Sunday, June 27, 2010

Census 2

          There was another day of field training under supervision, a meeting of the whole local crew, and then, by the middle of the first week of May, we had all been issued binders for one or two blocks of buildings and the addresses of everyone in those buildings, including the names of those who had already responded by April 15. We could not have another binder until we had completed every questionnaire for the non-responding addresses. We were on our own.

          The immediate obsession of most enumerators is the dreaded Refusal. In that first week there were a fair number of people who'd simply forgotten, neglected or sent in late their mail-in questionnaires. But those that require in-person visits are naturally far more likely to be suspicious and reluctant, and literally the second door I knocked on was an RE. I developed a pleasant persistentness I doubt I could maintain for door-to-door sales - and naturally, since most people are more used to the idea of strangers ringing their doorbells selling something, the first priority was making sure they know that's not what I was. The second was making them understand how little information I wanted and how bound I was not to share it, and sometimes I never got that far. I have a particular personality that's very concerned with the sharing of information, but also feared that this eagerness would be counter-productive. It's an extremely emotionally draining job, with soaring highs and crushing lows and everything in between.

          As reformed in Title 13, the census is deliberately intended to be independent of other data collection, especially the IRS and INS. Not that my saying so will reassure immigrants. All of them must come from somewhere with some form of population estimation, for the determination of geographic vote allotment or otherwise. But the principle of keeping all authorities' hands from knowing what the other hands are doing as a means of protection may be counter-intuitive even - maybe especially - to those raised in the American educational system. And then again, why trust me just because I trust the principle? Bureaucracy too easily is considered to go hand in hand with corruption. The same law that criminalizes my leaking anything within a boundary of paperwork also criminalizes not cooperating with me. Census policy amongst enumerators is to keep most ignorant of this threat, partially because prosecuting is so much harder than allowing a wider statistical margin of error.

          While I have a massively bothersome conscience, it's not that I can't imagine how the census system could be abused. I know that the census materials, seemingly completely innocuous, could be used for identity theft if leaked. What's on the short-form questionnaire can't be use for that, of course, but with a few tweaks you could get social security numbers. It probably wasn't in my interest, but when people used the excuse of having "done it over the phone" or "already sent it back", I was willing to suggest that they hadn't been responding to the real census, especially when we'd finish and they'd ask "that's it?"

          It wasn't particularly useful to take on an air of authority or even dress as well as they wanted us to. I enjoyed the position of authority too much to be utterly casual enough to be asking birthdays innocuously, but approaching that was far more effective than confrontation. Of course, there are many people who respond badly to both chattiness and officiality. Fast=painless was a useful thing to mention when not going by the book, the book being just going straight through the questionnaire.

          One critical limitation was that we ourselves were not a proxy respondent. Information could not be generated by the observations of the enumerators, only by the responses of the interviewee to questions. I find this a very important argument against the all-too-easy The Truth Is Out There model, in which facts already exist before they are recorded. The census form itself carefully delineates the grammatology of facts - who or what counts as a person, and a residence, and an occupant, not to mention gender and race, and the especially fuzzy Hispanic Origin distinction. Any change in the shape these values fit into changes the fact.

Department of Redundancy Department, Ironic Ignorance Division

          Bruno Latour is the source for this kind of post-de-structuralist understanding of the social mechanisms of knowledge. Even looking at the root of "fact", you can see that it's something that is made, arduously. Information does not want to be free. Information wants to be wrong, and countering that entropy demands labor, and anywhere there is labor there is the question of pay.

          It may be easier to think about hard sciences as a collaboration between human, non-human, and hybrid objects when we look at the humanist biases of the census's statistical baseline for social science. Every quantum of personal information intends to be self-identification. Since it's faster to just let an informed respondent (who must be over 14) describe the entire household, this is merely an ideal. Critically, as with the Pirahã language, everything requires a source. At the NRFU stage, this is even limited to only a person that a person working as an enumerator has talked to. There is something very interesting that happens to social interaction when it is ordered by paper and print infrastructure as a means of constructing facts. The strategies of enumerators often aim to downplay this weirdness despite the legal carefulness of official instruction.

The very distinction between social and physical is limned by the human-paper work collaboration called the Census. By limn, I mean that it is a hybrid that creates the boundary by entangling its sides as much as possible. That we are specifically gathering social facts is entangled with way the bureau has defined society as made of humans. Like their lag on computer-based forms, this is one aspect of the census that I want to say makes it outdated in comparison to almost all other statistical sources - but embedded in that criticism is a contradictory The Truth Is Out There Error, as the census makes the understanding of society as without people.

To be continued. Again: questions and comments, please! I'm trying to remember what everyone has been curious about and curiously incurious about. I also need to get more non-identifying anecdotes in here and less generalizations. If you need me to explain some of the more arcane theory here I can do that.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Census 1

          It was my intention to write from my temporary job this year as a census enumerator from the very beginning. Somehow, I never got any of it written down while it was still fresh in my mind. I'll try to do this narratively, and hopefully that will jog my memory about the procedural and theoretical curiosities. Much like the times I've worked for the Board of Elections, my intention is to emphasize the virtues of bureaucracy, or rather, how a well-organized system of the mostly-ignorant can both generate accurate information and protect individual rights.
          I'm aware that many commentaries are beyond critical of blunders, evils and abuses. Many of these are typical small-scale workplace cynicisms or highlight the gap between planning and execution. I consider both criticism and the things criticised symptoms of a working social measurement machine. On the whole, census employees themselves are cynical and practical if they're not overly eager. I am most critical of the amount that my positive spin is an outcome of training myself to persuade people to respond. It also seems to me that the public news about this has been superficial, uninformative, and passive aggressive, so I also see this as an opportunity to discuss attitudes at a personal level.
          About a month into the job, employees were sent a notice about what they reveal in social media, emphasizing that they must be clear that their opinions are not those of the Census Bureau. Also, of course, reminding them of their confidentiality oath, which I'll get to. I'm not sure whether particular incidents resulted in the reminder. I did tweet briefly while in training with another trainee in Louisiana, and I heard enough to know that the relative sanity and ease of my local operation was the exception to the rule.
          I took the test last summer (quite proudly one of the first to finish it), and got a call a few weeks later saying my score was in the 98th percentile. Good, but easily beaten by anyone with the 5% extra given to veterans. They called me at least twice again asking if I were still available. My response was always yes, but not until the third call did they offer an actual job. Contrary to the expectations I had that the census would require far more office than field work, it is during May's NRFU (Non-Response Follow-Up, pronounced "narfoo" - oh how the government loves its acronyms), a.k.a. door to door interviewing, that the bureau's payroll bloats by a factor of about 4. (I got this information from a news report I now can't find, my deepest apologies.)
          Interestingly, coverage of the census has focused more on the jobs it created and money they government spends on it than on what it actually is. It's interesting to note that, partially because I had scheduled a ten day trip to Germany at the peak of NRFU, I've only made twice as much actually working as I did during the 40 hour training week.

          Only in retrospect, knowing that, do I consider that training week to be rather too long. It seems they hired as many to be trained as possible, expecting to eliminate many of the trainees, and the hiring bloated so much that it was nearly impossible for instructors, themselves only trained the previous week, to even communicate enough with the next level up to get materials and organize field work. It was at this point that I referred to the organizational structure as being nothing like the already-redundant root system of clerks and supervisors provided in our handbooks, but like a katamari ball. Extension of this analogy becomes ridiculous.

          The training location wasn't set until fairly late, and I think our instructor may have been the last to know. Training was in a cram school in Flushing, a 30-minute bus or subway ride from the neighborhood we all lived in and would work in, and the transportation costs were paid. The sardonic instructor, crew leader for half the class, set the attitudes of the more socially attentive of the group. The different supervisor for my area was even more down-to earth. For a highly social job there seemed to be a high percentage of the less socially attentive, so much so that I felt gregarious in comparison. It is, after all, a job for those shaken loose from other jobs, and did not require an interview. I gained about 10 pounds that week thanks to Flushing's pan-Asian deliciousness.
          One major joke that came up was the fact that the government thought to issue us all ballpoint pens for those carbon-paper forms that required them, but blue ones. The fingerprinting required of all Federal employees required black pen. Hilarity, we all carefully agreed. Fingerprinting is regarded as a fine art involving careful choreography. Because the only people available to do the fingerprinting had had a single day of training the previous week, a lot of the fingerprinting had to be redone in the office later in the week with a touch-sensitive machine. Whether the amount of extra time paid to trainees amounted to enough to have bought enough of these machines for all the classes, I don't know. It only occurred to me later that it was especially important to fingerprint census enumerators because the temptation to do a little breaking and entering is strong. It's the momentum of the thing.

          We swore the Oath on the first day. We put our hands over our hearts and swore... jeez, I'll have to look this up. I'm not being paid to write about this, and I made sure to check that I was allowed to leak instructions to enumerators and such (all very boring). The central tenet was that we could not use any of the personal information we gathered for any purpose other than the census. I understand it may still be hard to trust someone based on their taking an oath (I left the "so help me God" part out, even), but there's a quarter million fine threat behind that oath, plus jail time. And again, I'm aware incentives are better than threats - more than aware, after my door-to-door experiences - but we all both took that pledge seriously and thought it a goofy cinch. More on that later.

          Although it at first seemed tedious to go through the many practice questionnaires covering different ways we'd have to fill out the form, the only one I never had to use was the instance of an address that was a vanished trailer on a yard. Even then, I had to do many "deletes" for joined, mislabeled, or under construction homes. I don't know what it is about any classroom situation that turns everyone into a surly teenager uneasy about how they appear to other students, but the reluctance to actually pretend to be performing interviews was stupid. After filling in time with practice, paperwork, and a test one of whose official answers was wrong, we did go "into the field", and discovered that most of it was the repeated writing of Notice of Visit forms. A scourge, as it must be noted as a personal visit, of which we were only allowed three.

Technically we were all supposed to start the day after training, but the mid-managing level understandably delayed that at least two days. Trainees in areas requiring even more enumerators were just left in not-enough-supervisors limbo for a while.

I would like to emphasize that I consider this kind of obvious human frailty combined with persistence of the structure - everyone knew where they were supposed to be getting what, and didn't just go rogue with their badges counting whoever they thought needed counting out of zealousy or institutional mistrust. Discussing problems wasn't penalized, but making problems official was mostly understood to be counterproductive. As an apparatchik, I simultaneously understood myself to be paper's tool, and also knew that paper needed me to be smart and responsible and make empathetic and logical decisions. It's the lack of imagination, the discussion of alternatives without initiative, that keeps the information gathered consistent, and the information-making apparatus predictable. Predictability is not only critical when we see this as demographic science, but also maintains the trust of the people being measured. The census is an extensive self-check whose only goal is thoroughness, above all else.

The next installment will go more into ideology. Is there anything you want to know? Please ask! Also, I'd like to republish this series, or a summary, if you have a blog where I can guest post.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

10 Books

I know I did this one four years ago, and it trended again a year or two ago, and I never really got around to it then, but I've been thinking about what books changed me. Also I just integrated Amazon into the blog so this is kind of a way of testing that "I get a little if you go through me" deal. It's supposed to be just what pops into one's mind at some time, so here, currently, are 10 books that occur to me as being important, in no order:

1. Malcolm X's autobiography. I don't know why this had such an impact. I'm a white chick and he's pretty dismissive of white chicks. Maybe it's the way he implies that any former hoodlum could have the leadership to make a fringe church humanistically righeous, while clearly being the only possible one. Maybe it's the "self-made man" aspect. Maybe it's that halfway through the book he takes Hajj and loses his separatism - it's an example of inconsistent opinion within a single work that makes the work stronger. Alex Haley didn't try to consolidate too much, working as medium, and is brilliant for it. Red's pretty funny too, in a dry, angry way. Too much of mainstream race politics avoids obvious, historical bitterness, that both supports Obama and continues despite him, and is not necessarily symptomatic or problematic.

2. Samuel Delaney - Dhalgren. I think this book took a lot of the uneasiness I felt about sexuality and how it's treated in literature, and turned it inside out. Same with race and class. There's a casual lack of repression, including repression about how it's repression that makes things hot, that I suppose can only come from a writer for whom sex with strangers of all varieties was so normalized. I'll admit I still don't entirely get what's going on with Bellona, or why the book is more science fiction than magical realist meta literature. Probably the temporal paradoxes, the continuous entropy.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
3. Julie Phillips - James Tiptree, Jr. (and Tiptree's short story compilation).
I feel a certain kinship with Sheldon, mostly because she considered herself a painter, then an art writer, before joining the army. She's one of my heroes, and to compare myself to her makes me realize how lucky I am for my historical circumstances. She was brilliant, depressive, and indefinably queer before there was a community and politics for such, and only in her age did she begin to see changes that would have made sense of her younger self. Tip's experience of the conservative turn of post-war America made her/him deeply cynical about feminism, with a certain biologically deterministic resignation that serves to question the concept of progress.

4. Donna Haraway - Simians, Cyborgs, and Women
Primarily the essay "A Cyborg Manifesto", which aims to reprogram the language we use about nature, culture, human and nonhuman (and animal and object)in a way that feels like it's been there all along. Perhaps it's a female perspective, but the implication is that not all females will agree and that there's nothing particularly biologically automatic about rhetoric or belief - both of which are immanently physical phenomena. At the same time, I wouldn't say that this approach to animal rights necessarily prescribes a code of action. Nor am I entirely sure the culture of criticality about science can own this, either.

5. Bruno Latour - We Have Never Been Modern
Especially in translation, sometimes you just have to let the nonsense sweep over you and own whatever misinterpretation of it you make. He's thinking about social science, meta-history, and how facts are constructed in democratic collaboration between human and nonhuman members of society. There's a defiance for the objective against post-structuralist relativism while using its rhetorical slipperiness. What I take from it applies to art history and the absurdity of 20th century theory, an understanding of any majority as infinitely complex.

6. Jared Diamond - Collapse
It's not so fresh on my mind as the others but it has to be in here because I still think in terms of wastes of resources, and how to define a society and the decisions it makes. While Guns, Germs, and Steel, despite the complicated research, had a simple and somewhat deterministic thesis, Collapse is not only more thorough but more urgently emphasizes sustainability in the relationship of system and environment. The many contradictions don't overpower the obvious quite enough, and it's more a link between sciences and history than an examination of how those are made (which is what I really like), but it at least overturns what we imagine to be prosperity, civilization, and success.

7. David Foster Wallace - Infinite Jest
What can I possibly say? Take drugs or kill yourself. My sister and I realized that we were way less interested in reading anything after reading this. And it's not that it argues that, or anything. But having an answer that the best answer is always having more questions (which is not the only possible takeaway) kind of spoils you for reading. It changes something.  I'm also pretty much always rereading it because it's in my bathroom.  I don't know what kind of hubris that implies.

8. Michael Pollan - Omnivore's Dilemma
In a few years this won't be in my mind as quite so influential, but it's one of the most impactful books I've read. It makes you think about how food links you to society, and how strong the urge is to not worry about where it comes from. I'm less worried about health issues than the fact that so many cheap calories are basically petroleum.  And again, it's realist.  It recognizes that knowledge does not necessitate practice.

9. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
This didn't blow me away topic-wise or revolutionize my bio-ethics, which were already made posthuman by previous entries.  It did make me imagine going into science journalism.  It's simply a very good example of the genre, that I've read recently.

10. Thomas Pynchon - V.
Gravity's Rainbow is hot shit, too, but V. is almost the dry run for Gravity's Rainbow, so that what's in the former is almost taken for granted by the latter.  It's a much more intimate, personal pastiche, much more concerned with the problems of desire and the interiority of things.  It's one of those books that influenced a lot afterward, yet is primarily about taking influence from everywhere.  It's about the sexuality of inanimate objects, okay?  Basically making an existentialist-mocking joke of all the modernist literature puzzling over the female other.  It's by the same sort of wanker, but one who emphatically wants the book, in its duplicates and internal separability to speak for itself.

Sunday, June 13, 2010



I am raising money for a tattoo.
UPDATE: spoke to my desired artist, who said it would be $80. Kickstarter disapproves, since I'm not in fact giving you anything back but the thrill of spending. I'll keep updating here with how much you've given:


The tattoo will be on the back side of my right forearm near my wrist. It will be very small and read "CAVEAT EMPTOR". Likely it will be in Myriad or a simple all-caps sans-serif at the artist's discretion. I got the idea from Philip K. Dick's Ubik, in which Pat Conley, a young and unusually innocuous (for a female Dick character) psychic history-editor, is mentioned as having the tattoo.

Naturally I do not want to pay for an always-already-regrettable "buyer beware" cheeky consumer awareness permanent reminder with my own wage labor. If you donate even a little bit I will consider it an early birthday present. If I do not get $80 by October 12 I will give you your money back. I want this to be specifically dedicated money rather than associating the event with a particular job.

Thank you very much! Have a nice life.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Bushwick Open Studios

Look, I had this really great idea. I would crash at a friend's place in Bed Stuy Friday night and then walk around Bushwick visiting friends and art heroes with studios there. This all went exactly according to plan except that I was hung over (I swear, three drinks does not usually do that), it was 90 degrees Farenheit, and 100% humidity. After elbowing into the downstairs neighbors' recovery Rock Band, I attempted to live the Summer in Brooklyn way.
Rapid movement was out of the question. I uneasily digested a cheeseburger and 32 oz. of iced coffee and wandered over to 1717 Troutman. Some NYAA alums had been the first to rent a space in the warehouse-turned-workshop building, and it was great to see them churning out new work, plus all the artists who had moved in since then.

Cecilia Roberts, "Dierdre and a Rat Trap"

Sarah Elise Hall
, "stasis" sculpture

Leelee Chan and Ginny Casey, a couple of recent RISD grads, have studios in the same building. Leelee is doing some great thing with recycled material sculpture, my favorite medium of late.

Jeff Fichera
does extremely closely observed paintings and drawings (from a landscape painting background) of chaotic everyday surfaces.

Jessica Angel uses stencils to make Janet-bait techno-kitch paintings.

Further Janet-bait is Aaron Williams' collaged and constructed uses of space photography.

There were something like 100 other studios besides this big building but I was too knackered to do more than stick my hair under yet another open fire hydrant and nap through my friend's birthday party.

Sustainability as an idea is everywhere but I am still always amazed at how art keeps being made, and therefore leisure time bankrolled, somehow. I know it comes from the idea that beauty is important to have around all the time. I don't want to take that for granted while every grant, mostly unfulfilled, argues it over and over.

There are still things going on today out there so get thee to the Jefferson stop!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Portrait median

The median trick with portraits. I deliberately resized and picked ones with about the same figure-to-frame proportions, and still we learn two things:
1. I do not have a compositional formula and mix up poses pretty well.
2. I love alizarin crimson a little too much.

Another thing we learn is that all portraits converge on the Mona Lisa.