There is a cliche in the sentiment that one of the best part in being a professor is being faced by great students challenging one’s pet ideas. But a cliche can also be true as I experienced again when Juliette de Wolfe, at the end of a seminar, told me that she was anxious about using one of my favorite conceits. For close to 20 years, McDermott and I have been writing about such matters as learning disabilities as “cultural facts.” De Wolfe, who is starting a project on the processes for the identification of autism, and who had used the phrase in her proposal, was worried that she was caught in something, that was “static.”
On the spot, my answers were weak and not convincing–certainly they were not convincing to me as I thought about them later. I had mumbled something about the adjective “static” being possibly an attribute of a research analysis, not of a concept that could be used in any number of ways, that emphasizing “change” is much easier said than done, and that those that claim that they do not want to be “static” mostly produce analyses that end up extremely static. Had I not been interrupted, I probably could have gone on in this defensive/offensive mode without quite answering a very proper concern about the very justification for social science research, particularly in its anthropological version.
McDermott and I devised the phrase (“cultural fact”) to index our roots in Durkheimian sociology (as reinterpreted by Garfinkel) and in American cultural anthropology and pragmatism. Earlier I had pointed de Wolfe to the pages in Successful failure (1998) where McDermott and I developed the phrase “cultural fact” we had introduced earlier (McDermott & Varenne 1995). But these passages are not enough.
To stay with de Wolfe’s concern, let’s say that we are interested in children who are having a difficult life and particularly with those who have, or are caught with, something now labeled “autism,” something that was discovered-as-such in America and in the 1940s. It is something that was fully institutionalized starting in the 1970s. Autism may be some thing that has always been there in humanity, though until recently this thing may have been labeled something else, or institutionalized differently. Just putting the issue this way should make it clear that I am taking here the classical cultural anthropological stance (Benedict 1934). I make the noticing of autism as a thing with specific personal, interactional, and political consequences, a historical event. In other words I place autism “in its historical context,” or, more jargonistically, I “historicize” autism.
All this is well and good, but it actually must leave our apprentices in confusion. What are future anthropologists to do next, after we have historicized autism, or any one of its sub-practices (e.g. the meetings where a child gets officially labeled)? What is the point of historicizing something? Actually how do we know that we have actually historicized “it” or that we have conspired in reconstituting something that should never have been constituted in the first place?
I argue that our duty, as anthropologists, is to provide future practitioners (parents, teachers, etc.) with a more systematic account of the constraints which they will not be able to escape. This, I think, is what Durkheim meant when he wrote of social facts as “imposing themselves,” or what Latour now means when he writes about objects as having “agency.” What easily disappears in these statements as they have been taken for more than a century is that these are statements about the future rather than the past, or even the present. As McDermott and I put it “Culture is not a past cause to a current self. Culture is the current challenge to possible future selves” (2006:8). As I would put it today, technically, a cultural fact is a model for the set of (dis-)abling properties of the present that make a difference in some future. The task of the cultural analyst is to discern these properties and report on them in a way that makes sense to at least some of the practitioners.
Thus the task for de Wolfe, as she starts observing teachers and students in an “autistic classroom,” is to build a model of those matters that make a difference as the people she meets build a life together and, in the process, instruct her as to what actually does make a difference.
This is what I advise her to do because this is what all those who care for the children need from an anthropologist: a different account of their experiences that may provide them with new resources for the future they will make with each other.
And we should not worry if this account looks to some as a “synchronic” account. The account, if it is well done, will of course be synchronic in the Saussurian sense. Others can write about the history of autism and trace its diachronic evolution. But history, however interesting, is not quite useful because human evolution, including its cultural (linguistic) evolution is not a rational process in the narrow sense.