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  • Culture as Theater / Culture as Belief
  • Vincent P. Pecora

Once upon a time—and a very good time it was—some of us in the business of literary and cultural criticism found an extraordinary kinship with some folks in the business of cultural anthropology. And the result was nothing less than paradigm making, at least for those on the literary side of the conversation. Somewhere between the publication of Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures in 1973 and Stephen Greenblatt’s “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion” in 1981 arose the idea that “culture”—or, more precisely and carefully now, a culture, as the plural in Geertz’s title famously signaled— could be seen as a (more or less) organically knit structure of symbols (Geertz) or representations (Greenblatt) that a given, more or less geographically circumscribed group of people produced for the purpose of understanding but also reinforcing its collective existence.1

None of this came out of the blue. Baron de Montesquieu, James Macpherson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, J. H. von Herder, Edmund Burke, and G.W. F. Hegel had all, in their individual ways, contributed to the idea that a culture (or a civilization) possesses some degree of organic unity, out of which emerge its laws, civil institutions, folklore, customs, literature, language, myths, traditions, statecraft, political order, and sense of belonging, even its divinely ordained and essential Geist. Hegel went perhaps further than anyone, describing a “Spirit of a People” that thus constitutes “One Individuality which, presented in its essence as God, is honored and enjoyed in Religion; which is exhibited as an object of sensuous contemplation in Art; and is apprehended as an intellectual conception, in Philosophy.2 Early eighteenth-century figures like Jean-François Lafitau had already begun to catalog the customs of “savage Americans” in a more dispassionate and accepting way, implying (albeit hesitantly) that they too possessed a civilization.3 But the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the rise of a more deliberate and systematic attempt to circumscribe specifically “primitive,” and supposedly simpler, culture (rather than that of modern peoples or nations) along such lines, especially following the evolutionary theories of Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin. E. B. Tylor elaborated primitive culture as modern [End Page 505] civilization’s evolutionary source, vestiges of which could still be found in the myths, philosophy, religions, languages, arts, and customs of modern nations; Bronislaw Malinowski demonstrated how in the course of systematic fieldwork an outsider could apparently learn how to participate subjectively in a foreign culture even as he or she objectively observed it, could acquire “the feeling” for native manners, and could begin to feel “in touch with the natives” even as he or she scientifically described them; and a large number of later ethnographers, from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict to Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, had given the idea of culture a sort of hands-on palpability—a physically detailed and differentiated yet still conceptually unified presence—that increasingly allowed readers to distinguish the Nuer, say, from the Samoans, and each in turn from the French or Americans, while gradually coming to see all such groupings as belonging to some idealized, and finally United-Nations-authorized, “family of man.”4

Drawing on the work of Evans-Pritchard and others on questions of kinship, Claude Lévi-Strauss provided a notoriously unanchored mathematical/linguistic groundwork that defined the rules of marriage between different subgroups within a larger collective: “Kinship phenomena are of the same type as linguistic phenomena,” he declared.5 This analogy allowed both the social and cultural to derive from structures of mind and language (not so unlike those posited by the philosophicallinguistic nativism developed only a few years later by Noam Chomsky), and produced a method that Lévi-Strauss, endorsing Paul Ricoeur’s criticism of his work, acknowledged as “Kantism without a transcendental subject.”6 The lines of thought developed by such figures, and by so many others, are nevertheless quite diverse and produce a range of important debates depending on the degree of one’s functionalism, one’s commitment to “evolutionism” or “diffusionism,” one’s acceptance of the notion of a “primitive mentality” or of Lévi-Strauss’s...


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