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  • Interpreting Culture: Rethinking Method and Truth in Social Theory
  • Samuel A. Chambers (bio)
Interpreting Culture: Rethinking Method and Truth in Social Theory by Joseph D. LewandowskiUniversity of Nebraska Press, 2001

Contemporary debates in social and political theory frequently evoke the specter of relativism. Hardly ever in this context does one see the concept of relativism defined or its specific problems detailed. Yet the performative use of the term makes its dangers clear: to run ashore of relativism is to run the risk of incoherence and irrelevance. In teaching these debates, I am struck by how quickly students learn to throw the relativism hand grenade: by the third meeting of any seminar in contemporary social or political thought, the charge of relativism has been raised (but again, never clarified) at least half a dozen times. In this context, I often like to invoke Richard Rorty's precise-yet-humorous explanation of relativism: "'relativism' is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view."1

As the subtitle might suggest, Interpreting Culture offers a rearticulation of method in social theory through a meditation on the problem of truth in contemporary analysis. Lewandowski bypasses the work of Marx, Manheim, and Weber, implicitly admitting that there can be no one, defining tradition of social theory. Instead, this book tries to cut through the tangled mess of the contemporary social theory landscape by providing a new typology. Lewandowski argues that contemporary social theories and theorists, despite their various inflections and allegiances, can be grouped into three categories.

  1. 1. The logic of textuality and deconstruction. Rests on the model of society-as-text to be read: (a) through the deep interpretation [End Page 193] of Ricoeur (as used by Geertz) or (b) with the thin deconstruction of Derrida (as used by Clifford).

  2. 2. The logic of rationality and reconstruction. Captures Habermas's theory of communicative action, both in its effort to reconstruct rationality from the implicit telos of dialogue (that is, orientation toward understanding and consensus) and in its attempt to build a normative critique of distorted communication on that basis.

  3. 3. The logic of constructing constellations. Presumes neither textuality nor rationality, but focuses instead on the relationality of all social logics—therefore calls for a materialist interpretation of context-sensitive social truths.

Interpreting Culture builds its argument from the basis of a critique of Logic1 by arguing that the reduction of society to text always leads to relativism. Lewandowski summarizes Ricoeur's model of the text as action-analogue (6-9), and then shows how Geertz's prolific work in anthropology realizes this model (9-13). Lewandowski offers no direct critique of Ricoeur, but asserts that Geertz's work falls short for two reasons: one, it is monological and, two, "it has no viable or workable or even desirable truth orientation" (13)—both problems Habermas can fix. But before Lewandowski turns to Habermas, he first makes clear that the alternative model of text, the Derridean one, only exacerbates the Ricoeurian weaknesses (exemplified by Geertz). Lewandowski provides a cursory reading of "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," which leads to the standard critical conclusion: Derrida is a relativist who ontologizes language by saying that "there is nothing outside of the text" and that "there has never been anything but writing" (17, 18; emphasis Lewandowski's, not Derrida's). Logic1must be abandoned.

Doing so sets the stage for a discussion of the relative strengths of Habermas's work: Logic2. The theory of communicative action proves clearly superior to the model of text, given its preservation of a space for truth, through the transcendent structure of language in its orientation toward consensus. Lewandowski provides no damning critique of Logic2; instead, he argues that it must be supplemented so as to overcome its narrow focus on communicative rationality (i.e., [End Page 194] it draws the line between strategic and communicative action too starkly) and to counter its "context-desensitizing tendencies" (34).

All of this leads us to Logic3, which Lewandowski derives from a reading of Benjamin and Adorno, supplements...


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