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.

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