KUPER, Adam. Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. 299p. Resenha de: GOULET Jean-Guy. Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.3, p., 2004.
American academics are waging culture wars. (Not many dead.) Politicians urge cultural revolution (p. 1). Thus begins the introduction to a fascinating exploration of a recent chapter in the intellectual history that gave rise and prominence to ‘culture’ as a professional specialty and as a taken-for-granted concept in terms of which the citizenship at large discusses politics, economy, management, industry, media, and so on. One of the impulses from which this book has been written is the abuse of culture theory as a source of legitimization for apartheid in South Africa, where Kuper was an undergraduate in anthropology in the late 1950’s. Culture then superseded race as the objective fact on the basis of which to argue that those who shared a culture ought to live and breed together. To this day Kuper is suspicious of arguments that deny individuals the possibility to associate with whom they choose and so develop in ways that are not determined by their ethnicity and ancestry.
To expose the historical roots of cultural theory the book is divided into two parts. The first consists of two chapters. The initial chapter presents particular traditions of thinking about culture as seen in the work of Lucien Fevre (1878-1956), Norbert Elias (1897-1990) and Raymond Williams (1921-1988). Whereas German intellectuals advocated Kultur above the artificial civilization of the cosmopolitan, materialistic French, British intellectuals tied their notion of culture to the processes of industrialization and its ensuing socio-economic transformations. The second chapter focuses on the American tradition. Kroeber and Kluckhone are credited for constructing a distinctively American genealogy of the concept of culture. Parson built on this foundation to divide the intellectual labour between sociologist, psychologist and anthropologist giving to the latter, as a specialty, the concept of culture as a system of symbols.
Part II of the book focuses on the central project in postwar American cultural anthropology as developed by Geertz (chapter 3), Schneider (chapter 4), Sahlins (chapter 5), and by Sherry Ortner, Renato Rosaldo, George Marcus and James Clifford (chapter 6). These scholars who were granted tenure in the 1980’s promote a postmodernist anthropology born out of the recognition that the imperial project operated within the United States itself (p. 204). In a final chapter Kuper argues against the value of the concepts of culture and multiculturalism in discussions of identity. When difference becomes the basis for a claim to collective rights of those who share gender, race, ethnicity or disability (p. 224), Kuper sees a political agenda that constrains individuals to belong to the group to which they are assigned a priori..
In his criticism of the American project, Kuper operates from a number of vantage points. He chastises Geertz, who hails culture as the essential element in the definition of human nature and produces thick descriptions of local knowledge in Indonesia and Bali, for failing to understand local events in the light of what politicians, soldiers, and CIA operatives did when they not only shaped history but too often tortured and eliminated their enemies (p. 120). Kuper looks at Schneider through the psychoanalytical lens and identifies Schneider’s choice of kinship as a subject for deconstruction that becomes a way to perpetrate not only parricide but a wholesale slaughter of the ancestors(p. 132). Kuper presents Sahlins as Leslie White reincarnated as Lvi-Strauss (p. 198), a view that effectively captures Sahlin’s career path from Michigan to Paris and back to Chicago. In the end Kuper’s objection to the American project as a whole is a moral one, for It tends to draw attention away from what we have in common instead of encouraging us to communicate across national, ethnic, and religious boundaries, and to venture beyond them (p. 247).
First published in 1999, Kuper’s book was in its third printing in the year 2000, a clear indication of its importance. Against American anthropologists, Kuper argues that we ought to avoid the hyper-referential word culture altogether. Better, he claims, to talk more precisely of knowledge, or belief, or art, or technology, or traditions, or even of ideology (though similar problems are raised by the multivalent concept) (p. 10). This suggestion will not do. In the end, Kuper has not found a way out of the anthropological intellectual conundrum that he so elegantly explores. His book will remain, nonetheless, a masterpiece against which to measure the quality of other contributions in the enduring intellectual debate about the core business of anthropology.
Jean-Guy Goulet – Faculty of Human Sciences. Saint Paul University. Ottawa, Ontario.