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There has never been a document of culture which was not at one and the same time a document of barbarism. <<WALTER BENJAMIN>>
Those who fancy themselves free of nihilism perhaps push forward its development most fundamentally. <<MARTIN HEIDEGGER>>
Nihilism is a modern term and a modern problem. Its rise as an issue in society and in reflections on society is roughly coincident with the rise of modern social sciences. If, following Nietzsche, we see nihilism as the equating of all beings, the leveling of meaningful differentiation, the transvaluation of all values, then it might appear logical that anthropology should have escaped this cultural process. A field whose very foundations rest on the existence of an Other—different ways of being human—ought to be the locus of the preservation of difference. I will argue in this chapter that, despite itself, American cultural anthropology has had the opposite effect.
It has frequently been pointed out that the numerous attempts to treat man as an object or a thing are potentially dangerous, dehumanizing, and insidious. In this chapter I will examine the lineage of anthropological theorists who have developed the concept of "culture" and argue that their attempts to construct a science of culture have also led—despite their intent—to a form of nihilism, a reduction of the Other to the Same.
Schematizing broadly, I argue that modern anthropology has taken two major steps in this direction. The first, associated with Franz Boas, was the articulation of the concept of culture as a replacement for and attack on the racist, hierarchical views of nineteenth-century anthropology. Politically admirable, Boas's attack on racism transformed American anthropology into a science concerned with cultures as wholes, one concerned with diversity and pluralism. The price Boas and his students paid for the construction of cultural relativism was the bracketing of truth. Each culture could not be taken at face value. Earlier anthropologists had ethnocentrically ranked all peoples in relation to the values of the West. For Boas and his students, there were underlying universal boundary conditions of what it meant to be human. All cultures dealt with these in their own way. There was a common human condition with diverse solutions. All Otherness (these diverse solutions) could be understood as really being the Same (the universal boundary conditions).
The second step, located in the Parsonian tradition and its offshoots, seeks to limit the overly broad culture concept by rooting it in underlying but changing biosocial evolutionary processes and in the concept of "symbol," which gives historical specificity to different cultures. The focus is on experience and action as a way of articulating these dimensions. The task of anthropology becomes not just the appreciation of different cultures as "ways of life." Rather, cultures are seen as clusters of symbols. These symbols are analyzed as a group's commentary— its discourse—on experience. The role of the anthropologist is to imaginatively translate their frames of meaning into our frame of meaning. By so doing, the anthropologist enters into a fictive conversation with the other culture. The only price to be paid is the bracketing of the seriousness of the speech acts of the Other. All cultures are brought into the universal conversation of humanity, but what each has to say is only one more text to be translated into Western discourse.
Both moments of American cultural anthropology have major achievements of analysis, cross-cultural description, and convincing intent that are undeniable. I am not questioning motives here, as moralism will get us nowhere. But what is worth examining is how this type of inquiry, by a dogged and at times even heroic championing of anthropology as science, has undermined the deeper intent of its own project, resistance to the iron cage of modernity.
The Bracketing of Truth: Cultural Relativism
The successful reconstitution of anthropology as a nonracist, nonhierarchical, and relativist science of culture is usually associated (quite correctly) with the name of Franz Boas. Boas led the assault within anthropology both on racism (and the centrality of race in general) and on the unified schemes of cultural evolution that had so dominated both right- and left-wing thinkers throughout the nineteenth century. Boas used the science of culture that he was building as the weapon with which to attack the concept of race. The unity of a people was cultural and had nothing to do with biology. The scientific framework of explanation and the ethical framework of differential evaluation were brought under siege by Boas and his students in the name of cultures—in the plural.
The modern anthropological concept of culture turned on a clustering of terms: historicity, plurality, behavioral determinism, integration, and relativism. Each has its own genealogy—Boas was hardly the first to posit any of them—but their confluence in the culture concept was an event of major significance. According to Stocking, "Once the one grand scheme of evolutionism was rejected, the multiplicity of cultures which took the place of the cultural stages of savagery, barbarism and civilization were no more easily brought within one standard of evaluation than they were within one system of explanation."
Boas is best known for his rigorous particularism, his zealous emphasis on the ethnographic specificity of each culture. Culture traits might be found in different milieus, but culture was more than just disparate traits; it was an organized way of life. So Boas's particularism lay on the level of cultural wholes. Boas was a crusading nominalist, reacting vigorously to the damage done to truth and morality by the premature and false schematizations of his immediate predecessors in anthropology. The result of this particularism of cultural wholes was to establish a trend of relativism and antitheoretical description that were to be the twin marks of American cultural anthropology since his time. By knocking down the universal standards of comparison, Boas opened the door for cultural relativism. The shattering of the vertical order of evolutionary schemes left, so to speak, a horizontal plane on which each culture had a place that was as valuable as any other.
Boas from the earliest days of his scientific career opposed both the analysis of separate elements taken out of their historical and cultural context and the universal classification of wholes that predetermined the place of particular facts. Boas commonly used each of these two poles to attack (today we might say deconstruct) the other. He refused to admit, for example, that like causes always had like effects—which horrified Durkheim—because, for Boas, the integrative whole always had a primacy over the place of the parts. Conversely, however, he demanded an al most fanatical and literal attention to the facts—literal transcription of texts was a mode for a while—which ultimately made the classification of the whole almost impossible.
According to Boas, "In ethnology, all is individuality." But that individuality resided on the level of the integration of a particular group—the "genius" of a tribe. Meaning was the concept that mediated relations of elements and wholes. Insofar as it implied a causal direction, the movement was from whole to element: "From a collection of string instruments, or drums of savage tribes and the modern orchestra, we cannot derive any conclusion but that similar means have been applied by all peoples to make music. The character of their music, the only object worth studying, which determines the form of the instruments, cannot be understood from the single instrument, but requires a complete collection from the single tribe."
Thus, the seeds of the distinctively American variant of holistic analysis—the transformation of the German historicists' conception of Geist and Volk—emerged in a preliminary manner in Boas's work. The main difference from the Germans, however, is that Boas and his students doggedly called this type of activity science. He refused the de rigueur distinction between Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften. Boas wanted to study culture scientifically with methods that were universal. Seawater and Eskimos, to cite two of Boas's interests, could be brought within the same purview. The advances of cultural science would go hand in hand with those of the physical sciences. In both, the critique of tradition, the progressive liberating power of reason, would be an instrument of humanity in its fight against the realms of unreason. This was Boas's faith.
This position must be situated in the context of its formation: the reaction against universalizing, hierarchical, and racist evolutionary schemes on the one hand, and scientific analysis, in a causal/functional frame of the distribution of traits (meaningless in themselves, Boas thought), on the other. Somewhere uneasily situated between the debris of these two currents, Boas and his followers attempted to construct a hybrid science of culture that has both defined and bedeviled the mainstream of American anthropology throughout the twentieth century.
For Boas, "On the one hand, culture was simply an accidental accretion of individual elements. On the other hand, culture— despite Boas' renunciation of organic growth—was at the same time an integrated spiritual totality that somehow conditions the form of its elements." The "somehow" became a central concern for Boas and particularly for his students. Boas placed the emphasis on an integration that was psychological, one of ideas, so as to avoid resorting to any external condition as the basis of a culture's way of life.
So, in an important sense, the result of the Boasian revolution was to successfully displace the evaluative procedures of earlier modern attempts to comprehend other peoples. Each culture was seen as distinctive, each people had its own genius—there was no way to rank them. One had to respect their individuality and their autonomy and had to promote a general tolerance for human difference. Implicitly, a purification of all ethnocentrism was at the heart of the matter. Paradoxically, perhaps, the natives under study would not be able to do much themselves but "express" the underlying holistic way of life that shaped their smallest movements. This meaningful pattern of culture could only be articulated, grasped, and discussed by the anthropologist. Hence, the seriousness, absurdity, joy, or horror of a particular people's way of life was both given heightened importance and dramatically relativized at the same time. The daily activities of a people were displayed in their full dignity as worthy of respect and tolerance. But only the anthropologists—not the people themselves—could understand, describe, and analyze this cultural whole. They live it, we think it.
The full implications of this cultural relativity and new science of anthropology emerged with Boas's students. By 1926 they controlled all the major departments of anthropology in America.
Perhaps the best place to look for a concise statement of the cultural relativist position that Boas's students developed is in Melville Herskovits's textbook Man and His Works, published shortly after the Second World War. Although other Boasians would put these points in different ways, Herskovits's formulation touches all the crucial bases in a direct and unblushing fashion.
Herskovits opens his chapter titled "The Problem of Cultural Relativism" by claiming that it is a human universal to make evaluations of ways of life other than one's own. All groups do it. Scholars and scientists in our culture have laboriously catalogued and organized these judgments into schemata and charts. The initial hope was that we would thereby reveal universals of evaluation, but the result has not been one of consensus. Herskovits says, "It has become increasingly evident, however, that evaluations of this kind stand or fall with the acceptance of the premises from which they derive." Many of these criteria are in conflict, and there is no obvious way to decide between them. Many other human groups understand this and have developed an attitude of tolerance toward diversity. Our civilization, however, has lost its tolerance and feels the need for consistency and uniformity. This has bred intolerance. A central task of anthropology is to combat this attitude.
Herskovits gives the example of marriage. There are many different ways in which people marry, although not an infinite number. They all seem, almost by definition, to perform the basic task of marriage; otherwise these societies would have ceased to exist. So, on a simple functional and utilitarian scale, we have no way to choose between different arrangements. Furthermore, if we examine these various systems from the inside, from the point of view of the people who practice them, not only do these customs work, but they seem desirable: "Evaluations are relative to the cultural background out of which they arise." Utility of a functionalist sort and contextualization of attitude are the first two criteria Herskovits puts forward.
Each of the societies that anthropologists study, Herskovits continues, has an underlying value system. Reality for each group, and ultimately for each individual, is shaped and experienced in terms of this underlying value system. Hence, it follows that reality is variable and plural. In social life "the very definition of what is normal and abnormal is relative to the cultural frame of reference." It is the job of the anthropologists to penetrate these value systems and to make them available to others.
This leads us directly to the question of cultural relativism. We must evaluate value systems in their own frame—otherwise we are being ethnocentric. Ethnocentrism, however, is really only a danger when it is linked with power. For, as Herskovits admits, most groups are not relativists; they evaluate others in generally negative terms. It is a well-known ethnographic truism that many societies call themselves "humans," implying that other groups are something lower and less fully human. But Herskovits argues that this claim has been overread and that discourse has been mistaken for reality. The truth is that these groups denigrate other groups verbally but are tolerant in their actions. "It is when, as in Euro-American culture, ethnocentrism is rationalized and made the basis of programs of action detrimental to the wellbeing of other peoples that it gives rise to serious problems."
We should learn from other cultures that a recognition of difference and tolerance can go hand in hand. "For cultural relativism is a philosophy which, in recognizing the values set up by every society to guide its own life, lays stress on the dignity inherent in every body of custom and on the need for tolerance of conventions though they may differ from one's own." Such a position, Herskovits argues, should lead us to see "the validity of every set of norms for the people whose lives are guided by them, and the values they represent." He wrote this sentence after the Nazi experience without adding any qualifications.
Herskovits closes his chapter on relativism by claiming triumphantly that cultural relativism is a position that opposes absolutism—the existence of any fixed standard. It is, however, not opposed to universals, "those least common denominators to be extracted, inductively, from comprehension of the range of variation which all phenomena of the natural or cultural world manifest." Universal forms are found as human imperatives in all cultures, but no fixed contents are to be found in any of these forms. "Morality is a universal, and so are enjoyment of beauty, and some standard of truth." Morality is both universal and relative to the particular value system that gives it content. Anthropology will be a tolerant science of particulars founded on the universals of human existence. Respect for difference is its guiding principle, relativism its norm.
Excerpted from The Accompaniment by PAUL RABINOW Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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