Culture and Power

John Mcreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 6 Sep 1995 09:00:57 +0900

Recently, I met a wonderful woman, Brackette Williams, who teaches at Johns
Hopkins. I am just now reading an article she wrote called "The Impact of
the Precepts of Nationalism on the Concept of Culture: Making Grasshoppers
of Naked Apes." It appeared in _Cultural Critique_, Spring, 1993. It speaks
to some of my own obsessions which are, nonetheless, highly relevant to the
practice of anthropology. I will quote a few bits to whet your appetites.

(p. 144)

Today in the works of some scholars seeking to disclose the pains of and to chart groups' resistance to national homogenization, praise and sympathy take the
place of analysis. Analysts all too often speak the sympathies of the group
leader in the language of social scientific conclusions. Lest we think that suchslips are merel conditions of the postmodern plight, we do well to remind
ourselves of Julien Benda, writing in 1928, as he laments the 'betrayal' by
the 'clerk' (intellectual) of his/her traditional quest for the universal
over the particular.

'[T]he 'clerks' have set out to exalt the will of men to feel conscious of
themselves as distinct from others and to proclaim as contemptible every
tendency to establish oneself in a universal. With the exception of certain
authors like tolstoi and Anatole France, whose teaching is now looked on with
contempt by most of their colleagues, all the influential moralists of
Europe during the past fifty years...have praised the efforts of men to feel
conscious of their nation and race, to the extent that this distinguishes
them from others and opposes them to others, and have made them ashamed of
every aspiration to feel conscious of themselves as men in the general sense and in the sense of rising above ethical aims.'


Here Williams has been describing the irony of concepts of culture that
celebrate homogeneity in ethnic groups while, at the same time, fueling
chaos in pluralist societies. She writes,

"It is in this irony that democratic liberals, radicals and conservatives as
nationalists all too often are staunchly Stalinist insofar as they all contend

A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on
e basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psycological

manifested in a common culture...[N]one of the above characteristics taken
separately is sfficient to define a nation. More than that, it is sufficient
for a single one of these characteristics to be lacking and the nation ceases
to be a nation. (Stalin, 307)"

The reference is o Stalin, Joseph, "Marxism and the National Question."
Collected Works. Vol. 3. Moscow: Progress, 1953-55, 300-384.

A marvelous case study that addresses this same issue is "Sacred Scholars,
Profane Advocates: Intellectuals Molding National Consciousness in Greece,"
by Anastasia Karakasidou, _Identities_, Vol.1. No. 1.

Note, too, "Politics and anthropology in Russia" by Tamara Dragadze, in
_Anthropology Today_, Vol.11, No. 4.

Serious issues, anyone?

John McCreery