Lucky me. Pam and I are going to dinner tonight with a distinguished anthropologist and his wife. I am guessing we will talk about the state of the anthropology, and I will want to talk about how little and how badly anthropologists understand American culture.
The distinguished anthropologist will reply by offering several counter examples, including someone who has studied American culture from a Marxist point of view.
My reply will be that every reductionist reading of American culture is wrong. (How’s that for a reduction?)
(For those who don’t use this social scientific lingo, a reductionist reading is one that says there is a single truth beneath all the surface noise of a social world. Thus does the Marxist, the functionalist, the economist, the primatologist, the Freudian insist, each for their own reasons, that the apparent complexity of American culture conceals a single driver, the revelation of which makes everything clear. Class, says the Marxist, that ‘s what’s really going on here.)
The trouble is sometimes it is class. But sometimes it’s lifestyle. And sometimes it’s a new cultural formation unanticipated. Sometimes it is economic choice driven by self interest of the naked kind and sometimes economic choice of the mediated kind. And sometimes it is the influence of politics and sometimes religion. And sometimes it is an idea from on high, that comes to us from deep thinkers in Europe, a fashionista in New York City, or Steve Jobs in California. And sometimes it’s an idea, if that’s the right term, that is fully emergent, leaping not from one mind or even from several minds, but from a new practice, or a new industry or a new part of the world.
Even if it was one thing, there are many things this one thing could be.
But it’s never one thing. Not any more. The real problem is that it is always all these things engaged in a violent game of bumper cars, rippling through our worlds in unpredictable chains of cause and effect.
So the person who insist that American culture is all about class, or any one thing, must be wrong.
I get why these ideas appeal to us. We live with so much noise and confusion that it is thrilling to think there is some secret key explaining everything. And when these ideas come up, they have the force of revelation. “But of course,” we say, slapping our foreheads, “it’s so obvious now that you say it.” But eventually we begin to see that the new idea doesn’t discover everything and sometimes that it doesn’t even explain the important things. This can take a very long time and there is always a group of people who are so wedded to the new idea that they argue it to their grave. We don’t know why they can’t let go. They just can’t. Of course they get “read out” of the discipline. No one listens anymore. They inflict their orthodoxy on some of their students, but this really is a monstrous a betrayal of the teacher’s responsibility. These kids are being marked for failure and obscurity, removed from usefulness much before their time.
This is an ancient debate. And it has been taken up and debated more ably than I have here. The point I wish to make is that there’s a new answer to this old problem. And that answer is us. It may once have been true that there was one or a few factors that could explain everything, but we are so various and multiple and changeable, those days are over. Only a multiplicity of explanations can explain a world like ours. And indeed, all those monolithic ideas are welcome to the debate, but they may not dominate the proceedings.
That’s what I’m going to say at dinner. Wish me luck!