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European History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Anthropology & Sexual Morality: A Theoretical Investigation by Carles Salazar (Berghahn Books) (Hardcover) By attempting to distil general anthropological knowledge from a particular set of ethnographic data we do not try to enlarge its sphere of applicability, we do not want to make if 'more representative'. We are only trying to make it a bit more meaningful, that is, to enlarge its dialogical capacities beyond the restricted fields of regional or thematic specialists. This also implies that the sort of general knowledge that has hopefully emanated from my Irish ethnography is only contingently related to it. Very probably, the same kind of general ideas could have been produced on the basis of a different set of ethnographic information. I in no wise take that as a shortcoming, precisely because it is not the production of particular ethnographic knowledge that I am aiming at. That similar theoretical ideas can be reached from different ethnographic experiences can only prove the validity of those ideas as general anthropological knowledge.

In the same way as I define good ethnographies as dialogical ethnographies, that is, ethnographies able to converse with other ethnographies, I believe that good general anthropological knowledge should also manifest some form of dialogical capabilities. These are to be found without a doubt in the very ethnographic material from which that general knowledge has emerged. But also, and perhaps more importantly, general anthropological knowledge must be able to entertain a dialogue with the sort of social-scientific knowledge produced by cognate disciplines. The ultimate aim of any scientific investigation, or of any intellectual endeavour for that matter, is to be useful to those who are not members of the academic clique that has engendered it. This means that some sort of interdisciplinary rhetoric is always unavoidable in theoretical or 'general knowledge' researches. To this effect, the final utopia that general anthropological knowledge seeks to achieve manifests itself in a dialectically contradictory fashion. By making anthropological knowledge more meaningful to non-anthropologists, more 'interdisciplinary', we are simultaneously trying to find out what makes it 'anthropological'. Something very close, incidentally, to what ethnographers do when they attempt to understand cultural otherness: it is also the self's cultural identity that gradually becomes more visible and comprehensible.

We may call general anthropological knowledge theoretical knowledge, but the relationship between social anthropology and theory is a complex one, and somewhat peculiar. I believe it can be cogently argued that anthropology is a theoretical discipline but I have yet to come across a definitive publication on 'anthropological theory' commensurate with the 'social theory', 'economic theory' or 'political theory' that we find in these neighbouring fields of social research. Take, for instance, the well-known handbook by Marvin Harris The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968). Despite its explicit title, what we find in the contents of this book is a well-documented history of the different theoretical paradigms that have influenced or dominated anthropological research since its very beginnings. But I do not see any anthropological theory 'rising' from there, but only a collection of different theoretical styles, most of them not even specifically anthropological styles, that have inspired social and cultural anthropologists in the interpretation of their data. I know that Harris's book is somewhat dated by now, but take any of the more recent publications in this line and the result is much the same (see Layton 1998; Moore 1999; Barnard 2000). There might be more theoretical schools included in the analysis, critical judgements might be more qualified and better balanced, but a systematic anthropological theory (i.e. a set of commonly accepted programmatic principles and conceptual tools to be used by anthropologists in their field researches) is conspicuously absent.

I believe that this absence should not be seen as some form of impeding deformity that would prevent anthropologists from producing the sort of general knowledge that other social scientists are so proud of. Far from it, I think it has to do with the elusive character of anthropology's object of research, what we normally call 'culture', and its inherently dialogical nature. It would be inimical to my objectives here were I to conclude with an (always tortuous) attempt to formulate a definition of culture as an object of anthropological investigation. But I hope that in the previous pages an anoroximation to that definition has gradually unfolded, not inthe guise of a well-structured set of theoretical propositions, but in the form of a prolonged reflection upon a particular ethnographic experience.

Let me try to pull together some of the threads of this reflection. At different points throughout this essay I have been following Rylean philosophical behaviourism (Ryle 1949), which I believe is perfectly coherent with my own approach. Ryle attacked what he called the Cartesian myth, the belief according to which we can differentiate between two different entities: mind and matter, soul and body, etc. The interesting thing about Ryle's theory is that he criticised Cartesian dualism without falling into either a materialist or an idealist reductionism. A person's mind is not a secret compartment inside his or her head, a person's mind is simply a disposition, a propensity to behave in a certain way (see also Tanney 1998). In other words, we can talk about human minds, we can see human minds simply by looking at and interpreting human behaviour. If we substitute the concept of culture for that of mind, we can link my understanding of the anthropological project to Ryle's position.

I have used the culture concept in this book as a critique of essentialist definitions. By an essentialist definition of culture I understand something close to Cartesian dualism in Ryle's theory. Similar to minds, cultures have often been defined as ghostly essences that causally determine human behaviour, just as the behaviour of non-human animals seems to be determined by their instincts, by their genetic endowment. This is clearly inadequate, and I hope that my essay has contributed to demonstrating why it is so. The dichotomy between mind and body is coextensive with the dichotomy between culture and nature and, as we saw in chapter 11, between sexuality and sex. Sexuality is merely sex that is being looked at through culture's looking-glass and, conversely, sex is merely sexuality looked at through nature's looking-glass.

One of the main ideas I have developed in the former account is that the specificity of the culture concept in anthropology arises from the intersubjectivity of anthropological research. This is what 'produces' culture and this is the origin of the perspectivist view on culture I defend. 'A "culture" can materialize itself only in counterdistinction to another culture' (Boon 1982: ix). Quite naturally, anthropological accounts, descriptions of particular cultures, are always accounts from a particular point of view, for the

culture they describe is only visible from this point of view. I would like to relate this perspectivist concept with the notion of epistemological autonomy as it emerged in chapters 4 and 5. We saw then that the culture of sexual morality allegedly characteristic of Irish rural society from the second half of the nineteenth century was not reducible to a set of social and economic conditions; it was not reducible in the sense that it could not be thought of as a necessary consequence of those conditions. There was some sort of unexplained residue or theoretical empty space in the ingenious functionalist arguments that we examined. The origins of this unexplained residue were the taken-for-granted assumptions concerning sexual behaviour embedded in those arguments. In other words, functionalist explanations worked only as long as we assumed that individuals had to behave in a certain way under certain conditions. That is why, apparently, no culture was needed to account for the emergence of a particular sexual morality, since sexual morality was taken almost as a 'natural' fact.

A similar line of thought was pursued in chapter 6 and following chapters, but this time in regard to the history of Irish demography. In a way, we were simply looking at the same thing but from a different angle. If we understand that a particularly repressive or inhibitive sexual morality is the necessary consequence, in functional terms, of the SFS - because the SFS gives rise to high celibacy rates and, for the proper working of the system, it is believed that the unmarried should not have children - then the specific demographic events that can be put down to the existence of that repressive sexual morality, such as a low rate of non-marital births, become the effect not of that sexual morality but of the SFS itself and its social and economic context (inheritance system, land tenure, etc.). People do not have children outside marriage because that would impair the proper performance of the SFS, and sexual repression only comes in to reinforce the functional need of the SFS to prevent people from having sex, and children, outside marriage. In other words, the SFS is the real cause of everything, whereas sexual morality is merely the 'superstructure', the ideological legitimation of certain social and economic needs. But, if we do not consider that a repressive sexual morality is the necessary consequence, or the functional need, of the SFS, then the explanation of the same demographic events looks rather different. A low rate of non-marital fertility can no longer be seen as the result of the SFS because, as argued in chapter 5, the SFS may work perfectly well with high illegitimacy rates. Thus the fact, the demographic fact, that those rates were actually low can only be made intelligible in terms of a particular sexual morality - call it repressive, inhibitive or whatever you wish.

The purpose of that argumentation was to highlight the epistemological autonomy of cultural forms. By postulating that cultural forms cannot be explained as the result of certain social and economic conditions, we are actually arguing that cultural forms are unexplainable as cultural forms, i.e. they are 'irrational' (needless to say, not in a pathological or psychopathological sense), and they can only be, as the philosophical motto has it, described. But do not forget that 'culture' and what we have called 'social and economic conditions' are not two different entities or mysterious energies (Rylean ghosts) lurking behind human beings and at odds with each other, so to speak, for the determination of those human beings' behaviour. We are all equally, or alternatively, depending on our perspective, determined in our behaviour by culture and by social and economic conditions. It all depends on what we take as rational or irrational behaviour. And this is always, in the last instance, a totally arbitrary choice. Remember that rational behaviour is simply that which proceeds in accordance with certain underlying assumptions that we take for granted because we share them and, conversely, irrational behaviour is that whose underlying assumptions are unknown to us. As Tremayne (2001: 6) has argued, -Irrational" reproductive behaviour, both in a historical perspective and in contemporary societies, can only be understood in the light of the priorities people have over what might be considered "logical" behaviour.' But it is we, the observers, who define this 'logical' behaviour, who make a particular human behaviour look rational or irrational, or, rather, it is the specific intersubjective relationship between observer and observed that creates the objective appearance of rationality or irrationality.

That is why culture and social and economic conditions are incommensurable. They are incommensurable because by postulating such commensurability we are committing a 'category mistake', in Ryle's words, equivalent to saying, for instance, that thoughts are the cause of human behaviour. In chapter 6 we saw that most events in Irish demography seemed to accord with the requirements of a particular social and economic context. But, then,

a somewhat anomalous 'cultural factor' had to be called upon at certain points. Some of those events did not seem to agree with what was to be expected from the behaviour of a 'rational man'. That is what made demographers appeal to the cultural factor. It is our expectations, or the demographers' expectations, as to what should and what should not be rational that cause the appearance of the cultural factor in the explanation of human conduct. It could be argued that the irrationality that demographers have identified in Irish population history confirms the epistemological autonomy of cultural forms that I have postulated. But the capacity of a cultural form to make intelligible certain demographic facts is directly correlated to the demographers' incapacity to provide a fully `rational' account of these facts. In other words, when I talk about the autonomy of cultural forms it is precisely the alleged power of culture to 'cause' things that I am questioning. Once again, we can envisage the possibility of committing the same category mistake in the demographers' use of culture as an explanatory factor of demographic events: in so far as we put culture on a par with social and economic forces, as if under certain circumstances individuals' behaviour was the result of some mysterious cultural pressures whereas under other circumstances it was merely the consequence of social and economic forces. Whatever credit we might attribute to the notion that social and economic forces cause people to behave in a certain way, this notion should certainly not be extrapolated to culture.

Now what is this cultural factor and how can we relate it to actual conducts? The answer to this question came in chapters 7 and 9, and the impossibility of taking culture as the cause of any human conduct was theoretically argued in chapter 8. In chapter 7 we saw that cultural understandings of sexual morality, of the proper way of conducting one's sexual life, originated in a certain view of history. I do not think that all cultural forms include historical knowledge in their configuration, but it is clear that at least in Western societies people tend to think about their present condition in historical terms, as a result of what has happened to them, to their society or their community in the past. Now, what can we make of this historical knowledge and the sort of cultural structures into which it crystallises? In chapter 7 I drew a distinction between objective and subjective histories, even though I pointed out that the boundaries between the two are always fuzzy. Objective and subjective histories are dialectically related in a double sense. First, subjective histories can be seen as the product of objective histories. People's understanding of their own past is based on their own personal experience, on oral narratives and on written histories learned at school, from the media, from history books, etc. In other words, the objective history written by historians is, to some extent at least, filtered down to ordinary people's understanding of their own past and turned into a form of historical consciousness, into subjective history. But because this model of history is also used as a model for history, i.e. people's actual behaviour, what in the last instance gives rise to historical facts is moulded, is signified, by their own historical consciousness. Then we can say that objective histories are equally the product of subjective histories.

But `to be signified by' does not mean 'to be a consequence of'. Historical events are contingent because human action is unpredictable, and no amount of social science can challenge such an elementary truth. The fact that in our day-to-day life we can normally guess what other people will do does not contradict this statement. Our guesses are not based on knowledge of certain laws, like the weather forecast, for instance, but on the meaningfulness of our interlocutor's activity. I can imagine that my students will not jump out of the window in the middle of a lecture, not because I have come to know the neurophysiological law that regulates their bodily movements in the classroom, but simply because such conduct would be entirely meaningless in that context. It is the potential meaningfulness or meaninglessness of an individual's behaviour that enables us to have guesses as regards what he or she will do. This is the 'coercion' of meaning that we have analysed in chapters 8 and 9.

Culture is what enables us to confer meaning upon social action, thus culture can never determine, or 'cause', human behaviour. Knowing a particular culture does not involve knowing what this or that people will do; the relationship between culture and history is not causal but semiotic, as I have argued in different parts of this essay. Now how do we discover culture? At some point I contended that the discovery of culture is different from the discovery of natural entities. Perhaps a distinction between meaning and culture is in order now: meaning is simply culture 'as lived', it is culture from the native's point of view, whereas culture is meaning from the anthropologist's point of view, or meaning 'as thought of'. Again, it is all a matter of perspectives. But I believe this distinction is necessary in order to account for the discovery of culture through a research process: ethnographic research. We do not discover the meanings that rule over our social life, we simply live them, we are born and grown into them, they are 'natural' to us. That is why we tend to believe that we - Westerners, anthropologists - do not have culture: only the others - primitives, natives - do. We have reason in its stead. This is the optical illusion, so to speak, provoked by ethnographic research. But it is a necessary optical illusion, even though we need to be aware of its illusory nature. Remember the distinction between sexuality-obedience and sexuality-knowledge that I discussed in chapter 9. From my point of view - and (hopefully) from the reader's point of view too - both disciplinary regimes can be seen as cultural structures that confer meaning upon specific sexual events or sexual acts. And as such they are both equally arbitrary. But, from my informants' point of view, only sexuality-obedience, the disciplinary regime of the past, could be considered as arbitrary; only sexuality-obedience was 'culture' whereas sexuality-knowledge was simply 'reason'. Sexual acts done under the regime of sexuality-knowledge did not need any culture to be accounted for, they were simply rational acts. A demographer working under a sexuality-knowledge regime would not need any culture to account for the demographic events subsequent to those rational acts. But an anthropologist can disclose the cultural structures underlying that rational behaviour, simply by a change in perspective.

And what do we gain from this different viewpoint?

This book ends with a perspectivist concept of culture: we see culture when we look at human behaviour form a certain standpoint but we no longer see it if we shift our location. The existence of culture, or, rather, its visibility, depends on the observer's point of view and not on the thing being observed. What happens when we see culture? We simply make our experience intelligible in a certain way. By means of this perspectivist notion we can define the sexual meanings that have been disclosed in the previous analysis as a structure of intelligibility.' No pernicious power, no repressive instance, precludes us from reaching those sexual meanings. No emancipatory effect can be achieved by that disclosure (or not necessarily). The effect is merely intellectual: by seeing a particular form of sexual morality behind certain discourses and institutions we do not become 'freer'. We simply learn to look at things in a different way. Now the purpose of this shifting of perspectives can be commensurability, which is another way of talking about intelligibility. Commensurability does not lead to emancipation, the sociological counterpart to psychological therapy, because we do not start with a pathological condition brought about by repression. The 'distorted communication' that gives rise to an ethnographic enquiry is not the result of any pathological state but of cultural distance. Anthropology can be seen as a way of bridging that cultural distance without obliterating it, because anthropology, unlike psychoanalysis or critical hermeneutics, let me put it this way, 'leaves everything as it is'.

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