The Park of 9: New OACpress paper and seminar 22nd April onwards. Seminar now closed.

 

"a group of men... essentially invisible to the state, live in a public park in Gezina, Pretoria, negotiating the ambiguities of street life and community through acts of everyday communism and illegal public gambling..."

 

Some of you will have noticed that we have a new paper at the press - The Park of 9. In its method, Dennis Webster's ethnography of drifters in a South African urban park takes us back to the classic roots of ethnography in work like Street Corner Society; his essay is thoughtful, humane and it reserves the right to prioritise witnessing and skilful description above big theoretical claims. Dennis' is offering a commentary about inequality and uncertainty in contemporary post-apartheid South Africa of a particular kind: he asks us to imagine the lives of the Park of Niners - how they share out resources, fight with each other and especially how they gamble. Here we encounter The Great; an urban migrant who has built up a repertoire of skills for living on the streets.

Take a look; this is certainly one of the most readable and accessible pieces of anthropological writing we have published at the OACpress and it is by an anthropologist who has only recently completed his undergraduate studies. WebsterOACPressWorkingPaper16.pdf

The seminar will begin on Monday 22nd April. As ever, we invite all OAC members to participate.

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in a world of billions of people and billions of problematic circumstances, why does this one deserve particular attention?


When I asked this question it was not to dismiss what Dennis has written, which, as far as it goes, is very good, indeed. It was, instead, to point to issues also raised by Keith when he writes,

In order to make any example personally meaningful we have to engage with more general propositions, often of a comparative sort, and these have to share a sound analytical basis.


That said, I approach them from a different angle from Keith: the problem that people engaged in marketing and advertising call "cutting through the clutter." We recognize that the indifference to which Huon points is not a moral failing—but, instead, an inevitable consequence of the flood of information in whose rip tides we all are now compelled to swim. To paraphrase what Japanese creative genius Ohnuki Takuya says about advertising: To be heard we must (1) grab the reader's attention; (2) offer "news," at least a fresh angle, even if the message content is old; (3) make what we say instantly understandable, to hold the attention of increasingly fickle audiences; (4) make it memorable as well, lest all of the effort of (1), (2) and (3) go to waste; and (5) add value to the topic—the company image or brand in the case of advertising—the general propositions to which Keith refers in the case of academic writing. 

Think, for example, of Malinowski, in Argonauts of the Western Pacific. The title and the arrival scene with which the book begins—attention grabbing; the encounters with the exotic—definitely news when the book was written; the interpretation of the exotic in easy-to-understand language that renders the strange reassuringly familiar; the Kula Ring—one of the most memorable motifs in anthropological writing; and, of course, the direct challenge to economic orthodoxies, again at the time the book was written.

Add first-mover advantage—the result of being the first to write in this way. That Malinowski still looms large in discussions of anthropology seems, only in retrospect, predictable. The challenge for new ethnographers is how to achieve what Malinowski did without that advantage, through compelling writing or fresh insight that reenergizes old debates or starts new ones. 

Hi Huon.

I don't think that the police breaking up the games says too much about wider society's perception of the gambling. I think that that was more a case of easy cash for the cops: the gamblers had no real legal leg to stand on once caught. They were gambling illegally, they were often drinking in public, and there was almost always pot somewhere in the park. In fact, considering that they had no real 'private' spaces, and most of their daily lives were public, I hate to think of how many by-laws they were breaking (just by washing their clothes or cooking their meals). And, in a national police service rife with bribery and corruption, I'm sure the park represented a convenient stop where the strongest fight the inhabitants could realistically muster was to run away.

Wider society - the majority of which constituted the property owning class of the area you've already referred to - had varying perceptions of the park (it is important, I think, to clarify that these perceptions would have been of the park itself: people not regular to the park were not really aware of the gambling). Xolani (the young man I mention in the paper) for instance had a similar experience of the park to me - also living in an apartment nearby and new to the neighbourhood; he stumbled across the men there through curiosity and a desire to get to know the people and places of his new home. A Pakistani store owner a block or so from the park had good relations with the men in the park, especially as most of them bought the cartons from which they sold loose draws from him. But in general I suspect that my landlord best characterised the way in which people thought of the park - emblematic of the social problems faced in South Africa and full of lazy men not willing to work their way out of poverty who were crippled by booze and drugs.

Concerning your point of a shared ethos in the park, I think that I was addressing very similar questions in the paper, albeit in a different vocabulary. Your point on the languages expresses it nicely - I was concerned with how men from such different backgrounds (geographically, culturally, linguistically, even nationally) were able to live together, or create some kind of a community. The ethos - which, and I suspect I may be taken to task on this point, was in many ways analogous to what I conceptualised as everyday communism (I could well have used more neutral terms, like 'help') there - was indeed never explicitly mentioned by the men themselves. But I argue that it was through the practice of this ethos, if you will, which allowed them to them to change the nature of their relationships; from strangers to neighbours. Again I think this highlights the relevance of Graeber as a point of reference - it was not a spoken ethos, or one concerned with morality, but rather an ethos in practice.

Dennis, thanks - those comments are helpful.Going back to Keith's point; Graeber's triad - reciprocity/exchange, hierarchy and sharing/'communism' exist in all human situations at varying levels, so Graeber argues. He does not say in detail how that comes to be universally true - is it a psychological fact, a necessary result of basic potentials in human relationships, perhaps a fact of ecology, a Maussian social fact writ large etc.?

The answer is relevant when we come to think why the park of niners emphasise sharing in the way they do. In seeing the park of niners as part of a larger environment which includes relationships with property owners (mostly hierarchical) to police (negatively reciprocal, in a sense) we may be able to get clues as to why their practice emphasises communalism/sharing. Earlier I wondered about how (the degree to which) explicitly they held to ideas of sharing as a morality etc., but you have said that it they do not hold an explicit view - a public ethos: instead, sharing is an inexplicit practice, but still a social fact. An older sociological language would have seen the park of niners as 'marginal men' or as demonstrating a 'culture of poverty'.

You argue eloquently in the paper that, for the park of niners, gambling can be understood both as a redistributive/sharing mode and as a psycho-social response to uncertainty. I was interested in this latter aspect since it reminded me of people I worked with in Jamaica; their complex betting games similarly have to do with humanising the chaotic effects of money in terms of concrete, locally discovered, meanings. Given the social position of the park of niners in the wider social scheme, gambling is a kind of social security net and it is in certain ways therapeutic. This is both controversial and somewhat counterintuitive - I wonder if you could elaborate a little more on that? Can we take those insights and transpose them elsewhere?

Hi again Huon.

humanising the chaotic effects of money in terms of concrete, locally discovered, meanings

I think that the 'psycho-social' side to gambling in the park is comparable to the way in which you've understood the Jamaican betting games. Sort of a Geertzian condensation of the chaotic world they live day to day into their own, more understandable terms. I also don't think that this chaos is restricted to money - in the park, for instance, the men managed to weave national identities and the absence of women there into the discursive and performative framework allowed for by the gambling. The transposing of these insights elsewhere seems, at first at least, problematic to me. I think the presence of this kind of a psycho-social response to uncertainty existed in the park because the men living there had no private places of their own (places which, in many other contexts, play roles in the confronting of issues of uncertainty, and often imply the safety of other forms of support, like family). Also, gambling in the park was only able to function in this way because of how open ended it was. It allowed for a host of conversations and views and practices (often not present elsewhere in the park), and even people (a rich white kid from up the street, for instance). I'm not sure whether or not this has addressed your question? And are there any similarities to what you found in Jamaica?

I think (absence of) privacy is a very interesting issue (n.b. private property='private' property). These are people whose identity is at issue, who are exposed to whatever conditions present, to the police etc. If I have it right, then gambling is a redistributive mechanism that also to an extent creates a community; but it is also  a means of self-differentiation; a way of distinguishing oneself. You asked about Jamaica; I suppose that similar conditions have seeded quite significant religious/social philosophies, Rastafarianism being the most well-known. That perhaps leads to a question about whether there are religious-ideological sentiments that you could identify - are these people philosophically-religiously minded?

The closest thing to religious-ideological sentiments in the park were the references to witchcraft (most often in the context of accusations of cheating in gambling), the social significance of which in South Africa (most especially, and importantly, post apartheid) has been written about extensively.

Some of you have mentioned that this piece may be used as teaching material, especially toward the end of introducing beginners to fieldwork. While I'm flattered, I was reminded of some of the difficulties I experienced during my research concerning methodology. I presented these concerns in a paper at last years' Anthropology Southern Africa conference. Having used it as my central conceptual point, I was thinking what Graeber's call for a 'sociology of everyday communism' might mean for our method. It must be said that my concerns stemmed purely from the specific way in which I was taught, and may indeed not hold much ground as a result.

Nonetheless, I considered the way in which students of anthropology are socialised into conceiving of this thing called 'the field'. That is, that ‘work’ is done in it (fieldwork), and that that work is done with a set of ‘tools’ (observations, interviews, etc.). The similarities between the taught anthropological approach, at least in the language employed, and the work performed by plumbers, electricians, and other such professions should be quite obvious. I saw the fact that the language used to describe the work of fixing water pipes and electrical points, or at least the image of someone doing such work, can in any way be compared to ethnographic fieldwork – an imaginative entering into the lives of others in an attempt to bring forth rich and nuanced understandings of their realities –  as a manifestation of what Keith has called “the triumph of neoclassical economics” in much of the social sciences over the past few decades. (A metaphor which I used in the paper - people as pipes - was certainly overstated, but nevertheless helpful, I felt).

I called for a move away from constructing a typological field in order to conceive of tools to be used therein and toward opening the untried researcher to those incidents and moments during research which are constitutive of building and maintaining relationships and, by extension, social life and society. It is in this regard where I feel that initial approaches to research, and the teaching of it, should look to include what Graeber's 'the sociology of everyday communism'. Communism must be understood here in its everyday and mundane manifestations, best seen as human co-operation and baseline sociality, and thus the basis of human achievement and indeed human life. Society might then be imagined as threaded by endless communistic networks' and maintained through continuous moments of co-operation (the sharing of cigarettes, or matches, or walking together with someone to go and get candles, or jokes shared amongst each other, as was the case during my first evening of dice). Opening oneself to such moments – those which represent the maintenance of the sociality with which anthropologists concern themselves – would allow a far more radical and meaningful encounter with the field, and the people with which one engages therein, than the rigid vocabulary of (field)work and methodological tools

Research methods then, most especially during early encounters in the field, should be geared less toward doing ‘work’ and more toward understanding and living through that which constitutes the mutual construction of human beings (that is, the building and maintenance of sociality) in that field. So, perhaps the question is: how might we imagine more creative and methods for research, which are framed by human co-operation and less constructed, rigid, and stultifying than those under which we currently learn, teach and research, which have largely checked our openness to those things most crucial to the field?

I would appreciate any insights in this regard. Are these concerns/questions valid at all? Can a 'sociology of everyday communism' be applied methodologically as well as conceptually?

The problem with seeing sharing everywhere is, as Huon suggests, to underplay the individual side of the individual/collective pair. This bias belongs to the tradition of believing that, in a market or capitalist society, the scarce factor is solidarity and sociology's job is to find it in a one-sided way. Both Durkheim and Mauss went out of their way to insist that lived experience could not be reduced to one end of the polarity constructed by a bourgeois ideology which opposes individual economic interests to the free gift, cooperation, commons, sharing or whatever.

Privacy means the ability to exclude the rest of the world from what is specific to oneself. It may be that this ability is absent from the Park of 9 or almost so. The right to keep ones winnings would suppose that it is not entirely absent. The fact that The Great thought you brought him luck, Dennis, cannot be dismissed out of hand as a delusion, at least in the medium term. The story you present is too good to be true, even if it is a powerful dimension of the reality. Perhaps your own desire to belong and to efface your own distinctiveness has something to do with it.

It may well be that social life in the park was very simple or it may have been oversimplified by the ethnographer. My own experiences of fieldwork have been a lot more diverse, involving all three of Graeber's types of economic relation and more. Unless one is ideologically opposed to the possibility of exchange generating common feeling, as I think David is, it is possible for inequality to be reduced by exchange, giving what one has in return for what another has, but not always symmetrically. Redistribution generates common feeling too, throwing a party for example. Helping those in need may be enabled by calculation rather than uncalculated sharing -- the recipient may prefer to call it a loan, even if he can't ever repay. Hierarchy -- as in rich and white vs poor and black -- may be unavoidable in some relations. The fieldworker may employ assistants or reward informants. And so on. What is striking is that your sociology seems to match a singularly limited field situation and perhaps a one-stranded definition of your own role there.

I like your plea against the instrumentalism of much research training in anthropology, but I have said enough for now and may return to it later.

Following on what Keith says, I wonder about the relationship between different forms of exchange. Could it be, for example, that successful gamblers are approached more often for gifts of tea or sugar, becoming in effect, albeit on a very small scale, big men with followers? I think of your key informant's nickname, "The Great," and wonder about its implications.

"The problem with seeing sharing everywhere is, as Huon suggests, to underplay the individual side of the individual/collective pair. This bias belongs to the tradition of believing that, in a market or capitalist society, the scarce factor is solidarity and sociology's job is to find it in a one-sided way. Both Durkheim and Mauss went out of their way to insist that lived experience could not be reduced to one end of the polarity constructed by a bourgeois ideology which opposes individual economic interests to the free gift, cooperation, commons, sharing or or whatever."

Keith, I wonder if communal sharing usually happens before individual-group exchange, which, I think, is the phase that brings forth hierarchy.  Does hierarchy happen when one gives and gets more  and another gives and gets less?  If my assumption is true, maybe the group studied by Dennis still had the early form of sociality, where individuality is weak and group cohesion is strong. 



M Izabel said:

Keith, I wonder if communal sharing usually happens before individual-group exchange, which, I think, is the phase that brings forth hierarchy.  Does hierarchy happen when one gives and gets more  and another gives and gets less?  If my assumption is true, maybe the group studied by Dennis still had the early form of sociality, where individuality is weak and group cohesion is strong.


I don't deny that the emphasis may be varied in social situations, nor does David Graeber. I would not take an evolutionary line, however. I believe, with Marcel Mauss, that to be human is to be self-reliant and to belong to others at the same time. I really don't see how any of those men can have coped without a good sense of self-preservation. Perhaps social life within their community was one-dimensional, but their lives as a whole were not. They watched cars and gardened, for example.

Nicknames are a fascinating index of both these sides in play. I have always thought nicknaming in this kind of situation has been substantially under analysed. Yet anthropologists talk about them a great deal anecdotally.

I called for a move away from constructing a typological field in order to conceive of tools to be used therein and toward opening the untried researcher to those incidents and moments during research which are constitutive of building and maintaining relationships and, by extension, social life and society.

That, by the way, is a good way of putting things; and worth close attention.

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