Anthropology As Cultural Critique: Inserts for the 1990s Cultural Studies of Science, Visual-Virtual Realities, and Post-Trauma Polities

Essay Excerpt

Among the challenges of the 1990s are three broad areas of opportunity for anthropology as cultural critique: science, media, and the reconstruction of polities and/or civil society after traumatic stress. All three require interdisciplinary and global, as well as local, culturally and situationally grounded knowledge. Anthropology may well have a unique role to play again, as it did in the early 20th century by translating the exotic into the understandable. Today, the accent may be different, not so much translating the exotic as translating contested and competing perspectives. It is not that anthropology should buy into the "metanarratives" of media disseminated discourses, the soap operas of the nightly news defined around politics, media, and, to a lesser degree and in very dilute way, science. On the contrary, the role for anthropology could be to deconstruct these discourses precisely by drawing attention to their presumptions, their particularistic groundings, or the social contexts from which they are staged. Among the analytic categories that need to be drawn in are the older ones of social organization-semiotic cultural analysis, or culturally constructed motivational structures-and also the newly elaborated ones, such as gender and the body; the dialectical relation between global and local cultural processes; historicity, space, and voice as culturally constructed and socially mediated forms; and the multiple processes or determinants of feelings of agency in a post-bourgeois world where: (a) technical, scientific, informational,and commercial processes driving much of social development and cultural understanding operate beyond the easy control not only of individuals or of bourgeois city states in which enlightenment ideals were formulated, but also of 20th-century nation-states;(b) multi-channeled effects of the visual electronic media have transformed the print-centric cultures that theorists such as Anderson, Gellner, and Chatterjee have discussed as basic to the development of industrial societies and the nationalisms of European style nation- states; and (c) "science" (including the diversity of scientific cultures, the applied technologies, and the feedback mechanisms of the ecologies that human society constantly triggers) as perhaps the most fundamental set of cultural projects of modernity, ones to which anthropology in the past two or three decades has paid astonishingly little attention. There is no space here to elaborate, but only to sketch in abbreviated form some of the emerging workin these three arenas.  (Fischer, 529)

About the Author

Michael Fischer is a Professor at MIT. He trained in geography and philosophy at Johns Hopkins, social anthropology and philosophy at the London School of Economics, anthropology at the University of Chicago. Before joining the MIT faculty, he served as Director of the Center for Cultural Studies at Rice. He conducts fieldwork in the Caribbean, Middle East, South and Southeast Asia on the anthropology of biosciences, media circuits, and emergent forms of life.

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