Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tradition and Individual Autonomy

In an earlier post, “Culture, Culture Change, and the Ethics of Cultural Intervention,” I ended by saying:

“On the one hand, the combination of ethical parsimony, cultural relativism, and the valuation of individuals’ autonomy in many situations leads us anthropologically to simply attempt to describe and understand the context at hand. On the other, when the effective autonomy of individuals is at odds or is compromised (e.g. Philippe Bourgois’ example of Costa Rican plantation workers’ lives being largely shaped by decisions of landowners and managers – an example of individuals having opposed interests, or many examples of imposed female genital modification – an example where one individual’s autonomy is compromised by others for reasons typically seen as being in that person’s interest), then we must either be willing to critique such practices or realize that our lack of critique passively and tacitly accepts the imposition of power on the weaker.”

One first principle I am asserting here follows from the enlightenment tradition and project and emphasizes the sanctity and autonomy of the individual’s freedom to act, within the limits of not violating others’ autonomy, i.e. anyone should be free to do and develop their self as they see fit. As with any first premise, this can’t be “proved,” but is a starting assumption which some will agree with and some will not.

At the same time, as a cultural anthropologist I respect the importance of cultural tradition and the diversity of ways to be human. For that matter, for me a corollary of respect for individual autonomy is a limited sort of cultural relativism, insofar as individuality is largely shaped within a particular cultural context and individual autonomy includes the freedom to practice a particular array of cultural patterned behaviors. When at odds, though, for me the individual always trumps tradition and custom (which is not at all to say that any individual’s autonomy trumps another’s right to the traditions or customs of their choosing, but rather that privileging tradition or the “norm” is to privilege one set of individuals’ autonomy over others).

To the extent that it is anything, tradition is the reification or objectification of the results of multiple individuals’ actions. To imagine tradition as functioning in a determinative or mechanistic way is to simplify and falsify the complexities of social interaction. As Pierre Bourdieu has said (Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 73), “It is necessary to abandon all theories which explicitly or implicitly treat practice as a mechanical reaction, directly determined by the antecedent conditions and entirely reducible to the mechanical functioning of pre-established assemblies, ‘models’ or ‘roles’…” Further, if culture or tradition are not determinative (and they are not), to imagine tradition as requiring adherence and to value tradition more highly than the individual is to privilege a sort of tyranny of the statistical majority at best, and to privilege the more powerful who have greater control over what counts as tradition or status quo practice.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Bertrand Russell's Chicken: Sign Experience and the Human Mind

In a discussion of the foundations and limitations of inductive reasoning, the great British philosopher Bertrand Russell presented one of my favorite philosophical anecdotes (1959:63):

"Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who usually feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken…The mere fact that something has happened a certain number of times causes animals and men to expect that it will happen again. Thus our instincts certainly cause us to believe that the sun will rise to-morrow, but we may be in no better a position than the chicken which unexpectedly has its neck wrung."

Certainly we humans engage more often than we would care to think in such chicken-headed thinking. There is much in common in the conceptual process between humans and other animals. There is also much that is different. Russell’s anecdote provides a useful analogy to introduce students to the concept and limitations of inductive reasoning, but unless I misjudge my chickens, this is not actually induction but instead a different sign experience, or semiosis, with limitations that are analogous to the limitations of induction. More on that later. Here instead I raise the question, what is it that makes human thought distinct?

Anthropologists since at least Leslie White (1949; 1959) have focused on the symbol and symbolic thought as the thing which distinguishes humans from other animals, including chimps and other non-human primates. This is not a bad first approximation. There is no evidence to date of chimpanzees or bonobos using symbols or clearly engaging in symbolic thought in the wild. Laboratory experiments are another story, however. There is evidence in ape language experiments of great apes sometimes using symbols and even arranging them in combination in basic syntactic combinations. Further, there is contentious evidence that some extinct hominids, such as Neandertals, may have used some symbols some of the time. We are not the only creatures with the capacity for symbolic thought, though we do seem to be the only ones whose social contexts are pervaded by symbol and language use.

In order to proceed to a more sophisticated analysis of the situation, we need a more subtle instrument than simply the distinction between symbol and sign – and this for two sorts of reasons. First, symbolic anthropologists, including first order scholars like Clifford Geertz, Mary Douglas, and Victor Turner, have often lumped as “symbols” signs which are more properly iconic or indexical (see the discussion in Daniel 1984 on this point). Second, and more to the point here, if it is not symbol use per se which distinguishes us, but certain sorts of symbolic thought, then we need a more elaborate classificatory system in order to make such distinctions.

Here, the work of the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce is helpful in providing a fuller typology than other semiotic schemes. For Peirce, the sign is “something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (1992: 11). Unlike the Sausserean conception of the sign as dyadic – comprised of signifier and signified, the Peircean sign is tryadic (something which has certain advantages that are beyond the scope the present discussion), comprised of the sign/representamen – the sign vehicle which stands for something else, the object – which is not a material object in the world, but the idea of an object (corresponding more or less to paradigmatic meaning), and the interpretant – the syntagmatic or contextual interpretation of the object by somebody or something.

Peirce further classified signs into three trichotomies: first on the basis of type of sign or representamen, that is the form of the sign vehicle itself (qualisign, sinsign, and legisign); second on the basis of the relationship between representamen and object (icon, index, and symbol); and third on the basis of the relationship between representamen and interpretant (rheme, dicent, and argument). Any given sign can be classified simultaneously on the basis of all three trichotomies. This yields a system which is frankly over-elaborate for most purposes, but particular elements of it are useful and even essential for certain analyses.

The distinction that has been most useful to scholars and is probably most familiar is that between icon, index, and symbol. The icon is a sign which signifies through some sort of systematic relationship or similarity to the object signified. This can include straightforward cases such as pictographic representation, or more complex cases such as diagrams or metaphor. The index is a sign which signifies through calling attention to the object signified, through pointing or contiguity, including straightforward cases such as the index finger pointing to an object and less straightforward cases such as metonymy. The symbol is a sign which signifies purely through convention. Though symbolic anthropology has tended to focus on highly complex symbols in ritual context, a more mundane (and quantitatively significant) example of symbolic use would be the words we use so habitually, all of which signify by convention.

The other two trichotomies are less familiar and perhaps more difficult. With the first, a qualisign is an individual quality taken as a sign of an object. As quality, it can only be experienced and function as sign in the actual manifestation (which could be physical or mental) of the quality, which is to say that qualisigns only ever function as such in manifestations of themselves alongside other qualisigns which together form an individual instance of something which might itself function as a sign of something (perhaps itself). This individual instance of something which is comprised of bundled qualities or qualisigns and which functions as a sign is the sinsign. As individual instance, the sinsign may function as a sign of a unique object, or more likely, it may be an individual token of a general type or law. This sign of general type or law is the legisign. A sinsign which is a token of a legisign will partake of or manifest the law-like or typic aspects of the legisign of which it is a token, while at the same time being itself comprised of multiple qualisigns. Here it should be noted that all symbols, as conventional and law-like, are legisigns. Thus, the third trichotomy will be of greater concern for our purposes here.

The rheme is one which signifies merely qualitative possibility to the interpreter, that is, the interpretant is one of qualitative possibility. The dicent, or dicisign, signifies actual existence or entails some sort of proposition about the relation of the object signified to the surrounding world, which is to say that the dicent enmeshes the object within a basic syntax relating it to other objects. The argument, as Peirce puts it, “is a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth” (1992: 27). Or, as Peirce puts it elsewhere, and as E. Valentine Daniel (1984) echoes, the argument is a sign of reason, building upon propositions, or dicents, to enact overarching logical systems, which is to say that the argument involves theorization broadly understood, and is always comprised of symbols.

The combination of trichotomies yields three types of symbol: the rhematic symbol, dicent symbol and argument. A rhematic symbol “is a sign connected with its object by an association of general ideas in such a way that its replica calls up an image in the mind, which image, owing to certain habits or dispositions of that mind, tends to produce a general concept” (Peirce 1992: 26). Peirce’s example is a common noun, but words in general, as well as other linguistic paradigmatic units (that is, morphemes), fit the bill as well, so long as it is understood that the rhematic symbol is the word or morpheme as such, and not its use within a specific context.

A dicent symbol, which Peirce also refers to as an ordinary proposition, “is a sign connected with its object by an association of general ideas, and acting like a rhematic symbol, except that its intended interpretant represents the dicent symbol as being, in respect to what it signifies, really affected by its object, so that the existence or law which it calls to mind must be actually connected with the indicated object” (1992: 26-27). Thus, to the extent that the dicent symbol, where good examples would be ordinary propositions, sentences and other syntagmatic units in language, is seen as meaningful about the world, it is a special sort of dicent indexical legisign insofar as it points to those aspects of the world to which it corresponds, though doing so through conventional signs, that is, symbols. This echoes the correspondence theory of truth in the early work of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1922), though as Wittgenstein later concluded (1958), there is more to language than mere correspondence to the world, and so we find with the argument.

Again, an argument “is a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth.” This building upon premises (which are themselves dicent symbols) to the construction of conclusions and truth systems can take several different forms, including those concatenations of propositions producing conclusions referred to in the vernacular of philosophy as “arguments,” and which work through the logical principles of deduction, induction, or abduction. Arguments can also take such forms as mathematical formulae or myth structure.

Chimps and other apes show themselves capable of using rhematic and dicent symbols in laboratory experiments when they combine basic word-signs to form rudimentary propositions. The formation of arguments – deductive syllogisms, inductive generalizations, or any other combination of premises to build generalizable frameworks for interacting with the world – seems, at least on current evidence, to be the province of humans alone.

This brings us to culture, which I would argue is not only the learned and shared lifeways of minimalist definitions but also an all encompassing mesh of symbols, premises, and arguments, where cultural arguments are built up of rhematic and dicent symbols. The argument, for human culture, is akin to what Sherry Ortner calls key scenarios or cultural schemas (1973; 1989). She defines these “as preorganized schemes of action, symbolic programs for the staging and playing out of standard interactions in a particular culture” (1989: 60).

In her own analysis of Sherpa Buddhism, Ortner identifies such a cultural schema, Rivalry, Acquisition of a Protector, Defeat of the Enemy, Departure of the Loser (1989: 72-73), which recurs in Sherpa myth and ritual and which provides a prototype for culturally typical interaction situations – which is to say, using Geertz’s terminology (1973), such schemas provide models of and models for cultural action. Further examples from the ethnographic literature and cited by Ortner include Edward Schieffelin’s identification of a recurring and orienting cultural scenario of opposition and reciprocity among the New Guinea Highland Kaluli (1976), or the work of Geertz in Negara (1980) or Marshall Sahlins in Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (1981), where (Ortner 1989: 60):

"One finds the notion that there are cultural patterns of action, cultural dramas or scenarios, that reappear over time and that seem to order the ways in which people play out both conventional and historically novel social encounters. In Negara, Geertz talks of the reconstruction of forms and the 'transcriptions of a fixed ideal.'"

Sahlins writes of a scripted cosmological drama (1981: 17; quoted in Orter 1989: 61):

"At the great annual Makahiki festival, the concept of political usurpation is set in the context of a cosmological drama. The lost god-chief Lono returns to renew the fertility of the land, reclaiming its own, to be superceded again by the ruling chief and the sacrificial cult of Ku. Now Captain Cook’s second visit to the Islands coincided with the annual return of Lono, and the treatment of Hawaiians accorded him to the prescribed sequence of ritual events in the Makahiki Festival."

Of course, here Gananath Obeyesekere (1992) critiques Sahlins (as well as Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America [1984]) as falling into a western cultural schema through which is attributed to “natives” a tendency to perceive Westerners as divine. Sahlins (1995) counter-critiques Obeyesekere, arguing first that Obeyesekere is wrong about Sahlins’ work. But the fact that Obeyesekere might be wrong about Sahlins or Todorov in particular does not mean that he has not noticed something significant about western cultural arguments. Sahlins presents another sort of counter-argument as well, arguing that many times post-colonial scholars like Obeyesekere or Edward Said (1979) operate within something like a cultural schema of their own – which is not to say that they’re wrong about western “Orientalism” per se, but that their arguments are framed as part of a schema with certain (often unstated) premises about the nature of “natives” and western academic discourse. What all of this amounts to is that culture never consists of a single overarching argument, but a patchwork of arguments or schemas, some contradictory, which altogether pervade nearly all aspects of human life in any given context.

But what of Bertrand Russell’s wrung-neck chicken? I argued above that the chicken was not really engaging in induction or argument. That is, Russell’s chicken was not engaged in inductive generalization or argument based on dicent symbols (propositions, premises) in turn based on rhematic symbols (words). Instead, like Pavlov’s dog, after continued contiguity between farmer and feed, the chicken was conditioned to perceive farmer as indexing feed – and not a wrung neck. But before we get too big for our britches, we should remember that though argument might be what distinguishes us and even pervades our social contexts, much of what we do semiotically is quite similar to zoosemiosis. Even in our habitual use of symbols of all types, we use words in ways that are also largely metaphoric or metonymic. In fact, we depend on this. To the extent that we encounter our arguments or cultural schemas as grounded in the world, it is through their simultaneous functioning to index and connect us to the world. Further, though words are symbols because they are conventional signs, our use of them and especially learning of them is largely through conditioned association, which is to say that though we are clearly distinct in some ways from other animals, we can still be pretty chicken-headed.

Daniel, E. Valentine
1984 Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Geertz, Clifford
1973 Religion as a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books.
1980 Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Obeyesekere, Gananath
1992 The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ortner, Sherry
1973 On Key Symbols. American Anthropologist. 75: 1338-1346.
1989 High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Peirce, Charles S.
1992 Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs. In Introducing Semiotics: An Anthology of Readings. Marcel Danesi and Donato Santeramo, eds. Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press.

Russell, Bertrand
1959 The Problems of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sahlins, Marshall
1981 Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities: Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Island Kingdom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
1995 How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Said, Edward
1979 Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

Schieffelin, Edward
1976 The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Todorov, Tzvetan
1984 The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. New York: Harper and Row.

White, Leslie
1949 The Science of Culture. New York: Grove Press.
1959 The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome. New York: McGraw Hill.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig
1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. New York: Routledge.
1958 Philosophical Investigations. Third Edition. New York: Macmillan.

Reginald Shepherd's Blog

The well known poet (and my partner) Reginald Shepherd has a blog well worth reading. His blog deals with poetry, art, and culture. Reginald Shepherd's blog can be found here.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Culture, Culture Change, and the Ethics of Cultural Intervention

In an article from 1958, “The Fox Project” (Human Organization, V. 17, pp. 17-19), Sol Tax both described an applied anthropological project with the Fox Indians of Iowa and laid out the basis for anthropologists’ engaging in processes of culture change in what he called “action anthropology.” Why revisit this almost 50 year old article? Primarily because it lucidly gets at the crux of what applied or action anthropology is about, as well as some of the ethical and value considerations associated with it.

Culture and Culture Change

Tax was clearly aware that in attempting to aid the Fox Indians in the economic development of their community, he and his students were engaging in an intervention into culture and engaging directly in a process of culture change. Recognizing this, he also recognized a need for basic ground rules for such intervention into culture. He writes of the potentials for culture change in the Fox community:

“The two irreducible conditions of community-wide changes are that the new behavior does not require either (1) a loss of Fox identity, or (2) violation of Fox moral beliefs. One takes for granted also that the change is practicably possible – that the new behavior required is understandable and feasible, and that there is some reason, from the point of view of the Indians to make it. Given these two general limitations, we suppose any change is possible.”

Implicitly, a particular sense of “culture” is being used here. Anthropologists and others typically recognize two senses of the word “culture” – one the ethos, manners, mores, and patterns of high culture, the other the sense more typically employed by anthropologists focusing on a total patterned lifeway of a people or population. In an important article, “Culture – Genuine and Spurious,” Edward Sapir noted that there are three important senses in which “culture” is used. He recognized that “culture” in the sense of high culture represented a restricted subset of the sense of culture as a total lifeway in that it represented the lifeway of a particular class context. He also noted, though, that there is another important way in which we used “culture.” As with “high culture,” we often use “culture” in a way more restricted than to refer to all aspects of the total patterned lifeway of a population. In this third sense, we mean the core premises of identity, values, ethos, and worldview and a restricted set of practices taken as “typical” or “essential.” It is typically these elements of the lifeway which are most durable, most valued, or that are the intended reference when people speak of their culture. So, for example, maquiladora factories and Coca-Cola are part of the total lifeway of Mexico today, and thus are part of Mexican culture in one sense of the word, but are not the sorts of things people (Mexican or otherwise) typically intend when speaking of “Mexican culture.”

For Tax or the Fox, behaviors or ideas that were simply part of the total lifeway’s set of practices were readily subject to change without controversy. It was those behaviors and ideas seen as essential to identity and moral beliefs (and I would venture to guess also those seen as essential to ethos and worldview) that were highly cherished and not changeable without controversy. Likewise, in contemporary controversies surrounding cultural description, critique, or intervention and cultural relativism, it is change with regard to those elements of the total patterned lifeway that are locally constructed (on whatever basis – in some cases ethos may be most highly touted, in others certain behaviors, in others elements of the worldview) as “the culture” in this third sense that generate controversy. No one (at least no one I can think of or imagine) is likely to criticize a critique by a non-Mexican of maquiladora factory production in Mexico City or Juarez as an example of cultural imperialism (if anything, such industrial production might be seen as cultural imperialism). A critique of “Mexican Machismo” very well might generate controversy, though.

The ethics of cultural intervention

Tax’s article is also useful in laying out provisional value orientations for engaging in applied anthropology and intervening in a particular cultural context. He lays out three values ideally involved when engaging in cultural intervention (or as he even says, “interference”).

His first value is that of truth. While ascertaining truth is an often formidable task, to value truth as a principle seems to me straightforward and non-controversial (except, perhaps, when it’s not – for example in cases where an anthropologist’s view of truth might stand in opposition to that of those being aided via applied anthropological work).

Tax continues:

“Second, we feel most strongly the value of freedom, as it is classically expressed and limited. Freedom in our context usually means freedom for individuals to choose the group with which to identify and freedom for a community to choose its way of life. We would also be embarrassed if it were shown that we are, for example, encouraging Indians to remain Indians, rather than to become something else, or trying to preserve Indian cultures, when the Indians involved would choose otherwise. All we want in our action programs is to provide, if we can, genuine alternatives from which the people involved can freely choose…”

In other words, Tax held (and I hold) the autonomy of the individual as a fundamental value.

Tax’s third value is what he called a “kind of Law of Parsimony which tells us not to settle questions of values unless they concern us.” This is an important pragmatic principle for operation, where, for example, even though some anthropologists involved in the Fox project felt that assimilation was in the interest of the Fox and others did not, Tax felt that it was inessential for them to decide, and in any case, given the higher valuation placed on the autonomy of Fox individuals, this was not the anthropologists’ decision in any case.

He discusses further the possibility of additional operating principles or premises, but decides against this. He uses the following example:

“People are always asking whether we think cannibals have a right to self-determination. With respect to cannibalism, would we not have to impose some value of our own? Now, I neither eat human flesh, nor like the thought of being eaten; I am revolted as others in our culture by the whole idea. I have no notion what I would do if I found myself involved in an action program on a cannibal isle; I can only think of jokes to say. If I attempt to answer seriously I am beset with all the value contradictions involved in so-called cultural relativism. But whatever my personal position on this, it has no significant bearing on what we should do tomorrow to help the Fox Indians develop more constructive relationships within their community, or with other Iowans.”

Frankly, I’m not sure why this example creates a conundrum, insofar as if one take the valuation of the autonomy of each individual at all seriously, then the autonomy of one person to develop themselves and determine their life to the extent possible (which obviously entails continuing to live) clearly outweighs the autonomy of another to eat them. (If you had a cannibal isle where some really autonomously consented to be eaten, then you’d have a real conundrum.) Still, Tax is right that the ethics of one case don’t really impinge on the ethics of another, so such hypothetical cases are pragmatically beside the point. Recognizing that it is pragmatically and ethically efficacious to avoid making decisions or judgment calls when not necessary, though, doesn’t help in knowing what to do when such decisions cannot be avoided. While anthropologists today are unlikely to have to grapple with the autonomy of cannibals, there are cases in virtually every cultural context where different individuals’ effective autonomy stand at odds and impinge upon one another.

While I find Tax’s article wanting in essentially evading this sort of all too common dilemma, at the same time I find that his three basic values (which are essentially the values of the Enlightenment project) serve us well. On the one hand, the combination of ethical parsimony, cultural relativism, and the valuation of individuals’ autonomy in many situations leads us anthropologically to simply attempt to describe and understand the context at hand. On the other, when the effective autonomy of individuals is at odds or is compromised (e.g. Philippe Bourgois’ example of Costa Rican plantation workers’ lives being largely shaped by decisions of landowners and managers – an example of individuals having opposed interests, or many examples of imposed female genital modification – an example where one individual’s autonomy is compromised by others for reasons typically seen as being in that person’s interest), then we must either be willing to critique such practices or realize that our lack of critique passively and tacitly accepts the imposition of power on the weaker.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Taxes and an Upward Redistribution of Wealth

The Florida House of Representatives is debating a measure that would eliminate property taxes on homesteaded property, with the budgetary shortfalls that would result to be made up for by a 2.5% increase in the state’s sales tax. This is being presented as a move to relieve the economic burden of the state’s permanent resident homeowners. (It should be noted that such a radical move faces an uphill battle to adoption. It would first have to pass through the legislature, and then, since it involves a state constitutional matter of taxation, it would have to be approved by a 2/3 vote, which wouldn’t occur for at least a year and a half, according to current news reports.)

To judge from the comment boards to articles on the issue in the past two days’ (February 21 and 22) online editions of The Pensacola News Journal, this would be a move highly popular among many homeowners. This is understandable in the current context. For starters, the elimination of property taxes probably sounds on the surface like a good deal to any property owner. Further, many if not most Florida homeowners are currently economically burdened by increases (sometimes drastic) in home insurance costs as a result of the hurricane damages in the state during the past few years. Right now, any reduction of total house payments for any reason sounds like a good thing to many Floridians. On the News Journal’s comment boards, the vast majority of posters are clearly in favor of the proposed changes.

One rare dissenter, who posted that this move would place the tax burden on the poor, those who rent, and those with currently low property taxes, was promptly rebutted with the claim that he or she (comments are generally anonymous, without clear indication of gender) was using faulty logic, that clearly the burden for the shift to higher sales tax would be on those who spent the most – not the poor. In one sense, that thinking is correct – as with sales tax in general, those who spend the most pay the most sales tax, so the increase in sales tax revenue will come more from those who spend the most. But I think the problem with the dissenter’s post was not in its logic so much as in its rhetoric. If instead of asking who will bear the burden, we ask who will be burdened, or who will benefit and who will be disadvantaged relative to their current situation, we see a different perspective.

Regardless of whether one feels the proposed tax changes are fair or unfair, moral or immoral, on objective economic terms, the proposed changes in how taxation works will cause some people to pay more in total taxes than they do now and others to pay less than now.

Simply put, the poor, those who rent (whether poor or not), and/or those with currently low property taxes will generally end up paying more total taxes. If you don’t currently pay property tax, you can’t benefit from its elimination (unless one assumes that landlords would pass on their savings on property tax to renters, something I find hard to imagine happening en masse, and certainly not something to count on). If you don’t currently pay much property tax, you won’t benefit much by its elimination. And at the same time, the poor along with everyone else will end up paying more sales tax, with therefore the result being more total taxes for the poor, and in many cases, as a proportion of income, considerably more tax.

For most of us in the middle class economically, the proposed changes won’t amount to much one way or another. Some will gain a bit when the elimination of property tax is weighed against the increase in sales tax (by my own quick and dirty calculations, I figure to fall into this situation myself); some might lose a bit; most middle class homeowners probably don’t stand to gain or lose much by these changes (I again place myself here), though the subjective weight of the eliminated property tax bill might be heftier than the increased sales tax spread over many small purchases, i.e. it’s likely to feel like a better economic deal than it is for many.

Those who are wealthy will pay lower total taxes than now. They’ll pay more total sales tax on an individual basis than anyone else, just as now, but in proportion to income this will affect them less and will be outweighed in most cases by the elimination of large property tax bills.

In short, and again whether one finds it right or wrong, fair or unfair, what the Florida House’s proposed changes amount to is an upward redistribution of wealth where the poor will pay more taxes than they do now and the wealthy will pay fewer taxes than now.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Identity Politics and the Prepositions of Speaking

There is a way of thinking about identity in which identity categories (race, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, caste, nationality, etc.) are taken to explain the individual’s subjectivity and actions. It is the case that in complex societies a variety of identity categories shape individuals’ self-consciousness and interactions between individuals. So, while I would never suggest that identity and identity categories are unimportant, as I tried to make clear in my post “Charlie Parker and Shostakovich: Art, the Artist, and Culture,” the individual is neither reducible to nor determined by identity categories and cultural context.

Much writing and thinking about identity politics is motivated by the desire to mitigate the effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, ableism, or other prejudices and discriminatory practices. It often does so through the celebration of works and deeds of individuals of a particular identity category, e.g. the celebrations of black history month or women’s history month, or the commemoration of works by women composers, black poets, gay playwrights, etc. There’s nothing wrong with the celebration of anyone’s creative expressions or good deeds, and a lot right with calling attention to worthy creations of individuals often overlooked simply because of prejudice. At the same time, at its most extreme, identity politics involves a logic that minimizes the possibilities for critical dialogue and unwittingly recapitulates some of the effects of the very prejudices it desires to affect.

Identity politics goes awry when notions of authenticity are linked to authority to speak, when only those with authenticity are seen as having authority to speak about a topic or category and when those with authenticity are prescribed to speak or express themselves only in authentic ways. For example, when the work of black poets or musicians is called into question as not “black” enough, this doesn’t fight racism but recapitulates it by assuming that there is a particular domain of content and form which is “black,” that black individuals should limit themselves to such domains, and that the only reason why they might want to do otherwise is through internalized racism and/or inauthenticity. Further, when the perceived right to speak is linked to notions of authentic categorical membership, this in no way reduces prejudice or discrimination but places new boundaries in the way of open and critical dialogue.

Aside from the important problems with authority and authenticity, there is also here a confusion about prepositions, about the difference between speaking for, speaking as, speaking about, and speaking to.

Speaking For and Speaking As

Simply put, I can’t speak for anyone but myself and shouldn’t try to. Not being someone else, and not having others’ subjective experience, I can’t place myself in someone else’s subject position and refer to myself as “I” for them. As someone who takes the insights of Lacanian psychoanalysis seriously, I can’t even speak for myself in all contexts, times, and places. The same is true for anyone else, and it’s farcical for anyone to attempt to speak not just for another person but for an entire category or type of person.

What’s not so often recognized is that this is just as true for those within a particular category as those without. It may be more blatantly sexist for a man to try to speak for women, but no woman can speak for women other than herself.

Speaking as a member of a category is less problematic. Since social categories are perceived by others and shape interactions between individuals, identity categories do shape the experiences of individuals, and we can speak of experiences that tend to be common or statistically typical for members of a class. In that sense, a woman can speak as a woman, or a gay man as gay, insofar as their subjectivity reflects experiences often common to others sharing the same identity. But even speaking as cries out for caution, as it is easy to shift from speaking as someone whose subjectivity reflects experiences often typical of the group to speaking of oneself as the representative of the group. Speaking as easily slips into speaking for.

Speaking About and Speaking To

While I can’t speak for anyone other than myself (and can only problematically speak for myself by performing as if my subjectivity is more unitary than it is), I can speak about all sorts of things, including other people, and I can speak to anyone. Ideally I should do so with knowledge and with respect, but there’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t be able and free to speak about whatever they want and to whomever they wish. Approaches to identity politics that attempt to tie authority to speak to authentic membership in an identity group or possession of an authentic viewpoint inherently limit the development of human consciousness and communication.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Southern Drinkways: Cultural Models of Drinking and Drinking Behavior at a Southern University Campus

This post is a draft of a presentation delivered this past weekend at the annual meeting of the Southern Anthropological Society.

This represents the first presentation of data from an ongoing research project conducted by myself and my colleague in the Department of Health Education at the University of West Florida, Dr. Debra Vinci. In this project we are interested in students’ cultural models of drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts, and we are interested in this as a topic of interest in and of itself and as an applied anthropological subject, where we hope that our research will contribute to a safer campus for students and contribute to efforts to reduce risks of dangerous drinking patterns among students.

I should first address two issues before proceeding to what we have found so far: First, what do I mean by cultural models? And Second, what do I mean by drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts?

By cultural model I mean something akin to what Sherry Ortner discusses as cultural schemas. In her discussion, she argues that culturally significant schemas are built up out of important cultural symbols, and certainly anthropologists have long focused on symbols as something that makes humans unique and as the basic building block of culture, though this alone doesn’t explain how culturally important symbols are related to one another nor to practice. C.S. Peirce’s discussion of the argument as one particularly complex type of symbol built up out of more basic symbols is useful here. The argument, as Peirce defines it, “is a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth.” Or, as he puts it elsewhere, the argument is a sign of reason, building upon propositions to enact overarching logical systems (which is to say that argument involves theorization broadly understood) and is always composed of simpler symbols (specifically rhematic and dicent symbols). Culture, I would argue, is not just the learned and shared lifeways of minimalist definitions of culture, but also an all encompassing mesh of symbols, premises, and arguments. The argument, for human culture, is akin to what Ortner calls key scenarios or cultural schemas. She defines these “as preorganized schemes of action, symbolic programs for the staging and playing out of standard interactions in a particular culture. In her own analysis of Sherpa Buddhism in Nepal, she identifies such a cultural schema (Rivalry, Acquisition of a Protector, Defeat of the Enemy, Departure of the Loser) which recurs in Sherpa myth and ritual and which provides a prototype for culturally typical interaction situations – which is to say that (using Clifford Geertz’s terminology) cultural schemas or arguments provide both “models of” and “models for” cultural action, and further that culturally significant arguments or cultural models are grounded in practice and simultaneously function to ground practice.

What do I mean by cultural models of drinking and related activities, contexts, and concepts? Essentially, we are interested in ascertaining the basic assumptions and premises of students’ conceptualization of drinking, places associated with drinking, behaviors typically associated with drinking, and notions of responsibility or irresponsibility with relation to drinking. Further, we are interested in how such basic premises are related and combined to form larger arguments or cultural models. We are also interested in how the models represented in our data collected from a particular setting (A Southern setting, a student sample, a medium size university setting [with large proportions of commuter and “non-traditional” students], a small to medium size city [and a military and tourist town – and not so much a college town]) relate to other, potentially overlapping contexts.

The first stage of this project (and the one which I will report on here) involved the collection of free lists from 101 students from three classes at the University of West Florida, two sections of Introduction to Anthropology (46 and 33 students – chosen for convenience, but also because of the representation of many different student major interests in the classes) and one section of an upper level nutrition and health course (22 students – chosen again for convenience, but also for contrast – this was a course with mainly upper division students with an interest in nutrition and health, and who had already been asked in a variety of ways to think critically about health and nutrition, including alcohol related issues, in class). Students were asked to generate five free lists: 1.Types of alcoholic drinks or beverages; 2. Types of places or settings in which people drink; 3. Activities people engage in when drinking; 4. The characteristics of someone with a drinking problem; and 5. The characteristics of someone who drinks responsibly.

Basic Description of Results of Initial Research

For the first free list, students were asked to list “types of alcoholic drinks or beverages.” With this and other lists, I used class discussion with my applied anthropology course as a focus group like setting to help determine wording of the request. In this case, I felt, and my students concurred, that asking only for “beverages” might tend to focus the students’ listing on packaged alcohol, such as beer, wine, liquor, etc., while “drink” might focus attention more on mixed drinks. Since we were interested in both, we used the “drinks or beverages” formulation.

The results of the freelisting when taken in aggregate are perhaps not surprising (they didn’t surprise me). Most students’ lists consisted primarily of general categories or types of alcohol. For example, the items listed by at least 20 different students were: beer (90), wine (67), vodka (59), rum (41), whiskey (35), liquor (34), mixed drink (26), tequila (26), gin (21), margarita (21). Of these, two are even more general or overarching types than the others (liquor and mixed drink), and only one is a specific mixed drink.

Specific brand names and mixed drinks were listed by students, though in most cases not frequently. Of those that were mentioned by at least five students, specific brand names included Jack Daniels (12), Smirnoff (11), Crown Royal (8), Jaegermeister (8), Bailey’s Irish Cream (6), Bacardi (5), Captain Morgan’s (5), and Corona (5). Specific mixed drinks included Margarita (21), Martini (14), Daiquiri (12 – an additional 4 mentioned Strawberry Daiquiri), Long Island Iced Tea (12), Sex on the Beach (11), Piña Colada (8), Rum and Coke (8), Bloody Mary (6), White Russian (6), and Mojito (5). In each case, these are widely distributed brand and drinks, and almost all have a long history (certainly older than the students doing the listing) in North American culture generally (I’m pretty sure I would have been familiar with all or most of these names when 10 years old).

To be sure, many more unusual, esoteric, more recently introduced, or idiosyncractic drink categories were named as well, such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade (4), Mead (2), Chocolate Chip Cookie (1), Crab Trap (1), girlie drinks (1), Irish Car Bomb (1), Robitussin (1), Pink Panties (1), or Sex with an alligator (1). In aggregate, a very high number of items were listed – far more than for any other list – with a total of 211 items listed, but the vast majority (147) listed by only one or two different students.

As more of an aside, one result I was somewhat surprised by, and for which I currently have no explanation, was the very low frequency of beer brand names listed. Only Corona was mentioned by at least five students, followed by Bud Light (4), Budweiser (3), and Heineken (3).

When asked to list types of places or settings in which people drink, the total variety of contexts listed was quite a bit smaller than the first list (not surprising), with just a handful of contexts being listed by large numbers of students: at a bar (90), at home or at the house (63), at a club (46), at a party (42), and at a restaurant (25). Two other settings were listed at least 10 times: at the beach (19), and at diner (11).

When asked to list activities people engage in while drinking, total variety of items listed was considerably more extensive than for the previous list, though less so than for the first. As with other lists, a handful of items were mentioned by large numbers of students: Dancing (45), Sex (38), Fights or Fighting (25), and Socializing (21). In addition, mentioned by at least 10 students were: Talking (18), Beer Pong (16), Drinking Games (16), Games (15), and Eating (14). (In items related to these, dinner was also mentioned by 3 students, and a variety of other games or game-like activities were listed: card games [7], karaoke [6], video games [6], flip cup [4], etc.)

For the fourth and fifth lists which asked for characteristics of irresponsible and responsible drinkers, a level of initial analysis was necessary in order to tabulate the lists. Most students gave lists of phrases, rather than single words, in response to these two list requests, and so it was necessary to delineate basic categories in order to classify similar, but not completely identical responses. I did this by again using my applied anthropology students as a sort of focus group to delineate the basic categories of responses. (My idea was that while those students taking an upper level applied anthropology course are not necessarily typical students, they are at least part of the population being studied – students in general – and so their predilections would be more likely to reflect “emic” categories.)

As characteristics of irresponsible drinkers, the following were listed frequently: always drinking / drinks too often (28), drinks everyday (23), drinks too much (23), drinking affects other aspects of life (22), needs to drink to function (21). Responses with at least 10 mentions included: drinks alone (17), rarely sober or often drunk (15), angry (14), denial of problem (13), obsessed with drinking (13), depression or sadness (11), can’t stop drinking (10), and drinks to escape problems (10).

Knows their limit or knows when to quit (42), doesn’t drink and drive (36), drinks in moderation (27), and chooses a designated driver beforehand (24) topped the aggregate list of traits of those who drink responsibly. This was followed by drinks occasionally (19), only drinks socially (16), rarely drunk or doesn’t get drunk (15), and drinking doesn’t affect relationships (13).

Interesting Trends and Reactions

Drinking Discourse and Drinking Behavior

Overall, the results of the first list are consistent with the findings of two other surveys that have been conducted on the University of West Florida campus that indicate that the vast majority of UWF students either do not drink or drink infrequently and in low quantities. To be more accurate, the surveys find that students claim to not drink or not drink in high frequency or quantity. The relationship between students’ discourse about their drinking and their drinking behavior (or lack thereof) is clearly something difficult to ascertain, though this freelisting exercise offers at least a slightly different window on the situation. A small handful of students provided us with frighteningly comprehensive lists of drink types (so, in fact much of the variety of items listed came from just a few students), but the rest provided much shorter lists (generally 10 – 15 items at most) with mostly general categories of drink that many non-drinking children would probably be familiar with from simply having grown up in the culture. This, of course, is still another example of drinking discourse and doesn’t prove that most UWF students in fact do not drink or do not drink much (i.e. the lists don’t indicate clear lack of familiarity with drinking, but they also don’t indicate clear familiarity with drinking), but it also is consistent with those other findings and doesn’t give any contradiction to students when they respond to surveys indicating low frequency and quantity of drinking.

Drinking and Food

This and the following examples address the relationship between public health discourse and students’ discourse in the ways in which students’ conceptions and expressions of thought on drinking correspond (or do not) to institutional messages.

In some ways, many students clearly associated drinking with eating. Fourteen students mention eating as an activity associated with drinking (with three more mentioning dinner), and “eating contexts” were even more associated with drinking – with restaurants mentioned by 25 students as a setting associated with drinking (and 11 more mentioning “at dinner” or “at a dinner” as settings). At the same time, “eating before drinking” was listed by only two students as an attribute of responsible drinkers (with both in the upper level nutrition and health course). This is not so surprising given the (understandable) greater emphasis in public health campaigns on not drinking and driving, though at the same time, eating before and during drinking is often mentioned in public health campaigns, brochures, etc., as one strategy to reduce potential dangers of overconsumption of alcohol. This pattern of associating eating with drinking in one set of domains, but not within the context of thinking of responsible or appropriate behavior, is possibly the result of one message being swamped by another (and in this case more important) one.

Drinking and Sex

In one way, students clearly associate sex and drinking. Aside from dancing, sex was mentioned by the largest number of students as an activity associated with drinking. At the same time that sex is clearly part of the model of drinking generally, responsible sexuality does not seem to be a significant part of students’ model of responsible drinking. “Promiscuity” was mentioned by one student as a trait of those who drink irresponsibly, and one student mentioned “Has condoms” as a characteristic of someone who drinks responsibly. This, and the previous example to a lesser extent, is indicative of the fact that as we engage in further research to fine tune our understanding of students’ cultural models of drinking, we will almost certainly be dealing not with a single or unitary model, but multiple overlapping models.

Irresponsibility and Responsibility

Possibly the most interesting example of the existence of overlapping but not identical models concerns the freelists of traits of irresponsibility and responsibility. For the most part, these appear as opposing domains – which is what I expected – in the sense that items frequently listed in one domain tend to show up in similar frequency in opposite form in the opposite domain. The major exception to this has to do with drinking and driving. Students have clearly absorbed the message that not driving drunk and/or having a designated driver are responsible thinks to do when drinking: Doesn’t drink and drive (36), chooses a designated driver beforehand (24) were common responses. When it comes to what makes a person irresponsible, though, drunk driving seems to have fallen out of consideration - only five students mentioned anything to do with drunk driving or not having a designated driver as being a characteristic of someone drinking irresponsibly.

Ongoing Research

The goal of this first stage of research was to elucidate the common terms of students’ models of drinking, which it has done. A second stage of research will ascertain relationships between the terms to understand the shape of the larger model(s). Those items commonly listed in the free lists were used to produce cards (with one item listed on each card) to be sorted by another sample of 30 students, with students in my Applied Anthropology course conducting this research. The results from this stage of research are still being tabulated and will be analyzed using non-metrical multi-dimensional scaling techniques to provide a “map” of the relationships between sorted terms. This in turn, along with the results of another ongoing survey, will be used to develop a fine tuned survey to ascertain degree of cultural consensus on various elements of the model.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Cultural Relativism: What is is and What it isn't

The greatest intellectual contributions of the discipline of anthropology to contemporary American society and thought are the concept of culture and the associated notion of cultural relativism. Both have a long history within the discipline, but as with any concepts originating in a particular academic discipline and then escaping into the larger culture, they have moved beyond the control of anthropologists. That said, anthropologists (such as myself) are as free as anyone to attempt to influence the development and understanding of such concepts within that broader culture.

In its original conception, cultural relativism was developed by Franz Boas and his students in the early 20th century. Cultural relativism involves first the recognition of and respect for the importance of alternative cultural constructions of the world and the acknowledgment that there is no universal way to be a human being. Secondly, it involves a provisional suspension of ethical or moral judgment about the practices of other cultures and an impetus to understand cultural practices within their own terms or logic.

I would argue that there was both a pragmatic and an ethical motivation for the development of cultural relativism. Pragmatically, cultural relativism allows for better anthropological research. A non-judgmental attitude in research allows for an easier establishment of the rapport necessary to conduct high quality ethnographic work. The attempt to understand cultures within the terms of their own logic leads to a more refined understanding of cultural variability and possibility. As Janice Boddy has written concerning female genital modification (or female genital mutilation if you prefer that terminology) in Sudan, no matter what your moral or ethical position on the topic, the starting point should be cultural relativism. If you are interested in the topic neutrally as simply a subject of anthropological curiosity, then you need to approach it non-judgmentally and attempt to understand the practice on its own terms and within the logical of the cultural context. If you find the practice abhorrent or repellent and wish to alter the practice, you still need first to understand the practice on its own terms in order to have any hope of understanding the practical possibilities for change.

Boas was not out to change cultures (at least not in general – though his writings on race were attempts to intellectually engage racism, expose its absurdity, and contribute to changing it). Still, there was an ethical component to cultural relativism. Much earlier American anthropological work had been notoriously racist and ethnocentric in its approach (and obviously anthropological work in parts of Europe, like Nazi Germany, remained racist for quite some time into the 20th century), and the emphasis on not judging other cultures was an important counter to this. That said, this does not mean that he thought that cultural practices should be held beyond reproach or criticism simply because they were traditional practices of one or another culture. Boas stood for the importance of clarity and logic, whether applied to western culture and the exposure of racism as illogical and counter-factual, or to any other culture. Boas emphasized the equal capacity for logic and illogic cross-culturally.

As Marshall Sahlins has recently noted in Waiting for Foucault, Still:

“Cultural relativism is first and last an interpretive anthropological – that is to say, methodological – procedure. It is not the moral argument that any culture or custom is as good as any other, if not better. Relativism is the simple prescription that, in order to be intelligible, other people’s practices and ideals must be placed in their own historical context, understood as positional values in the field of their own cultural relationships rather than appreciated by categorical and moral judgments of our making. Relativity is the provisional suspension of one’s own judgments in order to situate the practices at issue in the historical and cultural order that made them possible. It is in no other way a matter of advocacy.”

The most important contribution of the idea of cultural relativism has no doubt been the notion that all cultures are worthy of respect. Contrary to what Boas intended, cultural relativism is often invoked to support the notion that because something is a traditional practice of another culture one can’t criticize or critique it. This is analogous to suggesting that no one outside the U.S. Southeast could criticize the racist practices of the Jim Crow era South (an argument at the time made mainly by Southern white racists).

There are a number of problems with this conception of cultural relativism. First, it’s based on a faulty notion of clear and distinct cultures. This is a notion that has been long outmoded in anthropology. Even when anthropologists did model cultures as if they were discrete and bounded entities, it’s clear from close readings of most early 20th century anthropological texts that these anthropologists were well aware that they were treating culture as a model, as a useful fiction that contributed to greater understanding of cultural processes. But that model has long since outlived its usefulness.

The model of clear and distinct cultures has outlived its usefulness on the grounds of both theoretical utility and empirical reality. At a time when the discipline of anthropology was still establishing a cross-cultural ethnological baseline and developing its fundamental concepts, this model was useful in helping to simplify matters so that these two goals could be accomplished. Once the basic data sets and concepts of the discipline were established, however, this simplifying model of discrete cultures was no longer necessary, and models which dealt with cultural processes in a more complex way became more interesting and meaningful.

Further, throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, it was the case that many cultures were relatively bounded and discrete entities. The social life of Australian aborigines was largely Australian aboriginal; though the Kwakiutl potlatch was modified in some details of practice by both the introduction of new trade goods and the demographic consequences of European disease in the 19th century, it remained an overwhelmingly Kwakiutl sort of thing; many tropical South American societies led ways of life largely untouched by European or Euro-American influence (even though metal tools, sugar cane, and rice might have been introduced). Even though cultures were never clear and separate entities, up through the early 20th century, imagining them to be so simply simplified matters. But today, with an expanding global economy, global media, and global flows of people, it is impossible to clearly delineate one culture from another culture, and such a model doesn’t just simplify but distorts matters.

There is no clear cut “other culture,” no “them” that has not been profoundly influenced by western culture (and for that matter a variety of other cultural traditions as well – as Arjun Appadurai has discussed, while western liberals may fret [perhaps with good reason] about global westernization, the Papuan residents of Irian Jaya are more likely to be concerned about Javanization). Further, there is no clear “us”. For example, if I speak of “we” anthropologists, who am I talking about? North American and Western European scholars’ voices have been most clearly represented (and as is common to add, it has been mainly white, male, heterosexual, middle and upper class voices at that), but in my own thinking about cultural relativism and global cultural processes, I have been profoundly influenced by scholars such as the Argentine-Mexican Néstor García Canclini (like myself a Euro-American, but not North or Anglo American) or scholars from South Asia or of South Asian ancestry like Appadurai, and increasingly anthropological discourse has been the product not just of western voices, but Indian and Japanese and “indigenous” voices. Like it or not, we’re involved in global social interactions, and while we can and should refrain from rushing to judgment of other people’s practices, we can’t refrain from interacting with other people and affecting (or being affected by) them. As the notion of cultural boundaries between a “them” and an “us” becomes more and more farcical, it becomes equally farcical to think that “we” for some reason can’t or shouldn’t critically engage “them.”

Second, the refusal to critique the practices of other cultures is not without effect. To refrain from active engagement is to passively accept the status quo, and the status quo in any cultural context is the product of interactions in social settings laden with power relations. Refraining from active engagement is not to be neutral but to privilege the powerful over the weaker.

Finally, cultural relativism, when taken to imply a taboo on cross cultural critique, implies pessimism about the possibility of cross-cultural communication. It is in any case a taboo on cross cultural critical dialogue. Cultural relativism is a crucial means to avoid rushing to judgment of different practices and to foster respect for diversity and autonomy, but we are enmeshed in a global system in which we are always interacting with others. We need to foster critical dialogue cross-culturally, which depends on both respect and the willingness to critique (both ourselves and others) and be critiqued.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Charlie Parker and Shostakovich: Art, the Artist, and Culture

On the 1946 recording of the song “Lover Man,” Charlie Parker plays one of the most searing, mournful, and heart-rending saxophone solos (or any kind of solo) in the history of recorded music. As is often the case, there is a further story behind the music. Parker had accompanied Dizzy Gillespie to California (where “Lover Man” was recorded) on a tour of the west coast, and had stayed behind to play jazz clubs in Los Angeles when Gillespie returned to New York. Parker had also turned to heroin again, and while he was playing those sad, searing tones immortalized on the “Lover Man” recording, he was in fact experiencing heroin withdrawal. In fact, later that same day, he was arrested in relation to a fire that broke out in his hotel room, ultimately ending up at Camarillo state mental hospital for a stay of some months. (“Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” recorded in early 1947 after that stay, is one of Parker’s jauntiest, happiest sounding recordings.) How much difference do, or should, such biographical tidbits make in our appreciation of the recording?

In his column in the recent special Awards 2006 issue of Gramophone magazine (V. 84, p. 37), Armando Iannucci raises similar questions. Speaking of Shostakovich’s viola sonata, he writes, “The sonata, the final slow movement in particular, is one of the most beautiful, anguished and intimate pieces of 20th-century chamber music I’ve heard…There’s a pain here that’s not dramatic but real. But it is also the last piece he wrote. How much does that matter?” A bit later on, “What does it do to the music knowing it’s the last thing Shostakovich wrote? Knowing that he knew he was dying.” Speaking of other composers, he argues, “You can’t doubt, for example, that the popularity of the Pathetique Symphony, Strauss’s Four Last Songs or Mozart’s Requiem owe an awful lot to our knowledge that they came at the end of each composer’s life.

In cases such as these, knowledge of artists’ biographies and the circumstances surrounding a piece can enhance the experience of art (even if it’s not always clear why that would be the case). Certainly knowledge of artists and the production of art in general in all forms is of historical, sociological, and anthropological interest in its own right. Still, art doesn’t depend upon, isn’t sustained by, and isn’t determined by the artist’s biography, cultural context, etc.

Art does not depend on the artist’s biography

This is a fairly simple point. If you know that Charlie Parker was experiencing the physical pain of heroin withdrawal symptoms and mentally cracking up while playing “Lover Man” in the recording studio, it may enhance your appreciation of the true beauty of the music in relation to Parker’s pain. But you don’t need to know anything about the background of the music to appreciate it for wonderful art. I had heard the recording many times and grown to love it before subsequently reading about the backdrop for the song in several different places. Or as Iannucci writes (the emphasis may be reversed, but he’s making essentially the same points): “It’s not an essential knowledge; the piece doesn’t fall apart without it. But it adds something indefinable, a resonance, as we listen.”

Art is not sustained by the artist’s biography

The production of art involves the creation of a sensual object to be experienced and appreciated for the aesthetic pleasures and/or sensations it gives. Further, the work of art exists independently of the artist: the recording of “Lover Man” still exists and mesmerizes some fifty-odd years after Parker’s death in the early 1950s. The viola sonata, Four Last Songs, and the requiem persist and amaze long after the deaths of Shostakovich, Strauss, and Mozart. Appreciation of the independent existence of the work of art need not take the form of a fetishization of art as having no function other than aesthetic experience. Art can have many functions, including crass, materialistic ones like selling records or tickets to the theater. But if something is art, at least one of its functions is its existence as independent object of aesthetic experience. The biography of the artist and details of the production of the particular work, no matter how interesting, cannot sustain the work’s value as art. If “Lover Man” sounded as if it were being played by someone going through the pain of withdrawal and going a bit crazy, it would be a curiosity at best, something perhaps for jazz completists to pass around with shades of guilt, “Hey, here’s that recording where Charlie Parker’s having a breakdown.” Instead, the details of the recording might add to our appreciation mainly because they stand in contrast to the art, because the art represents Parker overcoming pain, or better, channeling pain into something of truly lasting worth. Likewise, if Strauss’s Four Last Songs or Mozart’s requiem were hackneyed works of previously great masters on their deathbeds, their value would again be mainly that of historical curiosity. In the context of the greatness of the art in itself, the details of their production can enhance our appreciation of these works as last triumphs over death (temporarily for the artist, but with the work persisting).

Art is not determined by the artist’s biography

Art is produced by individuals – sometimes individuals alone or often working in groups, influencing one another. All individuals, of course, are highly influenced by their historical and cultural surroundings (I wouldn’t be much of an anthropologist if I thought otherwise). At the same time, no individual (and no individual work of art) is determined by such contexts. Certainly Parker was influenced by his background, with his upbringing as a black man in Kansas City helping to channel his creative impulses into jazz, but that context alone cannot determine his particular body of work, especially given his instrumental and unique role in producing bebop alongside Gillespie, nor can his biography, even in the particular moment, determine what he played on “Lover Man,” nor fully explain his overall interest in a variety of musical forms. One of the most delightful anecdotes about Parker concerns his interest in Classical Music. Apparently one night while he was playing in a New York jazz club in the 1940s, Igor Stravinsky, having heard about Parker and the new form of jazz, arrived to hear the show. Upon recognizing the composer in the audience, Parker proceeded to drop the main theme from The Firebird into one of his solos, much to the delight Stravinsky.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ethnography, Science, Myth, and Cultural Criticism

In The Science of Culture (1949), Leslie White made a strong argument against the superiority of the physical and life sciences over the social sciences (in particular anthropology), as well as against reductionist tendencies to explain the social and cultural in terms purely of the biological or physical. These tendencies are as present now as they were then and are perhaps even more pervasive, with sociobiology and physics increasingly stretching beyond their very real strengths to claim sovereignty over the humanities and social sciences. The dreams of complete understanding and complete control manifested in overarching sociobiological syntheses or theories of everything in physics, not to mention the small but real steps toward totalization in the contemporary political arena, sound eerily like the scientific and political dreams of the early 20th century, seemingly having forgotten the lessons, horrors, and failings of totalization and totalitarianism. In this scholarly and political environment, it is perhaps useful to revisit earlier anthropological critics of reductionist totalization like White and others and to examine the potential role of ethnography as science, myth-making, or engaged cultural criticism.

While recognizing that the physical and life sciences had made impressive steps in the quantification of their respective fields, White argued that there was a good reason that scientific method and modes of thought developed earlier for these fields than for the humanities and social sciences. For White, the physico-chemical, the biological, the psychological, the social, and the cultural represented increasingly complex emergent levels of phenomena in the world, and just as biology developed more slowly than physics, sociology and anthropology have been more slow to develop a science of society and culture, because of the greater attendant complexity of their subject fields.

White was, of course, not the first to present such a model. As Norbert Elias discusses in What is Sociology? (1978), Auguste Comte had made similar arguments in the nineteenth century. (To clarify, Elias is discussing Comte’s work alone. The juxtaposition of Elias’ discussion of Comte with White is my own.) Comte made a case that for each field, the physical, the biological, and the social, there was a gradual progression from mythic or theological thinking to scientific thought. As I have argued elsewhere (Philen 2005 a; 2005 b) and below, much of what ethnography does works in a mythic frame.

Is anthropology at a stage of intellectual development where it is possible to move from a mythic to a scientific mode? The answer is in some ways yes, in some ways no (and perhaps in those ways it never will be in that the progressive, stratigraphic model does not apply equally well to all aspects of culture). To some extent it all depends on what we mean by “science”.

White clearly thought anthropology was ready for a science of culture, but his efforts to produce such a science involved some of the most roundly critiqued aspects of his work. Take, for example, his reification of culture as a superorganic entity existing beyond human interactions (a common enough reification he shared with Kroeber, among others). Or his nebulous pseudo-mathematical formula C = E x T, postulating that the level of cultural evolution is equivalent to the quantity of energy harnessed to productive purposes times the level of technological development, a formula clearly not quantifiable as such, even if the postulated relationship between energy utilization, technological development, and culture is an interesting and insightful one. Elias argues that to the extent that sociology has produced a science of society it is through similar reifications of misperceived social interactions as the entities “society” or “social structure” or the “corporation.” (To point out the reified nature of such concepts does not mean that we can avoid such usage, rather that we should be aware of such reification and the way in which sociological science has proceeded is through what Bourdieu (1977) calls the realism of the structure, treating such reifications as more real than they actually are.)

Where anthropology has been most successful in a scientistic mode is in the analysis of those ways in which culture acts as an adaptive mechanism. For example, cultural materialism and cultural ecology in general have been most convincing in explicating human interactions with the environment – especially with regard to subsistence activities and especially with regard to small societies most subject to the vagaries of natural cycles. However, when it comes to larger societies or other areas of cultural life where things are in some ways by definition arbitrary – as with language, myth, music, or art, those areas of cultural experience related to the production of meaning – such attempts at scientific explication fall short: even when illuminating something about meaning producing systems, such approaches leave much untouched concerning the meaning of meaning.

This of course begs the question of the nature of science. What is science? Lévi-Strauss (1966) presented it by analogy to the engineer imposing structure upon the world, in this case imposing scientific theory and hypothesis to produce events – experimental data. Ethnographic theorizing tends to work in ways more analogous to mythic thinking, cobbling together conceptualizations from cultural odds and ends. These odds and ends are drawn from the cultural context under analysis through the reflexive use of emic conceptual categories to theorize the context under consideration, but they are also drawn from the ethnographic, travel and other literatures pertaining to the cultural-geographic area, as well as from the ethnographic representation of other areas as anthropologists engage in ethnological comparison (see especially Appadurai 1988 on this point), with ethnographic theorization utilizing all such categories and conceptualizations reflexively to analyze the context in question. Given the Lévi-Straussian conceptualization of the distinction between mythic and scientific thinking, ethnography generally falls into the mythic mode – though there are exceptions and they are the sorts of exceptions I mentioned above, usually cultural materialist or other cultural ecological analyses focusing especially on the environmental adaptations of small scale societies.

Lévi-Strauss’ is not the only definition of science, though, or even the most familiar. White defines science in terms of its characteristic activity. In the opening chapter of The Science of Culture, “Science is Sciencing,” he argues (1949:3):

"Science is not merely a collection of facts and formulas. It is pre-eminently a way of dealing with experience. The word may be appropriately used as a verb: one sciences, i.e., deals with experience according to certain assumptions and with certain techniques. Science is one of two basic ways of dealing with experience. The other is art. And this word, too, may appropriately be used as a verb; one may art as well as science. The purpose of science and art is one: to render experience intelligible, i.e. to assist man to adjust himself to his environment in order that he may live. But although working toward the same goal, science and art approach it from opposite directions. Science deals with particulars in terms of universals: Uncle Tom disappears in the mass of Negro slaves. Art deals with universals in terms of particulars: the whole gamut of Negro slavery confronts us in the person of Uncle Tom. Art and science thus grasp a common experience, or reality, by opposite but inseparable poles."

This, obviously, is similar to the common distinction between nomothetic and idiographic approaches to scholarly analysis, though without recognizing that idiographic accounts might focus upon the particular case with no pretense to universality. While I find the basic distinction compelling, it fails to deal with the presence of myth, music, or, I would argue, ethnography, which lie somewhere in between. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that most who have been drawn to anthropology through reading ethnography would not want it to be science in White’s sense. In the most compelling ethnographies (and granted that there are a whole slew of non-compelling ethnographies out there which stick far too strictly to generalization or to particularization), Uncle Tom does not disappear into the mass of slaves. Instead, particulars are dealt with in terms of universals, or at least generalizations often derived from the cultural context of the particulars, at the same time that universals or generalizations are embodied or manifested in particulars.

Still, part of White’s sleight of hand in claiming to have developed a science of culture is not just (a fairly standard) reification of culture and the presence of pseudo-mathematical formulae but also a redefining of science in terms (the act of nomothetic generalization) that anthropology can meet (for ethnography does include that – as does myth), even if at the expense of losing much that is compelling about it (the lived experiences and particularities of culture). But since most conceptions of “science” include something more than just generalization, I don’t think it worth jettisoning much that is valuable about ethnography when doing so still doesn’t get us into the science club. For most definitions of science include additional qualities, such as controlled experimentation or replicability of results. Leaving aside ethical dilemmas about controlled experimentation in cultural contexts, given the complexity of socio-cultural phenomena, we are not at this stage of scientificity – and given the arbitrary, historical, and contingent nature of so much of what is cultural, I don’t think we should expect to ever be at such a point.

The fact that we are not in a position to construct scientific proofs or deduce universal laws of human thought or behavior (Even Lévi-Strauss’ work on universal structuring of the mind is an interpretation of the implications of a large corpus of mythic text which does not function in the manner of mathematical or logical proof, nor was it derived from anything resembling hypothetico-deductive method or the like, nor does it present anything law-like regarding human behavior.) should not be regarded as cause for alarm nor does it imply that we understand nothing about human culture. Nor does the argument that ethnography tends to produce meaning in a manner analogous to mythic thinking imply that anything goes or that ethnography is not empirically based. One of the things made clear in The Savage Mind, the Mythologiques series, and other works by Lévi-Strauss is that though myth is a product of the human mind, as of course are science and art, individual myths often pay close attention to the empirical world.

On the other hand, I don’t think that we should be complacent about the state of ethnography. Even if a scientific ethnography, at least with regard to all aspects of cultural life, is not now nor perhaps ever possible, we should not be content with purely mythic thinking, producing narratives which are good to think simply for the sake of narratives which are good to think. That is, ethnography is in some ways structurally analogous to myth – but it is not the same thing as myth, especially regarding its motivation and role. We should be trying to understand increasingly more about the world, and our narratives should be constructed with a critical awareness of their constructedness.

Culture, which is the (or at least a) primary topic of ethnographic narrative, often has been presented as a real thing – that is, as something with existence beyond the interactions and discursive constructions of socially connected individuals. This is most evident with either White’s or A. L. Kroeber’s presentation of culture as a really existing superorganic entity, but even when it is acknowledged that “culture” is a reification of complex processes, it is a reification which is nearly impossible to avoid. So, I would argue that what is important is to acknowledge and to be conscious of its functioning as such and to deconstruct and critique its conceptualization, so that even if we do not escape the reification of culture for the moment, we can move on to new understandings of “it.”

Culture, to the extent that it is anything, is not a single over-arching entity, but consists, as I have argued elsewhere (2004), in a patchwork of argument, (By “argument,” I mean not just types of logical argumentation such as deduction or induction, but a type of sign, as conceived by C. S. Peirce [1992:27]: “a sign whose interpretant represents its object as being an ulterior sign through a law, namely, the law that the passage from all such premises to such conclusions tends to the truth.” This includes not just deduction and induction, but also other forms of logical argument identified by Peirce, such as abduction, as well as cultural themes and schemas [see Philen 2004].) i.e. in types of modeling behavior which can be seen as theorization broadly understood.

Culture, then, as Clifford Geertz pointed out long ago (1973a), consists of models of and models for reality. If culture is to be understood as argument and the process of cultural modeling as akin to theorization, then theorization should be regarded as having something in common with cultural modeling, and ethnographic theorization should perhaps also be envisioned as engaging in both modeling of reality (which would be ethnographic theory as conventionally understood) and modeling for reality. Here we encounter Paolo Freire’s (1993) view of theory as praxis – the attempt to produce a unity of thought and the world, not by passively allowing thought to reflect or mirror a static world, but by critically reflecting upon the world and engaging in action informed by critical consciousness to produce a social universe compatible with that desired by such critical consciousness.

Anthropology is most valuable as cultural critique and as a contributor to the critical production of culture. Here, the insights of Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno are useful in understanding ethnography’s value as cultural criticism. Foucault points out that what passes as true (that which is dans le vrai) is always political – and is discursively constructed and contested. In our era, one general feature of knowledge which is dan le vrai is “utility” – specifically constructed as utility for production and profit – hence the high estimation of the “practical” sciences and the lower estimation of the arts and humanities, and hence the belief of many that the natural or hard sciences can take them over adequately and should do so. Adorno, in his work in aesthetic theory, argues that art and literature are not “useful,” but rather are valuable precisely because they are not and because they can alienate us from our alienations.

In everyday life, our language, discursive constructions, and culture, which exist only through our practice, are alienated from us and perceived as things existing apart from us. Similarly, our real social relations are mystified in a commodity-fetishizing society into relations among things. Art can potentially expose this – it can’t just make alienation go away, but can alienate us from our alienations. I would argue that in its role as cultural criticism, ethnography can do likewise – in its longstanding project to make the exotic familiar and the familiar exotic. Doing this doesn’t change any of these social realities, but it does demystify the processes of social alienation and open the possibility for the critical production of desired cultural forms rather than the uncritical inertial production of cultural forms. Like it or not, we are enmeshed in a world of practice and cultural production. So, the choice in debates about applied anthropology and cultural relativism isn’t between acting or not acting, but between unconsciously contributing to self-mystifying cultural production or critically engaging in the process.

But what sort of consciousness does anthropology and ethnography embody, and to what sort of project is it suited to contribute? Anthropology was in part a product of the Enlightenment project. The Enlightenment’s questioning of the divine structuring of society and political authority gave rise not just to musings on the nature of the ideal society as seen in the work of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, and others, but also to a gradual awareness of the multiplicity of possibilities for the construction of society which led to the development of anthropology. Anthropology, and especially ethnography, is also in a good position from which to contribute to the still unfinished projects of the Enlightenment – liberty, equality, fraternity (I would phrase this last as community to evade the gender bias of “fraternity” and argue that the development of true community freely chosen depends on the development of the first two). Ethnography is positioned to do so not just through cultural critique but also through applied anthropological praxis informed by critical awareness to contribute to the greater fulfillment (never a completed process – for even were it momentarily fulfilled, it would need to be maintained and reproduced) of the Enlightenment projects.

There is a perennial tension in American anthropology between assumptions that humans are profoundly similar, sharing psychic unity with the same mental capacities, needs, and predisposition, and assumptions that people are profoundly dissimilar (with this the basis of cultural relativism), their thoughts and actions largely shaped by specific cultural context. This presents not a contradiction but an impetus to resolve the apparent tension which arises from the various roots of contemporary American anthropological thought, with the discipline taking its current shape in the late 19th and early 20th century from the traditions of the British and French Enlightenments, as well as the German (and sometimes Anti-Enlightenment) scholarly tradition.

These three traditions, the British, French, and German, were heavily influenced by national projects in the modern era in transition from divine right rule to rule by or for the “people” or on some other legitimated basis in modern nation-states. With Britain and France as already existing polyglot states before the era of nationalism, emphasis was on citizenship and rationality, with the two scholarly traditions emphasizing rational agents and regularities of social organization, whether in the intellectual lineage of Locke, Smith, Mill, and Tyler or in that of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Comte, and Durkheim. In 19th century Germany, in contrast, the national project was to cobble together a state from the population of German speakers spread across numerous states in Central Europe, with an emphasis on language and common tradition as unifying points. Scholarly focus was on national character (out of which the idea of “culture” emerges), with this not strictly determined by rationality, e.g. Freud and the unconscious or Ratzel and geographic determinism.

For American anthropology in the 20th and 21st centuries, the upshot is (or should be) recognition of both rationality and irrationality, commonality of capacities and needs alongside extreme diversity of patterned behaviors and the contents of thought. As Geertz argued (1973b), the profound interaction of biology and culture produced this condition in humans – the evolution of a mind capable of highly flexible and general adaptation, responding always to common needs but in quite diverse natural and cultural environments.

This awareness and tension has been a part of American anthropology at least since Boas, a scholar all too often oversimplified as atheoretical (which is preposterous) or as an uncritical cultural relativist. As Boas student Ruth Bunzel (1962) pointed out, Boas’ cultural relativism was premised in respect for cultural traditions of all sorts, but it was an engaged stance, as is most clear in his public-oriented writing on the topic of race. Boas made clear that cultural relativism was rationally useful insofar as it opened our minds to the greatest diversity of perspectives and human possibilities, but was not meant to be a position of blind ethical neutrality whereby we must accept any tradition of another culture by mere virtue of its existence.

Further, as he was aware of the rational faculties of humans of all cultures, he also recognized the importance of things other than rationality in human thought and behavior. For example, he writes (1962:114-115; emphasis added):

"Here again the anthropologist and the biologist are at odds. The natural sciences do not recognize in their scheme a valuation of the phenomena of nature, nor do they count emotions as moving forces; they endeavor to reduce all happenings to the actions of physical causes. Reason alone reigns in their domain. Therefore the scientist likes to look at mental life from the same rational standpoint, and sees as the goal of human development an era of reason, as opposed to the former periods of unhealthy fantastic emotion.
"The anthropologist, on the other hand, cannot acknowledge such a complete domination of emotion by reason. He rather sees the steady advance of the rational knowledge of mankind, which is a source of satisfaction to him no less than to the biologist; but he sees also that mankind does not put this knowledge to purely reasonable use, but that its actions are swayed by emotions no less now than in former times, although in many respects, unless the passions are excited, the increase of knowledge limits the extreme forms of unreasonable emotional activities. Religion and political life, and our everyday habits, present endless proofs of the fact that our actions are the results of emotional preferences, that conform in a general way to our rational knowledge, but which are not determined by reason; that we rather try to justify our choice by reason than have our actions dictated by reason.

Nor, despite its explanatory power, can science ever offer us a purely rational alternative to the importance of emotion and other non-rational factors in decision making. Boas provides an example in a discussion of eugenics. His discussion was written before the various horrors of eugenics of the 20th century – which in themselves caution us against the idea that humans may be capable of perfect rationality – but his discussion is worth perusing, if only for hypothetical argument. Some medical disorders clearly are genetically inherited. Genetic science can clearly elucidate this for us, but it cannot clearly elucidate a definitive course of action. Should families with evidence of genetic disorders be subject to eugenic “solutions,” whether in the form of sterilization, selective breeding, or other even darker courses of action? Take for example the character Jubal’s proposition, in Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land, that hemophiliacs should be left to bleed to death so they can’t breed more hemophiliacs. Certainly that is one possible approach to take. Or, because most genetic disorders while compromising health do not preclude positive quality of life and because most genetic disorders will not be passed on to all offspring, should eugenic solutions be verboten? While this latter is probably (I hope) the position of most nowadays, logic and rationality alone do not dictate it. As Boas says, “This question cannot be decided from a scientific point of view. The answer depends upon ethical and social standards” (1962:199). We can certainly marshal logical arguments to back up our ethical choices once made, but there is no magical rational formula that can choose our ethical positions a priori.

Where does this leave us? First, we should remember the universality of rationality, but also the potential for irrationality, among all human groups, as well as the importance and diversity of cultural traditions and social standards upon which rational and non-rational choices are made. But there is also the necessity of making choices and critically engaging in praxis on the basis of such choices. In a world where there is no universal moral code, but where we are also inherently engaged in globally cross-cutting social interactions of all sorts and where we cannot disengage and be totally neutral in political or ethical effect, we must maintain and refine the critical tension that has long been a part of American anthropology.

An uncritical rationalism falls short (1) in that there is no universal rational agent – not because people are not universally capable of rationality, but because the differing contexts of peoples’ lives present highly varying modes of rationalization, and because we are all so paramountly capable of irrationality – and (2) because the underestimation of cultural difference undermines the value of autonomy and freedom (including autonomy to develop cultural traditions, values, worldviews, etc.) of the enlightenment project of which rationalism is supposedly a part. At the same time, an uncritical cultural relativism falls similarly short. All too often it is based in the notion of a culture’s autonomy, which involves not just the useful reification of analytical modeling but a reification which obscures individuals’ actions and motivations in such a way that the status quo (which is itself a reification, of course) is taken as the decisions and norms of “the culture”, naturalizing asymmetrical relationships as tradition – as if all have equal autonomy in producing or consenting to this state of affairs, and normalizing the views of a culture’s elites as “typical”. A cultural relativism which sincerely values and respects differences is valuable. One that validates at face value anything which happens to be part of the traditions of a culture is problematic. When further wed to an identity politics in which only cultural “insiders” can speak about a particular context, cultural relativism can become insidious, undermining both the power of the human intellect and ability to communicate across cultures and not be confined to incommensurable languages and traditions, and falsifying the truly hybrid nature of all our cultural traditions which result from the history of human cultural interpenetration and communication. Instead, if anthropology and ethnography are to continue to offer something worthwhile, we need to refine key elements of our theoretical tradition to engage in an expanded enlightenment project, one which is rational and values equality, justice, and autonomy – including that of cultural diversity – but which is also involved in engaged cultural critique and praxis through cross-cultural communication and co-equal interaction.

References Cited
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