On Sunday afternoon, I left West Virginia where I was camping and climbing with some friends. A large winter storm that eventually dropped a foot of snow on the very place we were staying was at my back, and the largest hurricane in the Atlantic in the last quarter of a century was in front of me. Sandy hit last night without much incident for me and the people I know nearby. I was fortunate enough to keep power throughout, though a few of my friends lost it. The storm itself was loud and wet, but it seems we didn’t get the brunt of it. Hopefully, all of my friends up north are doing okay.
Jen stayed here yesterday and the day before since she didn’t have to work and it would have been unsafe for her to make the two hour trek down to Southern Maryland in the weather. We spent yesterday and today making delicious meals, doing a little work, and watching TV. One show we watched several episodes of was Downton Abbey. I’ve heard a lot about it from friends, and it seems to be very popular. Period pieces aren’t really my interest, but Jen wanted to watch it and I had no better suggestions. I can certainly see the appeal. The show depicts an aristocratic family – the owners of the Downton estate – in the teens as they struggle with the downfall of the traditional class system of England. What is perhaps most interesting is that it also shows the lives of the servants who work for the family and the complex relationships between them.
That is probably what most interested me – the way the show depicts the work that is required to maintain the estate and the position of the family. Behind the scenes, the servants prepare food, clean the house, take care of the landscape, keep track of the stocks of food, drink, and furnishings, transport the family from place to place, and even help the family dress. However, the servants aren’t the only ones responsible for the upkeep of the estate – the family members also do their share, though in a different way. They are more concerned about maintaining ties to other aristocratic families, finding sources of money to finance the estate, and doing charity work in the village nearby. It’s not that either kind of work is more or less important for keeping up the estate – without either, the whole thing would fall apart completely. However, the work of the family appears less as work and more as leisure or whim.
One could accuse Downton Abbey and myself in these last paragraphs of legitimizing the hierarchical and oppressive class structure that produces the estate. By claiming that the work of the aristocratic family is on the same level as the manual labor of the servants seems pretty counter-productive if the goal is to abolish oppression. The show is a description or representation of the way life was for aristocrats and their servants at the time (however incomplete). To me, representations and descriptions are never merely representations or descriptions – they have a power and efficacy of their own. They can make people think differently about the way things were and are. They can make people see that things don’t have to be this way – that things can be changed. And most importantly, they can point to methods and spaces that can make change possible. This is why I think description in the vein of Latour and others can be just as political and effective, if not more so, than theoretical or causal analysis.
By describing in detail the work that is done to create something – whether it’s a live bait industry, a computer model, or an aristocracy – is an important part of making a difference in the way those things are structured. I don’t know how well Downton Abby performs at this task (it would have to make us reflect upon our own class structures and the differences that can be made to them), because I’ve only seen a handful of episodes. However, it is this principle that drives my own work and that forms the basis for all of my theoretical engagements.