Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 749-760
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An Ambitious Counter-Interpretive Tale:
Class and American Late Capitalism
Nancy Abelmann and Noriko Muraki
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
In this review essay we are particularly intrigued by the New Jersey Dreaming's theoretical and historical arguments in relation to its mode of ethnographic representation and writing. We admire the book's enormous ambition—to sketch the history of class in the second half of the twentieth century in the United States—and we are interested in examining how this project is achieved through ethnographic writing. The strengths and failings of New Jersey Dreaming are ones that should be of great interest to a very wide readership—to all of us who struggle with the articulation of political economy and persons, and more specifically to those engaged with the complexities of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and place in the contemporary United States. In this essay we aim to sketch the work's contributions, and to think about its rougher edges and spottier patches as well—edges and patches that speak eloquently to the costs of particular modes of ethnographic representation and ambition. [End Page 749]
Class and History
Ortner's is a capacious project indeed, both theoretically and historically. Ortner's "class" project for the class of 1958 (rendered as "capital" in the book's title) is huge. Against the invisibility of class in American popular culture and discourse (see also Ortner 1991), Ortner is determined to render class visible, to read class.
Ortner's ambition begins with her numerical quest—to account for the whole class of 1958. Her efforts to locate her 303 classmates of Newark, New Jersey's Weequahic High School in are simply indefatigable—we marvel at her tenacity and creativity in this pursuit. Ortner's own review of these efforts—and the account offered in Appendix 1, "Finding People," by her classmate Judy Epstein Rothbard whom she hired to assist her—is a wonderful lesson in how class articulates with people's ability to be reached. Revealingly, the relatively dispossessed are significantly over-represented among those who have somehow fallen off the social map. In Appendix 4, Ortner lists the vitals (or their lack) of every single classmate. One senses that hers is an offering to perpetuity: a local data set fine-tuned to matters of class and social mobility that an array of future scholars might find very handy—and perhaps quite remarkable.
Ortner's numerical ambition, however, is larger than a mere accounting for the "whole" class. The book offers nearly two dozen fourfold tables (i.e., 4 squares) designed to consider the interaction between "capital" (i.e., class) on the left axis and the top axis which gauges "some kind of personal agency" (205). One of Ortner's guiding premises is that the agentive top axis is the culturally hegemonic one in the United States—namely the idea that it is grit and determination that determines the course of people's lives. Against this cultural grain, Ortner joins those determined to "bring class back in" (263). Much of the book then aims to explore the workings of class, not only in terms of outcomes, but in practice—in the fabric, feeling, and narration of daily life. Ortner's is a tough job as she aims to combine "objectivist moments" (a term she takes from Bourdieu, 264) in which she is compelled to make an axis or grid of class with class in all its intersections and complexity so as to be true to the cultural or discursive turn in the human sciences (263).
In bringing class back in, Ortner means to tell two (and in fact many more) historical stories: that of the upward mobility of Weequahiq High's Class of '58, and more broadly that of the changing class configuration of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century—a reconfiguration that Ortner considers...