenfranchisement from the dominant political system is so complete that engaging that system directly seems fruitless. For L.A. gangs, ”what becomes important is a group’s political positioning in relation to other segments within the same community . . . vying for prestige and resources among those with whom they compete,“ i.e., other gangs. Gang graffiti is supposed to alienate the uninitiated: ”It‘s directed toward a group of people who already understand what it means.“
If you read on, however, through Phillips’ at times fascinating, at times overly schematic a explications of the ”initials, numbers, aesthetic and symbolic codes, more or less rigid, layered meanings lurking within disjointed segments“ of spray-painted text, you, too, will be able to read the writing on the walls. Some of it, anyway. In the process, Phillips provides a tour of ”the fragmented, ahistoric, placeless urban worlds of late capitalist consumer culture,“ of the ”contours of the streets, which have themselves been shaped by the inequalities that capitalism manufactures in places where red lines protect the interests of those with as much power as racial hatred.“
There is, of course, something inescapably touristic about Phillips‘ enterprise, which reveals itself as much in her lapses into academic jargon (her UCLA dissertation formed the basis for the book) as in her occasionally embarrassing candor about the challenge, as a middle-class white girl, of winning gangbangers’ trust. (A few excerpted journal entries are particularly rough going: ”Each interaction I have with gangsters I learn so much. Some of my experiences are so full of lessons that it takes hours to write them all down.“) But Phillips, sensitive to the potential pitfalls of her project, maneuvers ably through them to give voice to the unavoidable link between the existence of gangs and ”the larger society‘s politics, its skewed relations of power, the limited access to its economic resources, and the systematic persecution and exclusion of certain populations from participation within it.“
This of course has been said before, but rarely so well and never in the context of such careful attention to the inscriptions scrawled on the very body of the city that surrounds us.
There are a lot of birds in Jennifer Price’s Flight Maps. Price begins with passenger pigeons, gargantuan flocks of which darkened the skies of the eastern United States for hours at a time until the late 19th century, then moves on to the birds that, for a while, decorated women‘s hats -- the whole stuffed, dead critters, not just the plumage -- at around the same time that passenger pigeons were hunted to extinction, and on from there to a more familiar fowl, the plastic lawn flamingo. Not an ornithologist but a historian, Price is less interested in the birds themselves than in the meanings we’ve allowed to cluster around them and in how we‘ve used them to create a distinctly American vision of nature.
Whether we used birds, living or dead, plumed or plastic, as foils for conversations about class or gender or consumerism, in each case, she argues, Americans have also used them to define nature as ”a Place Apart“ and thereby excuse ourselves from considering our implication in the ”ravenous uses of natural resources“ that mark our history. Price moves engagingly from birds, hats and lawns to Northern Exposure, Isuzu ads and the Nature Company Stores, to demonstrate how baby boomers ”have used a vision of Nature as a not-modern Place Apart powerfully to understand, navigate, enjoy, critique and, ultimately, evade the defining hallmarks, troubles and confusions of modern American life.“
In so doing she unfailingly pulls insights out of some of the more neglected moments of American discourse (the prolonged and rather vicious debate over the aforementioned ladies’ bird hats, for instance), laying bare the big social forces we‘re actually contesting when we think we’re just talking about birds, be they plastic, plucked or stuffed. Best of all, though, is her recipe for ballotine of squabs a la Madison. Alley pigeons will do. You‘ll need 12 of them, so get busy.