Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Fragile Community

I won't go into the trouble I had getting home due to the major snowstorm on the east coast on Friday. But the unanticipated delays gave me time to do some reading, and Larry Frey, who had been a generous and congenial host to me for the last few days in Boulder, had given me a copy of a book he co-authored. And I had the time to read it cover-to-cover.

The book is The Fragile Community: Living Together With Aids by Mara Adelman and Lawrence R. Frey (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997), an award-winning volume in the Everyday Communication: Case Studies in Behavior in Context book series supervised by Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz and Stuart J. Sigman (the latter now Academic Vice-President at Naropa University, for whom I did a lecture on Thurs., and who took Larry and me out to dinner Thursday evening to the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, a fabulous Tajikistani restaurant offering global cuisine; the restaurant itself was built in Tajikistan and reassembled in Boulder, piece by piece, and is absolutely gorgeous); this is the same series in which Casey Man Kong Lum's media ecological book, In Search of A Voice: Karaoke and the Construction of Identity in Chinese America was published.

The Fragile Community: Living Together With Aids is based on ethnographic research on Bonaventure House, which had been converted into a residential community for people with AIDS in response to the epidemic. Adelman and Frey's emphasis is on how a sense of community is formed even under such adverse circumstances, and in the brief period of time that the residents have left. The research itself is obviously of great value, but the theoretical frame is also quite significant. I wish I had read this book years ago, but it no less relevant today than a decade ago.

I find their emphasis on community consistent in many ways with that of James W. Carey's work. One quote that I particularly liked was, "Communication is thus the essential, defining feature--the medium--of community" (p. 5). Their approach to community is a dialectical one: "everyone who joins a group wishes to be both a part of the group and apart from it" (p. 18). I was also interested in some of the discussion of metaphors. For example, they point out two different metaphors that residents used to deal with relationships with others who are very sick or dying, mirrors (a metaphor of identification), and walls (a metaphor of distance)--this makes for an interesting counterpart to the metaphors of mirrors and windows that Jay Bolter uses. There are also two metaphors used in response to the illness, a military metaphor (fighting the sickness) and that of a journey (understanding the disease), and the journey metaphor is also related to the euphemistic metaphor of passing (e.g., passing away, passing on).

Finally, I was very moved by the description of the balloon ceremony, an alternative funeral ritual involving the release of a multitude of colorful balloons into the air, which reverses many of the elements of traditional Judeo-Christian funeral rites.

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