Fieldwork is a multi-sensed thing. When anthropologists sit down and write ethnographies, we include what we saw and heard, smelled and tasted, felt in our bodies and our minds, as inseparable and confounding as these feelings are. My fieldwork includes going and fighting wildfires with prisoners. On many fires, we are miles away from the big flames, or we are on a fire that is nearly contained. These fires are fun and smoky and tiring, but manageable in the ethnographic sense-- I can whip out my phone and take notes, ask questions, et cetera. But when I go on the line with them to do an initial attack on a fire (meaning we see a giant wall of flames and work immediately to put it out), I am not writing, I am barely thinking of anything but breathing and watching for shifts in the wind. Even 10 minutes after I get off the fireline, when I try to scribble down what I saw, I forget to write certain things down because I've seen so much that it overwhelms me.
Over the course of fieldwork, after each fire when I sit achingly down in my car to write my initial musings, I have come up with a system to make at least some sense of my thoughts. In those swirling, manically penned fieldnotes, I first write a descriptive summary of the fire event, and then I break down what I remember by my senses: Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch. Finally, I add a "Body" category, which describes what I felt, not with my fingers and toes, but with my gut, what it was telling me. Fear. Thrill. Exhaustion. Things that emanate from within and through me. These are the hardest to explain but the most important in moving my writing forward.
Below is what I wrote about the fire this week. I've expanded on the summary a bit, fleshing out sentences to be full and flowing, but here is my fieldwork laid bare.
9 p.m., Wednesday, May 25
I was just on the Ridge fire, which ballooned from 80 to 2,000 acres right in front of us, running up and down the hills straight towards the center of a military base and its residents. It was a fire that some compared to disastrous ones, where firefighters lost their lives, because of how quickly it went from textbook containment to out-of-control. Upon arrival to the fire, when it was small but moving fast, we got out in front of the blaze, which was started on one of the base's gun ranges with a .50 caliber bullet. We saw it moving towards us fast, and we worked even faster with drip torches and water to burn backwards towards it, so that when the fire got to us, it would have nothing left in its reach to burn. We wrapped around it, burning the fuel on the ground and running multiple miles to put out spot fires. After about 6 hours, just when we thought we had boxed out the fire and its movement, a tiny ember from a torching mesquite tree jumped the line we had created through burning, because the winds had kicked up to 45 mph, at the hottest and driest part of the day. It happened right at the witching hour. When demons come out to play. The ember lit two blades of dry grass, then 10, then exponentially grew. It jumped the line and we watched it explode. There was a moment of shaky calm, standing on a hilltop watching the fire move swiftly towards the town, when we convened with Incident Command, laughed at how useless the last 6 hours were, and got our new orders. The crew was tasked to run straight towards the fire, to chase it like you'd chase a dog with a propensity to run, who you watched wiggle free from its collar right before your eyes. The crew battled the fire's right flank, another crew got its left. For an hour the crew of 23 men toiled, steady but swiftly, spaced evenly at the edge of the black, digging line, spraying hoses, beating the lapping flames with their tools. To no avail. They got called off the direct attack-- it was failing, and moving faster towards civilization. They got the order to run. Each crewmember had logged 6 hours already, with 10 miles of furious paced hiking on their feet, 90 pounds each on their backs, smoky ash coating their mouths and eyes and ears. They were ordered to run further than the fire had reached, and to make one last attempt to burn backwards into the wall of flames. And they did. They burned with abandon. Before the fire had jumped the line, our back-burn was methodical. Now it was all guns blazing. Drip torches met dry earth, the winds whipped up, and flames were carried back towards the main fire. The smoke plume quadrupled in size, as trees and brush and grass and animals unable to run went up in flames. This time the wind favored Man. You could hear the demon shrieking its goodbye. The intentional burn met the runaway one, and the fire ceased. 10 hours later, within hundreds of feet of the backyards of the community that relied on these crews, it was done.
I had never seen a wildfire event like this up close. Every fire is different, and interestingly, this fire was not even close to the most intense thing these crewmembers have seen. This was manageable, if not risky and exhausting. At all times, the experienced guys knew exactly what was happening. Could see it coming, could see where the fire would go, and knew what to do. For me, clearly inexperienced, it was like watching a movie where everyone else had been privy to a pre-screening, and throughout the day I relied on them repeating the dialogue they had already heard. I relied on them indeed. I mirrored their bodies and their attitude and their wisdom and strength. What I saw and heard and felt was both my own and not my own. I was fighting wildfire, but not alone. Fieldwork remolds you; you are plastic, you become enmeshed with others. On the fireline, when your fieldwork becomes a battle, this is especially true.
Below is a working list of queries that members of the Inmate Wildfire Program would like to Google, if they had access to the internet. Many topics come up for discussion in the course of days, months, and years of incarceration. Throughout the course of my research, I've been privy to their asking of many open-ended questions on a wide range of topics. I thought I'd share them here, as a glimpse into the myriad conversations I've had with the crews.
[this list will be updated as fieldwork progresses.]
(First, some personal context: My dissertation topic will be on the phenomenon of inmate wildfire fighting. To prepare for this, I have four comprehensive exam topics that I’ll write in September, for which I’m preparing by reading tons of stuff about each topic. Two are relevant to this essay, and are probably why I am writing it to begin with. One comprehensive exam topic is called ‘Masculinity.’ The other is called ‘The Categorization of Criminals and Heroes.’)
About six months ago, I was on tumblr and saw that someone reblogged something from Hot and Busted. I clicked on the link and discovered that the website is an aggregation of hot guys’ (subjective to the owner of the website, I guess) mug shots. My friend, a fellow anthropologist, and I both noticed that the website mostly featured images of white males – the few black men were mostly celebrities, like Tyler the Creator and a historic mug shot of MLK Jr. We ruminated on it a little, were mildly disturbed by the existence of it, but concluded that at least the website’s owner was objectifying white criminality, rather than walk the much trodden black-guy-with-neck-tattoos-is-hot-because-he’s-bad territory. I noted that a lot of the dudes on this website had charges of drug possession, a few with other non-violent charges. A lot of them look stoned as hell in their mug shots. What I saw was mostly, on the spectrum of acceptable immorality, the type of crimes we can forgive.
A few days ago the mug shot of Jeremy Meeks went viral. As most people with the internet and/or TV know, he got caught in a multi-agency sting to arrest active gang members on weapons charges. After the Stockton Police Department Facebook page posted his mug shot (I could, and maybe should write an article just about this very action) and it garnered a viral-level amount of views and comments, the whole world had something – mostly pretty concise things like “dayuuummmn” or “ew no way” – to say about it. I suppose I’ll now include myself in that group.......
For the rest of the article, visit PopAnth and read on!
To the Editor,
One of the reasons Jared Diamond, the best-selling author of books like Guns, Germs, and Steel, gets anthropologists' feathers all ruffled is because he has the affinity to write about indigenous and native societies in rather romanticized, fossilized terms - to view them as proud yet homogenized groups who exist primarily as a tool of Western self-reflection, as a measuring stick of how far we have fallen from a (heavily mythologized) "pristine" past. This is, of course, a harmful fallacy, because as Wade Davis writes in his critical appraisal of Diamond's latest book, "Traditional societies do not exist to help us tweak our lives as we emulate a few of their cultural practices."
In this way, Diamond sets up a very problematic teleology in much of his work, a tidy (and untrue) progression from pristine --> damaged, noble savage --> ignoble civilian, that anthropologists have eschewed for quite a while now. In his pseudo-manifestos for social and environmental change, he paradoxically calls on his WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) readers to both mimic traditional societies' practices (which of course are infinitely more varied, complicated, managed, and modern than he makes them seem) - while also insisting we take it solely upon our western selves to actually do anything. Diamond writes, "We ourselves are the only ones who created our new lifestyles, so it's completely in our power to change them." I ask: who has this power to change? And what are we changing from? As much as he likes to speak of indigenous practices, is he not squarely setting his WEIRD readers in a distinct and action-oriented category from not just our ancestors, but from all the 'others' who don't fit in his acronym? Does he forget that many humans, indigenous or not, have very little power to change anything at all?
It seems to me that the 'we' Diamond calls upon to speak up and make change are a very small set of people, a very privileged group, while silencing many others, expecting them to perform simply as mythologized tropes for a largely determinist argument. After reading your magazine for five or so years, I fear that many of your articles operate on a similar premise: travel, em/immigration, and opportunities exist and are played out for the same 'we' as Diamond's. In many of your pieces, albeit not concerned with social and environmental change, the 'others' end up becoming, often subtly and with much panache, subjected to the same structural silence. In your declarations of jet-setting trends, new investment opportunities, and exotic and unexplored lands, everyone but the privileged ‘we’ are simple cultural mirrors to see ourselves in, in vain. I will touch on two articles that I find most problematic in this way: The Geopolitics of Name-dropping (March 2014), and more direly, The Intoxicating, Tradition-steeped Charm of New Orleans (October 2013).
Content-wise, in some paragraphs the Geopolitics opinion piece is interesting. Particularly, the author’s discussion of place-names (Bombay/Mumbai, Burma/Myanmar) highlights the complex meanings these titles hold for individuals who live there and identities that form there, often that go against pre-supposed geopolitical correctness. As the filmmaker Mira Nair states in the paragraph on Indian nationals referring to Mumbai as Bombay, “But for many — and I am one of them — the idea of the city lies in the word ‘Bombay.’” Unfortunately, this opinion piece is not primarily about the intersections between native national understandings of place-names and the projection of these names to the Western outsider. What this article is premised on is a trend – the latest and greatest jet-setters taking job positions or holding destination christenings (?!) in newly-formed, hard-to-pronounce places. Quotes from the author’s friends who live in these places are greatly outnumbered by phrases like “But besides bragging rights, there’s also a practical value to getting the names right,” or “Africa is not the only continent that presents rich opportunities for naming skirmishes.”
The author presents a story of a woman who became the envy of her friends by taking a job in the “newly minted” South Sudan, winning the “traveler’s triple crown” of going to “a city nobody had ever heard of, in a country that had formerly not existed, in a place nobody could point to on a map.” Not only is the author’s half-sentence historical trajectory of South Sudan incorrect (it was never controlled by Egypt), it was astonishingly trite. I cannot blame the author for her honest assessment, most likely coming from a place of personal experience, but the piece is emblematic of the privilege assumed of the magazine’s readership. A blasé trend-piece crystallizes otherness within a ‘triple crown’ of linguistic and symbolic purgatory: these places are unknown (why?), new (due to what?), and hard to pronounce (for whom?). These places are desired for their otherness, first and foremost. The historical, cultural, and ideological details are left behind.
After reading the Geopolitics article, I was immediately reminded of a piece I clipped out of October’s style magazine, one I’ve highlighted, used in class as a discussion-starter on race and development, and have thought about a lot since its publication. The article The Intoxicating, Tradition-steeped Charm of New Orleans is undoubtedly the most insensitive magazine piece I’ve read in a while, and was the original impetus for writing this letter. It is important for me to bring it up in relation to the point I’ve been making so far, because the charge of Romanticization-and-Homogenization-as-Structural-Violence does not only apply to places outside our borders. You have managed to commit this glossy violence at home.
I cannot go into too much detail without writing a term paper, so I will highlight a few pertinent examples. In fact, I can simply stick with the article description to support my point. Underneath the title of the article, it reads, “With its last-frontier appeal and magical mixed bag of culture, New Orleans is quietly luring a circle of expats, who find an evolving city that’s just the right amount of undone.” Frontier. Magical. Expats. Undone. Each word brings with it discursively symbolic force, each word provides the reader with a mental blueprint on which to build all other assumptions, even before the article has begun.
Having spent time doing anthropological fieldwork in southeast Louisiana, I must immediately question the intent behind the words in this adjective-filled article description. Can New Orleans be considered a ‘frontier,’ and if so, does a frontier not ultimately symbolize violence and subjugation? Is New Orleans magical because of its partial afro-Caribbean lineage, and if so, do we want to call those native to the area magical, as if we’ve never heard of the racist trope of the Magical Black Man? Do we call those who move to recently-devastated parts of our country expats (like we have done with Detroit in the recent past), and if so, how do we reconcile our pride in the city’s ‘resilience’ with the verbal designation of it being outside of the Polis, outside of proper citizenship? And, what about New Orleans is undone? Is it the storms, the Parish government corruption, the offshore oil industrial lobbying, the disaster-porn bus tours of the lower ninth ward? What makes something the right amount of undone – is it the moment in which ‘we’ are willing to risk our WEIRDness for socioeconomic gain, while perhaps willfully (and even gleefully, according to the article) perpetuating the centuries-long loss of ‘others’?
This is my first set of questions that I would have for the author of the article and the editor of this magazine, as they relate to the one sentence description, with the purpose of pointing out the problematic nature of articles of this type. That is, I ask these questions not because I want answers, but to demonstrate that they are unanswerable. It is not in the purview of a style magazine, nor is it in the purview of Jared Diamond (or any anthropologist) to provide answers or solutions to these wildly complicated issues. I do not believe it is unreasonable, however, to expect a magazine owned and published by the New York Times to write with an intention to subvert this form of normative violence. What I mean by this is: Places, and people, are not just mirrors to a mythic past or ideal future, they are not just destinations, nor are they so easily deemed just right. They exist in specific moments and epochs, they are experienced in places that ripple with action and meaning as multiple as they are unified. Moreover, they do not require your magazine’s readers, nor Jared Diamond’s WEIRDos, to exist, let alone be worthy of words on a page. Instead of calling these people and places what we need or what we could have, we must not call on them at all. We must let them speak.
I should state, as a type of conclusion, that I am not necessarily surprised at this trend I have noticed in your magazine, nor do I expect any fundamental change by writing this letter, as your readership (myself included) may come to expect a particular point of view. However, I hope that by at least raising the issue, you might become aware of the harm your language and imagery can bring, the inherent silencing of many groups in your printed words. Margaret Atwood once said, “A word after a word after a word is power.” Do not take your privilege lightly. Think deeply. Before you write your own, be open to listening to the words of others.
University of Arizona, Tucson
I wrote this little vignette when I was doing my fieldwork in the Altar Valley in the summer of 2011. It never made it into any official type of writing, but it was one of those happy fieldwork moments for me, sitting alone, being somewhere at once familiar and strange, eating steak, listening, watching.
I am sitting in a restaurant that is dimly lit, with stone-carved walls and cowboy paraphernalia hanging from the ceiling. Chandeliers made from wagon wheels, that sort of thing. As it is with most restaurants in rural Arizona cattle country, things aren’t entirely old-fashioned here, nor are things entirely new. This building was constructed at the turn of the 20th century and was used by early cattle traders as a watering hole, yet the fancy stereo system tacked up in the corner playing Top 40 hits points towards the establishment's modernity. This restaurant, though self-aware of its uniqueness, is far from a tourist trap. The people eating here tonight don’t seem to be gawking at the cow heads stuffed and mounted on the wall. There is no one snapping photos of the extensive pancake griddle collection that is displayed in the entryway with as much care as any museum exhibit. I seem to be the only non-local here, sitting at the Cow Palace on a Tuesday at 7:30 pm in late June.
The family next to me – grandma, grandpa, and two small grandkids, boys about the age of 5 and 7 – have just spent the last ten minutes discussing potatoes. Grandpa’s face is wrinkled and weathered. He is wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, and his white collared shirt looks freshly pressed. Grandma, heavy set and red cheeked, has her hair pinned up ornately with a silver clip, turquoise inlay. The family is situated in the middle of the restaurant, with paper napkins in all four of their laps. Their conversation about potatoes ranges from the tuber’s merits to its flaws. The boys claim they hate mashed potatoes, but are excited for their order of French Fries. “Your dad doesn’t like mashed potatoes either,” grandpa chuckles. “He used to say the same thing as you just did.” Hearing this, I think that traditions out here don’t just form around work practices and ideologies, but around more inane, daily things. Like food.
“I like potatoes every way I’ve ever tried them,” Grandma says. “Except the way Mindy used to make them.” Grandpa snickers, but the boys press for more. They jump on this detail about the former woman in their dad’s life, supposedly the woman he was married to before the boys’ mom came along.
“Why Mindy’s?” The youngest asked.
“What was wrong with her potatoes?”
They crave this information intently, as if it would unlock some mystery about the woman that means enough to be brought up at a family meal but not enough to have stuck around. I think back to when I was about these boys’ age, learning about the former woman in my own dad’s life. Back then, hearing about her was the first time I saw my parents not just as amorphous figures of ‘dad’ and ‘mom,’ but as people who made choices, people who have flaws and merits just like potatoes do. I lean forward, wanting to know more about Mindy, too.
The waitress emerges from the kitchen with a tray, three orders of chicken fried steak in tow – two orders with mashed potatoes, one order, split in two, with French Fries. As the steaks are being set down on their table, grandpa removes his cowboy hat. He picks up his fork and his knife, but Grandma shoots him a look. He sets them back down. Grandma, reaching over the table to cut the boys’ steak, puts an end to the subject so they can say grace.
“Mindy was a nice woman,” She says.
“A kind woman,” Grandpa echoes.
“She was a nice woman,” Grandma repeats. “She just couldn’t cook.”
Talk of potatoes and Mindy cease. The four of them say grace, heads bowed, and then they dig in. As they eat, from the speakers of the new stereo system in the corner of the Cow Palace on a Tuesday evening in June, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” begins to play.
It was Christmas Day, 2013, and Gabe and I were driving south on I-19 towards Madera Canyon because we had heard there was snow left over from a storm a few days before. There were very few people on the road - I think it was 2pm - and like it always happens on the 25th of December, I felt an eerie sense of quiet. In my lifetime, I've rarely had this silence drowned out by relatives around a dining table or the sound of my own jaw chewing on ham and figgy pudding, familiar and full. Nor was this Christmas silence ever sacred to me, either by theological weight or the hushed reverence of newly fallen snow. Why was this silence eerie to me rather than peaceful? Why did it feel like I was holding my breath, rather than exhaling?
I was in the passenger seat as Gabe drove south. I looked out the window to my right, and saw the formidable Spectrum Plaza, a massive shopping center easily accessible by the interstate, situated off a major thoroughfare for the city of South Tucson. When I say massive, I mean it. Tucson is not a stranger to large shopping 'plazas,' but I dare say this one takes the cake. In Centrum Plaza there is, for your consuming pleasure, in alphabetical order:
Ross Dress For Less
Salon De Futur
The Home Depot
Apparently there are more stores, but according to google, those are the highlights. There's a movie theater too, a gas station; the possibility for consumption seems endless. I've stopped by Spectrum a few times, especially when I lived for a week in Amado (about 35 minutes down I-19) during my summer fieldwork with cattle ranchers in 2011. Besides the little towns of Green Valley and Sahuarita, Spectrum Plaza is the first beacon of a major city as one makes her way north from Mexico. If you had never been to the United States before, your entry on I-19 would go something like this: First a retirement community, then a casino, then a Spanish Mission, and then this, everything you could ever want.
But as we drove by on Christmas Day, out of my window I saw something rather spectacular: Pure, unadulterated absence. The structures were there, of course, in their big box glory, and the parking lots too. What wasn't there was people. Every store's designated parking lot was empty. There was the occasional camper van or RV parked in the far flung corners of the Home Depot and Ross, there were a few people at the gas station, as it was open for business. But in the several acre Spectrum Plaza campus, driving by at 75 miles per hour, I saw a gaping void. I saw Capitalism on its day off.
After we went to Madera Canyon and frolicked in the snow, I got home, packed up my tripod and camera, and headed back out, southbound to Spectrum Plaza. I stopped by the gas station at the north end of the Plaza and got some Sour Brite Crawlers, pulled into the farthest parking space in the Target lot, and waited until the sun dipped behind the structure so I could photograph the space. At some point a few teenagers, all riding new shiny scooters, flew by me, looking at me oddly, with my camera mounted on its tripod as I sat on the hood of my car eating gummy worms. I could hear the low-hum frequency of the interstate, but I could also hear birds chirping.
I started examining the white lines demarcating parking spaces - there was a jagged pattern to them, almost like a zipper. White teeth and black asphalt. There were oil stains like ink blots on the already dark pavement, greasy fingerprints of human presence when there was none. I tried to calculate how many cars had been in this lot just the day before, how much oil it took to get them there. There was trash strewn across the parking lot, left over from the mad rush the day before; water bottles and empty bags of cheetos. There were also rogue shopping carts parked haphazardly where, on any other day, cars would be. I imagined the people on parking lot clean-up duty, itching to get home the night before, late on Christmas Eve. I imagined that they did a half-ass job, ready for their day off, too. I wondered if they'd get in trouble for leaving carts unattended and trash not picked up, what value cleanliness and orderliness have in the liminal space of a parking lot, where nobody stays for long.
There's something about parking lots in general that generate a sense of disorientation. When people visit from bigger cities, who don't drive and rarely leave their urban centers, they notice with raised eyebrows the very expanse of parking lots, and that they are up front rather than behind the store. The forward-facing parking lot signals to us that a store values convenience over storefront aesthetic, that there is no danger in not being allowed in. It's funny to think about this shopping center being so close to the Mexican border - it's almost like our version of the Statue of Liberty. Almost every day of the year, her torch is lit and her arms are open, welcoming some modern version of the huddled masses. Here, there is a space for every man, woman, and child. The space is demarcated by white lines, and it ushers you towards the automatic doors. Welcome.
But on Christmas day, the torch was not lit. As I walked around the vacant lots of Spectrum Plaza, jumping from one white line to another as the sun set behind the buildings, I began thinking in earnest about my initial reaction to this unpleasant feeling of quiet I couldn't quite figure out. The longer I stayed, the more I recognized that an empty Spectrum Plaza was a physical manifestation of that eerie silence. Here was emptiness. A break.
I began to understand that the eeriness of quiet was Late Capital doing its work. I say 'late' because capitalism has matured, and as it has grown up, those who pull its strings have done remarkably well at figuring us out. Capitalism has reached a stage - another step towards progress to some, a garish height before the fall to others - where it has gotten under our skin. Shuttered storefronts, vacant parking lots, empty highways all signal that there is one day we don't need it - it just so happens to be the day we spend weeks and months getting ourselves in debt to celebrate. Even unavailable, the stores I stood in front of on Christmas Day are needed. Capitalism has not only become a way to spend/earn/owe, it is now sewn into the very fabric of our physical and mental spaces, sewn into the order of things. Emptiness signals absence, which signals loss, which is antithetical to what Capitalism has come to mean - gain. Gain profit, gain efficiency, gain trust, gain. On its day off, I realized that Late Capital was telling us that he was taking a nap. But he's the kind of sleeper that keeps one eye open.
I snapped a few photos, but as it got darker, I noticed that a few cars had started appearing, circling slowly around the perimeter of the lots. They would pass each other, flashing their lights. Occasionally, a car would pull up to another car, close enough that their passengers could reach out to one another, and after a few seconds, they would separate, peel out. I recognized this as a series of drug deals, which I was watching from a distance. I was observing the creep of another kind of capital, taking place in the shadows, an entrepreneurial spirit temporarily occupying the den of the sleeping giant. One driver must have not appreciated my presence - he circled closer and closer to me, slowly. His lurch was menacing, I did not feel welcome. As I got the hint, for the first time since I pulled into the shopping center I did not feel that eerie feeling. The emptiness was being filled by those morally excluded from legitimate commerce, the space had taken on another shape, and it was not arms spread wide, beckoning. Just for the night, in the empty quiet of Christmas, Spectrum Plaza was open, but not to me. If I was previously holding my breath, now, I exhaled.
As I drove home, the first two lines of the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty rang in my head. Give me your tired, your poor // Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. My hour spent in an empty parking lot on Christmas Day, 2013 taught me one thing: Late Capital must learn to breathe.
I was looking through some emails today and came across the very first "thick description" I wrote for an anthropology class when I was but a wee undergraduate at the U of A. For those who don't know, what we call thick description in anthropological writing is the act/process of being somewhere and simply taking it all in. So if you're somewhere doing research, it is important to recognize both who and what is around you - from the ground you're walking on, to the seat you're sitting in, to the clothes and shoes on (or off) the people around you, to the noises, and the smells, and the sensual world that envelops you. This anthropologist named Clifford Geertz (and others, too) said that this sort of "thick" description is important, because the social world can be thought of as a web of significance. Even something that seems unimportant may be the thing that makes the whole world tick. The assignment was to go somewhere and observe, with an anthropologist's eye, what was happening around us. I remember being really proud of this little piece of writing, even though this was before I understood that thick description wasn't supposed to include my personal opinions or assumptions. It still makes me happy, because I can remember sitting on the bus to the county jail (where I decided to do the assignment) and thinking, "If this is anthropology, I'm in."
Maybe I should not have done this. Maybe I shouldn’t have put on perfume, or worn this shirt. But I am here, so I might as well write. It’s running late, and a group grows larger around the designated stop for bus 23, destination Laos center. I will not ride this bus to its terminus; instead I will take it to a stop called “Silverlake/County Jail.”
At 11:53, 8 minutes later than scheduled, the bus comes. Getting off are people that look tired, maybe, or distraught. Or maybe they just look like they didn’t want to ride the bus this particular Saturday, and had to. I stand in a line of twenty or so people. Two men motion for me to go ahead of them. Both of these men are wearing Vietnam veteran caps. I nod, and take my place, waiting to board.
I choose to sit in the raised portion of the bus towards the back. These seats are not padded, and face towards each other. The reason escapes me as to why this portion is raised, but for all intents and purposes, it fits my needs. Four seats away from me, as well as directly across from me, two mothers hold infants close to them. The women are dressed in lace tops and tight jeans, and have no carriers or diaper bags. One has a bag full of magazines and soap from Walgreens. The infants are both asleep.
The seats are hard, and grey. As I look down at the lowered portion of the bus, I see another woman holding a Snapple bottle, with her eyes closed. She is wearing pink high heels and large, gold earrings. I imagine her earlobes will be sore later. The two Vietnam vets are gripping the poles of the bus, and when we leave the station and move quickly away from downtown Tucson, one of them holds his head and rocks slightly. Perhaps he is about to trigger. I rehearse my counseling bit in my head. I know I have jumped to conclusions, when rather suddenly, he pulls out a picture from a brown, faded leather wallet and shows it to a stranger. It is too far away to hear what they are saying. The photo is passed around to another man, then the woman with the pink heels and Snapple bottle. I wished I were down in the lowered portion of the bus so I could hear who this photographed child was. At the next stop, a woman and her school aged daughter board. This child runs to the veteran and kisses him, and sits on his lap. I believe it is the child in the picture. They were - the veteran, his daughter and his granddaughter - eventually to get out of bus at the jail. A Saturday family outing.
The scenery changes to a bilingual one. Just less than ten minutes have elapsed from downtown Tucson, and mesquite trees have given way to taquerias and vacant lots. There are mesquite trees here, too, I suppose, but they look different when their branches are intertwined with plastic bags blown up from the wind. A man and his two sons board the bus, talking car-talk. The man sits down in the seat beside me, blocking the view of one of the mothers with the sleeping child. The man points out car after car in the used lots we pass. The son asks what kind they are, and the father responds, listing obscure details of the model, the engine type, and the price of the transmission. How fast it goes, this type of thing. The children are far apart in age, it seems, with the elder son being sometime in high school, and the younger one being no older than 10. They stop talking when one of the infants on the bus begins to cry. Then the man looks over at me and says, “prison two days in a row, I guess its gotta be a bad week for me.” I’m not sure what to say, so I just say, “wow.” We passed a car lot that has signs in Spanish, some of which are translated to English. One of those translations reads ‘Got a Job? Get a Car HERE!’ The older son sees this, and asks his dad, “Dad, could you try and get a car there? Over there, dad?” The father doesn’t here his son’s quiet voice over the din of the bus engine.
I ask the father if the stop is coming up soon. It’s been about twenty minutes. He nods and asks whom I’m visiting. I feel foolish and voyeuristic and I say a friend. He smiles and puts his arm behind my seat, which I noticed earlier was riddled with stale pink gum. “I don’t bite,” he said, and I reassured him I wasn’t thinking that. In fact, I felt it was a gesture of mutual experience, or understanding. Both mothers and infants, along with now about 30 other people, are slowly standing. I follow suit, and when the bus stops, every single person exits. Not one remains. The photographed child holds her mother’s hand while they wait for the veteran grandfather to slowly descend the steps. I climb down to the high curb, and the car-knowledgeable father looks towards me, expecting me to walk with them. “You better hurry, its busy on Saturdays,” he says. I tell him I need to smoke a cigarette before I go in. I am a liar.
I cross the street, and wait for the northbound bus to come. Already, a woman is crying at the bus stop. I sit next to another Vietnam veteran. If public transportation is a microcosm of any given society, I have sorely misread my own. I ask him where he’s headed, and he says back home. He just visited a friend who got busted for violating his parole. We talk about how he got caught under an army tank for two and half days after being shot in the stomach twice in a place called ‘rock city’ in Vietnam. He told me how, when the hospital plane landed in the USA, students threw eggs and lettuce at him and told him to go back to Vietnam, you baby killer. He is in a wheel chair, one leg amputated and the other atrophied from disuse. His chest is barrel shaped and his breathing is heavy. He says the VA treats him well.
I sit in front of the weeping woman on the way home. The seats face in a different direction on this bus, forward, and more secluded. I wonder if Suntran does this on purpose, so people leaving jail would have more privacy. I doubt it. I wonder if the crying woman is thankful she does not have to face anyone during this. A man next to me is carrying a bag full of rolled white socks. I ask him what they are for, and he says they are for his brother. They didn’t let him take them to him, but they let him keep them. That doesn’t always happen, I guess.
This bus ride is more somber. Less crowded. There is much less anticipatory camaraderie. No pictures being passed around this time. The route is exactly the same as it was on the way to the jail. I sit close to the Veteran and I listen to his labored breath. His wheelchair allows him to recline, and he does so and closes his eyes. I wonder what the bus is like at 3 pm, when visitation hours end. The shocks on this bus are better than the first. The engine noise is always the same – loud. Loud enough to block out, for example, someone quietly crying.
When I get off the bus again downtown, a man is standing with his daughter, holding a pink foam crown that says happy birthday. The little girl is wearing a pink dress to match. I wonder if they will let him take the hat in to the visitation room. It seems to be for the little girl, so I hope they do.
-- September, 2007
I was staring at my bookshelf this morning, as I usually do in the early hours before I really open my eyes to the world outside of screens and lamp-lit rooms. This time, I was looking for a book. I had just read Margaret Atwood’s review of David Eggers’s new book The Circle, in which she determined that Eggers was writing about facebook, and this new social media world we live in, as a sort of prison. She situated Eggers’s new book within other literary prisons, of course Orwell’s 1984, but also Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim living in a glass cage always looked upon as an object, as an otherworldly animal by his alien captors. These types of prisons, she wrote, were all shot through with stares and machines, never hidden, maybe exalted, but always inescapable. Reading this, I had an inkling thought.
We anthropologists always talk, and talk and talk and talk, about Foucault’s panopticon, which as we know was actually Bentham’s idea first. You know, self governance by being watched and watching each other, all that jazz. It’s interesting, I thought, that even in a class I took called “Prison Nation Time” - taught by an academic who finds little value in Foucault and instead reads Bentham and Gramsci and Aristotle - even there we never really looked to any other written genre as a viable alternative to finding prisons, those cages in our literary midst.
We defined prison in an interesting way in that class, which I intend to mine for my dissertation - prison not as a “culture” or an “other” or even an actual place. Instead, we talked about prison as, for all intents and purposes, the abject requirement of the nation, the constitutive outside to the moral inside. It is, actually, not even distinguishable as “outside,” because for those who are locked up, getting out is never an option. Inside and outside, as a binary concept, is erased, while the deontology-as-necessary-for-ontology stays in tact. I haven’t yet figured out what neatly takes that analytic place, but I think it has something to do with folding up past and present, there and here, moral and immoral, into some kind of way more complicated thing.
So, OK, I thought. I have a penchant for Vonnegut, so when Atwood referenced him, I pulled down some of his books off the shelf. What about Vonnegut’s cages? He actually writes about this in Breakfast of Champions as well as Slaughterhouse. Vonnegut liked cages. Like this quote, about the bird in the gilded cage:
Then he thought about what Bill himself might want. It was easy to guess. “Bill,” he said, “I like you so much, and I am such a big shot in the Universe, that I will make your three biggest wishes come true.” He opened the door of the cage, something Bill couldn’t have done in a thousand years.
Bill flew over to the windowsill. He put his little shoulder against the glass. there was just one layer of glass between Bill and the great out-of-doors. Although Trough was in the storm window business, he had no storm windows on his own abode.
“Your second wish is about to come true,” said Trout, and he again did something which Bill could never have done. he opened the window. But the opening of the window was such an alarming business to the parakeet that he flew back to his cage and hopped inside.
Trout closed the door of the cage and latched it. “That’s the most intelligent use of three wishes I ever heard of,” he told the bird. “You made sure you’d still have something worth wishing for—to get out of the cage.”
There’s this trope that just keeps emerging in Vonnegut, the see-through cage, the freedom that seems there (it’s glass and zoo-like, in Slaughterhouse Five) but never actually is. And then there’s the matter of time and space as it relates to being trapped in them. Vonnegut has some stuff to say about that, too. From Slaughterhouse:
Billy had a framed prayer on his office wall which expressed his method for keeping going, even though he was unenthusiastic about living. A lot of patients who saw the prayer on Billy’s wall told him that it helped them to keep going, too. It went like this: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” Among the things Billy Pilgrim could not change were the past, the present, and the future.
The serenity prayer’s a nice touch, Vonnegut, especially when we’re talking about prison here. But anyway. I could find a million quotes from Orwell, too, or Atwood, or LeGuin, or Gibson, or TS Eliot, or Borges or….
The prison isn’t new. The prison industrial complex, in fact, isn’t new. Nor is the panopticon actually the way people in prison conceive of their experience (probably because the idea never took off, officials opting instead for entire islands as penal colonies), though of course governmentality is there, it haunts us all. I guess all I’m saying is that I want to look at prison not just as Foucault does, not just as anthropologists or academics do. I want to see it as glass, as gilded, as all-seeing, as past and present and future all rolled up into one. I want to look to fiction, because as Margaret Atwood says in her review,
Social media is in part a performance, as is everything “social” that human beings do; but what happens when that brightly lit arena expands so much that there is no green room in which the mascara can be removed, no cluttered, imperfect back stage where we can be ‘“ourselves”? What happens to us if we must be “on” all the time? Then we’re in the twenty-four-hour glare of the supervised prison. To live entirely in public is a form of solitary confinement.
What happens when public becomes solitary, the prison becomes us, and we all become a little more monstrous?
For my paper on inmate firefighting programs as both the trap (neoliberalism’s refining spirit, governmentality’s pervasive reach) and the working of the trap (physical labor as personal transformation, friendship and becoming forged in risk), I’m using three different epigraphs. One for the introduction, the first section, and the second section. They are:
I like this as an intro, because as referenced in my earlier post about prisons as not just spaces but times, there is a futility in trying to change these things. But there may be room to move within them, on the edges of them.
This is setting up the section on prison work programs fitting nicely into the neoliberal mode of positive governmentality. That is, yay, work programs shape you into “productive” members of society, look at how you’ve paid for your sins! There’s so many quotes from inmates that can be interpreted as a straight forward performance of this neoliberalism in action.
I don’t just want to explain how prison work programs, and the people that do them, are enacting neoliberalism. That’s boring and easy and lazy. After recognizing this as a fact, I want to spend some time thinking about how the work done out on the fire lines may actually be transformative in a meaningful way for individuals who do it, it may serve as some kind of “becoming.” I like how Nabokov writes “captivatingly majestic,” I like the use of captive there, talking about a man who is sentenced to die the next day. In that book you can’t tell the difference between his dreams and reality, the oppression and the freedom, and that’s what I want to explore.
Driving through downtown Tucson on a Friday morning at 9 am, on the way to the soup kitchen, I saw a very old man in a very new Prius take a left turn onto Stone Avenue, which meant he had turned the wrong way on a one way street, head-on into the relative melee of morning traffic. As the light turned green, there was no honking; all the cars on the road remained still, in order to give the old man time to figure it out. A man on the street corner wearing a business suit was smoking a cigarette with a bemused look on his face, while two construction workers on the other side of the road were leaned up against their excavator, giggling. The business man yelled something across the two lanes of cars to the construction workers, which made them all laugh. After a few seconds of this, another man stepped out of his SUV that idled next to me, adorned with spinning 22” rims and the last name “Navarette” in gothic scrawl on his back window. He chased down the Prius that hadn’t made it very far, knocked on the window, and explained to the old man his predicament. Having sensed a conclusion, all the cars started moving again, slowly, and in my rearview I could see Mr. Navarette jogging back to his SUV while the old man painstakingly executed an 18-point turn until his Prius joined the flow of traffic.
This brief scene - 2 minutes tops - made me wonder: how does one rank a city’s patience? its humor? how do we measure words parried across traffic between tailored suits and hard hats? to the very real extent that we are poor, what wealth can we find in moments, in the ebb and flow of everyday life?