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Punt To Culture

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 77, Number 3, Summer 2004
pp. 547-558 | 10.1353/anq.2004.0043

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Anthropological Quarterly 77.3 (2004) 547-558

Christopher M. Kelty

Rice University

Creative Commons, MedCommons, the Connexions Educational Content Commons, and the Biodiversity Information Commons are efforts to create collectively managed systems of electronically available and legally re-usable content (music, texts, video, sound, educational materials, scientific data, medical data, etc.). All of them share certain imaginaries—small-scale society, sharing, community, openness, collaboration, and collective stewardship—but do so principally in the most high-tech, globally far-flung and legally arcane manner. All see themselves as inheritors of a tradition of the free exchange of ideas as the basis of scientific, technical, and economic progress. Most speak of information environmentalism, copyright conservancies and preserves, or open, free, and collaboratively managed repositories of intangible but valuable content. None of them are anti-commercial, nor even anti-intellectual property—indeed, they all rely on the existence of intellectual property to create and maintain the "commons" that are an inevitable part of their names, even as they occupy a position of challenge or resistance to the dominant forms of intellectual property in circulation today.

Despite the fact that these people are elites, relatively affluent, highly technically sophisticated people who are generally found at the centers of power in the North and the West, they nonetheless share something with the Native Americans, Peruvian farmers, or diasporic peoples so commonly studied in anthropology: they seem vitally concerned with developing new strategies for maintaining a threatened "way of life," which they see both as legitimate and as in need of innovative means of defense—it is their "culture."

At first glance, this comparison may seem absurd; I suggest it because these "commoners," like many indigenous peoples, have an increasing tendency to use (some variant of) the anthropological concept of culture to defend themselves, to agitate for rights or goods, to distribute blame and praise, to critique anthropology and even perhaps to explain themselves to themselves. Marshall Sahlins, for example, suggests "this kind of cultural self awareness is a worldwide phenomenon of the late 20th century. For ages people have been speaking culture without knowing it: they were just living it. Yet now it has become an objectified value—and the object too of a life and death struggle..." (Sahlins 2000:297). It is specificallythe second-order or re-doubled use of the concept of "culture" by the people I refer to here that justifies this comparison—and not any scale of oppression, imperialism, or entitlement. It is not first the articulation of culture I am interested in, it is its operationalization—the strategies by which various, overlapping, even contradictory, articulations of "culture" serve as strategies for changing particular technically, legally, and corporeally embedded practices. Such practices, seen from this second-order position may well be labeled "culture" by the anthropologist (indeed, Sahlins argues persuasively that if they were so labeled and understood, "culture" could never be said to disappear), however to do so is a methodological nuisance. Articulation and operationalization need to be at least provisionally understood as separate, in order to make any practical headway out in the field. I suggest here that the lawyers and activists I study are both more savvy about the nature of such separations, and less hung up on them than anthropologists like myself tend to be.

While cultural studies, literary studies, film and media studies, education, and the popular media continue to speak of "the culture of x" or the "cultural logic of y," anthropologists increasingly disavow ownership of these theories—especially when they encounter them in transformed or re-appropriated forms. It is as if the theories had been renounced into some vast public domain of ideas, from which they have been transformed by various peoples into explanations, weapons, critiques, legal briefs, sacred rituals, and justifications. Anthropologists might denounce others for misunderstanding, but more often, they are broadsided by the unexpected interruption of these orphaned explanations. How should we approach these abandoned relics—as remnants, as vintage goods, refurbished or transformed into yet more valuable and fascinating ways of narrating our existence? As a route to the hallowed "cultural" critique, which some of us still see as the distinctive offering of anthropology to the world? Or as...

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