An old warhorse revisited

Today and tomorrow, I’m taking part in a workshop which aims to get the basic masonwork and scaffolding in place for a new book about culture. Don’t we have too many of those books already? Yes. Well then, do we need another one? Afraid so.

My colleague Øivind Fuglerud, who has written – among other things – Life on the Outside, a study of Somali refugees and long-distance nationalism, took the initiative for the book some time ago, invited an assortment of social scientists he trusted and respected, and wrote a fairly comprehensive outline. More recently, having changed jobs (he no longer directs research on minority issues), he generously invited me to co-edit the book with him.

Specifically, the book is going to deal critically with the uses of the culture term in the debate (academic and non-academic) about refugees and immigrants in Norway. Virtually every West European country has its debates about immigration and minorities, and they sometimes ricochet between countries. A topic raised in France may turn up in Sweden a month or two later, resurfacing in Germany after half a year. In recent years, the public attention in many countries has typically focused on hijabs, enforced marriages, honour killings, low educational achievements among certain immigrant groups and female circumcision. Not exactly uplifting.

Academic research on immigrants in Europe can, broadly, be divided into three phases. In the 1970s and 1980s, the emphasis was largely sociological, focusing on the labour market, discrimination and the quest for equality. From the late 1980s to around 2000, anthropological perspectives dominated, and there was an enormous interest in cultural dimensions. In the last few years, there has been more open disagreement among researchers than before; for example, researchers unsympathetic to immigration have become outspoken and visible.

What we want to say in the book, which will have around a dozen contributors, is that the culture concept has to be retained in the academic vocabulary. Yes, it is being exploited strategically for ideological or political ends, it is fuzzy, it has dubious origins in nationalism and relativism (as well as having underpinned oppressive power structures like the apartheid regime in South Africa), and it never ceases to produce misleading and dangerous essentialisms.

Yet experience tells us that we live in slightly different worlds and that these worlds sometimes vary along the lines of language, ethnic identity or religion – and that cultural differences can be identified quite easily within a these groups as well. Anthropologists have said much about this, in Norway liike elsewhere. We have also pointed out that culture does not explain class diifferences, and that social problems usually do not have cultural causes. We have spoken about hybridity and creolisation, stressed the cultural discontinuities within the majority (fundamentalist Christians are, in their way, just as exotic as conservative Muslims), and described cultural changes within immigrant groups. (Some Norwegian Pakistanis are so Norwegianised that you have to see them in Pakistan to understand it. In Norway, only their differences are generally seen.) There have been lively controversies over cultural rights, mother-tongue training in schools, the role of religion in Norwegian schools and many other issues.

This has created widespread confusion. As Øivind pointed out at the workshop earlier today, college students no longer have a clue as to what to make of the term culture. It appears to be everything and its opposite. A clarifying book is needed. But how?

I think we should try to be faithful to that old ethnographic virtue of crawling on all fours, our noses touching the ground. (The sociologists, psychologist and geographer in the team may not agree, I haven’t asked them yet.) But one needs to stay close to the cases in order to discover that one cannot generalise about cultural differences between particular groups, or about the role of culture in general as a descriptive or explanatory category.

The Parisian riots provide a good case. Some commentators have tried to link the riots to religious revitalisation and militant Islamism in the Arab-speaking world. Yet, others – including the anthropologist André Iteanu, who has done research in these areas for years – point out that the riots have social causes, not cultural ones: The people living in these parts of Paris have no metro, few buses, hardly any libraries – and the majority have no work. Deprived and poor people have rioted in Paris several times before. It has nothing to do with their being Muslim and everything to do with their being socially excluded. Conclusion: Leave culture out of this matter.

Another case, less familiar to most of the readers and less easy to disentangle, is the murder of Fadime Sahindal in Uppsala, Sweden a few years back. Fadime, the daughter of a Kurdish immigrant, was killed by her father, who saw her insistence to live ‘like any other Swede’ as intolerable and unbearable for the family’s honour. In the Swedish public sphere, it had by now been noticed that the people who invoked cultural explanations tended to be right-wing and bigoted. Thus, the official view, voiced by opinion leaders in Swedish society, was that Fadime was the victim of patriarchy and a deranged man.

After a while, the Uppsala anthropologist Mikael Kurkiala wrote an article where he argued that culture obviously had something to do with this: Although ‘Kurdish culture’ did not in any way determine the actions of Fadime’s father, his Kurdish universe offered cultural scripts, one of which consisted in killing a daughter to restore honour. Unaccustomed to the brutality of public controversy, Kurkiala was taken somewhat aback when respected liberal Swedes literally pounced on him, claiming him as a useful idiot for the extreme right wing. Kurkiala’s conclusion, which has recently been developed in a beautifully written book in Swedish, where he discusses ways of handling difference (he draws extensively on his fieldwork among Lakota here), was that if it is impossible even to mention cultural factors as dimensions of society and as ‘models of and models for’, then we have relinquished any attempt to understand our world. Conclusion: Bring culture back in.

So what is my position? I have considerable sympathy with some of the texts from the last couple of decades that have tried to exorcise the evil spirit of culture from anthropology. The have forced us to reach for higher levels of precision. Yet in spite of all the obvious objections and a few less obvious ones, we can’t do without it. To me, the proposition to use culture as a verb (Brian Street) makes sense. It varies within any group and has no clear boundaries, it is relational, it behaves oddly in an era of transnational communication, and it is more of a fluid than a solid. But at the end of the day, Fadime’s father killed his daughter in a world that was originally created in Kurdistan, not in Sweden. Keeping close to the cases is our only hope if the goal is to prevent further confusion. Maybe even some good writing can come out of it.

19 thoughts on “An old warhorse revisited

  1. A way I have found useful to think about some of these endlessly critiqueable notions (like culture, tradition, modernity) that would allow their continued use while acknowleding their *shiftiness* (both practical and moral) is to treat them, precisely, as “shifters” (like this/that, you/me, now/then and so forth). Take the general description of the role of shifters given by Michael Silverstein in the intro to _Meaning in Anthropology_ (1976, edited with Basso and Selby):

    “Referential indexes… anchor, as it were, the semantico-refential mode of signs, those which represent propositional capabilities of language… by making the propositional reference dependent on the suitable indexing of the speech situation” (p. 24)

    If a term like “culture” is treated as a “shifter” we can both accept that it is not amenable to fixed definition but also that there are situations in which meaningful discourse is impossible without it.

  2. If a term like “culture” is treated as a “shifter” we can both accept that it is not amenable to fixed definition but also that there are situations in which meaningful discourse is impossible without it.

    Fascinating idea. I want to think about that.

  3. Thanks a lot, Ozma! I haven’t read Silverstein’s essay, will go and find it over the weekend. The ASA volume “Semantic Anthropology” (1982), with a very useful, lengthy introduction by David Parkin, as well as Edwin Ardener’s idiosyncratic essays on cultural semantics from the same period, appear to point in the same direction. “Having the same culture” does not mean sharing identical values and outlooks, but is similar to moving in the same space. When I teach and write for different audiences, from secondary (high) school and up, I sometimes try to define culture as “that which makes communication possible”. Sharing is thus not only shifting and situational, but a matter of degree, and there are overlaps and “partial connections” all over the place. The only problem I have with the concept of the shifter (if I understand it correctly) is that it appears to be digital (like alleles on a chromosome), an either-or mechanism. Or have I got it wrong? Gotta run, workshop’s starting.

  4. Thomas: My suggestion is a bit of an imaginative extension of the notion of a “shifter” — it is not within the technical definition (which is most easily illustrated by either/or examples like this/that … though pronouns don’t fit within a binary framework). So it’s not really what Silverstein (or Jakobson or Benveniste or whoever) means by a “shifter”; I just think the notion could be usefully extended to encompass certain problematic terms that cause endless (and in my view at this stage of things pointless) “define your terms!” fights in anthro but with which we cannot do without.

    John: I take it back about the zombies… 😉

  5. that should be “without which we cannot do” . Pardon me while I go and put on my tweed jacket with suede elbow patches.

  6. Ozma’s “shifter” idea seems not too far off from Appadurai’s “the cultural”. This page offers a fairly decent definition of what Appadurai means:

    the cultural refers to situated differences, contrasts, and comparisons “that either express, or set the groundwork for, the mobilization of group identities”(1996: 13). Appadurai’s distinction expresses the fluidity of identity associated with diasporic movements.

    “The cultural” is intimately tied up with App’s “scapes”, which in turn provide differing contexts for understanding, much the way a shifter pronoun like “I” simultaneously references and constructs its context at the moment of utterance (I confess that my understanding of shifters is shaped more by Jakobson and Benveniste than Silverstein).

    Thus, when I say “we”, my interlocutor(s) relies on a range of markers — my gestures, the preceding discussion, my and her/his history, shared assumptions, etc. — to understand just who the “we” is that I’m referring to: is it myself and some others but not her/him, myself and her/him but not the others, myself and her/him *and* the others, or the two of us and some of the others but not *those* others? Likewise, when I refer to “our culture” (or “their culture” or “my culture”), there’s the shifting possessive but also the shifting “culture” that I’m indexing — how else could both of the statements “Christian culture is rooted in notions of neighborly love” and “Christian culture is rooted in violence against their neighbors” both have a kind of truth value?

    Just to mudy the waters by borrowing from yet another linguistic theorist, perhaps we could view “culture” as a performative (in the Austin sense, not the Butler sense — though that’s interesting too, it’s just not what I’m talking about here). Saying “culture” is a claim that relies on the author’s (utterer’s) authority to make it, which authority is constructed in any number of ways. Of course, not I’m treading into Foucauldian territory, and that road leads to terror and recriminations, so I’ll stop here.

  7. OK, backtracking a little — if I recall correctly from Thoomas’ book, the case of Fadime Sahindal set off a debate between a Muslim human rights activist who condemned Islamic culture for its domination of women and others who condemned the activist for her cultural essentialism and anti-Islamism. Here we have a case akin to my statements above about Christain culture — in one view, Islam promotes violence against women, in the other, Islam is protects women from violence (roughly speaking). Both claims about Muslim culture are true, in some sense — but the debaters don’t share the same “sense”. Kurkiala’s attempt at resolution comes rather close to the Appaduraian notion of “the cultural”, especially considering App’s concern with how culture travels and with the formation of diasporic cultures. As Kurkiala notes, the killing wasn’t *determined* by the culture of the father — after all, his Muslim critics share roughly the same culture and were appalled by the killing — but the act certainly drew on ideas, images, values that were present in and presented by his culture, what App calls (iirc) the ideoscape (or maybe the ethnoscape — or maybe both). The father’s (and his critics’ and supporters’) relation to these scapes is similar to my relation with the objects around me when I point and say “that one” — a relationship of both embeddedness and construction.

  8. oneman: isn’t one of the nice things about the “culture concept”, though, how free everyone feels to use it? (this in ref to your first, and not second, comment). and usually whether one agrees or disagrees with the point being made by whoever is saying ‘culture’ does not stand or fall on an exhaustive and precise decision of “just what does that speaker mean by culture”. usually the sticky bit is elsewhere; “culture” is just an axis around which a conversation (or disagreement) can revolve.

    gotta go, didn’t read your second post thoroughly at all…

  9. Thanks everybody so far — this hasn’t exactly been clarifying, but that’s the charm of being an anthropologist I guess: if you cannot live with irreducible complexity, you’d better find another job. Now, I’m back from today’s workshop, and have learned that several of the contributors to the book are intent on writing what they call “theoretical papers”. I’m not one of those anthropologists who thinks that you’ve got to do at least a year of fieldwork somewhere to say anything at all about the place, but I believe in examples. Many of the debates about culture which aren’t going anywhere, lack good examples or at least vignettes. So I don’t know what to expect. The most heated bit of the debate started when I claimed that the dominant ideology in a country like Norway has shifted from nationalist communalism (as late as the early 1990s) to a strongly individualist neoliberalism (in the last ten years), with particular consequences for minorities. No longer treated as groups, minorities — or, rather, persons with a particular ethnic membership — are accepted in so far as they endorse the ethos of individualism. “Communalist” practices such as a strong family organisation, which was acceptable in the previous period (it was often praised), is now seen as dangerous and inhibiting. We had a good round of disagreements and mutual misunderstandings on this topic.

    A reason I enjoy Arjun Appadurai’s essays is his subtle and flexible (a positivist would say wishy-washy) way of talking about meanings and identities. You belong to a community and you don’t. You share notions with your neighbour, but you share other notions with people your age (and class background) from overseas. Etc. His “scapes”, which resemble cultural fields (in my terminology), denote partial sharing of meaning. They make fairly accurate descriptions possible (and if a scape is missing, you can always add one yourself).

    The Fadime affair, oneman: Well, I don’t think I mentioned a Muslim human rights activist, but they exist in Scandinavia like elsewhere, and some of them made public statements about the non-Islamic origin of honour killings. In my view, the most interesting reform movement in Islam is that which insist on separating religion from cultural tradition (which Christians have done quite successfully for centuries), thus making it perfectly reasonable to be a modern European Muslim. Tariq Ramadan (in the Francophone world) and Hassan Tibi (in the German-speaking world) are among the main people here.

    My own relationship to the culture concept is probably coloured by my training in a Norwegian anthropology which was then (if not now) largely a branch office of UK social anthropology. Like many others, I loved reading Geertz and admired the Sahlins of the Culture and Practical Reason period, but felt that there was nothing like properly unpacked real-life situations for illuminating and developing social theory and theoretical concepts.

    There is so much reflexivity around these days. If the appropriate situation arises, I may make a comment like “Sorry, skiing is not part of my culture”, and Norwegians — any Norwegian — immediately get the joke.

  10. oneman writes,

    perhaps we could view “culture” as a performative (in the Austin sense, not the Butler sense

    Perhaps we had better not. Austin’s definition of performative is sharply limited to situations in which (1) the utterance of certain words (2) in the right circumstances (3) by those qualified to do so results in the creation of a new social fact. E.g., the minister says, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Assuming that the relevant laws have been followed and the ministered is licensed to perform weddings, a marriage has been created. If you don’t believe that is a fact, just ask a divorce lawyer.

    Anthropologists have tended to thoroughly muddle “performative” in this strict sense with “performance,” an entirely different animal in which in the performer undertakes to say or do something in a special way that will be judged as done well or poorly using aesthetic criteria. Returning to the example of a wedding, we can see the difference in the contrast between the minister, the effect of whose words is unaffected by whether he croaks them in a drunken whisper, squeaks them in falsetto, or uses his ordinary voice and the organist’s rendition of “Mendelsohn’s Wedding March” which can be either marvelous or “Wasn’t that God-awful!” If conditions (2) and (3) are satisfied, the minister’s words take effect, whatever their aesthetic qualities. The Wedding March may either enhance or ruin the mood of the wedding, but it has nothing to do with whether the couple are truly and legally married.

  11. Re “culture” as a shifter: I don’t know enough about shifters in Silverstein’s technical linguistic sense to know how well this works. I can say, however, that for years I have sense of culture and other shifty concepts (religion, law, art, society, etc.) by regarding them as akin to what Victor turner called dominant symbols. According to Turner, dominant symbols condense a wide range of frequently contradictory meanings, which are typically organized around two poles, the orectic or sensory pole where we find such down and diry things as blood, sweat, tears, milk, feces, semen, etc., and the normative pole where we find such abstract concepts as community, lineage, the proper relation of mother and child or (we might add) state to citizen). It is characteristic of such symbols that they emerge at boundaries which are, as Bourdieu also reminds us, sites of struggle, where parties with different interests attempt to impose their own definitions, i.e., their preferred subset of the whole range of meanings that the symbol embodies.

    I like the way these concepts become a research program: (1) Identify terms that figure in heated debates, (2) map, as much as possible, the full range of meanings deployed, (3) sort these into concrete, sensuous realities and abstract normative propositions, then (4) consider how the former evoke and become channels for the emotions that enfuse the latter.

    That this program will not result in a tidy set of definitions can be taken as given. That it will enrich our understanding of what is going on when the “proper meaning” of terms is being debated is, I believe, highly likely.

  12. John’s portrayal of Austin’s performatives is only half-right. Austin does start with the “traditional” notion of performatives like the minister’s “I now pronounce you…” or the christening of a ship or a promise. But over the course of _How to Do Things with Words_, Austin repeatedly enlarges the scope of what “performative” language is until ultimately he is considering *every* utterance as performative. “I did not steal your bike.” “The sky is blue.” “John’s portrayal of Austin’s performatives is only half-right.”

    The trick lies in the authority. I can stand walk up to a couple and declaim “I now pronounce you husband and wife” to no effect, but in the right context, the right person says it and bam! You’re married. As John says, if you don’t believe this is a fact, just ask a lawyer. But let’s say I *am* a minister — well, the utterance still doesn’t do what it does unless a whole bunch of people agree that the context is right, that my qualifications are in order, etc. That is, essentially I am making a claim that you’re married when I say “I now pronounce you…” — whether the statement is “true” or not depends a whole lot on whether other people (witnesses, family, and not least agents of the law) find my performance convincing, which has to do with a lot of stuff external to the performance itself. And here’s another trick — what if I’m lying? What if I *say* “I now pronounce you…” but I don’t really mean it? Can I do that? I can do it with a promise — “I promise I’ll give you a hundred bucks.” There, I just lied. No money for you!

    Right about now, you’ve pr’y got a whole bunch of questions. I know I do. Which is about where Austin leaves off — having muddied the waters immensely, he throws up his hands, ends the lectures, and *dies*. No comprehension for you! Which is why you pretty much have to make a sideways leap into Foucault to make any more sense out of Austin (at least, that’s what I’d do if I were you), and since Foucault has been known to cause anaphylactic shock and severe scarring in a certain breed of folk, I must refrain from going there. If you’re certain you’ve had your shots, and have some strong Echinacea tea at hand, you might be able to piece it together on your own.

  13. oneman is not quite right. What Austin does in How to do Things with Wordsis articulate a definition of performative in the form I outlined. He then discovers that it is too restrictive for his larger project, to analyze what can be done with words besides uttering propositions and shifts to a different formulation: “illocutionary” vs. “perlocutionary” acts and (here my memory may be failing me) pretty much stops talking about performatives at all. Logically, however, they remain a special case of (I hope I don’t have this backwards), perlocutionary effects.

    When I wrote “Negotiating with Demons: The Uses of Magical Language”(American Ethnologist, Vo. 22, No. 1, February 1995), I found it useful to go back to the original definition of performatives, which interestingly conforms quite nicely to common notions of how magic works: Someone who is properly qualified (holds the lamp for example) utters certain words (the charm), and then something happens (the genie appears). This sharpening down of the definition then made it possible to elaborate a point first made by Michael Foster in “When Words Become Deeds: An Analysis of Three Iroquois Longhourse Speech Events” (In Baumann and Sherzer, 1974, Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking). That is that, while certain elements in magical texts may appear to mimic performatives, the bulk of such texts and the staging and gestures that surround them functions to establish a context in which a performative would be effective. It was then possible, in the case of the Taiwanese Taoist exorcism I was analyzing to separate out a pragmatic level of analysis in which this set-up can be described in straightforward terms as a negotiation between the healer and the demons who afflict his patient, a dramatic level, on which the logic of the negotiations is brought to life, and a poetic level on which different degrees of formality at different points in the rite signal significant differences in the relation of the healer to the demons, gods and scapegoat to whom he addresses his words.

    Are these analytic distinctions useful in other cases? I suggest that they are. Consider, again, the case of a wedding. It makes absolutely no legal difference whatsoever whether the official who utters the performative words “I now pronounce you man and wife” is a justice of the peace performing a civil ceremony or a priest conducting an elaborate religious wedding. This raises all sorts of interesting questions about why it is that some people go for the simpler civil wedding while others choose an elaborate religious ritual, since in both cases the couple are equally married in the eyes of the law and society. It thus demonstrates clearly, for example, that Vic Turner was right to observe that classic structural-functional reductions of ritual to social function miss too much of what’s going on.

    But I’ve been going on long enough. The ball is now in everyone’s court.

  14. It seems to me that it’s one thing to talk about cultural practices and attitudes, etc., and to observe that they are pervasive, and highly variable among human groups. It’s a bit different to talk about such entities as “Norwegian culture,” “Tibetan Culture,” “African culture,” “Western culture,” and so forth. It seems to me that those latter entities are best thought of as geo-political terms with, at best, very loose associations with characteristic cultural practices. I don’t see them as serious terms for cultural analysis, howsever important they may be to people’s sense of themselves.

    I spent some time thinking this through with respect to American music and America’s Westernness. I’d read a number of casual assertions about jazz being Western music written by critics of various political persuasions. And I started wondering about that. Yes, jazz originated in the US, a “Western” nation. But, “Western” music, what’s that? Conventionally I believe the term deconnotes the high art tradition that eventuates in Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms and continues on through Stravinsky etc. Well, jazz has some of its devices and techniques from that tradition, but, on the whole, it sounds quite different. Fluency in performing (some kind of) Western music does not translate into fluency in performing (some kind of) jazz, or vice versa. If you think in terms of how the music works, the notion of jazz as Western music is not a plausible one. Nor is it plausible to think of jazz as African music either — as though “African music” were a coherent cultural category.

    Further, jazz is but one loose group of music styles among many that are hybrids of the various musical styles in the US that show a very strong influence from West Africa. These styles — call them African-American — have been and remain very important in American culture. But if they are not Western, does that mean that the USofA is not a Western nation. And if the USofA is not a Western nation, does the term mean much of anything?

    Not as a term of art in cultural analysis. It’s a geopolitical term, it’s tied up with nationalism, but it’s not much good for serious cultural analysis.

  15. Bill Benzon writes,

    It seems to me that it’s one thing to talk about cultural practices and attitudes, etc., and to observe that they are pervasive, and highly variable among human groups. It’s a bit different to talk about such entities as “Norwegian culture,” “Tibetan Culture,” “African culture,” “Western culture,” and so forth.

    This is a very astute remark. The beginning of wisdom in cultural analysis is to stop treating “Culture” or “cultures” as what Dan Foss (over on Anthro-L) calls a “thingie,” a reified, bounded entity. That said, to continue with,

    I don’t see them as serious terms for cultural analysis, howsever important they may be to people’s sense of themselves.

    seems to me wrongheaded. Why not say, following Ozma’s suggestion, that “culture” is a shifter, in fact, an identifier, a way of pointing to a category of people—important precisely because the people in question see themselves as an “us” with distinctive rights, privileges, customs and habits compared to “them.” (This suggestion is, by the way, taken from sociologist Everett Hughes via Howard Becker’s Tricks of the Trade:How to Think About Your Research While You’re Doing It, p. 2, as follows,

    An ethnic group is not one because of the degree of measurable or observable difference from other groups; it is an ethnic group, on the contrary, because the people in and the people out of it know that it is one; because both the ins and the outs talk, feel, and act as if it were a separate group.)

    It is, of course, precisely when the separateness of the group is taken to be grounds for rights, privileges, customs, habits, beliefs, whatever, seen as worth fighting for that “culture” becomes an issue. The issue may become acute when members of the group are embedded in other groups or otherwise thrust into encounters with them. In some cases, however, which cultural identity to choose may be optional (the Shan and Kachin described by Edmund Leach in Political Systems of Highland Burma come to mind); in others the identity in question may intersect with or be subsumed by others (to be a member of the Red Sox Nation frequently though not necessarily intersects with being a Bostonian, a citizen of Massachusetts, a New Englander, or a citizen of the USA). In sum, what “culture” invariably points to is some collection of attributes that people claiming an identity see as essential to it, especially, as Hughes remarks, when both the ins and the outs agree on what they are.

  16. If culture is a real thing, it may not matter who agrees about its existance. It obviously matters who agrees about belonging to a group when you want to define that group. But if humans are intrinsicaly culture bearing animals, then our conscious conceptions of culture are secondary to the actual existence of culture in the first place. Studying conceptions of culture are just as interesting as studying any other human concepts, but the conception of culture need not be the limits of what culture is.

    I’m thinking of the so-called Realist view of culture articulated by theoretical anthropologists like David Bidney and historian Philip Bagby, who stated that culture is both a concept and a reality. Bagby argues that culture is an abstraction in the sense that neither it, nor its constituent patterns can be observed in their entirety. All the members of a culture are rarely in the same place at the same time so that an anthropologist could take in the cultural pattern at a glance. But while we can never observe simultaneously the orbits of the planets around the sun, we don’t doubt the existence of the solar system. Why not treat culture in the same way? Culture is a construct in that we never see all of it at once, but it’s real in that we (most of us) don’t doubt its existence even if we can’t see all of it at once. Whether we agree of not on how to define and understand it in its specifics, we agree that it is real.

  17. I was recently working on an essay-review* of an anthology of essays into Darwinian literary criticism. One of the essays was by a biologist, David Sloan Wilson, in which he labored mightily to assure humanists that getting in bed with biology did not at all imply acceptance of genetic determinism, that, indeed, modern biology has plenty of room for cultural influence. And so he talked of a “middle way” between biology and culture. I emailed my friend Tim Perper on this. Now Tim is a geneticist by training, but these days he’s working on manga and anime, in particular, gender roles in those stories. He emailed me back saying that “everyone’s” been advocating this middle way for years, and yet still conflicts arise.

    In the case of literary texts, it’s easy for someone with an evolutionary psychology mindset to look at the stories and see biology all over the place. “Boy meets girl” is a pretty common story, and it surely is biological. At the same time, a literary critic can look at the same body of work and see culture all over the place. This middle way talk is fine as theoretical talk, but, in itself, it’s not much use in practical analysis. It doesn’t tell you what to look for, how to describe it, analyze it, and explain it.

    Even considering the theoretical talk, I wonder about the sort of “imagery” one might marshall to support the concept — here I’m thinking of the sorts of things cognitive linguists have been doing with metaphor and blending. Think of the biology-culture interaction in terms of a jigsaw puzzle. One way of doing this would be to imagine that some puzzle pieces are contributed by biology, others by culture. All we’ve got to do is sort them out. But what if each and every piece bears the stamp of both culture and biology, now how do we sort them out?

    *Published here:

  18. John Fulton writes,

    If culture is a real thing….

    That “if” is a critical word here, together with “a real thing.” The Biden and Bagby approach sounds like an assertion that the elephant is both the elephant itself and the blind men’s impressions of it, when the existence of the elephant per se is purely hypothetical.

    The claim that

    we (most of us) don’t doubt its existence even if we can’t see all of it at once.

    has no more (or less) standing as evidence for an independent reality than my Taiwanese informants’ claims that gods, ghosts and ancestors exist, albeit in the yin world (invisible to us who live in the yang world).

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