Two news items caught my eyes recently as more examples of the kind of activities I deem “educational” and that I encourage doctoral students to investigate. Here is another set of “free dissertation topics” to expand our collection of case studies of what so many of our colleagues ignore.
The first item is from Afghanistan, the other from Guinea by way of New York City. Both deal with people in serious trouble figuring out what are their conditions and trace a path through them (“enunciate their landscapes” to cross-reference Merleau-Ponty/de Certeau’s jargon). In both cases the people are caught in mid-stream, successful-so-far in surviving, but with no guarantee that the future will be less difficult than their recent past has been. Watching them struggling can teach us much about the world we, ourselves, also face–for it is the same one they do face.
On Sunday June 12, the New York Times reported, on page 1 no less, that “U.S. underwrites internet detour around censors.” The subject of this headline, not surprisingly is “the U.S.” The subject is further specified in the first paragraphs as “the Obama administration,” “the State Department,” “a fifth-floor shop on L Street in Washington.” It is, by the Time standard an “American effort.” The picture that accompanies the piece, placed smack center at the top of the page, is of two Afghan men and an Apple laptop. The laptop is set precariously on a chair on a roof. It is tied to some machines. One man sitting on the edge of the roof is peering down at the screen, one hand to his mouth, in the classical pose of the person who waits for a computer to complete an important task, or who is trying to interpret what the computer has provided. The other man is peering into the distance through binoculars. The legend below the picture says: “Volunteers have built a wireless Internet around Jalabad, Afghanistan, from off-the-shelf electronics and ordinary materials.”
Who are these “volunteers”? How were they trained? By whom? What exactly does it mean to “build a wireless internet”? Who else might also be building wireless internet that bypass state controls? What are the other controls that may not be bypassed? How does one get an Apple laptop to Afghanistan (and the power to recharge it, etc.)? (According to Google, there are Apple stores in New Delhi and Lahore, but apparently not in Kabul.) There are many other subjects there than the “U.S.” and probably a lot of “fifth-floor shops” where the actual possibilities made available to local “volunteers” are explored, exploited, transformed.
The other story implies the existence of other kind of “fifth-floor shops,” this time in the Bronx “where many in New York City’s small Guinean population have blended in among other West African immigrant groups in neighborhoods like High Bridge, north of Yankee Stadium, Claremont and Morrisania” (NYT June 15, 2011). The story is brief biography of the woman who is accusing Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexually assaulting him. The details that struck me is the following:
It is not clear how the woman gained entrance to the United States. In the 12 months ending in September 2002, the United States issued 4,410 visas to Guineans, a vast majority for business trips or tourism, officials said. But by the time she began her job as a housekeeper at the Sofitel in 2008, she had legal status and working papers, her lawyers said.
How does one get legal status? How does one do that, in the details of the peoples, bureaucracies, financial resources that must be involved? How does one figure it out? One can imagine the moment when it becomes clear that there are routes that can be followed to go from the village of Thikoulle, Guinea, to New York City, the efforts to find these routes among the maze of other routes that would take one elsewhere, and then the struggles to do whatever it takes to actually follow the route, and then, as is still going on for this woman—for there is no end to all this—, to recast one’s plans as one faces new obstacles and new possibilities. At every moment and point the woman “learned” something and this something became almost immediately moot since the task that had been accomplished would not repeat itself, while new tasks appeared.
In this case, the one matter that would be worth investigating closely is the network of people who are involved in getting “legal status and working papers,” and to sort out what exactly one has to do. I am sure that the State Department (or is it the Department of Homeland Security…) has web sites with instructions to follow. But we also know (as per Garfinkel 2002) that these instructions cannot possibly be enough. The bureaucratic rules have to be translated though not exactly into a different ‘language’. Rather, they have to be re-written to become useful at the particular moment when a particular person has to perform whatever it is the rule says this person should do next. Even more important to investigate are the processes when one finds out that the rules exist, and which of the millions of rules is the one a person should pay attention to now whether to imagine a possible route, or to get through the next gate along the way. Doing something may just be secondary to finding out that it has to get done.