Pink Pigs and Other Local Knowledge

My references earlier this week to Brian Wood's Demo inspired me to reread something I wrote in January about his new project, Local. This is excerpted from an essay that will run in a forthcoming issue of Cultural Anthropology. It was written as part of a tribute to the great American Studies scholar George Lipsitz. So often, cultural critics accuse digital media of undercutting our relations to the local, cutting us off from the world around us. So often, cyberspace advocates have constructed the digital through their own fantasies of dislocation, seeing it as a space where one is liberated from parochial constraints rather than authenticated through local cultures. Consider, for example, John Perry Barlow's famous formulation in "A Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace": "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather .... Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live." Here, Barlow renounces all claims upon the local while insisting that the local renounce all claims on him. So it is refreshing to learn about a project where the web is being used to heighten our awareness of local cultures.

A case in point: Brian Wood's Local. Brian Wood is an alternative comics writer whose work has the feel of an independent movie -- complex and compelling characters, rich attention to detail, a slight political edge, and narratives that resemble well-crafted short stories. I was unimpressed by some of his early work but he took off a few years back with Demo, a series that used the superhero metaphor to talk about everyday people in everyday situations. Now, he has three very different series running -- Supermarket, which is a political action thriller; DMZ, which deals with an embedded journalist in Manhattan in the midst of a war on terror that has cut the city off from the rest of America; and Local.

As Brian Wood, Local's author, explains:

People use the place of their birth as an identifier, they wear it as a badge of honor. It's shorthand to explain huge chunks of their personality. Some people stay in their hometown for a lifetime, while others can't leave quickly enough, only to feel it pull them back.

Each issue of Local takes place in an American city or town (such as Richmond, Portland, Burlington, Halifax, Madison, or Minneapolis), cities that are rarely depicted in our popular culture but have a strong sense of location. Wood solicited photographs of these communities from people who lived there, collecting local landmarks that can help ground his stories, and includes guides to these cities written by local authors in the back of many issues.

To publicize the series, Wood has constructed a website where people can submit accounts of their own local communities, pitching them as locations for future storylines. Others can come and vicariously consume their sense of the local with either a specific nostalgia for a place they no longer live or with a generalized appreciation of the imagined authenticity of local experience.

I am intrigued by the idea that cyberspace may be a place where authentic locals can be produced, shared, traded, and consumed. These local memories are becoming more and more precious in a world where the average American moves once every five years and often across regions. This sense of the local speaks to me as a southern ex-pat living in the North who is watching many of my ties back to Atlanta, my home town, breakdown as my mother and father pass away and we sell off family property.

The Truth About The Pink Pig

So I was very interested to find on the Local site a poster describing a landmark that was very much part of my own experience of growing up in Atlanta:

The Pink Pig rollercoaster sits on top of Lenox Mall. It's one of those wacky, only-in-America local traditions by which I'm both embarrassed and mystified. The ride goes up sometime in November every year--it marks the holiday shopping season. It sits on top of Macy's, in a tent bursting with pink pig merchandise, nostalgic pictures of pink pigs from the past, pink carpet, a Christmas tree decorated with pigs....To me, it seems silly and indulgent and another one of those weird effects of rampant consumerism. But then again, it's only a dollar to ride. And everybody's got to have some local holiday tradition.

Of course, as a native Atlantan of long-ago, I remember when the store was called Rich's and was locally owned and operated (Indeed, one of my great aunts spent her entire life working for this Atlanta-based department store). Rich's was deeply enmeshed in the history of Atlanta going back to a dry good store created by Hungarian immigrant Morris Rich on Whitehall Street in 1867. The downtown department store, established in 1924, remained a center of the local culture, politics, and economy into the 1970s. The store was long noted for its liberal exchange and credit policy which allowed many poor Atlantans to buy into consumer culture for the first time. (There are so many classic stories about poor people bringing goods that were purchased decades before and trading them in for cash at Richs. This was in an era where the customer was always right and where the store cared what happened to the people in their local community.) Martin Luther King got arrested during a sit-in at Rich's Magnolia room in 1960.

Federated Department Stores acquired Richs in 1975 and merged it with R.H. Macy and Company in 1994. In a prime example of corporate insensitivity to local traditions, the chain renamed all of the remaining outlets Macy's in 2005. Given the rapid turnover in a city like Atlanta, few local residents may remember that there ever was a store called Richs or that it worked so hard to maintain its ties with its local customers.

So, I bristled at an account that describes the Pink Pig as a Macy's tradition. I also recall that the Pink Pig once ran along the top of the downtown flagship store of the Rich's chain -- at a time when the ride allowed you to see the city's skyline and circle the Great Tree. The lighting of the Great Tree on Thanksgiving night long represented the start of the Christmas season in Atlanta. When the flagship department store closed in the mid-1970s, it was widely read as the final sign of white flight from downtown. The Pink Pig was relocated to the suburbs where it ran along the third story rooftop of a suburban cluster mall.

And of course, because of the erasure of history here, the poster misses the final irony: the Pink Pig became the Christmas tradition of an immigrant merchant (widely whispered to be Jewish) operating within a Bible Belt society, a final wink at the very process of assimilation. Today, it is just another brand icon -- no more or less ironic than the white polar bears which Coca Cola has decided we should associate with the holiday season and its own locally produced brand of sugar and soda. It is probably the last thing that distinguishes the Atlanta Macy's from the chain stores elsewhere around the country. What one woman sees as emblematic of the preservation of local culture was experienced by me - an Atlantan of a different generation -- as equally emblematic of the ways local cultures are being displaced and destroyed.

The Limits of Local Knowledge

Ironically, of course, this desire to produce a multitude of local experiences means that neither the writer Brian Wood (who was born in Vermont) nor the artist Ryan Kelly (who lives in Minneapolis) have personal ties to most of the places they are depicting and in some cases, they have never been there at all. Moreover, the central protagonist, whose travels and experiences provide the glue which links the various local stories together, must be continually dislocated, can live no place because she has to go everyplace. One recent issue set in Nova Scotia seemingly parodied this sense of dislocation: she comes into town and starts work at the Oxford Cinema, a local retro house; she picks up stray name badges from the drawer in the ticket booth and tries to assume those various identities, making up back stories to go with the names, until her various lies catches up with her.

So, the stories are mapped onto the local but do not originate there; the protagonist, like the reader, passes through the local but never resides there. As Woods explains:

The Local stories will be universal, whether you live in Portland, the Pacific Northwest, America, or the rest of the world. But, for the locals, the stories will contain landmarks and references that'll be instantly recognizable.

The series, in short, encourages a fascination with the "local" as a kind of authenticity but it may not be able to produce the kind of local knowledge it is seeking -- not in a world so much subject to flux and change. The local may exist for us now simply as an object of nostalgia -- but not as a real place you can go back and visit from time to time. Susan Stewart taught us that nostalgia represents a desire to return to a world that never really existed.

My family roots go back at least six generations in Georgia, probably more: my grandfather moved from the country to the city after World War I; my father lived in Atlanta his entire life; I have lived in four different cities; my son has lived in eight. Of course, if we had stayed for another generation in Atlanta, we would not have slowed down the process of change: the joke is that Atlanta's skyline looks different every time you drive into work in the morning. Cultural historians and anthropologists understand the local as always in flux and transition, a place where traditions are constantly being invented and reinvented. Indeed, some research suggests that those who remain behind may embrace change, where-as those who left seem to adopt a much more conservative perspective - wanting to be able to return home whenever they want to a world that looks just like it did when they left. We hold onto the idea of deeply rooted local cultures as a way of speaking about what we feel lacking in our own everyday lives. In such a world, the local represents where we are from and not necessarily where we live. We festishize the local because we can never really possess it.