Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Geertz's Symbolic Anthropology and Foucault's Epistemic History

Symboloic Cultural Systems and Foucault's Epistemic History

© June 2010 Mukesh Williams

The anti-historicist idea of dealing with "a shared code" in medical and theatrical practices takes its cue from Geertz's notion of collective and symbolic cultural system and Foucault's epistemic rather than causal construction of history. In an essay "Return to History" published in Aesthetics, Method and Methodology, Foucault rejects historical causality in order to seek discontinuity and to find the emergence and center of an event. He concludes:

Structuralism, by defining transformations, and history, by describing types of events and different types of duration [duree], make possible both the appearance of discontinuities in history and the appearance of regular, coherent transformations. Structuralism and contemporary history are theoretical instruments by means of which one can--contrary to the old idea of continuity--really grasp both the discontinuity of events and the transformation of societies (Foucault, 1998 431).

In effect, Foucault argues that both the structuralist and historicist methodologies help us to understand the discontinuities of events and the change in societies.

The new historicist cultural model, however, seems to function within a closed ideological framework, quite similar to the framework built on formalist assumptions. If culture is a symbolically shared system then it is ideologically closed too. And if tropes are more important than causes, the critic analyzing the text in an intercultural framework becomes limited by the very nature of his singular perspective. Also cultural processes have an uncanny mind of their own, and are invariably incompatible with ideological conflict and change.

The ideological assumptions of new historicism and the models they used to analyze cultural processes limited the scope and nature of their analysis. Their study of European Renaissance drew upon the twin problems of ideology and resistance to ideology within a culture, which was later reframed in the binary terms of "containment" and "subversion." This was a procedure easy to apply but gave limited results as it was not sophisticated enough to encompass the subtle dynamics and change in cultural processes. But after nearly two decades these terms are seen as vestiges of a Cold War ideology somewhat incongruous to the globalizing processes of the post-Cold War era. And within Anglo-American criticism there seems to be a new shift in position, just as there is one in the ideological and psychological construction of the West after September 11, 2001 suicide attacks on American cities.

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