[Reader-list] Re: [Urbanstudy] Re: Problematizing Definitions

Jamie Dow jamie.dow at pobox.com
Thu Dec 22 18:21:00 IST 2005

Hi. Both of the last two posts seem to me to be victims of a confusion about
what the object of this enquiry is. The confusion is between
(1) the concept of culture
and (2) culture
and possibly also (3) the word "culture".

Consider the parallel case of cockroaches as an object of enquiry.
(1) experts in politics, psychology, history, sociology and the like will be
the ones to turn to in order to find out about how people have *thought
about* cockroaches, how the *concept* of cockroach has been used and
manipulated for political ends, how our hidden assumptions about cockroaches
affect our behaviour, etc. etc..
(2) but it is to the biologist that we need to turn to find out about
cockroaches themselves.
(3) and if we want to find out about the English word "cockroach", we need
to turn to the linguist or literary expert / cultural historian / etc..

It seems clear that these are very distinct objects of enquiry.
Concepts like the concept of cockroach are psychological items, cockroaches
are clearly not (!!), and "cockroach" is a linguistic item, so is different

So, both Anant and Prem seem to show an interest in (1) and (3) but not in
(2), although some of the people they refer to seem to have an interest in
(2). I had taken the question to be about culture, not about various
people's concepts, nor about linguistic items. I fear I am probably missing
the point here, but if I am not, then Anant and Prem both are.

But perhaps it's a little unclear what Zee originally wanted - there is some
ambiguity in the original quesions:
>"What is the general meaning of the word 'culture'?" - seems to be about
the linguistic item "culture" (3), but might be a way of expressing a
question about the concept of culture (1).
>"What constitutes culture?" - seems to be a question directly about culture
(2) - which I assume is a question about the forces that operate in groups
of people (or other creatures) to influence those people's (or creatures')
behaviour, how those forces come to operate, and so on.
>"What constitutes acts of culturality?" - I have really no idea what this
question means, nor even quite how to parse it.

Interestingly, the post that's just appeared from V NR appears to be about
(2), i.e. culture !!!! So, perhaps there's all the more need for clarity
about what the question is that we need to address.

Yours, in the dark!
Jamie Dow Tel: +44 131 467 2115 Mob: +44 7801 033499 Email:
jamie.dow at pobox.com <mailto:jamie.dow at pobox.com>  Web:

-----Original Message-----
From: reader-list-bounces at sarai.net
[mailto:reader-list-bounces at sarai.net]On Behalf Of Prem Chandavarkar
Sent: 22 December 2005 05:17
To: anant m
Cc: reader-list at sarai.net; urbanstudygroup at sarai.net
Subject: [Reader-list] Re: [Urbanstudy] Re: Problematizing Definitions

Let me - like Anant - stick my neck out in "the presence of a whole
bunch of cultural studies folks".

Was just reading Gayathri Spivak's essay "Can The Subaltern Speak".
Spivak examines philosophical production, such as Foucault, Deleuze and
the Subaltern Studies Group, who seek to unmask the workings of power in
order to reveal voices that are typically not heard.  While such
analyses often start from a critique of essentialism, they tend to posit
other essences through the construction of monolithic and anonymous
presences such as "the workers' struggle" or "the history of the
subaltern".  And because these essences are monolithic and anonymous,
they involve the erasure of individual identity.  Therefore any attempts
to speak for the subaltern eventually construct representations that
erase their identity.  It does not matter whether this comes from the
activist philosopher or from the organic intellectual who has risen from
the subaltern ranks.  The organic intellectual destroys his/her status
as a subaltern by attempting to represent the subaltern.

Spivak draws a distinction between two forms of representation.
1. Proxy - the attempt to speak for, as in politics
2. Portrait - the attempt to speak of, as in philosophy
It is important to distinguish between these two forms.  While proxy may
appear to be more genuine since it demands engagement (speaking 'to' the
subaltern, and not just speaking 'of'), it should be realised that the
myths and beliefs constructed through portraiture affect the basis on
which choices of proxy are made.

All this ties back to the point Anant made - when Zainab interacts with
the woman and child some meaning is produced, but when she reports it to
this discussion group the woman and child are excluded and we now are
aware of two different languages operating, and immediately wonder which
one is more authentic.

So returning to the question "what constitutes culture?" - we must first
ask if the question is worthwhile.  To ask the question at all implies a
belief that it is answerable, which in turn involves an assumption that
culture has already occurred in an observable fashion.  This assumption
immediately pushes culture into the past (it does not matter whether
this is the immediate past of yesterday, or the remote past of history).
   And culture is most alive when it is in the present, when it is
actually experienced.

So rather than asking 'what is culture' it is more worthwhile to ask:
1. What is the basis on which claims to define culture operate,
intersect and compete?
2. What are the politics, myths, beliefs, genealogies and spatial
practices that underpin the construction of such claims?
3. What are the traces we leave in space that eventually accrue into
memories and symbols?
4. What are the conversations and intersections that take place between
tacit experiences and explicit definitions of culture?
5. (Most important to us) What is the complicity of the intellectual in
all of these processes?
6. How can we individually use such critique to construct our own
ideology and ethics?


anant m wrote:
> hm. i hope i am not making an ass of myself in the
> presence of a whole bunch of cultural studies folks.
> i think it is better to think of a geneology of
> culture rather than define it. to my reckoning, the
> first loaded use of the word culture was made by
> mathew arnold.
> some time in the second half of the 19th century. this
> was just before the time colonial anthropologists were
> seriously beginning to wonder if they had it all
> worked out. for arnold, culture was high culture all
> that is 'beautiful and intelligent' and he was
> strongly opposed to the plebian and the ordinary. and
> you must read his dismissive references to the irish!
> education therefore had to be in the hands of the
> cultured and not democratized.
> later on a whole range of marxist critics led by
> raymond williams turned it on its head and argued that
> culture is really the ordinary. this was a way of
> challenging the ways in which high culture reproduces
> power relations.
> raymond williams and his work notwithstanding, culture
> remained largely the domain of anthropologists first
> the structuralists strauss and then bodley and geertz
> types whose primary means of getting at culture was
> via ethnography where one places oneself firmly in the
> lifeworlds of those whose culture is being studied and
> then withdraws to the library to reflect on the
> ensembles of meanings and practices that are not one's
> own. hence ideas like primitives, savages and noble
> savages and then the ultimate 'thick descriptionists
> and so on.
> Here is the cross that the scholar bears: she/he at
> the moment of the ethnographic encounter and actually
> coproduces meaning with an interlocutor but when she
> or he withdraws to write about it for a diffferent
> audience, she or he produces the culture of the
> 'other' for the consumption of scholarly kin.
> thus in your interaction with the woman whose child
> you thought was being treated cruelly (at least at
> firsy anyway) she and you together coproduced
> meaning.but when you report it to us, the woman
> remains outside of this conversation and it is her
> culture versus our culture that we end up talking
> about.
> well, that was an attempt at a rough and ready
> geneology of culture. i have no idea what culturality
> means. others please add or delete.
> anant
> --- zainab at xtdnet.nl wrote:
>>I am still interested in understanding the 'general
>>meaning' of the term
>>culture? What constitutes culture? And what
>>constitutes acts of
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