Cintron’s Angels Town

This week in my advanced methods course we read the first 4 chapters from Angels Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and the Rhetorics of Everyday (1998) by Ralph Cintron. Though I hadn’t heard of Cintron before this semester, I’ve been anticipating this book since the syllabus was distributed in January because (1) we’re breaking it up over two weeks of the semester and (2) other members of the program have lauded it in passing. Obviously the book carries some weight. So what is that weight?

What’s striking right from the preface is Cintron’s reflexivity. Cintron combines critical ethnography with rhetorical theory to provide a thick portrait of a Latino/a neighborhood in Chicago and extends that portrait to a larger commentary on the relationship between representation, power and language in everyday life (note to self: read de Certeau). As he notes early in the preface, “one of the book’s controlling questions is How does one create respect under conditions of little or no respect?” (x). He admits the problem in answering this question, reducing the method of fieldwork to “the difficulty of finding the truth inside the lie, the lie inside the truth” (xiii).

Cintron spends the first chapter examining this problems of ethnography and representation by recalling his own background as the son of a Texas farmer, defining the true field site as the text that is constructed by the ethnographer, analyzing the power of the researcher through the interplay of ethos and logos, etc. But what struck me most about the intro is its inductive approach. When Cintron narrates his data-collecting process — 300 pages of notes, 91 tapes, 100+ documents in one round and then a slew more in yet another round years later — and then we see how he arranges that data by navigating specific moments with Don Angel, Valerio, and others alongside his own interpretations, I get the sense of how messy and chaotic this project must have been. Although Cintron isn’t always explicit in connecting his dots, the reader certainly benefits from what must have been a rigorous revision process.

A couple of questions for me as I read through these chapters:

  • Last week as we read and discussed an anthropology of writing (AOW), we heard perspectives about how an AOW studies so-called mundane sites like the workplace; this is different from ethnographers of the early and mid 20th century who studied othered, exotic sites and cultures. In chapter 2 of Angel Town, Cintron take up the question of romanticizing the subject: “For those who read and write ethnographies, the fieldsite is an ethnographic trope that generates both the spell of the exotic (romance) and resistance (science) to that spell” (16). Cintron tries to address this contradiction by studying a mundane map of Angeltown that “deflates the exotic and, in so doing, amplifies it” (16). As a researcher interested in studying a site that has shaped my own identity (self-publishing) I worry that I might fall prey to the romance Cintron evokes in this chapter. When we study material and subjects near and dear to us, then, how do we balance the romantic with the scientific? Does Cintron succeed in chapter 2 and throughout Angels Town?
  • A CCC review of Angels Town called my attention to Cintron’s move to construct metaphors from his data. This made sense to me given the inductiveness of his project. But is his reading of data too figurative? That is, does he ever make too much of certain details (his reading of Valerio’s obsession of cars, for instance)? Is his rhetorical reading of certain instances of everyday life in Angeltown paradoxically too sweeping?
  • Finally, given that Cintron’s fieldwork is now 20-25 years old, how might our privilege of distance help us assess the significance of this work in terms of cultural anthropology and writing studies? What do we need to take from this for our own work, and what needs to be left alone?

Newspaper map

Today NYT’s Gadgetwise blogged about Newspaper Map, a site that uses the Google Maps’ API to plot newspapers from all over the world. The interface is searchable by newspaper or by region, can be filtered by language, and has full social media integration. But the coolest thing is that when users find a paper, they can either click and go directly to the site, click a link to the paper’s or Twitter profile (if it has one), or have the site translate the paper to another language. Just playing around with it, I visited papers in the Congo, China and Afghanistan. I’d like to play around with it more, but I wonder what the potential for something like this would be for research and student writing. Would the site be useful to an average American student in a FYC classroom (or in the writing center) who is trying to locate a primary source in a nation’s own context? Hell, could I? Just by browsing some of the sites in the aforementioned countries, I was a little stunned by how Google translate handled them, and how those sites were casted visually. (Take this one, for instance.) I’ll tinker with this some more this summer to see what I can come up with. But I’m also interested in placing this tool into a larger conversation on research strategies (i.e. when a student might use this tool). More on that soon.

Maps and Web 2.0

When I first got my HDTV a few years ago, a friend immediately remarked to me that once I experienced it, I’d never be able to go back. He was right. We subscribe to cable at my house mostly because of my depressing dedication to Buffalo sports. Yet, rare is the chance that I get to watch a Sabres game in real HD and each time I get the pixilated 4:3 ratio flowing through the coaxial, I’m reminded of how I pay too much for mediocre cable. I mention this because since I’ve found myself increasingly working within Web 2.0, I have also come to expect to see it wherever I go. If I visit a site that regularly updates content and doesn’t have an RSS now, I’m puzzled. If an add-on didn’t update for the newest version of Firefox, I’m crushed. If I can’t share an article or aggregate data across platforms with the click or two of the mouse, I’m peeved. For all the love Flickr gets these days, for example, I’m amazed at how difficult it is to integrate it with Facebook. And yet there’s such cheer in these four articles. Web 2.0 knows no bounds (O’Reilly), supports proactive mapping in communities (Diehl et al), allows workers to repurpose and collaborate (Stolley), and can help elect the president of the free world (Harfoush).

While each of these texts presented their own slight utopias, I was most interested in “Grassroots: Supporting the Knowledge Work of Everyday Life,” since it seemed to best represent the potential of how Web 2.0 can help everyday folks re-purpose the familiar (and hegemonic) to move from consumers of knowledge to producers of knowledge. Plus, I just love maps.

The authors explain how they exploited Google’s API in order to help communities in Lansing, MI map their community assets – buildings, people, historical spaces, or eateries, etc. They choose maps specifically, it seems, because of their ability to present themselves as neutral entities. To those outside of geography departments, maps are usually not seen as arguments (i.e. “it’s just a bird’s eye view”), and so moving community members from readers of maps to producers of them feels like a revolutionary rhetorical enterprise. Before they make that move, however, they explore what current mapping tools exists for communities.

Specifically, they explore Public Participation Geographic Information Systems (PPGIS) tools, which, they argue, are limited because of “public participation may still be stifled by expert-centered interface designs” (419). A good example of such a PPGIS in Syracuse is this site: http://www.mapsonline.net/syracuse/. From what I can gather, it was created by folks at the Maxwell School using open source code from PeopleGIS, a company in Massachusetts. It allows users to visually interact with a sea of data within Onondaga County. Users can plot certain services (child care centers and schools), designated sites (Superfund or food pantries) bus routes, public spaces, but also certain demographic data, such as population, age, income, etc. While the site is a little overwhelming and counterintuitive, it can be powerful to those who (a) know it exists and (b) can navigate its interface and (c) can use the information in specific ways (as knowledge workers).

I’m not sure what went into planning this site, but I see echoes here of what Diehl, et al. reported finding in Lansing. There, the authors identify a site supported by local and federal governments called ArcMIS, which community members found difficult to navigate and use. And while this map in Syracuse doesn’t highlight deficits (crime, for example, isn’t map-able), it doesn’t allow citizens to really participate, to remix it, in any way. Plus, judging from the site’s dead links, it’s outdated and hardly used. I think this is one of the fundamental problems with Web 1.0 – maintenance. I imagine Maxwell received a hefty grant to launch this site and now it sits dormant.

While I realize Web 2.0 doesn’t entirely solve the maintenance problem (I’m thinking of how moderators had to tenaciously monitor posts on MyBo sites), I love that Grassroots provides users with a writing tool – not a read-only site like ArcMIS or the Onondaga County site.  By encouraging users to build their own maps using an interface with which they might already be familiar – Google Maps – Grassroots develops a sustainable process that has users creating texts “that can be easily syndicated, repurposed, or added upon” (424). I’ll be curious to see where Grassroots heads in the future. The site is still in Beta test mode, but it has me wanting to do a little walking tour of my own neighborhood soon.