What Does Anybody Want?: Desire, Purpose, and the Acting Subject in the Study of Culture

Essay Excerpt

Culture, as I have described it, has no power to do anything; only persons have that power. But people are powerless without culture and the objectifications and of their own made humans' for reappropriations energies possible by capacity symbolic communication through the use and inscription of pattern, organization, and differences in external media. The issue confronting us as not only students but users of cultural symbols is whether the cultural systems we create and enact will tap our energies, transform them, and redirect them back to us as increased vitality and communal harmony or whether, as is so prevalently the case today, they will be used against us to dominate us, or will be taken from us never to be returned, but to be spent in an alien, impersonal, and insatiable flow of messages, commodity values, and "data" full of information but without meaning.

Insofaras we know that social science itself has played a role in displacing our attention from the acting subject and toward objectified social "facts," we will by and large, for the foreseeable future, probably prefer to stress in our work those kinds of study which place realacting persons at the heart of our understanding. And indeed it is true that genes and symbols do not construct people; people, like all organisms, construct themselves. But they can only do it in the context of instructions provided by genetic and symbolic, cultural information. The way these three phenomena-self-organizing subjective organisms, genetic instructions, and externally coded cultural information-cooperate strikes me as the great research question of an anthropology yet to be realized, which gives appropriate attention to the biological, psychological, social, cultural, and existential dimensions of life with the aim of understanding how, if at all, we might imagine a society that drew on our most passionate energies. (Paul, 49)

About the Author

Robert A. Paul was educated at Harvard College ('63), where his field of concentration was history and literature, and at the University of Chicago, where he earned his M.A. in 1966 and his Ph.D. in 1970 in the field of cultural anthropology. His professional interests within anthropology include psychological anthropology, comparative religion, myth and ritual, and the ethnography of Nepal, Tibet, the Himalayas, and South and Central Asia. His extensive scholarly publications in these areas include The Tibetan Symbolic World (University of Chicago Press, 1982) and a special issue of Cultural Anthropology, "Biological and Cultural Anthropology at Emory University," which he edited. He served for many years as editor of ETHOS: Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology and was president of the Society for Cultural Anthropology from 1992-1994.

After teaching appointments in anthropology at C.C.N.Y. and Queens College in the City University of New York, he came to Emory University in 1977 as associate professor in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts (I.L.A.), where he has now been a faculty member for twenty-four years. He helped establish Emory's Anthropology Department in 1979 and served as its first acting chair. He holds a joint appointment in that department. He has also served two separate terms as director of the I.L.A. In 1986, he was named Charles Howard Candler Professor of Anthropology and Interdisciplinary Studies.

In 1987, Dean Paul began clinical training at the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute, located in the Psychiatry Department of Emory's School of Medicine. He graduated in 1992 and was certified by the Board on Professional Standards of the American Psychoanalytic Association in 1997. He maintains a private clinical practice and holds an appointment as associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. In 1997, he established Emory's widely recognized Psychoanalytic Studies Program and, in 2000, received Emory's Crystal Apple Award for his graduate teaching in that program.

His book, Moses and Civilization: The Meaning Behind Freud's Myth (Yale University press, 1996), received the Heinz Hartmann Award in Psychoanalysis, the L. Bryce Boyer Award in Psychological Anthropology, and the National Jewish Book Award in the area of Jewish Thought.

In the fall of 2000, Robert A. Paul was selected, after a national search, to be dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Emory, and, in the spring of 2001, after an internal search, he was selected as interim dean of Emory College for a two-year term beginning in June 2001. After a national search, he was selected as dean of Emory College in May 2003 and held this position until May 2010.

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