On the way home or, “When is m’I culture?”

Recently, I happened to watch Martin Scorcese’s documentary on Bob Dylan’s early career.  It is titled “No direction home” and starts with a soliloquy by Dylan wondering whether this would be an occasion for him to tell an odyssey of his return to the small town of his youth.  He concluded that it would not be because “I was born very far from where I am supposed to be.  So I am going home” in a future he had not reached when the documentary was made (in 2005).  In the same vein he also said at about the same time “You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens.”

In my words, I exhort us, pre/post/never modern, intellectuals: do not explain Bob Dylan by calling on Robert Allen Zimmerman, Hibbing, Minnesota, or any other further “roots” in Judaism, Ukraine, Turkey—or even rock-n-roll, jazz, country, folk, “the 60′s,” … America.  An archaeology of Dylan’s songs will find them all there.  But to stop with the discoveries of a deconstruction is to blind oneself to humanity.  Robert Allen Zimmerman’s dispositions are not causes.  Hibbing … America are obviously Dylan’s resources, the raw material of what he is still cooking for ever renewed present (at the time of composition) constructions (that are now, of course, our enlarged resources for further construction—as for example this post).

I have said all this many times in recent years (20072011).  I’ll just sketch today another correlate by riffing on “home” and the direction there.  As I take him, Dylan makes of “home” a matter of eschatology, not history.

When I started thinking from Dylan’s statement, I was reminded of a paper by James Boon where he compared/contrasted  Lévi-Strauss and Geertz on what could be called the harmonics of the concept of culture (1982: 137-147).  Boon quotes Geertz “‘Without men, no culture, certainly; but equally, and more significantly, without culture, no men’ (1973:49).”  And then Boon continues:

If that bothers you, think how it would sound in French: Sans hommes, pas de culture [structure?], certainement; mais également, et d’une manière plus significative, sans culture, pas d’homme.  In English it sounds antiatomistic and almost optimistic (although Geertz himself—in this respect more Weberian than Parsonian—is pessimistic).  In French it sounds somehow pessimistic, even nihilistic. (1982:146-7).

{Note what may be a typo in Boon’s translation of the second “men” in Geertz’s quote: an ‘s’ is missing and Boon’s French would have to be translated back into English as “without culture no Man”—thereby directing us on other paths in classical musings about humanity vs. human beings}

In any event, Geertz’s quote evokes another classic statement I associate with Margaret Mead (but may be by someone else—I cannot locate it): “a child is born with the potential to live an infinite number of lives, and end up having lived only one, fully shaped by ‘his culture’.”  Every single human being is made by possible by “culture”—“without culture, no men” in a plural that would now be written, more corrrectly, as “without culture, no men or women.”

Whether this formula can be applied to say “without America, no Bob Dylan” would seem to be a question for anthropology (sociology, psychology, etc.) and it would seem to require a positive answer because, to simplify “Dylan is the product of America.”  This would be altogether “normal anthropology” on the relationship between history and career whether one is concerned with musical genres, political sensibilities, gender, age, religion, race, etc. Robert Zimmerman would be a white Jewish male born in … [add any aspects of his biography you wish].

But Bob Dylan challenges us to a different anthropology which I find quite congenial with what I have been trying to say these past few years.  One can start with the statement that “without Bob Dylan no America” (my initial America included Bob Dylan, along with big cars with fins, cowboys and Indians, Doris Day in “Pillow Talk,” and other miscellanea).  But there is more.  Bob Dylan, in his life, has kept producing a culture that was not quite there and about which we, his mass audiences, know altogether little.  Above all, his statements are universal: all human beings are born very far from where they are supposed to be, with wrong names and parents that are always in some ways wrong.

Dylan is often dismissed as being in some way a mystic whose insights are to be bracketed out by serious behavioral scientists.  Their task would be an incommensurable one and so, from Freud to Boasian anthropologists, from pragmatic philosophers to Parsonian sociologists (including, of course Bourdieu), the scientists of the past century or two, have explained adults careers in terms of what has happened, most particularly in the earliest years of one’s life, and most powerfully when one has forgotten what happened.  Merleau-Ponty, de Certeau, (Bob Dylan?), have tried to go in the other direction but exploring this direction systematically has been difficult—particularly given the difficulty of making the point that historically produced resources, and ongoing constraints, must be taken into account even as one follows the production process.

The one exception to my generalization about the social sciences if, or course, an ethnomethodology that has been modified to take into account the ongoing production of new orders—however minimally “different” they may be from earlier orders, and however these differences are disappeared by further constructions that ignore the potentialities of the preceding (thereby treating as allophonic what could have become phonemic [but I am getting ahead of myself here]).

In other words, my home is in the future of my ‘I’ and (continuing a riff on G. H. Mead) my culture is really “m’I” culture, that is an act, a word, that cannot be captured without collapsing it into other people’s cultures.

[all this being potentially related to soon-to-happen events prefigured by the two contracts we have signed over the past three months: a contract to sell our apartment and a contract to buy a house.  The—aptly named—“closing” on the apartment is now scheduled for January 5th, 2011.  What should be named the “opening” on the house should happen in February.  Then, my wife and I will go home on our ways to still future homes...]

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