“To be poor is to be unable to make something of the world.”
In Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch describes his one and only experience in the American courts. This chapter was so powerful that I feel the best way to do it justice is to quote much of section.
In reading this passage, remember the definition of “culture” we introduced earlier:
“Culture is, first of all, the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else.”
Crouch discovered that it was easy enough for his bride to change her name when they married, but there was no spot on the forms for him to change his name to reflect the union.
So I was off to probate court to legally change my name to match Catherine’s: we would each have her family name as our middle name, and my family name as our last name . . .
I walked into a vast hall echoing with footsteps and voices. Corridors led in several direction, marked with cryptic signs. A bored-looking woman wearing a badge sat behind a desk. When I explained my purpose, she pointed vaguely down one of the hallways.
After wandering in that general direction I finally found the courtroom where my petition could be heard. When I finally reached the judge’s bench to make my simple request, I found my heart pounding and my throat dry. I stammered out my reason for changing my name, answered a few questions from a the brusque though not unkind judge, and was done. I left the courthouse feeling the same mixture of triumph and exhaustion one sees on the faces of people who finish a triathlon.
I learned several things about culture during my visit to probate court.
The courthouse was, in one sense, part of my culture as an American citizen. But it was a sphere of culture I had no prior experience in. My feelings of dislocation and unease visiting the courthouse were not so different from the way I have felt when traveling in countries where I don’t speak the language. In both cases, I found myself thrust into a world-making tradition, with its own history, its own initiates who were fluent in the culture. Though I hadn’t left America – or even my own regional, ethnic and linguistic corner of America – in visiting the courthouse I had still entered a new sphere of culture, where I felt anxious and helpless. I suddenly understood why lawyers are such a good idea.
I also learned something about culture power. Within the courthouse, of course, there were people with official power. The bailiff at the desk had a degree of power, the judge at the bench had even more. But quite aside from roles and titles, the daily inhabitants of the courthouse, whatever their position in its hierarchy, had a kind of power that came merely from being fluent in that sphere of culture. They knew their way around; they even knew who had official forms of power, and that knowledge was a kind of power in itself.
For a few moments, in an admittedly very limited way, I experience what it is like to be poor. Poverty is not just a matter of lacking financial resources; it can also simply mean being cut off from cultural power. To be poor is to be unable to “make something of the world.” On first entering the courthouse I had no idea how to make something of its world. Only because I actually was not at all poor – I speak English, I am a fairly confident person, and I have the good fortune to live in a country where however vague and bored they may be, bailiffs are still expected to help ordinary citizens – was I able to navigate through the courthouse’s unfamiliar culture and remake one of my most fundamental aspects of my world: my name.”
So extending from the definition of culture as “what we make of the world”, cultural power is the ability to make something of our world.
Does that change the way you view who is poor? As an ex-pat the idea of cultural power is, well, a powerful one. Next week I’ll share my thoughts. What comes to your mind?
This is Part IV of the Culture Making series. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, and Part VIII here.