Ethnographic Walk-About (or, what to do with the rest of your summer)

A former student is searching for what to do next.  With her summer…or her life.  She’s flexible.  

Here is the reply I sent her this morning:

Dear Jennifer (not her real name):

Thanks for your note.  Great to hear your voice again.

It feels to me that you are more or less uniquely positioned to do an ethnographic walk-about.

You have a great eye, a great voice, you are not wedded to any particular ideology or cultural camp, you have a breadth of experience, you are mobile in almost every sense of the term.

It feels to me like everyone is burrowing, sticking to what and who they know. There is stuff happening “out there,” but people are so shocked by the new that they can’t manage the novelty. So they are not mobile.

I would get someone to give you a mandate and just go looking. My hero her is Frances FitzGerald’s 1986. Cities on a Hill, A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures. Simon and Schuster. She doesn’t make the mistake that hobbles a good deal of American journalism and scholarship, the mistake that supposes that only on the margin are we going to find something new and interesting. She casts the net wide.  And that’s especially important now, because cultural innovation is taking place everywhere.  The avant-garde no longer owns the ingenuity or courage necessary to reimagine the world.  

Go have a look! Most people are not looking. And most of those who are, are looking through lens so particular that they ALWAYS find what they are looking for, and miss what is really going on.  All we know for certain is that Americans are as usual reinvented themselves as a furious pitch and pace.  We don’t have a clear idea of who and what they are becoming.  And that’s probably a bad thing.

Good luck and keep me posted.

Best, Grant

Purchase FitzGerald at Amazon by clicking here.  

Photo: Ms. FitzGerald from her wikipedia entry.  

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