Monday, April 30, 2007

2006 and 1930

In the April 30, 2007 issue of The Nation (pp. 16 – 20), Lawrence Cooper argues for what he calls “The Coming Party Realignment.” He bases this on a historical parallel with the early 1930s. In 1930, with voters newly disaffected from the effects of the Great Depression and seeing President Hoover seeming to do nothing to help, Democrats picked up a substantial number of seats in Congress. In 1932, the slight realignment of Congress was followed by a sort of political tidal wave, with Democrats gaining overwhelming control of Congress and picking up the presidency with FDR’s first term. Cooper sees 2006’s slight realignment of Congress to the Democrats as parallel to 1930, to be followed in 2008 by a parallel to 1932. He sees the causes of the 1930 and 2006 shifts as parallel as well – public anxiety over economic crisis. “For generations to come, American historians will doubtless be comparing the period 1930 – 1936 to 2006 – 2012 as years of crisis for capitalism.”

I find Cooper’s article interesting – and I’d like to think he’s right that a political tidal wave will largely sweep the Republicans away in 2008, though I’m not confident that will happen, and while he does point out some interesting parallels, I’m skeptical of his totalizing comparison of the two eras.

In both the 1930 and 2006 mid-term elections, the shift of seats in Congress from Republicans to Democrats represented a sort of informal referendum on Presidents Hoover and Bush, indicating voter dissatisfaction with them. But the causes of voter displeasure are not so parallel as Cooper presents (and the consequences in 2008 likewise need not parallel 1932). The election of 1930 represented displeasure and anxiety over the Depression as Cooper argues. While economic anxiety (and perhaps some disgust over the handling of things like Hurricane Katrina) may have been part of the backdrop for voters’ motivations in voting as they did (and more on economic anxiety in a moment), the primary issue in the 2006 election was clearly the Iraq War. Barring an extreme downturn in the economy, Iraq will probably be the main issue again in 2008, with economic anxiety, health care, and the Bush Administration’s various scandals as important, but distinctly secondary campaign issues. If things in Iraq continue as they are now, 2008 may see major victories for Democrats, but not really for the reasons Cooper argues.

1930 and 2006 are both periods of economic anxiety for many middle class Americans, and Americans in general. They have that in common, but 1930 and 2006 aren’t otherwise particularly comparable. Today, we see crisis and much anxiety for some workers, but capitalism is not in crisis, whereas in 1930 both workers and capitalism were in crisis.

Further the degree of crisis and anxiety, even for workers, is quite different in degree and kind. Middle class workers are rightly anxious today, about not going deeply into debt, about paying for a top college education for their children, about their job being outsourced and having to take a lower paying job, about their home losing value in a housing bubble, in some cases about having to shift from owning a home to renting. In 1930, many middle class workers were worried about having any sort of job and about whether there would be food in the short or long term. Things are serious for the American middle class today (and even more serious for those below the middle class), and that will likely have political repercussions, but it’s no Great Depression.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich

The world has lost a great mind and musical talent with the passing of cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. He added much to the world, and he will be missed.

Click on the link for a news story and obituary.;_ylt=Aho5JErjlbdHuN1yMpbnu2oDW7oF

Not the War of 1812

In a recent column in Time magazine (March 26, 2007, pp. 55 – 56), Richard Brookhiser makes a problematic comparison between current opposition to the war in Iraq by Democrats in Congress and opposition to war with Britain during the War of 1812 by Federalists in Congress.

Federalists opposed the movement to war from the beginning, and in 1814 organized a convention to oppose the war. Before their positions could be presented, the news was in of U.S. victory in the Battle of New Orleans and of a peace treaty agreeable to both sides. The Federalists, tainted by “defeatism and treason,” quickly faded into irrelevancy. Brookhiser’s concluding lesson, “The antiwar Federalists had the courage of their convictions, playing a weak hand – they were always a congressional minority – boldly. But their overthrow was a lesson in practical politics. If you stick your neck out too far, it may get broken. Today’s Democrats are wise to debate and discuss.” In other words, Democrats need to beware of speaking too strongly on Iraq lest they go the way of the Federalists in 1815.

I thank Brookhiser for writing a provocative piece. The War of 1812 is not a comparative frame I would have likely thought of on my own. But that’s largely because the comparison doesn’t fit so well. There is some commonality – both involve parties opposite the president expressing some opposition to a war started on dubious pretexts. Beyond that, though, are all the differences. As Brookhiser himself writes, the Federalists were always a minority in this period, and, as he also writes, they had been waning in power (to a far greater extent than the Democrats in the 1990s I would add) for quite some time before the start of the War of 1812.

The two wars are quite different as well. The pretext for war in Iraq seems far more questionable to many Americans today that the pretext for war in 1812 had (there had actually been some British violations of American sovereignty on the seas in that case). Currently, there is not even the remote possibility that the war in Iraq might end in conquest of the U.S. (a less than remote possibility in the War of 1812), and so it hardly seems “treasonable” to simply be opposed to continued involvement in the quagmire of Iraq. Further, in the current Iraq war there is no realistic possibility of anything that could be reasonably termed “victory” anytime soon.

In short, the comparison of the current situation with the War of 1812 doesn’t indicate any clear lessons. Brookhiser’s arguments seem to me to be an attempt to dissuade strong critique of the war (which might not be all that necessary – another difference is that many Democrats don’t have the strength of their convictions that the Federalists did) at a time when no good arguments for continuing the war remain.

At the same time, Broohiser’s column is one of several writings and commentaries I’ve encountered recently that attempt to discern lessons for the present via comparison with supposedly comparable previous set of events. (I’ll discuss another example in my next post.) This seems to reflect a feeling by many that in our current context, we’re on the verge of some significant change, with a look towards history to try to discern what such change might be.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Reading, Looking, Listening

In a recent post, “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the Experience of Art (Musical and Visual),” and in the comments section attached to that post, I argued that the experience of literature is different in some ways from that of visual art or music. I’d like here to explore and clarify this distinction a bit further.

The experience of visual art or music involves looking or listening, each of which entails direct sensory perception of external phenomena that can impinge themselves upon us without our choosing – we experience something simply by being in the presence of the visual or auditory object. To experience something that is not superficial of a sculpture, painting, photograph or piece of music, of course requires more than this – active looking or listening involving concentration, contemplation, and conceptualization.

Reading literature (or anything else) is always operating already at the sort of second order level we see with active looking and listening. Reading involves and is built upon looking, but looking alone isn’t reading. The sensory experience of a book or computer screen and the visual qualities of letters and words aren’t text (i.e. the page isn’t the text). Text is always something created internally by contemplation and conception (e.g. seeing that “A,” “a,” “a,” or “A,” look different is direct sensory experience of visual phenomena – recognizing any or all of them as “the letter A” involves internal conception and interpretation), albeit prompted by and in relation to the concrete visual qualities of the page (“the letter A” can only be recognized in relation to a limited range of visual phenomena) much in the same way that active listening or looking involve inner contemplation in relation to distinctly external phenomena.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Clarification on "Qualitative" and "Quantitative" Difference

In several recent posts (“Measurement and Interpretation: Let us Speak no more of Quantitative and Qualitative Research;” “Thinking Problem: Rethinking Ethnographic Methods in Relation to a Study of Students’ Cultural Models of Drinking;” and “Ethnographic Research Methods and Ethnographic Writing;”) I have argued that the terminological distinction between “qualitative” and “quantitative” research is a false distinction that would be better replaced with an emphasis on certain aspects of the research endeavor, “measurement” and “interpretation,” that we encounter with all good research.

In two other recent posts, I used the distinction between qualitative and quantitative difference as a critical component of my arguments. In “Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the Experience of Art (Musical and Visual),” among other things, I argued that the experience of viewing an original work of visual art was (typically) different from that of viewing a reproduction and that the experience of listening to live musical performance was different from that of listening to recorded music. I further argued that the differences between viewing original and reproduced art and between listening to live and recorded music were only partially analogous. With both domains of artistic experience, there is a quantitative difference at play. One typically experiences “more” with the original work of visual art – one sees aspects of size more accurately, the textures are more clearly discerned, etc. With live performance of music, a fuller sense of the total dynamic qualities of music might be experienced, but with live music there is also a qualitative experience as well. The experience of original or reproduced works of visual art is the same sort of experience, the experience of seeing or looking. Live and recorded music are qualitatively similar in involving hearing, but live performance, especially of music of high volume, low pitch with long wavelengths, or played with acoustic instruments which not only produce soundwaves but also displace air physically, also can involve a bodily feeling as the live music is experienced literally viscerally, resonating through one’s body in a way that recorded music almost never does (the only time I’ve ever experienced this bodily sensation from recorded music was with dance music with very low, constant bass sounds, played extremely loudly in a dance club from speakers about 15 feet tall).

In “Shamanism, Fascism, Gulags, and Genocide,” I argued that while some terms, like “shamanism,” might be extended from their original contexts to apply to qualitatively similar phenomena in other cultural settings to make useful cross-cultural comparisons, so long as the extension of the term is done carefully. At the same time, I argued that other terms, such as “fascism” or “gulag,” should ideally be restricted to their original cultural and historical contexts. It’s one thing to compare fascism with other sociopolitical phenomena – that can be useful – it’s quite another to refer to other phenomena by that term when there are important quantitative and qualitative distinctions between fascism and other phenomena.

So, when I object to the terminology of “quantitative research” and “qualitative research,” it’s not at all the difference between “qualitative” and “quantitative” to which I object. Making valid distinctions is an important component of any scholarly activity, and that includes the ability to distinguish between different types of differences. Distinguishing between differences of amount and differences of type or category is obviously important and useful. My objection to “qualitative research” and “quantitative research” is twofold. (1) There is no pure qualitative or quantitative scholarly work. (2) Not only is there no pure research of one type or the other, but all research is thoroughly qualitative and quantitative.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Shamanism, Fascism, Gulags, and Genocide

In lieu of the pragmatic or moral possibility of subjecting human culture and history to controlled laboratory examination, a comparative approach is one of our most important tools in attempting to come to an understanding of human experience and practices across historical and cultural contexts. One powerful and often useful way to do this involves the extension of words and concepts originally relating to one historical or cultural context to other settings where we find phenomena that are qualitatively similar in some essential way.

Shamanism, Taboo, Machismo

In the discipline of anthropology, there is a long history of theorizing and understanding cultural contexts in terms of concepts developed within the cultural context in question, but also of extending some of these concepts to apply them to other cultural settings as well. Some important examples include the extension of “shamanism,” “taboo,” and “machismo” to theorize a variety of cultural settings. (Other examples could include “fetishism,” “swidden,” or the use of vernacular English terms to understand similar phenomena in other cultures, e.g. the emphasis on “face” with regard to East Asian cultures, or “honor” and “shame” to conceptualize Circum-Mediterranean cultures.)

“Shamanism” is a word originating with Siberian languages, but has been applied to a variety of religious or spiritual phenomena involving individuals entering into trance or other altered states to interact with the supernatural world in a wide variety of Native American contexts, as well as with regard to cultural contexts in a number of Old World settings outside Siberia. “Taboo” is a term originating in Polynesia. Like “shamanism” it has been extended to a wide number of cultural and historical settings in reference to a variety of sorts of sacred prohibitions. “Machismo” is possibly a bit different in that there is some debate about whether the term originated in Spanish speaking contexts or was introduced to Spanish speaking contexts originally by anthropologists such as Oscar Lewis in reference to patterns of masculine behavior in Latin American contexts like Mexico. In any case, like “Shamanism” and “taboo,” it has been extended to refer to masculine practice and traits, especially characteristics such as intransigence, in a number of settings, though mainly in Latin America and to a lesser extent the Mediterranean region (mainly Spain, to a lesser extent Italy or the Balkans – not so much North Africa).

Each of these terms can be useful in indicating cross-cultural similarity, when used carefully. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that extension of terms can water down the specificity of the particular contexts in question. Extending “shamanism” to discuss non-Siberian cultures can potentially involve losing sight of the particularities of Siberian shamanism, though there’s no reason why an attention to detail cannot also be incorporated into cross-cultural comparison.

To me, the utility of such terms for comparative work depends on careful and consistent attention to issues of qualitative similarity. Each of these three concepts can be used problematically when this is not the case. Siberian and Native American individuals who enter altered states of consciousness to magically heal (or harm) other individuals or interact with a variety of spirits are engaging in different experiences, but experiences that are qualitatively similar in essential ways. Lamas in Tibetan area cultures who engage in ritual practice beseeching gods to intervene against demons and evil spirits, and who may or may not enter a sort of trance state when doing so, are engaging in experiences and practices that are similar in some ways, but less systematically similar – and hence it’s less clear that referring to lamas as “shamans” is a useful thing to do. (Comparing the Siberian and Native American examples is not comparing apples and oranges, but more like comparing different varieties of apples. Comparing lamas and Siberian shamans might be more like comparing apples and oranges – which do at least in fact have a good deal of similarity in both being fruits.) There seems to me a world of difference in the practices of Jívaro shamans in Ecuador, as described by Michael Harner in his 1970s era ethnography The Jívaro, and the sort of “shamanism” taught today by Michael Harner to New Age spiritualists (which seems to me more like comparing apples and collard greens).

“Taboo” seems to me to be stretched thin, rather than usefully extended, when inconsistently applied, not just to examples of sacred prohibition, but to proscription in general (an extension that’s also unnecessary in that there’s already a word for that – “proscription”). The main problem I have with much anthropological use of “machismo” is not the set of characteristics and practices of masculinity it is often associated with, but the often inconsistent manner of its application. In practice it is generally applied to Spanish speaking cultural contexts, and occasionally to other Latin American or European Mediterranean settings, only rarely to other settings. Which would be fine, except that to be conceptualized broadly enough to incorporate the diverse array of Latin American and Mediterranean practices of masculinity, it could easily be applied to a variety of other settings as well, though this is generally not done. In other words, “machismo” could be usefully extended to compare Latin American, North American and European masculinity (and probably other settings as well) on analogy with the extension of “taboo” or “shamanism,” but in practice is problematically used to over-delineate “Latin American” difference through the lack of extension.

Fascism, Gulags, Genocide

There are other concepts that I would argue should be carefully restricted to a limited number of settings. Most prominent among these are “fascism,” “gulag,” and “genocide.” I argue that these terms ideally should be restricted to a limited set of historical circumstances on practical and moral grounds. Practically, these are very serious topics which require careful delineation. This is especially the case with “genocide,” where in the case of ongoing or potential future cases, being able to make fine distinctions contributing to subtle understanding may be important in intervention to stop it. Further, these in fact are fairly unique phenomena – the degree of qualitative similarity is limited. Morally, these are terms that refer to some of the most serious and egregious violations of human rights and dignity in human history. Comparison with other historical contexts can be quite useful, but careless extension of the terms themselves, such as with George W. Bush’s use of the term “Islamofascism” or Amnesty International’s “American Gulag,” both undermines the credibility of the speaker and makes a mockery of the seriousness of the original contexts.


Fascism was a form of authoritarian populism, but not all authoritarian populism (much less anything that is vaguely “authoritarian”) is fascism. “Fascism” should be used to speak of political and social phenomena of the 1930s and 1940s, specifically of German Nazism and Italian fascism and related fascist movements in other countries at the time. (I don’t strongly object to use of the term to refer to contemporary neo-Nazis or other neo-fascists who take specific inspiration from the original fascists, though I do think it generally a good idea to use the “neo-” prefix for such cases.) There are a number of features that make German Nazism and Italian fascism quite distinct from other phenomena.

Fascism was not just authoritarian but totalitarian, aiming toward total identity between state and society and total control and transformation of every aspect of society, with this more clearly achieved in the case of Nazi Germany than fascist Italy. Fascism is not the only example of totalitarianism (Hannah Arendt’s classic book on the subject, The Origins of Totalitarianism, describes Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin as the two main cases of actually existing totalitarianism, to which could probably be added the People’s Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge), but totalitarianism is a key feature of fascism.

Fascism also involved mass mobilization of people as part of the total identity between state and the populace, a sort of fetishization of technology, and use of mass media and spectacle (where in the case of mass mobilization, the people formed the very spectacle that they were to behold). Involved also with this was a paradoxical or contradictory simultaneous appeal to modernity and the primitive – an identification of state and nation with the might of modern technology and with blood, soil, and family. Alongside this, fascism promised a total social transformation, as did totalitarian communism, but unlike communism, this involved a conservative revolutionary transformation to restore an earlier ideal state of being (which included a romanticization of rural life, blood and race [especially for the Nazis], the Roman Empire [especially for the Italian fascists, but with Nazis also using much Roman imagery], and non- or pre-Christian folklore and mythos [e.g. the uses to which the composers Wagner and Orff were put in Germany]). In all of this fascism was relentlessly nationalist.

Fascism is essentially characterized by this suite of characteristics, and not just any one of them. Useful insights can be gained by comparing Italian fascism and/or Nazi Germany with other political or social systems, but little is gained by extending the term “fascism” in facile ways to contexts that have only a little in common with these cases, especially given that we have ready access to a variety of more usefully generalizable terms, such as “authoritarianism,” “populism,” “nationalism,” or even “totalitarianism.”

Finally, fascism is indelibly linked to not just any old set of historical and cultural contexts but to the destruction of much of Europe during World War II and to the Holocaust in the case of German Nazism. The seriousness of this to me makes any attempt to apply the term to other settings facile at best, distorting the reality of both contexts under comparison.

The Gulag

A few years ago, Amnesty International aroused a small controversy by referring to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay housing “enemy combatants” as an “American Gulag.” (This is a phrase that has subsequently repeated by others. For example, in a recent column in The Nation [“Here Comes Another ‘Crime Wave,’” April 2, 2007, p. 9], Alexander Cockburn repeats the phrase, though in this case it’s not clear whether he’s referring to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, arbitrary violent action against Iraqi civilians, or the American prison system within the U.S.) The characterization struck many as absurd and offensive, the most unfortunate consequence of which was that it undermined the credibility of Amnesty International’s report on Guantanamo, with the result that little attention was paid to the important facts and findings reported there.

Pragmatically, it seems foolish to carelessly throw about terms such as “gulag,” “fascism,” or “genocide.” Because these are highly loaded terms, the extension of them to a variety of contexts has the rhetorical effect of undermining one’s seriousness and credibility for many audiences. As with “fascism,” “gulag” is a term associated with one of the most egregious and systematic violations of human dignity and human rights in history – to glibly refer to other things as “gulags” is to diminish the seriousness of the original context.

There are vast qualitative and quantitative differences between the Soviet Gulag (especially under Stalin, but also earlier and later) and Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib that make the use of the phrase “American Gulag” simply inaccurate or misleading.

The Gulag interred millions, as opposed to hundreds (or a few thousands, perhaps, if you combine detention centers in Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan). That is, there are several orders of magnitude difference in the scale of the systems.

In addition to many differences of detail, there are at least two major qualitative differences that make the Soviet Gulag system quite distinct from the “American Gulag.” First, the Soviet Gulag was not just a system of imprisonment but also a slave labor system, while there’s no current evidence I’m aware of for anything of the sort in the cases of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or CIA “black sites.” Second, the Gulag was an integral (and legal) part of the Soviet system overall, which focused especially on citizens who were counter-revolutionary, subversive, enemies of the states, or somehow ran afoul of Stalinist paranoia. Guantanamo is explicitly external to the normal American justice system. Even the Bush Administration recognizes the abnormality and specialness of it, arguing repeatedly, for example, that normal U.S. laws do not apply because internees are non-citizens detained while not follow Geneva Convention rules of warfare and because Guantanamo is not U.S. but foreign soil (an element of the argument I’m sure Fidel Castro finds interesting).

At the same time, I don’t want at all to diminish the seriousness of Guantanamo (or any similar sites). There are troubling commonalities between it and the Gulag, such as detention incommunicado, detention without hope of normal legal proceedings, no clear evidence of offense in many cases, etc. The fact that there are any similarities is quite disturbing, though Amnesty International could have more credibly pointed this out, and even made comparisons between the contexts, if they had done so without attempting to claim equivalency (an equivalency denied by the serious quantitative and qualitative differences) by the use of the “American Gulag” phrase.


“Genocide” is different in one way from “fascism” or “gulag.” Those two terms arose in a specific context, contexts that I argue they should be restricted to in their application. “Genocide” is a term applied externally to any number of settings. So, I wouldn’t claim that it should be restricted to only one or another context, but I would argue that “genocide” should be used very carefully in reference to specific sorts of cases.

Cases like the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide are of such seriousness that haphazard use of “genocide” can distort reality, undermine credibility, and needlessly cause offense. Further, for those interested in understanding historical events in subtle ways, accurate use of terminology is essential. For ongoing instances, this is even more crucial – any intervention that anyone might care to get around to in a place like Darfur depends in part on accurate and nuanced understanding to have any hope of success.

Genocide means the attempt to eliminate an ethnic or cultural group. There can be some room for debate about potential application of this term versus another for a specific context. For example, I wouldn’t generally refer to the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs against Bosniak Muslims as genocide. The overall goal in that instance seems to have been the laying claim to certain territory for Serbs and the movement of Bosniaks out of these areas – but not so much to eliminate the cultural group altogether. Note that I’m not saying that this constitutes anything less serious than genocide (thousands were massacred at sites like Srebrenica) – I just think it constitutes something a bit different from genocide. At the same time, I’m also aware that good arguments could be made considering this instance “genocide,” as the U.N.’s tribunal for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia has done. Certainly the effects at Srebrenica were “genocidal.” I’m generally opposed to defining “genocide” in terms of effects, because in ongoing situations, defining by effect would mean waiting until after the fact to be able to label something “genocide,” though I can see the merit in doing so for historical instances.

While there is room for debate about whether cases like the Bosnian one constitute “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” or something else altogether but equally serious, “genocide” should not be extended to refer to simply any instance of ethnic tension or violence. For example, last summer I heard someone who was upset about Israeli bombings in areas of southern Lebanon (a reaction I could understand) refer to the Israeli actions as genocide. My reaction was that no matter one’s feelings on that small war last summer (whether one feels that Israel was engaged in an illegitimate action that resulted in serious human rights violations; that Israel did nothing improper at all; that Israel should have hit Hezbollah harder while simultaneously trying to more effectively diminish civilian casualties; that Israel’s actions were proper but disproportionate), one thing that wasn’t happening there was “genocide.” (There are, of course, other problematic uses of the word, e.g. the Ethiopian government’s labeling of opposition politicians, activists, and journalists as guilty of genocide.) The cursory extension of the term to cases such as these is facile and counter-productive at best, both undermining the credibility of the speaker and the seriousness of the concept.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Synthesism and Eclecticism in Theory

I tend to distrust the ambitions of Grand Theory and those who claim to have a theoretical framework to explain everything (or at least everything important) about human beings (or any other phenomenon). There is good reason to be suspicious of attempts to explain everything in terms of genetics, reproductive success and kin selection, a techno-environmental infrastructure, class struggle, the structure of the human mind, habitus and practice, or the intricacies of the Oedipal complex. (Note that I’m not naming any names because I’m well aware that for each of the theoretical frameworks I’ve alluded to, there are both sophisticated, nuanced scholars as well as simplistic reductionists. My aim is not to attack anyone, but to try to make a larger point about theorizing in general. Also, I apologize in advance to anyone who might feel slighted that their pet theory was left off my list.) Simply put, the world is more complex than that, resisting reduction to a single explanatory frame, or it would have been satisfactorily explained a long time ago.

My skepticism of grand theorizing is hardly original at this point – after all, the postmodern deconstruction of metanarratives is several decades old already. At the same time, though, the wholesale postmodern rejection of grand narrative or theory is a variety of grand theorizing I’m skeptical of, in the sense that while I don’t find credible the claims of any theoretical camp to explain most everything, I do find that most of the important theoretical perspectives do actually explain quite a bit. While Claude Lévi-Strauss’ structural anthropology cannot really begin to explain why matrilineal-matrilocal complexes or avunculocality occur where they do or why a particular mythic narrative occurs in a specific form in a particular context, it explains quite a bit about the range of structural possibilities for human kinship systems or of the parameters of human thought expressed in myth. While Marvin Harris’ variety of cultural materialism cannot really begin to explain the presence of only a limited range of structural possibilities in kinship systems in the context of wide ranging techno-environmental settings or why the same limited set of myth elements (what Lévi-Strauss called “mythemes”) would recur in varying form throughout very different environmental contexts throughout the Americas, his perspectives do explain quite a bit about the relationship between specific kinship structures and techno-environmental contexts, and in some cases about relationships between specific elements of myth and religion and context.

I do generally presume that every major theoretical perspective (by “major” I simply mean perspectives espoused by large numbers of scholars persistently over an appreciable stretch of time [as opposed to faddish theories that come and go quickly]) has something significant to offer in coming to understand human beings or other phenomena in the world. Like any other academic, I have over the years encountered a number of individual “scholars” who are dumb, lazy, willfully ignorant, crack-pot, or otherwise non-intellectual in their approaches, but taken as a group, I assume (and I hope that my assumption is warranted) that scholars are generally people at least reasonably intelligent, hard-working, knowledgeable, and dedicated to the pursuit of truth. As a result, I also tend to assume that when large numbers of scholars spend their careers dedicated to a particular pursuit and perspective, that there’s probably at least something worthwhile and insightful about it.

So, I find myself enlightened and influenced by a wide variety of theoretical perspectives, but not completely committed to any one. There are two main sorts of possibilities for a scholar such as myself – synthesism and eclecticism – and the two reflect different operating assumptions about the world. Synthesism tends to assume that seemingly opposing perspectives can fit together and complement one another, at least in part, and that there is some underlying order to things, even if it has largely eluded our understanding, such that the effort to combine seemingly disparate explanations is a worthwhile endeavor. Eclecticism tends to assume that the world is a fundamentally disorderly, random, or chaotic thing. So, differing theoretical perspectives might help to explain certain phenomena, but there’s little reason to expect them to complement each other or to reflect elements of the world that fit together in any orderly fashion. I have aesthetic / moral and pragmatic reasons for favoring a synthetic approach.

To the extent that any theoretical or philosophical position comes close to describing my own perspectives, it would be philosophical pragmatism in the tradition of C. S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. From James (or for that matter Foucault), I take the idea that “truth” – so far as we know it – is that which can function as true. But I share with Peirce and Dewey (and for that matter Foucault) a deep and abiding faith that there is some underlying truth and order to things, even if we can never fully know it (or know that we knew it if we did know it).

But I also have pragmatic reasons for preferring a synthetic approach. I do regularly find that seemingly opposing perspectives can be usefully combined to produce new insights. As I think is clear in my example above, Lévi-Strauss’ structural anthropology and Harris’ cultural materialism are not so much contradictory as approaching phenomena in different and complementary ways. (For that matter, Harris acknowledges the importance of a limited number of human biological constants that are not determined or particularly influenced by techno-environmental context. Since Lévi-Strauss is focused on the universal structuring of the human mind, I find it relatively straightforward to combine his structural anthropology with cultural materialism or other materialist perspectives, with his insights about the mind simply being one of a limited number of human constants.)

In addition to the fact that in a number of instances disparate perspectives can clearly be combined in novel, interesting, and insightful ways, I find synthesism generally to be a pragmatically superior approach to eclecticism. The attempt to find connections between seemingly opposing views does not always pay off (eclecticism may be right some of the time), but the attempt to do so offers the possibility of discovering new understandings and discoveries. While an eclectic approach can yield some discoveries and insights simply by following different perspectives in different contexts, to refrain from attempts at finding an underlying synthetic order to phenomena because of an a priori assumption that such an order does not exist is to a priori prevent even the possibility of such a discovery. Eclectics may be right – there may be no underlying rationality or order to the world connecting different sorts of phenomena – but we can never know that by using an eclectic approach.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the Experience of Art (Musical and Visual)

I had the wonderful experience this past weekend of watching and hearing Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony perform Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I have listened to recordings of this piece many, many times, but hearing and seeing it performed live for the first time, I began to understand some of the extreme reactions (including negative reactions) some have to the work, both at its premier in 1913 and subsequently. (I’m also aware that part of the initial reaction at the premier in 1913 was to the “scandalous” visual aspects of the ballet which the music accompanied – but I also suspect then and later, that the seemingly unusual qualities of the music had a lot to do with the violently negative reaction.) I’d like here to address two topics having to do with the experience of art musical and visual: (1) the differences in experience of live musical performance or original works of art versus the experience of reproductions (whether recordings of music or prints or photographs of visual art); and (2) a greater conservatism apparent with regard to audiences for music compared to audiences for visual art.

“Live” vs. Facsimile

There is a difference between the experience of music performed live and the experience of recorded music. (There is also music that blurs the difference, such as live performance which incorporates taped material – and there are both “high” and “low” art versions of this.) While it doesn’t seem quite right to refer to the experience of an original painting or sculpture as a “live” experience (though that description would certainly apply to visual performance art), there is a difference between seeing an original work and a reproduction (though here too, there is art that blurs the distinction, e.g. Warhol’s camouflage screen prints, or mass produced casts of Rodin’s sculptures).

In the case of both music and visual art, there are differences between individual pieces in the degree to which the experience of the live performance or original work is different from the experience of a facsimile. Large scale paintings or sculpture feel far different in person than in photographic reproduction in even the best art books, as do highly textured paintings, where the texture is not reproducible in the flat two dimensional page. On the program with The Rite of Spring were also Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto for chamber orchestra and Mozart’s piano concerto no. 17, with piano soloist Garrick Ohlsson. While I enjoyed the performance of these two pieces, the main difference in experiencing them live was in seeing what the musicians were physically doing at any moment, while my physical experience of The Rite of Spring was completely different from that I have ever experienced while listening to it on CD.

This brings me to a major difference in the experience of visual art and music. The difference between seeing an original painting and a reproduction is not the same as the difference between a live performance of music and a recording.

The difference between the visual experience of an original visual work and a facsimile is primarily a quantitative one. One sees more of the texture, the size, the other details indicating the skill of a painter or sculptor. The experience of live music also involves such quantitative differences, but a qualitative difference in experience as well. Looking at a painting and looking at a reproduction of it, while producing different specific sensations, are the same sorts of experiences. Listening to live and recorded music provide similar sorts of auditory experiences, but live music can also provide a distinct bodily experience rarely provided by recorded music played over speakers. This is especially so with high volume live music, or live performance involving especially deep, resonant pitches that are experienced in a literally visceral way, experienced bodily in the gut as much as in the ear.

Conservatism in Musical Experience

A few years ago, my local symphony orchestra, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, also performed The Rite of Spring. I’m ashamed to admit I missed the performance – I don’t even remember why any longer, but afterwards, according to one member of the orchestra I spoke with, the Pensacola symphony received several letters of complaint about the choice to program this piece of "cacophonous non-music." I was aghast at the time that anyone would have reacted this way – The Rite of Spring has been standard repertory for almost a century now. While tempting to pass this off as the backward taste of provincial rubes, I’ve also encountered similar musical conservatism in other places (for example, I’ve encountered numerous writings attempting to dismiss Schoenberg or Berg as “cacophonous” or “snarling dissonance” – a reaction I find both wrongheaded and simply inaccurate [dissonance sure, as in any interesting music, but no snarling or cacophony]), and as I said above, after hearing the piece live, while I find it even more than before one of the most profound pieces of 20th century music, I can begin to understand others’ visceral reactions against the piece (in part because it is a literally visceral reaction).

The experience of visual art or of music is different from the experience of literature. Literature also presents a unique object to be experienced (with this being especially a goal of poetry). But the experience of literature requires active participation of the reader in a way that visual art and music do not. One cannot simply pass by a book and experience anything of it the way one could with a painting or a musical performance. Instead it has to be intentionally picked up and read, and the experience of it is a distinctly interior one. Paintings, sculpture, and music are experienced as things more clearly exterior than literature, with the experience occurring somewhat more passively (one can actively look or listen, but one can’t easily not see something that passes through one’s field of vision and one can’t easily not hear something within auditory range), with the object impinging upon one’s senses from outside.

At the same time, there is a difference in this exterior, passive experience of visual art and music. Visual art is more exterior, and not at all visceral in any literal way. It is only seen, where live music is heard and felt, experienced as something distinctly exterior while also something distinctly resonating in one’s physical being. One can also more easily stop experiencing painting or sculpture – by closing one’s eyes or looking in another direction, while music cannot be tuned out so simply. It impinges on one’s ears and body, and it cannot be ignored. It can force itself upon a person in a way that visual art (much less literature) cannot. As a result, music can be physically delightful – or a physical shock and violation if the music is not to one’s liking.

Many were once shocked by modernist experiments in sculpture and painting. Some perhaps still are, but really only very few can still honestly profess to be shocked or disturbed by Duchamp, or Picasso, or Pollock (much less the impressionists). But The Rite of Spring remains physically exhilarating or frightening or both at once.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Longfellow, George Will, Poetry, and the Individual Artist or Thinker

George Will is a conservative I respect. Of the widely published op-ed columnists in American newspapers and newsmagazines, Will is one of the few of any political persuasion, and virtually the only conservative, I consistently respect and find insightful, even while I disagree with much he has to say.

I respect two main things about Will’s thinking and writing. First, he is a careful, logical thinker. He doesn’t play around with or distort facts, nor does he reduce complex matters to sound bites that could potentially be shouted at someone during a guest appearance on one of the many “talk” news programs. Second, I admire his wide ranging interests and passions. He cares about and writes about the important news items of the day, of course, but he also cares deeply about the arts, baseball, and other phenomena that don’t habitually clog the headlines. He’s probably the only syndicated columnist willing (or able?) to dedicate an entire column to poetry.

About a month ago in a column published in Newsweek (March 12, 2007, p. 68), Will did just that, with a column dedicated to the bicentennial of the birth of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In addition to simply being dedicated to this important bicentennial of a poet of national importance in the U.S. (important for such familiar poems as “The Song of Hiawatha” or “Paul Revere’s Ride” which were once the staples of American public education), Will’s column also comments on the sad fact that this bicentennial went so unremarked in general. While I must admit that Longfellow is far from my favorite sort of poet, his poems are a part of an American tradition of thought as much as the works of Thoreau or Emerson, or even the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, or the Declaration of Independence, so it is a bit sad to see such an anniversary go largely uncelebrated. I’d like here to quote an extended passage from Will’s column, specifically a section exploring possible reasons for the lack of attention paid nowadays to poetry in general and poets like Longfellow in specific:

“Longfellow intended his narrative and lyric poems – genres disdained by modernists – as inspiriting guides to the nation’s honorable past and challenging future. Yeats ascribed Longfellow’s popularity to his accessibility – ‘he tells his story or idea so that one need nothing but his verses to understand it.’ This angers today’s academic clerisy. What use is it to readers who need no intermediary between them and the author? And what use is Longfellow to academics who ‘interrogate’ authors’ ‘texts’ to illuminate the authors’ psyches, ideologies and social situations – the ‘power relations’ of patriarchy, racism, imperialism, etc.? This reduction of the study of literature to sociology, and of sociology to ideological assertion, demotes literature to mere raw material for literary theory, making today’s professoriate, rather than yesterday’s writers, the center of attention.”

I agree with Will’s arguments and implications – with three big qualifications. (This is often my reaction to reading a piece by Will – I completely agree with what he has said, except for the huge qualifications.)

First, he implies that the lowered status (he mentions elsewhere in the column the past existence of celebrity poets – a phenomenon clearly not existing today, except in the sense that some celebrities, such as Jewel or T-Boz, have published books of poetry after becoming celebrities in other capacities) of poetry in general, and of accessible, narrative and lyric poetry in particular, is the fault of an “academic clerisy.” There is a large grain of truth to this, both in the sense that literary theory thrives on literature that needs theorists’ mediation, and in the sense that many genres of poetry enjoying prestige in some academic contexts (and thus absorbing the energies of many poets seeking that prestige) has moved in non-popular directions. But there is much more going on as well. Poetry over the past several decades has had to compete with many other genres of content, not least the movies, television, and the internet. These have as much to do with today’s lack of celebrity poets as an academic clerisy. Publishing practices have also played a role. Big publishers are more and more concerned not just with profitable titles, but titles with huge profit potential, with the result being huge sales of small numbers of titles, with poetry generally losing out. Change in income tax laws in the 1980s to make unsold inventory taxable didn’t help matters for slower selling genres like poetry, either. At the same time, I would actually contest that things are so bad for poetry nowadays. There are actually hundreds of small presses today publishing poetry, and lots of people reading poetry and other literature. There are no longer celebrity poets or poets known to virtually everyone, but poetry in general, in myriad forms is actually thriving.

Second, while he does not say this explicitly, Will seems to imply that accessibility in poetry is a good thing and that difficulty is a bad thing. I would disagree in that in art or scholarship neither accessibility nor difficulty is inherently good or bad. It is problematic that often in academia, accessible art or scholarship are almost automatically seen as lacking in sophistication or seen as otherwise unworthy or déclassé, while at the same time, the difficult or obscure piece of art or thought is often elevated largely on that basis alone. I do think somewhat different rules apply here to scholarship or art. With scholarly writing, I would argue that things should not be more difficultly or obscurely put than necessary, but when presenting complex ideas, such as in discussions of quantum mechanics, the structural study of Australian kinship systems, or the intricacies of modern art music, a certain amount of complexity in the text is inescapable in writing for a professional, scholarly audience. With art, it is not so much about presenting things as accessibly as possible as much as form matching content and artistic intent. Take the John Coltrane recording Ascension compared to his Giant Steps album. Ascension is much less accessible to most listeners – it certainly requires more patience and careful listening to achieve pleasure from it, though it also rewards that patience and careful listening – though on those grounds alone, I wouldn’t consider Ascension less, or more, worthy as art than Giant Steps. (See also my earlier post on the topic of difficulty, “Difficulty in Ethnographic Writing,” March 5, 2007).

Finally, like Will, I object to reducing the significance of an artist or thinker and their work to a symptom of their individual biography or sociological category. For example, in my earlier blog entry, “Charlie Parker and Shostakovich: Art, the Artist, and Culture” (February 13, 2007), I remarked that while knowing that Charlie Parker was experiencing heroin withdrawal during his class 1947 recording of “Lover Man” might heighten or inform one’s appreciation of the track, the significance or aesthetic quality of the recording is by no means determined by this biographic tidbit. Likewise, knowing that the viola sonata was the last piece of music written by Shostakovich, and knowing that he knew he was dying, might inform one’s listening, but such facts do not determine the structure or quality of the piece in itself, nor is the piece reducible to such biography. Will specifically targets tendencies to theorize poetry and other literature in terms of “the ‘power relations’ of patriarchy, racism, imperialism, etc.” In doing so, Will is aiming more specifically at brands of identity politics that explain phenomena, including art, as symptoms or reflections of race/ethnicity, gender, and/or class as identity categories. As an anthropologist, I recognize the extreme importance of race/ethnicity, gender, and class in shaping people’s social realities, but also like most anthropologists, I reject straightforward cultural determinisms as well. So, while I cannot disagree with Will on this point, my main point of agreement with him is in finding problematic any form of reductionism of art or thought to personal biography or social factors, and I do find myself wishing Will had cast this point in somewhat broader terms.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Ethnography, Science, Myth, and Cultural Criticism

The following is a combination and revision of several earlier blog posts.

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. In this scholarly and political environment, it is perhaps useful to revisit earlier anthropological critics of reductionist totalization like White 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 had 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. 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.

Ethnography as Science or Myth

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. 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 that 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 conceptualization 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, 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 my 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 and Critical Consciousness

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.

Anthropology’s Core Tension

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.

Boas and Cultural Relativism

This awareness and tension has been a part of American anthropology at least since Boas, a scholar all too often oversimplified as atheoretical 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.

Cultural Relativism: What it 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 (citation):

“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; people in 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 (cite) 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.

Identity Politics and the Prepositions of Speaking

There is a common way of thinking about identity in which identity categories (race, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, caste, nationality, or other aspects of a person’s biography) 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 earlier 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 effect.

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.

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 consent 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.

Tradition and Individual Autonomy

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.


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.

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