Porn, for Sociologists

So here’s an unexpected draw of grad school in Ann Arbor: Detroit.

According to census figures released last week, motor city has lost 25% of its inhabitants in the last decade, dropping to its lowest population count since 1910.  The decline is really pretty startling: Detroit has fallen from the country’s 4th to 18th largest city.  Add to that its recent ranking as America’s “Most Dangerous City”, and it seems that the census is only confirming what everyone—including, it would seem, at least 25% of the city’s residents—already know: Detroit sucks.

It was because—not in spite of—Detroit’s reputation as a disaster zone that I was excited when my host in Michigan offered to take me biking through the city.  Fed by media reports, I had build up a mental image of Detroit as globalization and American capitalism at their logical, dystopian extension.  As we drove in from Ann Arbor, though, I asked my host if Detroit really was that bad.  I realized that, in a certain way, I was preparing myself for disappointment, fretting that all the media coverage was overblown and Detroit was really just like any other rust-belt post-metropolis.  I didn’t want to see ordinary industrial desolation; I wanted to see a real wasteland.

I needn’t have worried.  As we drove through the suburbs into the heart of the city, the traffic dried up, billboards disappeared, and progressively more store-fronts were boarded up.  We parked outside of Wayne State University and biked into downtown.  It was my first time riding a fixed-gear, but it didn’t much matter: even the main, four-lane conduits were deserted.  In fact, entire skyscrapers stood vacant, except for the bottom levels which were occupied by restaurants with names like the “Hard Luck Cafe”.  Surrounding neighborhoods were equally surreal; narrow, three-story houses—built to slide into tightly packed rows of homes—stood alone, the last vestiges of entire blocks that had been bulldozed.  The median price for a house in Detroit is $7,800.

I left Detroit without having talked to any of its residents, barring a drunk guy outside the hipster bike-shop we visited and the waitress at the Mexican restaurant where we ate dinner (Mexico Town, unlike the rest of Detroit, is booming).  But we weren’t there to see people; we were there to see research projects.  For a lot of sociologists, Detroit is a fascinating laboratory for the study of hyper-incarceration, ghettoization, and poverty in the globalized economy.  Personally, I’m more interested on the flip side of a city that bottoms out: when people are so clearly the losers of capitalism, what kind of alternatives start to sprout up?  Perhaps the only heartening thing I saw in Detroit was the proliferation of urban gardens; after all, at this point, why not garden? It almost never works out this way, but I’d at least like to believe that the people who have been most screwed by capitalism are also the most likely to turn on it and come up with an alternative.

I’d like to think that the critical perspective on poverty that we, as students, bring with us makes us different from the slum tourists who pay top-dollar to visit favelas in Rio de Janeiro or shantytowns outside Nairobi.  Much like watching NASCAR races only for the crashes, there is something foul about being a voyeur of human suffering.  And yet while I’d never visit slums in Mumbai as a tourist, I can certainly imagine going there as a researcher—and, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure there is that much of a distinction between the two.

My two years at Oxford has left me incredibly skeptical of the power of academic research to be a force for change.  That’s not to say that all academic research is politically disengaged, but most of it certainly is.  More than that, I’ve realized that studying human suffering is not the same as solving it, even though we often pretend that one bleeds naturally into the other.  Weirdly, though, I find myself at peace with this.  Detroit may not, in fact, be mine to fix, but I still find it fascinating, and would love to study it.  If they’ll have me, I suppose.

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