Re: Culture and Power

Tibor Benke (benke@SFU.CA)
Mon, 11 Sep 1995 20:16:18 -0700

Hi John,

As usual, I am a couple megabites and some five days behind in my e-mail
and am trying to catch up. I just ran into your letter of September 6, in
which you raise the issue of ethnicity by quoting your friend:

>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 char
>t 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 such
>slips 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?

I apologize for butting in at this point, when there may already be other
comments on the thread which I haven't read, but as an involuntary world
citizen sitting here in the land of the Salish, watching the turmoil of
Central Europe through the internet as the RCMP sorround a group of
"traditional"/"renegade" Shushwap at Gustafson Lake, I feel compelled to
make a few remarks.

*!*![IMHO shell active]*!*

I think we can agree, that dispite two centuries of anthropological
research, neither culture nor ethnicity are well understood as social
phenomena. We can also agree, that ethnicity (in some sense) has been
used since before the rise of the Summerian Empire as a way of organizing
the large scale insanity of agression known as war. I think, hardly anyone
on this list would dispute that ethnic identity, whatever else it may or
may not be, is socialy constructed, and hence a dynamic (almost in the
cyberjargon sense as in dynamic memory) phenomenon. And many of us, as I
perceive the author of your quote and you, as well, heartily wish that
ethnicity would just go away and we could all become rational, pragmatic,

The trouble is, "there ain't no neutral ground". That is to say, it
appears, that ethnocentrism is soft wired into our heads, so that in the
course of locating ourselves in society, we identify groups that we belong
to, in contrast to all other groups. All projects of internationalism,
whether socialist or bourgeoisie, become masks for the ethnic domination of
some particular group, (Anglo-Saxon, Russian, Chinese, etc.) The members of
the dominant group, experience the project as neutral, but all other groups
experience it as opressive. As with all cultural things, the specific
contents vary, but the structure seems to have something universal about

Personally I have seen this operate in my family. My father's folks are
Hungarians from Transylvania and my mother's folks are from
Carpatho-Ukraine and Slovakia. Thus they all come from the multi-ethnic
areas of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Both my family, who now live
on the west coast of North America, and the Hungarians who still live in
the regions mentioned above, are extreemly upset about the minority
language education policies of the states involved (Slovakia, Ukraine,
Romania) and blank out completely on the Hungarianization policies of late
nineteenth century Hungary.

As for me, (though for different reasons, I am upset too) I am a stranger
in a strange land. I am not a Hungarian; though I speak the language
fluently and without an accent, I doubt if I could pass for a native in
Budapest for any more then a half hour. Though I lived and was schooled in
the US for 11 years, I am certainly not American, though many of my
political, philosophical, aesthetic, etc. ideas were formed in the States.
I am a Canadian citizen and my children see themselves as Canadians of
Hungarian and American background (their mother is American), and Canada is
a supposedly a "multi-ethnic mosaic", I am neither Hungarian-Canadian, nor
"plain vanilla" Canadian. Sometimes I feel like a homeless person and
orienting myself is a constant struggle. Though I've never done fieldwork,
I feel as if I were on a permanent field trip.

However we deal with the concept of ethnicity, I think we will never be
able to define it precisely nor forget about it entirely. And as long as
there is socio-economic inequality, the processes which go to make up the
social construction of ethnicity will continue to operate because, at the
risk of oversymplifying, it seems to be the result of some built in human
propensity for social differentiation.

!**![End IMHO shell]!**!


Laborfalvi Benke Tibor Tibor Benke
6198 Kathleen Avenue, apt. 117 Graduate Student (MA program)
Burnaby, B.C., Canada Department of Sociology
(604) 434-0822 and Anthropology Simon Fraser University

Democritus was right: change is constant!
Democritus was wrong: change is variable!