In my last post on Bauman and Briggs Voices of Modernity I explored their argument that Boas’s notion of culture makes it seem like a prison house from which only the trained anthropologist is capable of escaping. In doing so, however, I only really presented half of their argument. The book has two interrelated themes: One is a Foucauldian genealogy of the concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation (as seen through the rise of folklore studies). The other is a Latourian exploration of the construction of folklore as a science. This is done by exploring how oral traditions were turned into texts, and thus evidence of traditional culture (however that was defined). Aubrey, Blair, the Grimm brothers, and Schoolcraft were each faced with hybrid oral texts whose own modernity (as contemporary documents) belied their perceived scientific value as authentic remnants of ancient cultures. For this reason the texts underwent tremendous alterations, if not outright fabrication, by these scholars in order to make them suitable for their own purposes. The book traces how these processes of entextualization were shaped by each scholar’s concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation.
So where does Boas fit into all of this? Continue reading
The question is not that Boas was wrong about culture. It is rather that he told anthropologists that they are the only ones who are right.
This quote is from the conclusion to the penultimate chapter of Bauman and Briggs’ award-winning book Voices of Modernity. The book employs a Foucauldian genealogical approach to trace the development of folklore studies from its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment, through its development under German Romanticism, ending up with Boas and the birth of anthropology. In doing so the book focuses on a number of interrelated ideas about culture, language, and modernity as well as methodological issues in the creation of texts from oral traditions. When they awarded the book with the Edward Sapir Book Prize the Society for Linguistic Anthropology wrote:
Bauman and Briggs argue that contemporary efforts to make schemes of social inequality based on race, gender, class and nationality seem compelling and legitimate, rely on deeply rooted ideas about language and tradition. Showing how critics of modernity unwittingly reproduce these foundational fictions, they suggest new strategies for challenging the undemocratic influence of these voices of modernity.
While these themes run throughout their book, they sometimes seem to have only historical importance. After all, scholars like Herder or the Grimm brothers are associated with the rise of nationalism and so there doesn’t seem much that is “unwitting” in their reproduction of these ideologies. It is only in the penultimate chapter on Boas, a scholar known for his critiques of racism and nationalism, that the relevance of these earlier scholars (and the importance of the genealogical method) really becomes clear to the reader. In this genealogy Boas is “ego,” but before this chapter he has been absent from the story.