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.