One Story High
It was just a little over thirty years ago, in the early 1970s, when Yuriko Urayama moved here, to her new pre-fab house in suburban east Denver, the very first place in her life where she got to herself more than one small room and one small dresser to unpack and even start collecting a few things.
35 MM Color Film, Ashley Vaughan
She moved in with her husband, who was American, a military man and her two young daughters, who, like her husband, were also American. But only in part, for even though they were Colorado born and bred they were, because of her blood and birthplace, also part Japanese.
Yuriko is one of nineteen people I have gathered here in cyber-space to tell the story of right now, of today, of this moment in American life, their lives so hauntingly similar and different from one another that the only way to describe them really is to just simply list them all by name, Oscar Wilde, Chief Pale Moon, Paul William Martin, John, Lothar Patten, Jack Dracula, Carol Brobeck, Joel Woodruff, Suketu Mehta, Michael Jackson, Odetta, Frank McCourt, Walter, Grace Meadows Hope-Gill, Johanna Justin-Jinich, David Amram, Ervin Brindowski, Roscoe Holcomb. Some, like Yuriko, make their homes in suburban brick bungalows and others in tenement buildings or on tenant farms. Some are on the road from the place where they have been living en route to someplace else. But each one of them offers a quick, intimate glimpse into a life, a truly remarkable gallery of short flickering sociological biographies, which, though quite variable in content and expressed through six very different ethnographic mediums each stand the same height at one - story - high.
We have in disciplinary sociology, a long tradition of doing this, of pushing past the doors of people's homes to get a closer look at how they live inside, many of these inquiries becoming the most beautiful and intimate sociological analyses ever made, (W.E.B Du Bois' The Philadelphia Negro, Nels Anderson's The Hobo, W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki's The Polish Peasant, Robert and Helen Lynd's Middletown, William Foote Whyte's Street Corner Society, Douglas Harper's Working Knowledge or Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader For A Day). Each one of these texts lays bare the life of some memorable person, (Dzienmik Zwiazkowy, Doc, Willie, J.T.), and in turn raises to the surface some otherwise forgotten community or place, (first generation inner-city dwellers, the shanty towns of the Chicago loop, postwar Boston), to have collectively created, over the past hundred years or so, a remarkable narrative map of, what Robert Park would have called, the social ecology of the United States. These works, both individually and as a genre, are rhetorically durable because they capture people's lives in ways that are both timely and timeless.
And I, along with a set of contributors, continue in this analytic tradition here today with this small, gallery of writings, photo essays, paintings, film and audio tapes (originally created for the academic journal Fast Capitalism) by a select mix of academics, artists, writers and documentary makers we specifically sought out for their particular talent in telling good biographical stories. People like anthropologist Katie Stewart, A Space On The Side of the Road; literary critic and novelist Amitava Kumar, Passport Photos; political commentator and newspaperman John Nichols, Dick: The Man Who Is President; sociologist Charles Lemert, Dark Thoughts; and filmmaker and folklorist John Cohen, The Young Bob Dylan.
I was, quite frankly, just curious to see who and how they would write about or document when given the chance to do so just off the top of their heads and hearts in a relatively short period of time, using very few words or sounds or images or some combination of any of these three. I told them they could tear a scrap from some larger project they were working on or had hidden away or to make-up something completely brand new on the spot, so long as their story was about a person other than themselves be that person real or fictional, living or dead. And in the end, about half of what my contributors came up with conformed to disciplinary sociology's traditional topics and standard measures of objectivity, accountability, certainty and authenticity and about half did not. Consider, each one of them, works of the imaginative sociological imagination. I'm fairly certain C. Wright Mills* wouldn't mind.
-- Audrey Sprenger, Cambridge MA, November 2009
*In 1959, Columbia University sociology professor C. Wright Mills encouraged other working sociologists to pay attention to the everyday ways people made sociological sense of themselves and others, as well as the social institutions they regularly interacted with. A strong believer in both the rhetorical and political power of social science, Mills was also an aspiring novelist, though he never professionally merged these two kinds of writing. We actively sought pieces for this project, which do, in fact, blur the lines between both scientific and narrative forms of sociological writing and representation and collected them from both sociologists and non-sociologists alike.