What is a culture if it is not a consensus?

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 10, No 2 (Fall 1999)

Clifford Geertz

The following article is adapted from "The World in Pieces: culture and politics at the end of the century," from Focaal no. 32, 1998, pp. 91-117. It is published here with permission from the author.

A paradox, occasionally noted but not very deeply reflected upon, lies in the present state of what we so casually refer to as "the world scene:" this world is growing both more global and more divided, more thoroughly interconnected and more intricately partitioned, at the same time. Cosmopolitanism and parochialism are no longer opposed. They are linked and reinforcing. As the one increases, so does the other.

The growth of technology, most particularly of communications technology, has knit the world into a single web of information and causality, such that, like the famous butterfly beating its wings in the Pacific and bringing on a storm in the Iberian Peninsula, a change of conditions anyplace can induce disturbances anyplace else. We are all at the mercy of U.S. money managers speculating in Mexican equities or British bankers in Singapore gambling on Tokyo derivatives. Kobe earthquakes or Dutch floods, Italian scandals or Saudi production targets, Chinese arms sales or Colombian drug smugglings, have near instant impacts, diffuse and magnified, far from their sources. CNN brings Bosnian slaughter, Somali starvation, or Rwandan refugee camps into the world's living rooms. Places normally quite obscure, provincial, and self-absorbed — Grozny, Dili, Ayodhya, or Cristobal de Las Casas; Kigali, Belfast, Monrovia, Tbilisi, Phnom Penh, or Port-au-Prince — momentarily challenge the great metropolises of the world for the world's attention. Capital is mobile and, as there is hardly a people, not even the Samoans, without a diaspora, so is labor. There are Japanese companies in the United States, German ones in Indonesia, U.S. ones in Russia, Pakistani ones in Britain, Taiwanese ones in the Philippines. Turks and Kurds send money home from Berlin, Maghrebians and Vietnamese from Paris, Zairis and Tamils from Brussels, Palestinians and Filipinos from Kuwait City, Somalis from Rome, Moroccans from Spain, Japanese from Brazil, Mexicans from Los Angeles, a few Croats from Sweden, and just about everyone from New York.

All this vast connection and intricate interdependence is sometimes referred to, after cultural studies sloganeers, as “the global village,” or, after World Bank ones, as “borderless capitalism.” But as it has neither solidarity nor tradition, and lacks all wholeness, it is a poor sort of village. And as it is accompanied less by the loosening and reduction of cultural demarcations than by their reworking and multiplication, and often enough their intensification, it is hardly borderless.

Charting such demarcations, locating them, and characterizing the populations they isolate is at best an arbitrary business, inexactly accomplished. The discrimination of cultural breaks and cultural continuities, the drawing of lines around certain sets of individuals as following a more or less identifiable form of life as against different sets of individuals following more or less different forms of life — other voices in other rooms — is a good deal easier in theory than it is in practice.

Anthropology, one of whose vocations is to locate such demarcations, to discriminate such breaks and describe such continuities, has fumbled with the job from the beginning and fumbles with it still. The task is, nonetheless, not to be evaded with dim banalities about the humanness of humankind or about underlying factors of likeness and commonality, if only because “in nature,” as the positivists used to like to say, people themselves make such contrasts and draw such lines. They regard themselves, at some times, for some purposes, as French not English, Hindu not Buddhist, Hutu not Tutsi, Latino not Indio, Shi'i not Sunni, Hopi not Navajo, Black not White, Orange not Green. Whatever we might wish, or regard as enlightenment, the severalty of culture abides and proliferates, even amidst, indeed in response to, the powerfully connecting forces of modern manufacture, finance, travel, and trade. The more things come together, the more they remain apart. The uniform world is not much closer than the classless society.

Anthropology's awkwardness in dealing with the cultural organization of the modern world that ought, by rights, to be its proper subject is in great part the result of the difficulties the field has had in discovering for itself how best to think about culture in the first place. In the nineteenth century and well into this one, culture, before all else, was taken to be a universal or generic property of human social life — the techniques, customs, traditions, and technologies (religion and kinship, fire and language) that set it off from animal existence. Its opponent term was nature. If culture was to be divided into sorts and kinds, the distinctions were based on the distance one or another piece of it (monotheism or individualism, monogamy or the protection of private property) had, supposedly, moved away from nature — toward the light. With the growth, after the First World War, of longterm, participatory fieldwork with particular groups — a lot of it on islands and Indian reservations where breaks and edges were easier to discern and the notion that everything fit together easier to entertain — the generic conception of culture began to be set aside as diffuse and unwieldy, as well as self-serving, in favor of a configurational one. Instead of just culture as such one had cultures — bounded, coherent, cohesive, and self-standing: social organisms, semiotical crystals, microworlds. Culture was what people had and held in common, Greeks or Navajos, Maoris or Puerto Ricans, each its own. (1)

After the Second World War, however, even putative social isolates — jungle people, desert people, island people, arctic people, encapsulated people — grew fewer in number and anthropologists turned their attention toward vaster, more mixed-up iridescent objects — India, Japan, France, Brazil, Nigeria, the Soviet Union, the United States. In turn, the configurational view became strained, imprecise, unwieldy, and hard to credit. One might plausibly regard the Nuer or the Amhara as an integral unit, at least if one blocked off internal variabilities and external involvements, as well as anything very much in the way of larger history, but that was difficult to do for Sudan or Ethiopia. For Africa, it was impossible, though a few have tried it. An Indonesian minority such as Chinese, a Moroccan one such as the Jews, a Ugandan one such as the Indians, or an American one such as the Blacks, might show a certain character special to themselves, but they were hardly to be understood apart from the states and societies in which they were enclosed. Everything was motley, porous, interdigitated, dispersed. The search for totality was an uncertain guide; a sense of closure, unattainable.

A picture of the world as dotted by discriminate cultures, discontinuous blocks of thought and emotion — a sort of pointillist view of its spiritual composition — is no less misleading than the picture of it as tiled by repeating, reiterative nation-states, and for the same reason. The elements in question, the dots and the tiles, are neither compact nor homogenous, simple nor uniform. When you look into them, their solidity dissolves, and you are left not with a catalogue of well-defined entities to be arranged and classified, but with a tangle of differences and similarities only half sorted out. What makes Serbs Serbs, Sinhalese Sinhalese, French Canadians French Canadians, or anybody anybody, is that they and the rest of the world have come, for the moment and to a degree, for certain purposes and in certain contexts, to view them as a contrast to what is around them.

Both the territorial compactness and the localized traditionalism that islands, Indian reservations, jungles, highland valleys, oases, and the like provided (or supposedly provided, for even this was a bit of a myth) and the integral, configurational, it-all-goes-together, notion of cultural identity — the Cheyenne Way, the Forest People, the Mountain People, the Desert People — that such compactness and localization stimulated seem more and more beside the point as we turn toward the fragments and fragmentations of the contemporary world. The view of culture, a culture, this culture, as a consensus on fundamentals — shared conceptions, shared feelings, shared values — seems hardly viable in the face of so much dispersion and disassembly. Instead, faults and fissures seem to mark the landscape of collective selfhood. Whatever it is that defines identity in borderless capitalism and the global village it is not deep going agreements on deep going matters, but something more like the recurrence of familiar divisions, persisting arguments, standing threats, the notion that whatever else may happen, the order of difference must be somehow maintained.

We do not know, really, how to deal with a world that is neither divided at the joints into ingredient sections nor a transcendent unity obscured by surface contrasts best set aside as inessential distractions. A scramble of differences in a field of connections presents us with a situation in which pride and hatred, culture fairs and ethnic cleansing, survivance and killing fields, sit side by side and pass with frightening ease from the one to the other. Political theories that both admit to this condition and have the will to confront it, to expose and interrogate the order of difference, only barely exist. Much depends upon their growth and development. You can't guide what you can't understand.

By rights, political theory should be what I take it Aristotle wanted it to be, a school for judgment, not a replacement for it — not a matter of laying down the law for the less reflective to follow, but a way of looking at the horrors and confusions surrounding us that may be of some help to us in surviving and quieting them, perhaps even occasionally heading them off. If so, if that is in fact the vocation of political theory, it needs to devote a good deal more of its attention to the particularities of things, to what's happening, to how matters go. If guidelines for navigating in a splintered, disassembled world are to be found, they will have to come from...patient, modest, close-in work....We will need to find out how, rather precisely, the land lies. We need to do this, not to give a running commentary on how awfully complicated everything is and how intractable to logical ordering. That can be left to history and anthropology, the complexicateurs terribles of the human sciences. We need to do this in order to participate in the construction of what is most needed — a practical politics of cultural conciliation.

Like any other politics, such politics will have to be targeted, tailored to circumstances, to times and places and personalities. But, like any other politics, it must develop certain commonalities of diagnosis, of strategy and direction, a certain unity of intent. What it seeks in Diyabakar or Srinegar, it must seek as well in Trois Rivieres or South Los Angeles. Algerian kulturkampf must be juxtaposed to Irish; the velvet divorce of the Czechs and the Slovaks to that, some years earlier, but oddly reminiscent, of Malaya and Singapore. The marginalization of America's Indians must be considered next to that of Australia's Aborigines, the disassimilationism of Brazil to that of the United States. There is indeed a definable subject here. The trick is to define it, and having defined it, put it into some sort of order.

The central dynamic of this politics seems to consist in two continuously opposing tendencies. On the one hand is the drive toward creating, or trying to create, pur sang droplets of culture and politics, the pointillist picture that both ethnic cleansing and the convergent conception of collective agency — ‘nation-ism’ — aim to produce. On the other is the drive toward creating, or trying to create, an intricate, multiply ordered structure of difference within which cultural tensions that are not about to go away, or even to moderate, can be placed and negotiated . Such structures are, themselves, going to be different from one such country to another, the possibility of constructing them variously real. Positioning Muslims in France, Whites in South Africa, Arabs in Israel, or Koreans in Japan are not altogether the same sort of thing. But if political theory is going to be of any relevance at all in the splintered world, it will have to have something cogent to say about how, in the face of the drive toward a destructive integrity such structures can be brought into being, how they can be sustained, and how they can be made to work.

Clifford Geertz is a cultural anthropologist and Fellow at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study. His publications include The Religion of Java (1960), Islam Observed (1968), The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Local Knowledge (1983), and Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Authoer (1988).

1. There is, of course, a history of cultural configurationalism aside from and prior to ethnographical practice since Malinowksi or whomever, most especially that connected with Herder, the Humboldts, and the neo-Kantians, which had in fact a shaping impact on anthropology. For a good recent review, see S. Fleischacker, The ethics of culture, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1994, esp. chapter 5.