Minding the Gap

[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Lane DeNicola, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Lane’s previous posts: post 1 & post 2.]

I keep hearing the voice of Harding from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in my head with this post–I’m talking about form!  I’m talking about content!–but let me go out on a limb here with a colorful analogy: professional precarity (as we’ve been talking about it in this series) is to ethnography a bit like the London Underground is to…well, I was thinking London originally, but better to say “London Below,” the reimagined and mythological rendition of the London Underground in which Neil Gaiman’s television serial Neverwhere is set.  That’s at least as confusing as it is colorful, especially if you didn’t happen to catch the show, so let me try and explain.

I learned quickly to lift my toes toward the end of the escalators on the Tube.  Why?  Because the pace is frenetic, almost always.  Fast enough in fact that you become hyper-aware of not just your pace but your stride.  The “walking” you normally experience as a mostly fluid rhythm becomes a staccato series of “moves.”  Regulars seem to the outsider like formula 1 racers clustered on a straightaway: they can’t simply start moving faster if (say) they realize they’re running late, they have to anticipate and strategize.  Those who break the synchrony of the group are showing “bad form” and may get a snort of disapproval, or worse, get stigmatized as tourists.  If you don’t raise your toes at the escalator landing you’re just begging for an ill-timed trip, and heaven help you if pause mid-stream to look around for guidance.  You can practically discern the middle of Spring, Stonehenge-like, by observing the sharp up-tick of gruesome multi-passenger escalator-landing misshaps.

Anyway, the Underground may be part of “British culture” or “being a Londoner,” but at this point I’m confident that that doesn’t say much.  To use the framing of grad school colleague Jason Patton, the Underground is a “transportation world” all to itself, in ways many Brits (even many Londoners) only experience peripherally if at all (my downstairs neighbor, for example, an immigrant from Cyprus, eschewed the Underground in favor of her own automobile or taxicabs).  Yet the unbridled sense of individual mobility I felt even over three years without owning an automobile is, I suspect, going to be a difficult loss (apologies to my friends from Japan, who experience the Tube as painfully unreliable).  The sensual experience of the stations and lines, the soot and the phantasmagoric adverstising, intermingle with the visual culture of the Tube, the descendents of Beck’s famous map, the popularized photographs of the “Deep Level Lines, and especially the Transport for London’s “Film Office,” which oversees a parallel franchise in the sale of licenses to film on the Tube.

This interlaced quality was especially driven home for me in mid-December of 2009.  Heavy snow was falling across most of Western Europe and the southern UK.  The snowplows at Heathrow were overwhelmed and it quickly became impossible to move the de-icing trucks around to the planes that needed de-icing.  My partner, returning from a three-week trip to India, had her flight diverted to Brussels when officials finally threw in the towel and closed Heathrow.  When she confirmed this by phone, I went online and (like countless others expecting family home for the holiday) began checking the availability of Eurostar trains from Brussels to London.

Now, I can’t avoid a slight digression: whatever technical fluencies I may have I’ve never been especially big on Twitter (this is getting circuitous, but stick with me here).  I do have an account, have tried it out, and generally find it just isn’t “tuned” for most of the types of things I want or need to do.  These particular circumstances, however, had me wondering about the weirdly rosy picture I seemed to be getting (via the websites of the Guardian and Eurostar itself) of what I imagined was a situation in rapid flux.  So, to Twitter I went–#Eurorail!  #Brussels!  #StPancras!  As most would probably guess this painted quite a different scene, but it also held me spellbound for several hours in my first experience of the full power of Twitter on the experience of place.

First were the complaints from those on trains headed to Paris: nothing seemed to be leaving as scheduled.  Then were the general observations that the St. Pancras International Station seemed to be getting a bit crowded, even more than usual.  Within an hour of the first report of problems people were noting important discrepancies in the statements of different representatives in different parts of the station.  Queues overflowed into the falling snow outside the building.  Few trains were seen arriving, and several of the passengers on those that did tweeted that they had stopped without explanation a few miles down the tracks.  By the time Eurostar finally confirmed that the snow and ice had caused several trains to fail in the Chunnel tempers had already become heated, yet travelers were also sharing details on the layout of the station, water and bathroom access, and any trickles of information from station employees.

This is the type of story that is now old hat for most here, but it also struck me as an exemplar of the kind of meaning-maelstrom that has been the subject of recent discussion on how ethnographies are to happen in the Network Era (Faubion and Marcus 2009).  A major cosmopolitan transportation hub like St. Pancras is in clear ways a “placeless space,” but the fine-grained stitching together of experience and the specificities of place via digital media disrupts that reading.

These kinds of issues were certainly within the broad arc of the research program I was working to establish, but it was also far enough afield that it would be a quite a stretch to work it in somehow as “fieldwork.”  The masters programme I’d just begun coordinating, however, had one facet that was sorely in need of a structuring project, a practical component focused on experimentation with the use of digital video as data-gathering.  In the typical fashion of bricoleur-pedagogues everywhere, I connected with station film offices and (with the help of a small e-Learning and Development grant from my institution) rewrote this practical component as an examination of the digital mediation of a major rail and subway transport hub.


Exploring the digital mediation of the King’s Cross/St. Pancras rail/subway station (London, UK)

Now of course this hardly constitutes an “ethnographic study,” but this is where Neverwhere comes into play.  Think of the London Underground as simultaneously an infrastructural substratum for London itself AND as a diverse material and visual culture, a symbolic reservoir for producing a “London imaginary.”  Academicprecarity–the pace and stride it implies, the strategies, constraints, and contingencies–certainly structures ethnographic work, provides its form in a very literal way and also unavoidably shapes its content.  In this instance, a “field excursion” simultaneously operates as an armature for a course in Digital Anthropology AND does work as a vehicle for data-gathering in pursuit of my own longer-term ethnographic productions.  The data is fragmentary, certainly, partial in perspective and spotty in quality and utility.  Whether and where those shards end up in any ethnographic mosaic could be a real surprise, but that’s a feature.  London Below was not a representation of the London Underground, nor did every bit of the latter contribute usefully to the former, yet it’s clear the two are entangled.

Lane DeNicola is a Lecturer in Anthropology at University College London and the inaugural convener of UCL’s masters program in Digital Anthropology. His PhD in Science & Technology Studies was completed at RPI in 2007.


Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Human Factors International. She lives and works from Pondicherry & blogs her gardening and food adventures on paticheri.com.

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