Thursday, March 10, 2005

I said hey, hack, take a walk on the wild side. Sometimes I really feel as though I am repeating myself. But today, instead of just getting angry at some shoddy journalism, I would like to criticise journalistic urban ethnography. By this, I don't mean the traditional anthropological sense of studying 'tribes' or other foreign communities. I mean a style of reportage that examines aspects of everyday urban life that often evade mainstream discourse (whether because they describe socially marginalised groups, self-articulated subcultures or criminal underworlds). In other words, urban ethnography looks at the collision of strange and familiar. So-called gonzo journalism is perhaps the anti-ethnographic approach to contemporary urban life; but I'll get to that.

It can be well done - see, for example, Maximum City, Suketu Mehta's astonishing and vivid account of contemporary Bombay, which I wrote about yesterday for work. In its review, Publishers Weekly said that Mehta harks back "to such great Victorian urban chroniclers as Dickens and Mayhew while introducing the reader to much that is truly new and strange." Henry Mayhew is most famous for the multi-volume London Labour and the London Poor (1851). He is considered the doyen of urban ethnography and the father of subcultural ethnography. Mayhew's work influenced the American sociological tradition, epitomised by Ned Polsky. And in Australia, journalist Marcus Clarke published some interesting work on nineteenth-century Melbourne society.

Many of these works are necessarily products of their time, and can't resist the usual failings of urban ethnography: patronising your subjects; getting personally implicated rather than striving for objective observation; and of course, my biggest bugbear, failing to set observations in the social and moral context of those observed, and instead fetishising and romanticising the Other. Clarke is perhaps the biggest offender on this count. But I think Mayhew (and Dickens, too) displays a real understanding and sympathy for his coster girls, criminals and dosshouse vagrants. 150 years on, they still shine from the page with dignity and personality.

The same cannot be said for thoughtless and ideologically transparent pieces of crap like this article by Craig Scutt. Scutt follows a crew of Melbourne graffiti artists around for one night. It's interesting that the impetus for the article, as anticipated in the precede ("What's daubed on walls has become a hot issue for many councils"), is local councils' attempts to stamp out graffiti. (I've been following this issue in various local papers.) But what actually emerges is a completely cynical attempt to co-opt the writers of graffiti into this issue when they don't particularly appear to care.

Despite its equivocal title, the article is astounding for its naked agenda: that graffiti is a crime and those who do it are criminals. But perhaps even more astounding is the way that Scutt's a priori prejudice is problematised again and again: he's surprised by the careful artistry of the form; he's surprised that Fitzroy residents don't stop the graffers and indeed, actually encourage them. Still, he doggedly pursues the criminality line.
The look of concentration on their faces seems out of kilter with the act. For some reason, I anticipated that people causing damage to public and private property would do so in a more flippant, off-hand manner.


I forget he is doing something illegal until I hear footsteps behind me. It could be the police, a publican, home-owner, old person, or any one of several stereotyped graffiti-haters. But it is just a young couple who don't bat an eyelid as they stroll past.


I get the impression that around here no one minds a bit of graffiti. My impression is soon confirmed when Charles gets busted by a home-owner as he is doing another crazy cartoon character on the man's wall. The resident is a young guy in a hooded top. "Nice smell," he says, sniffing the aerosol fumes. "Keep going." Charles obliges.
But the article is at its most irritating when it tries to place graffiti within the hip-hop culture that one of the group, 'Peter', strongly subscribes to. Peter is a DJ and MC but has never tried graffiti. And from the outset, Scutt's 'hack-sense' detects something a little, how you say, fishy:
"I'm lookin' forward to gettin' down with this shit," he says in an accent that sounds familiar but somehow out of place.
I was actually embarrassed for Scutt after reading his account of Peter busting loose with an aerosol:
He goes on the rampage, squeezing the aerosol trigger, firing rounds of paint into the fleshy fabric of society. It feels as if I am watching him purge himself. He is sticking two fingers up at authority, proclaiming his freedom with an act of aerosol defiance.
Oh yeah, that's right - he's one of those hip-hoppers! Because as we all know, hip hop is about defying authority - and shooting stuff. I kind of feel for Peter by the end of the night; but his trial by media isn't over yet. You see, Scutt has finally placed his 'odd' accent:
It's like my brother's, who lives in a satellite town north of London. Like Peter, he has assimilated hip-hop culture to the extent that he now talks and dresses like the mainly American originators of the culture he strives to emulate. I am struck by the notion that American cultural imperialism has been so successful that it even informs the subcultures of its "colonies".
Now, I am well known to disagree with "Yo Check It" Tony Mitchell in many, many ways, especially his emphasis on resistance and indigeneity in hip-hop. But at least Mitchell rejects the stupid idea that hip-hop outside the US is a 'colony' of its American overlords. But predictably, Scutt doesn't have much time to enlarge on his colonialist rhetoric beca Peter "vents" on him:
"Why are you writing about us anyway? You're the only toy here," he snarls. "Why should anyone listen to you? What they need is for people who know about hip-hop to tell them about where it's at."
Scutt does gesture towards why a bunch of graffiti guys would let some dumbarse journalist tag along (pun unintended). But before this idea can really 'breathe', he promptly shuts it down again by underlining that graffiti is a crime:
They want street art to be seen as legitimate, as contributing positively to the urban landscape. They know all too well that an act of wanton vandalism sends their cause backwards. [...] But in the case of graffiti, it seems there aren't very many who are keen to put themselves on a platform for proper public debate. This is hardly surprising, considering it is illegal and they could get in trouble for admitting any involvement in committing art crimes.
Well, if intelligent graffiti artists see ill-considered articles like this that constantly refuse to examine the motivations of the graffiti artist or the reception of his/her work, no wonder they're reluctant to "put themselves on a platform"!

So-called gonzo journalism is perhaps the anti-ethnographic approach to contemporary urban life - it abandons any pretension to objectivity and instead hopes a highly coloured, personally invested account will reveal more 'truth'. "Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long," Hunter S Thompson once told the Atlantic Monthly. "You can't be objective about Nixon. How can you be objective about Clinton?"

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