Meditations on the Periphery

I never felt like I’ve belonged anywhere: to a group, to a clique, to an organization that defined my identity in such a way that I could not leave its membership.  I wonder if, in some ways, this means that I’ve lived my life in what some scholars term the “periphery”.

I wonder about this issue of the periphery vs. the center because I have lived my life very happily, but without ever belonging to the center.  Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in the center because it’s a very visible thing in most societies.  When we speak or write of culture there are voices, niches, cliques, places where people belong, groups that come in and out of contact with one another, relationships between groups that are symbiotic/independent, and there are ties between groups that are so subtle and complex these things do not bear description, and yet we are able to see/define these things in our minds.  One also comes (frequently) into contact with the idea of “periphery” in such writings because the periphery is also where the subaltern supposedly live and are actively working to move towards the center of the hegemony.

I find fault with this logic for a few reasons.

  1. The inverse of a subaltern and hegemony is the absence of both.  Without a subaltern, there is no hegemony.  Thus the inverse of a periphery (if that is where the subaltern are living) is not a movement towards the center, but the absolution of both periphery and center.
  2. The work of a subaltern people is mostly voiceless (read Spivak’s article on the subject to understand this idea better), therefore there is no reason to suppose that these people are crying from the periphery.  Rather, the hegemony seeks the subaltern’s peripheral identification while the subaltern move about trying to live their lives without further interference or interruption.
  3. The periphery is often identified as a place of renegotiation or creativity.  I view this as positivism at its most dense because what is creative/Real/active/voiced in all of our communities happens not in some newly invested center, but within the center of ourselves.  The interaction of human-with-center happens in our minds as individuals.  When it reaches a critical voice is when a great enough portion of the population has been reached and had the same voicing occur for them.  Thus the power of mass identities/fixations is quite undubitable.

So I have spent the last few days meditating and wondering about the periphery because I do not wonder that such a thing exists (in fact, I am certain that it does), but I do wonder about its relevance to our lives as individuals in vastly circuitous communities and the unquestionably dubious nature of giving identity based on a peripheral locus.

For one thing, all of the universities/colleges are, in one way or another, largely in the periphery of the United States at this point.  I think that they are surprised to be there after enjoying so long a stay in the center, intimately tied to presidents and ruling bodies of the nation for hundreds of years, but they have been relegated to the periphery by a stronger voice in the formation of identity.  Your Rhodes’ Scholars are nice, but they don’t look to their alma maters anymore for their credentials except in the most menial senses.  On the contrary: all of these universities fall over themselves in utter joy when one of their “sons” or “daughters” achieves fame because these people can now be claimed as inroads to the center (and be a possible source for further endowment).  The twin voices of money and media were the interlocutors that negotiated the institutions of higher learning in the United States to the periphery.  It was not a clean move, something that could be resisted or fought, however.  This is the terrible power of periphery, hegemony, subaltern, and center!  Indeed, the fact is that a periphery appears with the anointing of a subaltern.  For a long time, colleges and universities, public/private existed simultaneously in the same version of reality as the US government.  The impending schism was the formation of their subaltern status, and in such cases, though it may have actually been gradual, but such patterns, movements and alterations are always visible to the human state in past tense.  This being what Raymond Williams terms the danger of and failure of history being its perpetual status of ‘having been completed’.

The churches (and with the churches their neighborhoods/communities) have also been relegated to the periphery.  Some scholars are attributing this to a moral collapse, and yet that does not explain the vast amount of people who “test” morally despite falling away from a formal worship structure.  This negotiation was once again the media at work.  The churches with booming populations have remained tied to the formats and structures of a media-interrupted-life while the churches (we call them “mainline”) who decided that they would attempt forays into the world of being “hip” by altering worship by including interesting prayers, praise bands, and yet who would not bind themselves to the media-machine (telecasts, media personalities, time in the network) have all but lost any “voice”.  This is truly a subaltern of the mind and population whereas the subaltern of the institutions of higher learning is altogether a more tangible matter.  The church has ever been a touchy subject with the ruling bodies of the United States of America while they toed their way into various gaffe-laden acceptances of religious inclinations or feelings.  The presence of the church was never at one with the government in my country, but rather this was always the populace’s maintenance.  The populace created/chose for itself a new center housed in the media culture and the church was never ever going to break into that wild machine, and so they began to exist in silence while the people who professed gained a different kind of “church” and the people who confessed maintained a new creed: never talk politics or religion at dinner.  Politics because it was pejorative and religion because it was personal.  Welcome the new members of an American periphery: those of the holy orders.

Standing with the “mainlines” and the universities is a third periphery: the educated, loud-mouthed, unruly, and jobless.  This group belongs in the periphery because of the creation of a center that is not quite its opposite, but desperately interested in maintaining their position in the center for reasons I’ve already discussed.  The group in the center is certainly educated, also loud-mouthed, law-breakers/benders (depending on your terms), and employed but without the fear of ever being unemployed.  Fear was the negotiator here, and it formed a schism so vast that it’s uncertain if it can ever be healed.

What do all these groups on the periphery have in common?  Well, all of them began in places that could hardly be called periphery, but all of them were allotted space in that particular parking garage so that their baggage and issues would be relocated off the main traffic ways of the American ideoscape.  Another thing that they have in common is that while they live in the periphery, many of them are capable of initiating dialogues with the center.  Funnily enough, this doesn’t help the case of the periphery!  Instead we wind up with a dramatic underscoring of the power structures at play in these complex cultural relationships.  Finally, I observe (or rather, I have come to believe) that the periphery’s interaction with the center is always to the periphery’s detriment and the benefit of said center because it enforces the acknowledgement and cementation of both in a culture.  These ideoscapes and the meandering pathways through them ossify into places where the actual structure of feelings (in William’s definition) begin to accommodate and organize the interaction of both periphery and hegemony.

The key, of course, would be to remember that without the existence of one the other also ceases to exist because then both must occupy the same ideological and pathological space in order to continue interacting past the obliteration of the segmentation that encompasses both center and periphery.


~ by Rebecca Erickson on May 22, 2012.

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