Issue 5.4, November 1990


Essay Excerpt

Developments in contemporary anthropology indicate a renewed interest in the acting person as an initiator of plans and strategies, capable of formulating purposes and intentions in a more or less unconstrained, nondetermined way, and of marshaling internal and external resources in the service of realizing plans, goals, and strategies. No longer under the sway of either sociologism or culturology, we don't see humans as being pushed around by overarching and determining structures, forces, or processes, but as using, inventing, and shaping those structures and processes as causal agents. We are no longer content to say that people do things simply because that's their culture, or because they've been conditioned by society to do those things, or that they merely enact whatever script the sociocultural order places in their hands.

At the same time, most of us very much resist a pull in the direction of placing too much unconditioned power in the hands of individual actors in our understanding of sociocultural process: we balk at the suggestion that culture or society is only the summed result of the actions of autonomous deciders. While refusing to see people as only the products of a preexisting and determining sociocultural system, we yet invoke the social and the cultural as constitutive of the acting subject to undo the mystification presented by the image of the person as autonomous agent acting on the basis of some precultural or presocial value such as, say, economic advantage, reward and punishment, or genetic success.

We thus find ourselves wanting to say both that people are socialized all the way down; but also that socialization and enculturation cannot account for the entirety of human life and experience as we observe it in ourselves and others. How can we conceptualize matters so that we can have an agent who creates and uses culture if that same agent is, at the same time, the product of socialization and enculturation?

I think some help in this difficulty is provided by the metaphor upon which the idea of human culture is based, that is the raising of domesticated plants, Latin colere, from which the word "culture," as in "agriculture" and "cultivation," comes. The farmer or gardener can exercise enormous determining control over the growth and form of plants: one can nurture them, transplant them, graft them, fertilize them, bind them, prune them, stake them, arrange them in groups or beds, all in different ways; so that gardens, like societies, can display distinct, identifiable cultural styles, as for example the comparison of an English formal garden with a Japanese garden shows.

We may say that the cultivated plant is cultivated all the way down: even its conception and germination take place within a culturally controlling domain at every step. Yet the gardener or farmer does not, finally, cause, determine, or bring into being the plant itself as species or organism. It has to be there already equipped with matter, energy, form, genetic instructions, and a potential for growth that is malleable though not infinitely malleable.

Humans too are organisms raised and socialized by intentional cultivators, but in this case with the unique twist that the objects of cultivation become, in adulthood, cultivators themselves of their own offspring: the humanis both cultivator and cultivated. Humans are cultivated all the way down, it is true; but they too are not put there by culture. They are natural organisms who bring into the world an organization of matter-energy that has its own inner momentum, its propulsions through time, and across stages of growth and development. Culture or cultural process shapes the course of this flow at every stage, but it is not the flow itself.

If humans use culture, if they are formed by culture, then for that process to have any meaning there must be something or someone other than culture doing the using or being formed. That something or someone, I think, arises in the intrinsic characteristic of being purposeful, intentional, and desiring which comes with the territory of being a living organism of any kind. True, as soon as concrete plans or desires emerge, they take a specific form, and, in the case of humans, that form is always at least to some degree informed by cultural factors. But the wanting itself, the apparent energic directedness of living is supplied by the organism simply by having come into being. Humans, I would say, are cultural all the way down, but not all the way through.

When I went to graduate school in the '60s, I was left unsatisfied with doctrines I was learning that seemed to me to leave out or deny the centrality of purposeful and passionate human agency in the understanding of social and cultural life. Even the then newly rising schools of symbolic anthropology, cognitive anthropology, and structuralism, which redressed the lack of attention given to meaning as opposed to function in social science at the time, seemed to me to fall short of getting at the heart of the issue, since for me, meaning is something that can only be fully grasped in terms of the purposes, intentions, desires, and fears that are put into play in sociocultural action-in short, by the examination of the question" what do people want?"

I found, and find to this day, that most anthropologists tend to shy away from strong formulations and close examinations of human subjective motivation. They either fall back on the view that people in a certain culture want what people in that culture are enculturated to want-the position I would ascribe, for example, to Bourdieu (1977)-or else on some common sense, taken for granted rough and ready formula about people wanting power, prestige, resource maximization, reproductive advantage, or some combination of these. Neither comes close to corresponding to what one's own actual experience of being alive is like.

It was for this reason that I turned early on to psychodynamic theory, hoping to find there theories and methods which could supplement (not replace!) the cultural anthropological approach with a systematic investigation of the essential reality that life is lived and experienced by agents full of hopes, fears, desires, and plans. While it might be clear to the outside observer that those hopes and fears are shared or learned and thus "cultural," for each actor life is being lived uniquely and for the first time, and on the basis of motives which are felt as essential to and constitutive of his or her very sense of existing. Phenomenologists and existentialists had long also addressed these matters, and I regard their contribution as necessary and crucial. Nonetheless, my own conviction of the importance of unconscious conflict, motivation, affect, and symbolism has led me into are a sad dressed only by psychoanalysis. In this essay, I want to explore, from a psychodynamic perspective, how we can satisfactorily conceptualize the energic dimension of human life. (Paul, 431-433)

Paul, Robert A. "What Does Anybody Want? Desire, Purpose and the Acting Subject in the Study of Culture." Cultural Anthropology Vol. 5, no. 4 (1990): pp 431-451