Thursday, March 10, 2011

Exercises in Visibility

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. One of the local churches near my job offers ashes in the morning for folks who have to get to work, so it's not uncommon to see a flood of people downtown sporting a dusty cross on their foreheads throughout the day. I've written before about a particular homeless woman who roams the neighborhood demanding assistance from people she encounters. I use the word "demanding" intentionally because she attempts to be manipulative in her comments, saying things like "Handsome/Beautiful, can you buy me a hot dog? I'm hungry," with the added compliment of  "Are you a model?" or "You're really pretty" or "I like your tie." 

In recognition of Ash Wednesday, she added "I went to church too." It had no effect on any of the ash-marked pedestrians who streamed around her. In fact, they seemed to cut a wider path to clear her. I'm really interested in the steps she takes to become visible because it becomes a clear challenge when people are obviously working to not see her. She's not visible while I've seen others who aren't as aggressive get far more attention and assistance from others in the neighborhood. I'm wondering at what point does it become enough. She might have better luck staking out a new area—one where people don't quite know her personality.


  1. And it's really interesting how Ash Wednesday is an exercise in visability.

  2. Indeed. That would be a huge ethnographic undertaking ... Perhaps one day.

  3. This article, and the one you linked to about societal visibility, are fascinating.

    However, I would love to read more about the idea of wearing the ashes throughout the day. Since it is part of a religious ritual, there must be components of belonging and value.

    How does it differ from other outward symbols of religiousity like the yamaka or the hijab? Does it differ at all? If they are indeed similar, why has France banned one and not all three?

    I think that this is a fascinating topic and, as a seminary student, I have my own opinions. I would love to hear the opinions of someone from "outside" and understand the similarities and differences of the analysis.

    Thanks again for the great writing!

  4. Will - Thanks for your comments! You've asked great questions, and this is something that S and I were actually discussing at the moment. I will try to tackle this in a few days.