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

Jamie Dow jamie.dow at pobox.com
Thu Dec 22 19:11:23 IST 2005

Many thanks for this. Great stuff.
All of this seems sound methodology - in pursuing any enquiry or practical
project, one should keep open a sensitivity to the contributions made by
theoretical considerations AND detailed actual phenomena 'on the ground' as
we say.

But - despite agreeing with everything you say - I don't see how that helps
clarify things here.
The project is clearly one of inquiry (the immediate aim is understanding,
not *doing* anything, though that might follow later).

But what is it an enquiry *about*? Is it

(1) What concepts of culture do various people have, and have various people
had, and how have these concepts been deployed?
(2) What is culture, and how does it work?
(3) How has the word "culture" been used / how is it typically used?

And I can't see how what you have said helps here.
Despite the fact that I agree with you pretty much all the way through.
(Although I don't quite understand your first paragraph - which may be a
crucial step that I'm missing. If your first para contains the key, perhaps
you or someone else can explain.)

Cheers, J
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: Prem Chandavarkar [mailto:prem at cnt-semac.com]
Sent: 22 December 2005 13:18
To: Jamie Dow
Cc: reader-list at sarai.net
Subject: Re: [Reader-list] Re: [Urbanstudy] Re: Problematizing

To me, how we categorise these questions boils down to how we view the
relationship between theory and practice.  Even the post by V NR points
out that we have plenty of definitions and too little theory.

If we view theory as foundational to practice then we can be concerned
about definitions and sort our questions into categories such as
concepts, words, etc.  But is this the way it works - for more on this
see Donald Schon: "The Reflective Practitioner" - particularly his
analysis of what he calls the "The Model of Technical Rationality".

To me the relationship between theory and practice is more to do with
critique rather than logical foundations.  Practice moves from the
general to the specific - one starts with a general proposition and
resolves/applies it in further and further detail.  If I do nothing but
practice, my centre of gravity shifts towards the level of the specific
(the stereotype of the 'nuts&bolts' technician).  Theory on the other
hand moves from the specific to the general - one starts with a specific
observation and pushes it towards the wider question of 'what does it
mean?'.  If I do nothing but theory, my centre of gravity shifts towards
the level of the general (the stereotype of the 'ivory tower academic').

Therefore the two work best when they are antagonistic to each other,
rather than consistent to a common logical framework.  Practice becomes
a way of critiquing theory and theory becomes a way of critiquing
practice.  It is the movement back and forth that is of greater value
than any settling down into stable definition.

So rather than be overly concerned about definitions, I find it more
useful to examine conversations/intersections and the institutional and
spatial frameworks within which they operate.


Jamie Dow wrote:
> Hi. Both of the last two posts seem to me to be victims of a confusion
> 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
> 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
> 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,
> are clearly not (!!), and "cockroach" is a linguistic item, so is
> again.
> 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
> 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
> 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
> (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!
> J
> ____________________________________________
> Jamie Dow Tel: +44 131 467 2115 Mob: +44 7801 033499 Email:
> jamie.dow at pobox.com <mailto:jamie.dow at pobox.com>  Web:
> www.jamiedow.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk
> <http://www.jamiedow.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/>
> -----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?
> Prem
> 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
>>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.
>>--- 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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