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subversion - a condescending and diffident definition

Everglade's picture

According to Flanagan, subversion is “a powerful means for marginalized groups to have a voice”. I try to think of an experience in Philadelphia that corresponds to this, and calls to mind my encounter with a homeless person.When I was exhausted after a walking tour and sat on the ground having a rest near city hall, a deranged straggly old man walked towards me and started murmuring. It was a total shock, as I’ve never encountered a homeless person before, and held a stereotypical fear of them, so I said I don’t understand English and left in a hurry. I wasn’t lying, because I really couldn’t understand a single word he said. But as I walked away I heard a sentence that I could catch, “I just wanna give you a compliment!” I was perplexed—this is the city center, the place on the postcard in airport stores for every newcomer to see, where skyscrapers and banks cluster and every tourist visit, where cleaners work at midnight to keep it spectacular, and yet he felt so at ease despite of the fact that he didn’t have a house and clean clothes. He even offered me a generous welcome as a host, a welcome to the city as his home, a welcome to his world.

Yes, his world. Maybe there’s a parallel world seen from the homeless people’s perspective. Seen from the surface, center city is a gorgeous, expensive place with people walking around in suits. To the homeless people, it’s a well-knit community where every necessity is within walking distance, an optimal place to live; they are familiar with every scribble in hidden alleys, and they know the slang particular to this area. And all the fancy places could be their playground: Logan Square is a cozy place for a nap under the warm sun; the Free Library is a place with air conditioner where they can sit down and kill some time; Love Square is an ideal place to skateboard, and the couples taking wedding photos are just their audience. I think I’m a college student exploring the city, becoming familiar with the city because I start to be able to get around without a map; to them, I’m just a kid and a newcomer to their territory, who knows nothing about the city. 

Now I perceive the city in a different way and I’m glad of the change, corresponding to Flanagan’s description of disruption as can “shift the way a particular logic or paradigm is operating” and subversion as “a creative act rather than a destructive act”. But I really don’t like the word subversion. Subversion means to change a situation from below. The homeless people are not below. No one is below. The word is inaccurate and subjective and condescending. How can one appreciate an artwork if he thinks the artist is of a lower level and he is superior? What if the artist is just playing and expressing his passion, with no aim of changing a situation? Why does one have to define the purpose of an artwork, or even to create one that doesn’t exist, rather than just enjoy the art? And the reason why anyone would worry a so-called subversion be destructive—destroying the existing social structure—is that the presence is unreasonable and ought to be changed. So people who use the word subversion are actually diffident and guilty of their social position and are afraid that changes inspired by subversive art will deprive them of their possession. I would prefer not to use any word to define other people’s action but just to fully devote into my experience.


nightowl's picture


Everglade opens with Flanagan’s definition of subversion. She then relays her story about the city and ends the paragraph having me feel unsure and excited to know what she thinks about subversion based on her experience. She works to connect Flanagan’s definition to her experience in this paragraph and therefore opens up the definition of the word to be played with based on an interpretation of her story.

Clairity's picture

Everglade begins with

Everglade begins with Flanagan's words about "subversion". She further illustrates this idea by telling a story that happened to her in the city. Her encounter with an old homeless man set off her thoughts. The old man gave her a different welcome to the city. I'm drawn to her unique story, because people don't usually get welcome from the homeless. She plays by explaining her feelings and by contrasting the old man with the high class city environment.