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)?



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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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One thought on “On culture, free speech, and America”

  1. This is an incredibly insightful analysis of the American conception of free speech that I’ve not yet seen in the current free speech debate at Columbia. By approaching free speech as a machinery, allows us to develop an understanding of the First Amendment that extends beyond the legal to include the cultural dimensions of this overly appropriated discourse.

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