re/direct: Greg Scott

“They could watch themselves. No one who ever comes to know himself with the detachment of an observer is ever the same again.” – Edmund Carpenter (1972, 1973, p. 135)
In 1988 I was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California when I first read the work of Edmund Snow Carpenter—in particular his amazing, truly timeless classic Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me! At the time, the quote above captured my then-budding sociological imagination. I had recently confirmed “social science” as my major and was taking my third visual anthropology course. I couldn’t seem to get enough of these courses, the topics they covered, their exploration of all things visual, and the works of scholar-filmmakers like Carpenter. In Oh, What a Blow he writes about the participatory nature of the visual (film and photography) ethnography he and his colleagues were doing among villagers in Papua New Guinea and how so many things were irreversibly changed when the tribespeople saw themselves on “the big screen” for the first time in their lives.

Fifteen years later, with a five-year-old doctorate in hand, I was living in a railroad yard encampment, a “squatters’ village” comprised of heroin and crack users, sex workers, and exiled gang members on Chicago’s west side. Everyone had their own “home” in The Brickyard, some of them elaborate plywood shacks, others little more than a slip of cardboard on the ground, covered by a makeshift blanket. My own “house” was a modest 4’x6’ particleboard affair with little room for the usual accoutrements associated with “hearth and home”. I was outfitted with an inflatable pillow, a sleeping bag, a dozen candles, a water jug, some toilet paper, a bar of soap and sundry toiletries, and one change of clothes. In my padlock-secured “foot locker” I had a video camera, an audio recorder, notepads and pens, and two books: Marx’s Grundrisse and Edmund Snow Carpenter’s Oh, What a Blow. That’s all I needed.

For twelve hours a day I would conduct participatory observation ethnography, producing data via traditional field notes, motion pictures, still photographs, and sound recordings. Then I’d spend 3-4 hours organizing the data and 1-2 hours reading Marx and Carpenter, whose work came alive in this sphere I came to refer to as “hyper-Capitalism” (street drug market). Finally, Carpenter’s images (and occasional sound recordings downloaded and brought out to my Brickyard shanty) would usher me into slumber.

Near the end of my two and a half year immersive ethnography project, some Brickyard veterans prevailed upon me to show them the video footage I’d been gathering. I got a “sizzle” DVD together and projected it against the wall of an abandoned building on the Brickyard’s outer edge. The last frame ended, and I held my breath. Fearing that the Yard’s residents would angrily dispute how I’d depicted them—i.e., the very way I viewed them as a social scientist—I began thinking about my escape route. Just when I began to conclude that escape was hopeless, one of the “head honchos” (who had been shown on screen in the middle of a crying jag after he’d been beaten nearly to death while he slept) blurted out, “That was a the realest s**t around!  It don’t get more real than that!” Relief. But I knew then, as Carpenter knew in the 1950s and 1960s, that never again would these folks see—or present—themselves in the same way. It’s just a matter of basic human behavior. Once detached from ourselves, we won’t ever again know or feel the same way about ourselves.

Edmund Carpenter pioneered the use of visual methodologies in social science. He and a few of his anthropologist colleagues were among the first people to capitalize on and make good use of the newly downsized handheld synchronized sound cameras. When these “tiny” 8mm and 16mm cameras hit the market, Hollywood filmmakers wanted nothing to do with them. Carpenter and a raft of other anthropologists seized these new portable cameras and brought the world into the lives of people and places previously unknown simultaneously, for better and worse, bringing the newly objectified film “subjects” into a previously non-existent part of the world — that of the moving image.

Carpenter possessed a deep well of scientific acumen combined with the aesthetic sensibility of a visual artist, and he conveyed his insights in a way that always reminded me of Vonnegut. Not only was he a truly exceptional visual anthropologist, he also made novel forays into the social scientific study of technology. Even today, re-reading passages from Oh, What a Blow, I find myself snickering at his slightly sardonic, spot-on observations, such as these from his chapter on how technology infuses us with an ineffable spirit whose preternatural qualities we make real through social discourse:

“When a clerk stops waiting on us to answer a phone, we accept this without protest, yet it violates one of our most precious values—barbershop democracy. We accept it because pure spirit now takes precedence over spirit in flesh.”

“I’ve seen people practically break down a door to get to a ringing phone, though the call was probably incidental. The phone is said to be the one thing that can interrupt intercourse.”

“I copied down the numbers of several phones in Grand Central Station and Kennedy Airport, and called these numbers. Almost always someone answered. When I asked why they had answered, they said, ‘Because it rang.'”

At SSRC we try to keep alive the work of the scholars who’ve come before us. In spirit, Edmund Carpenter is an active participant in SSRC’s work, especially in the area of visual data-making and analysis, but he also continuously influences our theory-making and insight-deriving work. From him, as from many other plain-speaking and straight-writing social scientists, we draw inspiration, insight, and a deep fondness for parsimony and accessibility. If you find yourself inspired by Carpenter, whether for his use of media in his research, his willingness to cross disciplinary borders, his innovation in methods and theory, or any other aspect of his work, we’re here for you.

Remember, your research is our business.

Greg Scott, PhD

Director, Social Science Research Center

Reference:
Carpenter, Edmund.  (1972, 1973). Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!  New York, Chicago, San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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Author: streetprof

Sociologist, documentary filmmaker, aficionado of maudlin ballads, dive bars, worn fretboards, black and white photographs, reels of film, all that is palpable, and not.

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