On Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’ and extrapolate-able truth.

Screen shot of the New Republic article.

Many people have criticized Alice Goffman’s ethnography On the Run. The first set of criticisms I noticed were from people who claimed that she misrepresented black urban life by studying the particular group of people on whom she centered her book (examples here and here).

Now Goffman is being accused of felony-level crimes and, by virtue of her explanations thereof, of publishing a book that is not “true.” You can read a good summary of these accusations here.

I can’t help but think these accusations are silly. For one thing, I rather liked Goffman’s book. Sure, in my private life I’ve railed against it, but that was because she tucked a detail (if you’ve read it, I’m referring to the story about the wristwatch) into a section titled “Appendix: A Methodological Note” that made me cry. Sitting there snuffling on the couch, I was thinking “Really, Alice? You tricked me!” I didn’t expect to tear up reading “a methodological note.”

Other people apparently feel that she tricked them in a different, worse way.

But I’m not sure how someone could read her book and think that Goffman was implying that all black urban life resembles the lives of the small cohort of people she is studying. Goffman even included brief sections describing her time spent with very different young urban black males, a group of guys who held steady jobs, played video games, ate pizza. If she describes two very different groups that she personally spent time with, it seems strange to read her book as implying that all persons xxxx resemble one of those groups, or even that all people would fit into one of those two. Her book isn’t quantitative. Her book is decidedly not exhaustive. Her book relates anecdotes about a small set of people’s lives, and we should be embarrassed that our country is such that anyone has to live that way.

And, sure, my phrasing for that last clause brings up another complaint people have levied against her book: that the young men she spent time with did not have to live the way they did. For instance, she mentions that some of them did not attend their children’s births because they were afraid of being arrested. Quite possibly it is factually untrue that these men would have been arrested out of the maternity ward. But that doesn’t matter.

In a way, it’s like the premise behind Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan (which, sure, I realize is an ironic work to draw attention to, because Castaneda’s work is untrue on multiple levels, most damningly that the individual whom he claimed to be studying did not exist); the book was an anthropological study of magic. Now, I believe that the type of magic described in that book does not and can not exist. But that doesn’t change my opinion that it is (or would have been, had the study not been fabricated) worthwhile to investigate the worldview of those who believe that type of magic does exist.

9780226275406Similarly, if the young men whom Goffman studied had deeply held beliefs about the police, and those beliefs affected their lives in profound ways, then it’s worth reporting their beliefs as fact within her book. Sure, it would have been an even better book if a footnote mentioned that she could find no evidence that their deeply held belief reflected consensus reality, but within a study like hers the most important thing to do is understand the constraints and beliefs that guide her studied cohort’s actions… and no one has presented any evidence that she failed at that objective.

The claim that Goffman is a criminal is rather more serious. I don’t think it’s any more reasonable, however. A major point of Goffman’s book is that many behaviors qualify as “criminal” within the world she was studying. Young black men can be arrested for standing outside looking “suspicious.” They can be arrested for failing to pay fines or court fees. And, because there is a long history of unethical police behavior, they cannot rely upon the police to protect their property, or their lives, or their loved ones. So I think that even if Goffman had done some things that violated the letter of the law (including “loitering,” or touching marijuana, or driving above the speed limit, or transporting a very angry dude with a gun), she would have been justified.

She has stated that the actions she took were not illegal, though — that there are additional facts that weren’t reported in her book. And that statement has resulted in the accusation that she created a fiction through omission.

Lying by omission is a huge problem in academia. There have been big stories in the news lately about false studies wherein the data is totally fabricated. But the bigger problem, and source of many more untrue findings, is data that is real but reported selectively — if you collect data on thirty or more variables, and then report a finding based on correlation between two of those variables, your result is probably not real.

This practice is extremely common. I’ve been involved with this. Nearly all my friends who’ve done academic research have, too. It’s bad. We shouldn’t have.

If Goffman had collected data that showed that most young black men are never harassed by the police, and then she published a book claiming that most were, that would be roughly equivalent.

That’s not the book she published, though. She lied by omission in that she did not include every single detail she knew. Which is fine, obviously. If completeness is necessary for a work of nonfiction to be true, then only mathematics texts deserve the classification. By the time you toss in enough approximations to study physics, or, worse, chemistry, or, worse, biology, or, worse, psychology, or, worse, sociology, you’ve layered in so many truth-eliding approximations that whatever you write will not be correct. Goffman’s work is no worse in that sense than any other work of cultural anthropology or ethnography that I’ve seen. And the negative reviews of her work that I’ve read seem to be about her work specifically, not complaints about her field.

And, sure, perhaps it is valuable to complain about the field. Researchers introduce biases. Only finite amounts of data can be presented in any summary. And it’s human nature to extrapolate broad conclusions from limited amounts of data; it takes conscious effort to remember that anecdotal studies are relevant only to extremely small groups that closely resemble the studied subjects.

But Goffman’s book is still valuable. People like the men described in her book exist. And, even if the only such people are the small number whom Goffman spent time with (not that this seems to be the case), we should still feel ashamed — as per John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, a society in which anyone lives that way, no matter how few such people there might be, is unjust.

On Boyhood (the film), specifically the eleven seconds between 2:34:11 and 2:34:22.

Image by Jennifer Gensch on Flickr.

One quick remark before I launch into this essay: I typically type these while N is playing at the YMCA, so I had to take several screenshots of the film before coming here so I could consult them alongside my other notes.  But Apple’s built-in screencapture won’t function if the DVD player is open; I’d never realized.  I wasn’t pleased.  To me, this is analogous to the manufacture of pharmaceuticals with aversive agents.  Doing extra work to intentionally reduce the functionality of a product, in the absence of any safety rationale, seems like a waste of time at best.

Sure, pharmaceutical abuse is a huge problem in the U.S.  But I don’t think that adulterating painkillers with compounds that can cause suffering is the right solution.  If we as a people decided to spend more money on psychiatric interventions, then great!  But spending money to add poisons to medicine, in ways that might harm legitimate users, is pretty crummy.

Apple’s attempt to prevent copyright violation is obviously much less bad.  Nobody’s going to become physically ill.  Just, like me, mildly frustrated.

Luckily the proscription was easy to evade: there’s a brief guide on the website “High School Blows”  that explains how to work around this.  And, right, that is why I wanted to type this preamble to today’s essay.  Because having an active verb that means “to be bad” is great!  I love the simplicity of sentences this offers.  Noun, verb.  Bam!  Two words and you’re done.  You’ve conveyed “The aforementioned thing is a rotten thing.”  And, better yet, you’ve also done it in a way that, linguistically, reveals a measure of political or ideological subversion.  I happily used the verbs “suck” and “blow” this way for years.

I don’t anymore, though.  Writing a book… well, no… it wasn’t until I was re-writing the book several times over… I had to think carefully about each word I was using.  I tried to learn a lot more etymology.  And I’m not keen on the idea of using a word that means, roughly, “is bad because it likely performs oral sex on men.”  The original etymology (circa 1970) was homophobic, and by now oral sex is sufficiently common amongst heterosexuals in the U.S. that you could reasonably interpret these verbs as having a misogynistic subtext as well.  So I no longer use them.

But I really want an action verb that means this!  My current fallback is to say “is rotten” in conversation whenever my mind proffers the verb “sucks,” but this is much less powerful.  If anybody out there has a good word for “is bad,” I’d love to hear it… my casual banter has been suffering for years now!

Okay.  That’s the end of my little diatribe.  Now on to your regularly-scheduled essay, a review of eleven seconds from Boyhood.

CaptureThere’s no dialogue in the segment of Boyhood that I’m planning to review.  To me, that’s a benefit — I felt that much of the film suffered from the fact that the dialogue was realistic to the point of banality.  There are some movies which, by watching them enough times, help you reach a point where you no longer need original thought in order to “converse” with people; you can instead rattle off movie quotes as they seem appropriate (Repo Man comes to mind here, along with several Monty Python movies, several Coen brothers movies).  But there are others, including several that have received very good reviews recently, wherein the dialogue never seems to rise above what a compulsive eavesdropper is likely to hear around town on any given day.

Blue Is the Warmest Color, for instance, had few scenes in which the dialogue felt crisp.  That’s part of why I couldn’t feel invested, especially because the film mainly seemed to convey braggadocio from the director to his audience as regards his manipulation of Adéle Exarchopoulos.  As though the director were saying, this is a human being, sure, but I can make her do whatever I want.  If he wanted another close-up of her eating in order to reinforce a message about her voracious appetites, bam!, he got it.  A close-up of her crying, snot-snerking face puffy and spasming?  Bam!  A voyeuristic scene of her naked frame grinding her pubic bone into an S4-symmetry-operated proxy of herself?  Bam!  And sparkling dialogue only during the scene in which the director refers to his own stand-in as a genius for attempting to depict female desire.

Or, earlier, there was The Dreamers, wherein the dialogue only shimmered when the American exchange student was remarking upon coincidences between the size of a cigarette lighter and the dinner table (which was a great scene, to be fair — “I mean, it really fits anywhere.  Look.  See?  I was noticing that the more you look at everything, this table, the objects on it, the refrigerator, this room, your nose, the world, suddenly you realize that there’s some sort of cosmic harmony of shapes and sizes” — but I felt that the movie’s dialogue never again rose to those heights).

In Boyhood, the only time I felt the dialogue was even trying to be fancy was at the end, when the psilocin-modulated collegians have a brief conversation that reflects back on the nature of the project: “It’s constant, the moment, it’s just… It’s like it’s always right now, you know?”

But even this stab at philosophy falls short of, say, the brief dialogue during the credits of Boxtrolls (which, right, that is a brilliant scene.  Definitely worth seventy seconds of your life).

In fact, most pieces of the film seem to have been done better elsewhere.  For the father figure providing relationship advice I’d substitute Roger Dodger, for the kid interacting with his mother I’d substitute Transamerica, for a lot of the suburban strife and feeling out of place while a seemingly-ordinary childhood drags on I’d substitute David Sedaris’s early memoirs.

The only uniquely memorable set of dialogue, to me, was the speech given by Ethan Hawke in which he admitted that, nope, our world has no elves, but we have other creatures that would sound equally magical and bizarre if not for the fact that we know they exist.  That seemed like pretty good fathering and was a catchy set of lines.

And, sure, it was a very cool special effect to have a single actor play this role as the character ages over a decade, but a lot of the press I read about the film lauded it much more than other films with cool special effects.  In a way, that makes me think of the Matrix movies.  All three of them had cool effects, but I doubt many people ever re-watch the latter two: the cool effects are all those two movies have going for them.  Whereas the first actually has a soul beneath its shiny exterior.

With Boyhood, most of the film doesn’t seem impressive if you take away the special effect.

In fact, my favorite review of the movie as a whole was given to me by a running buddy: “While I was watching it, I kept thinking there was about to be a car accident.  But the accident never came.”  Even though he’d told me that, I too kept expecting a car accident; all those portentous remarks about seatbelts!  And drivers were rarely sober.

Immediately after I finished the film, I sent an email back to him: “Maybe the car wreck happens after the credits, when they’re driving back to campus.”  From the dialogue, it didn’t seem as though they had a sitter; maybe you’d argue that the woman sitting next to the protagonist at the end was not on psilocin because her eyes weren’t dilated, but the protagonist’s weren’t either for that scene.  Doesn’t seem like they loaded up an eyedropper with scopolamine for the verisimilitude.

Still, I was thrilled to be watching the movie for the eleven seconds between 2:34:11 and 2:34:22.  Those are great.  And, you know, maybe that’s enough.  Like, the first time I read Jack Kerouack’s On the Road I spent most of the book thinking it was nothing special… and then I reached this passage:

I was getting ready to go to Mexico when suddenly Denver Doll called me one night and said, “Well, Sal, guess who’s coming to Denver?”  I had no idea.  “He’s on his way already, I got this news from my grapevine.  Dean bought a car and is coming out to join you.”  Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me.  I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers.  It came like wrath to the West.  I knew Dean had gone mad again.  There was no chance to send money to either wife if he took all his savings out of the bank and bought a car.  Everything was up, the jig and all.  Behind him charred ruins smoked.  He rushed westward over the groaning and awful continent again, and soon he would arrive.  We made hasty preparations for Dean.  News was that he was going to drive me to Mexico.

“Do you think he’ll let me come along?” asked Stan in awe.

“I’ll talk to him,” I said grimly.  We didn’t know what to expect.  “Where will he sleep?  What’s he going to eat?  Are there any girls for him?”  It was like the imminent arrival of Gargantua; preparations had to be made to widen the gutters of Denver and foreshorten certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies.

That last sentence is so incandescently beautiful that I forgave all the excesses that had come prior to it in the book: this beautiful sentence needed the book’s shambling heft to exist.  Without context it looses some of their power; I’m not even sure that passage will seem appropriately beautiful when slapped up on a website like this.  Likewise, it’s possible that the eleven seconds I loved of Boyhood could not have existed without the rest of the movie.

At this point in the film, the protagonist is driving across Texas to attend college: despite anything you may have read about the infantilization of modern college students, this marks his transition from boyhood into adulthood.  The song “Hero” by Family of the Year is playing.  Seems like an excellent choice of music; especially the line “…holding down a job to keep my girl around and maybe buy me some new strings…” just before he opens the passenger side door to his truck in order to retrieve his camera.  Indeed, it’s a scuffless Canon EOS in stark contrast to the battered Toyota he’s driving.  I think the combination of hearing that line and seeing his camera reveals a lot about the kid’s: like the singer, he’s been working in order to afford the tools needed to pursue his art.

In fact, this scene does more to reveal his personality than the vast bulk of the movie.  Lots of kids drink beers when their friends are drinking, lots of people rant about the way modern technology exploits evolutionary quirks of our brains, lots of people (unfortunately) are put in a position of rebelling against too-strict father figures while failing to make a real connection with a yearned-for, insufficiently-strict biological father.  But this scene displays a measure of loneliness and solitude in his pursuit of art, and it changes the way a viewer interprets his earlier dark room conversation when he claimed that he often spent whole weekends out shooting pictures.  This scene lends that statement credibility, and demonstrates what those weekends might have been like.

I do wish, if the kid was meant to be shown developing into an artist, that we’d more often seen him viewing photographs, rather than taking them.  To the best of my recollection, the only photographs taken by other people that he looks at are lingerie advertisements when he’s six, online pornography when he’s nine or ten, and then a picture of a cute pig on Facebook when he’s seventeen.  I think it sends a bad message about what the process of making art is like to exclusively show him producing art, never viewing it.  In my own life, I’d bet that I spend some seventy percent of my work time reading, at least two-fold more time than I spent writing.  And, sure, it’s unrealistic to expect a bildungsroman to serve as an instructional guide, but I still dream (I should probably be using the word bildungsfilm here instead, but to my anglicized ears that sounds less cool).

The protagonist begins his photography session by taking a picture of a perfectly boring rusted lamp, but by the time Family of the Year are singing about “secrets from our American dreams” he has moved on to a loftier goal: snapping a picture of the fire hydrant standing outside the Roadrunner Deli.

dvd 2.34.20This hydrant is red, with a chipping coat of paint and some yellow flecks vaguely reminiscent of scattered pollen covering its domed bonnet.  It’s a dry barrel hydrant, which surprised me; although I’ve never been to Texas, the impression I have is that the place is hot enough that it would freeze rarely, if at all.  The barrel itself is also much more slender than the squat, round hydrants present in most of the urban and suburban places I’ve lived.  I’m not sure if that is in any way related to the potential flow-rate of the hydrant; to the best of my knowledge, a solid-red hydrant with a coat of paint as old as this one’s appears to be does not indicate a sub-500 gallon per minute flow rate.  Modern hydrants, especially in more populated areas, generally have a bonnet color that doesn’t match the rest of the hydrant and signifies the water pressure it has access to.

And then, after Family of the Year portentously sings “baby needs some protection,” we see the image of the hydrant from the protagonist’s perspective.  It’s a fine image: the hydrant is posed at a jaunty angle in the center of the frame, as though it were ready to stroll forward along the path between scruffy cacti and desiccated tree stump.  The outlet cap is facing the viewer at an angle, the lower standpipe juts up out of the ground, the chain dangles down out of the viewer’s sight.  Its surroundings also give a sense of the loneliness of this place, although fire hydrant photographs can be deceptive that way: because most people capture hydrants in close-ups, they often appear removed from the bustle of life.

Then he leaves, off to college, and we next see him pulling into the parking lot of his dorm.  Walks through the hallway, the song fades into humming, ambient noise of incipient freshman gabbing rises and takes over the audio.

So, really, it’s only the eleven seconds when he was actively photographing a fire hydrant that filled me with joy.  But I think it’s fair to ask, is that enough?  Does one beautiful passage justify a book?  One beautiful scene justify an entire movie?

I don’t know.

Here, a treat!  A couple more hydrant photos!