Oh, behave

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!

7 thoughts on “Oh, behave

  1. John McCreery

    We are all the blind men touching different parts of the elephant, and the elephant is mutating every time we turn around. Only finding new ways to share and synthesize insights will we even begin to come close to keeping up.

  2. esp

    May I assume that you are recommending listening to rather than talking to?
    May I assume you hope that Grant will learn something from Marxism that could help rid the West of the destructive and narcissistic results of Unbridled Capitalism?
    (Kindly do not waste energy telling me about the deficiencies of Marxism or even Communism or, god help us, Socialism. The only point I make is that you shouold open your mind to possibilities before condemning something you may not understand.)

  3. Roo

    Hi, hope you are well. Now, I’m really curious… How was your dinner?

    btw… really enjoyed reading this entry. Wonder what you would call the “mutilplicity of explanations that can explain a world like ours.” It’s an intersting notion. Hope you write a follow-up to this article with an account of your conversation over dinner.


  4. srp

    It’s obviously impossible to explain our entire culture with a single truth. You need six to get it right.

  5. Emilie

    I’m surprised by this post. Maybe I shouldn’t be… My understanding, as a lapsed anthropological academic, through all my schooling and theoreticizing, and ethnographizing, was always that anthropologists thought of culture as interlocking systems of meaning. That nothing could be explained by politics, or religion, or kinship or economics alone, but that the trick was to find the patterns and connective tissues that held all of these systems together, and apart, and created meaning, ever changing.
    But if your thinking is that all academics are reductionists at heard (at mind?), then maybe that’s why I didn’t survive in academia. ..
    Hmm. I’m curious to hear more!

  6. Strem

    How old was this distinguished reductionist Marxist anthropologist? I thought facile reductionist accounts of national cultures went out of style some time in the 1950s.

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