Tiny Houses, Poverty Appropriation, and Stepping Back as a Critical Move

Once you cross that line into critical consciousness, nothing else is ever the same—professionally or personally. While I doubt this was Jeff Vandermeer’s intent, his Area X of the Southern Reach Trilogy provides a perfect metaphor for this critical “you can’t go home again.”

Maybe the most pressing aspect of being critical is the loneliness, the isolation you recognize when you are no more at home among traditional/conservative environments or progressive/liberal ones.

A close second is the exhaustion felt once you realize being critical is not something you can simply turn off in order to function at the so-called normal level—just to be one of the crowd among friends.

I was reminded of this while grabbing lunch and falling into a conversation with a very smart and very critical friend who was reading about tiny houses.

Here’s the great critical mistake: I had already worked through tiny houses (the problem with poverty appropriation) and just shut the door (hint: if you ever shut the door, you ain’t being critical).

So when my friend spoke positively about tiny houses and the movement, we did what we do: Launching into a fairly passionate conversation that certainly sounded to anyone nearby like an argument.

My first response to this exchange is to confess that I was guilty of not doing the critical move that everyone should make: No matter where you stand on an issue, no matter how much you have unpacked and teased through all the complications, you must always be willing to step back and look again, to listen once more.

Further, as I made my claims, I recognized that my argument about most issues being way more complicated than people realize is incredibly relevant to how we should respond to the tiny house movement—which does smack of poverty appropriation but also promotes a critical investigation of what it means to create a space for living as well as what it means to be a consumer trapped in the allure of gathering ever-more stuff.

The discussion unfolded along a clear line—my skepticism about the majority of those embracing the tiny house movement versus my friend’s appreciation for the possibilities of tiny house ideologies.

We also were wrestling with to what degree do intentions matter, the good intentions problem.

Ultimately, the tiny house movement does present a real concern about poverty appropriation, but the movement itself also forces anyone who is critical to return to an important aspect of being critical, the need to step back and recognize that no issue is as simple as most people think.

So what do we do once we see the poverty appropriation in the tiny house movement, once our critical consciousness is triggered?

Resist a blanket discounting seems a wise caution.

Continue to study, to listen, seems a necessary step as well so here are some ways I found to continue thinking critically about the tiny house movement:

Navigating the tiny house movement may seem too academic, too removed from our every day lives (since some of our discussion was strongly grounded in how being privileged allows someone to make decisions that can easily trivialize many people’s lives that are without such choices). But I think how we manage this issue is a powerful example of all of our living once we have critical consciousness.

To be critical, Paulo Freire argued, is to resist fatalism, and thus, if our critical sensibility erases hope, unpacks anything and everything so finely that we are left paralyzed, then we are not being critical.

To be critical is to recognize that being human is a political act; we are always securing the status quo or affecting change. No other option exists.

Being critical must not be reduced to mere academic dismantling—the state of fatalism—if it is to remain critical, and thus revolutionary.

Being critical is not mere cynicism, not the calloused dismissing of a hand waved.

And that leads me to a final thought on being critical: Surround yourself with smart friends, and then be always ready to listen.

To return to my opening nod, Vandermeer’s Area X, we must add to our critical consciousness that interrogating tiny houses, for example, is a subset of investigating the larger systems within which any movement or behavior exists (my friend uses an analogy to veganism, trying to unpack its ethics versus the ethics of meat eating).

Area X is expanding, seemingly unstoppable, and it changes everything, including people (maybe replacing them with copies) and anyone’s perception of reality.

There is always another level if we are willing to step back far enough, but as soon as we do, we often see ourselves in the mirror of criticism, and then, another layer of discomfort awaits us.

I certainly need to keep stepping back. I certainly need to face myself in that mirror.

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