Elements of the concept of culture

Universality and locality The tension between "culture" as the universal value-creator for human beings, and also varying over time and space in significant ways, makes the concept crucial for discussions of relativism. This manifests itself in an oscillation between the "universality" and the "locality" of cultures. Culture is "a human universal," but in a complex way. First of all, it is "universal" across all human beings, but it is so only by being manifest in manifold diverse forms. Secondly, it is not just universal in the sense of something all humans share, but also by being pervasive; culture saturates all aspects of our lives, and there is no part of us quarantined from its influence. The phrase "cultural contingencies" reveals the third way in which culture's universality is complex: while formally culture is necessary for human development, the actual forms "culture" takes are due to innumerable minute and apparently wholly contingent and accidental decisions made by many people.

Until quite recently, twentieth-century anthropology emphasized the relativity of cultures rather than the universality of culture; anthropologists have focused more on the material differences among cultures than on the formal commonality among all of them as "cultures."2 This has had a salutary effect on the ethnocentrism that seems so powerful a temptation for the human mind ("Western" and otherwise). But this project of noting "local knowledge" is not wholly innocent of an intellectual prehistory that orients it in important ways. It should be understood against the backdrop of a larger framework of disaffection present in modern Western intellectual discourse, disaffection regarding precisely that "modern Western intellectual discourse." More specifically, the anthropological ethnography that has dominated twentieth-century anthropology has been largely in the service of reinforcing those anxieties, deriving from the Romantics, about the (corrosive) effects of modernization and the loss of tradition on "organic" cultures, and anxieties about the effects of global capitalism on human flourishing.

This intellectual agenda has caused anthropology, consciously or not, to valorize those cultural structures present at - or better, present the instant before - the moment in which contact was made with them by Westerners (hopefully Western anthropologists, who would, if well trained, at least attempt not to contaminate the natives). This not only leads to anthropologists possessing a curiously romantic, not to say nostalgic, attitude to local cultures, as well as setting themselves the impossible task of trying to observe what by definition they cannot observe without altering it by being present to observe it (in a way interestingly similar to quantum physics' "Uncertainty Principle"); it also presumes a curiously quasi-aesthetic approach to cultures, in which it is possible to ask about the "authenticity" and/or "inauthenticity" of certain cultural developments. This "authenticity" paradigm is reinforced by tendencies (especially in cultural linguistics) to classify (and implicitly valorize) the diverse human cultures in ways significantly similar to the phylogeny of natural kinds such as apes, ants, and lichens. Ironically, attention to the relativity and locality of distinct cultures often supports the very instrumentalization of those "local cultures" - their utilization as pawns in games played by Western intellectuals regarding the reality of relativism and the meaning of modernity, games in which non-Western "others" are used, like clubs, to batter the heads of one's intellectual opponents.3

The anthropological consensus on both "culture" and "modernity," which underlies this "authenticity" paradigm , has come under severe criticism in the last several decades. Specifically, criticisms have been leveled against what now appear to be the consensus's untenably rigorous demands for cultural homogeneity, even purity: Why, critics ask, cannot cultures change dramatically and still remain themselves? Why must they remain static, "prehistorical," to be genuine (see Fabian 1983)? Indeed, "the demand for cultural consistency," on which much earlier modernist cultural thought was predicated, with its interest in the "authentic" and genuine as the true representatives of culture, "seems almost an esthetic demand" (Tanner 1997:44). When we turn the concept of culture reflexively upon ourselves and our history, the whole paradigm of cultural authenticity seems more tied up with contingent capitalist demands for precious and scarce goods ("marvelous possessions") than it is with any actual theoretical necessity. Indeed, the notion of authenticity seems spurious as soon as one reflects on the West's own history of perpetual self-(re-)fashioning; as Marshall Sahlins suggests, "the West owes its own sense of cultural superiority to an invention of the past so flagrant it should make European natives blush to call other peoples culturally counterfeit" (Sahlins 1993:7).

This critique has attacked not only the presumed understanding of "culture," but also the connected understanding of "modernity," specifically the presumption that modernity is (unlike all other humanly fabricated realities) an essentially seamless, monolithic reality, to which all cultures must conform, and so lose their distinct local-ness in favor of a more Western localness (or for some earlier visions, the total un-localness) of modernity. In fact, recent thinkers reflecting on the effects of globalization on "modernization" have argued that no monolithic modernization account is adequate for our understanding of any culture, including Western ones (cf. Appadurai 1996). As Bernard Yack has argued, the very idea of "modernity" seems fetishistic, a crystalization of otherwise amorphous and free-floating discontents; the question of authenticity arises in reaction to it via the "residual" categories of "local" or "organic" cultures which are opposed to this "modern" specter in our thought (Yack 1997:50).

These criticisms of "culture" and "modernity" have compelled dramatic changes in what cultural inquiry is understood to be. Again, as Sahlins puts it, "the days are over for an ethnography that was the archaeology of the living, searching under the disturbed topsoil of modernity for the traces of a pristine and 'primitive' existence" (Sahlins 1993:25). Furthermore, they have reopened the Pandora's box of conceptual tensions latent in the concept of culture (or rather, they have allowed us openly to acknowledge that the tensions have been there throughout this century's struggles with the concept of culture). Specifically they have highlighted two other tensions that cultural theorists are increasingly stressing (as opposed to the "universal/local" tension) - namely, the tension between contingency and determination, and that between conflict and consensus. We must next unpack these tensions.

Contingency and determination Once we accept that cultures can change before our eyes, and still remain identifiably themselves, we can understand the complex co-presence in cultures of contingency and determination. Cultures' "contingency" means that they did not have to develop this way, that a present cultural configuration results from millions of minuscule decisions by agents who only rarely knew what they were doing. This contingency can be both exhilarating and dizzying, or vertigo-inducing; as Stanley Cavell has written, it forbids us any extra-accidental skeleton of reasons which fix it firmly to the earth:

That on the whole we do [share a cultural consensus] is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, sense of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation - all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls "forms of life." Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying. (Cavell 1969:52)

If it is simply "accidents all the way down," one may feel simultaneously the excitement of having things be "up to us," and yet the terror of knowing that we are not "up to us." It is the contingency of cultures, and the perennially lurking relativism of this claim, that has occupied the attention of most recent thought on culture. Such scholars attend to this contingency as a crucial (though admittedly in some ways profoundly unsatisfactory) explanatory principle, making it their task to understand "how things got this way" by charting the manifold accidents that led to the status quo (insofar as it is very status at all). This has led to an altogether commendable attention to change and the "historicity" of cultures, a renewed emphasis on the fact that they are always in via, never complete and thus always (in some significant sense) up for grabs.

Alongside this emphasis on the contingency of cultures, however, is a recognition of the degree to which we are determined by our cultural conditions. This can lead to a feeling of anomie, a despairing paralysis and relativism, and a sense that one is trapped in the culture without escape (and can lead to quasi-gnostic attempts to escape this condition by knowledge, such as that proposed by Richard Rorty). (Indeed, as Mark Edmundson has recently suggested, much recent cultural theory, while emphasizing the contingency of cultural formations, has at a much deeper level succumbed to a despair about the possibilities of genuine transformation, and accepts a curiously dualistic, "gothic" conception of power which forbids any hope [Edmundson 199 7]. On this view, cultural contingency is merely the surface manifestation of a deeper determinism in human existence.)

Conflict and consensus Culture's simultaneous contingency and yet determination reflect the recent appreciation of cultures' dynamic character, the fact that both conflict and consensus are equally essential to a culture's survival. While earlier theories pictured culture as a homogeneous and stable framework - which functions to absorb change without disturbing the fundamental structures of society - more recent theorists have argued that conflict is central to cultural existence as a means of sustaining the necessary full complexity of cultural systems.4 As Stephen Greenwalt argues, culture is now understood to be fluid, a "structure of improvisation" that is not found in any static constellation of values but rather in the constant flux of a "general symbolic economy" which is marked by the "exchange of material goods, ideas, and -through institutions like enslavement, adoption, or marriage - people" (Greenwalt 1990:229-30). Culture is not an altogether settled and unquestioned deposit, that which "goes without saying" in a society; rather, it is equally in what gets said, and in the form in which those debates happen. Culture is as much the debates that tie the centripedal forces of culture together as it is the different forces themselves.5

Still, even as "cultural identity becomes ... a hybrid, relational affair, something that lives between as much as within cultures," there is the possibility for talking of culture as an organized whole - "Whether or not culture is a common focus of agreement, culture binds people together as a common focus for engagement" (Tanner 1997:57-8). The very fact of conflict becomes a sign of, and a further reinforcement of, an underlying consensus about what is worth arguing over, and how such an argument can proceed. This does not mean, of course, that all arguments are irresolvable, static oppositions with pre-set constraints, intellectual variants of trench warfare; but arguments must happen on a common ground, however vaguely defined such a common ground is. Nor must this consensus be total or absolute; there is no fixity in stability, but some things must be stable for others to be debatable. Understood thusly, "culture" is not so much a collection of things or a systemic structure as a process - a disputatious, ongoing, and always complex (and even contradictory) process of self-and societal definition and control. The importance of debate and conflict in culture entails that power is an inescapable factor in culture, and that "culture" and "politics" are not unrelated terms. (We will return, briefly, to theorists' anxieties about "power" later.)6

The recognition of the integral role conflict plays within consensus (and vice versa) - what we may call the "culturedness" of conflict - expands the scope of what may, and indeed must, be plausibly studied as "cultural" in interesting ways. Since conflict is part of the cultural consensus, and indeed embodies that consensus, it is possible to see those

54 cHanes t. matHewes resistances to some cultural structure or system as themselves plausibly cultural as well, and indeed this makes understanding the whole scope of a culture, including all of its opponents, a prerequisite for understanding any part of it. This recognition warrants inquiry into "low" culture as much as "high" culture, not to mention "material," "mass," "pop" and "popular" culture, and projects focused on these sorts of culture are increasingly taken with theoretical seriousness (see McDannell 1995).

In sum, "culture" is an exceedingly intricate concept, helpful for studying a bewildering diversity of human phenomena. By managing to encompass all these diverse elements, "culture" serves as the human science's Swiss Army knife. But recent cultural theory has recognized the ambiguities latent in "culture's" very conceptual flexibility. These theorists insist that cultures are not "closed systems," and argue that the idea of "a culture" is only heuristically useful, for actual cultures are complexly interrelated, intermeshed, incomplete, conflictual and fluid things (Tanner 1997:53-6). The basic problem is not that cultures are messy or unruly; rather the problem lies in the concept of culture itself, for its very flexibility ensures its pervasiveness in human existence. In its extreme moments, culture seems to claim that nothing is untouched by "culture," and so nothing is not "cultural," not the product of human relations. Culture is hence especially vexing for theologians, who want to insist on the openness of human experience to what lies beyond human fabrication (see Milbank 1997:2).

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