Issue 5.3, August 1990


Essay Excerpt

Modern cultural theory suffers from a diffuseness so great that it seems to subvert discourse within our scholarly community. Our theories range from sociobiology, at one extreme, through various kinds of materialism and old-fashioned functionalism to theories, at the other extreme, that locate the study of culture in language and meaning. One might hope that the protagonists of each doxology would illuminate our profession with constructive debate, but they speak past each other in a confusion of tongues; there is much talking but little dialogue. Off hand, one might say that our future seems very bad, yet we can draw some comfort from our one tried and tested anthropological truth, which is that: Things are never the way they seem. Indeed, we make our livings by showing that what seems to be one thing is actually something else, an alchemy that allows us to find in ritual either sublimated sex or a source of fertilizer. In this critical spirit, I will attempt to locate within the chaos of contemporary theory a different direction that, paradoxically, will call anthropology back to its center.

One axis of distinction between anthropological schools is the degree to which they take account of the human mind, and I will confine my remarks to two persuasions at polar extremes of difference on this subject: materialism and certain directions in postmodernism and interpretation. Some materialists say that there is no such thing as "mind." There is, rather, only the human brain, into which external stimuli flow and from which behavioral responses emanate. As for this brain, one doesn't have to know what's inside it or how it works-just what goes in and what comes out. What comes out is whatever gives the biggest bang for the least effort, which is more elegantly known as "operant conditioning." And since culture is defined by the same materialists as "learned and shared behavior," it follows that when enough people get the same bangs and respond in the same way, culture is born-but John Stuart Mill said it better in his views on the greatest good for the greatest number 150 years ago. And 42 years ago, I took experimental psychology with my old friend and Columbia College classmate, Marvin Harris; he became a believer in the Gospel according to Thorndike, and I, reacting against behaviorism, became a devotee of Sigmund Freud.

Isaiah Berlin sorted career thinkers into two types: Foxes and Hedgehogs. The Foxes are people who have many ideas, folks like Clifford Geertz and myself. Our trouble is that after a while nobody knows where we stand, which only becomes a problem for us when they also no longer care. The Hedgehog, to the contrary, harbors only one idea, but it is a very BIG IDEA. This, of course, again describes Harris, who underwent a materialist Pentecost early in his career, which, in conjunction with his college behaviorism, became Cultural Materialism. He has stayed doggedly with this theory for 35 years, adding to it here and there, but never deviating one iota from its essential outlines. The theory, however, owes less to Karl Marx than to Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith, and B. F. Skinner, and this may be why radical students in the 1970s and '80s turned instead to various types of Marxism-a movement already waning in the faddism that now besets our profession.

Roy Rappaport has maintained that ecological studies must become more cultural and draw lesson natural science models (1989), which represents a long step away from the blind mechanistic determinism of cultural materialism. In this regard, I have always thought that Julian Steward's cultural-ecological approach remains our most rewarding direction, because it shifted emphasis from the natural environment to culture, specifically to the penetration and imbedment of labor-that is, the social relations of production-in the total fabric of society (cf. Murphy 1970). I would add the corollary that this very imbedment of labor is the pathway through which aspects of culture within the realms of value and meaning flow back to articulate and influence the organization of work, for it is to some extent a two-way street. This, I hold, is the central import of Steward's theory, albeit with my own emendations, and without the overburden of such rigid concepts as "culture core" or "infrastructure."

Having discussed some modems, I now turn my attention to postmoderns and others of kindred spirit. Postmodernism, along with the new interpretive and reflexive anthropologies, deconstruction, dialogics, and a few others I can't remember, are growth industries in this country. Despite their success, they remain the domain of a small, albeit well-placed, minority. As for the rest of our trade, I do not think that I am overstating their mood in saying that a goodly number of them feel that there is less there than meets the eye. Much of this sentiment, I believe, derives from the writing styles of its adherents, whose sentences range from one word to involuted puzzle boxes of imbedded clauses. In all fairness, however, I should note that most of the chief practitioners of what I choose to call "thick writing" are men, who seem to be engaged in a curiously competitive game in which obscure literary allusions and baroque rhetorical forms are weapons, a kind of egghead rap-talk.

With this preamble, most readers would probably expect me to launch a critique of the entirety of poststructural, postmodern scholarship but, repellent though their syntax may be, I find certain aspects of their writings to be agreeable, even familiar. It is these aspects that I will now address, saving for later in this article the points on which they have gone awry. Among the broad directions of and there has been a from the postmodernism interpretation, sharp departure paradigm offunctional positivism that has been regnant in all social sciences for most of the 20th century, and which still provides the intellectual framework of much of our profession. This older model of society-as a network of causally and functionally related empirical entities forming natural systems-was implicitly based on a belief in the autonomy and objectivity of the scientific observers who collect these nuggets of fact. This so-called objectivity, in turn, derived from the assumption that we, as subjects, can squat in remote villages with our notebooks and study the natives as objects. It was an innocent creed, but it bespoke an underlying imperialism of attitude.

The new anthropology has shifted its attention from structure to pattern and process, to the phenomenology of discourse, and to the processes by which culture-and reality itself-is constructed. Gone is the concern for system boundaries, and with it the linear and clockwork world of structural functionalism. Absent as well is the objective observer standing apart from his informants and in his place is the situated, culturally constructed observer, who can no longer be separated from his ethnography. I welcome these new directions, and thus hope that you will not think it churlish of me to ask: So what else is new? (Murphy 331-333)

Murphy, Robert F. "The Dialectics of Deeds and Words: Or Anti-the Antis (And the Anti-Antis). Cultural Anthropology Vol. 5, no. 3 (Aug. 1990), pp. 331-337