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Public Culture 14.1 (2002) 191-213

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Cultures of Circulation:
The Imaginations of Modernity

Benjamin Lee and Edward LiPuma

The speed, intensity, and extent of contemporary global transformations challenge many of the assumptions that have guided the analysis of culture over the last several decades. Whereas an earlier generation of scholarship saw meaning and interpretation as the key problems for social and cultural analysis, the category of culture now seems to be playing catch-up to the economic processes that go beyond it. Economics owes its present appeal partly to the sense that it, as a discipline, has grasped that it is dynamics of circulation that are driving globalization--and thereby challenging traditional notions of language, culture, and nation.

There is a certain historical irony to the contemporary discovery of the centrality of circulation to the analysis of the globalization of capitalism. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1969) inaugurated what would later be called the "linguistic turn" by applying Prague School linguistics to the analysis of circulation and exchange in precapitalist societies; by focusing on the structural analysis of the "total social fact" of exchange, he sought to overcome the dichotomy of economy and culture that is characteristic of modern thought. In hindsight, it can be seen that his use of phonology as the model for structural analysis raised fundamental issues about structure, event, and agency that continue [End Page 191] to inform poststructuralist discussions of performative identity. One result is that performativity has been considered a quintessentially cultural phenomenon that is tied to the creation of meaning, whereas circulation and exchange have been seen as processes that transmit meanings, rather than as constitutive acts in themselves. Overcoming this bifurcation will involve rethinking circulation as a cultural phenomenon, as what we call cultures of circulation. An expanded notion of performativity would then become crucial for developing a cultural account of economic processes.

If circulation is to serve as a useful analytic construct for cultural analysis, it must be conceived as more than simply the movement of people, ideas, and commodities from one culture to another. Instead, recent work indicates that circulation is a cultural process with its own forms of abstraction, evaluation, and constraint, which are created by the interactions between specific types of circulating forms and the interpretive communities built around them. It is in these structured circulations that we identify cultures of circulation. Our idea draws from a variety of contemporary sources, including Benedict Anderson's (1991) account of nation, narration, and imagination; Jürgen Habermas's (1989) work on public opinion and the public sphere; Arjun Appadurai's (1996) conceptualizations of cultural flows and "-scapes"; and Charles Taylor's essay, in this issue, on the self-reflexive creation of modern social imaginaries. But our project also harks back to classic anthropological work on gifts and exchange such as studies by Marcel Mauss (1967) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1966), and their updatings by Pierre Bourdieu (1977), Annette Weiner (1992), and Jacques Derrida (1992), as well as Marxist analyses of money and capital (Postone 1993; Harvey 1982). The broad range of this legacy suggests that developing a critical perspective on circulation will require moving beyond disciplinary boundaries and placing it in a conceptual space that encompasses some of the most difficult and troubling issues in contemporary cultural and philosophical analysis: self-reflexivity, performativity, indexicality, metalanguage, objectification, and foundationalism, to name just a few.

Cultures of circulation are created and animated by the cultural forms that circulate through them, including--critically--the abstract nature of the forms that underwrite and propel the process of circulation itself. The circulation of such forms--whether the novels and newspapers of the imagined community or the equity-based derivatives and currency swaps of the modern market--always presupposes the existence of their respective interpretive communities, with their own forms of interpretation and evaluation. These interpretive communities determine lines of interpretation, found institutions, and set boundaries based principally on their own internal dynamics. [End Page 192]

The three social imaginaries that Taylor (in this issue) suggests are crucial to Western modernity--the public sphere, the...


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pp. 191-213
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Archived 2004
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