My ethnographic interviews in Hamburg are going really well. There is "gold on the ground," data everywhere, there for the asking, easy to get, easy to think. Can this be one of the reasons that the social sciences were largely invented here? Probably not.
In one happy moment, a perplexed respondent complained that she had learned a new English word, but couldn’t find it anywhere in the dictionary. What, she wanted to know, does "bleep" mean? We eventually encouraged her to understand is that is stands for a great many other words, as long as they are rude. But when you think of it, it’s a fair question: is this a word? And if it isn’t a word, what in the dickens is it? This is the kind of thing the God-like Michael Silverman could dispatch in a couple of sentences. Me, frankly, well, I leave it to the likes of Silverman.
It is interesting to hear Europeans talk about the US. They have a hard time of it. America, is that dream factory of Hollywood or a great university like Princeton, is it Las Vegas or hip hop, is it street people or Disneyland, is it Alice Waters or McDonald’s? What they don’t say (not yet anyhow) is that America is all these things. You can see them shuttling back and forth between partial accounts. Apparently, to call America various is to fail the work of description. Countries can’t be everything.
Clearly, Hamburg respondents are not the only ones to find America’s plenitude a taxing problem. It’s a little like the "bleep" problem. How can one term stand for many terms? The solution for the post-modernists is delightedly to declare the death of the category and the ability of the generalization. But this is as intellectually pointless as insisting on a single-term approach. We need new ideas here.