Culture Revisited

There seems to be a kind of convergence in my online life around the concept of culture: a FaceBook conversation with Levi Bryant, a post and discussion on Neuroanthropology, which was reposted to Synthetic_Zero and has generated some discussion there as well. All this makes me think it’s time I revisit the concept. Long followers will know that I’ve posted about “culture” before as I’ve played with the idea and tried to explore its various limits and liminalities. I can’t say that I’ve solved any of the long standing problems that have plagued anthropologists for decades, if not the entirety of the field, but I have my thoughts, and thoughts are worth sharing.

First, a little background. What’s wrong with the concept of culture? Lots of things. Since the founding of the discipline, anthropologists have debated the definition of “culture.” In 1871, Edward Tylor gave us his famous “everything and the kitchen sink” definition: “Culture, or civilization, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” From there the concept proliferated, and, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckholn published a “critical review” of different conceptions of culture in which they listed 164 unique definitions of the term. This predates many of the more recent significant definitions – Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism, Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, Geertz’s webs of signification, Rappaport’s culture as ecology, and so on – so the field has only become more cluttered in the intervening years. This has led to empirical issues since the methodology and analytic methods one uses to examine culture depend largely on how it is defined. As a result, a lot of anthropology is incommensurable simply because different anthropologists have studied different things under the name of culture.

It’s possible to say that all of these different concepts of culture are right in some way and that culture is simply impossible to define. As a result, like so many visually impaired people inspecting an elephant, we can only grasp it impressionistically based on the particular definition we use at any given time. That might be okay for managing the methodological concerns, however, there’s an additional problem. The issue with “culture” is not just that it’s hard to define, it’s that those definitions have serious implications for the people we study. Culture, as it has been defined in the past, has made it possible to exoticize others, and has been used as a tool in the colonial expansion of the West to justify our occupation of their lands (see Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Writing Against Culture” and “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” – the latter demonstrates that these ways of thinking about culture are still in use today). Add to that the recent criticism of “black culture” (or “Islamic culture”) – which , admittedly, are not used by any anthropologists that I am aware of – and you can begin to see how problematic concepts of culture can be if not thought out.

With all of that in mind, what are my thoughts on culture? First, I’m not sure it’s necessary to define it entirely. That we have different conceptions of culture is not necessarily detrimental to anthropological practice – we’ve gone this long without having a universally accepted definition, so I’m sure we’ll be able to continue for a while. That’s a bit of a cop-out, though, even if it is what I really think. As I’ve shown above, definitions do matter – they have methodological and analytical implications, as well as political ones – so agnosticism isn’t really a viable solution.


I would argue that we get away from a lot of the problems mentioned above by avoiding concepts of culture as a thing – either form or content. Lende’s definition of culture as warped spaces gets dangerously close to this. I would also say that it’s better on the whole to avoid complex metaphors and analogies. Again, Lende’s analogy of culture with Einstein’s relativity offers a good example. The problem is that analogies and metaphors only go so far – our lives are not literally warped by culture – and so, for analytical purposes they can become troublesome (I can imagine some anthropologist of the future trying to measure the warping of life around culture). It’s possible that metaphors are good for trying to communicate the idea to a broader audience that doesn’t have a knowledge of the century-long debate around the concept. However, even in those cases, I think simple and direct definitions are better whenever possible so as to avoid further confusion as much as possible.*

My own preference, then, is to think of culture as a process – the process of interacting and engaging with others including non-humans, the process of building relationships. And for this, I think Anna Tsing’s definition of “friction” is a good starting point (and here I think it was unfair of Lende to relegate Tsing to the “Newtonian” camp simply because she uses a concept from Newtonian physics to name her approach): “…the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference.” It is through this process of interacting across difference that many of the things we define as “cultural” (art, artifacts, rituals, styles, values, norms, beliefs, etc.) are produced. Culture is therefore an act of production. As a result, we can’t talk about “a culture”, we can only talk about the processes of interaction and the kinds of things and relationships that the process produces.

I think this avoids many of the political problems associated with the concept because by definition, anyone who is commenting on a culture is part of the cultural process, and they too are implicated in any critique. When Bill O’Reilly decries “black culture” or the “culture of poverty” his actions can (must) be seen as part of the process the produces those effects, and, therefore, partially responsible for their persistence over time. Methodologically and analytically, it means we must focus on the interactive processes and their products. What exactly is produced through the process of modeling environmental systems? What kinds of artifacts, what kinds of relationships, what kinds of knowledge or values, etc.? I’m not sure this idea is any easier to convey to the broader public, but it isn’t so complex that most people couldn’t understand it with some assistance.

That’s my current take on the topic. I can’t say that I won’t change my mind in the future, and I’m not suggesting that all anthropologists should use this definition exclusively. I’m only suggesting that this is a useful way to think about culture for me in my practice. There’s a lot of room for other possible conceptions, and I think the most important thing is that we continually pay attention and continually work on building a better understanding of culture and the way social processes work.




*I think there is one way in which the relativity metaphor might be useful, but Lende doesn’t explore it much. That is the idea of relativity versus relativism, which Bruno Latour hints at in Reassembling the Social. Relativism says that we all exist in different, incommensurable worlds, and that, as a result, we cannot judge others based on our own standards. That’s the extreme form, at least, but all of the lesser forms depend on this assumption for their basis. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, on the other hand, suggests that we all come from different starting points, different points of observation. In order to converge, we have to understand those different starting points, and work out how bring our different observations together. I think something like this, rather than relativism, would be a useful framework for anthropology.

Communist Cybernetics


I’ve been getting a lot out reading Molecular Red by Mckenzie Wark – I think it’s one of the most useful books I’ve read for my dissertation research (alongside Friction, and A Vast Machine). It’s a good read, but because I’m in the midst of research, teaching, and other work, I’m only plugging away at it slowly. If you’re interested or curious about the book, you can download the “Molecular Red Reader” for free. It has several newly translated essays by Bogdanov and Platonov as well as a few essays by Wark himself and an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson the author of the Mars Trilogy. I’m not far enough along, and I don’t have time right now to post a full review or summary of the book. Instead I’ll just offer a quote that, to me, captures some of the value of the book.

“Tektology as organized labor experiments with the poetic substitution of universal ingression, to propose social and technical forms, from among which history will select. This was the program intended for the Proletkult labs, and it might not be a bad one for twenty-first-century design practice either. It begins with a kind of détournement of existing forms, then experiments with their application in other domains, before testing out prototypes in situations where users select the most useful and discard the least useful

The main question for Bogdanov is: how to build a program of knowledge oriented not only to survival but to growth in organizational capacities in relation to an environment. Particularly problematic here is that one can’t always know in advance where the environment is going to make itself felt. ‘The total stability of a system in relation to its environment is evidently a complex result of the partial stabilities of its various parts in relation to those influences which are directed against them'” (p. 51)

What Wark is describing for Bogdanov is a kind of communist cybernetics. This question of organization is what I’m trying to explore in my research on modeling. I am interested in the ways that constructing models is not simply a way of understanding environmental or other complex systems, but also a way of organizing relationships among people, and also between human and non-human systems. My hope is that my research will encourage modelers and other natural scientists to experiment with different ways of conducting research to not only improve the way we understand the world, but also to change the way we relate to it.

Playing Games with Anthropology


For the past week in the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course that I’m teaching, I had my students play a game that I designed in order to explore some of the implications of global decision-making processes and the relations between different groups with different resource and values (you can download the rules for my game here). I think simulation games of this kind are good ways to examine complex issues in an experiential way. Rather than simply talking about colonization, militarization, environmental problems, health problems and so on, students can grapple with the limitations and implications of these issues directly in a simulated, safe environment.

My game is not perfect even though I spend a lot of time thinking through the various scenarios and the relationships between different variables. There are things that I simply could not represent very well like the internal dynamics of a particular nation. Sometimes the game was too complex for students to grasp in a handful of sessions – I had to explain rules repeatedly, and I think the reasoning behind some of the rules and limitations might have gotten lost on the students. Regardless, there were some interesting results, and the students had interesting comments in our discussion at the end. I asked them to write a one-page reflection on the game as well, because I think it’s important not only to play the game but to reflect on the experience and its limitations. I’ll report what they say when the reflections are handed in.

There is nothing new about the idea of using simulation games to teach about complex issues. Other examples include Michael Wesch’s World Simulation, Buckminster Fuller’s World Game, and the University of Virginia’s Bay Game. And there’s nothing specifically innovative about my game or the way I implemented it in this class. But I am interested in other approaches to gaming in the class room. Does anyone else have their students play simulation games? Do you use existing games or do you create your own? What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of simulation games from a pedagogical standpoint? What have your experiences with simulation games been? What lessons have you learned from the experience?

The Honest Delusional


I think the worst kind of person – that is, the most rigid, unchanging, and unwilling to actually engage with otherness in any meaningful way – is the person who says “we are all delusional, but at least I am honest about my delusion.” This is the person who goes around “calling out” others on their delusion simply for the sake of doing so, and then sits back confident in their “honesty” that they have made a meaningful difference. But all of that difference is externalized – their own delusion of delusion remains intact because it’s protected by the deluded guise of “honest” delusion.

The fact is, nothing will get you or anyone else out of their delusion. Nothing. There is no way to finally, once and for all, escape from your biases, your blinders, your limitations. If you think you’ve escaped from your delusions, then you are deluded. If you think being “honest” about your delusions gives you any authority or reason to “call out” others on their delusions, then you’re still deluded.

So what are all of us deluded people supposed to do? Understand that we’re deluded – that’s a start. But that’s not enough, stopping there is just a recipe for becoming an “honest” delusional who’s delusions are never put at risk. So then we have to meaningfully engage with others – those who share our delusions and those who do not. When I say meaningfully, I mean in a way that our delusions are put at risk, where they could change. Real engagement can never be safe.

The purpose of these engagements is not to “call out” others on their delusions, but to work with one another to figure out how to live together in spite of those delusions, or, in some cases, because of them. Merely pointing out that someone else is deluded – even if you recognize your own delusion – doesn’t put your own delusion at risk, and, as a result, it doesn’t do anything to help figure out a way to live together.

The thing is, sometimes “working with” doesn’t look like “working with.” Sometimes it looks like antagonism, or defending delusions. And this is especially true when one or more of the delusions involved is/are not being put at risk. Protected by discursive and in some cases physical barriers, these delusions are safe – the only way to break through the barriers is to assault delusion with delusion. Simply saying “we’re all deluded” doesn’t put any particular delusion at risk it simply puts them all equally at risk without addressing the discursive and physical barriers that protect one from the other. In other words, it puts us back where we started, while also seeming to place the “honest” delusional above the fray and therefore not at risk.

It’s not the fact that we are deluded that is the problem – that’s simply our inevitable lot. The problem is that some delusions are less at risk than others. The solution, then, is not to be “honest” and above the fray – that’s simply another way for the delusional to find solace in his delusion – but to be attentive to these inequalities and find ways to deconstruct the discursive and physical barriers that inhibit our ability to work with one another despite our delusions. It’s not an easy task, and is also vulnerable to delusion, but maybe, little-by-little, we will find ways to live together. If not, at least it’s an interesting ride.

In Praise of Small Victories

The people of Baltimore won a small victory today. The six police involved in his arrest and subsequent death have had criminal charges filed against them. Make no mistake, this was not “due process” or the inevitable result of a fair and equitable justice system. This small victory was won through the collective struggle of the people of Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole. Without their constant vigilance, and the unwavering pressure they have put on their elected officials, it is unlikely that these charges would have been filed. How many other Freddie Grays have there been? How many anonymous victims of police violence whose names never became a hashtag and whose killer still police the streets of Baltimore?

The indictment of six police officers does not change the system. The fact is, Freddie Gray should still be alive. Mike Brown should be completing his first year of college. Eric Garner should be at home with his wife and children. These murders should never have taken place. It wasn’t just six police officers and a “rough ride” that broke Freddie Gray’s neck, or that took away Eric Garner’s breath. It was a system of violence and oppression that has plagued our country for generations – a system that is woven into our collective lives. That’s something that will take a long time and a lot of work to fix, and there will always be people trying to stop it or trying to reverse the incremental changes that have been made.

This small victory is a demonstration of the effectiveness of collective action and the potential for change. It’s a small victory, but it’s also an enormous step forward for the people of Baltimore and for the US as a whole. It opens the door to other collective actions, other small victories, and the possibility of a more just and equitable future, but only if we keep at it.

Ultimately, all victories are small victories, but we make them grow by continuing the struggle, by remaining vigilant, and by pushing back against structural and other forms of violence and oppression. The people of Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown the way, now it’s time for those of us who want to make a better world to dig in and get to work building it.