Sunday, July 27, 2014

On Friday after work I went up to Chicago. I met up with Nate in Hyde Park and we drove up together to Cole's art opening, standing around the gallery, chatting with random art people, and later, having a few beers at a bar near downtown, we capped the night off in Cole's studio before heading back down to Nate's. It was a nice break from the monotony of studying (and now prelims are only a week a way and to be honest, last week I kind of slacked off). Saturday morning Nate and I got breakfast and walked by the lake and around the neighborhood. Our conversation centered around a discussion of Orange Is The New Black, which both of us had recently been watching, like the good Times readers that we are, bending some of our interests to the cultural Zeitgeist/hype machine. Regardless, I've been enjoying OITNB (as it's abbreviated) and in particular have really been into the Piper Chapman character both for the obvious reasons (charming, beautiful, entertaining) as well as how her character has, to my mind, been a vehicle through which to critique the selfish desires that can co-exist with "good intentions," and illuminate the unseen consequences of a particular American lifestyle. Or to put it in a more narrativistic way, I read the personal change that Piper undergoes during the first fifteen or so episodes as a kind of karmic reckoning for a particular mode of charm that usually goes unchallenged.

Some of the first conversations Piper has in the show are with Officer Healy, who tells her that she is like him (a white, seemingly educated and middle-class person, "normal," etc.). Later an attractive female guard tells her the same thing, that the only difference between her and Piper is that Piper got caught, implying that most everybody is guilty of criminal activity but only some are punished. Piper herself, early on, makes statements that coincide with this outlook, feeling like she didn't belong in prison with the other inmates who not only looked different than her, but acted in ways indicative of their less privileged backgrounds (for more on this idea, see Bourdieu's Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, an empirical study which suggests, amongst other things, that people from working class backgrounds tend to favor the literal pleasures of "base" desires; cheap beer, sex, action movies, as opposed to the deferred pleasures of contemplation; conceptual art, literature, and opera that are favored by those in the upper classes. These specific aesthetic preferences mix together more now in 2014 America then they did in 1979 France, but Bourdieu's point is that our preferences, however cleverly masked, are shaped by economics more so than the intrinsic qualities inherent in a given form of entertainment or person. To put it another way, the pleasure of distance, deferment, or something like irony, is enjoyed from a position of relative power). 

As Piper establishes herself inside the inescapable walls of the prison she relies on her physical desirability to attract "protectors," but also uses her wit and charm to defer the inevitable problems that come with assuming one's intentions, rather than our actual impact on those around us, are what matter. Early on (spoiler alert) she offends Red, the inmate in charge of the kitchen, by spouting a fairly typical complaint: "the food is terrible," and thus, stops being given food. Eventually she does Red a favor, concocting a soothing back rub (since Piper was getting into the business of making high-end lotions before she got sent to prison) and the episode is resolved. This is one example of the kinds of interactions she continues to have, which as the first season progresses, shows her learning that the rules of prison are considerably different than the rules outside of prison. As the show depicts it, a person's status in prison depends solely on the materials at hand. One cannot use their social status to protect themselves (i.e. I will sue you) or trade in future shares (I'll just put it on my credit card) to acquire what one needs. That if you want something of material value you need to have something of material value on hand to trade for it. Another inmate gives Piper the ingredients for the lotion because the inmate is in love with Piper. Thus while Piper is able to get out of Red's bad graces, she creates another problematic relationship along the way.

Piper continues this trend, of solving one personal problem by creating another one, pissing everyone off along the way, and so Piper continues to defer the referendum on why she is there. This chain of events continues up until the last episode where (I'm serious: spoiler alert) another inmate is going to kill Piper and Piper, having alienated herself from everyone around her, has to deal with it herself. The experience changes her and we see a shift in how she relates to people, her prison experience, and the outside world. The violence she engages in to save her life causes her to reexamine her self-conception, and that maybe, in fact, she is not as "normal" as she thought she was. As season two progresses we find Piper at a kind of peace with the fact of her incarceration, which, as I interpret the show, comes from the viscerally induced realignment of her identity. That indeed, she too is a sinner, and is not above her responsibility to others; regardless of her other virtues. More politically, the kind of deferment that Piper practiced, masked by a sheen of middle-class health and common sense, is widely accepted in the States: taking out massive loans to go to school, starting a company that doesn't turn a profit for its first twenty years (Amazon), justifying the purchase of eighty dollar cheese because you work at a non-profit, or assuming that when we run out of oil scientists will find us another power source. Deferring the consequences of our pursuit of happiness until another time, which as some would argue, is what capitalism and Democracy as we know it has been founded on from the beginning.

One thing that OITNB does really well is depict the cultural and material practices of "liberals," Piper's fiance as a prime example. From The New Yorker to Whole Foods, a wish to do good awkwardly aligns with the practice of defending one's economic turf. Or more simply, that "success," i.e. winning in a capitalist society, always comes at the expense others. I'm definitely not above any of this, and arguably am a prototypical example of this kind of person, one who reads The New Yorker and, say, works under the pretense that if I work hard now I'll be rewarded later. But as as I've been watching the show these are some connections I've been making. Nate and I talked about all this stuff as we walked around Chicago yesterday, and while my reading of Piper above is largely literary. I am charmed and awed by Piper, and want her to do and be well, yet on the other hand am bothered by how she uses others to get her through. Alex, her ex-girlfriend, calls her out on this at one point towards the end of the first season, accusing Piper of doing anything, using anyone, to avoid being alone. But in the end Piper's change, a real and significant one that ultimately leads her to a better way to live and be with others, happens because she runs out of options. Abundance is a good thing, but sometimes it keeps us from moving forward. At any rate, it's Sunday afternoon and I think I'm going to take a nap now. ttyl.