Rethinking Popular Culture Essay

Pages: 7 (2277 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 2  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Anthropology

¶ … travel in another country has no doubt had the experience of realizing that other people in other places see things very differently. Travel allows us -- and forces us -- to engage ourselves with one of the most fundamental questions in the social sciences: Can we ever so thoroughly immerse ourselves in another culture deeply enough so that we come to see the world as "the natives" do? Can we ever become absolutely bilingual so that not only do we have no problem getting our verbs to line up nicely but we also know which foods to bring to a wake, or how to flirt with someone of both the same sex and opposite sex, and how to bargain (or not) when buying food?

To put it simply: No.

I realize that there are different points-of-view about this. Some people (I personally know a number of them like this) believe that careful study and an open mind are all that you need to become a chameleon, to become part of another world. (An aside here; I do believe that one can become a chameleon, that one can learn to fit in. But being able to pass as another kind of native is a far easier task than embodying another world-view.) My own experience -- and our readings in this class -- suggest that such a transliteration of one's own perspective into that of a citizen of another culture is simply not the case. Explaining my "no" -- my belief that it is never possible to see the world with perfect accuracy through the eyes of the natives of another culture -- is the purpose of this paper.

I should note here that I am using the word "native" in what I hope is clearly a post-colonial, postmodern, and respectfully ironic way. The word has a long and less than salutary history in terms of the ways in which members of colonial/First World/powerful nations have thought of, addressed, and otherwise interacted with members of societies and cultures that are less politically privileged. For this reason, the most recent several generations of anthropologists have avoided the word. And for good reason. But I am trying here to reclaim it, at least in some measure. If we look at the etymology of the word "native" we can trace back the word to the same root that gives us "innate" (or "nation").

A native is someone who is born in a place, whose culture is a birthright. I like this idea, that because of where and when we are born, each human soul since the beginnings of time (and -- why not? -- maybe even before the beginnings of human time, back through our ancestry to Cro Magnon and Neanderthal, and perhaps even back before that to Homo erectus and maybe even to Lucy) has the right to a certain point-of-view. The native is the person -- and it is only she or he -- who has the right to claim a certain perspective. Used in this sense there is (I believe and hope) no disrespect in calling other people, as I call myself -- as I would call you -- a native.

Cockfights and Artificial Intelligence

Clifford Geertz is one of the most persuasive anthropologists. His "thick description" of cultures (and perhaps most especially of Bali) gives the reader (or at least gives me as a reader) the sense that one is standing next to him watching exactly what is going on. I believe his descriptions: I find them both accurate and compelling. But I always have the feeling that I am indeed standing next to him. Observing. Thinking my own thoughts, seeing the world from my own cultural perspective, and understanding the world from the aerie of a set of interpretations woven of my own past.

Anthropology is either the science or the humanistic discourse that bursts forth from the foundation of participant-observation methodology. There is the ideal for the ethnographer of going to some place far away, setting up a camp on the periphery of the village and sitting down that first night to write one's field notes. These notes will be written, faute-de-mieux, in the ethnographer's native language because she has not yet acquired fluency in the natives' language. But then one day she will realize that somehow, at some unnoticed point, she has begun to describe her surroundings and her understandings in the language of the "other." She will have made a shift, a leap, into the world -- and the soul -- of the native.

She will have "gone native" herself. She will have become armed (and I use that image intentionally) herself with the tools that she needs to go hunting down the world-view of the native.

Geertz, I believe, believes that the anthropologist (armed with the right metaphor, for the right metaphor can serve as a basin in which to capture the heart's blood of a culture) can in fact become attuned with a native perspective. And yet if we look at this key passage from his description of a Balinese cockfight (which is as much a description of what it means to be an anthropologist as it is a description of the clandestine gallinaceous combat), an important objection to his own claim of native-parallelism becomes apparent. He describes this incident to us as a sort of primer on the way in which one can plunge into the waters of another culture, as a way in which one become baptized in another culturally determined frame of reference.

At the beginning of his description of the cockfight, he writes about how he and his wife end up, happenstance, becoming witnesses to an illegal cockfight. When the possibility of official intervention -- and so arrest -- occurs, the two anthropologists run for cover with the natives. This fact -- that they react like the Balinese of the village -- gives Geertz a hoped-for but until then not-yet-achieved insight and access to the local culture. He writes:

Getting caught, or almost caught, in a vice raid is perhaps not a very generalizable recipe for achieving that mysterious necessity of anthropological field work, rapport, but for me it worked very well. It led to a sudden and unusually complete acceptance into a society extremely difficult for outsiders to penetrate. It gave me the kind of immediate, inside view grasp of an aspect of "peasant mentality" that anthropologists not fortunate enough to flee headlong with their subjects from armed authorities normally do not get (Geertz .)

I think that this is a perfectly accurate description of what happened. And I am quite convinced that this event did in fact shift the relationship between Geertz and his subjects. It gave him an "in," a certain status, an identity that was less foreign, more trustworthy.

What it did not give Geertz is a sense of how things -- the cockfight being at the top of a very, very, very long list -- look and seem and mean for the Balinese. What I believe happened is that the Balinese looked at Geertz and said something like this to themselves: Look, he ran away just like we do. Maybe he's not so bad." And Geertz looked at the Balinese and said something like this to himself: "Look, we all ran away together. Somethings we interpret in similar ways." Yes -- but what both are going on is behavior, outer appearances. Not meaning. The cockfight allowed both parties -- Geertz and his wife on the one hand and the Balinese on the other -- to hold up mirrors to their own motivations and their own understandings. And to imagine that they saw in their own reflections the "other" having a similar reaction.

Geertz's description -- with its privileging of action and reaction, of behavior -- reminds me of a trope about artificial intelligence. Imagine yourself sitting in a room communicating via a keyboard (or an iPhone, for that matter). You "talk" to an entity in another room -- about the anxiety you feel on a first date, about your anger over those who deny the reality of global warning, about the wonder of Vermeer. And whoever (or whatever) it is on the other side talks back. And you cannot tell whether it is a person or a computer answering. At this point -- at the point at which programmer can successfully mimic human interaction, artificial intelligence has succeeded. The responses of human and computer are indistinguishable from each other.

And, of course, this would indeed be a significant piece of programming. But, of course, there is all the world of difference between a person and a computer. Responding in the way that people expect us to -- either as a human (rather than as a computer) or as a Balinese rather than as an American -- does not in any way ensure that what is going on inside is the same.

Deformed and Misshapened

John Berger provides another -- and more egregious -- example… [END OF PREVIEW]

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