Published Winter/Spring 2009
The Case for Scholarly Reporting
by Andrew Ross | ns 71-72
Not a few politically-driven writers of my generation might say that they took their cue from the challenge set forth in the editorial of the New Left Review's (NLR) inaugural 1960 issue. It declared that "the task of socialism today is to meet people where they are, where they are touched, bitten, moved, frustrated, nauseated—to develop discontent and, at the same time, to give the socialist movement some direct sense of the time and ways in which we live." These words were not penned in the abstract. They were specifically intended as a gloss on the decision to take popular culture seriously by the editorial group of the new journal. Indeed, the words were probably written by Stuart Hall, who edited the NLR for the first two years, and whose subsequent patronage of the field of cultural studies is most associated with promoting critical analyses of popular expression. But the editorial declaration was also a firm rebuff of the mentality of the Old Left, which, far from meeting people where they are, had arguably more to do with telling people where they ought to be. In contrast to the announcement of this ostensibly clean break, the editors of, and contributors to, the New Reasoner and the University and Left Review—the two post-Suez journals which had merged to form the NLR—had included figures like E. P. Thompson, John Saville, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Dorothy Thompson, Alasdair Macintyre, and Raphael Samuel, all of whom had to wrestle with the legacy of Stalinism in the Communist Party of Great Britain in the course of rejecting it.
In time, under the successive editorships of Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn, the prevailing tone of the NLR became decidedly more mandarin, and its content increasingly given over to macro-historical analysis or to sweeping surveys of the political scene. The NLR's heady engagement with Western Marxism and Continental theory in the 1970s and 1980s, while perceived as a necessary educational route for the left, was even more of a detour away from the 1960 injunction to "meet people where they are." The spirit of the latter was more evident, if anywhere, in the fledgling precincts of cultural studies, where on-the-ground analyses of everyday life provided a documented, usable record of how youth, in particular, were synthesizing new and old experiences of coping with market capitalism. Of course, socialists were not the only ones for whom this kind of knowledge was valuable. While leftists surely needed it to help "develop discontent," market researchers and corporate trend-makers set on profiting from discontent eventually caught on, and the soul of cultural studies, and its methods, became as contested as the experiences its practitioners set out to analyze.
My own story intersects with these traditions in somewhat unorthodox ways. My first training, as a critic, came from academics in Britain who had sat at the feet of F. R. Leavis, and it was succeeded, in short order, by others who had translated, if not indigenized, Althusser and other marxisant Continental thinkers into the UK. It was not until I came to the US in the early 1980s to absorb the living poetry scene that the methods and more populist instincts of cultural studies called out to me, and they did so primarily because of my need to learn what cultural citizenship really amounted to in the streets, bedrooms, bars, theaters, offices, factories, and classrooms of North America.
Though I was recruited by Princeton's English Department in 1985 to teach poetry, no one, in that zone of gentility (we called the campus a "womb with a view") ever asked me to do so. As a result of that benign neglect, I took the opportunity to liberate myself, professionally, from the teaching of literature, and self-apprenticed in the kinds of social and cultural analysis that American Studies had established as a legitimate institutional niche on campus. As at Harvard, Yale, and Penn, the Princeton program had been around since the 1940s, and the NYU program, to which I subsequently moved, was only slightly younger. The longevity of American Studies was a blessing to myself and many others who needed a haven where the gatekeepers of disciplinary turf had no authority. For sure, American Studies had its own lineages and custom-bound tendencies, but the policing of the field was weak and almost nonexistent by the standards of the major four-walled disciplines. At Princeton, faculty recruitment meetings were occasionally punctuated by someone musing about what R. P. Blackmur would have thought about this or that candidate. It's impossible to imagine anyone in American Studies raising a similar inquiry by invoking Henry Nash Smith.
American Studies provided a home for the kind of criticism I wanted—which looks at society as a whole, deploys whatever methods are necessary to do so, and makes a real effort to meet people where they are. All the same, it took me a long time to work off the habits of my training and find my own voice as a practitioner of scholarly reporting—the genre in which I have come to feel most comfortable. There were particular obstacles in the path. I had been trained, first and foremost, as a "reader," alert, above all, to decoding the secret life of words. This meant that I was not a very good listener, especially to the spoken testimony of others. Indeed, the Derridean paradigm of literary reading taught its practitioners to distrust the authority accorded the spoken word—phonocentric was the somewhat derogatory label that accompanied this distrust. My second training was that of an armchair theorist, pledged to the synthesis of ideas. This sedentary art meant that I had no particular understanding of what a "field" of evidence had to offer. Indeed, theory's advocates often cast aspersions on the gathering of any kind of data; empiricism was the derogatory label which accompanied that form of distrust.
Overcoming these obstacles was by no means easy, and it took several years to acquire the confidence to pursue research against my instincts. Even the elementary task of scheduling and conducting a field interview took some doing at first. Nor had I any real preparation for the patience required to build a credible picture of a community, workplace, or labor market—to cite three of the field units I have researched, respectively, in The Celebration Chronicles, No-Collar, and Fast Boat to China. These books were researched in a mode that crossed ethnography with investigative journalism, and each was written to be published by a trade press. It might be appropriate here to reflect on the motives and circumstances that led to these publications.
American Studies has always had time for ethnographic study—the defunct program at Penn was especially known for its espousal, and at NYU, ethnography has become one of our three sponsored methods—but it is fair to say that it has not been anywhere near the forefront of a discipline that is still hard-pressed to attract social scientists. Yet the lineage that runs from the Lynds' Middletown through Herbert Gans' Levittowners to Sudhir Venkatash's American Project and Aihwa Ong's Flexible Citizenship could hardly be more central to the concerns of American Studies practitioners. So, too, the public orientation of the discipline encourages critical investigation of current affairs in ways that overlap with sustained journalistic inquiry. Classics like Anthony Lukas' Common Ground, Susan Faludi's Backlash, or Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed make this case quite clear. Not least, the cultural investigation wing of American Studies can claim Tom Wolfe as its most celebrated graduate, and, by extension, many practitioners of what Robert Boynton has termed the New New Journalism.
Modern ethnographers are all too aware of their professional rivals' claims on the knowledge extracted from their fieldwork, but, in my experience, they seldom acknowledge that they often compete directly with journalists. There are sometimes good reasons for this. For one thing, the core of their respective ethics are more or less at odds. Where journalists seek to authenticate their sources, ethnographers are supposed to protect or obscure their informants' identities. Where journalists will regard their methods as means to an end, the ethnographer will take pains to authenticate his or her methods of gathering data. Deadlines, even when they are generous, overdetermine the shape and depth of the journalist's study. Aside from considerations regarding tenure deadlines, a professional ethnographer is usually limited only by access to the field, which can most often be renewed without impunity. Finally, the journalist, who is almost always writing for a trade press, will already have internalized his or her publisher's desire for a take-home message that can be readily summarized for media and publicity purposes. Ethnographers tend to shy away from that kind of packaged delivery because they have internalized the credo that summary results do violence to their more holistic description of a field.
Though there are few instances when both kinds of professionals set themselves exactly the same investigative challenge, that was indeed the case with the first of my books in this vein, The Celebration Chronicles. A husband and wife team of journalists, one of them from the New York Times, spent more or less the same amount of time as I did living in Celebration—our books were published at the same time, were usually reviewed together, and split the market sales down the middle. It was partly under those circumstances, but also because journalists made regular pilgrimages to Celebration, that I developed the kind of scholarly reporting that characterized that book. Residents who felt dirtied by genre stories about "trouble in paradise," or who believed their community had been portrayed as one-dimensional in the mass media, were more willing to open up to a scholar who was not on a short deadline or looking for dirt, and who they therefore concluded would be more accountable in the long run. But while most expected me to record their trials and efforts in a more responsible manner than the press had done, they also assumed that I was writing a narrative with a strong story line, one which not a few tried to influence. Meeting the Celebrationites where they were was quite a social challenge to me—after all, most were high-end suburbanites looking to leverage a merchandized Disney dream. But the political pay-off was worth it—I was documenting knowledge about the anxieties and aspirations of white middle-class families living on the fault-line of US politics—Florida's I-4 corridor, which bisects Celebration, turned out to be the decisive swing vote in the 2000 election.
Consequently, there were aspects of that book I wrote in the "you are there" mode, but there were many others when immediate details are interpreted against an academically-informed historical and sociological backdrop. Though the task of reconciling these impulses lay ultimately with my editor at Ballantine, a very commercial press that had given me a generous advance to fund my year in residence, I internalized it from the outset. Balancing the publisher's need to harvest returns on their advance (the Ballantine catalog promoted my book on the page opposite Chicken Soup and Other Folk Remedies) with my own intellectual goals produced a genre of writing which mined the overlap between ethnography and journalism.
For No-Collar, my second book in this vein, I chose sites much closer to home—two new media companies in New York's Silicon Alley. Once again, coverage of dot.com start-ups had been a favored topic in the press at the height of the so-called New Economy. It occurred to me that the most important story about these companies—the nature of the workplaces—was being sidelined by the internet gold rush. The press had shown some early interest in the maverick ethos of work organization and employee conditions, but follow-the-money stories about young entrepreneurs very quickly came to dominate all media attention. No one had done a close analysis of the workplaces from the point of view of employees themselves, and my hunch was that this angle would be lost to history in the event of an economic downturn. The window of opportunity to do my study proved to be even tighter than I expected. What emerged in the book was a profile of the adolescence of the self-directed work mentality that is the core ethos of the so-called "creative class."
In my field work for these books, I worked out a hybrid formula for identifying informants. Those who spoke ex officio, and who were used to speaking to the press, were usually identified, as were those who wanted to be named and who waived the offer of anonymity. All other subjects were treated with full confidentiality, and many were given faux names. This formula satisfied the need for reportage to have a series of identifiable characters, around which to weave a storyline, while it also offered ethical protection against exposure for other kinds of informant.
The same formula was applied in the third volume, Fast Boat To China, which looked at white-collar outsourcing from the perspective of Chinese employees who had taken over jobs transferred from high-wage countries. Media coverage of skilled outsourcing had reached a high pitch by 2004, but there were few accounts of the phenomenon from an offshore point of view, and most of them were Friedmanite paeans to the free market opportunities afforded to young Indian IT employees. In addition, there were precious few ethnographies of workplaces in China's transitional economy that focused on the Yangtze Delta, and none at all on the high-tech sector that was emerging as the region's economic engine. Once again, the goal I set for my interviews was to take away some usable political knowledge—in this case, about the mentality of the embryonic Chinese middle class, and the skeptical view that employees (and their managers) took of their global capitalist employers. Once again, I found that, as a scholar with an academic name card, I had more chance of access to companies and interviewees than if I had been a journalist, and the quality of response from employees and managers was likewise different.
I've taken the time to elaborate on the circumstances of these three volumes to describe what I have called the acquisition of a "voice." More than just a writing style, this involves an explicit orientation toward methods of research, expectations of audience response, fulfillment of contracts (formal and informal) with interviewees and publishers, and judgments about political utility. When we talk about this or that critic's credo, we most often assume that they choose a methodological approach which corresponds to some deeply held belief in the righteousness of principle. But it may be more honest to acknowledge that our practice is almost always shaped by circumstances—institutional conventions and rewards, public opportunities, the influence of peers and gatekeepers, the political and social climate, and the serendipity with which certain events enter our radar field of view.
Reading through the contributions of the (mostly) New Critics who filled the pages of the Kenyon Review in 1951, it's clear that all of these factors were considered extraneous, and, for some, heretical, to their observations on the function of criticism. It's not that they were unaware of them, but rather, they believed their job was to try to be adequate to the truth about aesthetics in spite, and not because, of the circumstances in which they plied their trade. In addition, though most had little or no truck with what would become known as the Old Left (Leslie Fiedler, Stephen Spender, and Kenneth Burke are notable exceptions), they shared the propensity of that era to tell people where they ought to be, regardless of their circumstance. Critics of my generation are loath to issue such decrees. We think of ourselves as more worldly—more attuned, at least, to the conditions under which criticism is made. But when it comes to the conditions under which other people make history, that is something that requires a little more legwork.