Cultural Capital in The Halfway House

In The Halfway House, those living in the home struggle to find their personal identities, often lost in a world which abuses their rights as individuals.  One way in which some of the characters do succeed in differentiating themselves is through cultural capital. At first the halfway house appears to be at the very bottom of the “cultural capital” ladder. However, one of the things that this book so aptly brings to light is the hidden culture, and use of “cultural capital,” which exists within the confines of the house.

Cultural capital becomes an extremely important tool for to those who know how to use it. While other means of capital are withheld from the members of the house, particularly financial capital, cultural capital is something that some of the characters are able to use to their benefit. The clearest example of this is William’s use of cultural capital. His literacy and interest in books clearly separates him from the other “insane” members of the house. Arsenio, the manager of the house, acknowledges this at one point:

He looks at the books I [William] have in my hand… “you’re not crazy,” he [Aresnio] says (45).

William is very conscious of the cultural capital that he maintains and he uses that capital to his benefit. The books and his literary knowledge of them put him a step above the rest, his intellect allowing him to “pass,” to some extent, into the world of the “sane.” When, at the end of the book, William needs the help of Dr. Paredes, he again uses cultural capital for personal gain. By talking about Hemingway with the doctor, William is respected in the world of the “sane” and uses that for his own good.

The use of cultural capital in The Halfway House made me think about how we define notions of “sane” and “insane.” If cultural capital can be used as a way to define oneself as “sane,” or at least more sane, is our notion of sanity to some extent a measured by our ability and/or willingness to use capital – cultural, financial or otherwise – to adjust ourselves socially? In other words, does access to capital give you access to the mainstream world of the “sane?”  This seems highly problematic to me, particularly because we tend to think of sanity as something that is rooted in the interior (perhaps problematic in itself). In this book, however, sanity tends to be greatly defined by one’s means to capital.

Williams uses cultural capital to bring himself into the world of the sane. Mr. Curbelo, the owner of the house, uses financial capital to maintain his authority as the “sane” one, even though his sadistic practices affecting the housemates seem as disturbed as some of the “insane” house members’ deranged practices. Arsenio uses his position of power as a form of capital, even though William often appears saner than Arsenio. It is important to differentiate between these different types of capital, since clearly financial capital is different than cultural capital. But it does seem troublesome to me that access to these forms of capital can define someone as sane, when many who are labeled as “insane” and living in the halfway house may have simply been denied access to these forms of capital.

How, then, is sanity really being defined? Is the relationship of sanity to capital a uniquely American, “capitalistic” notion? Is Rosales’ critique of capitalism and consumer culture also, in this light, a critique of the way in which we define sanity/insanity? I think its important to look at how we as the reader and how the book in the context of American society labels certain individuals as sane/insane. We tend to think of insanity as an interior quality of the individual, when in reality it may be defined by that individual’s access to exterior means.

Acceptable Queer Identities

There has been interesting hype in the blogosphere and media world for a new documentary to air this summer on PBS, “OUT in America,” by director Andrew Goldberg. The documentary will explore LGBT history over the past 50 years.  While the documentary does not seem to be particularly groundbreaking as far as its subject – quite a few documentaries have been made about LGBT/queer history – it does seem to be different in a few ways. One of these ways is that it is being broadcast on a fairly mainstream network (ie. not Logo), which, though tending to be liberal, does not have a predominantly queer audience. As such, it is interesting how the documentary is being described right now in the cyber world and what that means. The blog/media hype also touches on Latin@ issues within the queer world. Speaking about the documentary, one blog says:

“From a gay rancher to a Latino rapper, Puerto Rico’s first openly gay and HIV positive political candidate to a Muslim lesbian, these individual tales of discovery are united in their collective truth.”               

It seems to me that the documentary wants to try and force people to rethink and broaden their notions of what is acceptable in the queer community, and I think that they do this with good intent. But when the film, or at least those writing about it, puts emphasis on certain more “unusual” queer subjects, those who a non-queer audience might be more surprised to find out are not in fact straight, how does that affect the queer person being highlighted? For example, in calling attention to a rapper who is Latin@ and also queer (oh my!), what is the documentary saying?  It seems to me that to a certain extent, they are assuming that their audience should be surprised with such a scenario. Likewise, is the film’s audience to be that surprised that a Muslim woman might also be a lesbian?

Perhaps in a broader context, this issue brings to light what it means to be acceptable as an “out” individual.  Fifty years ago, being out as queer would have been controversial for nearly anyone who came out. Being out in your professional life was almost unheard of.  A queer professor I had last semester at Wesleyan said that when he applied to be a professor here 40 years ago it was controversial for him to be Jewish, and being openly queer was completely out of the question. Obviously today, that has changed. It is common to find openly queer professors at a liberal arts university. Our notions of what it means to be a “normal” queer person have been modified, but there continues to be a more “surprising” type of queer person (such as the queer Latin@ rapper), certainly outside of the queer community but at times within it as well.

In the readings we have done so far, the authors seem to struggle with and at times to try and reform what it means to be “acceptably” queer. As they try to construct their identities as both Latin@ and queer, Anzaldúa and Rodriguez are aware of how their identities are or are not acceptable in mainstream queer culture and in mainstream heterosexual culture. They realize that there are certain “acceptable” queer identity formations, and as Latin@ and queer they seek to challenge our notions of what is acceptable and not surprising. If this film is attempting to show how far we have come in the past 50 years on our collective acceptance of the queer community, it also brings to light how far we have to go until this country is not surprised at the notion of a queer Latin@ rapper or a Muslim lesbian.