Tip of the Cap

Prisoners of Culture

This piece is a little different from previous iterations of “Tip of The Cap.”  Earlier entries into this series were written by published scholars, and they were written with an eye to filling in the blanks about how some classic works of criminology, sociology, anthropology, etc. shaped that work.  Here at Anthropoliteia we’re rebooting the series, but with a bit of a broader scope: we’re widening the net to include multiple formats and forms of inspiration.  The new “Tip of the Cap” will include pieces of various genres that have been influenced by, or are working through, the broader bibliography that’s now accruing for work on anthropology, security, crime and policing.  This short absurdist fiction piece, “Prisoners of Culture” comes to us from Johns Hopkins University undergraduate Andy Ramirez.  If you have a short piece that you think would fit well in the new rebooted series, send us an email at anthropoliteia@gmail.com with “Tip of the Cap” in the subject header.


NY Public Library via commons.wikimedia.org

I stole a quick glance at the uniformed police officers standing near the entrance to the New York Public Library, unable to suppress a smile as I walked up the steps and entered the building. I made my way to the help desk and found the clerk scanning books to be shelved. A little hesitant to interrupt, I paused for a moment to allow the worker to finish their task, only to be surprised by another voice close behind me speaking to the clerk.

“I apologize,” he said in an amused but tired way, “but may you please direct this gentlemen to the academic journals section?” I turned in shock at the boldness of this total stranger, and was about to address him when he once again cut me off. “Might I recommend Karpiak’s Of Heroes and Polemics and Manning’s Theorizing Policing?” he said with a suppressed smirk, looking squarely at me, no longer at the confused clerk who continued their scanning.

“How could you possibly know those were the papers I was looking for?” I demanded, more than a little indignantly.

“I saw you enter the library and look at the police. By your dress it’s clear your an academic, and your subtle mannerisms give away more than you know.” My indignation melted away, replaced by awe. “I noticed from your class ring that you’re from Paris,” he continued, “My father was a Parisian. My name is C. August Dupin II, pleased to meet you.”

“The pleasure appears to be mine.” He didn’t seem to hear me, as he walked to a nearby stack of journals, of which he took two and put them on a table. I couldn’t help but follow the spectacle unfolding.  “Since you’re French, you’re probably somewhat familiar with the police de proximite and the idea of the culture of results?” He asked, somewhat more animated.

“Indeed. My research is on comparative national police systems. I’ve come here to reread these articles to ensure my citations are correct.” Although fascinated by this strange man, I thought it best not to share the full extent of my thesis with him just yet. I was particularly interested in how police policies and practices were justified to specific audiences, and so the idea of ‘community policing’ and the ‘culture of results’ was nothing new to me. In fact, I had come to New York to study the context of Manning’s writing for myself. During my time here, I found myself constantly confronted with Manning’s study of “how symbols (both material and non-material) are selectively presented in order to impress an audience.” (Manning 317)

I must have been reflecting on this for some time, as I was surprised to hear Dupin interject once again. “You want to know exactly how the figure of the police is shaped in the public eye. You struggle to understand how the police occupy several seemingly contradictory spaces all at once, how they skirt the line of isolation-socialization, proactive-reactive… perhaps even hero-villan?” (Karpiak 7, Manning 315) I was about to ask how he so clearly deduced my mind, but thought it best to not ask. Instead, I decided to leverage his seeming knowledge of the subject.

“Indeed. In Manning’s study of the dramaturgy of policing images and myths, for example, the public seem to hold contradictory views of police. The official narratives of the ‘war on crime’, at least in terms of crime statistics and symbolism, appears to rally public support. Yet simultaneously, such policies associated with ‘zero tolerance’ lead people to diminish the severity of atrocities committed, such as the abuse of Abner Loiuma. How can the public condemn drinking on your own porch, yet justify such a heinous assault?” (Manning 325)

Without so much as a glance at the articles laid out in front of us, Dupin spoke once again. “Perhaps Manning provides something of an answer in the dramaturgical framework he lays out. In this story, the police play the role of the hero – thus justifying their actions – but to whom? Who, in this great play, is the audience?” (Manning 315)

The question hung for a moment, with Dupin trying to get me to provide an answer and myself trying to find one to give. Who was the war on crime being waged against, and to the benefit of what groups?

“The media is the audience, or at least those who consume media, who in turn shape what they want to hear. It’s a cycle, one inherently tied to complex social factors like class and notions of belonging.” Suddenly the fact that Loiuma was an immigrant made much more sense, and the complexities of the police narrative began to unfold. Who gets to be an expert, who makes the reports and publishes the statistics? The binary narrative of hero-villain suddenly didn’t hold water. (Manning 335)

“In France the narrative is equally complex, but we can apply many of the same theories to explain what we observe.” Dupin continued on after some silent reflection, “Take Karpiak’s study of the shift from the police de proximite to the culture of results. At first, this may appear to represent a radical break from one system to another. However, further study reveals that both systems constitute a deeper question of policing in France.” (Karpiak 22)

I remembered the section Dupin was referencing from my research. Karpiak at one point writes “Seen in this way, the culture of results is not the inherent opposite of the police de proximite, nor is their relation entirely negative. From this vantage we learn, importantly, that the police themselves are engaged in, not merely obstacles to, ethical exploration; they also are invested in the question of justice as a question,” (Karpiak 22).

“In that sense, both systems are engaged in questioning the role of the police in general, rather than just fighting over police methods and practices. In both instances, the unaddressed question being posed is where the role of the police truly lies.” Dupin nodded in agreement to my insight, and I began to see how the complex nature of policing was becoming more evident by placing both Manning and Karpiak in dialogue with one another.

Dupin laid back in his chair, pushing it so that two legs were in contact with the ground with the other two slightly in the air. “Karpiak’s conclusion therefore seems to be well worded,” he said. I thought of the closing of Of Heroes and Polemics, where Karpiak argues that the necessary framework for understanding the multi-faceted roles that police officers play is not yet fully in place (Karpiak 24). I thought too about Manning’s attempt to implement a cross-disciplinary framework to understand the tension between police action and public image (Manning 335). Together, I began to piece together a picture of police that was not based on historical-political narrative dichotomies, but instead one that viewed policing as a complex socializing force that was not entirely external to the cultures on which they acted (Karpiak 23).

“I hope our little conversation has been of some service to your research,” Dupin said, letting the front legs of the chain fall the short distance back to the ground before he pushed the chair back and stood up. “I really must be going now, I need to get home.”

“Perhaps I can offer you a ride? I was going to call a taxi to my temporary apartment in Manhattan, surely a man of your intelligence lives nearby?” I hadn’t thought to question this assumption before I began to speak.

“Actually, I live in government housing in the Bronx,” Dupin said with a laugh, “my father came to the United States after losing his fortune in France. He married well and became wealthy again, but in keeping with our family tradition I’ve lost that money. Family friends make sure I have enough to survive, but books are really my only joy. Perhaps I will see you here again sometime?” (Poe 6)

I thought about my upcoming flight back to France, the imminent publication of my paper, and this strange madman I met. I thought for a moment about what exactly to say.


Andy Ramirez is a current Junior at the Johns Hopkins University majoring in Medicine, Science, and the Humanities, and Anthropology. When not in the classroom, he enjoys teaching biology and spending time with his two cats, Mamma Kitty and Baby Kitty.

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