Category Archives: on ‘culture’

Pondering culture theory and its vicissitudes

On culture, free speech, and America

Once upon a time culture was everything, even the kitchen sink (Tylor [1871] 1958). And then culture became a “value-concept” (Weber [1897] 1994) or a “system of symbols” (Schneider 1980). And then the word all but disappeared from serious theorizing, to be replaced by words like “epoch,” “episteme,” habitus, paradigm, and now “ontology.” But few, over the decades, have approached what “culture” attempted to capture, at least in the Boasian tradition, the way Latour did when he wrote:

‘Culture’ … word used to summarize the set of elements that appear to be tied together when, and only when, we try to deny a claim or to shake an association … No one lives in a ‘culture’ … before he or she clashes with others … People map for us and for themselves the chains of associations that make-up their sociologics. The main characteristics of these chains is to be unpredictable–for the observer” (Latour, author’s italics. 1987:201-202)

I have been clear about this since, at least, 1987 and this has guided my work with McDermott.

I am very comfortable with this way of putting what I have been trying to say, throughout my career about “America.” I have always written that I am not concerned with “everything that can be found in the United States” and even less with “what individual Americans believe”

So, let’s translate Varenne into “Latourian” (though the actual Latour might not agree with my translation).

Note that fights about speech in France and other democracies with roots in the late 18th century proceed differently. Compare and contrast the 1st amendment to Article 11 of the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme, particularly as it relates to the role of State which, on the American side, “forbids Congress to…” while, on the French side, specifically allows “la Loi” (capitalized) to respond to abuses and restrict some speech.

Let’s take a “typically American” controversy about “free speech.” I suspect people in the United States first meet the First Amendment, not in early childhood but sometimes in their school years, in some “citizenship” class many probably wished they did not have to sit through. And they may mostly forget about it until, perhaps in some College in the second decade of the 21st century, they are forced to participate in arguments about whether this or that kind of speech is protected. I suspect most college students participate at the periphery, as overhearers or lurkers in such arguments, wishing it all went away as they struggle with exams, parties, families, or any of the other controversies within which they are caught as full participants. But a few students will discover that “free speech” is, also, a machinery to stake a claim they want to make, or deny it. Free speech, in these terms, is an assemblage of discourses that morphed many years ago into institutions with a staff of people with the authority to write regulations, adjudicate claims, and mete consequences for breaches. The staff of this particular “shop floor” starts, in American universities, with administrators of special sub-offices (at Columbia, the current local staff is part of “Student Conduct and Community Standards”). The staff can then include about everybody in the university, including its president who may have to defend the university’s action in front of the Supreme Court that has the final say in controversies about adjudication. This enormous machinery is continually being reconstituted by a particularly thick and entangled network. It is not surprising that, once the machinery has been activated, “free” speech can become very expensive indeed, for those on one side or the other of a controversy, and particularly perhaps for those who might challenge the very ground for the assembling, maintenance, repair and expansion of the machinery.

Approaching American free speech as a machinery assembled over the centuries, staffed, repaired, and always available for invocation, justification, and adjudication, might allow a solution to the perennial problem in cultural anthropology. Documenting “difference” is easy. Figuring out how it is maintained over a period of time much longer than the life of an adult has been difficult, and perhaps all the more so when culture is taken as “learned,” “transmitted through acculturation” and altogether unavailable for controversy. One may, in the course of one’s life in the United States, “learn” about the particularities of “free speech” but it is not this learning that will make it consequential. What makes it consequential is the reality that it is always already there in institutions that may appear dormant but can prove themselves, at any time, not dead at all as agents of these institutions get alerted, dust off various weapons, and constitute a particular arena for another instantiation what must not be presented as just “performance” or “theater.” The stakes are just too high for all now caught.

Wondering about “culture” through the unfolding of controversy into joint action does make the analytic task easier and provide for a more solid theory of culture.

But no analysis will help with the value-laden choices involved in arguing for the centrality of “free speech” in academia or political action, in challenging the very grounds of “free speech,” or in any attempt to amend the 1st amendment in order, for example to allow Congress to pass laws (or Universities to enact regulations) about what constitutes an abuse of free speech (as Article XI of the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme, appears to allow)?



Last, First   2014     Title. Publisher

Latour, Bruno 1987 Science in action. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schneider, David 1968 American kinship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tylor, E.B. [1871] 1958 The origins of culture. New York: Harper and Row.

Weber, Max [1897] 1994 “The methodological foundations of sociology.” in Max Weber, sociological writings. Edited by W. Heydebrand. New York: Continuum.

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Anthropology and the feral: some further considerations about sequentiality and transformation

My last post was triggered by Michael Scroggins’ mention of feral cats in Australia. It made me think of Lévi-Strauss’s culinary triangle as a way to escape simple dualisms.  But they may not be sufficient if they induce readers to classify (some animals would be wild, others domesticates, and still other feral).  It may be closer to Lévi-Strauss’s goal to imagine that any “thing” (food, animal, marriage, blog posts) is always, as produced through humanity, wild and domesticated and feral (or imaginative/conventional/confusing).

But the power of the triangles is best revealed when we lay the three poles on a temporal frame and imagine them as a sequence involving minimally three persons (Arensberg 1981, 1982).

imagination -> convention -> confusion

Let’s stay with any blog post (as I started in my last one).  Like any other form of asynchronous expression, a post develops over a period of time, in the privacy of a writer’s room, one character at the time of a computer screen.  ‘I’ am currently doing this (a post), and do not quite know what I will write next (at this very momentary moment, ‘I’ am often suspended, wondering whether to open a new parenthesis, or not).

But all this is not accessible to anyone but ‘me’ as, a few seconds later, I discover what ‘I’ wrote and may now edit.  This next step may be taken hours, if not days, later. [note: this sentence was written on December 14, 2016; this note was written on January 9, 2017.] In other words, ‘I’ am conversing with ‘my self’, struggling with the words I must borrow, but without having to deal with anyone else who, at some future time, might tell I/me what I wrote.

And then, at some point, ‘I’ will press “Publish” and the post will escape into ‘my’ past, an uncertain future, and any reader’s present and then past.

All this, of course, is a common sense developed by American Pragmatists, most clearly perhaps by George Herbert Mead (1913, 1934), and later formalized in conversational analysis and related fields.  I paraphrase this sense in this way:

‘I’ (in the radical present) becomes ‘me’ (as remembered in a system of identifications) and is then identified for all future purposes in a third move, possibly performed by some more or less significant other, alive or dead.

As Mead put it:

It is not necessary, in attempting to solve the problem of meaning, to have recourse to psychical states, for the nature of meaning, as we have seen, is found to be implicit in the structure of the social act, implicit in the relations among its three basic individual components: namely in the triadic relation of
1)  a gesture of one individual
[and then]2)  a response to that gesture by a second individual
[and then]3)  completion of the given social act initiated
by the gesture of the first individual.
(Mead 1934: 78. I reformatted to emphasize sequentiality and added the italicized text)

Had Geertz built on Mead rather than Weber, he might have seen that his concern with “interpreting” twitches/winks is moot: the “meaning” is in a completion that is an act of power rather than of interpretation.  That is, neither the gesture nor the response determine the completion.  Rather the completion determines what happened before in that completion identifies the muscle spasm as this (rather than that): In culture causality is reversed.

Most anthropologists, of course, follow Geertz, following Weber.  Few follow Arensberg (or Mead, or Garfinkel) in his insistence on sequencing and temporality (by contrast to the more common insistence on history).  Those who did, say in the anthropology of schooling, or of science and technology, may, however, have fallen into another trap that thinking about the feral makes glaring.  This trap involves assuming that the completing act as necessarily an act of identification back into the “normal-for-the-time” (culture as organization of political power producing particular forms of suffering).  I’d now say that most of my work with McDermott could be criticized for assuming that completion silences possibilities opened by the gesture or the response to the gesture.  We complained about Bourdieu, Foucault, et al., but more for their understanding of the processes of reproduction rather than for taking reproduction as inevitable—even though, as anthropologists, we should have known better.  Even the most incessant work at reproduction will always fail.  Even the most pampered of kittens can go feral.

Why this should be so should be the anthropological problem, to the extent that we follow our roots to Boas and Saussure (as historical linguist).  I have written about “education” is this vain, but thinking about the feral as a moment rather than a category could sharpen the argument.  One should wonder: what if “completion” is more akin to an apparently ‘domesticated’ cat escaping into the streets, hills and back-country?  To the very extent that the completing act may surprise those who gestured and responded, then even an enforcement of the normal can become something to fight.  That is every “third” (identifying “completion”) in temporality, is also a “second” (suitable “response”), and then or course a “first” (“gesture” wildly open to all sorts of responses).

In brief, the classical case borrowed from Hugh Mehan on classroom lessons (1979) is generally summarized as a sequence:

1) Question (gesture): “What time is it?”
2) Answer (response): “It’s 10:06″
3) Evaluation (completion): “Good! ‘A’ on finding the time on your computer screen!”

When I teach this sequence, I then note that the evaluation places the sequence into the world of meritocratic schooling and its attendant production of sanctioned inequalities.

I do not know of anyone noticing that teaching this sequence is actually a statement in a temporal sequence.  That is, “teaching about schooling” (reporting, telling, …) is a new, altogether feral (from the point of view of about everyone involved in schooling), completing “third”:

1) Gesture: “It’s 10:06″
2) Response: “Good! ‘A’ on finding the time on your computer screen!”
3) Completion: “This is a terrible way of doing education!”

No wonder so many dismiss anthropology, or even try to silence it — like the government of Australia trying to rid the continent of feral cats!


Arensberg, Conrad.   1981     “Cultural holism through interactional systems.” American Anthropologist. 83:562-581

Arensberg, Conrad.   1982     “Generalizing anthropology: the recovery of holism,” in Crisis in anthropology. Edited by E. A. Hoebel, et al.. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.. pp. 109-130.

Mead, G. H.   1934     Mind, self and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mehan, Hugh 1979 Learning lessons: Social organization in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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Wondering about the feral

Michael Scroggins, in one of drafts of the dissertation he will soon defend, brought out something I do not remember any anthropologist ever mentioned: we all easily use the distinction wild/domesticated.  But we do not write about the feral.

(I count on Scroggins to tell me more about his sources…).

Since he brought the ‘feral’ up, I have been playing with him on how to present something with which we now can make at least three distinctions:

  • wild/domesticated
  • domesticated/feral
  • feral/wild

We started, of course, with something most powerfully developed by Lévi-Strauss.  Famously Lévi-Strauss works through oppositions:

  • good to eat/good to think (in Totemism)
  • wild/domesticated (implicit in the title to Pensée Sauvage)
  • bricolage/engineering (in Chapter 1 of Pensée Sauvage)
  • raw/cooked (volume 1 of Mythologiques)

and, perhaps, nature/culture though this is not quite so evident since he repeatedly pointed out that we cannot possibly reach the “natural.”

What would he have done with the “feral”?

Now, it is not often noticed that, while Lévi-Strauss, starts with straw distinctions, he regularly moves to triangular models.  The most famous is a short paper about a “culinary triangle” that still has a small life inspiring scholars of human eating (D’Onofrio 2004: Chapter 5).  Like for his paper on Santa Claus (mushrooms, Totemism, etc.), Lévi-Strauss starts with references to contemporary life (Italians imposing crudités as edibles, America soldiers destroying Camembert as in-edible), then gallops through historical and geographical whirlwinds, and ends with the most general of statements: “Thus we can hope to discover for each specific case how the cooking of a society is a language in which it unconsciously translates its structure or else resigns itself, still unconsciously, to revealing its contradictions.” (2008 [1965]: 43).

I am not going to complain about the use of the “unconscious.”  One of these days, I may translate this statement into something I could now live with.  For today, I will leave this aside and concentrate on the preceding step: taking the mundane (eating and drinking) seriously.

In that vein, one of my fondest memories of my field work in Michigan was the meal when four glasses of drinkables were set for me (water, milk, wine, coffee), all at the same time, to be drunk in any order, as I saw fit.  On that day, I was also offered soup after dessert.  All my expectations about sequencing of foods and associations between food and drink were challenged, and I loved it: this is why I was glad for anthropology!  And so it became part of what I wrote about “America”: individualism, loving attention to individual whims when together, and the careful display of all this in words and actions.

Coming back to Lévi-Strauss and his “culinary triangle”:

Let’s translate this into the world of animals (say cats in Australia), and transform the original triangle (as Boon did when modeling Balinese marriage into a strategic/sacred/romantic triangle  (1977)).

The error here, and Lévi-Strauss sometimes allows for it, would be to imagine the model as a collection of states of being (cats could ‘be’ either wild, or domesticated, or feral).  The model, as per Lévi-Strauss, is an analytic tool about, in this case, possibilities in any setting, at any time, when human beings get together to do anything (cooking, marrying, doing science).  Any statement (act) must be seen as “wild” AND “cultured” AND “feral.”  That is, what I am writing here is:

  • Wild (to the extent that it is an act of pensée sauvage);
  • Cultivated (to the extent that it is written in English, building on a long history of anthropological thinking);
  • Feral (to the extent that it may not be what anyone building on the same history is expecting, and may even be disturbing)

One open question, among many, concerns temporality, and I will write about it some other time.


Boon, James. 1977 The anthropological romance of Bali: Dynamic perspectives in marriage and caste, politics and religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

D’Onofrio, F Salvatore.   2004     L’esprit de la parenté : Europe et horizon chrétien.. Nouvelle édition [en ligne]. Paris : Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, 2004. Available at: .

Lévi-Strauss, Claude   2008 [1965]    “The Culinary Triangle.” In Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge. pp. 36–43

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Culture: Inheritance vs. islanding?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of many field defining papers by Clifford Geertz: “Religion as a cultural system” ([1996] 1973).

Last week, I asked students to read it.  As I prepare the class, I saw again a quote I had marked but saw in a slightly different light as I also read the final draft of something I am writing with Michael Scroggins currently titled “Does (a) culture recapitulate itself?”.  It is actually about the Phoenix like nature of the “culture of poverty” argument. The paper starts with a complaint I have made elsewhere against the move among the leaders of anthropology to distance themselves from “culture” (concept? ideal-type?). I had not noticed that Geertz was already complaining about what may then have been the beginning of the distancing:

The term “culture” has by now acquired a certain aura of ill-repute in social anthropological circles because of the multiplicity of its referents and the studied vagueness with which it has all too often been invoked. (Though why it should suffer more for these reasons than “social structure” or “personality” is something I do not entirely understand.). ([1996] 1973: 89)

More importantly, I had not noticed what follows as Geertz develops what looks very much like a definition:

In any case, the culture concept to which I adhere has neither multiple referents nor, so far as I can see, any unusual ambiguity: it denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life. Of course, terms such as “meaning,” “symbol,” and “conception” cry out for explication. ([1996] 1973: 89)

Continue reading Culture: Inheritance vs. islanding?

Islanding assemblages of haecceities

I am finishing a draft of a paper with Juliette de Wolfe on conceits and autism.  It ends with my current favorite Garfinkelian conceit: driving down the highway of life with an immortal cohort.  In the paper where he talks about immortality and highways, he writes that “immortal is a metaphor for … an “assemblage of haecceities” (2002: 92).  Ray McDermott to whom I had sent an earlier draft underlined the last word and wrote “explained?”.   It made me acknowledge to myself that I could not quite explain the word though I knew it had to do with the latin for ‘this’ and was related to everything Garfinkel has written about indexicality.  So I searched Wikipedia (no shame!).  The first indexes in the entry are to Duns Scotus and Peirce.  Then comes the references to Garfinkel with a quote from Rawls “Haecceities is one of the many words that Garfinkel has adopted over the years to indicate the importance of the infinite contingencies in both situations and practices” (2003).  So, simply (?) put, changing the clothes of a tantruming child in a public park is, always and necessarily, a unique act that has never occurred and will never recur.  There will never be another time when this child will be changed by this mother in this park in front of these onlookers.  There will never be another time when this Rosa will say “I could read it!” in this reading group (McDermott passim).  There will never be another time when some Mexican migrants develop this glossary (Kalmar 2001).

So what is the point of reporting this?  As Kalmar reminded us when he lectured at Teachers College in the Spring 2012, the Camden glossaries are unique, but they are also an instance of what many other people (missionaries, linguists, etc.) did when faced with another language they had to learn as they attempted to survive in that moment.

So, this is another musing about ethnographic methodology and its usefulness in, precisely, this political moment in the history of anthropology and its relationship to the State.

But, as I half day dreamed about the quote (which I may initially have chosen because it included the work ‘metaphor’ which was then the key word in the evolving paper), I noticed that Garfinkel wrote about “assemblage” and wondered whether this is the recently famous word.  Did he get it from Latour? from Rawls (who would have gotten it from Deleuze)?  Anyway, it fits.  This event is made up of these matters (people, things, etc.) immortalized into “??????.”

What exactly is the word to be used?  (Suspense!)

I was working on the paper when, last week, I taught one of my favorite pieces from one of our disciplinary grandmothers: Ruth Benedict’s “Configurations of culture in North America” (1932).  Note that ‘configuration’ is pluralized, not ‘culture’ (Benedict is a Boasian, not a Geertzian).  What struck me this time is her use of the unusual gerund “islanding” to evoke the historical reality that differentiation (say in death rituals–her main examples) is not based on geographical isolation (see also Louis Dumont on the ideological differentiations between France and Germany in the 19th century (1994 [1991])).   Burying a close relative among the Zuñi requires different displays than it requires among the Cheyenne.  We were taught in graduate school to ridicule Benedict from tagging the first set of displays as “Apollonian” while the others would be “Dionysian” and to suggest that these ??? somehow “explained” the displays as if they were psychological causes.  I now read these labels as temporary heuristics that may have helped at the time establish the unique this-ness of a historical moment in the plains and high plateaus of a continent when human beings lived side by side, pushed and pulled each other, faced new conditions (e.g. the horse), and assembled themselves and their practices into some immortal thing (configuration, culture, pattern, epoch, system, [your word for a historically produced, powerfully enforced, differentiated and differentiating unique thing]).

Now, I have complained elsewhere that Garfinkel does not have an explicit theory of culture, unless, as I suggest, facing immortal assembling of haecceities is precisely such a theory–which is my point.

Thus, our scientific task is more akin to physicists disputing “gravity” (islanding, culture) than to medical researchers looking for the cause of autism, or the better therapy (technology, development).

[See also an earlier post on the Boasian revolt against classifications by function and causes]