While crossing Manhattan on 14th Street

Half a century ago, when I searched for a catchy title for the book building on my dissertation (1972), I came up up with Americans Together (1978). I am not sure what I then meant by “Americans”—though I am sure that, from the time when I proposed the research (in 1970), I had been looking for a “pattern” or “structure” as I interpreted Benedict, Lévi-Strauss, or Dumont, to have done. But I may also have accepted that the plural “AmericanS” somewhat referred to a plurality of individuals. And thus I fell to American (patterned) common sense.

As far as I can check, I never used the plural noun again, though I continued to use “American” as an adjective and “America” as a proper, always singular, noun—and I persist. And, now, after many years teaching Garfinkel, Latour, Lave, and those inspired by them, it came to me that I should have titled the book “Together in America” which would in fact had fit better the subtitle to the book: “Structured diversity in a Midwestern town.”

This subtitle directly stated the main ethnographic point of the book that, while Paw Paw, Michigan, (“Appleton” in the book) may appear indistinguishable from thousand of such towns, it was internally (as I am sure all other such towns are) extremely varied religiously, ideologically, generationally (and probably also by all the most commonly invoked 21st century categories of race, gender, ethnicity that also appeared in my fieldnotes). But, to me then and now, the more interesting internal variability was in the organization of settings where people came together and manipulated identity symbols (as we would currently say in anthropology). One example that made it into the book is the moment when “ethnic background” briefly emerged during a round of introductions when I first partied with a group of friends of my age (1978: Chapter 4). When narrating (!) my (lived?) experiences in Paw Paw, I like to embroider my travels through the town, on a Sunday, when I started (dressed in a suit and tie) at a Sunday School then service at the Methodist or Presbyterian church (where/when all men wore suits and tie), before driving to the apartment of friends (where I was told to take off my tie), and ending the day at a Catholic mass (where the congregation was dressed in everything from dirty blue jeans to fur coats). Depending on I am not sure what, I was sometime positioned as a high school exchange student, an awkward young male with a funny accent, a doctoral students at the University of Chicago, etc. (including other things I may not have been directly told, though I remember several attempts to test my “orientation”). Eventually I was also struck by the diversity of politico/economic interests as I explored the many governing board regulating this or that aspect of everyday. This was most salient perhaps in the school board when town’s people and farmers clashed over taxation, curriculum, etc. only apparently coming together for ritual performances (football games, graduation ceremonies, etc.).

All this came back to me as I day dreamed walking across Manhattan on 14th street. From 8th Avenue to Avenue C, I crossed what some sociologists of the Chicago school called, a century ago, “ecological zones” (a concept for understanding cities it might be worth resurrecting). Each of these zones stood out to me mostly because of variation in density of human occupation, presentation of self in dress and demeanor, not to mention phenotype and age. A very much not exhaustive list might include:

– prosperous and/or glitzy stores and businesses (particularly between 8th and Park Avenues)

– crowds of young adults probably related to the nearby universities (particularly around Union Square)

– starting on 3rd avenue street, a sharp drop in human density and then vendors spreading their miscellaneous used wares (“junk” the young adults would probably label them) on blankets laid out on the pavement in front of no longer glitzy stores. The vendors appeared mostly black and from China, as well as older.

It is certainly the case that detailed ethnographic work on that street would correct some of these initial very superficial characterizations. The only point I want to make at this moment is that, as I walked, I came close to many many “different” polities (“communities”) (re-)producing themselves in some contact with others. Whether I also came close to various “cultures” or whether I remained in “America” throughout is the question.

I finally reached my ostensible goal where a small band of musicians performed for a small audience in an East Village park. There, I was a very peripheral participant in this polity as the guest of one of the musician. As the anthropologist always fascinated with symbolic displays (identity markers?), I noted musical styles (“misc jazz/brass and Mambembé” as I was told), dress (“informal” in, to simplify, the “East Village” styles), phenotype, age, sex (actually easier to “see” than gender) and other such matters easily accessible to a casual observer. More on this in a future post, and the human complaint that artificial humans (AI) often find it difficult to identify a (wo)man as (wo)man.
I was also struck about how well organized it all was. The performances were complex and obviously well rehearsed even in their improvisational moments. And then, as I moved with my friend to another park for another performance with another set of fuller participants, In that park, various polities of performers and their audiences performed in ways that were both internally organized and externally coordinated with each other within a more encompassing polity (“HONK NYC!”) separate but dependent to the administration of New York City through its “Department of Parks and Recreation.”

Also, and most probably NOT organized by any of these polities, but still delicately coordinated with all other people together in the park, were two almost caricaturely tall blond young men throwing a football in long arcs next to and sometimes over the other assemblies.

The question that started this is: what is a cultural anthropologist to do with all this? Many (most/) anthropologists might tell me to drop “culture” (and “America”). My answer is that, as I walked and day dreamed about the multiplicities (and I only sketched a tiny number) I got close to, I remained convinced that all the people who found themselves together on that day were doing so at a particular time, in a particular way (both internally and in relation to each other), with particular affordances that both constrained them (and disabled them) and opened possibilities (both for reproduction and transformation), and that these particularities can be modeled and so that any science of humanity (anthropo-logy) needs a concept that might just as well be labeled “culture.”

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