Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hipster Homesteading and the Cost of Being Cool

This week I read an article where the author examines what she calls “capitalistic homesteading” - the growing practice of young urban middle class to try their hand at everything from raising chickens for eggs, to canning. The author Marianne Kirby advises the growing group of hipster homesteaders to not take for granted the value of homesteading, and looks on people who get sucked into it with a disparaging gaze. Though I think she overgeneralizes people’s intentions she does raise some very relevant points, that I couldn’t help but connect to the chapter A History of Weediness from Terranova’s book. On a most basic level this chapter focusses on the gaps of understanding created by generalizations, and the micro cultures which populate these gaps. Moreover, she explores how the environment of Hill people: “scattered bamboo houses sat by small swidden fields surrounded by forest regrowth mixing into big forest” (Tsing, 174) was viewed by untrained outsiders as ‘natural’ forest. As Kirby points out homesteading, historically lives in a similar knowledge gap, and it’s current popoularity reflects this historical blindness. The Urban Homestead Project  spearheads the hip new face of homesteading (they even strongly encourage that unaffiliated websites don’t use the phrase urban homesteading –through cease and desist letters) however this action covers up the fact that people never stopped homesteading in the city. However often these homesteaders, many of the people who actually preserved this knowledge often did so for subsistence rather than appearance and so often hid their operations. Tsing says of the hill people “These are people whose distinctiveness had everything to do with staying out of the way: evading government authority in it’s various forms (Tsing, 174) one of the comments on the article elucidates the connection I see “Two Steps forward one step back… Getting a practice into the legal realm makes it visible and subject to regulation” (from mortycore, Dec 4th); much of homesteading’s actual survival utility is slipping away though regulation (the remaining illegaliy of keeping roosters, thus forcing you to buy a group of hens, and keeping the means of production slim), just as much of the understandings that the Meratus Dayaks possess is being thrown away for a system which fits more neatly into a capitalist production based society.
The shifting use of homesteading towards hipness is especially evident in the case of Denise Morrison whose garden was forcibly removed by city officials as they claimed it didn’t meet city ordinances. Now I don’t know what specific violations the city cited but they did remove a garden of over 100 plants for food and medicine. This begs the question, is it more that humans are unable to address knowledge gaps  - specifically ones which delineate the division between natural and man-made –or more that they are unwilling to accept the broad grey area which exists in between. However there is another important gap to consider “[the] gap between subsistence and market oriented economies… products go in and out of market value, but residents continue to appreciate them as landscape features because of their local, subsistence uses.” (Tsing, 184) however this is at a stark contrast with urban homesteading -  these products do not exist as a landscape feature, they must be specifically cultivated, and even when the market value is high there is virtually always another source for any material in a city, and when individuals turn to this type of farming out of monetary need, the money they can make from it is in all likelihood not sufficient. No, the products of homesteading for the most part are not where the actual value lies, the money to be made is in the necessary materials: chicken coups, canning supplies, and the like. As the article notes, when the demand for something grows, it’s market value rises, leaving those who actually rely on homesteading practices in a bad situation.

article referenced:

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