Myself and Tom Brock are currently working on a paper in which we analyse the discourse of ‘intelligence’ in terms of the individualisation of structural advantage: a whole range of factors are wrapped up into the descriptor of someone as ‘intelligent’ which explains a complex outcome in terms of a somewhat mysterious and inevitably overloaded personal characteristic.
Reading Matthew Desmond’s superb Evicted, I was struck by the possibility of reversing the analysis. On loc 3108, he describes the extremely difficult circumstances one of his research participants faces:
Before she was evicted, Larraine had $ 164 left over after paying the rent. She could have put some of that away, shunning cable and Walmart. If Larraine somehow managed to save $ 50 a month, nearly one-third of her after-rent income, by the end of the year she would have $ 600 to show for it—enough to cover a single month’s rent. And that would have come at considerable sacrifice, since she would sometimes have had to forgo things like hot water and clothes. Larraine could have at least saved what she spent on cable. But to an older woman who lived in a trailer park isolated from the rest of the city, who had no car, who didn’t know how to use the Internet, who only sometimes had a phone, who no longer worked, and who sometimes was seized with fibromyalgia attacks and cluster migraines—cable was a valued friend.
But as he puts it, “People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty.” Much as the fortune of someone like Trump is explained, not least of all by themselves, in terms of their intrinsic talent, we see people like Larraine condemned for failing to exercise an imputed latent power that would be near magical in its presumed capacity to resolve the difficulties of her situation.