Friday, August 20, 2010

Kevin Mumford's Interzones


As Kevin Mumford states in the introduction, Interzones attempts to “excavate a genealogy and map a geography or black/white sexuality” (p. xi). In so doing, Mumford crafts an anti-essentialist history that combines the analysis of race, gender, class, and sexuality to draw a map centered in space on the vice district—an urban area of commercialized sex and public leisure—but encompassing the American city (and later, rural America) and extending in time through the Progressive and Prohibition eras. Mumford’s history draws on, and moves fluidly between diverse sources including archived vice commission reports, novels, travel guides, theatre, film, and newspapers. Mumford’s use of temporal and geographic metaphor throughout the book is helpful, as it mimics the ebbs and flows of individuals and groups into and out of the vice districts and helps to make the construct of the “color line” between white/black sex concrete by drawing parallels to geographic borders. These districts were formed after Reformers “solved” the problem of white prostitution. Due to the pervasiveness of a “white slavery” discourse, black prostitutes were subsequently not seen as worthy of uplift, their demographic data was not collected or was ignored. As a result of such racialist social policy, vice was pushed into black neighborhoods in Harlem and Chicago’s south side and forgotten. Fortunately, the vice districts had redemptive qualities which included the formation of a novel culture of non-mainstream sexuality. The contribution of Mumford’s work is to provide concrete historical data to supplement and expand the theorization of racism at the time the book was written (p. 175).


I come to Mumford’s book (and this class) as a historical novice—interested in methods and fascinated by the possibilities for my own work. Interzones has shown me that theory and history can be combined to produce a subversive and accurate historical text that problematizes the content of historical documents by shining light on their unspoken assumptions. Mumford does this using both “with” and “against the grain” readings [1]. By looking at the regularities of the sociology emerging from the University of Chicago in the 1920s, Mumford reads “with the grain,” and shows how white researchers unfairly stigmatized those individuals, such as Filipino taxi dance hall patrons, as “disorganized” or “socially unadjusted” (p. 59) when in fact the researchers most likely had difficulty reconciling the accounts of white dance hostesses with their own experiences. He shows that black prostitution was both ignored as a problem (p. 27) and then overrepresented in demographic data (p. 39) using this method. These with the grain readings examine regularities and omissions which are highlighted by understanding the “racial commensurabilities,” or the unspoken essentialist conceptions of race (that black sex workers are immoral and unworthy of uplift), of the time period under study [2]. Conversations with black prostitutes are read “against the grain” to determine that these individuals were historical agents capable of resistance through seemingly small acts (pp. 106-7).

It helped me to see concrete examples of both types of readings to apply the first week’s readings to practice. An interesting question was raised for me by Mumford’s critique of the simple positivism espoused (either knowingly or unknowingly) by the University of Chicago researchers he studies. Speaking of inflated arrest data for black prostitutes he states, “the statistical data can also be read or interpreted as cultural representations” (p. 39). Indeed, in the vice committee reports, the numbers of black prostitutes were placed unproblematically alongside value judgments on the relative severity of the transgressions of “hostesses” (white) and “streetwalkers” (black). To the vice investigators, they were merely reporting objective truths, but Mumford’s readings show otherwise. Within my own discipline(s), positivism is firmly entrenched, and I view it as a problem—the solutions suggested are too simple, the explanations offered too neat. My concern is that applying today’s analytic categories to evidence from the past will make it too easy for positivists now to write it off simply as a historical phenomenon: it was bad then, but it’s better now. I’m wondering how to connect Mumford’s critique of positivism to today’s work, to improve research done on contemporary problems. I acknowledge that this may not even be of interest to the historical community (a similarly critical stream of thought, the discipline of science studies, has been unwilling or unable to effect changes in scientific practice over the past several decades and have encountered fierce resistance from scientific researchers). Connecting the theory to current practice is often my overarching concern. With Interzones, Mumford shows that race can’t be ignored when considering urban problems, but how has the book been received by 1) the historical community—are they skeptical of his methods and 2) those shaping policy today? If it has been ignored, how can we change this? Engaging in these kinds of dialogues is of great interest to me, and I hope to begin some of them in this class.

[1] Stoler, A. (2002). "Colonial archives and the arts of governance." Archival Science 2(1): 87-109.

[2] Ibid, p. 100.

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