Never trust a sociologist

I have read the pages of Jonathan R. Wynn’s new book, The Tour Guide: Walking And Talking New York (University of Chicago Press), that concern me. So filled are these pages with factual errors, incorrect transcriptions of spoken words, bad writing, quaint racism, and irrelevant, inappropriate and snobbish characterizations of the people involved that I refuse to read any more of it.

Mid-block we stop in front of a blank façade across the street, and Bill claims that the building is the secret New York headquarters for the Federal Organized Crime Task Force. He bases this claim on an experience wherein a plainclothes officer forcibly dissuaded him from taking pictures. Like many of his projects, his tours have received their fair share of attention from the media but also from the authorities and he is sure to regale this group with stories of his interactions with police and federal agents. Rather than a source of embarrassment, they are a badge of honor; only further proof of how right he is about the ‘control society.’

Note that this expert in social facts doesn’t bother to investigate any of the “claims” attributed to me, and so they remain mere claims, instead of refuted nonsense (which they are not) or actual facts (which they are). He also can’t seem to get straight any of the facts he was told, and so makes a complete mess of things: my “claim” about the organized crime task force was based upon a tip given to me by a CNN producer; a plainclothes officer once did approach someone, but it wasn’t me, it was some kid taking pictures, and happened to be taking pictures of a completely different building than the one in question; furthermore, this other person wasn’t “forcibly dissuaded,” but I can see why our sociologist would make this up (other hacks have made up similar bits of sensationalist nonsense to titillate their readers).

I do not “regale” anyone about the unwanted attention my tours and performances have received from “police and federal agents.” When appropriate, I tell people; it would certainly be stupid to keep such encounters to myself. And yet our sociologist has the effrontery to imply that, instead of taking these encounters as a “badge of honor” (policemen wear badges: me, I don’t need no stinking badges), I should feel “embarrassment.” Why? If I am indeed “right . . . about the ‘control society,’” there’s no reason at all for me to be “embarrassed.” But logic isn’t our sociologist’s thing. It’s so much easier to pretend to be a pop psychologist, and imagine that his good, law-abiding citizen/readers will certainly feel “embarrassed” if it were them who were harassed by “police and federal agents” who were wasting taxpayer money by investigating their walking tours. Who else but steady consumers of intellectual garbage would give a shit (or even notice) that a tour guide in New York City “has a two-day old beard” and a “puffy nondescript coat” in which there's “a hole in the armpit emitting puffs of down”? Who else but a hack would have his readers believe that I'm actually some kind of paranoid – “this is not mere paranoia,” our pop psychologist equivocates in a footnote about me – who is perpetually “preoccupied with the cops standing behind us”?

If I want to read renderings of myself and/or people I respect into two-dimensional stereotypes that are then insulted for the amusement and edification of people who allegedly know how to read, then I will read The New York Post and the other tabloid newspapers, and I will avoid academics who claim to be sympathetic and knowledgeable, but prove themselves to be liars and fakes. At least the writers at The Post have no illusions or pretentions: they are hacks, and they know it.

One more passage from this awful book.

Bill is eager to share [his maps, links, information and press coverage]. This is an important instinct. The perspective of guides like Bill and Bruce [Kayton] further the idea that many in this field understand that they are actively culling the free everyday molecules of cities to create new, interesting cultural compounds in their own fashion.

Note the writer’s inability to make a simple, uncluttered statement of his own. He doesn’t say, “Bill understands what he is doing” (duh! of course I do), despite the fact that he says that “the perspective of” Bill himself “further[s] the idea” that Bill understands what he is doing! No, the writer stays as far away from a direct statement as he can, and contents himself with the roundabout, abstract and unattributed “idea” that “many” understand what they are doing. (Many? Not all? How many? Which ones? Facts, sir: give us facts!) It’s as if the tour guides were monkeys sitting at typewriters – talented, yes, but still monkeys – dimly aware that they are typing out Shakespeare, and not gibberish. But of course my decision to “share” is not based on some shadowy “instinct,” but a conscious and very political decision to break the silence that surrounds surveillance systems in New York.

-- Bill Brown, 25 August 2011

Noted added 27 August 2011: our sociologist has responded.

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