- By Any Other Name: Response to Vincent Pecora
“Once upon a time,” writes Vincent Pecora, “some of us in the business of literary and cultural criticism found an extraordinary kinship with some folks in the business of cultural anthropology.” As Pecora’s elegiac tone and Brad Evans’s data on the rhetorical status of the culture concept both suggest, this particular moment of interdisciplinarity may well be a thing of the past. Or rather, what we seem to be bearing witness to is the end of a trend in academic work across the humanities and interpretive social sciences in the 1980s and 1990s that has been denominated the “cultural turn.”
Characterized by the emergence of cultural studies, the new cultural history, new historicism, multicultural and ethnic studies, and so forth, the cultural turn was united by an openness to both poststructuralist “theory” and historicism, a general habitus of solidarity with subaltern people, and the establishment of “culture” as a central object and area of study. This, of course, is where it is usually understood that anthropology came in. Both Pecora and Richard van Oort emphasize the central role of Clifford Geertz, who inspired both literary new historicism and the new cultural history, thus famously (and for many anthropologists, frustratingly) becoming the anthropologist whom all the historians and literary scholars read. But it is also the case that the new ethnic studies programs of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were largely the products, in both organization and personnel, of area studies, which was in turn strongly tied to anthropology. Meanwhile, through its emphasis on fieldwork, cultural studies turned to anthropology as a kindred discipline. In this period as well, anthropology came up and met the humanities with its own culturalist turn, represented by the controversial “reflexive” anthropology, which, to the consternation of anthropologists who were more comfortable with “harder” social scientific approaches, incorporated the poststructuralist theory that was then central to cutting-edge work in the humanities. Anthropology, in this moment, became significantly textual, while many scholars in the humanities were enticed by ethnography.1 The [End Page 535] end of the cultural turn, then, seems to mark a shift in the interdisciplinary interlocutor of the humanities from anthropology to other social science fields. In the introduction, Evans offers political science and philosophy as the privileged new disciplinary others, but one could also add geography and the interdisciplinary field of world systems analysis—all of which seem better able to help us understand the current political contexts of globalization.
And yet in some ways, all the essays in this volume give a lie to this quick history of disciplinary convergence and separation. Both Michael A. Elliott’s continued engagement with the reciprocal textuality of ethnography and the ethnographic elements of the novel and Eleanor Kaufman’s inquiry into the important intersections of structural anthropology and poststructuralist theory can be seen as continuing some of the central projects of the cultural turn, while van Oort’s essay represents an attempt to rescue the institutional prestige of the humanities via an enlarged, “anthropological” conception of its object of study.
Pecora’s essay, impressive in its breadth and range of reference, also revises my quick history in a number of important ways. Indeed, despite his opening sentence about the end of the interdiscipline of anthropology and literature, we might see the overall arc of his two-part essay as suggesting that what has really happened now is the displacement of one older conception of culture in favor of another; less an abandonment of culture (or, implicitly, of anthropology as an interdisciplinary interlocutor) than a new conceptualization. Nevertheless, he also sees a break in our usages of culture, happening sometime in the 1990s. For Pecora, the significant historical event marking the crucial disruption of the older conception of “culture as theater” and its replacement by a new conceptualization of “culture as belief” is the end of the cold war.
Pecora’s analysis of the different moments of cultural theory and their transition is illuminating and explanatory in many respects. Most compelling in his description of the moment of “culture as theater” is his account of how this conceptualization served in effect to join...