Culture in/and Anthropology

*** Minor edits: Read a piece by Massimo that is more recent than the podcast I reference here, and it’s clear that he has consistently criticized “memes” and “memetics” in several places, an essay entitled ‘On Consilience‘, and a podcast on “Memetics” itself! Both are, predictably, excellent.

It may seem strange to start a blog ostensibly devoted to ethnomusicology with an extended thought on the concept of ‘culture’, but I can’t seem to rid it from my mind and compose something about music, so I’d rather write about it then ignore it.

 I was listening today to a nice podcast ‘Rationally Speaking’. It’s something I’d like to emulate: intelligent, thoughtful, and engaging discussion on an “academic” topic without going from 0 mph – to lightspeed pedantic insanity in 35 minutes.

 On the subject of academic/popular (popademic, trademarked, so go away, forget you saw that gem) podcasts, the ‘Society of Cultural Anthropology’ just began a podcast program: ‘AnthroPod’. While *I* enjoyed the program (in spite of some floaty Deleuze & Guattari legerdemain) I simply don’t understand why CA would begin a podcast with such a strange piece – University of Chicago’s Michael Fisch on his May 2013 article “Tokyo’s Commuter Train Suicides and the Society of Emergence”. If this is a publicly oriented organ, why choose the topic of train suicides on the Tokyo public transit network and some highbrow social theory to begin with? Why talk so much about philosophers in a podcast about anthropology? People would show up for anthropology, get bizarre, unfamiliar names dropped on them like they should know to whom they belong and why they might be invoked.

 Listener’s eyes glaze. She clicks back, back, back, finds ‘Music’. Go to ‘Artists’. ‘Lady GaGa’. Play. Podcast ignored. Anthropology becomes irrelevant.

 That came out harsher than I intended. I’m no podcaster (yet), but I think I’d start with “Episode 1: What’s Anthropology? What do Anthropologists do?”

 Anyway, returning to ‘Rationally Speaking’ (actually begun by Massimo Pigliucci, a CUNY GC Professor of Philosophy), the topic of Episode 64 was “Beyond Human Nature”, with the (CUNY GC, coincidence, I’m sure) philosopher Jesse Prinz. Prinz is a scholar I have a lot of respect for, and I especially admire his diligence in taking seriously the roles of culture, social structure, and human evolution in the development of emotions, morals, and other philosophical chestnuts. The fact that culture is so plastic should have some bearing on philosophical thinking.

 Surely it’s heartening for both fields that anthropologists like Fisch think so much about philosphers and philosophers like Prinz think so much about anthropologists. Certainly ironic. I’m biased towards taking culture seriously, but I feel like Prinz is doing some fine damn thinking, whether or not we all agree it philosophizing, and likewise for Fisch (I hope).

 What concerns me about comparing these two conversations was how little it seemed Fisch could give to Prinz, whereas how rich Prinz’s contributions to anthropology may be – especially in thinking about ‘culture’ as a plastic, adaptive, labile, and ultimately extremely robust human capacity for engaging with each other and the natural world. This is a major contribution of anthropological science and thinking.

Speaking of culture, then, in the very beginning of the ‘Rationally Speaking’ episode, Prinz made the claim that there was a new “science of culture” – I know, I wouldn’t characterize anthropology as new, either – he called “cultural psychology”. What? When did anthropology cease to be a science of culture, humans, and humans as culture-bearers? Their discussion wheeled around the topic until Massimo gamely asked whether or not there was a functional, general “theory of culture” – I know, gene-culture coevolution, right? easy answer for some of us – and then rattled off some stuff and sort of mumbled “…you know, Cavelli-Sforza and Feldman gene-culture coevolution stuff in the 70s and 80s or something, I don’t think it went very far”.

 I’m more than willing to give Massimo the benefit of the doubt, here: the contours of debates around culture in anthropology are out of his wheelhouse (though to be fair the guy’s got a big wheelhouse so I could be wrong), but I can’t imagine any anthropologist seriously characterizing gene-culture co-evolution as a theory that “didn’t go very far”. Especially when compared to the so-called “memetics” alternative. Memetics is by no means an uncontroversial or even widely understood theory, though it is the preferred explanation of a certain social and intellectual class of Anglo-Americans.

 In any case, isn’t the sort of knee-jerk reaction any anthropologist gives to the question “what is culture?” satisfactory here? Culture refers to patterns of learned behavior. Structural (patterns), ideational (learned) and behavioral (behavior) theories of culture are all satisfied. Even biological anthropologists like it because it correctly attributes patterned and learned chimpanzee interactions as “culture”. It does a lot of work for us.

Which is one reason why everyone simultaneously loathes it, I’m sure. Ideationalists like Bill Durham, Interpretive/symbolic scholars, and the meme-gang need culture to be symbols and information so that behavior can be the outcome of (co)evolution, modified by culture. Behaviorists and materialists more broadly, need behavior to govern ideas – Marvin Harris cites the observed social behavior of lying or obfuscation as an important counterpoint to ideas guiding behavior (I’m not so convinced); structural thinkers respect neither, since both ideas and behaviors are epiphenomenon of deeply-rooted structural interrelations, neither wholly sustainable on its own. Further, poststructural critiques of the very concept have surely hammered the final nail into any trite, bounded, Tylor-esque notions of culture, as an academic and scientific notion, paving the way towards new understandings of culture. In that vein, the Wenner-Gren volume edited by Richard G. Fox and Barbara J. King, “Anthropology Beyond Culture” (2002) seems to advocate for an understanding of culture not as a ubiquitous constant but rather as a kind of context-dependent factor, sometimes obscuring our hypotheses and other times the very subject of them. Alternatively, Jason Antrosio at the popular ‘Living Anthropologically‘ blog has argued (based on Rolph-Trouillot’s contribution in the Fox and King volume) that perhaps dropping the word ‘culture’ would dramatically draw attention to its misuse in popular discourse. [Personally, I disagree with this position because nearly all other fields work with the issue of people misconstruing their central terms – ‘history’, ‘evolution’, ‘politics’, ‘forces’, ‘art’ – and they can still retain their use as complexly meaningful terms.]

So, when and where did anthropology stop being a science of culture and when did gene-culture coevolution stop being a legitimate theory of culture? It seems like the debate has been consistent, exhibiting gradual change, and very productive. Why has it not extended past anthropology?

I’m not sure. An interesting and sometimes confounding aspect of social science in general is that unlike in natural sciences, many “theories” of a certain human phenomenon (culture, for instance) can coexist and seem useful and not mutually exclusive insofar as they answer different questions and provide consistent, rational, and demonstrable answers or observations. Marxist approaches may have little to say about how social stressors affect the onset the menarche in terms of *physiology*, but quite a lot to say about how those social stressors may have come to be. The question can be approached in many ways, and no method seems to exhaust the issue. In social science, it’s not as if we have a huge consensus position (modern evolutionary theory, for example) and a camp of clever pseudo-scientists (intelligent design). There are theories that are plainly less successful (strong racially-minded biological-determinist psychometricians, for one) and those that are more capable of producing compelling explanations of some series of events. Sometimes our use of mutually overlapping and occasionally conflicting approaches to the same social phenomena may seem to bely a kind of non-systematic approach that would seem a troubling symptom of inaccuracy to other disciplines.

It’s certainly possible that the debates about culture in anthropology have been seen as a kind of spring cleaning that’s gone on too long. I fear, though, that the debates about culture in anthropology are not common knowledge because they seem “unimportant”, or ideologically driven, or not scientific. In the long run, it seems most likely that what I take to be a vital, developing discussion is simply too parochial to be of broad interest, and anthropologists have done little to extend the boundaries of the discussion to non-experts or other kinds of experts. Even more likely is that I’ve overblown a simple oversight. Prinz brings up “cultural psychology” because he’s a brain guy and its new(-ish?).

I wonder if I’m largely concerned with “the brand of anthropology“. Why was anthropology so troublingly absent from a discussion about the problem of human culture for human nature? What can we do to be there in the future?

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About Bradford Garvey

Ph.D student in Ethnomusicology, CUNY GC. Adjunct Lecturer in Music, CUNY Hunter.
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