By socializing the Cogito, Sartre only changes prison. From now on, the group and the epoch will make it its intemporal consciousness. … Descartes, who wished to provide a foundation for physics cut Man from Society. Sartre who pretends to provide the foundation for an anthropology, cuts his society from other societies. (Lévi-Strauss 1966 : 249-50)
When seen as a set of symbolic devices for controlling behavior, extrasomatic sources of information, culture provides the link between what men are intrinsically capable of becoming and what they actually, one by one, in fact become. Becoming human is becoming individual, and we become individual under the guidance of cultural patterns, historically created systems of meaning in terms of which we give form, order, point, and direction to our lives. (Geertz 1973 : 52)
These are two wonderful statements about the foundations of anthropology: what are we to do when we accept, as we have since Boas, that humanity in general, and human beings in the most particular of circumstances, are irreducibly different in the worlds they encounter and the worlds they make. And, of course, these two statements are irreducible to each other though they respond to each other quite antagonistically. Lévi-Strauss answers Sartre but also prefigures a critique of the still emerging anthropologies for which Geertz, building on Weber, remains the towering ancestor. Geertz responded to Lévi-Strauss in similarly polemical style.
After a century-and-a-half of investigations into the depths of human consciousness which have uncovered vested interests, infantile emotions, or a chaos of animal appetites, we now have one which finds there the pure light of natural wisdom that shines in all alike. (Geertz 1973 : 359)
When looked at together, such exchanges can tell us about a (mutually and interactionally constituted) “collective conscience” about anthropology that brings back possible intuitions about, precisely, the collective into a matter of “becoming individual … under the guidance of cultural patterns,” that also produce “dispositions” (a word I found again Geertz also uses in several papers of the 1960s).
But each could also be used as an instance of the “conscience individuelle” that Lévi-Strauss (as well as Garfinkel et al.) imply by, precisely, never quite making of its production the topic of their investigations. Lévi-Strauss wants to free the human from those who, on the basis of their own social scientific research, would put the human, either in psychological or social prisons He asserts that examining the ethnographic record in all its wealth of variation and difference should lead the social scientist in the reverse position: neither “natural” nor “cultural” prisons can hold people for long.
On a related tack, conversational analysts insist that one cannot reduce the movement of a conversation to the intentions or motivations of those made to be participant in this conversation. I’d go so far as to say that all research into conversation reveals that all participants, however willing, must still doubt, seek, interpret, resist, what has just been said. And then they must start over when they find out what was made with their statement. Lévi-Strauss came close to saying this when he wrote, like Garfinkel later, his statement about driving on a highway where “small variations in the distance that separates [the objects/subjects that are all the cars/drivers] has the force of a mute command” (Lévi-Strauss 1966 : 222). That is, driving (standing in line, writing anthropology) in a cohort, and maintaining its order, is a matter of calls that are also responses.
So, it is not so much whether the “conscience individuelle” (in its moral or cognitive sense) is full of “vested interests, infantile emotions, etc…,” nor even of habits, dispositions, etc., but that these are not the motors of human culture at work anywhere or at any time. Interpreting local knowledge may be useful for, I dare say, an applied anthropology confronting other collective representations. But it will no take us where both Lévi-Strauss and Garfinkel, in different but very related ways, want us to go: a science of the mechanisms that make possible human variability in orderings. Given that human orderings do vary, and in the process transform the world to which one might want to reduce them, this variability, rather than its possible remains in individual brains, should be our object.
Geertz, Clifford “The impact of the concept of Culture on the concept of Man.” in his The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books. pp. 33-54. 1973 (First published in 1966)
Geertz, Clifford “The cerebral savage.” in his The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic Books. pp. 33-54. 1973 (First published in 1967)
Lévi-Strauss, Claude The savage mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1966 (First published in 1962)Print This Post