marshall on culture

via m of care – mar 31

In the concluding session of The Dawn of Everything reading group, people expressed their happiness with the reading group as it has unfolded through these many months and  a wish to continue. The group has initially decided to meet next at the regular time, to continue a discussion of culture as it figures in cultural anthropology, and to do so through discussing an article by Marshall Sahlins that offers background on the issue of schismogenesis, a significant element in The Dawn of Everything.

This reading group will take place on Thursday 31st March 2022 at 8pm (London time), and will be a discussion of Marshall Sahlins’s article entitled ‘Two or Three Things that I Know About Culture’Link to the article.

links to 24 (18-24 notes/bib)page pdf:




the lecture


In the form of the Rousseauean topos of tragic history, the fear and loathing of the effects of laissez-faire capitalism on authentic culture, as of anarchy on sweetness and light or the disappearance of the pleasures and idiocies of rural life, such sentimental pessimism comes from deep in the European experience. Yet nostalgia for cultures lost, Renato Rosaldo (1989) notes, particularly haunts anthropology. So pretty soon everyone will have a culture; only the anthropologists will doubt it.


Brumann (in press) remarks on the chiasmus of anthropological theory and indigenous practice: ‘If anthropologists like it or not, it appears that people – and not only those with power – want culture, and they often want it precisely in the bounded, reified, essentialized and timeless fashion that most of us do now reject’.

This is perhaps the main criticism of contemporary culture-talk: it is really instrumental, an ideological smokescreen of more fundamental interests, principally power and greed – practical functions, nota bene, that have the added persuasive virtues of being universal, self explanatory and morally reprehensible.

‘Culture’ is becoming a myth, a fabrication, a mystification – the collective misrepresentation of someone’s particular interests

‘By invented tradition’, reads a recent work on Fiji, ‘I mean the mistaken belief that current codes of conduct, whether legal or moral, have their origins in a distant past, and act as a charter for present practice’



The so-called ancient traditions are ideological artifices of class differences, gender differences, capitalism, the state, nationalism, colonial control or resistance to any of the above. They generally work on the Enlightenment principle that there is no god, but don’t tell the servants.

The always-lurking alternative was a dissolution into Hobbesian conflict and chaos – another, older version of culture and anarchy. But now we know better. We know these power-saturated social systems for what they really are, hence that what maintains them are prejudicial means of differentiation and discrimination. The great theoretical advance of recent decades has been the improvement in the moral character of the Academy

improvement of moral character of academy..? so not advance for humanity

Still, it is astonishing from the perspective of North American cultural anthropology to claim that our intellectual ancestors constructed a notion of cultures as rigidly bounded, separated, unchanging, coherent, uniform, totalized and systematic. Talk of inventing traditions.

The American anthropological codgers who spent a good part of their lives studying historical diffusion hardly believed that cultures were unchanging and rigidly bounded. (On the contrary, in the first half of the twentieth century several accused their own predecessors of the same prejudices.) They could even
speak of ‘the fallacy of cultural separation’: the mistaken idea that because cultures are distinctive they are closed, as well as inferior; a conceit, said Locke and Stern,.. More generally, American anthropologists were too imbued with individualism, and with the laissez-faire opposition of individual and society, to allow that cultures were universally shared, monolithic or otherwise coherent socially or consistent logically


From what I know about culture, then, traditions are invented in the specific terms of the people who construct them. Fundamentally, they are atemporal, being for the people conditions of their form of life as constituted, and considered coeval with it. . In all cases, the missing part is a comparative sense of cultures as meaningful orders


Hence what needs to be recognized is that similitude is a necessary condition of the differentiation. For, in the end, culturalism is the differencing of growing similarities by contrastive structures.

In regard to similitude, ethnography has always known that cultures were never as bounded, self contained and self-sustaining as postmodernism pretends that modernism pretends. No culture is suigeneris, *no people the sole or even the principal author of their own existence. The a priori conceit that authenticity means self-fashioning and is lost by reliance on others seems only a legacy of bourgeois self-consciousness. Indeed, **this self-centred determination of authenticity is contrary to the normal human social condition. Most peoples find critical means of their own reproduction in beings and powers existing beyond their normal borders and their customary controls.

*beyond the monastic self

**? rather.. most people are other people.. sea world ness

From all this, it follows that hybridity is everyone. I mean hybridity in the way that Homi Bhabha’s idea of it as deconstructed in-betweenness.. probably for lack of worldly referents, has popularly come to mean the cultural admixture we used to call ‘acculturation’. In that sense, as Boas, Kroeber & co. taught, all cultures are hybrid. All have more foreign than domestically invented parts.

thurman interconnectedness lawwhen you understand interconnectedness it makes you more afraid of hating than of dying – Robert Thurman


Hybridity is a genealogy, not a structure, as Jonathan Friedman (1997; in press) has said. It is an analytic construal of a people’s history, not an ethnographic description of their way of life. In their way of life, externalities are indigenized, engaged in local configurations and become different from what they were. In this regard, the Hegelian dialectic of self and other may be the mother of all culturalisms.

Without cultural order there is neither history nor agency. Still, I am not speaking of a ‘culture of resistance’ so much as the resistance of culture. Inherent in the meaningful action of socially situated persons, the resistance of culture is the more inclusive form of differentiation, neither requiring an intentional politics of opposition nor confined to the colonially oppressed. People act in the world in terms of the social beings they are, and it should not be forgotten that from their quotidian point of view it is the global system that is peripheral, not them.’

but talking of whales


The strange argument with which I conclude is that these cultural claims are indexes of more basic structuring codes, modes of order that are themselves largely imperceptible yet make all the difference between peoples who are perceptibly similar. I take a page from Durkheim. Such reifications of structural
powers, epitomizations of order itself, are sacred symbols. They are visible signs of an invisible constituting presence. And, as sacred, they give a people commitment as well as definition – dare one say, a sense of shared existence as well as determinate boundaries?

siddiqi border law et al


Including that the signs of cultural distinction represent modes of organization rather than the traits in themselves, and that excellence is inherent in each mode. Including that in discriminating peoples by their ways of existing, the culture signs establish unambiguous boundaries between them.

A final word about boundaries. Ironic it is (once more) that anthropologists have been to so much trouble of late denying the existence of cultural boundaries just when so many peoples are being called upon to mark them. Conscious and conspicuous boundary-making has been increasing around the world in inverse relation to anthropological notions of its significance. But then, the phenomenon is corollary to the emergence of larger fields of cultural structuration, and structure is also something anthropology is set against for the time being. The local demarcation of peoples is the complement of an expanding segmentary scheme, involving the objectifications of ethnic-cultural entities on regional, national and international lands, which usually appear, from the vantage of particular groups, as concentric circles of diminishing moral community


Of course, we are speaking of boundaries in the sense of the determination of cultural communities, not as barriers to the flow of people, goods or ideas. Individuals may even traverse them and become other. But, just so, they then change their kind. Again Chambri say, ‘It is not good … that river people and bush people should live together. They are of one kind, and we are of another’

siddiqi border law

Classes are inclusive and contrastive, hence also exclusive. By the same token (so to speak), the classification is a moral judgement: what is so distinguished is good, and right to be so distinguished. Hence in an important sense, people do share a culture and are committed to it. They share a mode of
existence and become a kind of being, or a species thereof Indeed, they become a historical people: subject and agent of history, with a common memory, if only because they have a collective destiny. Yet in these days especially, their consubstantiality as a people may be largely insubstantial, based on ordering principles that, we know from Boas as well as Durkheim, do not normally rise to consciousness. Thus the sacredness of their epitomizing symbols, whose referent is an unseen, good and potent cultural presence.

There is here some suggestion of a better reason for living and dying with, and or, certain people than the fact that all are reading the same newspapers at the same time. But that would be another lecture. For the moment I have merely tried to say two or three things I know about culture, adopting the strategy that if I say a whole lot of things, two or three may be right.




david on marshall