The Columbus Syndrome

…And an introduction to radical ethnography.

Why did I decide to do ethnography? Well, I do ethnography because I consider that through an ethnographical work I can first, follow the trajectories of the objects I am interested in, using any kind of resources from any side and without a determined disciplinary theoretical frame or preconception. Second, ethnography allows me to create and to represent better descriptions of those trajectories. Here, ethnography is not categorized as a tool from other disciplines, such as anthropology or sociology. Following the same line that Tim Ingold has proposed in some of his works (2006, 2014, 2015) about the ontological character and its independence from other domains, I believe that ethnography is just another way, perhaps the most flexible and detailed one, for approaching the reality. 

Particularly, I am putting forward with this book a specific kind of ethnography, a radical one, for exploring and describing the called “urban, public and open places” that we can find on those big agglomerations of things we use to call as cities. Why is this a radical one? Well, before answering this, I am aware that there is a tendency, that is latent in almost any single academic scenario, to believe that our proposals and, in general terms, our job are completely new and different to the rest of the other works done before. And because, of course, we worked hard on our pieces of research automatically we are doing something different per se, going to the avant-garde of the discipline, and it is in that point where we start to use fancy and provocative words for, in the end, naming the same old things.

This kind of situations is commonly happening, especially when one is doing research and the background one has about both the objects that are being observed and the field itself, is not wide enough. That lack of knowledge is positioning us in a fake supposed unexplored scenario where we think that we are either constructing a new academic object or reconstructing an old one, using or doing something “that anyone did or saw before”. This is “the motherfuckin’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome” as the filmmaker Spike Lee said once, talking about gentrification, Brooklyn and New York City. 

In February 2004, New York Magazine published an article written by Joe Cascarelli about an event related to the African American History Month, where Spike Lee was invited as a speaker. This event was organized by the Pratt Institute and it was carried out in Brooklyn. Lee was talking with some locals about the recent processes of transformation in the neighborhood, basically about gentrification, when one person from the audience asked him about “the other side” of the gentrification. After that question Lee started a monologue related how poor neighborhoods around the city were experiencing a tremendous transformation due to that the new arrivals, that as well as Columbus did, were colonizing the neighborhoods, destroying the old lifestyle of the community settled there before.

Translating and applying the “Columbus Syndrome” to this context, the one related to my aim of proposing a radical ethnography of the urban-public-open-places, I am neither reinventing the ethnographical process nor establishing a new study field. My intentions with this work are more modest: (1) proposing a different approach for understanding and describing the outside, and (2) decomposing Times Square, using this approach, into a set of open stories and symmetrical descriptions. I call radical ethnography to this approach that, inspired by the ideas mostly from ANT, Deleuze’s assemblage thinking, and Benjamin’s portraits are flattering and decomposing a non-stabilized place, as well as its interactions, into a set of non-finished products, through the elaboration of collective descriptions. 

With this work I am just twisting a small tip of the ethnographic tradition, one that was already soft, docile and easy to mold due to the influence of previous works, some of them from other disciplines, but with a common interest: presenting the public life outside of huge agglomerations. The Arcades Project (Benjamin, 2002); Berlin childhood around 1900 (Benjamin, 2006); An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (Perec, 2010); Paris: invisible city (Latour & Hermant, 2006); New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey (Talese, 1961) and the shorter version of that book, the report New York is a City of Things Unnoticed (Talese, 2009), were the ones that cleared me the way for being able of talking now about a radicalization in  ethnography.

As the last point of this short presentation of that “radical” condition in ethnography,  I would like to talk about its detachment from any other discipline or theoretical basis linked to totalitarian intentions for understanding social life. The aim of ethnography, as I see it, is not proposing general statements of anything, unless those are about particular cases. But, what is a particular case? For answering this question we have to go over tricky and ambiguous terrains where we will be forced to slow down for constructing detailed epistemic explanations instead of just giving quick and solid theoretical facts. In this way, we will avoid falling down into misunderstandings and common places.

Definitely, the starting point for taking this journey should be acquiring a reflexive fallibilistic attitude. It means that we have to doubt in two directions: the first one is about both the ways in which traditionally we have been doing urban ethnography and the hegemonic concepts for categorizing the results of that work. The second one is about our own process for naming those stabilizations we decide to describe and to decompose. We should never forget that our job as radical ethnographers is totally vulnerable, temporal, located and no cumulative and because of those characteristics, there is no space in our explorations for “the absolute”, “the immutable, “the solidified.”

Perhaps the best way for traveling across this scenario is flying like a fly. Woodward, Jones and Marston (2009) reinterpreted the old says “Eagles don’t catch flies” for thinking about a way of understanding the site, the particular, the specificity, far of the generic bird’s eye-view and multi-scalar perspective. Also, their intention is claiming for an ontology of the material, a located heterogeneous composition: (…) “the comings-together of elements composing a site are always a matter of labor, of work: bodies do not merely find themselves in positions of relative or interlocking distribution, but participate in the production of the fields of force through which they aggregate.” (273)

“From the point of view of the flies, sites can also be the locations where the unpredictable eruption of minoritarian events and spaces can produce specific and potentially transformative theoretical and political solutions (…) “Following Deleuze (1994) in adopting as our ontology characteristics of ‘pure difference’, these solutions cannot be generalizable or formulaic, in the (…) They are, instead, productive singularities that can, on their own terms, challenge varying and always different manifestations of oppression or exploitation as they express themselves in the real materiality of the world.” (278)