Buzzword Bingo

Trendy theories and their attendant language can make academia a harsh environment for anybody, but for those who slouch intellectually, depending on the old slang can be disastrous. The insistent use of the passive voice will only take you so far, and at some point, your dullness may become apparent. On the other hand, political sociologist John C. Cross’s November 9th lecture at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago on Mexico City street vendors was an exciting window into the travails of the floundering academic. And on all the toesies of a naked foot, it allowed me to play ’90s buzzword bingo.

Apparently a stranger to the Katz Center for Mexican Studies, Cross twice asked the scanty crowd if the UofC even had a Latin American studies program. Then the game began. Using the dense urban neighborhood of Tepito as a case study, Cross desultorily argued that the thousands of vendors (mostly sellers of pirated media, as well as bootleg consumer products) and the neighborhood at large are in a constant state of resistance against the norms imposed by urban planners through their open violation of copyright law in public space. He ignored the vending itself to assert that public/private space is a social construction, using the confusing example of the neighborhood’s tenements. Inflation and rent control drove away the landlords in the ’60s, and the residents have since organized upkeep. Alas, this was too interesting for Cross to linger on, especially when he could wax theoretical (bingo!) about Tepito’s reducible identity, the product of hierarchy, delineation, ideology/methodology, and organization. The sum of these parts seems like average neighborhood pride, but make no mistake: selling bootlegged blockbusters with your friends isn’t a hustle, it’s resisting NAFTA.

Questions revealed Tepito’s clientele spans central Mexico’s lower middle classes, many of whom buy to resell at home. But for all of his talk about identity, Cross didn’t seem terribly certain how in a city full of street markets, Tepito became number one. During the lecture he hinted at Partido Revolucionario Institucional patronage for vendor organizations, but focused on the neighborhood’s largely unelucidated deviance from convention or something. Fads come and go, and these days, borrowing the language of economics or population genetics is a good way to get cited. But when it comes to picking out Cross’s infrequent insights, ignoring his flood of démodé language only eases the process of disaggregation. Double bingo!