Sunday, August 03, 2008

On Roger Sandall, Culture Cult

I'm almost done with this short and lively book reviewed below. I'll reserve any further comment till I finish it. Meanwhile, here's a bit about what others think.

Roger Sandall, The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism And Other Essays.

An reader/reviewer takes to task this author's work:

There are many factual inaccuracies throughout this book. Sandall depicts tribal cultures as barbaric and less evolved than civilization which I am sure he, and many of his readers, find very soothing but this adds little to modern debates. This book is a bitter diatribe for people who want to believe in the superiority of Western civilization. Polarising tribal culture and civilization just fuels exaggerated stereotypes and offers no real solutions to how countries with indigenous populations who predated, and were taken advantage of and abused by, colonial settlements (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, America....) are to move forward into the future together.

Another reader/reviewer puts it thus:

Roger Sandall ought to have been a forensic pathologist. He brings the same clinical approach , mixed with an acerbic and utterly irreverent humour, to the question of why civilization has ceased to exist. In the world of anthropology there are no crucial experiments let alone falsification of theories. It is a literary jam session fuelled by a cocktail of personal neuroses and narcissism.

He peels back the putrefying flesh from the body of this confused and delusional area of human endeavour to reveal the causes of the putrefaction. Just as animal liberationists hate humans much more than they love animals, so do fully paid up members of the Culture Cult hate civilization. In comedy there is the concept of the internal logic of the joke and once enters the zone of the joke even the most absurd situation makes "sense". The Culture Club perpertually resides with the logic of the joke and will never see outside that construction.

The book will outrage members of the Cult. They will never see yet alone understand. Thanks to Roger Sandall they will never be taken seriously.

The lead blurb below gives another view of same:

The Culture Cult is an acerbic critique of that longing widespread in society today to "retreat from civilization." From Rousseau and the Noble Savage to modern defenders of ethnicity such as Isaiah Berlin and Karl Polanyi, a prominent intellectual tradition has over-romanticized the virtues of tribal life. In contrast, another tradition, represented by Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi, and Ernest Gellner, defends modern values and civil society. The Culture Cult discusses both sides of this divide between "culture" and "civilization," and between "closed" and "open" societies. The romantic insistence on the superiority of the primitive is increasingly grounded in a fictionalized picture of the past-a picture often created with the aid of well-meaning but misguided anthropologists. Such idealizations work to the detriment of the very people they are meant to help, for they isolate minorities from such undeniable benefits of modern society as literacy and health care, and discourage them from participating in modern life. Few will find comfort in The Culture Cult, but many will recognize a valuable criticism of currently popular social politics.

OK, so I really enjoy the book. Still, I'm not done yet, and in that space there can be many things go wrong that could well put me off entirely. If you're familiar with this book or this author, please let me know, good or bad.


truepeers said...

I'm just back from my latest sojourn in rural and small town BC where I see yet again evidence that the line between white and aboriginal remains key to peoples' framing of identity. And for good enough reasons.

But things can get mixed up. Take, for example, the white woman I encountered who hosts a campsite in an isolated part of Vancouver Island. She framed this job as a chance to get out of town, which she hates, and more generally as a running away from civilization...

Typical philobarbarist Romantic? Not really, since she has come to associate town life with native disorderly conduct, she being apparently married to an aboriginal and having what she calls "native kids". And she has worked in town schools where "tribal" values are taught. So she speaks awkwardly of the "sin" of having to mention the fact of the social disorder and drinking in the native world. She condemns, in a rather green way that retains the hint of a traditional tribal spirituality, the "slaughtering" of salmon by natives who have the "aboriginal right" to fish them but not the right to market the "ceremonial fishery" in the modern economy. And since there is now such an abundance and variety of food, and plenty of money (often government welfare) to buy it, the salmon are fished en masse but left to die in some kind of frustrated exercise by men who are redundant as providers.

And it didn't take me very long in the town in question to see evidence of the general disorder, notwithstanding the less obvious evidence to the contrary (among the happily and quietly employed): the woman with a bloodied face, the guy knocked unconscious by the guy who claimed to be the woman's defender, the crowd of onlookers reveling in the whole. And all this damage done by guys who seemed barely co-ordinated enough to throw a punch.

Anyway, I think there is everywhere evidence that compact tribal values are hardly compatible with modernity and free market ethics and economics, unless the tribal grows into the national, freeing the individual from certain local obligations in the cause of some political unit that can aspire to universal truths (truths that we really can only know as liberated individuals and not as people living in a compact ritualism); but there is only room in this world for a few hundred nations. Most tribes disappear over time. It takes a tough and perhaps unduly certain man to see this dying out of languages and ways of being without shedding any tears.

Yet many who remain tribal in modern civilization are in a lot of social trouble. I mean truly tribal because of course the modern consumer marketplaces crates a faux tribalism, a radical or romantic chic, for those who want it, as part of their *individually* constructed personal identity, but it's not at all the same thing as real ritually-bound tribalism with all its obligations. The real thing in Canada today is a real problem for those would value the compact ritual more than the truly anthropological truths we can know about it. We need a way to talk about the problem without all the pandering of so-called anthropologists more interested in victimary politics and creating maternalist dependency on the state and its elitist, anti-Western bureaucrats.

The problems are too real to be dismissed with cheap racism by those who see the errors of statist maternalism, but the solution we now know is not more elitist pandering to tribalism and paternalist chiefs.

So i'm curious if this book provides not just a critique of the fallen anthropological profession but also a new way of talking and doing anthropology...

Dag said...

I'm within minutes of finishing this book by the page; but since it's not my book, since it's public property and I'm not so outrageous as many, I don't scribble in the margins and highlight lines of use to my self alone. It means I have to labouriously copy out in long-hand those word I wish to look at and ponder over later. I would normally have finished this book in a day, and enjoyed my time immensely in the doing. As is, tomorrow is likelier.

Regarding the woman above, Sandall might ask if she fled civilization or if rather she fled culture. He could ask that, but I think he'd say instead that what you experienced as an anthropologist of some repute is the effect of Culture Romance, what I refer to as philobarbarism, the (reactionary/post-)Modernist dehumanizing of Humans by sentimentalizing culture at the expense of people qua people.

This poor woman is a victim indeed, and of those I rightly and emphatically give the appellation Death Hippies. Why so? It is at the heart of our collective problem: "Tribal values" are taught-- but not tribal values at all. No, what is taught is a pseudo-tribal Rousseauean phantasy of the Left dhimmi fascist's desire for "community." Tribal values are easily found in black and white in any number of countless ethnographies one can trot out and chart and graph and imbue by rote. We know full well what Tribal values are. What we don't know is what the phantasy of tribal values are. We cannot, because they are phantasies and chimeras of those who truly and deeply hate our Modernity for whatever reasons, (at a guess from me from reasons tied to sado-masochism and primal religious phantasies.)Thus, to teach lies of phantasists as Tribal values is to create a lie from scratch and pretend it is value based on Gnostic vision without the authority of intuition, however deluded.

This sick phantasy of philobarbarism is a death threat against the innocent and the primitive. It is a genocide.

When one concocts an "Identity" for others, and traps them, by whatever means, such as, for example, the neo-appanage of disbursements, i.e. welfare payments and tribal allowances, one has trapped the unwitting and captivated them in a slavery difficult to escape from, particularly for a mother with small children in a remote area. But worse, to legitimate this and to demand of others society-wide that this phantasy be continued and expanded, even at the expense of court cases against those who say no, cf Steyn, et al, is criminal.

Identity Politics is a fascism. To take away from the individual, or to prevent the person from individuating, is a fascism. To impose "identity" on a slect few, based on phantasies of "race", as if it means anything, is a fascist trope.

People are either primarily people universally or they are not at all. If no, then racism might have some meaning, though I suspect no one can ever find evidence of such. If not, then people are universally people, and all are equal before the natural and positive law by natural right. Anything else is a fascism. In this case, a racist phantasy of fascism.

Sandall refers to "The Big Ditch" that separates primitives from Modernists. He stands on the Modernist side and shouts in its favor. It's simple, and more than likely, it's boring. It is a call for Mediocrity, in my terms.

How to dill in the Big Ditch? How to bring across the victims of a vicious phantasy of anti-Modernist haters into the modernist world? Yes, I take it as axiomatic. I argue, though prehaps sandall won't stand with me here, that the Modernity of our time, imperfect as it might be, recruit School Teacher with Guns to protect the children for the inevitable oligarchs of Left dhimmi fascism who will ultimately murder them otherwise by imposing on the "identified" the rubbish of pseudo-tribalist phantasies.

But I have yet to finish the book. Perhaps Sandall writes exactly that.

truepeers said...

Just a note: the "big ditch" theory or way of talking about modernity was originally Ernest Gellner's (at least he often invoked it). I believe I lent you one of his books; I have a few others if you're interested...

Dag said...

On the Big Ditch, I miswrote that that we might fill it in, but what I meant is that one might rather evacuate primitives from the other side f it, it not being fillable.

Gellner is a writer I liked reading too. He gets much mention in Sandall's work. Happy to read more. Thanks.