Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Loss Leader For a Day

It's a foggy morning and I'm stuck at home waiting for delivery of my new washer and dryer. Seems like as good a time as any to talk about Gang Leader for a Day, which I just finished last night. While I applaud Venkatesh's bravery in entering the Robert Taylor Homes to begin with, and his dedication to his fieldwork, and the openness that allowed him to befriend residents of the housing project, the whole book mainly felt self-serving and self-aggrandizing. Here he is, posing on the cover, in a leather coat, standing in the ghetto. Isn't he a cool dude? He's no academic. He's rogue, yo!

Open the cover and then you have the text itself. Why was this published? The fieldwork he describes took place nearly 20 years ago, in a community that has been disbursed (or erradicated, depending on how you look at it). It's not about the actual fieldwork, anyway. This isnt a monograph, it's a memoir, about what a badass grad student he was. The text doesn't satisfy as memoir or autobiography, though, because even though it's ultimately about Venkatesh and not the gang member, it lacks the generic structure of memoir: I begin, I ascend, I lose my way and mess up, I am redeemed. He does realize at some point that he's using these subjects for his own ends, true, but whatever redemption he looked for was certainly lost by trotting these same people out these years later to use as fodder for popular non-fiction.

I understand that this gets at the heart of the dilemna faced not only by anthropologists and sociologists but also documentarians of all stripes: how does my observing change the observed, and how do I ultimately create a document that's not somehow about me? This text ultimately feels confused on this issue. It's about JT and the Black Kings, sort of, it's about being a grad student at U of C, sort of, it's about the lessons of ghetto life and about Ivy life, sort of. Mainly, it's about voyeurism - his fascination with a life unlike the suburban Southern California world of his childhood, and the fascination with the lives of the other that this book's publisher knows that the educated, white, upper middle-class buyer of the text shares with the author.

In other words, I'm implicated too. Gang Leader for a Day isn't the subject; we are.


barney101 said...

So you are in a well with a goat and aa slinky and when asked how do you get out respond, "Why would I want to do that?" Being satisfied to remain in the well with a slinky would increase your boredom but the addition of the goat would start to really smell after only one bm from the goat. If the goat ate the slinky, as I understand goats eat about anything, would mean you were stuck in the well with a goat who now has exteme eliminatory odors. Might you rethink your choice to remain?

tunsie said...

food should look good first then it should be scrumptious,it does not have 2 b expensive 2b good. tunsie.tunsie.tunsie

Elucidator said...

Barney 101 -

The well water would feed me. The slinky would feed the goat. The goat would...take care of my needs? Beyond that, who gets more fame than someone stuck in a well? It would be an easier route to D-list celebrityhood than even appearing on Big Brother.


tunsie said...

recipes which r not broke do not need repair,[jimmy's hot dog shoppe]when something works leave it alone.mrs. fields is making cookies the same way now as she did day 1. tunsie.tunsie.tunsie

a fury said...

Nice review. Now I don't have to read the book, thank you very much. Re: wells, did you see the Today Show anniversary interview with baby Jessica all grown up? Falling down one definitely seems to enhance one's fame -- and love of life -- but normally only after someone pulls you out.