Monday, October 20, 2014

Separating Culture and Identity from One Another

This post is the introduction to a set of five posts I've collected as a working paper: Culture, Plurality, and Identity in the 21st Century, which you may download from my SSRN page: I first posted it almost two years ago, but I'm re-posting now as it is relevant to my current 3QD post and the New Savanna pointer to it.

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 Abstract: These five essays deal are about separating the concept of culture from that of geo-political identity. They make two points: 1) Such terms as "French culture", "Egyptian culture", "Oriental culture", and so forth are geo-political concepts that no more identify KINDS of culture than such terms as "African wildlife", "Pennsylvanian wildlife", and "Japanese wildlife" identify KINDS of animals. 2) Social groups have systems of identification that are parts of the group culture, but that the identification systems of nation-states and religions tend to appropriate all of culture to themselves and thus obsure our thinking on these issues.
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We are a nation primarily because we think we are a nation. This ground we have buried our dead in for so long is the only ground most of us have ever stood upon. . . . Most of our people are remarkably merciful to Africa, when you consider how Africa has used us.

--Hannah Nelson, in J. L. Gwaltney, Drylongso

My intellectual life has been dominated by an interest in culture, an interest I have pursued through the study of certain kinds of expressive culture—literary texts, music, films, graffiti, the close examination of a few examples, e.g. “Kubla Khan,” and Apoclaypse Now, and the study of cultural evolution. The question of culture’s nature—what it is and how it works—is a deep and curious one and one that has now become particularly acute for me. On the one hand, my investigation of metaphysical pluralism has brought culture to the fore through the most preliminary of essays into aesthetics and ethics. It has become clear to me, as I will explain in another essay, that cultural relativism is central to a pluralistic ethics.

A bit more concretely, I am considering writing a book on animated feature films that will include considerable discussion of Disney’s Fantasia. I have already argued that that film is an expression of a transnational cultural formation that has emerged in the 20th Century. To the extent that we identify the notion of culture with that of nation—an identification that is quite common in even the most sophisticated of circles—that transnational culture can’t be anything other than American capitalism and its transnational extension must therefore be cultural imperialism, including jazz, rock and roll, blue jeans and McDonald’s hamburgers. If, however, the identification of cultures with nations is deeply problematic, then my argument can take a different turn. Maybe Fantasia, with its European music and imagery derived from European painting, really IS transnational. Maybe.

I’m not going to argue these two matters—pluralistic ethics and Fantasia as cultural expression—here and now. I bring them up only to indicate why I find it important to cut the almost reflexive link we make between nations and cultures, a link that treats American culture, Western culture, Swiss culture, Philippine culture, Indian culture, and African culture all as distinct kinds of culture.

The Concept of Culture

There is a sense in which culture was discovered in the 20th Century. Depending on your taste in such matters, culture emerged in the world with the evolution of songbirds, or perhaps with apes and monkeys, but certainly with the emergence of sapiens in the genus homo. And human culture can be differentiated from animal culture by its abundance and fecundity; it feeds on and outdoes itself. It is human culture that these essays address.

I mean culture, of course, in the anthropological sense, not the ordinary sense. In the ordinary sense, “culture” is taken to mean the “finer things,” things the appreciation of which will raise one above the common rabble, things like season tickets to the opera, a knowledge of the great European novels, the ability to tell a Rembrandt from a Frans Hals from a Vermeer, an appreciation of fine wine, and so forth. All those things are, yes, elements of culture. But culture in the anthropological sense consists of beliefs, practices, customs, and artifacts people. All humans have culture in that sense.

But thinking about culture in THAT sense is difficult. It is such thinking that I have in mind when I say that culture was discovered in the 20th Century. For it is in the 20th Century that anthropology came into its own as an intellectual discipline and, in particular, it is 20th Century anthropology that gave birth to the idea of cultural relativism. The central figure here is the American anthropologist, Franz Boas, who saw each culture as a collection of
unique adaptations to their own particular circumstances. And this was precisely how Boas viewed various societies. Each was a unique adaptation to a unique and particular set of circumstances. When Boas applied this to anthropology he introduced the principle of "cultural relativism". The idea that each culture was the product of a unique and particular history, and not merely generated by race and environment, was another important contribution by Boas.
As such, other cultures are not to be judged by the standards of the anthropologist’s own culture. In time, alas, this idea has transformed into an anything-goes relativism, that all values are relative and therefore nothing matters. That’s the notion of cultural relativism that dominated the so-called culture wars that broke out in American politics in the last quarter of the 20th century. Those wars confused cultural practices with national identity, a confusion that had been lurking around all along.

That confusion is inherent in such usages as “American culture,” “Japanese culture,” “Western culture,” and so forth, usages that identify culture either with nations or with groups of nations. Three of the essays in this collection deal with this confusion, the first two and the last: Is American Culture Western?: The Case from Music; Beyond Oppositional Trickeration: Europe Invents Itself; and American Wildlife and Culture. My point is a simple one: Such terms as French culture, Egyptian culture, Oriental culture, and so forth are geo-political concepts that no more identify KINDS of culture than such terms as African wildlife, Pennsylvanian wildlife, and Japanese wildlife identify KINDS of animals. There are many different kinds of animals in Japan and there are many different kinds of cultural formations in Egypt.

The Plurality of Identification

The other two essays look at how sophisticated academic discourse, in this case that of Walter Benn Michaels, is confused and incoherent on the question of culture. Both are contributions to a symposium that The Valve held on Michaels’s book, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (Metropolitan Books, 2006). In the first of those two pieces—Politics Beyond the Personal: Diversity, Identitarian Rhetoric, and Equality—I simply argue that Michaels, by using the notion of identity employed in those culture wars, is himself guilty of confusing culture with nationhood. At the end of that piece I offer Charlie Keil’s notion of layered identity, in which people, in fact, identify themselves with different cultural formations, each activated in a particular social setting.

In the second piece—Michaels and Religion: Can’t We All Get Along?—I argue that he makes a related mistake with religion. He treats religion and culture as different and opposable things, rather than treating religion as an aspect of culture, which it certainly is. That is, to treat religion as a locus of identification, Michaels has to treat it as a formation that is parallel to culture, which he is also treating as a locus of identification. In so doing he tends to lose sight of concrete cultural practices, which don’t necessarily line up with identifications.

It seems to me that what’s going on is that we—Americans, Europeans, Trobriand Islanders, all of us in at least one way, many of us in several ways—we have specific cultural practices of identification. One such set of practices is linked to the complex mass of mythology, symbolism, and customs associated with the national state. To become an American one must participate in these practices. That set of beliefs includes a belief that America is different from all other nations in various ways; this is American exceptionalism. This set of beliefs opposes “the American way” to other national ways—and opposition is important in these practices of identification, a point I argue at length in the oppositional trickeration piece.

One is American as opposed to Russian or French or Chinese. But one is also Protestant as opposed to Roman Catholic, and Christian as opposed to Moslem, for religions too have their rituals and systems of identification. And so do fraternities and sororities of all types. All kinds of groups and societies have their identification apparatus. But the identification practices of nation states and of religions tends to get coupled into politics in such a way that they dominate other systems and, by corralling the concept of culture, tends to confuse our thinking about culture.

We can no longer tolerate such confusion. What are the practical limits of peoples willingness and ability to accommodate beliefs and practices which are different from their own? The answer to that question sets limits on practical politics. On the evidence of what people actually do and have done, I don’t think that we an unbounded capacity to accommodate different cultural formations. Nor do I think or even wish that we had such unbounded capacity.

We have the biological capacity to live according to widely varying Life Ways, ways that on some points will be mutually exclusive. Just as 21st Century politics is going to have to come to terms with global climate change, it is going to have to come to terms with cultural difference. Our lives dependent on it, so it’s time we get it right, in both cases. But these essays only address one of those cases, that of culture.


  1. Not had a chance to read the papers yet. Below is one of the first academic papers I read on this some years ago now. Still useful.

    I have a lot of work to do here in future. Arriving at clear definition of terms and fine detail, not an easy task. But an enjoyable one, I find these are the questions and issues that interest me the most.

    Richard Handler & Jocelyn Linnekin, Tradition, Genuine or Spurious

  2. I've not read that particular paper, but I'm familiar with the title and, I suspect, some of the subject matter. There's significant literature pointing out that many national traditions that are revered as having been around forever and ever in fact got started only yesterday, e.g. Scottish clan plaids.

  3. "I'm familiar with the title and, I suspect, some of the subject matter."

    Clearly. The clan is in much the same vain as plaid

    The 'primordial' perspective.

    Its also common in English lit. Recently read a blog post on king Arthur where the view was strongly expressed in comments that in order to understand the subject ancient Welsh origins were essential. More often than not its some Celtic supernatural La La land that is held up as the origin.

    The curse of 19th century Celtic studies and its close ties to nationalism and ethnic politics. I love early med. Welsh poetry and lit but I also like dealing with things in context.

    But it is so rooted in peoples thoughts. Carve up the world in a really curious way.

  4. P.S. I managed to read 3 or 4 of the five. A work in progress. Seriously well cooked center on the construction of a particular ethnic identity in America. Most impressive.

    Don't think its hanging together as a whole. The early medieval section caused me particular difficulties. The first couple of sentences here in particular.

    I like the term Dark ages but it is no longer used by Historians working in the period on the grounds it creates a very false notion of the subject. Roman and native cultures. Lot of work here that is very sophisticated and even reaching consensus! You could kill to birds with one stone here as it is a very fertile area for innovative ideas in regard to ethnicity.

    You use religion to link the early period to the later stressing the role of religion. The folks who were increasingly mobile in this period were the elite. Networking developing in the 5th and 6th century, from which ethnically distinct peoples will start to form may be the result of elite emulation (or in part)but secular factors are highly relevant here.

    Middle section works and demonstrates a sophisticated understanding that's pleasing to read. Early med. section does not do this, needs serious attention.

  5. I assume your criticisms apply to the trickeration piece. On the term "dark ages," I knew that it had dropped from use, but I used it anyhow. On the rest, my major point is simply that, in the absence of what we think of as nation-states, there could be no identification with such. Identifications would be mostly local. For better or worse the religious angle is my reading of Hale, which is a broadly painted synoptic view. I may have gotten him wrong, he may have gotten it wrong, both, or, for that matter, neither. I was just filling in the blanks via guess work.

    This is not something I"m likely to invest a great deal of time in cleaning up as I have no particular interest in early medieval European history. But if I were to read one or two books, what should they be?

  6. Its not so much the history but the work on identity that you may find interesting as you can apply it beyond the period.

    On Rome and barbarian of the top of my head, Regna and gentes: Relationship between Late Antique and medieval Peoples and Kingdoms in the Transformation of the Roman World.

    A lot of the book will probable not be of interest, would not take you long to pick up on what you may need. Was thinking specifically about terms like barbarian, Germanic or indeed regna and gentes.

    Its insane academic prices for above but you may be able to read online, or catch what you need from it online.

    A good introduction to the issues of using and working with Roman ethnographic terms (discussed in above book)Sean B. Durham, Caesars perception of Gallic social structures, in B. Arnold & B. Gibson, Celtic Chiefdom Celtic State.

    Book has lots of interesting papers not sure if it is still in print my editions from 1995 but if it is it's also pleasingly cheap or was.

    I will have a look see what papers are free and available online when I have a moment if i can find anything good will reference two or three below.

  7. Most of the volumes from the transformation of the Roman world project can be found on Google. So you can blitz them fast and take what you need.

    Its a very nice introduction to the subject.

    Explanation of what it is

    Most of the volumes here with further introduction

    Should be more than enough! Enjoy