Be the Street: On Radical Ethnography and Cultural Studies (Viewpoint Magazine)

September 10, 2012

The man who only observes him­self how­ever never gains
Knowl­edge of men. He is too anx­ious
To hide him­self from him­self. And nobody is
Clev­erer than he him­self is.
So your school­ing must begin among
Liv­ing peo­ple. Let your first school
Be your place of work, your dwelling, your part of the town.
Be the street, the under­ground, the shops. You should observe
All the peo­ple there, strangers as if they were acquain­tances, but
Acquain­tances as if they were strangers to you.
—Bertolt Brecht, Speech to the Dan­ish Working-Class Actors on the Art of Obser­va­tion (1934-6)

“Anthro­pol­ogy is the daugh­ter to this era of vio­lence,” Claude Levi-Strauss once said. Poetic as that state­ment is, I pre­fer the more pre­cise and less gen­dered words of esteemed anthro­pol­o­gist and Johnson-Forest Ten­dency mem­ber Kath­leen Gough: “Anthro­pol­ogy is a child of West­ern impe­ri­al­ism.” Much like Catholic mis­sion­ar­ies in the Span­ish Empire, anthro­pol­o­gists exam­ined indige­nous groups in order to improve colo­nial admin­is­tra­tion, a tra­di­tion that con­tin­ues into the present day with the US military’s Human Ter­rain Project in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often, this colo­nial imper­a­tive has fed a racist dis­re­spect of the sub­jects under study. It was not uncom­mon, for exam­ple, for researchers to draw upon colo­nial police forces to col­lect sub­jects for humil­i­at­ing anthro­po­met­ric measurements.

Accord­ing to Gough, at their best, anthro­pol­o­gists had been the “white lib­er­als between con­querors and col­o­nized.” Ethnog­ra­phy, the method in which researchers embed them­selves within social groups to best under­stand their prac­tices and the mean­ings behind them, had only medi­ated this rela­tion­ship, while Gough, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist, wanted to upend it. Writ­ing in 1968, she urged her dis­ci­pline to study impe­ri­al­ism and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments against it as a way to expi­ate anthro­pol­ogy of its sins. Gough later attempted this her­self, trav­el­ling through­out Asia in the 1970s. Although she lacked a solid uni­ver­sity con­nec­tion due to her polit­i­cal sym­pa­thies, she man­aged to con­duct field­work abroad, ana­lyz­ing class recom­po­si­tion in rural South­east India dur­ing the Green Rev­o­lu­tion, and detail­ing the improve­ment in the liv­ing stan­dards of Viet­namese peas­ants after the expul­sion of the United States.

Years later, anthro­pol­o­gist Ana Lopes sees fit to ask, “Why hasn’t anthro­pol­ogy made more dif­fer­ence?” The prob­lem is not that anthro­pol­o­gists are ret­i­cent to con­tribute to end­ing impe­ri­al­ism. Indeed, there are prob­a­bly more rad­i­cal and crit­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gists now than dur­ing Gough’s time, and cer­tainly the dis­ci­pline takes anti-racism and anti-imperialism incred­i­bly seri­ously. Gough her­self artic­u­lated some dif­fi­cul­ties:

(1) the very process of spe­cial­iza­tion within anthro­pol­ogy and between anthro­pol­ogy and the related dis­ci­plines, espe­cially polit­i­cal sci­ence, soci­ol­ogy, and eco­nom­ics; (2) the tra­di­tion of indi­vid­ual field work in small-scale soci­eties, which at first pro­duced a rich har­vest of ethnog­ra­phy but later placed con­straints on our meth­ods and the­o­ries; (3) unwill­ing­ness to offend the gov­ern­ments that funded us, by choos­ing con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects; and (4) the bureau­cratic, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary set­ting in which anthro­pol­o­gists have increas­ingly worked in their uni­ver­si­ties, which may have con­tributed to a sense of impo­tence and to the devel­op­ment of machine-like models.

None of these plague anthro­pol­ogy today. Anthro­pol­o­gists are often incred­i­bly deep knowl­ege about mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines (I have an anthro­pol­o­gist friend I con­sult on any ques­tions of struc­tural semi­otics, Marx­ism, 19th cen­tury lit­er­a­ture, or gam­bling); they have exam­ined cul­ture within large indus­trial and post-industrial soci­eties; they have been involved in all sorts of rad­i­cal issues, from union­iz­ing sex work­ers to ana­lyz­ing the secu­ri­tized state; and while the uni­ver­sity may remain a bureau­cratic, coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ary set­ting, anthro­pol­o­gists have largely aban­doned machine-like mod­els. So what gives?

One issue is how anthro­pol­ogy chose to atone for its com­plic­ity in racism and impe­ri­al­ism. Instead of mak­ing a direct polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion into impe­ri­al­ist prac­tice, ethnog­ra­phy attacked impe­ri­al­ist hermeneu­tics. A deep cri­tique of the Enlight­en­ment sub­ject, the source of anthropology’s claims to sci­ence and objec­tiv­ity as well as meta­phys­i­cal ground for West­ern notions of supe­ri­or­ity, became a major tar­get of the dis­ci­pline. Thus rose crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy, decon­struc­tive in spirit. Accord­ing to Soyini Madi­son, crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy “takes us beneath sur­face appear­ances, dis­rupts the sta­tus quo, and unset­tles both neu­tral­ity and taken-for-granted assump­tions by bring­ing to light under­ly­ing and obscure oper­a­tions of power and control.”

This func­tions at the level of the method itself: crit­i­cal ethno­g­ra­phers should be self-reflexive. Rather than assum­ing an omni­scient author­i­ta­tive view­point, they should high­light their own posi­tion­al­ity in the field by empha­siz­ing it in the writ­ten account, thereby decon­struct­ing the Self and its rela­tion to the Other when­ever pos­si­ble. In an attack on Enlight­en­ment pre­ten­sions to uni­ver­sal­ity, accounts became par­tial and frag­men­tary, a way to head off poten­tially demean­ing total­ized por­tray­als at the pass.

How­ever, iron­i­cally enough, by per­for­ma­tively ques­tion­ing one’s own research, the fig­ure of the ethno­g­ra­pher risks becom­ing the cen­tral fig­ure in the study, rather than the social group. Even as it pro­duces an often-engrossing lit­er­a­ture, crit­i­cal ethnog­ra­phy can under­mine its own polit­i­cal thrust by dras­ti­cally lim­it­ing what it per­mits itself to say. While Marx­ist soci­ol­o­gist Michael Bura­woy, who shov­eled pig iron for years in the name of social sci­ence, claims that with exces­sive reflex­iv­ity ethno­g­ra­phers “begin to believe they are the world they study or that the world revolves around them,” I’d counter that this isn’t so much pro­fes­sional nar­cis­sism as a prod­uct of the very real anx­i­ety sur­round­ing the ethics of rep­re­sen­ta­tion. How best to fairly, but accu­rately, por­tray one’s sub­jects? How can one really know the Other? I’ve strug­gled with this in my own work, and I know col­leagues who have been all but con­sumed by it. Writ­ing about one­self seems, at the very least, safer. But this aban­dons sci­en­tific rigor in its reluc­tance to make any gen­er­al­iz­able claims.

My own expe­ri­ence in ethnog­ra­phy came from a study of pop­u­lar cul­ture. I had grown tired of schol­arly tex­tual analy­sis: it seemed like more of a game for the com­men­ta­tors, where we crit­ics bandied about spec­u­la­tive assess­ments of books and films and TV shows, try­ing to one-up each other in nov­elty and jar­gon. These inter­pre­ta­tions said more about our posi­tions as theory-stuffed grad­u­ate stu­dents eager to impress than they did about the puta­tive “audi­ences” for the texts. Our con­scious­ness of the objects in ques­tion had been deter­mined by our mate­r­ial lives as critics-in-training. I felt pulled fur­ther away from cul­tural phe­nom­ena, when I wanted to get closer in order to bet­ter under­stand its sig­nif­i­cance. So I revolted against the rule of thoughts, start­ing to learn the meth­ods that got closer to the mat­ter at hand: ethnography,

In cul­tural stud­ies, ethnog­ra­phy (or as a fully-trained anthro­pol­o­gist would prob­a­bly write, “ethnog­ra­phy”) is most closely asso­ci­ated with audi­ence recep­tion and fan­dom stud­ies. Tex­tual analy­sis tells you only what a critic thinks of the work; in order to dis­cover how “aver­age” con­sumers expe­ri­ence it, you have to ask them. This way you avoid the total­iz­ing, top-down gen­er­al­iza­tions of some­one like Adorno, where a rei­fied con­scious­ness is deter­mined by the repet­i­tive, sim­pli­fied forms of the cul­ture industry.

This was Janet Radway’s goal when she stud­ied female read­ers of misog­y­nist romance nov­els. She found out that read­ers cared more about hav­ing pri­vate time away from domes­tic duties than the borderline-rape occur­ring in the books. How­ever, she was forced to con­clude that romance nov­els worked as com­pen­satory mech­a­nisms, secur­ing women in cap­i­tal­ist patri­ar­chal dom­i­na­tion – in other words, she took the long way around and ended up in the same Adornoian con­clu­sion: we’re fucked and it’s our mass cul­ture that makes it so.

My cho­sen topic helped me get on a dif­fer­ent path, one that I believe has more rel­e­vance to rad­i­cal pol­i­tics than harangu­ing the choices of hap­less con­sumers. I wanted to study inde­pen­dent pop­u­lar music instead of romance nov­els. This meant I was well posi­tioned to exam­ine music from the stand­point of pro­duc­tion, rather than just sur­vey­ing audi­ence mem­bers, a tech­nique that always felt too spec­u­la­tive and a bit too closely aligned with mar­ket research.

Not that mar­ket research was totally off base. Pop­u­lar music exists in the form of com­modi­ties. Its form, as Adorno rightly points out, is dic­tated by the needs of the cul­ture indus­try. If the music indus­try was a fac­tory, then musi­cians were the work­ers, bang­ing out prod­ucts. A pecu­liar fac­tory, to be sure, where oper­a­tions spread to the homes of the work­ers, the machines were pirated soft­ware, and the prod­ucts were derived from unique cre­ative labors, becom­ing objects of intense devo­tion among consumers.

You can run into resis­tance when you define art in this way – it seems to cheapen it, as if you can’t call a song a “com­mod­ity” with­out implic­itly stick­ing a “mere” in there, just as refer­ring to artists as work­ers seems to demean their abil­i­ties. But this resis­tance comes almost entirely from music fans, who com­mit their own Adornoian blun­der by plac­ing music on that archaic crum­bling pedestal of Art. The pro­duc­ers and DJs I spoke to in Detroit didn’t see it that way. They saw them­selves as cre­ative work­ers; at best, as entre­pre­neurs. One DJ talked about remix­ing songs in the morn­ing over cof­fee. “You know how some peo­ple check their email or read the news­pa­per? Well, I’m mak­ing a remix of the new Ciara song dur­ing that time.” He took pride in his work ethic, but never roman­ti­cized his occupation.

There wasn’t much to wax roman­tic about in the Detroit music scene at that time. The cul­ture indus­tries were under­go­ing a restruc­tur­ing for the imma­te­r­ial age. Vinyl was no longer mov­ing. Local radio and local music venues had gone cor­po­rate, squeez­ing out local music. DJs who wanted local gigs had to play Top 40 playlists in the sub­ur­ban mega­clubs instead of the native styles of elec­tronic music that had given Detroit mythic sta­tus around the world. Many had given up on record labels entirely. Every­one looked to the inter­net as the sav­ing grace for record sales, pro­mo­tion, net­work­ing – for every­thing, prac­ti­cally. Some of the more suc­cess­ful artists were attempt­ing to license their tracks for video games. Almost every­one had other jobs, often off the books. For crit­i­cally acclaimed Detroit pro­ducer Omar-S, music is his side job, in case his posi­tion on the fac­tory line is eliminated.

I wasn’t embed­ded within this com­mu­nity, as an anthro­pol­o­gist would be. Instead, I made the 90 minute drive to Detroit when I could, and spent the time inter­view­ing artists in their homes or over the phone. I attended some events, par­tic­i­pated and observed. And still, I could have writ­ten vol­umes on my subject-position and how it dif­fered from many of the musi­cians: I was white, college-educated, not from Detroit (the last one being the most salient dif­fer­ence). But my goal was to go beyond self-reflexive inter­ro­ga­tions, in spite of their impor­tance as a start­ing point. I aspired to write some­thing that would in some way, how­ever minor, par­tic­i­pate in the implicit polit­i­cal projects of musi­cal workers.

I can’t say I suc­ceeded in this goal. But while I may have done lit­tle for the polit­i­cal for­tunes of Detroit musi­cians, I had started to think about how to rev­o­lu­tion­ize my the­o­ret­i­cal tools. The point was not to efface or under­mine my role in my research, but to iden­tify the struc­tural antag­o­nism the artists were deal­ing with and describe it from a par­ti­san per­spec­tive. Beyond the self-reflexive analy­sis of the ethnographer’s subject-position was the pos­si­bil­ity of pick­ing sides.

Decid­ing to pick sides is the dif­fer­ence between mil­i­tant research, of the kind Kath­leen Gough prac­ticed, and purely scholas­tic exer­cises. Bura­woy argues that this is a fun­da­men­tal ele­ment of Karl Marx’s “ethno­graphic imag­i­na­tion”: Marx rooted his the­o­ries – not just of how cap­i­tal­ism func­tioned, but how best to destroy it – in the con­crete expe­ri­ences of work­ers, as relayed to him by Engels and oth­ers. Kath­leen Gough is an exem­plary fig­ure in this respect, remain­ing a firm mate­ri­al­ist in her stud­ies. As Gough’s friend and col­league Eleanor Smol­lett puts it in a spe­cial jour­nal ded­i­cated to Gough’s legacy,

she did not arrive in Viet­nam with a check­list of what a soci­ety must accom­plish to be ‘really social­ist’ as so many Marx­ists in acad­e­mia were wont to do. She looked at the direc­tion of the move­ment, of the con­crete gains from where the Viet­namese had begun… Observ­ing social­ist devel­op­ment from the point of view of the Viet­namese them­selves, rather than as judged against a hypo­thet­i­cal sys­tem, she found the people’s stated enthu­si­asm credible.

After study­ing mate­r­ial con­di­tions and for­eign pol­icy in the social­ist bloc, Gough decided that the Soviet Union, while cer­tainly no work­ers’ par­adise, was a net good for the work­ers of the world – heresy for any­one try­ing to pub­lish in the West, let alone a Trotskyist.

Analy­sis is impor­tant, but the really explo­sive stuff of ethnog­ra­phy hap­pens in the encounter. Accord­ingly, ethno­g­ra­phers and oth­ers have increas­ingly turned towards the meth­ods of par­tic­i­pa­tory action research (PAR). In these stud­ies, a blend of ethnog­ra­phy and ped­a­gogy, the anthro­pol­o­gist takes a par­ti­san inter­est in the aspi­ra­tions of the group, and aids the group in actively par­tic­i­pat­ing actively in the research. Mem­bers of the group under study become co-researchers, ask­ing ques­tions and artic­u­lat­ing prob­lems. The goal is to tease out native knowl­edges that best aid peo­ple in nav­i­gat­ing dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances while mobi­liz­ing them to cre­ate polit­i­cal change.

But par­tic­i­pa­tory action research has returned to the same old prob­lems of impe­ri­al­ist anthro­pol­ogy. In the hands of rad­i­cal anthro­pol­o­gist Ana Lopes, PAR led to the for­ma­tion of a sex work­ers’ union in Great Britain. But in the hands of devel­op­ment scholar Robert Cham­bers, PAR is a tool to bet­ter imple­ment World Bank ini­tia­tives and gov­ern pop­u­la­tions by allow­ing them to “par­tic­i­pate” in their subjection.

The point, then, is to real­ize that ethnog­ra­phy has no polit­i­cal con­tent of its own. Pol­i­tics derives not from the com­mit­ment or beliefs of the researcher, but from engage­ment with wider social antag­o­nisms. Ethnog­ra­phy enables Marx­ism to trace the con­tours of these antag­o­nisms at the level of every­day life: a mil­i­tant ethnog­ra­phy means Marx­ism at work, and func­tions not by impos­ing mod­els of class con­scious­ness and rad­i­cal action from above, but by reveal­ing the ter­rain of the strug­gle – to intel­lec­tu­als and to work­ers – as it is con­tin­u­ally pro­duced. Ethnog­ra­phy can con­tribute in just this way, as a method where researchers lis­ten, observe, and reveal the now hid­den, now open fight for the future.

is a graduate student in Washington, DC.