“[There was] something real outside herself, which spoke to her kindly an yet in sovereign tones, something superior and good whose presence destroyed the dreary trance-like solipsism of her earlier mood. When the world had seemed to be subjective it had seemed to be without interest or value. But now there was something else in it after all.” Iris Murdock, The Bell, p. 190.

In the 1980s, after a long affair with objectivity, anthropologists, disappointed with the relationship, fell in love with subjectivity, celebrating it, and revelling in it. And yet, after three decades, our fascination with our own belly buttons has waned. We look at each other, and say, “what now?” Indeed: what now?

Have we shifted toward a post-subjective anthropology? Do we have new answers, or at least answers, to the claims of subjectivity? Are we able to address something beyond ourselves? Can we now move on? And, if so, what would post-subjective anthropology look like?

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I am not a great fan of the Culture concept and I try not to use it. The major problem for me is how we should delimit one culture from another culture in time and space. It is easier to defend a culture concept if you have a narrow time span, as most social anthropologists have. Through a snapshot in time it is easier to categorize phenomena in the world, they only have a spatial distribution. But cultures do then change in time and the paradox for me is that, for example, people talk about the Maya culture today and the Maya culture 2500 years ago as if it was one and the same (however, I do believe that people see the differences, but their use of the culture concept makes me less convinced). Clearly, the Maya culture 2500 years ago had more in common with the contemporaneous Zapotec culture than it would have had with its modern descendents, but they would still be seen as different cultures. We find the same problem in biology, few researchers actually talk about species as natural kinds (of the pre-Darwinian era), species are just seen in a snapshot. This is how we tend to view culture. Still, the culture concept tries to say something about similarities/differences between people. I prefer to view humans and their environment(s) as making up assemblages that can either be "homogenized" or "heterogenized", but there is no overall metaconcept like culture that directs the process, to me culture is just a shorthand for something much more complex, and its explanatory value is not great.
Nikos: yes, that is my personal position or definition of culture. But it's not the only definition of culture. My position is based quite heavily on Edward Sapir, concepts of as-if personality and as-if culture. To speak of culture as a reified entity, something in and of itself, is to mix theoretical constructs with reality. What is real is that we act as-if there were a culture, a fixed yardstick against our behaviour and beliefs can be measured. I doubt my contribution on the topic is novel enough to deserve a book, and further I doubt I am eloquent or smart enough to do sufficient service to the topic, and finally, I doubt whether this position is useful enough. If, someday, I solve my methodological-epistemological issues, then maybe, maybe I will write a book length essay on the topic.

I am not too sure about mimesis and simulation - I'm not certain which topic you refer to. But I am certain that the main problem with your position is the concept of a "real and original" culture. How to determine what is real, original and so forth? ... hmm.

What Johan and Michael wrote above pretty much covers my greatest problems with the culture concept.

NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:
LUKA
YOU SAID : My personal position is that culture itself doesn't exist, it's just our theoretical construct to deal with why people act as if it existed.
Why you don't write a book on this idea? Maybe some millions will rush to buy it.Does anybody in this forum could agree to that ?

About mimesis and its fashion I never said that TRUTH IS MADE OF FASHION. Unfortunately fashion is putting false ideas in the actuality. One of them has been MIMESIS meaning that when there is not ORIGINALITY must be imitation. Now , this idea has been simply replaced by SIMULATION that is a heavier case of MIMESIS. To say it better SIMULATION IS THE TECHNOLOGICAL PERFECTION OF THE OLD MIMESIS. Ufortunately simulation is brought by fashion to the most of our post modern life manifestations ( including some discussions also here in this forum).

To come back to your quotation on culture I insist that what u define as culture in reality is nothing else than CULTURAL SIMULATION ( MIMESIS if u prefere). BUT REAL AND ORIGINAL CULTURE MUST BE RESEARCHED FAR FROM BLOGS AND ETHNOLOGICAL DISSERATIONS, and maybe this is for the best.
By following "culture" I am diverting the "postsubjective anthropology thread here"

Would it help then to say "people live culturally" as Tim Ingold does? Or Barth uses "knowledge" instead since it is considered to be distributed within or across a population and its presence, or lack thereof, can be found at the individual level. Culture, however, he thinks is attributed to all or most people within a particular population. Barth also offer solution to the boundary issue (not that I agree with his whole idea but the analogy is nice) we have no problem approaching the land/sea distinction. There is a large intermediate zone of the gradient "where land-ness and sea-ness intermingle in the ebb and flow of the tides". Something like this. (this is in Signifying Identities 1999 ed.A. Cohen).
In any case I am sure you know Barth stuff Johan but I wanted to remind it. Actually it really depends what you do with it.
If you read the following, do you find it not persuading or discussable?

Brumann, C.,
1999 Writing for Culture: Why a Successful Concept Should Not be Discarded. Current Anthropology. Vol. 40(1):1-27.

It is interesting that "subjectivity" shows up usually as an antithesis of objectivity. Anthropology makes it possible to avoid such a dichotomy I think. The types of questions we ask perhaps will show a different distribution if we are moving towards a post-subjectivist anthropology: Because some of the questions we have been asking lately do not yield much. We are not good philosophers (if we were better in scrutinizing our arguments) we might have been at a better epistemological boat.



Johan Normark said:
I am not a great fan of the Culture concept and I try not to use it. The major problem for me is how we should delimit one culture from another culture in time and space. It is easier to defend a culture concept if you have a narrow time span, as most social anthropologists have. Through a snapshot in time it is easier to categorize phenomena in the world, they only have a spatial distribution.
I pretty much understand what a culture is when someone discuss it and I can separate Maya culture from Aztec culture but that is because we tend to think in spatial terms, like the analogy of the tides which is a flow of change moving across spatial boundaries. That of course happens but as an archaeologist I am concerned about the temporal dimension as well. Cultures tend to be given certain essential properties that remain from the past. This property is not described or explained in so general terms that it can be seen across great temporal "lengths". For me culture tends to become quite general and therefore lack explanatory powers. In my view, a post-subjectivist anthropology goes hand in hand with a post-cultural anthropology.
It is of course useful to interrogate all of the concepts that we use, and to assess them critically. But we should also avoid, carrying the spirit of deconstruction to an extreme, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Maybe it would be helpful to remind ourselves of some of the concepts, models, and explanations that have been alternatives to "culture" in accounting for human life:

One popular one, still advanced by some academic enthusiasts, is "power" which is understood to be the same everywhere: the oppressors versus the oppressed; the good victims versus the bad perpetrators; the virtuous against the 'establishment.'

Another currently popular one is "religion": life is a struggle between God and the devil; between the followers of God and avocates of satan; between God's laws, specified in this or that document, and forbidden acts and beliefs.

A third popular one has been "race": some races are pure and others polluted; some strong and others weak; some intellegent and others stupid; some self-controlled and others subject to uncontrolled inpulses.

Is "culture" just the way we look at human life, or do we think it is a better, truer, richer way of looking at human life than race, religion, and power? Is every interpretation as good as every other: race as good as politics; religion as good as culture? Aren't there good reasons why 'culture' became the central concept of American anthropology?

We need ways to assess alternative explanations and interpretations is to determine which are better and which are worse. We strive to do this in our real lives, in deciding about better and worse schools, jobs, partners, neighbourhoods, cars, clothes, food, political candidates, job candidates, essays, books, etc. etc. Isn't it our responsibility to make such determinations in our work, and to provide justifications for our conclusions?
Ryan Anderson said:
Luka wrote:

"My personal position is that culture itself doesn't exist, it's just our theoretical construct to deal with why people act as if it existed."

Well, all of our categories and terms are really only constructions that we use to explain complex processes. It is important not to confuse the construct with the process that it is created to explain, I agree with that. But if you think of culture (simply put) as patterned learned behavior, I think the concept holds up pretty well. It might be incredibly complex and difficult to explain, but that does not mean that this process does not exist.

Hmm ... yes, that is certainly a point. The issue I have is with the reification of the construct, where the concept is applied in a simplistic manner and then used further as though it was representing the "empirical truth" in a 1-on-1 manner. It is useful shorthand for patterned learned behaviour, but the problem arises when this shorthand is misused.

However, when I say that this process (patterned learned behaviour aka. culture) does not exist, I mean to say that there is not a single, definite process to which this applies. The set of processes we model with the concept of culture is an open, Wittgensteinian set.
Johan, when you say post-cultural do you also mean universalist? As in the search for universally applicable findings on human behavior?

Johan Normark said:
I pretty much understand what a culture is when someone discuss it and I can separate Maya culture from Aztec culture but that is because we tend to think in spatial terms, like the analogy of the tides which is a flow of change moving across spatial boundaries. That of course happens but as an archaeologist I am concerned about the temporal dimension as well. Cultures tend to be given certain essential properties that remain from the past. This property is not described or explained in so general terms that it can be seen across great temporal "lengths". For me culture tends to become quite general and therefore lack explanatory powers. In my view, a post-subjectivist anthropology goes hand in hand with a post-cultural anthropology.
To Ryan: So it is quite possible that we are in the same boat, theoretically ... it just depends on the definition of culture. However, I would say it is not just pretty difficult to nail down, it is impossible to nail down ... although nailing it down may be irrelevant anyway. One of the worst forms of scholarship I have seen is the "search for the authentic" so typical of nationalisms as well as many folklore studies and ethnologies. I wonder, is "the authentic" a relatively universal human cognitive priority, or is it just something typical of our more-or-less-European culture sphere?
Luka states that "culture....is not just pretty difficult to nail down, it is impossible to nail down."

Lika's doubts about the possibility of specifying what a culture is, is quite widespread. There is today among anthropologists a reticence about saying pretty much anything. There is particularly a fear of generalization. We have been taught by some dubious "authorities" that generalizations are invalid, and when applied to people and peoples, are racist. But these views do not stand up to serious critical scrutiny.

All knowledge is based on generalization. Every concept is a generalization. Since the concept of "apple" has been mentioned, let's take that as an example. First, apples as a category encompass many varieties that differ in particular characteristics, although sharing certain general ones. Second, it is pretty clear that apples are not oranges or tomatoes. Consequently, there is no reason to doubt the validity of "apple" as a concept. The same is true of pretty much every material object that we deal with: chairs, tables, pens, cars, houses, trees, grass, dogs, etc. But it is also true with various social categories: police, teacher, stock broker, Member of Parliament, soldier, sailor, sales person, fire person, and so on, although individuals can occasionally move from one occupational category to another.

If we consider culture as something we wish to describe (as opposed to making judgments about "authenticity," etc.), we have to examine the patterns of behavior, ideas, beliefs, values (or whatever you wish to include) and identify common patterns or statistically normative patterns. In fact, we have all kinds of methodological and analytic tools for identifying such things: census statistics, public opinion surveys, content analysis of published materials, legal codes, etc., not to mention "participant observation" and the many techniques that anthropologists could apply, if they only had learned them and had the time and help to apply them: land surveys, social network analysis, ritual and ceremonial analysis, life histories, demographic surveys, genealogical analysis, etc. etc.

In the end, we have to bite the bullet and say what we have learned. It is not enough to say that it is complicated; it is up to us figure out how to deal with the complexities. In the end, we have to describe what this particular society and culture is about. That is what our job as ethnographer is.
Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Luka states that "culture....is not just pretty difficult to nail down, it is impossible to nail down."

In the end, we have to bite the bullet and say what we have learned. It is not enough to say that it is complicated; it is up to us figure out how to deal with the complexities. In the end, we have to describe what this particular society and culture is about. That is what our job as ethnographer is.

On that I agree - but I always end up in a quandary - it often seems to me that I end up simply describing things as I want to see them. Maybe I didn't phrase that quite correctly ... We end up with a description that is constructed and constricted by our methods and concepts. If we start with culture, we find culture ... if we start with concepts of economic, religous, etc. institutions, we find them. But - be that as it may - is the description enough? Should we not also seek regularities of patterned learned behaviour? A step beyond ethnography, as it were.
Luka asks: Is description enough? Should we not also seek regularities of patterned learned behaviour? A step beyond ethnography, as it were.

Here I agree with you entirely. In our roles as social or cultural anthropologists, or, as some Europeans say, ethnologists, we move beyond descriptions of particular cases to search for more general patterns. Usually, comparative analysis (see this discussion topic also on Theory in Anthropology) plays some part in formulating more general patterns.

However, looking for more general patterns requires confidence that our case studies of particular societies are sound, evidence-based, and reliable. Otherwise we are building on sand.
Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
However, looking for more general patterns requires confidence that our case studies of particular societies are sound, evidence-based, and reliable. Otherwise we are building on sand.

Very true. And a very treacherous problem, evidence and reliability. In my master's course on anthropology this is a persistent problem I keep having. The more epistemology I study, the fewer studies I am able to consider as truly reliable. Even the most reliable of observations leave me feeling like the theoretical foundations are juddering and swaying, jury-rigged ensembles that often give little more than the "virtus dormitivus" of Moliére (and Bateson).

What of the other direction, not from evidence to theories, but the other way around? Deduction from theory, complimenting induction, as it were. For example, there is something universally valid to Leslie White's observation of the increasing energy needs required for complex societies, as are certain other ecological observations. Or basic natural selection and evolution -- a topic I find misunderstood by a great number of anthropologists and ethnologists.*

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