Thursday, June 3, 2010

Global Cultures and Civilizations

Archaeology of Cultures and Civilizations
The terms culture and civilization are the two most debated words in modern thought and practice and have been used by nations, communities and individuals as notions to create histories, identities and hegemonies. Are the terms culture and civilization residual essences, literary and philosophical discourses cultural anthropology or graspable artifacts? There is no clear agreement amongst scholars as to what these two terms imply and the battle which began in the Anglo-American world even before the 1940s, and heated up in the 1950s, still lumbers on (Geertz, 2000 12-19). Old stalwarts like Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski and Edward Sapir have given way to Arif Dirlik , Arjun Appadurai, James Clifford, Sidney Mintz, George Marcus, Eric Wolf and Michael Taussig, Philip Bourgois and Nancy Scheper-Hughes. But we cannot ignore the twin notions of culture and civilization nor can we jump out or over them. We need to interrogate these concepts as best as we can and once again in the light of new advances in critical theory and philosophy make some sense of both.

In recent times there has been an emphasis on “thick description” of culture and civilization which forces us to believe that cultures and civilizations are not essences floating in the air but directly rooted in geography and socially established codes. As such they encompass the political and religious conflicts of the times and are increasingly given to incommensurability relativism and perspectivism. But cultures, languages, civilizations and traditions are not self-contained entities but always interacting with each other, crisscrossing, extending beyond and overlapping. Languages too are not complete air-tight units but open and permeable. Since people speaking different languages interact amongst themselves, languages come in close proximity and tend to borrow from each other. The belief in sealed entities or “windowless monads” gives us a false picture of concepts that can hold us “captive” and prevent us from “get[ing] outside it” (Wittgenstein, 1953/2001 115). Karl Popper warns us that we must not fall a prey to “the myth of the framework” and become deluded (Popper, 1996).

Culture has been generally understood as progress in art and science that has helped mankind to develop their faculties and character. But with the rise of eugenics and later anthropology, culture became linked to the study of language, customs, beliefs, consciousness, ideas and practices of the non-European ‘Other’. Based on this assumption E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class redefined the concept of class as involving “human relationships” and not just economic and occupational indices (Thompson, 1963). He further argued in the “Preface” to the aforementioned book that,

By class I understand an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and consciousness. I emphasise that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a ‘structure’, not even as a ‘category’. But as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships (Thompson, 1963 9).

According to Thompson class is not only historical in nature but constitutes a web of human relationships over an extended period of time.

Some of the early anthropologists such as E B. Tylor believed in the power of scientific inquiry and cultural evolution to unravel the mystery of the development of civilizations. The Indian understanding of culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was guided by Darwinism positive science methodologies. It was therefore largely influenced by Tylor who advocated the study of ethnography and anthropology in understanding human cultures. Tylor used the terms culture and civilization interchangeably and saw culture referring to beliefs, laws and customs of the people. He wrote in 1871 that,

Not merely as a matter of curious research, but as an important practical guide to the understanding of the present and the shaping of the future, the investigation of the early development of civilization must be pushed on zealously. Every possible avenue of knowledge must be explored, every door tried to see if it is open. No kind of evidence need be left untouched on the score of remoteness or complexity, of minuteness or triviality. The tendency of modern enquiry is more and more towards the conclusion that if law is anywhere, it is everywhere. To despair of what a conscientious collection and study of facts may lead to, and to declare any problem insoluble because difficult and far off, is distinctly to be on the wrong side in science; and he who will choose a hopeless task may set himself to discover the limits of discovery (Tylor 1924 24).

His passionate plea for scientific investigation and for collecting ‘facts’ reminds us of Charles Dickens’s opening schoolroom scene in Hard Times (1853) where Mr. Gradgrind tells his class “Now what I want is facts.” The Benthamite utilitarianism became an important part of the scientific investigation.

There has been an overwhelming dependence on science and logic to understand culture and the human psyche. Edward Hall laments the debilitating and chaotic power of Western logic to understand and examine the world. In Beyond Culture he argues that,

Two widely divergent but interrelated experiences, psychoanalysis and work as an anthropologist, have led me to the belief that in his strivings for order, Western man has created chaos by denying that part of his self that integrates while enshrining the parts that fragment experience. These examinations of man’s psyche have also convinced me that: the natural act of thinking is greatly modified by culture; Western man uses only a small fraction of his mental capabilities; there are many different and legitimate ways of thinking; we in the West value one of these ways above all others—the one we call ‘logic,’ a linear system that has been with us since Socrates. Western man sees his system of logic as synonymous with the truth (Hall, 1976 9).

Later in the 1930s and 1940s Malinowski also developed his scientific functional approach to understand culture based on human needs. He divided anthropology into two parts—physical anthropology dealing with physiological structure and cultural anthropology relating to heritage, artifacts and values (Malinowski, 1944; 1931 621-23). In the 1970s American anthropologist Clifford Geertz elaborated upon the symbolic aspect of culture arguing that culture interprets the web of cultural meaning rather than lays down scientific laws (Geertz, 1973 5). His understanding greatly influenced the construction of culture n subsequent decades. Recently Geertz has retracted some of his earlier statements. In his book Available Light admits that the fieldwork of an anthropologist lacks a scientific base and is no different from the craft of the novelist writing a bildungsroman (Geertz, 2000).

The Rhizome and the Tree Structure
In the late 1990s new perspectives in the archeology of knowledge further destabilized the scientific and functional understanding of culture. Western knowledge and categories have been constituted along a Hegelian hierarchy; a pattern symbolized by the tree structure with trunk and branches. Giles Deleuze introduced the concept of the rhizome such as a potato that “ceaselessly establish [es] connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances” and like a “tuber agglomerating very diverse acts” (Deleuze, 1993 30). If we sketch a rhizomic map of the world today it would highlight demographic concentrations of relationships controlled by a privileged few who imagine the rhizome as a hierarchical tree. It is not that a rhizome has replaced the tree but seemingly the tree controls the rhizome. However the rhizome also breaks free of such controls in its characteristic fashion as can be seen in cultural dissent and demand for political concession based on culture and ethnicity. The rhizomic view of a hyphenated world united by fast food culture may be good for business but it is not good for immigration. Developed countries seek to open borders for their French fries and electronics but do not welcome a reverse flow of migratory labor. The rhizome does not compete with the tree or is subsumed by it but fights with it for more economic and political space.

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