Issue 2.3, August 1987


Essay Excerpt

If we are to understand how American culture is made relevant in the lives of those who live in the shadow of the United States, we must start with an approach to the concept of culture that preserves what it is that continues to make it indispensable to anthropologists, and many others as well. The approach I find most useful as a starting point is one proposed by Boon: " 'Culture' pertains to operations which render complex human phenomena communicable" (1973:227). That is, culture is an activity that human beings perform on what is given to them in the course of their lives: biological needs, ecological imperatives, social structural constraints, historical remnants, and, last but not least, the language of their contemporaries and coparticipants in everyday life scenes.

This article is an exploration of the perspectives opened by such an approach. To do this, I examine some instances when a variety of speakers construct new discourses over the words of their contemporaries and, in the process, reproduce what we have been taught to recognize as "America." By the same token, this article is an exploration of a new way of talking about people in the United States that does not reduce their multifaceted activities into "Americanism."

The methodological challenge lies in the displaying of cultural operations in the historical process of their occurrence. We need to catch human beings in the act of operating on the world, or, in the more popular, though easily misleading vocabulary of the Geertzian tradition, we catch them "interpreting." The challenge is not any more to look at "interpretations, "that is, at texts distanced from everyday life that are clearly marked for symbolic elaboration. It is rather to look in detail at texts that are not distanced and that are not marked for "interpretation," but that are still produced by human beings and should thus display the signs of the cultural process. The challenge is to start with texts of everyday life and only later investigate how these relate to texts of philosophical commentary. 

We know now that it is particularly difficult to do cultural anthropology around America.One of the many reasonsis that, in the United States, there are everywhere signs that point us toward a pre-analysis of America and how it should be qualified. People with rhetorical fluency are particularly adept at the production of texts, written or dramatically performed, that have so much the form that interpretive texts should take that it can be very difficult to do the anthropological double take that leads us to be particularly skeptical of anything that makes too much immediate sense. In fact, traditional ethnography,that is, ethnography that relies heavily on asking questions of informants, maybe impossible to conduct in America, since the informants are so good at moving the attention of the interviewer away from the original event toward "the interpretation." How many anthropologists of America have had to suffer through informants telling them: "Don't think that what just happened is what you saw! What really happened is . . ." My fear, of course, is that anthropologists of America did not suffer and that, rather than building up their skepticism, they cocked up their ears in excitement, since they were now getting the "real scoop." (Varenne, 369-370)