Rethinking the Youth Question with C Wright Mills

 Look,mum, it comes down to something pretty simple. If I get a job when I leave school, its gonna be part time-most probably serving some rich kid  fried chicken.I’ve started to see myself like dad. And I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing. Dad does things. When he had a job he did his job. When they took that away, he had to do something else. So he picked up a parcel of drugs and drove it to Epping. When you can’t see an answer it paralyses you. I think I’d rather be like him. FIN  in The Precariat  Chris Dunkley

 All there is with contingent labour is the fleeting present: the anxiety of the whirlpool we call now, running from place to place  Bruno Gulli Earthly Plenitudes

 The Wage don’t fit – Sleaford Mods


There is  a  long history of  representations of youth as either  a period of careering about   before the demands of a professional career and/or  bourgeois domesticity intervene  or as a form of sexual apprenticeship, mastering techniques of seduction and  the craft of courtship, if you happen to be growing up working class-and preferably male. Today neither career nor apprenticeship  provide a coherent  framing narrative of  formation and both have undergone radical transformation in a way that sends mixed and often contradictory life-historical messages. Meanwhile the codes of vocation and inheritance, once marginalised, have made a come back bid albeit in perverse forms dislocated  from their original spiritual  and material meanings.  In Chris Dunkley’s play, the central character, Fin, a budding  NEET,  decides to become a ‘chip off the old block’ and follow in his dad’s footsteps into  contingent  labour within the hidden economy, rather than be paralysed by  an aspirational discourse which has no bearing on his real circumstances and opportunities. He has apprenticed himself voluntarily to a condition of permanent precarity, and as a member of this shadow work force   he embraces his forced  servitude to the whims of the market  as a special vocation, albeit one which  will  probably be registered in the form of  a criminal career.

In this article I am going to be arguing two things: Firstly that  ‘youth’ is no longer a discrete and transient stage of life associated with certain styles of ‘storm and dress’;  it has become either a sign of chronic  precarity shared by  many age groups, or a transferable physical cum existential attribute, desired above all by pre teens who have bought their way into ‘youth culture’ at an early age and  affluent  third agers who have invented their own version of the ‘adolescent moratorium’ as a period of structured irresponsibility.

Secondly, in order to grasp what is now at stake in the youth question and how these stakes  have shifted, we have to take a leaf out of C Wright Mills’ book, and exercise our sociological imaginations.  Mills  defined the sociological imagination  as  “the capacity to shift from one perspective to another…the capacity to range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self – and to see the relations between the two of them.” He did not think that the sociologists of his day were equipped with the suppleness of thought or subtlety of interpretation required to  develop this imaginative faculty, obsessed as they were with quantitative methodologies. And subsequent generations of social scientists, whilst they frequently refer to, and sometimes even defer to, Wright Mill’s mission statement for their discipline, have found it no easier to achieve its goals. Instead the sociological imagination has gravitated to the  visual and performance arts, to the novel and to poetry.

Yet such a  multi-standpoint epistemology,  moving in scope and scale from the abstract to the concrete and back again  is mandatory in regard to the youth question.You are not likely to understand much about what is going on in a recording studio unless your grasp of its technological affordances is as sharp as your ethno-musicology, and your locally situated knowledge of this particular band and its biographical back story is as precise as your sense of its positioning within  the  global market place.

Bruno Latour’s comprehensive critique of the sociological tool kit, with its clunky binaries (macro:micro: :structure:agency) and reified conception of social  causality as a kind of glue binding us together behind our backs, suggests one reason why it has been so difficult to practice what Mills preached. At the same time the ever widening gulf between public and private matters of concern, the collapse or hollowing out of narratives that connected collective and individual aspiration to each other through struggles of long duration, has meant that the general capacity to imagine alternative social structures has greatly diminished and  become largely  confined to utopian or dystopian  literature.

Yet clearly the youth question – the set of issues posed for and by a culture  about how it constructs ‘youth’  discoursively as a specific bio-political category and how this impacts empirically on the lives of those to whom it is applied  –  is a suitable case for the Wright Mills treatment. Here at least biography cannot be divorced from history.

Generation Rent

If the youth question has recently re- emerged as a hot topic around the notion of    ‘generation rent’, this is not just because a particular cohort of young people who had middle class  expectations of secure jobs and housing are finding themselves trapped in various kinds of precarious circumstance ; rather the contemporary youth question  dramatizes the fact that the life- historical paradigms  that hitherto connected biographical trajectories    to historically sedimented structures of family, work and community,   ain’t what they used to be; the principles of periodicity that hitherto defined and regulated  existential predicaments associated with adolescence  have become as unstable for middle class children as they have long been for their working class peers.  ‘Generation Rent’ may turn out not  to be merely an ethno-demographic construct,  a way of attributing political and/or cultural meaning to a specific population, but an element of psycho-geography, defining a certain form of   liminality in which states of transient or conjunctural precarity  associated with glamourised forms of risk taking  become chronic and take on structural and site specific connotations. Generation Rent  serves as a generic term for the denizens of urban edgelands thrown up by the impact of globalisation on local housing and labour markets making hopes of   life time dwelling and jobs for life  redundant.

So are we talking here about a new kind of ‘youth subculture’,one  which embraces NEETS and wannabe Hipsters in a common idiom linked to socially expressive but highly  individualistic  forms of ‘venture capitalism’  ?  If by ‘subculture’ is meant certain shared codes of dress, music, talk, feeling, belief and life style  which evolve in response to marginalisation, and where the dominant narratives of class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity  are subverted  through a play of symbolic  substitutions to create a halo of ‘deviance’ or insubordination, then the answer is decidedly  no.  We might,for instance, talk about gay subculture, or rather subcultures, organised around certain styles of sexual preference and their various ways of queerying  the gender codes of straight (que patriarchal) society. Equally we might  hail ‘Chavs’ as the worthy successors of skinheads,(not least in their demonization) and recognise  Emo Boys as Post modern mods. The point about subcultures  as sites of self identification is that they advertise, celebrate and fetishise their difference, and indeed often pursue what Freud called  a ‘narcissism of minor difference’  while  their forms of insubordination remaining  dependant  on their  ‘parent’ cultures as their primary reference point even as they proclaim their autonomy from it. It is only when they become politicised, as happened with gay subcultures in the context of the AIDS crisis, when they leave their real or imagined stylistic ghettoes to engage with  the wider body politic, that they become fully fledged counter-cultures,  cultures which challenge the hegemony of the dominant codes – in this example of heterosexism.

‘Generation rent’ is not a counter-culture in this sense. It has a different genealogy. It began  as a rallying point in the campaign against austerity politics and quickly became a major referent in public debates around housing.  It raises issues of civic entitlement, structural inequality, contingent labour and what one generation owes to or can demand from another. But more fundamentally I think the term’s resonance  addresses  the changing status and meaning of adolescence as a distinctive mode of ontological precarity  within  a life course whose signposts have been radically altered. The fact is the maps of growing up relayed by all those institutions charged with so doing  no longer correspond  to the territories that young people actually occupy. This is not just a matter of broken or deferred transitions from family or school, to full time work and independent living, or the  changing balance of economic  power between different generations. Rather it is a question about how ‘generation’ as such, is lived as a retro-prospective  construct, as both an imagined community in the making and as an invented tradition. Or to put it another way the youth question is no longer about their  elder’s  concerns  about  what young people’s prospects and what they  get up to, but  dramatises  a  wider crisis of representation in the life course  which in different ways affects all ages across much of  the  class spectrum in the era of  late capitalist modernity.

Nothing is more symptomatic of this shift than the fate of the  ‘youth wage’. A wage form which used to apply to 14-18 year olds, trapping them in blind alley jobs, and was supposed to cover their subsistence needs on the premise that they continued to live at home and were subsidised by the family wage paid to the (male) head of household,  has lost its age specificity along with its patriarchal anchorage; today the principle  is not only applied to latter day apprentices, trainees  and interns but  is generalised to most categories of insecure, casual low paid work concentrated in the hidden, pop up and secondary economies.  While ‘youth’ remains relatively fixed as a legal category of dis/qualification, its sociological oscillation between a state of chronic precocity ( 12 year old school kids who are too sexy for their ipads)  and chronic precarity associated with the transition from voluntary  to forced  contingent labour   means that its boundaries are inherently unstable. ‘Youth’  is not so much a stage in the life cycle, as a stage upon which its crisis of representation is performed. But before we can get that shift into perspective we need to tell some of its back story.


Youth as an angel of history

It was Marx who first drew our attention to the dialectic of generations in which biography and history intersect. In the Grundrisse  he wrote  :

History is nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of   which exploits the materials, the capital funds, the productive forces handed    down to it by all the proceeding generations. And this, on the one hand,   continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances, and    on the other modifies the old circumstances with completely changed activity    (Marx, 1985).

Marx, typically, dialecticises the notions of tradition and modernity, without abandoning their anchorage in the idea that each generation possess a kind of collective biography that gives it  historical individuality.  Tradition is here regarded as a kind of inheritance or legacy  handed down  from one generation to the next but  it is also, according to Marx, an apprenticeship to the past interrupted by history itself. From this optic, a generation is a special kind of imagined community based on inventing shared traditions linked to formative experiences associated with a particular life/historical conjuncture – 1968, or 1989, for example. It is a retrospective construct even though those who identify themselves in this way may see it in entirely prospective terms.  And because each so called ‘generation’ is engaged in creating its own traditions to mark its  advent as a  historical subject, it tends to ignore or reject the invented traditions of its predecessors. There are no ‘generational cycles’ in  history. And perhaps we need to emphasise that    ‘generation’  in itself is primarily an ideological or ethno-demographic l construct which only in very special circumstances becomes  a    social or economic  force.  When people belonging to particular  age  cohorts  speak and act   as if they represent a generation for  and to itself,  this is  usually in order to create  a platform from which to mobilise  a  form  of  quasi-oedipal  politics directed  against particular power blocs, especially where these are associated with the exercise of patriarchal authority

 However this does not tell us anything about the relation between ‘youth’ and modernity as such. The discovery of adolescence as a distinctive stage of the life cycle is intimately bound up with its association with modernity and the shock of the new. The notion starts by being firmly located within the romantic movement, and its cult of  ‘sturm und drang ‘. What was so stormy about adolescence, and so stressful for the parents of adolescents, was the fact that it marked a hiatus between the position of the child considered as an object of legal, moral and pedagogic surveillance, and that of the adult, considered as a fully enfranchised citizen of the state, with all the rights and responsibilities that flowed from it. Into that gap were concentrated all those aspects of human behaviour that could neither be rationalized or sentimentalized in the then current schemas of scientific and popular  discourse – first and foremost of course, sexuality. Adolescence as a privileged  site  for the discovery and enactment of desire  was important to the Romantics in defining the essential human capacity to transcend mundane existence and experience the sublime. In the bildungsroman, from Goethe ‘s Wilhelm Meister onwards the adolescent is portrayed as having a heightened awareness of the passionate and hence tragic condition of human existence  and as embarked on an adventure in search of . The very  prototype of the existential hero.

At the same time,, adolescence was reconfigured within an enlightenment framework as being a force for progress set against the  ‘dead hand of tradition ‘. It was this association which connected youth movements to the process of  nation building, and to revolutionary movements, especially in Germany, Russia and the Balkans,movements that  sought to overthrow the ‘ancien regime’  of Feudal absolutism or foreign despotis. It was the power of young people to sublimate their passions in the pursuit of ideals of political freedom, social justice or national liberation, embodied in a democratic state, that made them seem such a powerful force for the rejuvenation of these old societies.

Adolescence was thus produced at the intersection of the romantic and rationalist projects, and fused together elements of ethnic and civic nationalism in a more or less combustible mix. Adolescence was constructed as a unique nexus of contradiction, oscillating between recapitulation and rupture, the static and the volatile,  between what was fleeting and eternal, between the alienation of the individual and the compulsive solidarities of the group. This was the problematic  which Walter Benjamin so eloquently addressed in his early writings in which he rejected the then dominant  culture of  bourgeois careerism.   He is concerned to  repudiate history- as- legacy, the notion that we are all apprenticed to an inheritance not of our own choosing, whether one associated with biological or economic  destiny.  Even in his late teens  he  is beginning to grapple with the  problematic  of modernity which  is to issue in his famous characterisation of the angel of history :

”His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Benjamin is here writing a coda to Marx’s meditation on the  fact that each new generation makes its own   history  ‘under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past and not of its own choosing’. Marx continues :

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language’’.

It was through this process of borrowing or bricolage  and through a peculiar mixture of mimesis and masquerade, that the youth cultures emerging in Britain towards the end of  the long  post war used and transformed   the idioms of the past in order to imagine a future in which there would be no war, except perhaps between the generations. It was a way of both misrecognising the fact that the war as a totalising experience marking a whole generation with its traumatic afterblows,  was finally over, and  of reconstituting out of whatever fragmentary materials lay to hand a  magical  sense of  belonging to a self invented moment of re-making-history- as-  modernity. Whether it was a marriage between the Edwardian gentleman and the spiv, or between  the boots and braces of the erstwhile proletarian and the shaven heads of concentration camp inmates,  these fragile iconographies made implicit claims on  modernity while  looking back  over their shoulder at the past.

In this context  the  Beat and Hippy  cultures of the mid to late Sixties makes for interesting reading, or rather re-reading. Were they genuine revolutionary  youth movements aiming to overthrow  capitalism and patriarchy  as some of their political protagonists procalimed ? Were they counter cultures  centred on the elaboration of alternative life styles ? Or were they subcultures  in transition  performing  the rites of graduation  from   adolescent  revolt to social rebellion with or without a cause? Or were they all three?

For the rationalists, mainly Marxists, the so called 60’s ‘youth revolution’  is a cautionary tale. It marks a historical turning point in which  the project of political emancipation founded on the industrial  working class auto-destructs,  the onward march of labour is permanently  halted well this side of the new Jerusalem  and  capitalism goes  cultural – or rather subcultural-  as well as global, and becomes hip.  The  youth revolution, creates a platform for disseminating  the hedonistic pleasure principles of consumerism  and makes  possessive  individualism – doing your own thing  – sexy,  addictive and above all cool.  Sex and drugs and rock n roll  may not exactly be the devils work, but they promote the  dispositions of creative self invention, underpinned by a whole  culture  of narcissism that post fordism, and the just in time production of the self requires. Playing  it cool becomes the motto  of a whole ‘post’ generation, post modernist, post Marxist,post feminist, post human.

The other, romantic,  reading, which is mainly from anarchists  and the libertarian left sees 60’s counter culture as a great disseminator of a popular  anti-authoritarian politics, a  generational  revolt  against  the patriarchal structures  of the family and the bureaucratic structures of the state,  and as such embarked on the quest for new and more direct democratic forms of self organisation. It is also about  an aesthetic revolt  against the  dead weight of  elite bourgeois  literary and artistic canons and tastes. A rejection then of   party  politics, whether mainstream or vanguardist, in the name of a cultural avant gardism embedded in everyday life. This version of the counter culture is celebrated as an incubator of new feminism, gay liberation,  anti racism, the environmentalist movement,  community activism and do it yourself urbanism.  As such it prefigures the anti-globalisation and anti capitalist movements of more recent years.

Each reading tends to privilege some aspects over others as symptomatic.  Sometimes  opposed but complimentary interpretations are  given to the same thing. This ambivalence not only illustrates the intersection of  romantic and rationalist views of youth, but reflects the fact that capitalism’s sub/cultural turn  simultaneously undermines  and  renews  its  trajectories of growth. And it  bears on two very different versions of modernity


Why Mods have never been modern

  In  his letter from prison  to his wife dated 19 December 1929  Antonio Gramsci wrote “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusion and without  becoming disillusioned. I am a pessimist because of intelligence but an optimist because of will’. Today Gramsci’s famous formula, which was such a mantra for the New Left in the heady days of the 1960’s and 70’s ‘youth revolution’ has been reversed. The widespread disillusionment with modernity-as- historical -progress   has produced the illusion that it is possible to reinvent the sociological  imagination without it being embedded in social praxis. Optimism of the intellect  becomes institutionalised in the knowledge economy in the  form of  blue sky thinking. Capitalism  has thrown up its own cultural avant garde who push at the boundaries of the real and continually create  alternative   worlds populated by people who never grow old and whose lives are one long adventure of self invention.  The sociological Imagination has come to power under the sign of the Commodity and the Consumer fest.  At the same time pessimism of the will becomes enshrined as a precautionary principle of the risk society with its penchant  for generating worst case scenarios. Precarity becomes normative under the sign of  the Youth Spectacle.

Youth cultures have provided a major resource and reference point for this move, yielding  a florid phenomenology of neo-tribalism  that can be relentlessly tracked through social media and ‘glocal’  music scenes  like rap or hip hop, before gaining a soft landing in post coded intersections  of the  network society, not to mention the dance floor. At the same time  the youth question generates  a no less exotic   assemblage of  cautionary tales     whose categories   do not cease to multiply, providing ever more fuel for media orchestrated moral panics .

 All this has had a major impact  on our relation to modernity, or rather  two versions of it. The first might be called  proto-modernism.  The past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed and is retrieved  by the intervention of some  special device or place of commemoration, where it appears as more or less teleological principle of continuity  – the plan or law or  higher purpose which governs  destinies and the unfolding of lives in  historical time.   The capacity to identify and distinguish between progressive and reactionary historical  forces   relies on this  chronotope which ultimately derives from the Enlightenment. ‘Reactionary’ is whatever wishes to restore the status quo ante  associated with an  ancien regime of  privileged entitlement; ‘Progressive’ is whatever wishes to advance towards a more just, enlightened and democratic future. This can yield a Whig interpretation of history which  optimistically  views  the future as an improvement  on the present  which is itself an improvement on the past. Within this narrative frame youth – and especially youth movements,  are seen as a progressive force, challenging the dead hand of tradition.

In  academic circles this model of modernity  is pretty much discredited although it  is very much alive in popular historiography  and autobiography where it sustains collective  aspirations and social movements of every kind. It helps builds intellectual, social and cultural capital, and anchors it in place in specific lieux de memoire, including those little archives of souvenir objects, images and texts which are  collected as building blocks of autobiographies that will never be written. Under  favourable circumstances this narrative does help build the internal resources of resilience needed to sustain struggles of long duration, where  defeats can be regarded as only temporary  setbacks, blips in the onward march to a better future.

The second model  might be called retro-modernist, in the sense that it regards modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved  but as something that has never quite happened, is basically unachievable and can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit. Here the present is experienced and narrated as a series of discrete,discontinuous moments, belonging to an often chaotic synchronicity, split off from a past which never fades  but continues to  be re-presented and recycled,  and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable except as  catastrophe.   History is de-composed, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage of fragments. At one level this chrono-topography involves a profound  de-historicising of experience, a radical disconnect between past, present and future; it  amortises intellectual, cultural and social capital, which  decreases in  value over time, and  hollows out the cognitive and emotional resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration. Nevertheless it also opens up a space for the sociological   imagination, as principles of hope float  free from any real  embedding,  encouraging  the projection of, usually dystopian, futures, or sponsoring various kinds of retro-chic culture.   Retro-modernism  is the preferred paradigm of  youth subcultures.

Retro-modernists are great hoarders of objects and memories. Their do-it-yourself archives, on and off line, create  nostalgic evocations of lost  worlds of modernity that can always be recycled. In the midst of this flux of images and events,  it is no longer necessary or possible to identify progressive or reactionary forces, since everything is hybridised,  at one and the same time a creative and destructive force.  Contradiction is  sublimated in a facile pseudo-dialectics in which everything is  both itself and its opposite.  This   was precisely what  Schumpeter  regarded as a general principle of capitalism’s development. But this is no cause for celebration.  What Schumpeter did not anticipate was that this  dynamism, this apparently frictionless acceleration of productivity associated with turbo charged capitalism would engender not only  boundless enthusiasm for its boundless possibilities for transforming the world, but a pervasive sense of helplessness and therefore hopelessness amongst large sections of the population, including those who are its supposed beneficiaries[i].  The current epidemic of clinical depression is symptomatic; it affects  both the official success stories who are nightly wracked by the fear of failure, and the losers who daydream of becoming winners by hook or by crook; both  are  suckered into the same vacuous rhetoric of individual aspirationalism in which neither realistic principles of hope nor rational defences against despair are available. Now that everyone is supposed to be the author of their own lives, we  are being lured into  a cruel optimism  which fans the flames  of  promise,  especially amongst the young, only to extinguish them at the first breath of reality. This is the generalised ontological condition of the new precariat.

Walter Benjamin was the first to realise that the working class movement  necessarily has an ambivalent attitude to modernity. His  Angel of History attempts a dialectical synthesis of  proto and retro modernisms.  Modernisation of the labour process has meant deskilling, and the technological displacement of living labour by dead labour, and as such, it has been consistently opposed  by  the organised working class. Modernity here simply spells redundancy. But working class communities and their associated youth cultures  have also been enthusiastic consumers of modernity; adults  want all mod cons in their homes, even if they dislike the brutal cut- price modernism that shaped so many post war housing estates. The young people who  live on these estates want the latest smart phones so that they feel plugged in to  the ‘network society’, even if they remain socially immobilised  and rarely  leave their immediate neighbourhood.

It could be argued that popular culture  oscillates between proto and retro modernist positions. There is a pervasive nostalgia for a once-upon-a- time progressive  modernity-that-never-was. And this attitude has  especial resonance in popular music. Just listen to the Who, the Small Faces, Ray Davies and the Kinks, not to mention the Jam and the many other bands that have featured in various Mod revivals.  Even the Sleaford Mods, whose  in your face lyrics give voice to the anger of the young precariat, cannot resist evoking the Mods and Rocker riots of the 1960’s as the source of their authenticity.   The original  Mods grab at  modernity was symbolised by the way they customised their scooters, turning them from affordances of  high tech  designer chic into mobile displays of  retro-kitsch by the simple device of embellishing    them with so  many  mirrors and chrome fittings,  RAF roundels, union jacks and other heraldic  devices of a bygone age.  The Mod scooter becomes a kind of obsolescent Cadillac on two wheels, its sleek functionalist  aesthetic submerged under extravagant ornamentation. Modernism goes Baroque.


 The Youth Question Comes of Age

In  advanced  societies life stories no longer conform  to a single ‘ideal type’; they are  both more individualized, more fragmented and more internally complicated   than when their narrative paradigms were transmitted primarily by the family, and its extensions into the moral economy of  the local community in the early days of capitalism. Globalisation far from imposing some homogeneous cultural norm of identity formation  has simply amplified the relays of difference. Differences of age,gender,ethnicity and class are no longer hierarchized in stable formats of inequality, but interact within a more or less chaotic synchronicity, opening up  a space for the subcultural imagination  to weave its magical displacements.

Life-historical messages  are  nowadays  distributed  by a whole array of secular   agencies and media, not solely by  religious or moral authorities. For example the role models so vigorously promoted by  sports and youth  organizations  link  moral and physical education  to the dominant ideology of individual aspiration and competitive achievement. Meantime  the advertising and creative industries penetrate the most intimate reaches of autobiography    and ceaselessly re-invent the avatars of the ideal consumer self.  In contrast the officially  authorised narratives of the life course remain highly conservative. For example, the state not only authenticates the socially climactic moments of births marriages and deaths, it  not only throws a grid of legal markers of im/maturity over the life cycle, and polices their observance, but, far more fundamentally, it constructs for each citizen the framework of an individualised curriculum vitae. Every institution that is passed through in the course of a life, hospital, primary school, secondary school, youth centre, medical centre, employment, social security etc, records our presence, and its presence is in turn recorded in our CV. These institutions  furnish essential references, mapped out in terms of some kind of incremental life course or career  and, without them we officially cease to exist. Today patients, delinquents, the mentally ill all have pseudo careers of this kind.  The extent to which these institutional co-ordinates are internalised, and become effective self -referential  models,  may vary. But no-one should underestimate how far these statutory story lines  have come to construct  social identities, least of all for those who have passed through    prison, or  mental hospital, immigration control or children’s home.

This example indicates that not all life course paradigms  are equal. Some are  institutionalised,and dominant,while  others are marginalised or have a restricted, sometimes subcultural, affiliation. So to pose a question that C Wright Mills would undoubtedly have asked:  how can we relate the social distribution of  these narrative  frames  to the historical individualities  of life story  tellers ? Where can we look for the crucial link between the developmental ideals which furnish  normative or stereotypical versions  of the life course, including ‘youth’ and a more  hidden curriculum vitae  shaped by history’s ‘other scene’?

In my research I have identified four such connective frameworks: vocation  career, inheritance and apprenticeship. Their  origin and development can be correlated with specific historical conjunctures. For example the rise to prominence of the  ‘public man’ and the professional middle classes in  late Victorian society was linked to the establishment of ‘career’ as a dominant paradigm, while vocation was marginalized and increasingly confined to certain  feminine, intellectual or artistic pursuits. The history of these codes  is  thus bound up with concrete  social developments, but it is not reducible to them. The grammars of apprenticeship and inheritance, for example, have taken on a life of their own  quite apart from  their origins in the   indentured labour  form, or the transmission of material assets and  wealth.

The grid   of inheritance  originally evolved within a moral economy governed by patriarchal authority. The life cycle is  unfolded as a more or less congenital link between fixed origins and destinies. You can only become what you always and already are, by virtue of the special patrimony which has been entailed in your life, from the moment of conception onwards. Within this framework  every part of the child’s body or behaviour may be recognised  as the  signifier of some ancestral virtue,or vice. Baptismal naming fixes identity.  This  closed  reproduction of fixed positions may become racialised, or  alternatively  serve to shore up the boundaries of ethnic identities  under attack. But in order to accomplish this latter task the code has to be effectively transmitted to the up and coming generation. In other words it has to be articulated to particular cultural forms of apprenticeship in which life is unfolded as so many stages in the mastery of a patrimony of  skill.

Today old heads are no longer so easily placed  proverbially  on young shoulders and even young fogeys tend to deny that they are chips off the old block. Growing up working class no longer  means being apprenticed at an early age to an inheritance of  trade or domestic skill passed on from parents or elders in the workplace and community. You may be told you have your mother’s good looks or your father’s  sense of humour, your uncle’s  gift for drawing or your grandfather’s brains  but   what now counts is how  the dispositions  of  intellectual, cultural  and social capital  are entailed  in practices  of learning, both physical and mental,   mediated  through the apparatus of  extended  scholarisation. Yet as we saw in the opening quote, for those who are having to grow up working class  without work, and without a language of class to articulate their experience, the code of  inheritance  can provide a sense of life historical continuity and identity. At the same time ,on the other side of the class tracks,  its material basis in the transfer of assets  not only continues to over-determine life chances, but achieves even higher salience with the financialisation of the property market. Waiting for long living parents to die so the children can inherit their property, and hence be able to afford to buy a place of their own before they retire,  has re-animated the whole psycho-drama of dis/inheritance  which was such a staple plot ingredient for Victorian novelists in a more Patriarchal age ,  albeit   now recast in a more narcissistic  pre or post oedipal idiom associated with the rhetorics of ‘generation rent’.

Apprenticeship, although it scarcely exists in its traditional indentured form, except in a few highly specialised  crafts, has also had a vigorous afterlife. Uncoupled from inheritance, it offers a  generic model of peer to peer transmission within informal communities of practice both inside and outside the workplace.  In the contemporary  service economy  we find a whole array of coaches, trainers  and  mentors, who have mastered  not only specialised work  skills  linked to the just- in-time production of  peak performance but the values and attitudes of mind and body that go with them. The apprenticeships they offer to their various mimetic disciplines involve forms of living  labour  which have been abstracted  from  specific workplace cultures and communities and  rendered transferable,  often being formally subsumed or translated into the middle class idioms of vocation or career. You can trace this happening In the contemporary formation of young artists and athletes from working class background, not least in the aspirational  memoirs  they write about their struggles to succeed.

The codes of vocation and career have undergone a similar convoluted process of transformation. Under the imprimaturs of the  original vocation  code  the self is the bearer of a calling which may be moral, spiritual or social in type, but whose  existential imperatives direct the child to cultivate particular gifts, often of an artistic kind, and attune development to a variety of aesthetic pursuits. In this model the adolescent search for identity  becomes  paradigmatic of the whole life cycle. Not surprisingly many of the great novels of adolescence (eg Alain Fourniers Le Grand Meaulnes) are premised on this grammar  constructing  the adolescent as a hero of  romantic individualism. This model is privileged   in various humanistic  and existential psychologies and today it has been re-calibrated to  give a glamorous  halo  to the precarious conditions  of the free lancer and  portfolio worker.

In contrast the grid  of career offers a much more utilitarian, though no less individualistic reading of the life cycle. Here life is unfolded as so many steps up a ladder of progress, marked at each stage by increments of skill or status, or some other measurable index of personal achievement. The child is pitted competitively against its peers and its progress, from the first steps to the first words, and  later from the first date to the first qualifications are made the subject of more or less ruthless monitoring and evaluation. At the limit the contingencies of a life history are reduced to the predictabilities of a  business  plan, which is  made to unfold according to a rigid timetable of developmental norms:  the baby should be doing X at 6 months, feeling Y at three years, relating in this way at adolescence, and in that way at 40.Developmental psychologies have helped to make   career  the authorised version of the life course in western societies. Although a career remains the referential model to which we are all supposed to aspire,  in reality  its  performativity is confined to  the children of  a diminishing elite, often privately educated, who enter the liberal professions. Careers are not  quite what they used to be. They now subsume internships, portfolio working, and other forms of pseudo apprenticeship. The orderly incremental progression has  been replaced by intermittent and erratic forms of self promotion. Career  is once more approximating to its original sense  of ‘careering about’.

One reason why these grammars have continued to expand their remit  is that they furnish an alternative to empty homogeneous clock time, the  time of capital, with its simple opposition between free time and labour time as a way of representing concrete duration. Clock  time  may organise a lot of everyday life, but it is too impoverished to give meaning, purpose and direction to a life time. Equally the bureaucratic routines which construct our official CVs,  provide us with an abstract legal identity  from which every vestige of lived experience has been drained. Measuring out one’s life in coffee spoons, in TS Eliot’s memorable  phrase, or in the diurnal rhythms of the journey from home to work and back again, or in washing nappies, is a recipe for alienation.

The four codes make use of other kinds of time to give a sense of duration and endurance to the lives whose histories they help shape. Within the apprenticeship/inheritance frame the cyclical time of generation and the seasons can be used to rework the irreversible time of biological aging to punctuate family time into sequential phases or transitions. Within the vocation/career couplet the reversible time of biography and popular memory can be used to plunder historical events  for special leitmotifs of meaning (e.g. the shared biographies of the 60’generation).In its strongest form, each code  throws  a normative grid of periodisation and predicament over the life cycle,  mapping out key moments and rituals of transition, establishing gender specific markers of im/maturity, and   editing the syntax of experience accordingly. The grammars,  when totalized, not only define  certain developmental ideals, but the dispositions that have to be acquired to realize them. But  as their normative strength weakens so  their forms of articulation  becomes ever more variegated and difficult to decode. Retro-modernity flourishes under the sign of inheritance regained or the quest for lost vocation, while apprenticeship marries up with career  to re-invent the notion of modernity as progress.

However  there are many sources of tension between the life historical messages conveyed by these codes. The inward search of vocation  grates up against the competitive other-directed demands of career. The single minded pursuit of your Muse is not likely to land you a secure, well paid academic job. Equally  someone who is driven to climb the academic ladder because for them recognition is dependent of certain incremental norms of productivity,(publish or perish)may find they have less and less to say. The tension between the genderings of  career and inheritance may be no less intense. For example in aspirant families of my father’s generation, it was customary for one child, typically the eldest boy, to be encouraged towards an onwards and upwards  social  trajectory quite different from the fixed destiny ascribed to his sister. Equally the dynamics of apprenticeship, as long  as they remained confined with structures  of patriarchal authority routinely involved more or less ritualized forms of  quasi-oedipal  conflict between apprentices and masters centred on issues of inheritance. Within this frame, jobs and the patrimony of social capital entailed in them,  were held in trust by one generation of workers for the next. Once sons could no longer follow fathers and girls, mothers, into  the same occupational culture and community, other life journeys became imaginable.   Many of these tensions came to a head at adolescence and much of the emotional  labour  of traditional adolescence in fact consisted in learning to decode, differentiate and if possible reconcile  competing  life story lines.

Today, I have suggested, this task is no longer specific to ‘youth’ but  informs every life historical conjuncture. One of the reasons for the exponential growth  in memoir writing and reading is that people from all ’walks of life’ are seeking road maps to show them  how to  steer their way through a maze of conflicting signposts; they hope to find embedded in these retrospective narratives the prospective principles of a ‘life worth telling’.  And one reason for the current popularity of ‘triumph over adversity’ life stories is that they articulate elements from all four codes into a single aspirational mash up. Unlike the rags to riches story which simply proclaimed the victory of personal ambition ( whether coded as vocation or career) over quasi-biological destiny, contemporary  memoirs specialize in the assertion that that all forms of adversity, whether inherited or acquired, all obstacles to the achievement of a calling or set backs to a career,  whether externally imposed or self willed, are to be welcomed as spurs to the ultimate achievement  of personal success.

I have argued that the Youth Question has come of age because it is no longer a question about what a particular cohort of  young people think, feel or believe about themselves or the world in which they live. It is about  what they are made to represent by what is projected on to them by virtue of the position that ‘youth’ occupies  as a contradictory site of hyper-valorisation and disqualification  in different forms of  late capitalist modernity. As such it has become a potential space for the sociological imagination to gain some purchase, especially, but not only,  amongst ‘generation rent’; but  equally, I have insisted,  this space is continually at risk of being  foreclosed by its more or less spectacular recuperation.   Against this background we need to argue for  a new life course politics, not to return to one-size- fits- all cradle to grave welfarism, but to re-assert the value of apprenticeship and career as  biographical trajectories    embedded in   structures  of collective  aspiration open to all. But this is only half of the story. We also need   to re-align  the codes of inheritance and vocation within a moral economy that is no longer beholden to notions of race or gender, or the espousal of a superior, interiorised authenticity.

As a sign of these new times, consider the history of the 7 Up TV programme. The original series  followed the real life adventures of a cohort of children born in 1950 drawn from very different social backgrounds in Britain. Every seven years  it has provided an update of what was happening  to them and much of the popularity of the series has come from the fascination of following the existential  trajectories of such a disparate group. The  series offers a peculiar kind of generational soap opera thinly disguised as a longitudinal  study. In terms of its social analysis the framework  is premised on  methodological individualism – we are supposed to read off from the unfolding of these personal  life stories the ‘DNA’ of  the social structure and its reproduction, as just so many  ‘signs of the times’. The films imply a principle of  causality that could be termed  ‘life historicism’ – the connecting thread between these retro-prospections, issued at arbitrary seven  year intervals, is an explicit teleology; each episode is prefaced with the reiteration of the Jesuitical proverb: ‘give me a child for the first seven   years and I will give you the man’. In fact much of popular fascination with the series  comes not only from the fact that its audience grows older with the ‘cast’,  but in seeing  just how unpredictably some of these lives turn out. Clearly in some of these cases there is a hidden life script that is  subverting the official  curriculum vitae.

There is now a second series featuring children born at the millennium and what is interesting here, apart from the obvious fact that the ‘sample’  represents a very different demographic, is the relative absence of the pseudo-sociological  scaffolding that was such a marked  element in the original programmes. Most of the protagonists seem to be   assiduously pursuing more or less reflexive projects without much awareness they’re part of a bigger human endeavour. Now that the yoke of life- historicism has been lifted from their shoulders they are free to  embody the idea that they are  authors of their own lives. Yet to make the series work, in the sense of engaging its audience in an ongoing narrative  unfolding, episodically, over a long period of time, the films have to elicit from the viewer an act of sociological imagination which they refuse to provide. Wright Mills would  not have missed the opportunity to draw the conclusion that biography and history are never more entangled than when they appear to be  radically apart.



Further Reading

Readers who want to explore further some of the issues discussed in this chapter might like to consult the following references. They are listed in the  sequential order of  the argument.



C Wright Mills  The Sociological Imagination OUP 1959

John Scott and Ann Nilsen C Wright Mills and the sociological imagination:contemporary perspectives Edward Elgar 2013

Bruno Latour  Re- assembling the Social OUP 2005

Amy L Best (ed)  Representing youth :methodological issues in critical youth studies New York University Press 2007

Shane Blackman Subculture Theory  in Deviant Behaviour 35:6  2014

Dick Hebdige Hiding in the Light:on images and things Routledge 1987

Angela McRobbie  Feminism and Youth Culture Macmillan 2000

Pat Ainley and Phil Cohen ‘ In the Country of the Blind’in Journal of Youth Research 2000

Owen Jones  Chavs:the demonization of the working class  Verso 2011

Bruno Gulli  Earthly Plenitudes A study of sovereignty and labour Temple University Press 2010


 Generation Rent

Chris Dunkley  The precariat New South Books 2013 

Guy Standing The precariat : a new dangerous class Bloomsbury Academic 2014

Andy Furling ‘The making of the precariat’ in J Kelly and A Kamp Critical Youth Studies Brill 2014

Loic Wacquant  Urban outcasts :a comparative sociology of advanced marginality Polity 2008

Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang  Youth resistance research and theories of change Taylor and Francis 2014

Bruno  Gulli  Labour of Fire:the ontology of labour between economy and culture temple University Press 2015

Phil Cohen  ‘The Centre will not hold’  Soundings August 2015 

Claire Coatman et al  Regeneration Lawence and Wishart 2012


 Youth as an angel of history

Karl Marx The 18 Brumaire of Louis Napoleon 1985

Walter Benjamin Early Writings 1910-1917 Harvard University Press 2011

Michael  Mitterauer A History of Youth Blackwell 1992

Jed Esty Unseasonable Youth :modernism,colonialism and the fiction of development OUP  2012

Franco Moretti The Way of the World : the Bildungsroman in European Culture Verso 1987


Why Mods have never been Modern 

Marshall Berman  All that is solid melts into air :the experience of modernity Simon and Schuster 1982

Bruno Latour   We have never been Modern Harvester Wheatcheaf 1993

Zygmunt Bauman  Liquid Modernity Polity Press 2000

Mark Fisher and Jeremy Gilbert Reclaim Modernity :Beyond markets and machines Compass 2015

Phil Cohen  Material Dreams :maps and territories in the un/making of modernity Palgrave Macmillan 2016 

Phil Cohen ‘ Mods and Shockers’   in Andy Bennett et al  (eds) Researching  Youth Macmillan 2003

Johann Fornas and Goran Bolin  Youth Culture in  Late Modernity Sage 1995 

Dick Pountain and David Robins Cool rules:anatomy of an attitude  Reaktion 2000

Thomas Frank The Conquest of the cool:business culture,counter culture and the rise of hip consumerism University of Chicago Press 1997

Lauren Berlant Cruel Optimism Duke University Press 2011

Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello  The New Spirit of Capitalism Verso 2005

Richard Sennett  The culture of the new capitalism Yale University Press 2006

Richard Weight  Mod! A very British style Bodley Head 2013


 The Youth Question Comes of Age 

Phil Cohen   Rethinking the Youth Question :education, labour and cultural studies  Palgrave 1998

Tamara Hareven Transitions :the family and life course in historical perspective Academic Press 1978

Phil Cohen ‘The Perversions of Inheritance’ in Cohen and Bains (eds)MultiRacist Britain Macmillan 1989

Phil Cohen ‘Against the New Vocationalism’ in  Bates et al  Schooling for the Dole  Macmillan 1987

EP Thompson ‘The grid of inheritance’  in Jack Goody(ed) The Family and inheritance  Cambridge UP 1979

Charlie Walker  From Inheritance to individuation : disembedding working class youth transitions in post Soviet Russia  Journal of Youth studies Vol 12 No 5 2009

Robert Halpern The means to grow up:reinventing apprenticeship as a developmental support in adolescence.London Routledge 2009

Pat Ainley  and Helen Rainbird :Apprenticeship: towards a new paradigm of learning Kogan Page 1999

Jean Lave Apprenticeship in critical ethnographic practice University of Chicago Press 2011

Max Weber   The Vocation lectures  Hackett Press 2004

Paul Marshall  A kind of life imposed on man : vocation and social order  University of Toronto Press 1996

William Reader Professional Men : the rise of the professional classes in 19th century England Weidenfield and Nicholson 1966



This text is to appear as a chapter in ‘Subcultural Imagination: Theory, Research and Reflexivity in Contemporary Youth Cultures’ edited by Shane Blackman and Michelle Kempson  to be published by Taylor and Francis in 2016

Mapping the Real : Ethno-graphology and the ‘Other Scene’

…  since Neolithic times  we have been marking down representations on cave walls, in the dirt, on parchment, trees, lunchplates, napkins, even on our own  skin-all so we could remember  where we have been, where we want to be going, where we should be going. There is a deep impulse ingrained in us to take these directions, coordinates, declarations out of the mush of our minds  and actualize them in the real world. Since making my first maps  I had learned that the representation was not the real thing, but in a way  this dissonance  was what made it so good: the  distance between the map and the territory allowed us breathing room to figure out where we stood’ Reif Larsen The Selected Works of T.S.Spivet

 It is significant that ‘culture’ is sometimes described as a map. It is the analogy which occurs to an outsider  who has to find his way in a foreign landscape and who compensates for his lack of practical mastery, the prerogative of the native, by the use of a model of all possible routes. The gulf between this potential abstract space, devoid of landmarks  or any privileged centre, and the practical   space of journeys  actually being made can be seen from the difficulty we have in recognising familiar routes on a map or town plan until we are able to bring together the axes of the field of potentialities  and the system of axes  linked unalterably to our bodies, and carried about with us wherever we go…   Pierre Bourdieu  Outline for a theory of practice   


The Real  Deal

‘Get real’ is one of today’s buzz words, and like many catch phrases it is also a portmanteau word – it can mean as many different things as reality itself.  In a public  culture of   impression management it  is often a plea   to drop the social mask, stop posing and adopt a more truthful, authentic or dialogic stance (Stavaska 2003).  For a lot of people, and especially  phenomenologists,  it means being  centered in  the primary world of the senses and   embodied  inter-subjectivity (Straus1963;;Mascia-Lees 2001;Katz and Csordas 2004).  In the age of the Internet, it may also be a restatement of  the need for face to face communication  against the siren call of  avatars in cyberspace and an insistence on the aesthetic value of material artefacts (books or vinyl records) over their digitalized formats (Turkle 2011).  In everyday parlance getting real and being realistic  are  often conflated in a  single exhortation to ‘show some common sense’, which usually means  to adjust  attitudes or behavior to conform to some dominant norm, or  reduce social aspirations to immediately realisable limits.  The phrase  is often mobilized against what are seen as excessive structures of feeling, supporting illusory hopes and expectations.

For the political class in Western neo-liberal democracies   the real deal  means practicing a form of   ‘realpolitik’, in the  sense that  those with the  power to inaugurate or implement  policies  ratify  the criteria  applied  to judging  their outcome (Boltanski and Thevenot 2006). This principle of self justificatiom  is underwritten by the view, widely held within the political class of all persuasions, that capitalism is the only game in town and there is no alternative (Fisher 2009). Meanwhile, for the French situationists and all those revolutionaries and romantic utopians who reject the notion of politics as the art of the possible, it is imperative to ‘be realistic, demand the impossible’(Debord 1994).

Many groups claim to have privileged access to reality  or have such claims made on their behalf. Shamans and gurus  develop  special techniques to attain a higher spiritual plane of reality (Eliade 1992).  ‘Getting real’  here means finding and keeping  faith with  the revealed truth of another possible world, a rather different, but perhaps equivalent  principle of commitment to a situation from which there is no turning back. Their secular equivalent,  the exponents of a forensic and panoptic social science,  mobilise more mundane methodologies to uncover  the mysterious rationale of social attitudes and behavior. For the critical realists, it is  a question of delving beneath the surface appearances of social relations as conveyed by  informants  accounts,  to discover the underlying structures or causal mechanisms which produce them, so as to demystify their effects (Bhaskar 2009).For Marxists , of course, it is the economy or the material base of social production that provides the reality check. Real capital (ie capital engaged directly in the means of commodity production) is contrasted with  ‘fictitious capital’ ( credit, speculative investment, interest, shares and debt). Standpoint epistemologists take  a different tack and invest oppressed or marginalized groups  with   privileged  insight   into  structures of  social reality, because, while subject to the  workings of Power,  they are not implicated  in the need to legitimate them  and so potentially at least  can adopt a critical standpoint which sees through the real in a double sense (Harding1991).

Meanwhile  post modernists  have been preaching   that the quest for the real is, like God,  at best a chimera, as worst another name for self delusion, especially now that  reality had supposedly  gone virtual. Their notion of hyper-reality, in which the symbolic is foreclosed and the tension between the imaginary and the real  is collapsed into  an immersive experience  of simulation created by  digital media   (Baudrillard  1983,2000) has been widely influential  within   that section of the intelligentsia which has found a niche for itself within the cultural industries where  it offers a plausible account of  their world view.  Conceptual artists influenced by post-modern cultural theory have produced an aesthetic counterpoint in the ironic use of pseudo-mimetic techniques  to  gloss   the dis/simulation of the real   produced by   ‘reality TV ‘ (Holmes 2008). And then we  had the cult of the unreliable narrator who cannot tell fact from fiction and systematically conflates them to confuse or confound the reader’s expectations. The lure and blur of the real, the re-branding of  authenticity as artifice has led to the creation of  hybrid narrative genres – the docu-drama , the factoid.

The advent of psychoanalysis and the idea of a distinctive psychic reality constituted by the Unconscious  and irreducible to its social and cultural expression posed the issue of dissimulation in a quite different way. For Freud  reality principles were not fixed but linked to particular modes of social reproduction and  defined in opposition to pleasures principles, the conflict between social duties and   libidinal desires being a feature of civilization and one of its chief discontents(Freud 1985).  The skin encapsulated ego was a fragile compromise formation  made up of various psychic defences, many of them self defeating, the  therapeutic task being to   enable patients to be ordinarily –rather than extraordinarily- unhappy with their human lot.  Freud’s  followers took a different approach. For ego psychologists  ‘reality testing’ was about social adjustment and  deferring  gratification in the pursuit of longer term goals of personal achievement (Federn 1977). For the Kleinians    the  real deal  involved  getting in touch with repressed feelings and memories  to work through to some more viable  accommodation with  a traumatic  past, rather than compulsively repeating self destructive patterns of evasion  or denial associated with a ‘false self’ (Gorer1968;Winnicott 1991). For the champions  of the ‘therapeutic  society’ who want to abolish unhappiness and the tragic dimension of life altogether  this is not enough: for them self- realisation  equals self fulfillment, the aim being to ensure that life history always proceeds by its good side (Wright 2011).Against this, psychoanalytically derived  critiques of the contemporary culture of narcissism, in  which  pleasure principles  have become the new reality principles,    stress  that short- run hedonism, while it may keep consumer capitalism happy, is a manic defence against pervasive feelings of loneliness, alienation and loss which this culture  engenders: its real ‘ real’ (Lasch 1978;Turkle 2009).

Realism in art, literature and drama has likewise meant following a tradition of representation that explores the darker side of life, the unrulier human passions as well as social  injustices, through  close observation  and  a sociologically  accurate ‘warts and all’  depiction of both individuals  and society (Auerbach2003). The use of vernacular idioms, everyday settings, non-professional actors, and themes that addressed the experience and concerns of ordinary people rather than a cultural elite were the hallmarks of this movement  which, however, only reached out to a popular audience with the advent of documentary cinema. The   arrival  of  socialist realism  as an ideological  dogma  sought to  institutionalise a  materialist aesthetic but only succeeded in  replacing concrete explorations of the underlife of bourgeois society  with a highly idealized vision of ‘proletarian culture’(Groys 2008).

The ‘reality effect’  produced through a range of narrative and rhetorical devices  continues to inform  contemporary  writing and to underwrite the truth claims of much fiction (Barthes 1982). It has also had a profound effect on ethnographic writing (Clifford and Marcus 2010).

For ethnographers interested in validating  locally situated knowledge,  key informants are people with  a special relation to social reality  as ritual experts, performers and interpreters of their own cultures (Geertz 2000). In many instances the real has been equated, or, if you prefer, conflated with the authentic, as a property of first hand, eye witness accounts (Atkinson 1990). At the same time   the real deal  has involved a process of   intellectual  dis-illusionment, recognizing   the historical hinterland of the discipline in colonial anthropology, and its contemporary implication  in structures of academic knowledge/power. The anthropologist is unmasked as a novelist manqué, using a  whole repertoire of literary devices and tropes to  convey  the message ‘I was there’ and to convince  the reader of the objectivity of the account. Once  the ethnographer was ‘outed’ as a closet story teller , if not a fabulist   the way was open to drop the mask of scienticity  and engage  in literary experimentation as a device for conveying ‘the real’.

The decolonization of ethnography  initially produced a  withdrawal from fieldwork into more or less solipsistic forms of  auto-ethnography ( Davies 2008;Reed-Danahy 2013;Sikes 2013;Boylorim and Orbe 2014).  This was accompanied by a retreat to the library bookstacks in order  to deconstruct the whole corpus  of classical anthropological texts(( Fabian 1982;Katz2004)  ).   This in turn provoked a  counter movement which aims to turn ethnography off its head and back onto its fieldwork feet, moving out from the academic backyard into the social frontline.  The real deal  in this context means getting to grips with the nitty gritty of social life, asserting the primacy of participant observation over textual analysis, promoting  looking and listening rather than reading or writing  as  key models and metaphors for understanding culture, and  a renewed   commitment to faithfully represent the idioms  and values of informants( Willis and Trondman 2000; Back 2007).

This  move  to re-ground ethnography  might now include widening its interpretive community to include informants themselves. Once   the means of recording observations  – the camera, the tape recorder, the laptop computer and the smart phone – are  in the hands of the non-professional, they can be  used to directly  reflect and represent the reality of  their  cultures, rather than having them interpreted by some academic ’talking head’. These new  social media point  towards forms of collaborative  or community based ethnography in which informants have more to say for themselves than just answering the researcher’s  questions (Lassiter 2005).  A qualitative version of citizen social science has begun to emerge in which research agendas are co-constructed and interpretations crowd  sourced  within the framework of a  dialogic hermeneutics (Cohen 2014). At the same time professional ethnographers, threatened with redundancy, have found new ways to  ‘get real’ by showing  as well as telling,  performing their fieldwork findings in live, often multimedia  formats  rather than presenting them as academic texts (Denzin 2003;Madison 2012). The popularity of  ethno-art shows that the thirst for realism, or ‘reality hunger’ somewhat heightened or spiced up, is unabated, especially where it portrays life on the other side of the tracks (Shields 2010).

From this brief survey it is clear  that however the real is defined, whether in  material or metaphysical, social, psychological or aesthetic  terms, there is running through all  these different usages  a common thread : reality resists, yet somehow also shapes, its symbolic representation. Whether the real is regarded as constraining or liberating,  traumatic  or ecstatic, immanent  or transcendent, hidden or visible, it is recalcitrant  and does not readily  correspond to the way it is depicted and lived, whilst  also setting   limits and conditions to its perception. The language that is used – we talk about ‘grasping’ or ‘capturing’ reality- indicates its  elusive character,  the asymptotic quest to ‘pin it down’.

Phenomenologically, to real-ise  something is to reach out and render manifest or material what is latent or ’immaterial’ and invest it with value and meaning. To find the words that are on the tip of the tongue, or the worm of an idea on the end of a semantic hook is to enter a zone  where what you know you don’t know can enter into conversation with what you don’t know you know, and so make the previously unthinkable  both thinkable and potentially do-able. But this process always  encounters  its opposite – a strategy of de-realisation, that pushes things, people, ideas, away from  awareness  and renders them alien and unknowable, if only  because they are sensed intuitively to unsettle established custom or belief.

This dual movement is perhaps most readily observable  in the  various kinds of maps, both conceptual and experiential,  that  we create  In order to navigate and make sense of the world, especially that part of it which is unfamiliar or unknown. Of course, the contours of what is mappable  continually shift, not only as a function of available technologies   of representation but in relation to the cultural geographies and modes of spatiality   which mapping processes themselves help to produce.  If there is a hidden ethnography of the real it is surely to be found in tracing these articulations.


Neither here nor there :  the ‘Other Scene’  between map and  territory

Ethnography has never not been an implicit  form of  cartography. In its founding moments fieldwork  often accompanied  and sometimes actively substituted itself for strategies of land and population survey  that were directly  or indirectly  implicated in acts of conquest or were instruments of colonial governance ( Brody 1981). The naming and claiming of  territory  was inextricably linked to practices of survey and surveillance (Harley 1992; Carter 1996 ).  Although the early anthropologists were much interested in native cosmographies, they largely ignored the  cognitive  maps of their informants which would have indicated how they constructed and read  their own profane spaces.  It is only in the past twenty years that  anthropologists  have begun to work  with  indigenous groups whose customary  spatialities  are being threatened by  a multi-pronged  attack  from  ‘modernisers’ on  their  ancestral lands and entitlements. Increasingly counter-mapping  has become part of the critical ethnographers  toolkit, as a way of both problematising  dominant space/power relations and creating  platforms  for staking claims by endangered communities over local  amenity and resource (Chapin and Threlkeld  2010 ).

At the same time mapping as metaphor rather than model  has become a generalized paradigm in the human sciences as a result of the spatial turn (King 1996 ). Bourdieu’s  field   theory elaborates  a complex cartogram of   cultural and intellectual practices, and  draws attention   to the fact  that the ‘field’ is indissolubly social and semantic, its construction  never not implicated in power and language games (Bourdieu 1977). Latour’s actor network theory emphasises the  map’s power of abstraction, its role as a mobile centre of calculation, its  capacity  to act at a distance, making the far near (Latour 2005). Both  theories stress the terrritory’s autonomous  power, whether through the science of navigation or the  art of landscape painting.

Finally and most famously  Alfred Korzybsky’s   dictum that ‘the map is not the territory’   draws attention to the fact that something always escapes even  the most imperious cartographic  projects. (Korzybski 1981).  Korzybsky  still believed  that the world  could be  scientifically mapped,  but  also   that  this did not  correspond to the way it  was  made sense of  in everyday language and bodily  experience. Today that gap has widened,  engendering a whole array of  split perceptions. As car drivers we implicitly trust  our sat navs to steer us to our destination across what remains terra incognita.  And then we make up  urban folk tales about what happens  when we religiously follow the instructions of the inboard GPS  while ignoring what we can see  out of the car window and end up in a rubbish dump!  Some Marxists have gone   as far as to claim that advanced  capitalism’s  ‘global positioning system’ i.e. its  space of commodity flows, had made cognitive maps based on locally  territorialised knowledge  redundant, or simply false  because they no longer correspond to the scope and scale of the socio-economic forces  shaping  them (Jameson 1998;Harvey 2000).

Much of  non-correspondence theory  treats  map and territory  as if  they  exist in  separate domains, closed off from one another  which  then  enter into  relation only   through a play of binary oppositions  viz:

MAP                                               TERRITORY

Mind                                                 Body

Symbolic                                           Material

Abstract                                           Concrete

Inscriptive                                        Performative

Indexicality                                       Proxemics

Signifier                                            Referent

Topographic                                     Topological

(Table 1)

Amongst geographers, dialectical idealists emphasise  the maps inscriptive power in demarcating  bounded  space, ignoring the fact that many territories are reticular and consist of trajectories of movement, not fixed frontiers or reference points (Elden 2013). Hysterical materialists insist  that the body  politics of spatiality   remain intimately tied to the economy of its production or just possibly to the brain’s internal navigation system.  For post-structuralists the map is the territory and  everything outside it  becomes   either  an avatar  or unrepresentable.  On the other side of the Great Debate,   naïve  realists, empiricists and positivists   agree in   asserting    the primacy of  territory  as an  environment of spatial facticities,  although  they differ on how  and how accurately  its essential features  are  captured in  particular mappings.

Increasingly, though, it is being recognized  that map and  territory do not exist independently of one another but only in and through specific, culturally variable, patterns of inter-animation(Pickles 2004; Crampton 2010 ). They are never  directly  commensurable, the  move from one register to the other always involves an act of translation in both scope and scale.  The map defines  the territory only in so far as the  territory exceeds the map  and summons it into being as a means of navigation.

Let’s take a concrete example of the intricacy of  map/territory relations. Mental maps consist of locally situated knowledge which enables us to get from A to B quite efficiently   without the use of any navigational aid apart from our memories(Downs and Stea 1977); they also scope out memoryscapes and enable us to imagine other possible worlds( Casey 1993 ;Cosgrove 1999). By that very fact  they introduce  an irreducibly symbolic  element, and  form  part of a wider narrative landscape configured by structures of  feeling and perception that ‘customise’ the physical environment and turn spaces into places with specific reputations and identities(Ingold 2000 ). We may avoid  that street corner because its where a local gang is rumoured to hang out,  or  because it’s a notorious accident hot spot.   By the same token, these narrative landscapes  are constructed   through performative acts which   stake  symbolic claims to  own and control access to  material spaces and resources; whether that staking is done by the nation state through turf wars conducted by rival armies, by  taggers or street artists, or by youth gangs asserting local prides of place,  the terrain of the real is always and already worked over with symbolic value and meaning to constitute a distinctive spatial imaginary(Cohen 1998 ).  A wilderness is simply a space defined by the absence of such claims(Macfarlane 2007).

As this example suggests if there is a structural gap between the real and the symbolic it is  one filled by the imaginary. That was the crucial insight of  the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, who  made it the foundation of his theory of the Unconscious considered as a structure of desire articulated by a discourse of the Other  (Lacan 1981;Laplanche and Pontalis 1973,1986).  Lacan  made a series of characteristically gnomic pronouncements  about the real: the real is impossible – the real never stops writing itself – nothing is lacking or absent in the  real -nothing real  happens in psychoanalysis etc. For him the real is unrepresentable  because it belongs to a primordial world of instinctual  needs and physical gratification  bound up with  the infant’s primary experience of the maternal body, a world  from which we are irrevocably separated  by our entry into the symbolic order of language, culture, society and the regulation of  desire. The real is now everything that is outside the symbolic but which remains its hidden reference point. What is not symbolized   returns in the real  in the form of bodily symptoms, parapraxes and in dreams; in the words of Freud  the real is  the dream’s navel, a limit point where the unknown emerges and  becomes anchored to specific  signifiers, as a principle of their chronic repetition (Rosolato1978).

Freud’s term for  this emergent topos  of meaning present in the dream  was ‘the Other scene’, by which he meant a psychic location where there is a certain return of the repressed which is also manifested in such everyday events as slips of the tongue, jokes, and parapraxes(Freud 1987).  The Other scene is related to the earliest memories of the mother’s body, forever  held unconsciously in mind; this  is not only the first territory we explore and stake a claim to, but furnishes the elementary  structure  of our mental maps at a stage when map and territory are not yet differentiated; as such it configures  the sensory landscape, the sights, sounds, smells and touch  through which  the external world is first rendered real (MacDougall 1989).  This homeland, once upon a time so familiar, from which the child feels evicted,  may  have become a  foreign country, yet it is one to which s/he longs to return, if only to dispossess those others ( the father, sibs,etc) who are imagined to have taken his or her place there.  For Freud this scenario is unconsciously evoked by all those settings and situations where we suddenly become aware of the existence of the (M)Other in the guise of what seems at once familiar and strange, homely and unhomely.  Freud linked this to the common experience of the Uncanny and the ‘déjà vu’ where the real becomes  unreal, and  the unreal seems all too real (Freud 2003).

The Uncanny is a popular haunt of the gothic imagination  where it is often figured by the ‘double’ – that ‘other’ who  bears such  an uncanny resemblance to the self, as it crosses the border between the symbolic and the real, and sometimes between the living and the dead  : walking, talking living dolls,  homunculi, animated statues, human robots, zombies are frequent visitors to this mis en scene which has become such a marked feature of contemporary popular culture( Holmes 2008; Phillips and Witchard 2010  ).  It emerges  too whenever a city  becomes enshrouded in fog and even the most familiar landmarks become mysterious, or an area  is devastated by riot, war or economic collapse so that it becomes an edgeland or a ghost town where  only its  ruins remain to remind  its  inhabitants of  their other  lives, before the real, in the shape of catastrophe and its traumatic consequences, intervened (Woodward 2001;Edensor2004;).

The psychic space of the Other Scene  is thus  never without its co-ordinates within physical, cultural or political geography, even if irreducible to them. If it is the mother’s body, whose  exploratory mapping provides the unconscious model  for  building dens, establishing ‘turf’, and constructing a whole range of imaginary fiefdoms, especially for ‘home boys’, it also provides a template for the  narcissism of minor difference which animates all manner of social rivalries (Freud 1985). The Other Scene  is thus   where  the alien and the foreign as represented by the other  class, other gender, other ’race’ becomes an object of both curiosity and dread, interrupting our familiar intercourse with the world and rendering it uncertain and threatening, but also a source of prurient speculation, even envy. Not surprisingly this borderland is heavily haunted by  ghosts, monsters, and folk devils. As I will try to show later on,  in working class areas subject to rapid demographic and socio-economic change, where many of the familiar features of  their childhood landscape have been erased or rendered strange, these figures of the Uncanny often serve to represent young peoples’ sense of social dislocation (Rathzel and Cohen 2007). It is also where the borderscapes of globalization, the lines of demarcation drawn in the  space of flows cohere around a specific nexus of power(Balibar 2009).

The real can also be rendered strange   by being  subject to disavowal, and here psychoanalysis  distinguishes between two strategies of de-realisation: denial of the real (i.e. denial of any lack or loss, such as those related to  illness, ageing, infirmity  and death)  and denial by the bias of the real, in which  empirical justification is found  for all manner of fantasies (Zizek 2005).The most bizarre conspiracy theory can always mobilise facts in support of its delusional beliefs; the 12% of Californians who report that  they have  been abducted by  aliens frequently cite as proof of their experience the fact that their intimate knowledge of an advanced and hitherto unknown space technology  could not have been  gained by any other means (Brown 2007;Dery 2010).

These examples  underscore Lacan’s  point  that if  the symbolic order positions the subject  in a nexus of linguistic and social exchange whence specific dispositions are acquired,  the imaginary   enables that positioning  to be magically transformed so that the real is kept at bay.  It  constitutes a field of narcissistic identifications that  turns mice into men  and back again, enables the powerless to feel  all powerful, the abject and degraded  to assume heroic postures,  ideal selves and ideal others to be created out of whatever unlikely  material lies to hand    and  the Tongs to rule OK, at least in their own eyes.  We can see this process at work in each and every community, even the most grounded in everyday  practice.

By the same  token   ‘community’ is  Janus faced. Its inclusivity is conditional on   enclosing  itself in rituals of  recognition that  regulate its boundaries  and make them more or less impermeable to outsiders.  The Other is now always just around the corner, just out of sight or reach, but the ever present focus of rumour and gossip, fear and loathing.  The slightest and most trivial distinction can then become the basis of social animosities : living in the next street, supporting a different football team, belonging to a different school or gang, voting for a different political party, following a different faith.  And while some of these rivalries may be more or less friendly and harmless, or  rendered less toxic through the medium of banter and joking relationships,  they can also under certain circumstances  escalate into deadly feuds. Ethnic cleansing is only nationalism of the neighbourhood become more virulent and extensive in scope.   Imagined community  always has its ‘Other Scene’ which subverts its identitarian claims  even as it asserts them(Agamben 1993).

All this is very much the stuff of contemporary  urban anthropology. Equally ‘taking the role of the Other’  has long been part of the fieldworker’s toolkit. The process of de-familiarisation  is a well known experimental  device used to  help informants problematise  or make explicit  the taken for granted aspects of  their culture  by imagining how they would appear  to a stranger or outsider (Brice Heath 2006;Faubion and Marcus 2006). In fact the ethnographic imagination of culture  does not make sense without introducing this principle of alterity as a crucial dimension of comprehension (Taussig 1993). However for a long time this principle was tangled up in a process of projective identification, of siding, more or less consciously, with  marginalised groups and outsider cultures, and sometimes rendering them into exotic  presences. It is only recently that we have come to recognize that alterity always begins  at home, with the Other within   as an object of disavowed desire;  it is this internalized Other who occupies the place of  the stranger we become to ourselves  through social identities assumed or imposed upon us, including the professional identity of ‘ethnographer’ (Kristeva1991).

If ethnography  has become especially sensitized  to this involuntary   process of ‘alteration’ it is not, in my view, just because it  was so conspicuously  exposed to  cultures other than its own, but  because  it is integral to  the position fieldworkers have to adopt as a condition of their practice. We always have to negotiate  some position of legitimate peripheral participation  which allows us to  watch and note  how members of an informant  group go about their business, without unduly interfering in it; in this way we replicate how ‘beginners’   learn  to eventually  master the protocols of their elective culture  within a given community of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991). In this liminal space which  is neither defined by selves or others, which is pulled one way in the quest for an ‘inside story’ and another toward an ‘objective account’, yet can furnish neither,  we are subject to a continual alteration of perspectives, a  constant to-ing and fro-ing between different possible mappings of the material. The tracings of this dialogic  hermeneutics simply is the work of interpretation.  What remains to  be spelt out are the elementary structures and precise  modalities of an ethno-graphology that places this  operation at the heart of its concerns.

Mimesis  and masquerade

The comparative study of the  forms of mapping and territoriality through which cultures define  and position themselves  vis a vis one another is in its infancy ( Toscano and Kinkle 2015). One   starting point for such a project is to grasp that the work culture does in  establishing  a set of imaginary correspondences between  the symbolic and the  real  through specific socio-spatial practices of representation  so that we can act as if  the fictive concordance between map and territory was  empirically observable and verifiably in place. In Western cultures there have been two quite distinct  ways of performing this conjuring trick: mimesis and masquerade.

Mimesis is the art and craft of verisimilitude. It is a practice of simulation  which seeks  to master or comprehend some element of reality  through  a model or analog  device that reproduces its essential features, usually  in a  scaled down and hence more  accessible  version (Gebauer and Wolf 1995). Children’s toys, automata, puppets, dolls, maps, diagrams, scale drawings, working models and role models  all function in this mode. Liking is here to do with likeness and bound up with a  sense of appropriate correspondence or analogy between an act of representation and its object. The social here mirrors the cognitive : we like who or what we know and know what or who we like. Mimesis  creates and implies  a basic epistemic trust in the world: what you see is what you get, and thus establishes a principle of strong  one to one correspondence between territory and map. Memoryscapes constructed according to mimetics  are organized around principles of contexture ( furnished by  the mental map )  linked to  what is  spatially contiguous or    consecutive  (the territory).  This kind of  chrono-topography weaves a seamless web  of narrative  associations between  people, places, objects and events and anchors them to concrete  configurations of meaning.

Mimesis works its mirror magic through the medium of metonym so that the connotations of any signifier remain grounded in everyday, culturally coded  substitutions ( viz of the producer for the product, as in  branding, or tagging). It  is also a medium of identification with others which lessens rivalries  and  suspends or denies  differences – it enables us to imitate those  we seek to emulate without envy or rancor (Taussig 1993). We learn to do what they do by observing closely how they do it. Finally mimesis  makes the real an accomplice of our desires, or an alibi for their repression. It offers a strategy of denial by means of the real even as it keeps our beliefs firmly grounded there.

Masquerade in contrast is a practice of dissemblance or  dissimulation which aims to overcome or deny  a perceived deficit or actual absence in the real by substituting a simulacrum  that can be manipulated to magically achieve an effect of mastery ( Handelman 1998). It  creates and implies an epistemic standpoint of distrust in world as well as a fascination with its appearances. Here the traditionally  ‘feminine’ techniques of disguise and impression management hold  sway.   We learn how to walk the walk and  talk the talk   by imagining what it is like to be someone else who does it. Through masquerade  people play at   difference, learn to take the role of the  Other without becoming wholly  other to themselves. There is a weak correspondence between map and territory, which  opens up a play of symbolic substitutions, whether of condensation (territory) or displacement (map) so that memoryscapes constructed along these lines  no longer observe the dramatic unities of space and time, but are structured topologically around specific narrative themes as they  weave a web of dissociation  between people, places, objects  and events.

The  model that figures in masquerade fashions nothing but what  it clothes with its own rhetorics of desire. Gender bending and social transvestism is very much its scene, viz    Camp and Drag – men pretending to be women sending up  men. Passing. This  is a strategy of social performance designed  to stage manage identity in a way which both acknowledges and reduces anxiety of influence, and so helps maintain  positions of symbolic control in situations of relative powerlessness. Masquerade  offers a denial of the real,  a pretense that things are other  than what they  are but, by the same token,  it also allows us to imagine other possible worlds where things are done differently.

Cultures, contexts  and conjunctures  can be distinguished by which order of representation they privilege, and this has a lot to do with their relation to social production. No child played at being a robot until the advent of automation made it possible to imagine artificial intelligence! And, for example, the current dematerialization of the economy and the growing importance of  regimes of emotional labour has given skills of impression management and social masquerade much greater vocational  weight than the mimetic apprenticeships of the manual trades  and this too is reflected in the games children play. ( Hochschild 2003;Cohen 2015).

Onto-genetically, however, the two orders remain  intimately  linked. As Walter Benjamin pointed out long ago, children’s play is dominated by the mimetic faculty, but its realm is in no way limited by what one person can imitate in another(Benjamin 1973) The child  plays at being not only a shop keeper or a nurse, but also a windmill,  a train or a space capsule. These make believe games are the passport to  other possible worlds in which our earliest social  ambitions take shape; they are fledgling utopias (Schwarzman 1978;Goldman 1998; Bloch 2000); we become  an astronaut and fly off to unknown galaxies in search of a missing cat, or cross the Atlantic in  a canoe to visit an elderly Aunt in New York. In  those personal myths of origin which Freud called the ‘family romance’ we  imagine our ‘real’ ie. Ideal fantasized parents, and hence ourselves,  as members of  another, superior and  more desirable, class, or ‘race’ and our actual parents to be mere impostors who have kidnapped us for the sole purpose of making our lives a misery by making us brush our teeth and go to bed by nine ( Freud 1985; Roberts1982).

Play also opens up a space of parody  and pastiche  in which the child learns to ‘ape’  the gestures of adult  authority, at once identifying with and subverting their power. Through the mediation of  mimicry the artfulness  of mimesis is transformed  into the artifice of masquerade (Bhabha 2004).  And  this happens too in  that form of imaginative materialism  in which  children create  what  D.W. Winnicott called transitional objects,( viz teddy bears or imaginary companions ) as props in a magic theatre where they learn to negotiate the discourse of the Other through the idioms of the self (Winnicott 1991). There is many a memoir that stars a favourite  doll who is  made  to slavishly   imitate or carry out  its young master’s or mistresses commands  and so allow them to escape into other less obediently mimetic roles, only to find itself turned back into  a lifeless corpse and discarded  as soon as it is no longer animated by the child’s desire  for a double or a deputy to act as a go between   in games of  transgressive enchantment.

Despite this continual reversing of  mimesis into masquerade, it has not proved easy to bring the two sides of the  story together  so that the precise trajectory of these transformations can be empirically traced.  An  ethnography committed to techniques of  faithful representation  and to emulating the graphic presence of the photograph or the scopic power of  documentary film to show life in motion is well versed in oral cultures where mimesis rules OK  but tends to reduce the uses of enchantment to merely  concealing the real as a cognitive  map  or a territory of the unknown (Pink 2008).

Conversely an ethnography concerned with performance, ritual, myth, and textual practice is well up on all the  tricks of ‘trading places’ which these media licence  but is not so at home in material cultures where artefacts do most of the talking or adept  in tracing  the genealogy of  the social  through  relays which connect things not themselves social (Latour2005).  As I suggested earlier, this school of ethnography focusses on masquerade either  as  map, treating it as a space  in which free floating signifiers permanently defer both  meaning  and the real,   or, alternatively,   as  territory,  a  form of social misrecognition or mystification behind which the real is hidden but which can be made to reveal its true effects by locating them on another, more theoretical, map available only to professional social scientists.

Whether the focus is on the real or the symbolic, in both cases  the  ’Other Scene’   become disembedded from its social anchorage in specific geographies; as a result the social imaginary floats free and becomes quasi -autonomous, spinning around its own absent centre, generating  an endless mash up of  cultural idioms and genres  where  mimesis becomes masquerade (and vice versa). As has frequently been pointed out this perspective   merely  glosses the ‘auto-poetic’  dimension of post Fordism and its apparently frictionless  circulation of commodities organised in the form of a totalizing consumer Spectacle (Debord 1994  ;Boltanski and Chiapello 2005).

There have been  various attempts to reconcile these two perspectives in some kind of pseudo-dialectical ‘third space’  which turns out to be simply a bricolage of disparate ideas  linked  thematically or conjuncturally (Soja1996). A more promising  approach comes from

Actor Network Theory. ANT is primarily a method  for tracing the connections between people, places, technologies, narratives  and things  which is closest to  how these connections are made in our everyday mental mappings. It is a prescription for a method, which is  a bit like Husserl’s epoche in that it involves bracketing out the theoretical a priori’s  of traditional sociology. So out  go   macro and micro, deep and surface structure, process and agency,  local and  global. Instead of nesting these concepts inside one another as explanatory devices, as if  the relation between their scope and scale were as causally fixed as it is in Cartesian cartography,   the activity of scoping and scaling is studied in itself  for what it tells us  about the  relations of power which it formats (Latour 2010).The different regimes of envisagement created through periscopic or telescopic perspectives, the forms and practices of governance  shaped by the mono-scalar one-size-fits-all  policies , as against multi-scalar  interventions, these are the new foci  of ethnographic engagement  with  the disciplining of  bodies and  the regulation of labour, the exchange of information and the circulation of commodities, the distribution of power and the reproduction of inequalities.

Once we realise the futility of simply finding  yet more  ethnographic  evidence to show that it is  capitalism , or racism , or patriarchy  what dunnit,  once we stop thinking that globalisation is an irresistible force and the local an immovable object , a whole field of  scholar activism opens up  in which  voice is no longer confused with  vociferousness and we can begin to relearn what it means to look with a third eye, and listen with a third ear as we try to make sense of worlds that have made us , but are not of our making.



The theoretical issues  I have been discussing have been central  to my work with young people and communities in East London over the past 25 years, a necessary, if sometimes difficult counterpoint to the practical engagement.  But there was a methodological question too. In seeking  to document and analyse the impact of structural and demographic change on local lives, livelihoods and life stories it became clear at an early  stage that the conventional approach to observation and interviewing would be unlikely to do the business.  Instead I have been experimenting with methods of visual  ethnography which put  a premium on graphic forms  of  narration and  self-representation – making photo-stories,  or self portraits, going on video walkabouts, making maps, as a way of doing thick description; this material is then used  as a focus for  group discussions or individual interviews in order to  co-create an interpretative frame around it (Cohen 2013). It has been an attempt to put the graphic back into ethnography and, in some contexts, a stab at doing a qualitative form of citizen social science in which informants become fully fledged members of the interpretive community (Cohen 2014).

At the same time, in addressing highly sensitive  issues of race, gender and class, often in front-line situations of  social conflict in schools or neighbourhoods,  where  the research is,  of necessity,  dealing with taboo topics and highly defended subjects (Hollway and Jefferson 2013), I have had to supplement  these methods with the use of guided  fantasy,   imaginative writing and art work in order to explore by indirection some of the deeper, more unconscious, indirect or repressed dimensions of popular attitudes to ‘the other’.  What has emerged from this are graphs of social anxiety, envy, rage, frustration, hurt, loss and despair, but also aleatory moments of insight, generosity, friendship, hope and solidarity. And while it is always possible to join up the dots in such a way as to yield a story picture  of utterly broken lives   alleviated by heroic moments of redemption – the  version of  ‘Benefit  Street Britain’  currently popularized  in numerous factoid  soaps –  the material itself occupies a narrative landscape which  does not allow for such easy moralizations. Let alone political solutions.

As an example of this approach  I will  describe some work  I did with young people on the Isle of Dogs in East London in the 1990’s at a time  of high tension between the Bengali and residual white  working class  community (Cohen 2013). The aim of the project was to explore young people’s  landscapes of safety and danger and their associations, both positive and negative, to particular places and populations. For this purpose we constructed a guided phantasy exercise in which  young people were given two starter narratives, ‘The Waterfront’ furnishing a scene of urban dereliction, and ‘The Marshland’ set in a rural wilderness. The young people were asked to complete the stories, taking a line of thought for a walk, as their imagination dictated, using the narrative elements and settings given, but adding to or transforming them as they went. The stories were carefully constructed to provide agencies and situations that might support a range of codings of safety and danger and also drew on  aspects of the local physical geography of this docklands area. We were interested in which of these features were selected for narrative elaboration,  how they were treated  and how this varied between boys and girls, both white and non-white.  The trigger narratives are reproduced below:     


It’s Sunday morning. You get up early, while everyone else is still asleep. Without telling your parents, you have arranged to meet your best friend down by the riverside. Your friend has been given a metal detector as a birthday present and you are going to try it out on the foreshore. You have heard that people find all sorts of things down there, old Roman coins, the bones of prehistoric animals, Elvis Presley records. You decide to take your dog, Skip, with you to help you in the hunt.

When you get down to the riverfront, the place is deserted. You wait around for a while but your friend doesn’t show up. You decide to get started anyway.

You see a ladder tied against the river wall, so carrying the dog under one arm, you clamber down onto the ‘beach’. It is muddy and pebbly and littered with rotting mattresses, bits of old prams and rusty motorbikes. What a waste of time!

You are feeling quite fed up when Skip suddenly gets very excited and starts digging frantically in the mud. Bit by bit a large metal door is uncovered, sunk into a concrete base. You pull on the handle, and to your surprise the door opens.

Inside there are some steps leading down into the darkness. It smells damp and musty. You suddenly hear what sounds like a human voice, a faint echo coming from a long way down inside the tunnel. You listen intently and recognise it–it’s your friend!

Before you can think what to do, you are interrupted by hearing Skip’s bark some way off behind you. You look up and see the stupid animal is trying to swim out to a small boat which is anchored in mid-stream, but is having difficulties with the strong current.

You look around you. To your left, on the opposite bank, a gang of boys are chucking stones into the river. You are not sure whether they are aiming at Skip or just playing skimmers. Overhead a helicopter is circling around, as if looking for something. Or someone.

You notice that the tide is coming in fast. You turn back to the river wall and realise, with a sense of shock, that the ladder is no longer there and you have no way to climb back up.

Looking to your left, you see a strange figure coming towards you dressed in a diver’s (or is it an astronaut’s?) suit. It is sweeping the ground with a metal detector. There is something odd about its jerky, almost mechanical motions.

Somewhere in the distance you hear the chug chug chug of a tug.


You are on a camping holiday with some friends by the seaside. One day you all decide to go exploring further up the coast.

You visit a bird sanctuary in the marshlands. While your friends are having lunch you notice a BLACKBIRD sitting on a fence. You go over to give it some bread, but it hops away.

You follow it. The bird leads you ever deeper into the marshland. It is very boggy and you suddenly miss your footing and plunge into the mud up to your knees.

You manage to get out, but when you look around the blackbird has disappeared. You are alone and not sure of how to get back.

o the left you see some higher ground with a COW (or is it a BULL?) grazing. Behind you there is a HOUSE with, next to it, a SINGLE MOTIONLESS FIGURE silhouetted against the skyline. Perhaps it is only a SCARECROW?

In front of you the path carries on towards the sea. You notice that THE TIDE is coming in fast. Above you see a HELICOPTER flying back and forth, and in the distance, running towards you, a MAN


From this starting point the young people took the story off in many different directions. Claire chose The Marshland and turned it into a classic Witches’ Sabbath tale. She tells the story in the second person–a classic displacement device–putting the reader right where the action is, at the same time as being remote controlled by an invisible narrator:

You are blinded by the sun, staring down the track–your friend comes running towards you. You stand there smiling at her but she runs straight past you as if you weren’t there. You call her name but you get no reply. As you walk up to her and the rest of your friends you hear her saying ‘There’s no sign of her anywhere, the helicopter will keep searching until dark. I don’t have a clue where she went, she just disappeared.’ ‘I’m here, look’ you shout, but they ignore you. You realise they can’t see or hear you. The blackbird pops up and leads her to the house. The door opens and inside there is a fairy-tale witch (black cloak et cetera) who tells her she is under a spell and soon will become the next witch of the marshlands. ‘Why me–choose someone else I want to go home’ she protests but the witch replies ‘No one will hear you it’s too late–you’ll never speak to anyone again.’ The witch flies off on her broomstick and the narrator wakes up. She tells her mum she had the strangest dream: ‘I was going to rule the Marshlands with a magic stick.’ ‘You’ve been watching too many horror movies’ her mum laughs. ‘By the way there was a little blackbird on your windowsill this morning–it was a very ugly old bird and flew away.’ ‘Mum the black bird was in my dream.’ ‘Don’t be silly’ says her mum.

This story, with its distinct echoes of H. G. Wells and The Invisible Man, is here worked into a variation on the everyday theme of being ignored by your friends. The ‘it’s all a dream…or was it?’ angle was a very popular device allowing the young writers’ imaginative scope to explore fantasies of getting lost, being kidnapped, trapped, chased, threatened, and finally rescued, all in the safe knowledge that you would end up back home in your own bedroom with mum waking you up to pack you off to school.

A lot of the young people chose to work aspects of everyday predicament into the story, using the narrative props to explore different strategies of boundary testing, often involving issues of peer group loyalty and the limits and conditions of adventure and precaution. A good example of this was Charissa, a white girl in a predominantly Vietnamese/Chinese friendship group. She was described by the fieldworkers as very bubbly and articulate. She lived near Millwall Football Ground but really hated New Cross, finding it confining; she goes to the West End a lot with her friends and enjoys the sense of adventure involved. Charissa chose ‘The Waterfront’ and wrote a story rich in physical detail–the feel and smell of the underground tunnel is vividly conveyed and is used to portray an inner landscape of the emotions. There are the heroine’s conflicting loyalties to her dog Skip and her friend Laura, the lurking threat of the diver following them down into the tunnel, a pervasive sense of danger closing in. The narrator summarizes the plot:

My mum doesn’t even know I’m here, Skip’s gone missing, we’re down in a hole, with a strange man, and no one knows where we are and we can’t get out.

Laura starts blaming herself–‘if it wasn’t for me none of this would have happened’–but Charissa says ‘don’t be silly, no one’s to blame, but we should have told our parents where we were going.’ The voice of conscience and rational precaution is woven into the threads of a girl’s own adventure story in which resourcefulness is displayed in the face of danger and adversity. At one point the girls find some matches and light a fire to keep warm. They find their mobile phone, but the battery has gone flat due to overuse (a nice cautionary touch!). They find a cupboard that reveals a secret escape passage. However, the diver eventually catches up with them and accuses them of being on private property. He turns out to be a security guard who takes them home, no doubt to be grounded for a few days.

Variations in the configuration of these narratives told their own story about the different ways in which positions of race, class, and gender were being  taken up, and how this was shaped by historical and material circumstance.

Caroline Ke was a Vietnamese/Chinese girl living on the Isle of Dogs. In her art project she described her storyworld as follows:

My journey begins in my lovely bedroom. I looked out of the window and saw a lovely beach with the sun setting on the water. So I ran out to open the door and the sky went black with lots of eyes staring at me. I don’t know why but I just kept walking and it got darker and darker. I felt terrible, frightened, lonely, bad. There were eyes everywhere. Then I found that I had got flushed down the toilet.

Her story box describes the classic paranoid descent into phobic space, ending in a state of abject self-abandonment. The eyes that haunt every nook and cranny of this girl’s landscape powerfully evoke Hoffmann’s legendary Sandman. In the story, the ‘hero’ carries a sack of glass eyes with him everywhere, which he uses to bring the dolls he makes ‘to life’; it is the uncanny resemblance of these ‘dead’ automata to human beings that Freud sees as a quintessential figure of the uncanny. Rilke in his famous essay on dolls also highlight their ‘uncanny loneliness’ as they lie about ‘on the edges of children’s sleep, allowing themselves to be dreamed.’ In Caroline’s story, however, there is no doll, no transitional object that can symbolize the interplay between the familiar and the unknown, the living and the dead. She starts from a paradisal holiday setting and then abruptly switches to the nightmare scenario without any visual or narrative transition. The school bullies’ threat to flush first years’ heads down the toilet is thus transformed into a fully-fledged scenario of panic attack which nothing, it seems, can arrest. What this absence of symbolic mediation represented in terms of her actual strategies for negotiating geographies of risk came out clearly in her interview.

Int.: Do you feel brave enough to walk anywhere on your own?

Caroline: If it’s round my area, yeah, where I live, down Tiller. I don’t think it makes any difference ‘cause I know most of the people down there anyway. But if it’s somewhere down Poplar or somewhere like that, probably not. If you don’t know the places properly, you don’t know what might happen when you just walk down the street. I heard about this girl, yeah, when she was walking down the street this drunk man came up to her and started punching her up, and all her friends were just standing there watching it. I knew her, actually, I did ask her if it was true, she doesn’t want to talk about it, but if it wasn’t true, there wouldn’t be rumours.

The line she draws between areas where you feel safe because you are known and areas of dangerous unfamiliarity is of course one of the most usual constructions, and one which we found evenly distributed across the entire sample. But what was significant in her case is where this line led. ‘If you don’t know a place properly’ means also, in this context, ‘if you don’t know your proper place’, and once you are seen to be ‘out of place’ you become a visible target for attack. As evidence of this process she cites the incident of a random and unprovoked attack on a friend of hers by a drunk.

In their mental mappings many of the girls in this study area in fact marked pubs as dangerous no-go areas on account of fears of just these attacks. Caroline, however, does not quote this as an example of a generic threat of male violence fuelled by alcohol abuse, since in her case that would bring the threat quite close to home; she lived almost opposite a well-known local pub with a bad reputation in this regard. Rather, she locates the danger at a safer distance, in an area she would never, by her own account, dream of venturing into. But this projection leads her to consider the de-ontology of place, and hence the legal status of the hearsay story–is it a true and just description of what the area is like? She asks her friend for an ‘I was there and this was what happened to me’ version of events to corroborate her perspective. She is disappointed. Her friend ‘doesn’t want to talk about it’. This silence might, in a court of law, discredit the whole narrative enterprise, but in this context it subtly implies that something so terrible and damaging happened to this girl that it is beyond the power of words to describe. But then this rhetorical effect is entirely spoiled by the final paradoxical statement ‘but if it wasn’t true, there wouldn’t be rumours.’

This is a restatement of the familiar rationale of rumour-mongers who say ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ before proceeding to fan the flames. But what the smokescreen hides in this case is not her friend’s silence, but her own. What she cannot put directly into words in the interview situation, but which she portrays through her artwork, is the great fear of ‘losing the plot’, not being able to control, or hide, the sense of mounting panic which she later admitted to feeling whenever she moved beyond the familiar confining world of home and school. Her defence against this happening was to create an idealized landscape where the sun always shines and all element of threat is removed. She adopted just this strategy in the guided phantasy exercise. In her ‘Waterfront’ story, almost uniquely, the diver is a good guy–he befriends Skip–and they both use metal detectors to explore the foreshore together. Skip joins in the hunt and digs up a card saying Happy Birthday; then everyone jumps out saying ‘Surprise!’. It turns out the diver was her dad in disguise and the whole story is about a birthday treat. He does not, however, appear to have been around in her inner world to save her from her headlong flight into phobic abjection.

This material, taken as a whole, hovers on the borderline between rational precaution and phobic closure, between a strategy for negotiating reality principles and  flight from them, between rumour and panic, the canny and the Uncanny. Rumour, as Ovid put it, in Ted Hughes’ translation of the Metamorphosis, ‘loves to spice big blobs of the false with a pinch of true, and who, gulping her own confection, grows from nearly nothing to fill the whole world.’  As a communicative genre rumour puts a premium on the device of the deferred subject; its addictive quality comes from the fact that, like a soap opera, the story so far is always to be continued; elements of the real embedded in the narrative offer tantalizing glimpses of ‘who or what dunnit’ without ever providing enough data to be quite sure. And so we are left wanting more. Scandal forecloses rumour by providing a clear event structure with a decisive narrative closure. Scandal ontologizes place, person, and practice; confirms–and rationalizes–worst fears by giving them a semblance of logic, causality, and a social raison d’être. It stabilises epistemic trust, where rumour undermines it. Scandal, like gossip,  relies  on mimetic devices, to establish  its credibility, its realism. Rumour belongs to the world of masquerade.   Caroline cannot allow herself the luxury of scandal-mongering, and so she turns to the grammar of panic to give voice and credibility to her sense of process overturning or dissolving structure.

The role of atrocity stories in this context is to provide an edge of graphic realism and social substance to what would otherwise remain chimeric ‘scares’, and thus turn precautionary stories (what would happen if) into full-blooded cautionary tales (what did happen when). Caroline was not sufficiently embedded in gossip networks to find a point of consensual confabulation for her fears; which is perhaps why she wishfully confuses the role of gossip (a pseudo-fact-finding mission designed to provide a shared definition of the situation) with that of rumour. The result is that she ends up telling a story in which her worst fears are realized by what happens to another girl.

Quite a few of the young people we worked with on this project  had directly experienced racial violence and used the stories to struggle with how to deal with it as a fact of everyday life. Jushna lived on the Tiller estate on the Isle of Dogs. Her family was the first Bengali family to move into the area and they bore the full brunt of local racism. Their house was broken into three times, graffiti daubed on windows and doors; one of her father’s restaurants was burned down. She comes from quite a well-to-do family in Bangladesh who have been subject to threats from armed gangs in the homeland. However, she still likes Bangladesh and associates the place with freedom, wide open spaces, animals, and no traffic. In her photoscapes she represented the neighbourhood play area as generally safe, but pinpointed a scary alley that was a short cut to local shops. Local roads were marked unsafe and indexed to stories of accidents. She was scared of strangers and told a story of being followed, and of her friend Hazera being threatened by a man. This scared her but they didn’t tell anyone. She was very aware of escape routes and boltholes, places where she could go to get away from danger.

She has relatives in nearby Bethnal Green, which she says is dangerous and scary, there are gang fights, bad people, and drugs; similarly with Brick Lane and Whitechapel. She told a story of a fourteen-year-old girl who was murdered by her uncle. Two years ago a ‘Paki-bashing’ incident in a local park, in which her brother and a neighbour were beaten up, also greatly affected her. This is a landscape of pervasive danger, interspersed with a few safe places. But Jushna succeeds in avoiding phobic closure by drawing on a symbolic resourcefulness that others suffering similar difficulties may have lacked. Her strategy for doing this comes out in her ‘Marshland’ story, which she starts like this:

I am petrified I don’t know what to do. I was clammy and felt deserted. The helicopter ignores my appeals for help. I start to cry, then I see a figure running towards me; I’m not sure if it is someone who will help me or not.

But she waits and it turns out to be ‘my friend Angela’–who had followed her to bring her back.

But I did not want to go back so soon, as I wanted to explore this isolated place, so I made Angela stay for a little while longer.

They run into the bull, which is attracted by Angela’s red jumper. They run and hide, and the bull disappears. The house is really pretty–small circle windows, red frame, painted blue–an ideal home from home. The motionless figure beside the house (potentially threatening earlier on) turns out to be a scarecrow. She concludes:

We wanted to explore the country more but it was getting dark and we had to get back to camp. We were afraid that if we got lost again, we would be lost forever.

In the unfolding cartography of this story we can see how this Bengali girl is exploring the shifting limits and conditions of safety and danger through a discrete series of narrative moves. Initially she is petrified by fear, but she manages to turn this to dramatic advantage–it allows her to wait and see if the approaching figure is friendly or hostile, and of course, because she has had the courage to stand her ground, it is her friend Angela who has come to find her. This move emboldens her to explore further the open countryside, where there are animals and not much  traffic, as in Bangladesh. The bull starts out threatening but as soon as the family home comes into focus, the threat disappears. The petrified figure also turns out to be a harmless scarecrow. Her conclusion mirrors accurately enough her actual predicament. She complained that because of the racism, her family would not let her go out. She did hang out with a few Bengali friends, but she longed to be free to move around the city, go to the West End like some of the white and Chinese girls she knew. Standing her ground for Jushna meant precisely not being confined to home base. But once out in open country, and despite its associations with her homeland, she felt terribly vulnerable, frightened that if she stayed out too long in such an exposed situation she would never be able to find her way home. Her balancing act, the tightrope she walked between phobic closure and manic risk taking, is all too clearly delineated.

The plots of the stories I have been discussing are phantasy constructs. Their narrative logic is that of fairy tales, and sometimes of dreams.(Todorov 1990). And of course the methodology we adopted is expressly designed to elicit such  constructs, in somewhat the same way as  the rule of free association operates in the  psychoanalytic setting.

Nevertheless, in the rewriting, the completed stories often deploy all the rhetorical devices of mimesis and the realist text to persuade us that they really did or at least might have plausibly happened. The description of events is highly graphic, the narrator is often cast in the role of a first-person eye- and ear witness, dialogue is usually reproduced verbatim, the dramatic unities of time and place are carefully observed. All of this to persuade the listener, and sometimes the teller, that this is the way things really were, especially in contexts where the narrator is used to being disbelieved. In this respect these stories are not so unlike the accounts that young people often give of their dealings with the police, of incidents of racial encounter, and sexual abuse. I have elsewhere discussed some of the theoretical issues concerning the status of these accounts as evidence (Rathzel and Cohen op cit). Here it is enough to emphasize that these statements should not be treated a priori as either pure fabrications (that is, calculated deceptions) or as sociologically accurate statements about an actual state of affairs. Such readings would remain entrenched in the view that phantasy and reality, map and territory,  are separate and antithetic domains, each with their own incompatible truths.

Muggers, Zombies and the Urban Uncanny

Just how intricately enmeshed the real, the symbolic and the imaginary can become was illustrated for me by the following conversation between four ten-year-old white  working class boys   in which they are recounting one of  their adventures in docklands:

Darren Do you go down Deptford High Street often?

 John I’ve heard that if any white person goes down there they get mugged. The niggers just hang about all day sunning themselves, which is a waste of time for them, but then some poor white kid comes along on his way home from work and they nick all his money.

Paul My mum went over there [Deptford] once and she was nearly mugged. There’s a video shop where they all hang out.

Mark Me and John are going to school in Deptford and that is a black area, you know. A blacks’ paradise over there!

John Niggers galore!

Mark They all clan together don’t they. They help each other out but they wouldn’t lift a finger to help one of us.

John It was the same with the Jews. If they had a cousin they’d buy off their cousin, and that cousin would buy off another cousin who would buy off their dad and the dad would buy off the granddad.

Mark The other day we was down the market this side of the water and we saw this geezer come up out of a manhole and he was speaking some foreign language. I dunno what it was – Russian I think.

Paul Yeah probably was Russian, cos they had one of their warships out there in the river. I saw one too, come out of the ground. He didn’t know where he was.He just stumbled around,like he was a zombie or something.  He started talking to these black muggers and they showed him where to go. They’re probably working together in the sewers you know. My dad says if Labour win (the election) the Russians are gonna take over the docks and maybe the whole of London.

Darren Well I went down there with my friend and we didn’t see anything like that. We just went shopping in the market.

The standard sociological explanation for this exchange is that Paul and Mark have been influenced by  media scare stories  and moral panics  about ‘black muggers’  (possibly mediated through their parents) and are using their  vivid imagination to elaborate a highly racialized scenario which articulates in a displaced manner their sense of class insecurity.

But that is only part of the story. For threaded through this apparently all too predictable litany of grievance, there a surprising element, a  vision of a black El Dorado, where the inhabitants sit around sunning themselves and living a life of ease on their ill-gotten gains. John’s little vignette certainly seems to support the thesis, associated with the research of David Roediger in the USA, about white working-class racism being driven by envy and resentment of blacks’ free and easy life style (Roediger 1999;Cohen 2015). Blacks are portrayed as criminally lazy and parasitic, enjoying themselves at the white workers’/taxpayers’ expense, while rejoicing at being together, in their own self-sufficient community, having found a paradise they can call home. Yet  I think such a reading, while an advance over  the previous one is still reductionist – it is  to underestimate the intensity of the ambivalence which such narratives articulate.

What does it mean for these white boys that they cross the water and enter an alien world, which is also a paradise where they do not belong,  where ‘working people’ are robbed of what they have earned by their own labour, not by exploitative employers but  either by blacks possessed of legendary sexual powers, or by Jews with their mysterious gift for self-enrichment? The manic glee of John’s ‘Niggers Galore’ and its link with his anti-semitic view of Jewish community and  its culture of  mutual aid seems to suggest an underlying phantasy about a closed world of kith and kin  which regenerates itself through inbreeding: a mirror image of his own racial utopia. Yet at this point the uncanny presence  of the Russian zombie enters the scene; this figure  who  represents, by projective identification, the boys own sense of dislocation, of the familiar world of their childhood suddenly rendered strange,  takes on its full  implication in the  conspiracy theory  woven around it :  a ‘Russian takeover if  Labour win the election’,  a gloss on quite another ‘invasion’.  For it bears on  the fact that those doing the ‘dirty jobs’, in this case repairing London’s antiquated sewage system, are often  from the  EU, especially  Poles,  whose language might well sound ‘Russian’ to these boys and whose presence  raises the spectre of the old indigenous working class fear of immigrants bidding down wages and ‘taking our jobs’.

Even so what gives this scenario its emotional power for these boys  is something much more grounded in their own direct  experience   – the anxiety  they feel about   the prospect of  leaving  a primary school where they are ‘big fish’ and entering  a much larger secondary school where they will be ‘small fry’;  a  difficult  transition in any case but here  complicated by another even more perilous rite of passage, the journey from one side of the river to another. The closure of the docks   has meant that the intricate web of  work practices that connected  the two riverine  communities, everything that was solid about  the solidarities of dock labour,  has melted into thin   air. This  vacuum  has been filled  by the residual insularities  of what Hannah Arendt  called ‘the nationalism of the neighbourhood’  and, in this case,  by conjuring up  an unholy alliance  between   Black Muggers  and   Russian Zombies in a  bizarre simulacrum of lost working class  solidarities. In a variant of the ‘there be dragons’   of  medieval maps,  these boys populate their  terra incognita with  monsters, but   in such a way as to make familiar sense of it according to  their existing rules and rituals of territoriality. What is being denied or disavowed  in the process is not only the local loss or lack of  manual jobs but  the redundancy of the associated code of masculinity, the apprenticeship to an inheritance of labour powers that connected growing up with working and class. The real deal.

As for the provenance of the Zombies, they are, of course, the subject of an ever increasing number of popular sci/fi cum horror movies (Botting 2010). Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later(2002 ) and, Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend  (2007) both feature  devastated  cities where gangs of mutants rule OK. Zombies, despite their origin in  rites of spirit   possession in traditional kinship societies, have  today been  variously reinvented as  figures of  a  catastrophic modernity.  In  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis   for the first time the gothic imagination fully embraces the dehumanisation of industrialised work : the shuffling workers personify the  weight of dead labour  on living labour, the ghosts in the machinery of Fordist production.  In the scenario created by these boys the zombie figure is an undead  worker living a twilight existence in the  sewers and the advance guard of an invasion by an alien force; as such  it represents both the boys’ own sense of bewilderment at finding themselves strangers in a once  familiar world, and the conspiratorial powers that they fantasise are in league against them to deliver this outcome.

I have tried to indicate how in  this   co-constructed  narrative  elements of the real, the imaginary and the symbolic  continually reverse into one another, requiring us  to track these shifts in its centre of gravity in order  to establish its unfolding meaning.  Does this  play of substitutions mean that dissimulation and  the art of masquerade   has triumphed over  any  possible mimetic retrieve, any anchorage in what we might regard as a common  world? What  are we to make, in this context,  of Paul’s closing remark which   brings the whole fantasmagoric story back down  to earth with such an elegant  bump.  Whew, some readers might be forgiven for thinking,  at last  a  moment of ‘truth’, a ‘realistic’  remark, a ‘victory for common sense’  against the power of the racist imagination. Unfortunately the celebration is premature, and not just because, as Gramsci  showed us so long ago,   common sense is such a rich mash up of contradictory elements held within the  unspoken framework of a dominant ideology (Gramsci 2000;Crehan 2011).  Common sense is built around an active  denial, marginalisation or suppression of uncommon sense, those intimations of   how the world might look and might just become  from  a standpoint other than that of Power,   where alternative social and political arrangements might conceivably be envisaged.  For example,at one point in the above discussion, when I demurred at one of John’s more outrageously racist remarks and muttered something about  ‘having to learn to live together’ he rounded on me and said ‘Come on, get real, can you imagine Britain with a Black Queen’. I certainly could’nt but the point was he could !   ‘Get Real’  was a rhetorical injunction, but instead of  foreclosing the argument it opened up  a new area of debate ( i.e. about the nature of the monarchy and hereditary power) which moved the discussion in a much more progressive  direction.   For him of course,  it was a dystopian vision which conjured up all his worst fears. That, after all,  is what dystopias do. But perhaps  better a dystopia than passive acquiescence in ‘the way things are’. The effective  foreclosure in this discussion came with   Paul’s  remark which said in effect  ‘there is no Other Scene’, there is only going shopping.’

Of course it is always better to go shopping  than to spend your time, like John, in plotting how to ‘get back at Blacks’ as he put it. But  the point here is epistemological, not moral. However abhorrent people’s views  we have to contain them within  a dialogic space   in which these   knowledge claims can be  compared  just as rigorously as our own for their adequacy as explanations of the local  situational logics to which they refer. This does not mean testing what our informants tell us  against some  normative notion of the real, or according it  purely symbolic  value,  or  treating  it as a specimen of the social imaginary to be displayed in our cabinet of curiosities. Instead  the materials we collect  through whatever media– diaries, drawings, videos, photographs, personal statements, interviews, focus groups, field notes  –  have  to be worked on through a constant interpretive  toing and fro-ing  between map and territory  to  explore  that   ‘strange land of borders and otherness, ceaselessly constructed and deconstructed’(Kristeva 1991) where their meaning emerges.  But what implications does this have for the reach of ethnography in a world which is largely indifferent, if not outright hostile, to  its  methodology?

Cartographies of the translocal

It has been argued forcefully  that the future of critical ethnography lies in producing an in- depth account of late capitalism through  a concrete and comparative analysis of its multiple sites of reproduction  and their translocal  networks of connectivity (Burawoy 2000; Molyneux 2001; Boyarin  and Tilly 2009; Xavier and Rosaldo 2008;Knowles 2014). At the same time we have  to devise ways of holding on to the social embeddeness which is our primary warrant.( Katz 1997). Ethno-cartography is one possible method  for squaring this circle in so far as it  involves our informants, as mappers of their own territories of meaning,in reflexively considering these linkages   within an interpretive frame  that is both intensely local in scale but global in scope ( Turnbull 1996; Cohen 2014).

We saw this happening in  the Docklands project just discussed;  the field work  included  a memory mapping exercise that encouraged  the young people   to anchor their own individual life histories in a wider cultural geography. Students  were given a small outline  map of the world and asked to indicate the places where they had spent some time, either living there, or visiting. These small maps were then placed in the centre of a large sheet of paper, and lines drawn out from these points to mark off the different areas of the memory map. The young people were asked to think about these different places, and to note down any strong images which came to mind. This might be a physical landmark with strong associations for them; some situation or event they remembered taking place there; or, something different or special about the place which they liked or disliked. Our  focus, once again, was on areas where the young people felt safe and at home, or saw as  ‘foreign’, and the circumstances under which what was felt as unfamiliar or different might be perceived as exciting or threatening. These were cartographies of the imagination, in which fantasy was as important as fact. As one boy pointed out to me rather indignantly when I demurred at his placing Glasgow somewhere to the west of Leeds, they were  supposed to be doing art not geography!

Those young people who had experienced long distance migration (e.g. from Bangladesh or Vietnam) understandably tended to stress the discontinuities between the  landscapes  of  their early childhood and living on the Isle of Dogs. The most complex and sophisticated memory map was produced by a Bangladeshi girl. It was rooted in a specific historical moment in the struggle for national independence. Jaswinder described it as follows:

‘It was a long time ago, in 1971, I think. Many Bengali students died fighting in front of the Medical College. They were fighting because of their language, Bengali. Bangladesh was called East Pakistan at the time and no-one could speak their own language. Because of that they fought and died. So they built a memorial to them which I show here, and every 21 February they go there with flowers. The soldier in the picture is to remind us of what the military did. They went to knock down the memorial again and again, and again and again we rebuilt it until they had to give up and we were free.’

In amongst the wreathes, and the pictures of different scenes from the life of Bangladesh, she places a photograph of herself aged five, the age at which she left home. The inscriptions in Bengali refer us both to the actual events she describes and to the issues of language and representation which were their focus. These issues clearly do not just belong to the past or to the origins of Bangladesh as a nation. They are very much alive in her own personal struggle for independence as a Bengali girl growing up in the East End today. This dual meaning is also picked up on the other side of the picture where she explores l signifiers of Englishness: the archaic English script, country houses, her school, a Christmas scene, a jar of coins, stamps, and various conventional symbols of modernity. The cross-referencing is deliberate – she compares Bengali and Christian rituals, and picks up the colour of the Christmas tree in the area around the Memorial. The two sides of the story are literally stitched together, with this suture placed along the exhaust trail left by the plane which has carried her from Bangladesh to England.

In another map drawn by a 16 year old boy living on a tough estate on the Isle of  Dogs,  we were presented with the other side of the globalisation story ( see illustration). This is  a dynamic image of a young man going places, (like Bognor Regis and the Isle of Wight), very  traditional English destinations to be sure, but he is getting there in a ‘flash car’ and by joining the windsurfing  set  associated with the   international  high fliers of the financial services sector who work in Canary Wharf and often live in gated communities of luxury apartments  nearby.  He signs his map ‘Alan Zammit, Art Director of State’, as if he had already made the links between these signs of the ‘good society’, living in the fast lane, and working for the creative industries. Yet there is another side to the story – and the picture. As both discipline and metaphor, windsurfing is about the art of balance: how to keep your feet (or head) above water when the going gets rough, and how to bend the forces of nature (or destiny) to your own advantage. Certainly a recipe for success in the race, but also one that, at another level, provides a model of psychic equilibrium of particular relevance to those going through the ‘storm and stress’ of adolescence.

Yet in the story Alan told about this picture it becomes clear that the disturbed flurry of water represents not only the emotional turbulence of adolescence, but a ‘sea change’ going on in the area. He confided that he was worried that the Isle of Dogs was slowly sinking into the Thames under the weight of Canary Wharf and all the new building going on. He was worried that there might be a flood and he would be drowned in his sleep.  For him the  space of flows took on an ominous  resonance:

I had this funny dream about an enormous tidal surge that came up the river and just demolished everything, people, houses, just carried them away out to sea. And there was all these ethnics in boats and canoes, paddling around, they didn’t seem bothered, we was all swimming about in the water, just trying to keep afloat, they smiled and waved at us but they didn’t offer us to come on board….

There are a number of possible ways of interpreting this dream,  in the context of its retelling. It could be read ‘sociologically’  as articulating an  anxiety about the consequences of global warming. There had been much talk locally  about whether the nearby Greenwich  Flood Barrier would be sufficient to protect the low lying Isle of Dogs in the future.  The boy’s own interpretation was over determined by his  social aspirations  and by his dissociation  from his own ethnic background as Maltese.  He associated ‘the flood’ not only with his  fear of  being on a sinking island, but  with the presence on it of ‘ethnics’.  So it could be read as  a fantasy that  re-iterates  Mrs Thatcher’s infamous ’swamping’ speech about immigration  and perhaps an oblique comment on the ‘sink or swim’ philosophy promoted by Thatcherism. The ‘ethnics’ – by which he means to refer to the local Bangladeshi and Vietnamese- Chinese community (the latter known colloquially as ‘boat people’) – were certainly widely regarded by  as keen supporters of enterprise culture, and indeed envied for their business ability. In this nightmare scenario, it is they  who are keeping afloat  as they paddle their own canoes, while the whites are drowning in their own anger, resentment and envy. The fact that Canary Wharf  functions both as a focus of local aspiration amongst young people and as a virtual no go area  for many of them, casts a long shadow; if  this edifice to capitalism’s  ‘vital thrusting growth’   constitutes the real which is the navel of a  dream where libidinal forces are so clearly threatening  to overwhelm psychic defences it is not just  because of the obvious phallic  symbolism. The destructive side of   capital’s  creativity is transformed here  into a force of nature, as it sweeps away  local  dwellings  and inhabitants and this naturalisation underwrites the  sense of impotence which is the other side of this young man’s surge of anger.


Methods in dialogue: beyond the ethnographic contract

It will not have escaped  the reader’s attention that the analysis of the fieldwork material presented here moves back and forth between  a number of theoretical discourses in a way that  cuts  across traditional  disciplinary boundaries:  ideas and insights from psychoanalysis.  narratology, anthropology,  cultural geography,  urban sociology etc can be found jostling side by side.  From  some points of view such  an approach is anathema – at best a strategic eclecticism, at worst an intellectual mashup which dissolves  the specificity of both concepts and objects. Yet despite the hardening of  boundary maintenance  devices in the neo-liberal university,  the classification and framing of academic knowledge has weakened decisively  (Bernstein 1971)and  inter-disciplinary  dialogue  has become, if not the norm, than a well established part of the intellectual landscape, with its own distinctive protocols (Strathern 2005;Serres 1997). Partly this is due to the way certain key paradigms and concepts have permeated  many  fields of research in the arts and humanities  and  become part of a generic, transdisciplinary vocabulary(Bal2002). Mimesis and Masquerade are cases in point: the terms can be found in art history, literary criticism, aesthetics, biology,   anthropology and  psycho-social studies,  albeit sometimes  being used in slightly different ways.

The intellectual trajectory described in  this article has a precise focus: it turns on the emergence of critical cartography at the intersection between  environmental science, cultural history, urban ethnography and   ‘psycho-geography’ (Toscano and Kinkle 2015).   The latter approach,  associated with the French Situationists, set out to trace the  ‘lines of desire’ inscribed on  the urban  landscape  by pedestrians in and against  the rational grid of zoning and regulated space  imposed  by the mappings of town planners.  Paradoxically Bachelard’s  ‘topo-analysis’ which inspired the Situationists was purely phenomenological in inspiration and turned its back on the Freudian Unconscious, the Urban Uncanny  and the Other Scene (Bachelard 1969)  ).  However much this radical pedestrianism  took a walk on the wilder side of town, it  did not displace, or even disrupt  the dominant grid of spatial  flows: edgelands  after all, confirm centre/periphery relations even as they reverse the values  assigned to them (Jorgensen  and Keenan 2012).

Ethnography. at least in its Anglo-American  version, also turned away from psychoanalysis, following Malinowksi’s spat with Freud  over the universality of the Oedipus (Kulkick 1992;Pulman  2003 ). Nevertheless this interface  has provided a fertile  site of collaboration for a number of ethnographers and psychoanalysts: the work of Roheim (1988), Devereux( 1978 ) and Obeyekesere (1990)  and more recently an important body of   feminist research(Molino 2004;Moore 2007) bears eloquent witness to the continuing  vitality of this  tradition (Heald and Deluz 1994).

I have  suggested why I think the interface between psychoanalysis, with its focus on the Unconscious as discourse of the Other and ethnography, defined   as the discourse of the other’s discourse of the Other is likely to  prove especially productive in developing a critical cartography of the real.  For if psychoanalysis is designed to produce an enriched map of inner phantasy worlds,    anthropology, with its focus on myth, social ritual, and material culture   brings an indispensable additional layering.  J-P Valebrega’s groundbreaking analysis of myths and phantasies of origin and destiny, and the role which social ritual and techniques of the body    play in transforming myth into phantasy and vice versa, has offered us a  glimpse of the rich possibilities  of such an encounter  (Valabrega 1967,1980, 2001). But  what would  ethnography have to be like if it were to bring its own special gift to the party ? Here are a few pointers:

1)We clearly need an approach  that avoids abstract theoreticism or myopic empiricism and  restores to the fabrication of the real both its imaginary and  symbolic  dimensions (Willis 2001 ;Weber 2001). Between a graph which locates a line of desire according to a set of pre-existing social co-ordinates   and a graphic account  that depicts  its existential effects, there is a whole story waiting  to be told.

2)We have to pay as much attention to material culture as to texts (Hicks and Beaudrey 2010 ), restoring narrativity to things as well as people (Latour and Weibel 2006), while confining reading and writing to their own  specific domains rather than using them as  a generic model or metaphor for understanding culture tout court.  Even rubbish dumps have a story to tell   about the Other Scene if we  know how to ask the right questions (Hawkins 2003).

3)If it is important to  continue to give primacy to participant   observation,    it is also necessary to insist that this involves listening with a’ third ear’ for what remains coded or unspoken, looking out for what is ‘off the scene’,   hidden in and by the social  performance, as well as reading between the lines of the authorized informant’s story(Back 2007;Hobbs 2011).

4)Ethnography has to learn to deal  in  counter-factual histories. The other possible worlds opened up by the ethnographic  imagination include  the past, the present and the future considered as fields of political, social, cultural  and economic action (Wright Mills  1959; Comaroff and Comaroff 1994). The bridge that did not get built between two riverine communities,  the creation of dysfunctional rituals of collective memory,  the plan to  ‘regenerate’  an urban working class area  are all worthy subjects of ethnographic research.

5)Ethnography’s special knack  is to unsettle  interventionist accounts of cultures and communities based on voyeuristic or sanitizing interpretations. Provided we  guard  against any  residual  tendency to exoticise or esotericise our  subject matter (Fabian 2002),  our work  can move beyond imagining being in some one else’s shoes  or fantasizing about them being in ours, towards a more strategic  dialogue: no longer a game of trading places  organized around the vicarious desire to   know or experience what life is like on the other side of the tracks but to discover in what our informants cannot show or tell us about their worlds what it is about our own that inhibits their fuller articulation and understanding. This negative dialectics is in permanent counterpoint to the positivism of panoptic social science.

6)  The  traditional ethnographic  contract   has to be  replaced by a qualitative  form  of citizen- or rather denizen–  social science. In place of  the professional ethnographic text  which  supposedly  confers  the mark of humanity  onto informants, who thereby grant  it ‘authenticity’, and who  otherwise would remain wholly ‘other’,  we have to produce platforms     which co-authorise  the account and involve a continual alteration of perspectives through  a dialogue between all participants.  In this way the iterative  rite of passage into the community of fieldwork practice and the process of apprenticeship into a particular set of cultural   protocols begin finally to converge on a shared space of critical liminality (Rabinow and Marcus 2008).

Ethno-graphology:towards a new poetics of fieldwork

These propositions run counter to  some recent attempts  to mainstream ethnography  by  making it into  a supplementary tool of  market research or governmental administration, putting some ‘human flesh’ on the bare bones  of social statistics ( Prus 1989;Brownlie 1997). In the UK more than half of anthropology graduates now work for corporations, using their ethnographic skills to help companies achieve   deeper penetration of markets, advising municipal authorities how to rebrand their cities to attract more investors and tourists or constructing narratives  to enable government departments to win consent for their policy agendas . However I am not  arguing for ethnography  to remain ‘pure’  and confined  within the subcultural niche that it has always occupied within the human sciences. Instead we need to get our hands dirty by infiltrating the corridors of knowledge/power, trespassing into  areas of enquiry which have traditionally been declared out of bounds  and establishing  public platforms of critical engagement with both market and state policy driven agendas (MacClancy 2002).

There is another, more inward facing ,  dilemma : on the one hand the  selective integration of diluted aspects of fieldwork practice into the generic  researcher’s toolkit, and on the other the severance of  ethno-  from its own idiomatic graphology   and its attachment as a prefix  to many  diverse fields of practice:  ethno-biography, ethno-musicology, ethno-pharmacology,  ethno-ornithology and many other varieties of ethno-science. In principle this should embed a principle of cultural reflexivity into these practices but the effect has been to intensify the fragmentation of  the academic division of labour as each creates  its own apparatus of specialization.  Against this trend I am arguing for the role  of ethnographology as a meta-discipline  which studies the  means of graphic representation which  different cultures and communities deploy to  create  an imaginary correspondence between map and territory (Elkins 1999).  Its special  vocation  is to connect mappings of the real to their Other Scene.  I have suggested why I think ethnography has   an elective affinity with both psychoanalysis and critical cartography. But there is another point of convergence.  The  poetics of such an enterprise  must be close to what  Wallace Stevens  had in mind  when, in trying to define  it for his own purposes, he wrote:

From this the poem springs: that we live in a place

That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves

For  the poet   that place belongs to the  object itself  existing  with its own obdurate alterity quite  independently  of what the poem  might want to  make of it (Stevens 1976;Cleghorn 2000). For the  ethnographologist, that place, which is not our own, and not ourselves,  belongs to the de-centred human subject  for whom the  familiar has become  suddenly strange and the hitherto  unknown uncannily  familiar.

Stevens  was  insistent that  poesis  must not only respect but be part of the out thereness  of its subject matter.  It is the quality of the observation that counts and he  warns  against letting  the writing  become so entangled in its own language game, so carried out by its own craft or cleverness,   that it is not  allowed to  find its true idiom in the emergent  properties of  the thing itself. It is always a  question of showing and not just telling.  For even if ….

The words of things entangle and confuse,

The plum survives its poems.

To which we might add  that  despite- or because of – our  attempts to render their voices and values in their own idiom, our   informants  and their social world survive whatever sense we might want to make of them.  Stevens also suggest an appropriate approach:

As for the poet she

tries by a peculiar speech to speak

The peculiar potency of the general.

The aim then is  to  use the power of  language to  give a local habitation and a name   to generic aspects of the world,  to  grasp the  uncommon in the commonplace. Wallace  Stevens was no mystic. He knew  the map was not the territory and neither confused the two nor reduced one to the other.  He saw poetry as offering a gaya  scientzia  articulating   precise observation into memorable speech. The peculiar diction of ethnography, its idiosyncratic idiom as a science of  the concrete, if it is not to be just another  jargon of authenticity  entranced by its own metaphysics of ‘being there’,  must share in poetry’s  empirical ambition, while it  learns to show as well as tell,  listening and looking more closely   at  what  our  informants have to tell and show in order to grasp what is silenced or occluded  by our own  folly in imagining that we  could ever do  anything else.



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[i] The research reported here took place in two areas of London’s docklands, Deptford and the Isle of Dogs,  and two  comparable areas of Hamburg between 1998 and 2000.  This research is fully reported in Finding the Way Home :young people’s narratives of  gender, class, ethnicity and place in Hamburg and London  V & R Unipress Hamburg).   Some of the fieldwork material reproduced here has been subject to reinterpretation. Other material is previously unpublished but will appear in the forthcoming Material Dreams.

Born to Flying Glass

In this talk, given to a number of  conferences and seminars in Germany, Sweden and the UK in  2005/6 I discuss a number of theoretical and methodological issues related to a research project on early  childhood memories of civilian bombing  in World War Two.

View the text here:  Born To Flying Glass

Not Lost in Translation: Phil Cohen and Nora Rathzel in Dialogue on the Youth Question

This video is a short extract from a lecture ‘ Young heads,Old Shoulders’ given  to a conference of youth workers and educationalists in Hamburg.
It is included to illustrate some of the issues raised by translating issues from one national context and field of discourse  to another. This Anglo-German dialogue on the Youth question was pursued further in the context of a collaborative research project  looking at young people’s sense of place, and identity in London and Hamburg. The results  were published in ‘Finding the Way’ by V & R Unipress  in 2007.  The methods  used in this research are discussed in the video  Methods in Dialogue/ Finding the Way Home.

On Pseudonyms

 This essay briefly surveys  the history of the   pseudonym, its  changing contexts  and uses, and  draws on Kripke’s theory of baptismal naming to consider some of the implications for understanding the games people play with identity. The paradox of the literary pseudonym, that it takes on a new lease of life once it is revealed, is discussed, and  also its function as a virtual identity.

View the text here:  Essay on Pseudonyms

Methods in Dialogue / Finding the Way Home

This video illustrates some of the innovative methods used in a research project which explored young people’s sense of place and identity  in two deprived neighbourhoods in London’s Docklands. The aim was to provide a  space of representation in which the young people felt free to express their fears and anxieties, whether through artwork, or the  stories they told about the everyday  incidents of their lives. The implications of this approach for current debates about research methodology in the social sciences are explored.   It is linked  to the discussion on inter-disciplinarity developed in Chapter four of Borderscapes.

Depicting the Gospel of Work: From Moralised Landscape to Mechanical Reproduction

Throughout the nineteeenth century, the association of heroic forms of masculinity with manual work was adumbrated less through political rhetoric than through biblical imagery and also in aesthetics of labour developed by the painters and photographers of the first industrial revolution. We will look briefly at each in turn.

View the full text here:  Phil Cohen Gospel

This gallery of 120 images in  Body Politics contains the following sections:   Elemental Labour-Mummers, miners and sweeps-Time and Motion Studies-Automata- Youth culture and extreme sport-physical culture and the dream of the collective body- masculinity and  manual labour in a post industrial world.It is designed to support ‘On the wrong Side of the Track?’ and  ‘Borderscapes’.


Glossary of Concepts

This glossary contains short essays on 12 of the key concepts used in ‘On the Wrong side of the Track?’  contextualising them in relation to current debates in the human sciences.

View the full document here:  Glossary of Concepts

Beyond Storm and Stress Some reflections on War, Modernity and Youth after 9/11

In the West, during the ‘heroic’ 19th century   phase of nation and empire building youth’  was placed rhetorically and actually in the front ranks of violent confrontation. Young men were cast as the main protagonists of class war and civil war, not to mention the ‘war of generations’, the struggle of the forces of modernity against tradition. In the process young women were effectively sidelined.