Forget Culture: Replacement, Transcendence, Relexification

Essay Excerpt

In his article "How Many Revolutions Can a Linguist Live Through?" Hill (1980:74) thus reflected on one by-product of the generativist revolution in linguistics, the critique of the taxonomic phoneme. Hill's lament exhibits a certain topicality for anthropology during a period in which culture, the discipline's longstanding darling, is increasingly embattled. The utility, not to mention the integrity, of the construct of culture - as expounded by Tylor, relativized by Boas, and thereafter refracted through diverse functionalist, ecological, cognitive, transactionalist, structuralist, Marxian, and hermeneutic perspectives-is increasingly being challenged. These recent objections to culture receive both absolutist and historically relativist phrasings, the former holding that the culture concept has been flawed from its inception and the latter that culture - viable enough as a device in earlier historical moments - can no longer engage a world in which social identities, practices, and ideologies are increasingly incongruent and volatile. What I propose to do here, in brief compass, is to examine the defects of the culture construct as currently represented in anthropological writing, to discuss in somewhat more detail the characteristics of three critiques of the concept (by James Clifford, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Pierre Bourdieu), and finally to reflect on the essentialist ideology at play in the current disciplinary self-consciousness of paradigmatic transition or emancipation. The objective is neither to defend the received culture concept from its critics (indeed, most of the criticisms are well founded) nor to articulate a version of the fatigued message that no new critical perspectives exist in the profession today, that "it's all been said" earlier and better. Rather, my purpose is to indicate how certain contemporary critiques of culture derive their cogency and persuasiveness from a strategic and selective retrospective construction of the meaning of the concept in earlier conditions of anthropology. Reconstituted precisely as the antithesis of theoretical agendas currently in place, culture is presented in this criticism as an antiquity from the past to be transcended or replaced, a kind of conceptual Paschal Lamb whose death is at once the atonement for the elisions and distortions in earlier anthropological practices and the precondition for disciplinary renewal. The current consciousness that the anthropological profession has gotten or should get "beyond" culture can thus be read, in some measure, as the effect of rhetorical strategies that (re)construct an essentialized culture concept in the antipodes of contemporary theoretical orientations (509-510).

Brightman, Robert. "Forget Culture: Replacement, Transcendence, Relexification." Cultural Anthropology 10.4(1995): 509–546.

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