This number of the Savage Minds Occasional Paper Series presents an edited version of Edward Sapir’s essay “Culture, Genuine and Spurious.” “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” is worth reading for several reasons: it demonstrates the way anthropological theory can be applied to ethical issues; it exemplifies the way Boasians founded public anthropology by weighing in on the great issues of their day alongside cultural critics like Randolph Bourne or George Seldes; it gives us insights into the opinions of Boasians on cultural imperialism and the exploitation of labor; and above all, it presents us with a set of questions — and answers — that are as relevant today as they were eighty years ago.
What kind of a good thing is culture? In asking this question, Sapir describes the role that culture can play in the flourishing lives of individuals, as well as the communities that they are part of. His answer to this question, although inspired by anthropology, also draws on his wider education. As a result, Sapir’s essay presents us with an example of how anthropology can become a form of cultural criticism.
Sapir wrote this essay with modern American culture in mind. On the one hand, he was appalled by the demands industrialization made on workers and depressed by the cheapness and vulgarity of the mass consumerism that was meant to satisfy them. On the other hand, he found American elite’s uptake of European high culture snobbish, artificial, and inauthentic. For Sapir, both ossified ‘high culture’ and the new consumerism were ‘spurious’ forms of culture.
In contrast, Sapir considered culture ‘genuine’ when it drew on the past in order to enrich the lives of people in the present. It was honest, deeply involved people in its production, and created a deep sense of community. Authenticity in culture, from Sapir’s point of view, is more about the mode of cultural production than the contents.
There is much more to say about Sapir as a cultural critic, and I hope to explore his work in future SMOPs. Ultimately, however, I believe that Sapir’s argument is so interesting that it rneeds no introduction.
The version of “Culture, Genuine and Spurious” in this SMOPS has been lightly edited, from about 12,000 words to 8,500. My main goal in presenting this paper has not been to slash it down to a readable size, but to trim some of the more excessive prose and, above all, to help bring attention to this remarkable essay. I hope that this paper, like the others in this series, will help present early anthropological theory in a form that is accessible to everyone. There is today a tremendous amount of material which is open access, but it is difficult to find, inconvenient to read, and many people do not know where to start looking for it. By curating a selection of important open access work, I hope to make open access resources better known and to raise awareness of the actual history of anthropological theory.