Written by Forrest Maynock
Part I: Streetwise Kids Trying to Find Themselves
The Seattle of the 1980’s as seen in Martin Bell’s Streetwise (1984), is quite the colorful and vibrant place. The documentary follows street dwelling kids who traverse the streets trying to make a living, find happiness, and discover themselves. The film itself very much follows a “fly on the wall” documentary style, with the cameras being placed in mostly static positions and simply catching the natural flow of what everyone is saying as they say it. There are traces of narration and obvious editing choices, but none of this affects the validity of the film or its contents. Streetwise follows many different adolescent characters as they live their lives on the streets of Seattle, but for this article I will only focus on two: Dwayne and Rat. Two of the more prominent adolescents in the film, their “story” arcs are quite different from one another and/as they show the duality of living life on the streets.
First and foremost, both Rat and Dwayne actually live on the streets as some of the characters in Streetwise have government housing or relatives that they spend some time with. Rat is seen living in an abandoned hotel for most of the film, and Dwayne describes his daily routine which includes “finding someone to sleep with for the night” (Streetwise, 1984). Both of these kids also have a strong knack for street hustling; Rat openly flaunts his different survival skills throughout the film which include a trick for getting free pizzas, and tips for dumpster diving, and Dwyane is seen panhandling extensively. In the Rat’s situation, there is a clear case of self cultivation taking place where Rat uses the situation he is in to make himself stronger to the world sound him; in many ways, this connects with Michel Foucault’s concept of Technologies of the Self, from Foucault’s paper of the same name (Foucault, 1988), in that kids like Rat actively use the cultural tools around them to build themselves as individuals. In this case, the cultural tools are the survival skills and dialect of the streets. These sorts of examples of self-reliance are seen throughout the film and while some tactics are clever, others are simply sad; one kid donates blood in order to eat, and many of the female characters in the film (all underage) prostitute themselves to make money.
Life on the streets is not an easy one. As Robert Desjarlais says in his article titled Struggling Along: The Possibilities for Experience among the Homeless Mentally Ill (2010), “[g]iven the basic conditions of life on the streets, finding a smooth day where nothing much happens has its value” (Dejarlais, pp. 170, 2010); there are no slow days really shown during Streetwise, almost every frame has some form of action going on, and the streets of 1980’s Seattle seem very lively. Yet many of the adolescents presented in the film seem to value moments of quiet and introspection. In these cases of action, the adolescents are engaging in activities that they would normally not be exposed to, and are therefore experiencing things outside of the “normal” scope of understanding for kids their age (early to late teens). However, the cases of introspection included are often a recalling of their lives with family, or wishes for a “normal” future. This all results in a case of fractured self, where underage children live and act as adults, but are also children who alter themselves to fit in and survive. This idea can be nicely summed up by Katherine Ewing who says in her paper titled The Illusion of Wholeness: Culture, Self, and the Experience of Inconsistency (1990) that:
“When we consider the temporal flow of experience, we can observe that individuals are continuously reconstituting themselves into new selves in response to internal and external stimuli. They construct these new selves from their available set of self-representations, which are based on cultural constructs. The particular developmental histories of these self-representations are shaped by the psychological processes of the individual” (Ewing, pp. 258, 1990).
This shows how the kids of Streetwise may use their existing cultural knowledge to build a new self-representation for themselves that is street savvy and fiercely independent from their “old” lives with family and structure, but also longing for some form of normalcy.
Beyond basic street life comparisons, Rat and Dwayne, like many of the adolescents introduced throughout the film, share what could be described as a broken or dysfunctional home. Dwayne visits his father who is in prison for arson, and after going over future plans, his father berates him for his life choices and tries to make sure he is “on the right path.” It is clear from Dwayne’s body language that he feels abandoned and neglected. Rat on the other hand seems to repress whatever feelings he has for his family as indicated in a scene where he describes calling his mother, and essentially hanging up on her after hearing her start to cry. Along with this, Rat tries to blend in with the crowd; Rat does not want to stand out, and he makes this clear at several points through the film. Here we can see two divergent paths: Rat takes the path of independence by simply wanting “to be a man among other men” (Fanon, 85), or a cosmopolitan hiding among other individuals. Dwayne needs a guiding figure as he cannot do everything on his own, and as evidenced by the conversation with his father, he feels alone and dejected. Where Rat rejects the need or want for a family structure and strives to be an independent individual, Dwayne seems lost without some kind of structure to his life which tragically culminates in his death by suicide. While in custody after being detailed by juvenile services, Dwayne takes his own life by hanging; the only attendees to his funeral are his father, some of his father’s prison guards, and the social workers who tried to work with Dwayne as best as they could. This tragic end can be contrasted with Joao Biehl’s book Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (2013); the book explores Vita, a place for the mentally ill and unwanted to be sent to live out their lives. The book states that “life that no longer has any value for society is hardly synonymous with a life that no longer has any value for the person living it” (Biehl, pp. 366, 2013); this sentiment is contrasted by Dwayne who is seemingly in quite the opposite mindset in terms of his life’s own value. He is not not valued by society, and is essentially abandoned in the care of the state, and he also does not have value for his own life, or rather, he gave up on his life due to the prevailing circumstances of his own case. Dwayne also was in a disciplinary institution that pulled him away from his father’s plans; this situation reminds me of Gilles Deleuze who discusses the concept of “disciplinary societies” and “societies of control” in his paper titled Postscript on the Societies of Control (1992). In this instance, Dwayne was in a disciplinary institution that essentially reset and further warped his life from that of a young teenager into a hardened member of the criminal justice system. As his social worker states in the film, “[Dwayne] just wanted to grow up as what he saw as a normal kid” (Streetwise, 1984).
The kids shown in this movie have not only been affected by the world around them, but simultaneously altered their “selves” to fit in the culture of the street. They survive by cultivating themselves to be more accustomed to the way of street life, and altering their “inner self” to become a stronger person; this can be seen with many of the kids who mention the sort of life they would want in the future with many wishing for a more simple and “normal” life, and one not on the streets. They cannot develop as “normal” kids, but instead must adjust their lives to fit within the rules of the street. In the case of Dwayne, the lack of “normal” experiences, and being a victim of “disciplinary society” seem to have been the contributing factors in his self demise. On the other hand, instead of becoming a victim, Rat only used his acquired knowledge of the streets to harden and remake himself from a “helpless child” into another denizen of the streets. These kids are colorful individuals who have a sense of wholeness that is like a fractured mirror or kaleidoscope; some wish to remain kids, and others adapt and mold themselves. They lose their “innocent child self” in the broken home and, like Rat, build and cultivate a new self on the streets, but for some, like Dwayne, this is no substitute for the life lost. As time moves on, so do the residents of the street. The picture of streetlife in 1984 is downright quaint when juxtaposed with life on the streets in 2020.
Part II: A City of Walking Corpses
Seattle is Dying (2019) and The Fight for the Soul of Seattle (2020) are two documentaries done by Komo News, a Seattle based news agency, that explores an institutional system that fails to rehabilitate and only compounds the already existing problems by sending people back to the street without any help and without consequences for actions. These two documentaries are different from Streetwise; where Streetwise utilizes a “fly on the wall approach” with little self inserted narration and narrative editing, these two documentaries rely on individual interviews, heavy self inserted narration, document analysis, and unedited footage of those on the streets. The Seattle of 2020 that is presented is night and day when compared to the Seattle of 1984. Yes, many of the same problems existed, but there was a system in place that at least seemed to care in Streetwise, and a people living on the streets that had not gone completely off the deep end of reality and off into the deep cold waters of irrationality.
Unlike Streetwise, there really is no primary set of characters to follow, but instead a number of issues that are tackled as well as small vignettes that give more in-depth explorations of street dwellers and other concerned citizens and officials. The first element that stands out in these two documentaries is the evident lack of policing and institutional presence in Seattle. In this iteration of Seattle, the “disciplinary society” discussed by Deleuze in his paper Postscript on the Societies of Control has been done away with in favor of a society more in line with Biehl and his book Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment; the difference between contemporary Seattle and what Biehl reported is that there is no fixed place where the unwanted are left to be abandoned. In the Seattle of 2020, the homeless are simply ignored by the local institutions not out of spite, but out of some misguided social experimentation that dismisses “crimes of poverty” where addiction can be used as a defense for committing a crime. In Seattle, the police are being defunded, charges are dropped, repeat offenders are simply released without consequences, and cases that do go to court end with no sentences being given. As one Seattle police officer is quoted as saying in the documentary Seattle is Dying (2019): “In the last five years there has been a culture shift and it started with the legislature decriminalizing felonies and dumping convicts onto the streets.” As evidenced by one homeless individual who appears in both documentaries, Travis Berge, homeless individuals evade jail or rehabilitation time, and in many cases go on to commit even worse crimes. In the case of Travis Berge, the crimes started off small, but escalated to attempted rape and finally murder after he drove a nail into his girlfriend’s head while in a tent somewhere in the streets of Seattle. A few hours after the murder Travis committed suicide by drowning himself in bleach. Looking at this case, we can see how Travis was essentially abandoned to do as he pleased; with no consequences for his actions, there was no way of limiting the extent of his actions. This shows the value of disciplinary institutions and the role that they play in maintaining order in society, and how a society that devalues and abandons these systems and the people they are supposed to help operates. As another police officer was quoted as saying: “Intervention of some sort has to be made on the people who are involved. If there’s no intervention, there’s no solution” (Seattle is Dying, 2019).
One of the other major arguments presented in the second of these two documentaries, The Fight for the Soul of Seattle (2020), is that, as one drug addict turned university student states of the homeless in Seattle: “[They] have lost the ability to participate in a society.” This, tied with the restrictions placed on the police by the city counsel of Seattle and the clear lack of support from family members in many (not all) casesformulate the central issue currently happening in Seattle. Here we can see an example of a society that has rejected societies of discipline and control in favor of an anarchic every-man-for-himself wasteland. In this wasteland, the abandoned homeless are left to struggle along. I am reminded of a quote from Robert Desjarlais’ paper:
“We cannot speak of a strong narrative line here, for while people tell stories and events tumble along, the episodes rarely add to a narrative wholly dependent on a poetics of coherence, continuity, and climax- as narrative is usually defined” (Dejarlais, pp. 169, 2010).
The homeless of Seattle are left to rot on the street with no one to care or worry for them, having no goals other than feeding addictions, and following no discernible logic. Hence there is the lack of narrative that Dejarlais discusses. Many struggle with addictions and demons, and few are able to even stand upright. There is however a solution that is discussed; in the documentary The Fight for the Soul of Seattle, a facility for these homeless crime violators is suggested, and the layout of the facility, called Hope Haven, provides a place for rehabilitation and one-on-one social worker and psychological meetings to help these individuals through their own personal issues. A facility like Hope Haven is different from what Robert Dejarlais explores in his paper Struggling Along: The Possibilities for Experience among the Homeless Mentally Ill. Dejarlais discussed those who struggle along while in a homeless shelter, and how they lack the experience of a normal person, but in the case of Hope Haven, their goals are to help homeless and addicted individuals regain their ability to experience and participate in society as a part of a narrative structure with coherence, continuity, and climax.
One of the issues with a facility like Hope Haven is that these struggling individuals may not be receptive or willing to participate in such a system. While the goal is to free them from the addiction of street drugs and provide psychological help, the result will likely be replacing the street drugs and mental issues with prescribed drugs. In Biehl’s book the central character, Catarina, is quoted as saying: “‘I am allergic to doctors. Doctors want to be knowledgeable, but they don’t know what suffering is. They only medicate’” (Biehl, 78); this sort of distrust of doctors may be one commonly held among the homeless population. The question these two documentaries try to answer is how to fix the problem at hand, and considering the state of Seattle presented in these two documentaries, medication does not seem like a radical action. There is however the question of how these medicaid drugs will affect the users: how much further will the medicated drugs make those taking them readjust their self representations and overall identity? For Katherine Ewing, this would only further shatter the “illusion of wholeness” that she perceives, but what practical effects would these medicated drugs have? The drugs that these mentally ill homeless people would need to take would not be the neuroenhancing drugs like Ritalin that college students take to get an edge, but would instead be antipsychotics that enhance little besides behavior, and repress a lot of the brain’s “mistakes.” There could however be an argument made that antipsychotics are in fact “enhancers” that allow a person with cognitive disabilities to function on a level similar to the average person. As discussed by Margaret Talbot in her 2009 New Yorker article titled “Brain Gain,” research is currently being done in pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs that will treat symptoms associated with schizophrenia and bipolar depression.
The homeless individuals of 2020 struggle along on the street, and in turn cause those around them to also struggle along in apathy; as evidenced many times in each documentary, the homeless of Seattle writhe around in agony as onlookers lower their heads and try to pass unnoticed. Abandoned by their own institutions and left to roam the streets unchallenged and unchecked, the homeless of Seattle do as they please and devolve into a life of constant drug highs and petty/violent crimes. There are however solutions being discussed that would rectify the immediate problem, but may also reinforce societies of discipline and control, and replace street drugs with medicated drugs. The choice is in the hands of Seattle voters who live their daily lives in Seattle and see the results of institutional abandonment; how they proceed in the coming years will be key in determining the fate of the homeless population of Seattle.
Part III: The “Self” and Where to Find It
Currently, the State of Washington is less like a member of the United States, and more like a new iteration of the Wild West. The Wild Pacific-Northwest if you will, one inhabited by drug addicted human husks who resemble humans, but act more as zombies wandering the streets not in search of brains, but in search of drugs and money to fulfill their addictions. South Park saw the homeless as zombies all the way back in 2007 with an episode titled “Night of the Living Homeless.” While this example was a farcical one, it does hit close to home and stands as a testament of how the show’s social satire remains relevant to this day.
When seeing the current situation in Seattle, I do not see the unique individuals portraying themselves in an eccentric manner as was presented in Streetwise. I instead see dead soulless faces and eyes filled only with pain, and maybe a hint of confusion. Streetwise showed us a simpler time and a simpler people; people were outsiders and the system wasn’t perfect, but everyone was an individual with hopes and aspirations. Seattle is Dying and The Fight for the Soul of Seattle show a city where the outsiders have been left to spiral their lives out of control. When left unattended and untouched, the sorts of mental illnesses that these people (often) suffer from will only exacerbate and lead to drug addiction and mental anguish. When someone reaches this point, their “self,” or capacity to function as a sentient individual, is either gone or buried under an almost insurmountable weight. Considering Katherine Ewing’s discussion of the illusion of wholeness, if the self truly remakes itself for different situations, then the selves of many of these homeless individuals shift by the minute or even second; the shift is constant and random. As Dejarias found, there is a lack of experience, but to take it even a step further for Seattle’s case, there is a lack of self; there are imitations of selves and shadows of what once was, but there is no deliberate, stable self to build from in a meaningful way. If the homeless of Boston lack narrative, then the homeless of Seattle lack grounded reality. Homelessness and mental illness is a combination that makes up one of the darkest pandemics in America presently. Discarded by both political parties and their own families, people of varying ages take to the streets and live a fractured life. In the case of Seattle, their lives may not even be within reach any longer. Sometimes people can break the cycle, make it off of the streets, and start over; this was shown to be the case by several individuals in Seattle is Dying and The Fight for the Soul of Seattle, but most of the time they descend into a state of struggling along and wishing/hoping for a better life (self), and even further down they may lose their “self” completely and become a real life zombie with a hunger only for feeding an addiction.
By attacking societal institutions, we push the homeless and mentally ill further into madness. We must reform and better institutions, not burn them to the ground in the name of tumbling power structures or accepting eccentric personalities and individuals. If nothing is done, then the homeless of Seattle will only increase and slowly slip farther and farther towards an existence where animalistic tendencies replace human traits. Rescuing these individuals will not be easy, but something must be done for them, and for the sake of those around them.
Rat, the dumpster diving boy from Streetwise, was interviewed in a short film titled Rat: Revisited (2021). He is a different person now, with a job, wife, kids, and grandkids. While viewing scenes from the original film, Rat stated that if he could go back he would not change anything because that life made him who he currently is. Sometimes a person may need to go through life on the streets, or life with addiction to find themselves and their place in the world, but help and intervention should not be ignored and belittled; sometimes the system is best, but it can always be improved upon. At the beginning of Streetwise, Rat says,
“I love to fly. It’s just you’re alone, there’s peace and quiet, nothing around you but clear blue sky. No one to hassle you. No one to tell you where to go or what to do. The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the fuckin’ world” (Streetwise, 1984).
When someone is living in their own world of addiction and mental illness, they are in the sky all by themselves, but sooner or later the party will end, and coming back to the real world may be painful and challenging, but in order to live in the world we must overcome the pain and challenges and find our place among the people.
Bell, M. (1984). Streetwise. Bear Creek.
Bell, M. (2021). Streetwise Revisited: Rat. The Criterion Collection.
Biehl, J. (2013). Vita: Life in a zone of social abandonment. Univ of California Press.
Desjarlais, R. (1994). Struggling along: the possibilities for experience among the homeless mentally Ill 886. American Anthropologist, 96(4), 886-901.
Deleuze, G. (1992). Postscript on the Societies of Control. In Cultural Theory: An Anthology, 139-142.
Ewing, K. P. (1990). The illusion of wholeness: Culture, self and the experience of inconsistency. Ethos, 18(3), 251-278.
Fanon, F. (1952). “Chapter 5 The Facts of Blackness.” From Black skin, white masks. Grove press.
Foucault, M. (1988). “Technologies of the Self.” In Technologies of the Self, edited by Luther Martin, Huck Gutman and Patrick Hutton. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 16-49.
Johnson, E. (2019). Seattle is Dying. KOMO News.
Johnson, E. (2020). The Fight for the Soul of Seattle. KOMO News.
Parker, T. (2007). “Night of the Living Homeless.” From South Park. Viacom. Talbot, M. (2009). Brain gain. The New Yorker, 32-43.
This paper is originally written as an assignment for the course Anthropology of the Self (2021), offered by Dr. Takeshi Uesugi