Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Extreme Anthropology

To fully understand the phenomenological experience of a killer, you have to start killing. Overcoming my repulsion at the idea of taking another human life didn't just involve a recalibration of my personal ethics or a suspension of disbelief during the ethnographic project. At its crux it involved absorbing a new habitus - one that included an embodied knowledge of the instruments of death just as much as an intellectualized urge to use them. When the butt of the gun began to squeeze back, holding my hand like an eager lover, I knew I was really getting to know the life of the gang thug. When I became aware of the place where the knife's blade ended, the same way you know where your index finger ends and the air begins, I was finally gaining a glimpse not just of the practices of hitmen, but the feeling of being a hitman. 

Colleagues told me the project was too risky, the fieldwork would be disastrous - at best I would become a felon, at worst I would go too deep and abandon academe for a career in clean-up jobs. But they underestimated me. While I did spend over a year soaking in the milieu of the killer (and helping at least 10 victims pour out their blood), I was able, not without some mental acrobatics, to remove myself from the hitman worldview and relearn the pacificist ethics I had espoused for all of my pre-hit life, the very ethics that lead me to the project in the first place.

Some say that anthropology in dangerous places (or of dangerous activities) is more about the crisis of the ethnographer than any contribution to social science. People look at Bourgois, who spent years hanging out with crack addicts in East Harlem and then upped the ante on himself by spending 12 years hanging with and studying homeless junkies , and praise his courage and dedication to social critique. People say similar things about Wacquant's willingness not just to study boxing in a Chicago ghetto, but to place himself right in the ring, becoming one boxer among others, occasionally getting his brains beaten out. Harvard apparently thought Wacquant went off the deep end, told him he couldn't stay out in Chi-town turning into a meathead, called him back to the fold. 

But I say they didn't go far enough. Did Bourgois smoke crack with his informants? According to him, no. Wacquant danced in the ring and rolled with the punches, but he forgot the other half of the equation, the part where he gives up his economic, educational, and cultural capitals and really lives in the ghetto, becoming one of the forgotten, the passed-over. 

Me...? I Didn't half-ass it. Not only did I "take up the gun" (as my informants like to say), but to fully immerse myself in the everyday practices of the petty hired gun, I forfeited all university funding, left my wife and kids, and moved into a neighborhood where I'd be living with gang members 24 hours a day. I cut off all communication with my family, friends, and everyone in the university. I only spoke to my "associates." And I studied the ways of the gun, learned to smell fear on the bodies of soon-to-be victims, meditated on the unique feeling that comes just before a kill - a cool satisfaction somehow tethered to a deeper surge of manic hilarity - to understand why these men kill, and then kill again.

* * *

Why the ludicrous and even cartoonish satire of anthropology that studies the fringes of society? Why the possibly vitriolic attack on clearly accomplished and apparently sincere ethnographers? It's not because I think their work is crap. Bourgois' In Search of Respect is a book that I found compelling, challenging, and to this day inspiring. I recommend it to people, refer to it sometimes in casual conversation, and value the insights it's given me. Having read only bits of Wacquant's work (including snippets of Body and Soul), I look forward to reading the whole book, for I anticipate it being a similarly rewarding experience.

It's not that I doubt the validity of their arguments or the brilliance of their work. It's just that, along with all that validity and brilliance I can't help but sense a bit of machismo. And it may be that the machismo isn't even a mindful or intentional posture on the part of the individual ethnographer - the machismo may be a kind of habitus all its own, a by-product of being such an apt student of ethnography, taking its assumptions and goals so seriously, that the fieldworker begins to one-up himself and his colleagues.

The radicalism of work like Bourgois' and Wacquant's, a radicalism not only of leftist ideals, but of the research method itself, has at times revealed an underbelly to me. It is the same underbelly that an esteemed ethnographer identified in all "radicalism." This other ethnographer, who will remain anonymous, observed that for him the word "radical" always carries macho connotations. To position oneself as a radical scholar is to engage in masculinist one-upmanship. I paraphrase his words: "Positioning yourself as 'radical' usually means you're saying, 'Here, let me explain to you how things really are.' And in that explaining, you're claiming a position of intellectual power over others...There's also a tradition in the academy of 'radical' scholars being men who compete over who can articulate the most radical, the most far-out, perspectives on things."

I would agree that in the tradition of leftist scholarship, there is sometimes a pissing contest at work. Picture Foucault, Bourdieu, Althusser, and maybe even Marx in a room together. They begin to argue about who has most incisively perceived the mystification of social reality and the fictive nature of the autonomous subject. In their intellectual sparring about who can elucidate the domination political economy exerts over us all, they try to dominate one another. In place of wielding male prowess on a physical and/or sexual level, they wield it on an intellectual level: "My theory of systems of power and control is bigger and thicker than yours." 

"My fieldwork was more dangerous than yours."
"My ethnographic site was more dreary than yours."
"My informants were scarier than yours."
"I crap bigger'n you." (So said Jack Palance, playing a send-up of the cowboy as "real man," to Billy Crystal in City Slickers).

I think in certain ways there may be tacit posturing when ethnographers assure readers that they didn't cut any corners in their fieldwork, that they really lived with and hung out with the dregs of society. The insights ethnographers like Bourgois have for us are compounded by the awe we feel at the courage their fieldwork necessitated. Or maybe it's just the awe I feel as a "soft" ethnographer - one whose fieldwork is anything but extreme. I sometimes wonder what scholars who've done fieldwork in ghettos, prisons, conflict-stricken Third World nations would say about my fieldwork, in which I hang out with jazz fans, shooting the shit and listening to music. Would they say my work is soft, safe, peripheral? Yet isn't the intended endpoint of most ethnographic roads very similar? An office in a university-owned building, a comfortable salary, perhaps some of the finer things in life. Even if Bourgois, Wacquant, and others took tremendous risks, the implicit idea was that at the end of the road, they could walk back into their prior social reality - barring any unforeseen complications encountered in the field.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Gringos Accessorize Existence? (Gentrification in medias res, addendum)

So, recently this restaurant near me changed it's name from "Talay" to "Pancho Gringo." Certain sources indicate that before it was "Talay" it might have been "Alma." But the dream of Thai Latin culinary fusion is now stardust, and in its wake lies a good old upscale "bistro" (as Panco Gringo calls itself) serving any mildly affluent diner a neat and tidy simulacrum of Mexican gastronomic authenticity.

Apparently some concerned citizens are crestfallen about the change:

We will revisit these misgivings over the fall of Talay below, but first I want to ruminate on the name Panco Gringo, because I think it deserves further attention than just tossing off an "Oh, that's an unfortunate name." Let's begin with the first half of the appellation, "Pancho." It is a Spanish word that, according to a very quick and dirty internet search, could refer to any of the following (in no particular order):

1. a nickname form of "Francisco"
2. a the first name of Mexican revolutionary and associate of Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa
3. a different sidekick, here accompanying "the Cisco Kid," a character created by O. Henry and later finding his way into various media
4. the name of a chain of Mexican restaurants based in Texas
5. part of the title of the song, "Pancho and Lefty," performed by many, but perhaps most famously by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard
6. the name of a Mexican restaurant in the Los Angeles metro area

So to what does the "Pancho" in Pancho Gringo refer? If it is a signifier, what does it signify? Well, I can't be sure. But from the above list, two trends do emerge: 1. Pancho seems to be a preferred name for sidekicks, perhaps the name even works as an icon of sidekickery; and 2. Pancho seems to be something white Americans like to call Mexican restaurants.

Maybe now we're getting somewhere. The "Pancho" in Pancho Gringo might have something to do with sidekickery, or with US citizens loving to have good, "authentic" Mexican food (almost any Mexican restaurant I've ever patronized claims to be selling the real McCoy). It might even have something to do with Mexico being (after numerous conflicts about which I think most US citizens, myself certainly included, know almost nothing) the trusty, browner and more zesty sidekick of the US. It might even have something to do with Mexican food being a sidekick to the Caucasian US belly. Just let it percolate in your mind a bit. Imagine the unruly web of connotations that "Pancho" conjures as a bowl of salsa that needs to sit so that the garlic, cilantro, and onions can suffuse the whole with their pungent flavors.

While that's happening, let's turn our attention to the word "Gringo." Most readers will probably be at least somewhat familiar with this word. It is a Spanish-language word used mainly in Latin America to refer to foreigners, especially those from the US. It is usually considered derogatory. However, as with most slang, its wide range of uses, meanings, and implications cannot be simplified - sometimes it isn't even deployed with the intention of insulting the named. For evidence of this, see the Wikipedia article on the word.

Whether or not "gringo" is uttered as insult, it does seem safe to say that the implied speaker is of Latino or Spanish ethnic affiliation, while the referent is someone who does not speak Spanish and is often white or "Anglo" in ethnicity. Thus "gringo" might be defined as a way for a Latino to mark another person as an outsider, or non-Latino. When considering this eatery, Pancho Gringo, I am compelled to ask, who is speaking? I can't be sure that the owners of the business and the building which it occupies are white, but I think that's a reasonable assumption. But that's a sloppy way to go about making my argument. So I'll ask who frequents the joint. Participant observation (I often go to an Italian "trattoria" nextdoor) informs me that there are more "gringos" (as in non-Spanish speakers) than non-gringos at Pancho Gringo.

Is the restaurant's management sticking it to their gentrified clientele, by calling them all a bunch of gringos? Is the deep structure of "Pancho Gringo" equal or close to, "We, your trusty sidekick Mexican restaurant, will serve you, the foolish gringos, overpriced food"? Or what if the management is a white man (or woman)? Is it then the case that the restaurant owner is sticking it to him or herself with the establishment's name? Or what if nothing is meant by the name, what if the owner just came up with two words that signified Mexicanness and didn't give it any further thought? Is it even possible for something to mean nothing?

Since I've gotten myself into very murky waters now, I'll retreat and revisit the question of why Talay's demise is lamented by some. The writer for GreasyGuide frustrated that the "sexy and posh spot that [Talay] once was" has been replaced by something that looks more like a "cheesy Mexican spot." The writer then expresses a wish that PG will be up to snuff, "as the service quality in Harlem has gone down as of late." The dream of consuming affluence, sophistication, and cosmopolitanism deferred - regardless of the class or ethnicity of this writer/consumer. Amanda of "NY Eater" notes that Pancho Gringo is an unfortunate name, but I am left wondering why she thinks so.

To complicate matters further, consider the circumstances around why restaurants have sprung up on 12th Ave and 135th St in the first place, which I referred to in previous posts (the keen observer might even catch a bit of Talay's "oriental" lion statues - still intact during the era of Pancho Gringo). Sometimes gentrification doesn't proceed the way we wish it would. Sometimes it takes a slightly different path. It may slow down for a bit. Or, in a fit of excitement and bravado, it may charge ahead, clearing everything in its path. While gentrification is busy doing its thing, we may need to find a different Thai-Latin restaurant to go with that new craving for exotic fusion cuisine - you know, the one we got the great deal on at the department store of our minds last week?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

When the Masquerade Ends

[NB: If this post seems like a departure from my usual subject matter, it is. It's from an email I received from a friend whose name also begins with "M" - such an odd communication that I couldn't resist sharing it with you here.]

I want to tell you about a letter I received yesterday. It’s from a friend with whom I hadn't spoken in years. It feels like another lifetime back when our lives coincided in some meaningful way; though we had been close friends during high school, we later drifted in vastly different directions. So when I looked at the sender name in my email inbox, it felt like finding an article of clothing that I thought I'd thrown out years ago. P___ had gone on to a life in images, by which I mean he had become a visual artist. His preferred medium was pencil. Soon after graduating from high school, he had carved out a stylistic niche for himself with a series of drawings which showed at several art museums in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest - some are museums you might have heard of, others are obscure repositories of the merely-talented majority which, in the world of fine art, rarely enjoys the privilege of prolonged attention from the critics. But it was the time his work spent in the first type of museum - the significant one which, when mentioned to an acquaintance would cause eyebrows to raise - that had remained a source of comfort and even a kind of fuel for living. At least that's the way I must look at it now. When we last spoke and when he might have sensed the faintest signs of the approaching twilight of his repute and meager acclaim within the art world, I only had a small suspicion that the limelight was so important to P___.

For obvious reasons of privacy and security, I will not divulge the identity of P___ here. But I must share with you at least a cursory account (both in its length and in my own limited comprehension of recent aesthetic debates in the visual arts) of the artistic work that put him on the map, for it will figure importantly later in the story. The series of drawings in question could be described as neo-realistic. They are of fairly standard size - about ten by fourteen inches - and they are all landscapes. The pencil strokes are generally fine, controlled, precise; the depiction of objects is vivid, nuanced, almost photo-realistic despite its own monochrome. P___ was quickly recognized as a consummate draftsman with a keen eye for detail. It was also noted by more than one critic that his landscape drawings were unusual for the very breadth of visual field which they recreated. These were landscapes with an overabundance of land: what appeared to be an accomplished if unremarkable scene with a mountain silhouette as its focus would, if the viewer placed himself closer to the paper, reveal itself to be an image containing the sky above and behind, the mountains themselves, below that creeks running through foothills, and finally a small town. The sheer amount of lifelike, representational visual information that he managed to fit onto a 10 x 14 sheet of paper was impressive.

It was said that when looking at such a drawing from close range, the eye did not know where to go. The drawings almost stood in opposition to themselves; the details of said town competing with the chiseled contours of the mountainscape for the viewer's attention. There seemed to be many points of focus, or none at all. The term "hyperlandscape" was coined by a prominent critic in Portland to encapsulate the technique and its effect upon the eye of the beholder.

Yet this alone would not have garnered P___ even fleeting success. The crucial element in the alchemy that caused his moment of fame was that his landscapes were of virtually unknown locations. Each time a viewer was struck by the skill of the pencil work, the feelings of curiosity and fascination aroused in the viewer would be compounded upon realizing that he had never even heard of the locale depicted. My friend, it was said, had a knack for finding an unknown town, a forgotten valley, and bringing it to vibrant life. His brilliance lay in his ability to see what others had not even bothered to know about. So it was said.

As his work began to makes its rounds through the galleries, and then the museums, of the Southwest and Pacific Northwest, a small movement developed. People became inspired by P___'s drawings to visit the locations he had portrayed. He stood by the dual claims that he always drew actual places that existed in the world, and that his pieces were completely accurate representations, both in content and scale, of the locations at the time of drawing. When people became fascinated with these meagerly-sized yet opulently detailed landscapes, they knew the next step had to be a pilgrimage to see for themselves.

As I mentioned, I inferred from our last conversation that P___ might have suspected the waning of his success in the art world. This sentiment was outlined rather than directly communicated through a story he told me about a conversation he had with an art critic who had been an early champion of P___'s work. The critic had ventured to one of the "secret" locations portrayed in one of P___'s drawings which he, the critic, most admired. He reported to P___ what a disappointing trip it had turned out to be. The critic found none of the charm and wonder of the drawing to be reflected in the tangible reality of the village visited. Though he supported my friend's claims to representational veracity, at least on a physical level, the critic found that the same houses in reality struck him as less vibrant, less crisp, than their miniature reproductions in my friend's drawing. The critic explained that the whole experience function for him as a temporally and geographically protracted inversion of trompe l'oeil.

P___ related this to me with a note of distress in his voice, almost as though he were telling me that he had been involved in a money-laundering scheme and was scared of being found out. He lingered on the critic's insistence that though there was nothing inaccurate or exaggerated about the drawing - that he still agreed that my friend's proportions, lines, and shadings were correct - he nevertheless felt the actual town was somehow less "present" than the drawing had led him to believe (and P___ quoted the critic as using the word "present"). He was distressed by the implications behind the critic's impressions: that his renderings were somehow fundamentally disingenuous, that his work was contrived not in the sense that all artistic creation is artifice but rather in the sense that P___ was somehow unable to fully connect with reality, that though he portrayed the physical shapes of reality perfectly an apparently metaphysical - and crucial - aspect of this reality was completely lost on him.

If you are still reading, I offer my thanks and my apologies. I thank you for indulging me this extended preamble and I apologize that it was so extended. But it was necessary to properly introduce P___'s letter itself, for it makes mention of events in the past without knowledge of which the letter might strike you as irrelevant. I reproduce the letter now and assure you that though I have abridged it, I have left in everything relevant to our story:

Dear M,

How in the world have you been?! I know it's been
YEARS since we spoke, wrote, or even emailed. I wanted to call you and catch up properly – hear everything that’s going on with you – but I could only find your email address, and so I want to share a story with you while it’s fresh in my mind. In the past few months I've witnessed a series of events which made me think deeply about our last conversation - you remember, the one where I told you about that critic who took that disappointing trip to S_____ A_______? You might have been wondering what happened to me after that phone call. Well, it's enough to say that I went into a sort of downward spiral soon after that. A couple of exhibits I had in small, regional museums got very bad local press. I never did that well in galleries, but after those crumby reviews, most gallery-owners suddenly had openings booked through the following year or wouldn't return phone calls, or had a million other things to do as soon as I walked in their front door.

The pain of this was terrible, and the bottle soon became the only thing that made it go away - at least for a night, until the next morning when it would come back accompanied by nausea and headaches! I had been riding a wave of positive energy and when things started to not go my way it really felt like the end of the world. I kept thinking to myself, "This is not the way it's supposed to be going; I want a redo!" Rather than even try to get my work into new spaces, other galleries, I just started to shut down. Luckily I had some money saved from the good times, because when no one wanted my stuff on their walls, I wasn’t about to go out and get a day job.

A few months passed by, and then I met a guy who written a collection of children’s stories. He knew my work, and liked it, and he needed an illustrator. Turns out he actually had a contract for this collection, so if I supplied the drawings I’d definitely get compensated. I took the job but my ego took a big hit. I secretly felt it was beneath me. After all, I was a “fine artist” – my stuff had shown in museums. So now I had work for a while, but I still had that bottle in my cupboard as well as that knot in my stomach.

The knot only started to go away once I met another artist, this painter named Grossinger. He was living in B______, not far from me, and we started to run into each other in galleries around the area. It didn’t take long for me to realize Grossinger was a coke-head. Constant trips to the bathroom, the energy, the mood swings, the itchy nose. When he was down, he’d just stand there looking at pieces on the walls. When he was high, he’d talk. A lot. About what he’d done, where his work had been in the past, who he fucked, whose career he helped. He’d also badmouth all the artists whose work we’d look at in galleries. This one didn’t know the fundamental nature of the medium she was using; that one was a mindless colorist with no real soul in his pieces.

Like me, Grossinger had become a darling of the art press because of a specific series – he did these oil paintings which were portraits of celebrities. They were caricatures, really. They would be all one color and he used different surface textures to actually depict features, faces, bodies. So picture a monochrome rectangle of red, which, if you tilted your head a bit, would show a cartoony likeness of, say, Nicole Richie. It was conceptual art, he explained: it was a self-conscious parody of itself, a commentary on how vapid and materialist American culture is in the form of a vapid, simplistic painting. The critics loved it, Grossinger explained. They called it “post-aesthetic” and “post-postmodern.”

And Grossinger would talk about how fickle the critics, museum curators, and gallery owners were. How they thought he was brilliant one year, and a tired hack the next. He talked about his fight against eternity, his battle with history. “You’ve gotta understand, P___,” he’d lecture to me, “history is like this big fucking
tank coming at you. And if you just wait and let it roll over you, that’s what’ll happen. It’ll flatten you. You’ve gotta fight against the force of history, try to step outside history to become something lasting. That’s what I’m trying to do now, you see.” He’d speak about this crap in jittery, staccato sentences fueled by cocaine. Sometimes he sounded like a bad impersonation of Edward G. Robinson in a gangster role; I actually had to keep from laughing at times!

One part of me wanted to avoid Grossinger – he was like that guest at a party that just backs you into a corner and doesn’t let go. But another part of me was fascinated by his bitterness, the seemingly epic fall he had taken or was in the process of taking. It was like watching an execution replayed over and over again; it felt like being around him was helping me to see what I didn’t want to become. I guess yet another part of me just plain felt bad for the guy.

And I realized that the problem Grossinger was having was the same problem I had had:
he had lost sight of why he started drawing, or painting (or whatever it is one does) in the first place. While I had hit the bottle, he was hitting the blow. The same way he got swept up in how popular his paintings were in galleries, I had gotten sucked into all that talk of critics who said that my drawings were gimmicky, a mere passing fad on the scene. But I started to believe all that bullshit, started to really think that when I drew those landscapes it was only because I wanted fame and money, started to forget that I really loved those places and so I drew them. Maybe Grossinger had been calculating about his art, had just done what he figured the critics would love. I forgot that it hadn’t started that way with me. It became all about how “hot” I was, how popular and sexy my work was considered. I somehow forgot all about all those other artists who have one, two or even three great years but then twenty lousy ones. Grossinger, strung out on cocaine, would walk into galleries during openings and scream at the patrons, pick up bottles of wine and toss them across the room, yelling, “I’m not gonna sink into anonymity, you pricks! I will beat history, you fucking leeches!”  I'd seen him go into this routine more than a few times. It usually ended with him clearing out the opening and the gallery owner clearing him (and me) out. He was almost ruthless in his willingness to self-destruct. It was like he wanted to make a public spectacle of his misery, his anger, his pain.

The pain can be terrible, sure. And if you let it, it'll eat you alive - I could show you dozens upon of bottles to prove that. But there is a way out. For me, the key was understanding that Grossinger's fight against history is a mistake altogether, and also understanding that it had been my fight too, though in a much more private way. And the thing I want to tell Grossinger, the thing he actually helped me realize though he doesn’t know he did, is that you can’t beat history. You can take a shot at it, you can think and feel like you’re beating it, but that only lasts for a while. It’s a masquerade, that feeling, and when the masquerade ends you’ve got to come up with another way to feel like you’re worth something. You’ve got to realize that everyone else can like your stuff, but that all doesn’t matter unless you like it too. You’ve got to see that just because you’re not at the top of the heap doesn’t mean you’re drowning at the bottom of the gutter. And it certainly doesn’t mean you can go and harass strangers, screaming crazy shit at them just because you think they’re not giving you enough attention...

After this, P___'s email quickly segues into a recounting of the more mundane facets of his recent life, a topic which does not concern us here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

AUM Fidelity Showcase: Oct. 15

On the night of October 15, you will be able to listen to live performances by David S. Ware, William Parker, and Darius Jones. Have I got your attention now? Hopefully. Yes, I'm plugging another live jazz event. Yes, again it's of my own accord.

The AUM Fidelity recording label (like Clean Feed, an absolute stalwart among independent jazz labels) will present a one-night showcase featuring a triple bill. Click here for more info.




Come to this concert.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Coming Soon to NYC: Clean Feed Festival!

For my money, Clean Feed Records is one of the very best jazz labels in existence today (and, believe it or not, there are A LOT of jazz labels out there). When you buy a CD from them, you get the total package: great music from great musicians (be they veterans of a jazz scene in the US, Europe or Japan, or "up-and-comers" who might be getting a first chance at making a record, Clean Feed seems to have a sixth sense about picking out the music most deserving of documentation), beautifully-recorded sound, AND beautiful cover art & packaging (for a devotee of the album like myself, this last part matters too). The Clean Feed catalogue is large (especially considering that this independent jazz label began in 2001) and extremely diverse stylistically.

Of my own accord, I want to plug the label's upcoming showcase in New York City. You can find all the info here:

Folks who live in the NYC area and care about jazz: you WILL NOT be disappointed if you attend this. (I stand by this guarantee.)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Living with Noise

I sometimes sit at our desk and look out the unusually large window that provides views of Broadway, a large playground tucked next to the base of an even larger apartment development, 135th Street, the 1 Train tracks emerging from the ground. Sounds of machinery and traffic from the street are constant: the wrenching, guttural growl of motorcycles with mufflers removed, the raucous clatter as potholes throttle the chassis and contents of cargo trucks, the hard clangs of metal smashing against metal as subway cars roll over the 1-Train elevated tracks.

Hearing these sounds I often feel the iron, steel, concrete, asphalt; there can be an almost brutal physicality to the sound. The clang of the subway tracks buzzes against my teeth. I sometimes have morbid daydreams in which I imagine the trucks that barrel (seemingly all too fast) down Broadway losing control, smashing into other vehicles, people, street lamps, steel wrenching against bone. Horrid visions, I know. I experience the street sounds as a demented sonic reincarnation of the modernist conception of the city as an entity of machinery, metal, constant motion.

There are other ambient sounds too. My wife and I sometimes hear the yells and whoops of Friday- and Saturday-night revelers. Then there are the vibrations which emanate from our floor on random late mornings or early afternoons - bass vibrations of reggaeton, merengue, salsa. As in any apartment building, I might hear an occasional bit of yelling in the hallway, a snatches of families arguing may reach me through the bathroom vent or the other side of a wall.

Considered cumulatively, these sounds can sometimes grate on me. I grew up in a residential and relatively quiet sections of Queens. The major instance of "noise pollution" was the intermittent airplane passing overhead (my parents' house is underneath a flight route for LaGuardia Airport). There might be an oil or delivery truck now and then - but no subways, very few motorcycles, no bus brakes hissing and squealing. The few years I spent in North Carolina may have weakened my ambient sound tolerance. Friends and relatives asked me if the quiet was unsettling or disturbing to me, as a city boy. I had to admit that it was a noticeable change at first, but a pleasant one, similar to the aural "breathing room" you might suddenly feel when a refrigerator that has been cooling its contents suddenly shuts off and you are left with a palpable moment of quiet.

Most of the sounds, I realized soon after moving into our current apartment, are simply out of my control. Am I going to call up the MTA and tell them that their buses make too much noise? Will I campaign for prohibiting commercial vehicles on Broadway? No. And I don't begrudge the weekend debauchees their good times (I've been known to seek those out myself now and then). I wouldn't think of complaining to neighbors or the super about loud music - it's played during waking hours, and, given my predilection to occasionally blast free jazz, soul, or even a nice loud Mahler symphony, I'd probably be throwing stones from my glass house.

A visit from the building superintendent last week informed us that, perhaps without realizing it, my wife and I are throwing a few stones. Tenants in the building have been complaining about the noise our dog makes when we walk him through the lobby. Apparently some have also been uncomfortable with the often feisty (and, admittedly, sometimes annoying) manner of our small terrier/chihuahua mix. He may weigh 15 lbs., but his bark weighs at least 50.

For a couple days after the visit from the super, I stewed with insult and indignation. Scenarios of confrontations with the super and other tenants played perpetually in my mind. "Hey Gerry [our super], I know our dog barks but I can't exactly sit him down and tell him he needs to stop. But neighbors who stuff the garbage chute with poorly-tied trashbags until it's overflowing and the hallway stinks CAN help it - why don't you get on their case?" "Oh, my dog can walk. Why am I carrying him through the lobby? Because some people in this building think he's a ferocious beast."

In an effort to calm myself down, I became philosophical about the whole thing. My retaliatory feelings reminded me of Ralph Ellison's classic essay "Living With Music." In this essay, Ellison describes a battle of sounds in his apartment: when noise from the street and especially the sounds of a singer practicing got to be too much for Ellison to bear, he decided to fight back with a little sound of his own, blasting music on his stereo system in response to loud vocal exercises from the singer in his building. Reading over Ellison's essay helped my state of mind a bit.

Then I got to thinking about what kinds of noises and sounds are permissible in an apartment building. Now I have to tell you that we are the only pet owners in our building (as the super reminded us). This we found out only after we moved in. It immediately caused us some anxiety. We had been concerned about what tensions might arise from our being the first pet owners in the building, and now it seemed our concern was warranted. The body language and manner of more than a few of our neighbors has told me that they are unnerved, annoyed, perhaps scared, perhaps even disgusted by our dog. Then there are those tenants who see the pooch and do not become alarmed, who let him gingerly approach, his ears folded back, and sniff their legs, perhaps even give him a quick pat on the head, and find that his barking has ceased.

Perhaps the question becomes more broad - which kinds of tenant practices are tolerated, and which are censured? Were I to take a combative stance about the situation, I might begin to call out neighbors whose children are screaming in the stairway (which often causes my dog to bark). I might complain about tenants consistently littering the hallways and stairways with bits of food, containers, wrappers. It could me my own version of what Ellison called "fighting noise with noise."

But for now, my wife and I carry our dog through the lobby. It not only prevents any possibility of him tugging at the leash, trying to approach a neighbor to disable them with a ferocious sniff or lick. It also keeps him quiet - I think he might feel a bit emasculated by being carried. He certainly cannot convince himself that he's leading the walk if he's in our arms. So, at least for a while, maybe the noise that will best sound my indignation at having my dog preemptively criminalized is the deafening clamor of no barks at all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Crowds (Gentrification in medias res V)

In case you thought I'd forgotten about the photo essay...

Incident at 135th Street & Broadway
Early morning, 26 July 2009

Motorcycle Gang Based in Harlem
(corner of 125th Street & Broadway)

p.s. I never did find out what occurred at the corner of 135th St & Broadway on the night of July 25th/morning of July 26th; one possible explanation, though I have a hard time believing it caused all the police vehicles, is this:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Some Thoughts on Lateness

In the natural cycle of plant life, the middle of summer could be considered the moment of fulfillingness, the zenith of an arc that begins its ascent with the buds of early spring. In New York City, this zenith comes at about the middle of August. The days are not as long as they were in July, and they seem overripe. On a recent afternoon, the August sunlight made the red bricks of buildings especially deep. The green of leaves on trees, now no longer the sprightly, lush green of late May, looked more burnished. The sun, humidity, and lack of wind conspired to produce a stillness of atmosphere. Owing to concerns which had produced in me a certain mood, it only took a slight shift in my perception, a minute adjustment of my interpretation of the information conveyed through my senses, to feel in this August afternoon not the muggy but pleasant laze of summer in full swing, but a certain fatigue in the atmosphere. It was as if the balminess of mid-summer was revealed to be a facade with a depth of torpor lying underneath.

* * *

The news of Rashied Ali's passing on August 12th hit me with eerie force. Death had already been on my mind, as at that point I had been attempting to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for my grandmother's passing. The news of Ali's death felt like metaphysical print-through, a pre-echo of another death that my family knew was imminent.

* * *

The common link I could find between the deaths of Rashied Ali and Jean Somoroff was that each inspired in me feelings of regret. As Ali had been a close friend of one of my research informants (whom I consider a friend), I immediately thought of the encounters and conversations that might have been. I would never get a chance to tell him, in as composed and graceful a way as I could muster, that Interstellar Space, his album of duets with John Coltrane, was a reference point in my life, an example of what I love about and why I can believe in "free" jazz. I would only be telling half the truth if I didn't admit that I also thought about how it wouldn't be possible now for him to add his own memories, knowledge, and wisdom to my dissertation research - a selfish kind of regret.

Some of my first thoughts after learning of my grandmother's death could be seen as regrets about my selfishness. Jean Somoroff had a life-long (as far as I knew) love of dogs. Since my wife and I got our dog in early 2007, she had heard about him. Once she moved into a nursing home in March of 2007, I began promising her that we would bring Bobo with us during one of our visits. I told her we would bring him when the weather was warm, so that she could sit with him outside the home for a while. Since we were living in North Carolina, there admittedly were not many chances for us to bring Bobo along for a nursing home visit, as we usually left him in NC when traveling north to see family. When I moved back to New York City in late 2008, I assured her that now, when the weather was a bit better, we'd bring Bobo so she could finally see him. But I never got around to it.

* * *

Jean Somoroff was, in general, not a woman who felt a need to sugarcoat her views. When my parents brought her down to North Carolina to celebrate her ninetieth birthday in the fall of 2006, she said with a smile, "Now I'm old, too old." It was the first time she had seen my apartment (before it became the home I shared with my then-girlfriend/now-wife). The number "90" brought home the idea that my grandmother was born in a different world, and I teased her about that, knowing she could take it. I seem to remember her admitting that she didn't quite understand the world any longer, that it had more or less passed her by. Perhaps this is only an apocryphal memory.

Whether or not she voiced the opinion, I'm pretty sure she did feel a bit like a stranger in the early 21st century. She remained, until her last two years in the nursing home, a fairly avid follower of current events. She never took much to technology, and I think I might have briefly tried to explain the Internet to her. I wouldn't have asked or expected her to understand what I was doing in graduate school (it only makes sense to me half the time), though coming of age as a Jewish American in South Philadelphia (back when South Philly was an Italian and Jewish ghetto) during the Great Depression, she had an inherent respect for higher education for its own sake.

I realize how different our worlds were when I think about how baffled she would be had she ever listened to Interstellar Space. Even if she would have been able to hear or understand my words during her last week, it would have meant very little to my grandmother to know that a great jazz musician from her neck of the woods who was some eighteen years her junior had passed away.

* * *

On days I spent with my grandmother during the summer, we would often walk over to 108th Street, the commercial thoroughfare that was one long block from her apartment building. From the age of about five to nine or ten, these walks would combine a number of activities: she would run errands at the supermarket, the cleaners'; we would stop off for me to get lunch at a pizzeria; sometimes we might stop in the toy store where she would spoil me and buy me a Matchbox car or action figure of my choosing.

Looking back, I feel fortunate to have grown up near two pizzerias that both served great New York pizza. I associated Joe's, the one on 108th Street, so strongly with my grandmother that the few times during my childhood when I might stop in for a slice with my father the whole situation felt a bit odd - not bad or disconcerting, but just notably different than usual. During one of my visits with my grandmother, when I was perhaps six years old, she told me, "You're getting old enough to order the pizza and pay for it yourself. Go ahead, you can do it! You know what to say." And, sure enough, I did. I asked for "one slice to stay, please" and handed $1.10 across the counter to the cook whose face I knew so well. It was my first monetary transaction.

* * *

If I reach very far into the recesses of my mind, I can touch one of my earliest memories of being with my grandmother. I must handle it carefully, lest it flit away like a frightened bird. I cannot force it to the surface of my consciousness, but if I reach slowly and gently and then wait patiently, the memory fades in. Typical of early-life memories, it is not so much of an event as it is merely an image. But this is a memory-image whose visual contours are invested with other sensory information and with the weight of emotion, which itself seems outside the boundaries of sense. I'm lying on her bed with a bag of ice held up to my lip. I see the dresser in her bedroom, the quilt on the bed, the plain white of the walls. I'd been running around in the playground just across the street from her building and had fallen on my face, bruising my lip. I was perhaps three years old at the time - the tears came freely, and my fall seemed like a catastrophe, the injury to my lip a major setback. The context, the story, is bolstered by only the faintest of images. It is the image of myself on her bed that remains more vivid. The pink of her bed and the blond wood of her dresser feel safe in my mind's eye. I cannot recall her words of comfort that afternoon, but their feeling, their resonance, is somehow contained in these colors in a kind of mnemonic synesthesia.

* * *

It's been eight days since my grandmother passed. It was two days after her death before I could really cry for her. I cried for the minuscule geography to which her life was limited at its end, confined first to a building, then to one floor, and finally to one small room; I cried for the loss of verbal ability in a woman who knew nothing if not how to talk; I cried because the woman who had an almost never-ending supply of food and snacks whenever family visited her (and this well into her eighties) lived with barely any appetite during her last two years. It was two days after her death. Earlier the same day I had noticed the exhaustion at the edges of a mid-summer afternoon.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lunchtime Recess at I.S. 195 (Gentrification in medias res III)

IS 195 is a public school occupying the ground floor of 3333 Broadway (see "Gentrification in medias res I").

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Riverside Dr and 12th Ave (Gentrification in medias res II)

I took the following pictures this morning while walking my dog.

136th St & Riverside Drive

142nd St betw Riverside & Bway

12th Ave near the 138th St underpass

12th Ave near 138th St

Corner of 12th Ave & 135th St

Eyes in the sky, 134th Pl & 12th Ave

Saturday, July 25, 2009

On 133rd Street (Gentrification in medias res I)

Recently, certain visuals - objects, views, juxtapositions - around my neighborhood have struck me as vividly portraying the complex process known as "gentrification." Taken collectively, they might serve as a report on my impressions of the gentrification taking place in West Harlem - its indicators and its ramifications. I'll be using my next few posts for (what I'm pompously deeming) a photo essay about the gentrification of the Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights neighborhoods in New York.

The building bearing the "3333" sign was taken off Mitchell-Lama status in 2005. Read more here.

View of 133rd St & 12th Avenue

Friday, May 29, 2009

Lt. Columbo, LAPD Ethnography Division

Anyone who has had a conversation with me in the past few months knows that I have been avidly (compulsively) watching the original run of Columbo on Netflix’s “Watch Instantly” feature. Initially, the show was an escape from the doldrums of beginning fieldwork. I would come home during the wee small hours, after having sat in one or more jazz venues, silently looking around at folks, constantly telling myself to walk up and “make contact” (“Make contact, dammit!”), yet too self-conscious to make a move. What could be more therapeutic than sitting down with a cold beer to watch Columbo oafishly poke around until he gradually deciphers the murderer’s motive and method? It was at once a complete escape from my own troubles, and yet an oblique affirmation of my endeavor: here was someone who’s work depended on his roaming around and gathering information from people whom he barely knew.

More and more, I have come to view Lt. Columbo as my model ethnographer. Anthropologist John Jackson discusses his ethnographic alter-ego, “Anthroman” in his nuanced, writerly, and often richly humorous book Real Black. “Anthroman” was a persona Jackson could channel when the field-going got tough; becoming Anthroman was an elaborate self psyche-out he could use to feel less like himself and thus more courageous about doing his fieldwork. Jackson also mentions that he often asked himself the question: WWZNHD (“What would Zora Neale Hurston do?”) to help guide him when he felt at a loss in the field. I can claim with complete seriousness that I have often asked myself WWLCD (“What would Lt. Columbo do?”). Now I’m not saying that I walk around wearing a rumpled raincoat and chewing on a cheap cigar, imitating Peter Falk’s euphonious New York accent. But, when I manage to be courageous enough, when I can achieve the right combination of self-effacing politeness, persistence, and calculated ignorance, the “Columbo effect” sometimes works quite well.

(I am compelled to digress here for a moment to discuss this supposedly well-known “Columbo effect;” the popular notion of Columbo, I feel, does not do complete justice to the character as he existed on 1970s television. The Wikipedia article on the show rehearses these misconceptions:
Police Lieutenant Columbo is a shabbily-dressed, seemingly slow-witted police detective whose fumbling, overly polite manner makes him an unlikely choice to solve any crime, let alone a complex murder. However, his demeanor is revealed to be a complex put-on, designed to lull suspects into a false sense of security…

To me, there is nothing seemingly “slow-witted” about Columbo’s act. He can appear distracted, folksy, and excessively self-deprecating, but in most episodes the murderer has realized at least by the halfway mark that Columbo is no chump; often this realization comes much sooner. Egotistical murderers (always marked as upper-class – I’m sure someone has written about the class politics of the show) often get annoyed at just how pesky that little goofy detective can be, but they don’t quite seem to assume any incompetence on his part. To me the brilliance of Columbo’s approach lies in its winning combination of persistence and sincere courtesy. If you are really polite to people, they will often put up with more questioning and pestering than they would otherwise.

The lead-up to Columbo’s hallmark “Just one more thing…” device is also, I’ve realized, a paradigm of ethnographic inquiry. (For Columbo non-initiates, the detective will often conclude a seemingly meandering interview with a suspect or witness by suddenly remembering “one more question” he wanted to ask, which turns out to be a far more pointed, topical query than any he’s posed during the interview proper.) I’ve found that I have more relaxed and informative conversations, and ultimately get more interesting evidence if I don’t come out and ask the kinds of questions running through my head (e.g., “What do you listen for in this jazz recording you say you love so much?” or “How would you describe why this album means so much to you?”), but instead let the conversation/interview go where it will, often include my own opinions on things (non-jazz related too), and keep the interviewee guessing as to the themes/agenda of my questioning (I like to think of this last aspect as another performative fiction in action, since I myself often haven’t formed an idea about the “theme” of, or what I wish to find out during, said interview; so I just pretend I know what I’m getting at…)

So, am I putting on my informants, and thus engaging in ethical questionable behavior? Well, I guess my honest answer is “Yes and no.” First of all, as one informant and I agreed, “Everybody has a motive.” So why should an ethnographer be any different? Most of our interactions with other humans happen because someone wants something: your boss wants your labor-time, you domestic partner wants your attention, you want his/hers, you want a bus ride, the waiter wants your money, etc. Second of all, I again invoke Columbo. He manages to catch murderers without ever using abusive or coercive tactics (sure, he may sometimes play a trick that ensnares the murderer, but this trick usually relies upon the murderer’s own duplicitous behavior). He is consistently respectful, and dare I say, in his unassuming and clumsy demeanor, achieves a kind of rare dignity and even grace.

But I must define how Columbo serves as a model with greater precision, since I really do not try to trick people into sharing cultural knowledge with me; my hope is that this sharing is voluntary. Yet, even when I try to be as respectful, unassuming, and mild-mannered as possible, I often feel that there’s something confrontational about asking informants direct questions – it just makes me feel nervous and slimy at times. And it’s here that Columbo’s manner comes in handy, because I think it provides an example of how to minimize the confrontation implicit in any kind of questioning (even the ostensibly amicable interactions between the ethnographer and his/her informant). At his best, Columbo’s technique is about what remains unsaid, how he manages to get information and answers to his questions without ever uttering interrogative formations; if, as many have argued, ethnography is an art, then I contend that, had he existed in the “real” world and been an anthropologist, Lt. Columbo would have been one of its great virtuosos.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When Griff Was Great

I received Johnny Griffin's first Blue Note album, Introducing Johnny Griffin, in the mail today. It was recorded way back in 1956, with a great rhythm section: Wynton Kelly, Curly Russell, and Max Roach. Listening to this album has washed out a sonic bad taste that has been lingering for going on two years now. I heard Griffin live at Duke University in the fall of 2007, as part of Duke's "Following Monk" series dedicated to Thelonious Monk. Griffin was featured as a soloist with the Duke University Jazz Ensemble, and the program was heavy on Monk tunes.

Though I knew Griffin was 79 at the time, I did not know what to expect from him. His articulation was sloppy, he was dragging way behind the beat (which was never his style), his lines were short, his musical vocabulary limited. I withheld judgment, thinking that perhaps what I was hearing actually evidenced a reconception of style: a distillation, a paring-down that often occurs with elder jazz musicians. But after a few tunes, I had to admit it to myself: the Little Giant sounded finished. To be sure, on a slow blues (I think it may have been "Misterioso", but I can't be sure) he pulled out a few burly, bluesy lines befitting his beginnings in R&B - perhaps the soul was willing, but the body just not able. The audience at large reacted vociferously to these few, precious, beautiful lines of saxophone: large roars filled the hall. With them the crowd seemed to be saying, "Yes - we knew you still had it in you! That's Johnny Griffin! We remember you."

And that night, and the next day, I thought about what happens when musicians get old, when they lose their stuff. And how often this happens in the jazz world, and often fans get to hear it. Should one wish, one could put on the recordings Lester Young made in the last year of his life: the sound of a man barely able to blow enough air through the saxophone to produce a tone. One could also hear a strung-out, withered Chet Baker in the last years of his tumultous life, blowing ragged, weak trumpet. And such events become embedded in jazz lore in an unfortunately perverse way. The frailty of players and the diminution of their abilities are regarded sometimes with deluded romanticism, sometimes with morbid fascination, but rarely with the understanding that decrepitude can take hold, that these unsightly endings to the lives of such "legends" neither negate the pinnacles of what they've accomplished nor amplify whatever greatness they may possess. It also occurred to me that I have never read, at least within jazz scholarship, a serious discussion of the cultural dynamics around the passing and mourning of musicians.

I had this bad taste, as I call it, from that Johnny Griffin concert. While I'm glad that Introducing has helped wash out the taste, it wasn't that I wanted to forget the concert. It's just that I want to remember the Little Giant all over the changes, hyperactively edging ahead of the beat. Like others in Duke's Baldwin Auditorium, I applauded those few great blues lines Griffin mustered up to pay tribute, to tell him, "I know who you are, what you have accomplished." It was a very poignant moment, and one that made me glad I had attended the concert. Though not an especially satisfying moment musically, it was an eminently human one. For musical and aesthetic satisfaction, and to hear Griffin joyously ripping into a tune, I heartily recommend Introducing Johnny Griffin.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What We Talk About When We Talk About Music

The sophomoric nod to Raymond Carver aside, I do want to revisit this question with some degree of seriousness. It is a matter of not just academic interest for me (although that too), and it is one of the main questions behind my current fieldwork. I’ve recently read two pieces that raise the issue of listening to music and talking about that listening in complementary ways (Steven Feld’s near-classic essay “Communication, Music, and Speech About Music” and a long essay/short book by Peter Szendy titled Listen: A History of Our Ears).

Feld’s approach is very much that of an ethnomusicologist/linguistic anthropologist: he’s thinking about the social factors at play when a person listens to music, and then what's at play when this same person talks about that listening. Rather than seeing a primary meaning as being located within the sound/text of a musical work, he argues, we should understand meaning-making as a process that takes place in the mind of the listener. He discusses what’s happening when, for instance, US citizens listen to a remake of the “Star Spangled Banner” in minor, as opposed to the usual major: “A range of social and personal backgrounds, some shared, some complementary, of stratified knowledge and experience, and of attitudes (about anthems, songs in general, parodies in particular, politics in all cases) enters into the social construction of meaningful listening through interpretive moves, establishing a sense of what the sound object or event is and what one feels, grasps, or knows about it” (Feld, 89). So when people talk to each other about music, Feld claims, even when they stumble for words in these exchanges, they are making their listening experiences social.

Szendy, a philosopher and professor of aesthetics at Universite de Paris X, meditates on the idea of “sharing one’s listening.” For him, a major example of how listeners have made their listenings shareable, or even legible in the first place, is to document them in arrangements of pre-existing musical works. Now, though Szendy’s meditation focuses on the canon of Western art music (unapologetically so, I would say), I find his insights more broadly applicable. He writes about wanting to share his listening with others, because he feels that in the act of sharing his listenings really become his own: “…it is more simply as a listener that I want to sign my listening: I would like to point out, to identify, and to share such-and-such sonorous event that no one besides me, I am certain of it, has ever heard as I have” (Szendy, 3 [italics in orig.]). Please indulge me as I submit one more extended quote, since Szendy’s own prose is more poetic and efficient than any gloss I could attempt:
The listener I am is nothing, does not exist so long as you are not there. There or elsewhere, it doesn’t matter, so long as my listening is addressed to you. The listener I am [que je suis] can happen only when I follow you [je te suis], when I pursue you. I could not listen without you, without this desire to listen to you listening to me, not being able, since I am unable to listen to me listening… (Szendy,142)

Again, the sociality of listening, the desire to externalize interior thoughts and feelings – or is interior/exterior too simple-minded and dichotomous way to think about these things?

These passages from Feld and Szendy (among others in these two pieces) may well become rallying cries for me as I look and listen for evidence of why people listen to jazz and of what they listen for when they do listen. And as I then think about why they might (and often do) want to tell others what they heard, what they thought and felt about what they heard. And as I try to teach myself to hear the interplay of content (what they say) and form (how they say it) in their talk about listening, and how this talk communicates something of the stuff of their listening experiences. These passages have been swirling around in my mind, often bumping up against a concept that two of my informants have invoked, and about which they have had something to say: “the privacy of listening” or “listening as a private experience.” They both believe that deep, intense listening – the kind where you feel excited, moved, transported, stunned, the kind you remember for years afterward because you made sure to construct a narrative form of the experience that enables you to tell it to yourself (and maybe others) – is something that happens between oneself and musical sound, often sound issuing from a recording. They both mention how they’ve had these really amazing, overpowering moments of listening when they have been able to sit alone with themselves and give their attention to a recording by Cecil Taylor/Albert Ayler/Sun Ra/whoever and receive something in return, when they were able to commune if not with the minds/souls/bodies/beings who created the sounds (such a conviction implies a simplistic mysticism that would misrepresent their more complex spiritualistic and humanistic thinking) then at least with the materiality of the parts of these sounds that have been captured and preserved.

And so they’ve both told me that they think there is something deeply private, deeply interior about listening – but they’ve told me about that experience. I guess I want to place my informants’ thoughts and comments next to those of Feld and Szendy. I can’t figure out yet if my informants agree with, argue against, move in parallel or oblique motion to, or do something else to/with the ideas of Feld and Szendy. In telling me that they have had these private listening experiences, are they undermining their own statements? Are they making a claim about the sociality of privacy (e.g., “I want to see if you’ve had these same kind of feelings when listening intensely; I want to see if this ‘private’ feeling is something we all share”)? Are they merely spouting rhetorical manifestations of what amounts to a form of aesthetic false consciousness? [I’m thinking here of Jonathan Sterne’s convincing discussion of how ideas of hearing as a sense allowing for “pure interiority” have their roots in Christian theology (Sterne 2002, 14-19).] Yet how can my informants’ experiences be false? What right have I to discount, denigrate, or moreover deny these experiences? Perhaps they mean to parse the difference between the incommunicability of the experience itself and the communicable statement that “We have all had similar incommunicable listenings.” While they seem to say, “You cannot know my listening, you can never touch it and feel it the way I have,” they also seem to say, “You can touch and feel the knowing that you and I have both had these private experiences of our own.”

So, to reformulate the question implied by the title of this post, “What do we talk about when we talk about the privacy, and possibly the profound unspeakability, of deep listening?”

Monday, May 4, 2009

Getting Back On(Off) the Wagon

Okay, okay. I know, if I'm going to maintain a blog of any respectability, I need to post with some regularity...more than once a year, anyhow. In the interest of achieving that goal, and also as a way to get me to begin to formulate some of my thoughts about my dissertation project, I'm going to begin to share some thoughts about my research (we'll see how long this lasts - hopefully at least 4 weeks).

I've been going to hear jazz performances quite often here in NYC since the middle of January. More and more, I find myself going to performances of - call it what you will - "free jazz" "avant garde jazz" "out jazz" "creative music" "experimental jazz". This has been a large part of my ethnographic fieldwork so far. (If you're thinking, "Wow...what difficult work" with a wry grin on your face, you are not alone.) My most regular hangout has been the Local 269 - a bar on E Houston St, a bit west of Avenue B. They're hosting a weekly Monday-night session organized by RUCMA (Rise Up Creative Music and Arts) that often features stalwart NYC free players (check out the schedule here: ). I'm finding some ethnographic "gold" here - a group of regular audience members (including musicians) who convene here, and who know one another.

I've also been trying to figure, as I go along, what the hell fieldwork is. I try to take notes (in my not-so-slick little maroon-covered notepad, with part of its price sticker still left on, due to my laziness and unwillingness to completely scrub the sticker off), but I constantly wonder if what I'm writing down will help me write up good fieldnotes, and if those fieldnotes will be at all usable when I start trying to write dissertation chapters. I'm also constantly plagued by feelings of self-consciousness about the presence of the notepad itself ("Are people looking at what I'm writing? Did I offend that guy sitting near me by glossing him as 'mid-age, white male - nodding head vigorously'? Are those even worthwhile observations for me, the researcher?" Thankfully, the following book tells me I'm not alone in these feelings:
This is a kind of "chicken soup for the ethnographer's soul." It presents an email correspondence between a grad student "in the field" and one of her committee members back at the university. They talk about things like: feeling awkward when talking to informants, doubting that you're actually finding anything out, feeling stupid when you realize that your original questions and research plans are turning out to be beside the point, etc. I recommend it (as my advisor did for me) to anyone who's about to set out on ethnographic fieldwork.