Culture

This is the abstract and first few paragraphs of my entry in the New
Encyclopedia Project first issue (out in TCS journal in April 2006):

The entry is called Culture !!

Abstract:

Culture is considered as a key term in Anthropology, now in critical mode, and to be worked through powerful tropes that lead to issues in politics, interpretation, translation, stereotype and racism. Anthropology is described as a cultural system itself, with a large supporting institutional apparatus, not unlike the culture industry as critiqued by Adorno and the FrankfurtSchool. The high culture-low culture distinction is considered and some distortions explained (away). Street culture and culture as (development) resource are evaluated, leading to an assessment of culture as souvenirs, trinkets and the ephemera of tourism as a modern commodity fetish. How this measures up to political struggles is again considered in the light of work by critics such as Fanon and those engaged with anti-imperialist struggles worldwide.

Keywords: culture; Malinowski; Adorno; trinkets; translation; commodity, anti-imperialism

Culture

‘You are on earth … there’s no cure for that’ – Beckett Endgame

Every commentary on culture must begin with a ritual acknowledgement of the local and the global, and of the twinned inextricably bound antithesis of becoming universal and becoming particular, of identity and difference, and contest over these terms. Of course any easy model of culture is delusional in its simplicity, and the local-global nexus obfuscates, and enshrines an untenable and thought-congealing homology that is so fragile it should immediately be toppled (‘what is falling down should be pushed’ – Nietzsche). The task of denoting Culture in encyclopedic mode is fraught with the impossibility of capturing an always-morphed term – multiple meanings, multiple sites, political struggle. In this sense the categories of Culture are infinitely varied, and so this entry begins with a necessarily incomplete survey: taking account in turn of anthropological notions of culture, mass culture, high culture, cultural translation, culture as a resource, political cultures and cultural movements. Some considerations of the state of culture today are ventured at the end, but with no end in sight, encyclopedia, for mine, would include, or even start with, Bataille’s Encyclopedia Acephale, which self-consciously included the most disparate things: from ‘big toe’ to ‘ritual’. No doubt the parameters must be dialectically open ended, both expansive, and collapsing categorization in on itself. Borges/Foucault’s list of the Emperor’s animals, some of which from a long way off look like flies, might also suggest a model. The open-ended and incomplete encyclopedia cannot merely mouth the words of openness in its own destabilization, and it should be more than an application of hyperlinking to old hierarchies. All that said, culture was pretty much presented as a kind of complete compendium in the good old days. Thus we could begin with anthropology (not just because that is my disciplinary training).

The anthropological notion of culture has a certified and defended heritage in anthropology since Sir Edmund Burnet Tylor – culture as that collection of pots and pans, bit and pieces, that we all have: ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’ (Tylor 1871/1986). This notion was not the leveling egalitarianism that some anthropologists perhaps thought it was – despite everyone having ‘a culture’, there were from the beginning tables and grids, and hierarchical schemas aplenty, setting out differences. In the 19th Century cultural development ranged from the savage to the civilized in Louis Henry Morgan (1877/1965), or was based on the developmental model of the organism in Herbert Spencer (1901). Culture here was bounded, specific to groups and places, and could be named – though anthropologists like Sir James Frazer were loathe to meet those they wrote about (‘Heaven forbid’ he is supposed to have said when asked if he had ever spoken to any of the heathen). Culture, nonetheless, was global from the start for anthropology, and it was the scholar’s task and duty to set it down and explain it, albeit from afar, with attendant distortions. Later this task and duty enters the Malinowskian project of cultural transcription through ‘fieldwork’ in which the anthropologist spends time (conventionally a year or two) living ‘the life of the natives’ in order to discern, and present, ‘the native’s point of view’ (Malinowski 1922). With some hesitations along the way, and revisionist anxieties a plenty, this remains the dominant methodological precept.

Critiques of fieldwork need to be foregrounded, including their historical context. Bronislaw Malinowski arrived in Australia just in time to become an enemy ‘intern’ during WW1. In a subsequent deal with Governor Hunt, who saw the advantage in having the anthropologist assist with ‘native administration’, Malinowski was permitted to conduct research in Papua New Guinea. He arrived on his first visit to a PNG village accompanied by the local colonial constabulary. It is a matter of record that he established and championed close work with ‘informants’ in order to glean the particulars of a specific cultural group through ‘participant observation’. Though it was many years before he was able to get his Trobriand ethnography into print (after many rejections from publishers he wrote to his wife to say that he would have to enter the margarine industry if Methuen did not take the book), his career was a success. He was responsible for training a generation of scholars (Firth, Evans-Pritchard, Leach – see Stanton 1997) who in turn carried out various field studies, and, along with Radcliffe-Brown in Sydney and South Africa, and Franz Boas in the USA, he established fieldwork as the modus operandi of anthropology departments throughout the world. It was only with the unraveling of colonialism in the face of anti-colonial movements that fieldwork became more difficult in some places. A re-evaluation rocked the discipline throughout the 1970s and 1980s (see Hymes 1974, Clifford and Marcus 1986). Yet the sanctity of fieldwork was sustained despite the excoriating critique, and slowly fieldwork was brought ‘home’ and applied to minorities at the margins of the metropole, just as it was to the ‘natives’ of colonial times. A subsequent backlash against critical reflexivity was perhaps encouraged by the institutional need to promote a distinctive methodology (contra sociology, cultural studies or geography) and this idea of a distinctive disciplinary mode of inquiry has buttressed postgraduate training programs (now fee-paying) and kept a significant number of practitioners in gainful employment ever since.

The Malinowskian transcription of bounded culture was supplemented with systemic and comparative analysis such that increasingly notions of change, network, syncretism and flow became commonplace (see Ghosh for example, 1992). Eventually even the venerable institution UNESCO felt obliged to start its ‘World Culture Report’ of 1998, by saying: ‘Cultures can no longer be examined as if they were islands in an archipelago’ (UNESCO 1998:16). The often-unacknowledged anti-colonial context of such critiques was one where there was a return of the anthropological gaze by those increasingly wary of being so intently stared at. This imposed a rethinking of ethnocentrism and eurocentrism, so as to establish discomfort and doubt, and even a kind of paranoia, as a vocation for anthropology. A celebrated story about the pan-Africanist leader and critic of neo-colonialism, Kwame Nkrumah, perhaps best illustrates.

On the wall behind the desk in Nkrumah’s presidential office after he took power in Ghana in 1957, there was displayed a picture of an African man breaking the chains that had bound him. The heroic figure in the foreground was surrounded, in the four corners of the picture, by fleeing Europeans: these were in turn, a colonial administrator, a missionary with a cross, a trader, and an anthropologist carrying the book African Political Systems.

This image is powerful, but also a stereotype as anthropologists sometimes sided with anti-colonial struggles and very often gave material and intellectual support to anti-racist, anti-capitalist and popular-democratic nationalist movements. The work of Kathleen Gough would be a case in point, though her career was largely damaged by rightist criticisms of her partisanship. Eric Wolf was also singled out by Margaret Mead as a ‘communist’ (on the politics of anthropology, see Gledhill 2000), and even the mildly anti-establishment figures of the ‘writing-culture school’ of the 1980s were subject to denigration by their peers (often fairly so, Nugent 1991). Today it is a commonplace view that the anthropologist as translator of ‘culture’ is never an uninterested character, and the championing of ‘fieldwork’ now comes with the routine of automatic reflexivity and critical appraisal. Of course it cannot be denied that the work of cultural translation is important, and despite the ‘methodological absolution’ (Banerjea 1999:18) sought in such reflexivity, the argument that translation is necessary seems plausible, if flawed in interesting and interested ways. In a revealing allegory Clifford Geertz tells an Indian story that has the world resting on the back of an elephant, which is itself standing on a turtle, and that the interpretive winks of anthropology are like the turtles that, proverbially, go all the way down (Geertz 1973). We are told knowledge is perspectival, yet the discipline remains largely based in the enclaves in which it began – in England it is still LSE and Cambridge that receive the larger part of funding for the study of others – the imperial structure of the institutions is not redistributed. And so translation is maimed to the degree to which the distance between the Nkrumah story and the parable of the turtles is calculated ‘reflexively’ and not explicitly in terms of power and privilege.

Thus, anthropology might be better described as a cultural system itself. If it claims to be local in focus, its institutional apparatus has a far wider reach. Anthropology (and cultural studies, social theory, geography) might be characterized as a wholly institutionally-based global system of knowledge about the peoples of the world. It is organized with researchers and research projects, teaching programs and degree structures, publishing houses, theoretical schools (more than one, more than a succession of paradigms), methods, debates, tenure, career, course guides, reading lists, footnotes. And this whole agglomeration is more than a project of transcription, translation and comparison for the instruction and edification of those lucky enough to gain places in the teaching factory. As a privileged system then, anthropology reaches well beyond any specifically local instance of the cultural.

…..


John Hutnyk

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