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uni'wissen 02-2015_ENG

The air shimmers in the heat. The impression from the distance is of a range of small glow- ing hills. Below the horizon is a sea of crumpled blue and gray tarps: the 65 tents all look alike. On the edge of the camp are portable toilets, and somewhere in the middle are two showers that only emit cold water. To the left and right freight trains rumble by, and overhead airplanes from the nearby airport plough through the air with an incessant low roar. The tent city in the US town of Ontario, 50 kilo- meters east of the metropolis Los Angeles, is surrounded by a two-meter-high fence. Above the entrance gate hangs a warning sign: “Entry for authorized persons only. The occupants may be criminals, rapists, or infected with diseases.” As Prof. Dr. Sieglinde Lemke stands before “Camp Hope,” she wonders where hope might be found in this place. No money, no prospects for temporary work, no social contacts – for the occupants of the tent city, the “American dream” and the “pursuit of happiness,” the foundations of American identity, are no longer anything more than empty words. “Since the last financial crisis, this has also become true of the majority of the population,” says Lemke. The Freiburg American studies professor travels to Los Angeles in 2009 to do research for her book on poverty in contemporary American culture at the University of California. She wants to study how media, art, literature, and politics negotiate and depict inequality. Her intention is actually only to work at the library, but one day she decides to drive to “Camp Hope,” founded by the town in 2008 to get the homeless off the streets. In the last ten years, tent cities like these have shot up like mushrooms in the USA – there are currently over 100 of them scattered throughout the country. “The camp felt like a cage, a cross between a campsite and a detention camp,” the researcher remembers. She conducts interviews, speaks with the guards, the volunteers distributing food, and the occupants of the site. Although Lemke’s encounters do not end up making their way into her book, she describes them as the driving force behind her cultural studies contribu- tion to the current debate on inequality. “The life histories of the people are a reflection of the common model for explaining the reasons for poverty,” says Lemke. “Individuals seek the blame for their own failure in themselves and fail to see the larger socioeconomic and political structures that have contributed to mass poverty for decades in the USA.” For example, a home- less person in the camp explains that she’s “down on her luck”; a man worked his entire life in a factory until he was finally “let go”; another regrets that she is “not blessed with many oppor- tunities.” These vague explanations show that there is no clear language for the phenomenon of poverty in the English language. The Plight of the Middle Class Six years later, the American studies professor is just finishing up the last pages of her book, which is due to come out in 2016. Up to now, the topic of poverty has been a taboo in cultural studies: “For decades, most researchers avoided the category of ‘class.’ Grappling with this term meant dealing with literature of low literary value or even being branded as a Marxist,” she says. Lemke has no fear of this danger: She analyzes everything from novels, films, comics, political speeches, and photographs to articles from newspapers, blogs, YouTube videos, and social scientific studies. Her findings reveal that people at the margins are no longer the only ones to experience inequality but that it has reached the middle of society. However, the media still tends to portray poverty from two angles: either the people themselves are at fault for their plight or they are plagued by bad luck and were never given the chance to earn a good living. “This limited view elevates poverty from a merely economic problem to a topic for cultural studies.” “If you want to understand poverty, you always have to include categories like age, gender, race, and region.” Homeless mother: Dorothea Lange’s photo- graph “Migrant Mother” is a symbol for poverty in the years of the Great Depression. In addition to misery, however, the portrait also evokes opti- mism and determination. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34-9058-C 9uni wissen 02 2015 9uni wissen 022015