Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Monday, May 31, 2010

A rank beginner … again

Take my word for it, it's peculiar to find oneself in the position of being a rank beginner in a field in which one has a Ph.D., as I do in sociology.

This sort of thing can happen, especially, I would think, in the "hard" sciences, when some theoretical or even empirical advance renders the prior knowledge of its practitioners more or less obsolete, or at least in need of serious rethinking — the settled "truths" of Kuhn's so-called "normal" science become unsettled — in much the same way that "settled law" can be unsettled by an audacious Supreme Court decision — and everyone is a beginner again.

Or it can happen, much less glamorously, in fact quite unglamorously, as it did in my case, because the combination of external circumstances and, no doubt, personal failings or inadequacies conspired to prevent the expected consequence of getting a Ph.D. in field like sociology, namely an academic career.

And now, nearly thirty years later, I find myself starting to "do" a kind of sociology again, not out of any grand sociological ambitions such as motivated getting the Ph.D. — and who knows, I might have done better had I been able to do the Ph.D. without such grand, not to say grandiose, ambitions — but rather as a kind of unexpected and somewhat indirect consequence of the New York in Plain Sight project.

I won't bore you — not today, anyway — with how that came about. But however it happened, and however (possibly) irrelevant its etiology, the fact is that I've found myself starting to think about "sociological" kinds of questions in relation to the photographs of New York in Plain Sight and what might be done with them, at least by me.

And it's a peculiar sensation, having lots of dimly remembered questions and even more dimly remembered answers rattling loosely around in my head — to say nothing of a whole card catalog (remember those?) strewn about all over the brain pan — as I start to try to make some sense of New York in Plain Sight not as a documentary project per se or an esoteric work of art on perhaps too grand a scale, but as a data set: broadly conceived, a body of recorded information to which one can turn with questions, even conjectures, and find answers, or confirmations, or refutations.

And at the same time, I want to respect the photographs as photographs — not in order to make great claims for them as such, but rather to limit, or quasi-limit — "loosely restrain" is perhaps a decent first approximation — the scope of the questions, eventually, to what can be dealt with via the photographs themselves, or in conjunction with similar, and closely related photographs (as in the "then & now" set I'm assembling for Tenth Avenue and working through on this blog).

I have a idea, probably exaggerated, of a "real pro" in almost any field of inquiry as being someone who knows what the questions are, what the approaches are, the methodologies, the tools, etc., and who has the skills and experience to proceed directly and forthrightly towards analyzing the questions and reducing them to a manageable number, deciding on an approach or a methodology and some relevant tools, and who can then proceed "into the field" and produce at least a workman-like "professional" result within a reasonable amount of time, say a year or so for a small study (longer, of course, for one with a larger scope).

There may even be people like that — I've met some who I think match this description, and who even do work that interests me, that I admire, and who — let's face it — I envy.

But that's not me, not in this field, not now, anyway (maybe someday).

On the other hand, there may be merit in being a rank beginner, especially a rank beginner again. What's that classical Greek proverb we had to learn, "archae hamisu panton" / "beginning is half of all"?

It's not often one gets to be a beginner again, especially as one gets on a bit in years (I'm 64 going on 65), and it may be useful, insofar as it's possible, to get over the sense of being a sociologist manqué and get on with the doing of some sociology.

And to pay a lot of attention so to speak to "the phenomenology" of all the floundering around that's attendant upon being at such a beginning.

Not because I think my flounderings are anything special (except to myself of course) but because we — and here I do really mean the collective "we" and in a very broad sense — usually don't pay much attention to what happens in this very early, formative phase of an activity, a project, an inquiry, when we're more or less completely "at sea" and have scarcely any sense of direction, of what we're doing, beyond a vague hunch that "there's a pony in there somewhere."

So this blog is becoming a sort of double set of "field notes": one being my notes on my looking at the photographs of New York in Plain Sight", the other being my record of the process of beginning again as I experience it, day by day, sometimes even in the very process of writing about it.

Maybe that will be interesting or useful to some readers some of the time, or sometime, and then again, maybe not.

One of John Cage's great stories in Indeterminacy concludes with the admonition that if you find something boring after looking at it for a minute, look at it for two minutes; if you find it's still boring, look at it for four minutes, then eight, sixteen, and so on. Eventually you'll find that it's not boring at all ….

I do hope John was right about that.

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