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  • Reflections on Culture and Cultural Rights
  • Bruce Robbins (bio) and Elsa Stamatopoulou (bio)

Intriguingly," the editors of Culture and Rights observe, "in the 1980s, at the very moment in which anthropologists were engaged in an intense and wide-ranging critique especially of the more essentialist interpretations of the [culture] concept, to the point of querying its usefulness at all, they found themselves witnessing, often during fieldwork, the increasing prevalence of 'culture' as a rhetorical object—often in a highly essentialized form—in contemporary political talk."1 Just as "we" discover that culture is constructed, fluid, and ever inventive, "they" begin to articulate demands for rights in terms of a cultural identity asserted to be primordial and fixed.

This historical noncoincidence has been noticed by various parties and has been interpreted in various ways. According to David Scott, the so-called natives have every reason to suspect these newfangled antiessentialist ideas, indispensable though such ideas may seem to Western academic theorists, himself included: "For whom is culture partial, unbounded, heterogeneous, hybrid, and so on, the anthropologist or the native?"2 The new concept of culture as hybrid, heterogeneous, and processual is [End Page 419] "merely the most recent way of conceiving and explaining otherness, of putting otherness in its place." It suits "post–cold war North Atlantic liberalism," for it offers a way of playing down "ideological conflicts."3 As the voice of this "North Atlantic liberalism," Scott quotes James Tully, who argues (in Scott's paraphrase) that demands for "cultural survival and recognition" by groups like indigenous peoples make "a cultural claim on the domain of the political." They are aspirations to "appropriate forms of self-government, . . . to govern themselves in ways they deem consonant with their traditions. From the point of view of these struggles, therefore, culture is not separable from politics but is, on the contrary, an 'irreducible' aspect of it . . . so far as these struggles are concerned, the institutions of modern constitutional society are unjust precisely to the extent that they do not enable the political embodiment of cultural traditions."4 In pursuit of justice, then, Tully urges constitutional thinkers to give up on "the billiard-ball conception of cultures, nations, and societies" that makes any political embodiment of culture seem impossible. In response, Scott argues that the new hegemony of culture produced by the cultural turn, a hegemony he himself "can hardly not-inhabit," has left in place "the moral and epistemological privilege of the West." The West's liberal political theory now demands a non-billiard-ball version of culture, Scott suggests, because non-Western peoples have recently been coming to the West in large numbers and "making material claims on its institutions and resources." The new version of culture is a way of evading these demands.5

Anthropologists Rachel Sieder and Jessica Witchell offer a somewhat different reading. For them, hegemonic North Atlantic liberalism is again getting what it wants, but what it wants out of non-Western peoples—in this case, the indigenous of Guatemala—is, on the contrary, a billiard-ball essentialism. "Indigenous identities in Guatemala are effectively being narrated or codified through dominant legal discourses, specifically those of international human rights law and multiculturalism. This has resulted in the projection of an essentialized, idealized, and atemporal indigenous identity, the movement's leaders often perceiving such essentializing as tactically necessary in order to secure collective rights for indigenous people."6 Essentialism reflects the worldview not of the indigenous themselves but of the reductive, reifying tendencies of the law. "As indigenous struggles interact with dominant discourses, they appear to become more essentialist in response to the reductionist orientation of law. However, while the outcome of these interactions may be to present a seemingly atemporal, [End Page 420] fixed notion of collective identity in order to claim rights, this is precisely because of the strategic invocation of rights language rather than any pre-existing ontological 'culture'" (206). Embracing a "fixed notion of collective identity" may or may not serve the genuine interests of indigenous peoples or minorities, they argue, but such a notion does serve the interests of human rights discourse and its representatives: "The increased participation of indigenous peoples also acts to legitimize...


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pp. 419-434
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2004
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