The conviction that we all have, possess or inhabit a discrete culture, and have done so for centuries, is one of the more dominant default assumptions of our contemporary politico-intellectual moment. However, the concept of culture as a signifier of subjectivity only entered the modern Anglo-U.S. episteme in the late nineteenth century. Culture and Eurocentrism seeks to account for the term’s relatively recent emergence and movement through the episteme, networked with many other concepts – nature, race, society, imagination, savage, and civilization– at the confluence of several disciplines. Culture, it contends, doesn’t describe difference but produces it, hierarchically. In so doing, it seeks to recharge postcoloniality, the critique of eurocentrism.
About the Author
Qadri Ismail is Associate Professor of English at the University of Minnesota.
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Culture and Eurocentrism
By Qadri Ismail
Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Qadri M. Ismail
All rights reserved.
It sometimes seems that every cultural commentator and her second cousin cite Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (CA), a canonical text of the discipline of English literature; but they haven't noticed that, as early as its second page, CA offers not one but two, contradictory yet imbricated, mutually reinforcing definitions of its object, "what culture really is." Matthew Arnold calls the "ground" of culture "scientific": "the desire to see things as they are"; this descriptive, empiricist sense is distinguished from, requires supplementation by another, by "motives called social" — inclusive, Arnold insists, not elitist — and "practical": "the desire for removing human error, clearing ... confusion, diminishing ... misery" (CA: 59). The first, also termed "a having," compels the second, "a becoming," given the former's inadequacies (CA: 62). Arnold stages culture as both possession and potential, an object that is and one that could be (developed). The latter sense, which CA advocates, advances, overdetermines the text. Our moment, of course, operates with the former: we no longer understand the term as potential, benefit, imperative or development. In so doing, CA's deployment resonates with civilization, cultivation, improvement, progress — its contemporary epistemological accomplices — but, in his case, towards a particular accomplishment or telos, "the study and pursuit of perfection" (CA: 61). Arnold's many readers repress the first verb in that semanteme, producing him, thereby, as merely, exclusively elitist. They don't account for the enmeshing of one desire, the commitment to perfection, to "the best that has been thought and known," the satisfaction of a lack, with another, the disciplinary, the "scientific" study of an object. Which, at the risk of stating the obvious, as having signifies, couldn't be a lack. Though it lacks, needs improvement; the possession requires perfection, but upon study; diminishing social misery is imbricated with clearing intellectual confusion. Makes Arnold not only an advocate or "preacher," but student of culture; phrased somewhat mischievously, an early — historicism might say the originary — practitioner, disciple of (English) cultural studies.
If the claim sounds counter-intuitive, the definition of the editors of the U.S. Cultural Studies reader bears recollection: "the study of all the relations between all the elements in a whole way of life." Lawrence Grossberg and company, too, advocate study of the object conceived as a discrete totality, specified as a way of life. Unconsciously no doubt, even if convinced of the novelty of their enterprise, one inspired intellectually by Birmingham of the 1960s, they iterate Arnold. The resonance isn't restricted to definition. Take, for instance, CA's last chapter (again unread by those who cite the book). Like cultural studies, a presentist discipline, it treats not elitist or exclusivist — "high" cultural — but quotidian contemporary objects, elements of a whole way of life: the disestablishment of the Protestant Irish church, free trade, the legalization of marriage to a man's dead brother's widow and inheritance upon intestacy. In other words: religion, law, patriarchy, economics/exchange, marriage/incest/(hetero)sexuality, property; objects not usually associated with Arnold, or his discipline, English literature, but cultural studies and, of course, another discipline emergent at that moment, English anthropology — which marks CA, inescapably, make the two disciplines extimate accomplices: they breach, penetrate, even contour, shape, frame each other, notwithstanding their attempts at repression, policing frontiers, circumvallating inside from outside. (George Stocking points out that the first such institution in England, the Anthropological Society of London, was established in 1863.) Repression, as we know from Sigmund Freud, cannot erase the trace of the other. Disciplines are always already interdisciplinary.
The impress of anthropology on CA appears most forcefully, as Stocking (1982) notes, in the summary semanteme on the English middle class, nominated as "Philistines":
Culture says: "Consider these people ... their way of life, their habits ... manners, the very tones of their voice; look at them attentively; observe the literature they read, the things which give them pleasure, the[ir] words ... thoughts ... [W]ould any amount of wealth be worth having with the condition that one was to become just like these people by having it?" (CA: 65)
Read quickly, the semanteme only signifies Arnold's elitism, disdain for, distance from the materialist middle class (understood, almost in Marx's terms, as produced by wealth, capital, not its producer); in Culture and Society, Raymond Williams calls it "priggish." However, staged as a speaking subject, though he speaks for it, culture emerges both as an autonomous agent that evaluates and describes an (undesirable) object, and a possession, discrete totality that signifies commonality, subjectivity. In a phrase, Arnold understands culture (what it "really is") as a whole "way of life" which requires observation before evaluation, transformation. And, yes, the phrase "way of life" bears the damned elitist's signature — a "gotcha moment" to the close reader. Even if its description and judgement are inextricable, it carries a disciplinary imperative, suggests that students of culture should adopt a specific practice, method, directed at specific objects. Put differently, it suggests a relation between the work of ideology and disciplinary reason, one outside the strict Althusserian schema. Habit, manner, custom, speech, language, literature, entertainment, conceptualized collectively, essentially, as way of life, an inside, require consideration, "attentive" consideration, description by its student. From a distance, position outside: the observer, subject, is unlike, heterogeneous to "these people," the object, effectively othered by the pronoun; she doesn't share their habits, manners, or desire to. Method and object bear the stamp of empiricism, conceptualized since Bacon as the production of knowledge by a subject, through observation of an inside, an object existing outside disciplinary reason; and, more particularly, of anthropology — the study of (other) culture/s. Attentive investigation carries an affinity with what would become anthropological method, one "theorized" much later — intersections are not discrete — by Bronislaw Malinowski, as "participant observation." But the discipline doesn't acknowledge this debt to another (with the notable exception of Stocking). Unlike Malinowski, Arnold divulges his object in the singular; nevertheless, if the middle class possesses a discrete, distinctive way of life, the other social classes nominated by the text — upper or aristocracy ("Barbarians") and working ("Populace") — must, too; and CA describes them as so possessed, as it were. The conceptualization of culture as possession inescapably carries plurality. Our sense lies emergent, undivulged in Arnold, overdetermined by the singular, elitist: these ways of life require augmentation of their lack, perfection; "these people" compel interpellation — better understood as a summons, rather than hailing — not imitation. The relativist sense of culture, as possession, demands transformation by the universal.
For the canonical emergent formulation of the latter, one turns to Tylor, a founder member of that London society, first chair of the discipline at Oxford. His Primitive Culture doesn't see its object as a lack. What Arnold argues should be, requiring study, Tylor finds as is, studied:
Culture or Civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. The condition of culture among the various societies of mankind ... is a subject apt for the study of laws of human thought and action.
The semanteme understands society as we do, in the plural (relativist), but culture — a term homonymous with civilization — in the singular. The former signifies heterogeneity between discrete totalities; the latter, homogeneity: many different societies could share the same cultural condition — the understanding, in other words, of culture in the universalist sense. Staged as a "complex whole," Tylor's definition has been forceful, lasting; though not relativist, informs our quotidian understanding — for culture, here, signifies a vital, veridic element of subjectivity, a matrix inside and outside its subject. His specification of his object as culture in the "wide ethnographic sense" signifies that it must also have another — narrow, limiting, non-ethnographic. Can one read in this semanteme a response to Arnold, uncited by Tylor but taken as elitist even by his contemporaries (despite his insistence that the "social," "practical" concerns of culture contradicted the charge)? A dissociation of this text from that? Perhaps. In any case, the texts intersect. Tylor produces culture, like Arnold, in the singular, as a condition. One he finds universal, an appurtenance of "man," the gendered human; whereas Arnold finds culture peculiar to only the English, French and German. The condition occurs in "grades" (Stocking, 1987): its subject could have more or less culture; whereas Arnold's subject lacks it. And, if the latter desires to inquire, investigate, seek his object, the former finds, describes it. If all this distinguishes Tylor's understanding from Arnold's, the former nevertheless calls his object constituted by "capabilities," potential, and "habits" — termed acquisitions, possessions (gained over time). Tylor famously characterizes anthropology, the study of the laws, regularities, "of human thought and action," as the "reformer's science"; Arnold advocates the study of culture as having a practical benefit, a good. The lists of the elements of culture in both texts deploy either the same or synonymous terms; and both share an understanding of their object as potential, process. One Tylor conceptualizes in the text read in this chapter, Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization, which he calls an "introduction to a new science," again signifying the novelty of the discipline at this moment, as comprised of three evolutionary, historical stages: the savage, barbaric and civilized. These stages are also states, conditions, of culture. Tylor iterates Arnold, suggesting that AI and CA could, and perhaps even should, be read as signifying, heterogeneously, an intersection in the itinerary of culture in the modern Anglo-U.S. episteme: they stage their object in the singular, universal, as a condition — one that Tylor finds homonymous with civilization. (As does Boas, even while relativizing his object. In a letter to Science, he argues that "civilization is not something absolute, but ... relative.")
But we have, as yet, only an inkling of its intricacy, wattling. For, of course, the deconstructive reader will anticipate culture to be the differance, most intimately, of nature. (Suggesting that writing such as this stages the "inductive" move from semanteme to reading.) After all, would the texts direct this book to other texts, to the network of concepts, if it wasn't working with deconstruction? On the other hand, could we ever know if the peacock preceded the egg? To the reader irritated by consistent interruption (parabasis): anti-historicism, a non-linear account, must be staged too, not just asserted. With the humorous aside where warranted: after all, why can't the pleasure of producing prose gain mention in the text, even if disciplinary reason might seek to interdict such a move? (Or funditry, as Stephen Colbert might suggest, abet punditry?) Arnold obliges, citing Montesquieu (signifying, not incidentally, the enmeshing of the Anglo-U.S. episteme with the French): "The first motive which ought to impel us to study is to augment the excellence of our nature" (CA: 59). The study of culture leads to the augmentation, supplementation, improvement — distancing spatially (differ), temporally (defer) — of its subject from nature, a lack. Elsewhere, produced as agent, of perfection, transformation, which is to say violation, "culture indefatigably tries ... to ... [make] ... the raw person" beautiful (CA: 64). Raw, of course, bears a metaphoric relation to nature; beauty, to culture. An opposition CA cannot avoid, that AI iterates. In Tylor, the most developed stage of culture/civilization gets distinguished from, opposed to, two others — the lowly savage condition and the middling barbaric, both understood in terms of their proximity to nature:
Human life may be roughly classed into three great stages ... [In] the lowest or savage state ... man subsists on wild plants and animals, neither tilling the soil nor domesticating creatures for his food. Savages may dwell in tropical forests where the abundant fruit and game may allow small clans to live in one spot ... while in barer and colder regions they have to lead a wandering life in quest of the wild food ... In making their rude implements, the materials used by savages are what they find ready to hand ... Men may be considered to have risen into the next or barbaric state when they take to agriculture. With the certain supply of food which can be stored till next harvest, settled village or town life is established, with immense results in the improvement of arts, knowledge, manners and government ... Lastly, civilized life may be taken as beginning with the art of writing, which, by recording history, law, knowledge, and religion for the service of ages to come, binds together the past and future in an unbroken chain of intellectual and moral progress (AI: 18).
This semanteme produces culture in the singular as having its own itinerary; frames, emplots a three-stage account of human history as one of civilizational progress; signifies "an instituted perspective ... a way of bringing into view the world as a single, unified entity, articulated in space and developing over (common) time," that Sanjay Krishnan calls "the global." Such (eurocentric) framing both institutes and represses difference: the periphery or, better, peripheralized savage/barbarian object gets understood analeptically, universally, in terms from outside, those of the civilized subject. (Boasian relativism — a move Dipesh Chakrabarty iterates, as we'll see in the conclusion — stages its radical difference as stemming from transcending universalism, making object subject, producing knowledge of the other non-axiologically, from the inside, on "its own" terms: "If we desire to understand the development of human culture we must [be] ... willing to adapt ... [ourselves] to the strange ways of thinking and feeling of primitive people." While an early articulation of participant observation, of seeing things as they are, this others its object — as strange, primitive — even as it attempts to stage it as subject. It produces cultural relativism as the study of an [aberrant]object [them] by the subject [us]; and, in so doing, resonates with Arnold. Relativism, an empiricism, assumes, reinforces, a riveting structural element of the universalist frame, the prior distinction between subject and object, inside and out; assumes it possible to undo epistemic violence while, as we'll see in a later chapter, instantiating it.) Offered without certitude — "human life may be classed" — as a "rough," essentialized, perhaps even imagined emplotment, not fact, stage, an axiological term — every new one supervenes and supersedes, "rises" above the precedent — is understood both as a discrete condition, synonymous with state, and a moment, grade in a developmental, evolutionary process. (AI finds Charles Darwin a powerful, even overdetermining, though uncited ally. The disciplines of biology and history accomplice anthropology at this moment.) If, as Primitive Culture's definition formulates it, cultural development follows a law, one that anthropology divulges, AI enables it to be phrased thus: human culture evolves historically, hierarchically, progresses from the lowest stage, savage, through the intermediary, barbaric, to the highest, civilized. Every stage is characterized by a relation, physical and temporal, to nature: understood not as a universal condition but in the plural. The savage merely subsists off nature, which constitutes its matrix; even savage technology lacks thought, labor, agency, or bears only minimal, incidental signs of it. The same holds for savage food, gathered or hunted in the wild, at a time and place determined by natural agency, constituting the object of the savage condition as unsettled, nomadic, a restless native; as human but, unable to control nature even minimally, not subject.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Culture as Problem / 1. Culture/Race/Nature: Arnold, Tylor / 2. (Civil) Society/Nature: Hobbes, Locke, Macaulay / 3. Imagination/Imitation: Shelley, Hobbes, Macaulay, Kipling, Malinowski. / 4. Culture/s: Williams, Leavis, Spencer / 5. ‘”Race”/Cultures: Du Bois, Fletcher, Boas, Turner, “Jefferson” / Conclusion: Modernity, Eurocentrism, Postcoloniality / Bibliography / Index