Floating City: Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York, by Sudhir Venkatesh

Dick Hobbs finds low-life tales of illegal entrepreneurs in abundance, but not so scholarly rigour

November 14, 2013

Early in my career I had a book reviewed by a wise sage of Fleet Street who mocked my sociological language and academic conceits. Some years later, a literary agent explained that if I were to abandon academic conventions but retain the stories of “low life”, untold riches would surely follow. In exchange for academic orthodoxy I should situate myself firmly in the narrative, charting my no doubt dangerous but hilarious adventures through the life-world of the lower orders. Although I rejected this suggestion, I always wondered what an ethnography eviscerated of academic content would look like.

Floating City has answered this question and much more. A self-styled “maverick sociologist” and experienced urban ethnographer who holds a named chair at an Ivy League university, Sudhir Venkatesh drains his study of illegal entrepreneurship in New York of most of the academic conventions that will come naturally to someone with almost a quarter of a century of experience in the dangerous enclaves of US higher education. On arriving in New York from Chicago, Venkatesh finds life in a “World City” unfamiliar (but isn’t Chicago a World City?), with old standbys such as neighbourhood and community apparently made redundant by globalisation.

He appears to be equally unfamiliar with the huge body of work across the social sciences, much of it ethnographic, that has been charting changes in aspects of globalised urban life for decades. Indeed he claims at one point that there is no literature on madams and pimps, and claims to be an innovator in the use of film documentary in the face of considerable scholarship in the field of visual sociology. While the floating metaphor that pervades the study closely resembles Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity, Venkatesh chooses to sidestep both academic acknowledgement and theoretical analysis. In their place we are provided with a commentary on the author’s battle for academic tenure and on his personal life, all of which dilutes an at times riveting narrative of the networked arrangements that enable illegal entrepreneurship.

The populist format of Floating City is insistent that the Homeric author is a pioneer, the first in the field, an ingénue intent on emphasising that the unique demands of researching the global city require a rejection of academic tradition. But his outsider stance and maverick posturing are an irritant; they get in the way of his street-savvy case studies and vignettes of urban life. For at the heart of this book is a conventional ethnography that challenges the author’s ingénue facade by using the full arsenal of ethnographic orthodoxy, and along the way highlighting the enduring importance of community and neighbourhood.

The best of this book is precisely the result of the “traditional sociology” that Venkatesh derides. I will not forget in a hurry the poignancy of his descriptions of Manjun and his family, who run a shop selling pornographic DVDs, or his fine-grained interaction with a group of aspirational prostitute women struggling on streets paved with something less than gold. His interaction with coke-addled socialites I found irritating and somewhat pointless, and his aim to make connections between the so-called upper- and underworlds fizzles out. For while the city may be more fluid, the rich and the poor remain separated, and the dots are not joined.

Venkatesh is far more convincing working with the poor who are forced to commute between degraded spaces and places created during the industrial era than with the transgressive rich who may choose to “float”. However, the fact that a few rich women take drugs and turn to prostitution is hardly surprising. Furthermore, that rich young men drink copious amounts of alcohol, vomit and engage in dubious financial dealings will shock nobody in possession of a pulse during the banking crisis.

A convincing master account of cities defined by fragmentation and population churn is an impossibility, which is why the genre is dominated by grandiose propositions. Eventually Venkatesh allows notions of ethnically defined community and neighbourhood to re-emerge as key to the fractured, frustrating and under-theorised narrative that told me too much about the author, whose personal “journey” was certainly less interesting than those of the people he befriended during his research.

But what do I know? I bet the old journo who slagged me off 20 years ago will love it.

Floating City: Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York

By Sudhir Venkatesh
Allen Lane, 304pp, £20.00
ISBN 97802410059
Published 12 September 2013

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