Issue 22.1, February 2007


Essay Excerpt

Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems

by Michael M. J. Fischer

Culture is (1) that relational (ca. 1848), (2) complex whole . . . (1870s), (3) whose parts cannot be changed without affecting other parts (ca. 1914), (4) mediated through powerful and power-laden symbolic forms (1930s), (5) whose multiplicities and performatively negotiated character (1960s), (6) is transformed by alternative positions, organizational forms, and leveraging of symbolic systems (1980s), (7) as well as by emergent new technosciences, media, and biotechnical relations (ca. 2005).

Without a differentiated and relational notion of the cultural (the arts, media, styles, religions, value-orientations, ideologies, imaginaries, worldviews, soul, and the like), the social sciences would be crippled, reducing social action to notions of pure instrumentality.1    When singularized, frozen, or nominalized, “culture” can be a dangerous concept, subject to fallacies of pejorative and discriminatory hypostatization (“We have reason, they have culture”) or immobilized variables (“Their culture is composed of ‘x’ features”).2    The challenge of cultural analysis is to develop translation and mediation tools for helping make visible differences of interests, access, power, needs, desires, and philosophical perspective. I draw on the notion of experimental systems as developed in science studies (particularly Hans-Jo ̈rg Rheinberger’s Toward a History of Epistemic Things [1997]) as a way of thinking about how the anthropological and social science notion of culture has evolved as an analytic tool. Where this article ends provides the starting point, in reciprocal manner, for a companion article to rethink the cultural genealogies of science studies (Fischer 2006b).

The modern social science use of the term culture is rooted in the historical milieusthat arose with the dismantling of the religious and aristocratic legitimations of feudal and patrimonial regimes, and the agons of Third World particularistic “cultures” against First World claims of universal “civilization. “ These agons began with the English industrial revolution, the U.S. and French “bourgeois” revolutions, and the efforts of peripheral states in what would become Germany and Italy (and later in what would be called the Second and Third Worlds) to “catch up” without losing their “identity.”3    The collection of folklore, epics, oral genres, ritual forms, customs, kinship terminologies, jural norms and sanctions, dispute mediation techniques, material-semiotic objects, music, and the like, were important in nation-building ideologies, in nostalgia-based constructions of identity, and in hegemonic struggles between what was counted as future-oriented “modernity” and what was counted, reconstructed, or reinvented as past-oriented “tradition.”

Official histories of anthropology often credit Sir E. B. Tylor’s “omnibus” definition—“culture or civilization is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”—as providing the first canonic counterpoint to definitions of culture as the “best” productions in aesthetics, knowledge, and morals.4 Although such elitist “high culture” definitions of culture arose in dialectical relation to more demotic or foreign cultural forms,5 the anthropological understanding of culture that Tylor began to unpack asserts the importance of understanding the relations between all cultural forms at play, in contestation within social formations. The 19th-century rise of Quakers such as Tylor and scholars and reformers from other dissenting sects in England provided a critique of state-established forms of religious legitimation and cultural presuppositions, in synergy with scientific and political Enlightenment ideals of the previous century (and taken up also in reform movements in India, the Islamic world, China, the United States and elsewhere, as is acknowledged by the fluorescence of recent work on “alternative modernities”; see, e.g., Gaonkar 2001).6 Simultaneously, political economy reformers (including Chartists, abolitionists, St. Simon, Comte, Proudhon, Marx, and others) provided a space for critique and for organizing political movements to reshape the material environments and infrastruc- tures of cultural formations. These 19th-century articulations would develop into the methods of cultural accounting of classical sociology, British social anthropology, U.S. cultural anthropology, French structuralism, poststructuralisms, and considerations of “alternative modernities.” (1-2)

Fischer, Michael M. J.. "Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems." Cultural Anthropology 22, no. 1 (2007): 1-65