Sunday, August 11, 2013

The street and the ring

Loïc Wacquant offers a fascinating piece of urban ethnography in Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. It is his account of his three-year experience while a sociology graduate student at the University of Chicago of participating in the Woodlawn Boys and Girls Club, a boxing club for young men who are serious about the sport of boxing on the South Side of Chicago. Wacquant takes the "participant-observer" method seriously -- he trains for a Chicago Golden Gloves match, while developing intense relationships with the young black men who do their training at the club and the older experts like DeeDee who coach them. (Here is Wacquant's website; link.)

One thing that is interesting about the book is that it brings together two fairly separate subjects of sociological interest -- the social lives of underclass black men, and the "sociology of the body" that focuses on the ways in which skill, dexterity, and persistence interweave with the sport of boxing.  There is an alliance  in both topics with the thinking of Bourdieu.

Here is something of the project of understanding marginalized black Chicago through participation:
Could I grasp and explain social relations in the black ghetto based on my embeddedness in that particular location? My long-term immersion in that little boxing gym and my intensive participation in the exchanges it supported day-to-day have allowed me -- in my eyes at least, but the reader can judge for herself on the evidence -- to reconstruct root and branch my understanding of what a ghetto is in general, and my analysis of the structure and functioning of Chicago's black ghetto in post-Fordist and post-Keynesian America at the end of the twentieth century in particular, as well as to better discern what distinguishes this terra non grata from the neighborhoods of relegation of other advanced societies. (x-xi)
Here is how Wacquant thinks about the task of making sociological sense of the sport:
[A sociology of boxing] must instead grasp boxing through its least known and least spectacular side: the drab and obsessive routine of the gym workout, of the endless and thankless preparation, inseparably physical and moral, that preludes the all-too-brief appearances in the limelight, the minute and mundane rites of daily life in the gym that produce and reproduce the belief feeding this very peculiar corporeal, material, and symbolic economy that is the pugilistic world. (6)
And here is a bit of the sociology of the body that Wacquant offers -- the phenomenology of being a boxer in training.
To work on the bag is to craft a product, as you would on a lathe, with the crude tools that are gloved as weapon, shield, and target. Finding your distance, breathing, feinting (with your eyes, your shoulders, your hands, your feet), sliding one step to the side to let the bag swing by, catching it again on the fly with a left hook right to the midsection. Not too high and not too wide, so the move can't be seen coming. Double it up, to the head, with a short, sharp movement. Follow up with a straight right, taking care to turn the wrist over like a screwdriver in order to align your knuckles horizontally at the precise moment of impact. (237-238)
Wacquant finds that immersion in the fight club allowed entry into the social world of marginalized Chicago that is otherwise highly racialized: white observers do not cross easily into the world of marginalized black men.
Being the only white member in the club ... could have constituted a serious obstacle to my integration and thus amputated my capacity to penetrate the social world of the boxer, if not for the conjugated action of three compensating factors. First of all, the egalitarian ethos and pronounced color-blindness of pugilistic culture are such that everyone is fully accepted into it so long as he submits to the common discipline and "pays his dues" in the ring. Next, my French nationality granted me a sort of statutory exteriority with respect to the structures of relations of exploitation, contempt, misunderstanding, and mutual mistrust that oppose blacks and whites in America.... Finally, my total "surrender" to the exigencies of the field, and especially the fact that I regularly put the gloves on with them, earned me the esteem of my club-mates, as attested by the term of address "brother Louis" and the collection of affectionate nicknames they bestowed upon me over the months: "Busy Louis," my ring moniker, but also "Bad Dude," "The French Bomber," "The French Hammer" ..., and "The Black Frenchman." (10-11)
The gym is a haven for the young black men who work out there -- a place where the dangers and disorder of the surrounding neighborhood are kept at bay.
In this cutthroat neighborhood, where handguns and other weapons are commonplace and "everyone" -- according to DeeDee, the club's head trainer -- is walking around with a can of Mace in their pocket for self-defense, purse-snatchings, muggings, battery, homicides, and lesser crimes of all kinds are part of the everyday routine and create a climate of pervasive fear, if not terror, that undermines interpersonal relationships and distorts all the activities of daily life. (22)
Here is a bit of ethnographic description that captures one incident on one day in September, 1990:
Today Tony called the gym from the hospital. Two members of a rival gang shot him on the street not far from here, on the other side of Cottage Grove. Luckily he saw them coming and took off running, but a bullet pierced his calf. He hobbled behind an abandoned building, pulled out his own gun from his gym bag, and opened fire on his two attackers, forcing them to retreat. He says he'd better get out of the hospital real quick because they're probably out looking for him now. I ask DeeDee if they shot him in the leg as a warning. "Shiit, Louie.! They don' shoot to injure no leg, they shoot to kill you. If Tony don' have his gun with him and pull it, they'dave track him down an' kill him, yeah: he be dead now." (25)
This could be a scene in The Wire -- for example, an ambush planned by two of Avon's gang members but foiled by Omar:

Two things seem particularly noteworthy in reading Body and Soul. First, the experiences of the three years that Wacquant spent in the Woodlawn Boys and Girls Club clearly helped to develop his own knowledge of the social reality of marginalized Chicago. There is a world of difference between reading theoretical and empirical studies of urban life, and finding ways of seriously immersing oneself in an urban environment. Wacquant is a better urban sociologist and theorist for the experiences he describes here.

Second, it seems clear that some specific insights into daily life in marginalized black neighborhoods in Chicago emerge from this experience. The prevalence of violence on the street, the strategies people arrive at to avoid being victims of violence, the social distance that exists between 63rd Street and Michigan Avenue -- these are all valuable insights that contribute to a better sociological understanding of the city.

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