Brandon Stanton has photographed over 5,000 random people on the streets of New York since 2010. His blog “Humans of New York” has 16 million Facebook followers, and his book by the same title spent 29 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list in 2015. One of his most famous portraits – of a teenager named Vidal who witnessed a man being pushed to his death from the top of a public-housing tower – generated $1.4 million for Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn. But not everyone Stanton approaches willingly gives him a story. One person told him “These experiences were so meaningful to me that I don’t want you to soundbite them.” Another: “You’re going to misconstrue what I say.” And still another: “I’m Hustle Man. That’s all you need to know.” (see footnote at bottom). These responses point towards the voyeurism implicit in art that represents people who are poor or otherwise marginalized. In supposedly revealing the life of another person, art also renders her a product to be consumed. Our course will examine the problematic scenario in which the consumer is middleclass and the “product” is poverty.
We will also explore the different valences of “consumption” in literature about poverty. The reader is a consumer of the text, but within it people and bodies are also consumed and commodified. In many texts that describe poverty, the physical body figures prominently as the site of suffering and struggle. Bodies can be consumed, by disease and even by other people; the poor sell their bodies as labor or as sex objects.
By battering the reader with descriptions of bodily suffering, ugliness, vice, and the inability to escape from material and psychological conditions, narrative representations of poverty evoke sympathy for the characters they describe. But we will also examine the problematics of that sympathy. Is it an inevitably condescending interest in poverty on the part of the middleclass readership? Or is narrative attention to the minutiae of working-class life a democratic strategy for including that class in the public sphere? Thinking about Georg Lukàcs’ seminal essay “Narrate or Describe,” can we say that meticulous description of poverty creates a sense of stasis or potential? Does it merely portray characters as corpses becoming more corpse-like (Lukàcs’ metaphor)? Or is there something more at stake in portrayals of corporeal abjectness? Is there even a way in which such description could be politically enabling, in the mode of Dickens and other social realists?
As a reading and composition class, we’ll use these discussions as a foundation for improving analytical and persuasive writing.
Vinson Cunningham, “Humans of New York and the Cavalier Consumption of Others”
James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Lu Xun, “Medicine,” “Tomorrow”
Shen Congwen, “Xiaoxiao”
Wu Yonggang, The Goddess (film)
Lao She, Rickshaw
Yu Hua, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant
Footnote: This information comes from Vinson Cunningham’s article “Humans of New York and
the Cavalier Consumption of Others” published in The New Yorker, November 3, 2015.