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  • Introduction: Rethinking the Disciplinary Confluence of Anthropology and Literary Studies
  • Brad Evans

It may well be that the disciplinary confluence of literary studies and anthropology is over—over, at least, in the way it has been understood since, as the story goes, Stephen Greenblatt came to the realization that when Clifford Geertz argued for interpreting culture as if it were a text, he opened the door to interpreting literature as if it were culture in the anthropological sense. For at the center of that confluence was a shared emphasis on and critique of the concept of culture—an emphasis shared not just between these two fields but also across the academy, as witnessed by what has come to be called “the cultural turn.” That emphasis has given way to new circumstances grouped under the agenda-setting rubric of the global and involving a process that culture often feels inadequate to describe—namely, that of circulation.1

Though it is not often remembered, circulation had been central to the emergence of culture in the early twentieth century as the de facto conceptual apparatus with which to think through both academic and political radicalism. When the anthropologist Franz Boas and populist cultural critics like Horace Kallen and Randolph Bourne began using culture to describe a relativist, pluralist position in the 1910s, circulation was clearly on their minds. For Boas, it was known as the problem of “dissemination,” a process with strong antievolutionary implications involved in tracking the movement of cultural elements across social and racial boundaries; and, for the early cultural pluralists, it involved imagining a more capacious understanding of national citizenship with which to oppose anti-immigration rhetoric that had coalesced around the notion of the “melting pot.”2 However, in the classical, modernist sense in which it rose to prominence, culture was conceptualized not as a process but as a thing—complex and whole. And it was just the thing that was missing from both modern society and leftist political [End Page 429] critique. It was the thing that might have kept Elsie’s “pure products” from going crazy, as suggested in a roundabout way in William Carlos Williams’s period-defining poem; the thing that made coming of age in Samoa so much more sensible than doing the same in the West, according to the analysis of Margaret Mead; and the thing that could make Marxism speak to both consumption and aesthetic theory in the work of Walter Benjamin.3 But after the postmodernist critique of culture for being precisely that, a complex whole thing, artificially bounded in space and irrevocably tied up with essentializing ideologies of race and nationalism— and especially as a result of the elevated significance since the end of the cold war of extra-national networks that have enabled the global diffusion of trade and terrorism, both of which have challenged such principles held to be central to pluralism as cultural diversity and liberal tolerance—culture may no longer feel conceptually adequate for the task at hand.4 The version of cultural pluralism that had propelled the cultural turn during much of the twentieth century is hard put to encompass or make sense of the penetrating, worldwide circulation we see today—the vast and fragmenting circulation of commodities, incommensurable religious beliefs, people of vastly different economic resources, options on corporate risk and national debts, illicit weapons and occupying armies, Web content and computer codes, and infectious diseases.

And so we find ourselves in a new and undocumented place, where we might be led to wonder if the particular manifestation of inquiry marked by the disciplinary confluence of anthropology and literary studies has a future. In the recent past that confluence was itself motivated by a significant turn in the political landscape of the academy corresponding to the cultural movements of 1960s, and it had at its core the conceptual refiguration of each field’s disciplinary object in the other’s image. Literary studies reconnected with a more populist and racially inclusive social history by revitalizing the cultural contexts and constructedness of its canon; but more than that, it refigured the very idea of what literature was, such that literature was able not merely to represent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 429-445
Launched on MUSE
2008-08-22
Open Access
No
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