Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociologist who has spent years studying the underworld, fist in Chicago and, more recently, in New York City. His 2013 book Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy is, in a sense, both a result of his years in the latter city and, perhaps seemingly paradoxically, about their lack of results.
In the book, Venkatesh traces his attempts to come into contact with people who work in the city’s underground economy – the sex and drug trades most of all – and his interactions with some of them in the hope of understanding how this economy works and how it bridges gaps between different social groups. He tells this story in a very personal way and from a personal perspective. As such, especially with the recurrent discussions about methodological issues and the author’s place within (and between) different schools of sociological thought at Columbia University, the book seems to land somewhere between what is called “reflexive anthropology” and autobiography. The narrative interweaves this self-reflection with stories about the people the author set out to study, centered mainly on his interactions with them.
And this is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, Floating City fails to deliver what the back cover promises, a story that “exposes the underground as the city’s true engine of social transformation and economic prosperity–revealing a wholly unprecedented vision of New York.” It does give a glimpse into this world, but not a focused enough one to truly warrant this presentation. The book is far more descriptive than it is analytical. If you come to it expecting a study, you will become frustrated as the author returns, again and again, to how he could feel his questions and methodology begin to take shape, but not quite coalesce. Rather, the book reads like an attempt to squeeze something out of a number of years that might otherwise have felt like a waste or, as the author at one point puts it, a failure. Because there can be no doubt that this is more Venkatesh’s story than that of his ostensible subjects.
On the other hand, it is a riveting book. It is sometimes funny, sometimes saddening, arguably somewhat meandering and depthless, but nonetheless hard to put down. And it does give some insight into how life outside the mainstream economy in New York is. More important, however, at least for me and for the purpose of this blog, Venkatesh offers an important insight that I subscribe to, if in perhaps a more limited form: “The threads connecting the global city may be invisible, but they can found in stories.” Listening to the stories New Yorkers tell about themselves, and that they and others tell about the city, can help us find the structure of New York and its place in an increasingly global network.
Floating City, then, is a definite recommendation, with the caveat that it will not bring much in the way of critical insight and perhaps mostly because it gives a behind-the-scenes look of how life in a research project sometimes feels.