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07 February 2011

Inventing Culture(s)


Levi Bryant has an excellent post up about Ian Hacking's concept of Interactive Kinds: entities that are affected and altered by - and at the same time affect and alter - the categories in which they are placed.  I felt while reading it that this is an important point for contemporary anthropology in moving beyond constructivism.  It allows us to understand the complex relationship between social constructions (abstractions, representations) and the entities they represent. 

At the moment, I'm reading a book called In the Museum of Mayan Culture by Quetzil CasteƱeda for my Theories of the Past course.  It's a good book - a constructivist reading of Mayan culture and archaeology - and I think it poses a valuable critique, but there are a few points that leave me questioning. One of the main points of the book is to show the role of anthropologists in inventing Culture and cultures.  He claims that anthropologists, by writing about different cultures (including the Maya), have largely created those culture.  This sparked in me an idea - similar to Hacking's Interactive Kinds - that the construct that results from ethnographic research is an abstraction.

What do we create when we do ethnographic research?   Primarily we generate ethnographies - at least this is the typical product that anthropology generated in the past.  These ethnographies are like pictures of a culture - snapshots in time and space.  They only capture a portion of the thing itself, and they don't change to reflect the thing as it is now but can only represent the thing as it was when the image was taken.  Thus all of the critiques of ethnographies.

But it's important, I think, to recognize that the image is not the thing, and the map is not the territory.  This is the real lesson of Korzybsky's famous phrase (I've been misinterpreting it this whole time!): the abstraction is separate ontologically from the thing it represents.  It is never the same as the "real thing" but it is no less real, and it has a life and existence all its own.  In anthropology this means that the ethnography is not the culture, and we ought not mistake the construction of an ethnography for the construction of a culture.

Then it gets complicated with Hacking's interactive kinds.  The "real thing" - the culture in our case - might take the abstraction - the ethnography - and incorporate it into itself.  The abstraction then becomes partially constitutive of the "real thing."  But does this justify the claim to "inventing culture"?  I think not.  The ethnography would only be partially constitutive of the culture - it wouldn't come to define it, except maybe in extreme cases.  It simply doesn't have the power to totalize, and its relationship to the actual culture would be complex so that the result would be unpredictable.

There's a lot to think about here, and I apologize that this post isn't more coherent (I'm a little out of practice).  But this is all entangled with issues of the agency of the people and societies that we study and also with the agency of non-humans.  The constructivist approach got a lot right, but I think there's a lot of work that needs to be done to better understand the relationship between the construction and reality.  This also makes me wonder what Gregory Bateson would have thought of the constructivist turn in anthropology... ?

1 comment:

btmc said...

Really interesting stuff. I think I see the fine distinctions and find them very pleasing to explore. Keep it coming man!

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