Culture as Action

How to Cite

Laba, M. (2000). Culture as Action. M/C Journal, 3(2).
Vol. 3 No. 2 (2000): Culture
Published 2000-05-01

Culture is a mercurial concept -- volatile, contested, and somehow, less than the sum of its parts. Its anthropology, it can be argued, was rooted in an exoticising scholarship typical of the late 19th-century colonialist ruminations on all things "other"; in contemporary terms of course, this exoticising tendency would be termed, as it should, "Orientalist". Still, there is something more than merely residual in the persistence of a notion of culture as a summary, as a package of knowledge and practice, as a name for identity, or even politics, all of which draw clearly from the well of Edward B. Tylor's bold attempt to terminologically and conceptually capture "the most complex whole", a people's entire way of life (albeit non-white, non-literate, non-western people) from what we can trust were the considerable comforts of his armchair. This Tylorean notion of culture, as Clifford Geertz once suggested, leads to a "conceptual morass" that "obscures a great deal more than it reveals" (4).

Another definitional foundation of culture for consideration is the philosophical tradition of German Idealism. Culture as a process of aesthetic education was for Friedrich Schiller a means of progressing from a state of nature to a state of reason without the destruction of nature. Schiller offered a critique of Kant's account of the development of reason (the achievement of the state of rationality as key to the education and progress of humanity) as necessarily predicated on the containment and ultimately, the destruction of nature (against the chaos and moral abyss that is nature). Schiller argued for the capacity of art to infuse nature with morality, to serve as an intermediary of sorts, between chaotic nature and the structures of pure reason. It is the cultivation of moral character -- Bildung -- that is the foundation of this capacity, and that defines the nature and purpose of "culture" as a process of aesthetic education. There were two influential trajectories that seem inspired by this philosophical source. First, there was an important sense from the German Idealists that culture was a determining principle of nation (the nation-state is achieved through Bildung, through cultivation), and accordingly, culture was understood as the source of nationhood. Second, culture took on the sense of moral authority, an Arnoldian equation of culture with high culture and a concomitant mistrust of all things democratic and popular, which debase and ultimately threaten the authority of high culture.

Raymond Williams's reinterpretation of culture merits attention because of its departure from previous traditions of defining culture, and because it is a useful foundation for the view of culture proposed later in this discussion. Williams offered a detailed historical analysis of the reasons for the under-theorisation of the British labour movement, and the glaring dislocation of the English proletariat from the ideas, the concepts, the political theory of capitalism. Actual working classes in Britain, the "lived culture" of workers, fit neither into broad political theoretical currents, nor into an examination of workers as elements in a historical process -- this lived culture defied the embrace of political analysis. Williams argued for a more anthropological view of culture, and decisively shifted the concept away from the British literary-cultural tradition, away from Arnold's "high culture", to a view of culture as a whole way of life, and open to the vision and the possibilities of social integration, popular classes, and popular struggles in ordinary, everyday life.

Williams argued compellingly for the "ordinariness" of culture. As Bill Readings notes, "Williams's insistence that culture is ordinary was a refusal to ignore the actual working classes in favor of the liberated proletarians who were to be their successors after the revolution" (92). In this sense, culture confounds political theory -- or to stretch the point, culture confounds systematic theorising. In a similar vein, and in a classic of anthropological inquiry, Clifford Geertz argued that the analysis of culture was "not an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (4). Such an "interpretive" project demands above all, that that the analyst is also a participant in a dimension of the culture she/he is describing.

I want to consider two of Geertz's assertions in his interpretive theory of culture to frame my proposal for a concept of culture-as-action. Geertz maintained that cultural analysis is guesswork rather than systematic theorising, which he regarded as a manipulation or reconstruction of reality through analytical practices in search of elegant schemata. Cultural analysis is "guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape" (20). Clearly, Geertz trained his critical sights on anthropological trends to extrapolate from material data singularly coherent, even symmetrical systems, orders, properties, and universals in a method that wants to imitate, but is not science. Interpretation resists scientism.

In a second assertion, Geertz argued that any sustained symbolic action -- the stuff of culture -- is "saying something of something" (448-53). While this assertion appears disarmingly simple, it is profound in its implications. It points to the possibility that cultural analysis, if it is to grasp and interpret layered, textured, and often thoroughly complex significations, must attend to "semantics" rather than "mechanics"; the representation of the substance of culture, its symbolic expressive forms and its unfolding action, rather than the insinuation, or even the bold declaration of systems and formulas, however elegant, of cultural patterns and process. The concern in interpretation -- a form of representation -- is that "a good interpretation of anything -- a poem, a person, a history, a ritual, an institution, a society -- takes us into the heart of that of which it is the interpretation" (18). To describe culture is to attend to action -- actual and resonant -- and such descriptions representations have responsibility; specifically, they must seek to grasp and portray social discourse and its possible meanings in ways that allow symbolic action -- the vocabulary of culture -- to speak on its own behalf.

We arrived back in Lahore after a day's journey by jeep over the bone-dry and dusty roads of rural Punjab. The air was a toxic soup, and the heat was crushing, as it always is in Pakistan in monsoon season. The interior of the vehicle was an oven, and I was feeling sealed and cooked, even with all the windows open. My friend and driver, Ashicksahib and I were soaked with sweat from the journey, and we were eager to finally get out of the jeep as we pulled into the city in the late afternoon. I had been through a half dozen bottles of water, but I still felt dizzy with dehydration. I knew that this day was the celebration of Mohammed's birthday, and while I expected many people on the streets, I was unprepared for the magnitude of the event that was taking place.

The crowds consumed us. We crawled along until we couldn't continue. The jeep had to stop as the sea of celebrants became denser and denser inside the city, and Ashicksahib shrugged his massive shoulders, smiled at me from under his thick white moustache, wiped his neck with a sodden cloth, and said in Urdu, "That's it, we cannot move, there's nowhere for us to go. We must be patient." I had never seen this much humanity gathered in a single place before. There were only boys and men of course, thousands and thousands of them moving along in joyous procession -- on foot, piled on platforms of flatbed trucks, stuffed into rickshaws, two or three sharing scooters and bicycles. The usual animal multitudes -- herds of water buffalo, goats, some camels, the ubiquitous miserable and thread- bare donkeys with their carts -- all stood passively in the midst of the chaos, too exhausted or too confused to register any instinctive response. Blasting loudspeakers competed from a hundred different directions, chants and patriotic music, prayers and devotional declarations, the staccato delivery of fundamentalist pedagogy and the improvised reveries of individuals with small bullhorns. The soft drink vendors shouted to the crowds to make way as they spun their carts around over and over again, and darted off into fray.

I brought out my camera, and because the noise was deafening, I mimed to Ashicksahib my intention to take some photos from the roof of the jeep. He motioned with an affirmative sweep of his hand and the typical and essential south Asian head roll, and I pried open the door and squeezed out against the celebrants pressed up to the side of the jeep. I hoisted myself onto the roof and sat cross-legged to steady myself for some wide- angle shots of the celebrations. I had some concern over my obviousness -- white and western -- but everyone who saw me shouted greetings in Urdu or Punjabi, waved and smiled, and young boys ran up very close to the jeep to see what I was up to. I heard Ashicksahib laughing, and all seemed safe -- until the squadrons of Sunni fundamentalists caught sight of me as their trucks crawled by in a formation that seemed remarkably disciplined and militaristic in the direct contrast to the emotionalism and formlessness of the event.

Like the wave in a sports stadium, the young men stood up one by one on the back of the trucks, their green turbans cut into the indefinite wash of a grey, polluted sky, their eyes searching until they fixed on me, now exposed and vulnerable on the roof of the jeep. And quickly they leapt from their trucks like a SWAT team responding crisply to a crisis, precise and efficient, jaws clenched, cocked for action. I saw them first through the lens of my camera, and uttered an expletive or two appropriate to the situation. I knew I was in trouble, and clearly, I had nowhere to go.

The turbans formed a green ribbon winding through the mass. As they approached, the eyes of the militants were trained on me with the focus of a predator about to take down its prey. I slipped back into the jeep through the window, and motioned for Ashicksahib to look over the crowd and see the slow and steady movement of the green turbans toward us. His smile vanished instantly, and he readied himself for confrontation. When the first militant reached the jeep's window, Ashicksahib's entire body was taut and urgent, like a finger twitching on the trigger of a pistol.

"American! American! No photo! No photo!" The leader of the group shouted at me in English and began to bang the side of the jeep. Ten or twelve young men, eyes flaring under their turbans, screamed at me and joined in the assault on the jeep. Ashicksahib had waited for a particular moment, it occurred to me later, a certain point in the rising arc of tension and emotion. He opened his door, but did not leave the jeep. Instead he stood on the step on the driver's side, half in and half out, slowly unfurled his considerable frame to its full height, and began his verbal assault. He stood on his perch above the action and in a play of passions, he shouted his opponents into submission. There were a few physical sorties by the militants, attempts to kick the door of the jeep into Ashicksahib, but these were displays, and Ashicksahib kicked back only once. And suddenly they wavered, an erosion of spirit evidenced in their eyes, a bending to the force roaring above them. They gave up their attempts to grab my camera, to gain entry to the jeep, and with a swift gesture of his hand, the leader called his small army into retreat.

This same festival that mobilised great masses of people in celebration, that enacted the inextricableness of nationalist and Pakistani Muslim commitment and identity, that on the surface appeared to articulate and demonstrate a collective belief and purpose, also dramatised conflictive divisions and the diverse interpretations of what it means to be a Pakistani, a Muslim, a Punjabi, an Indus person, a Lahori, a poor person, a person of means, and numerous other identities at stake. As an obvious westerner in the midst of the event, I was variously ignored, warmly greeted as a friendly foreigner, or accosted as an unwelcome interloper, each interaction unfolding within a broader and deeper passionate ritual which for some meant play and celebration, and for others meant a serious and forceful demonstration of affiliation, faith, and nationalism.

I had been working in both village and urban contexts on issues and strategies around communication/education and advocacy with South Asia Partnership-Pakistan, a non-government organisation based in Lahore that was engaged in front-line work for social change. The organisation was driven by the pursuit of the principles of civil society, and on a daily basis, it contended with the brutal contradictions to those principles. Its work was carried out against a bulwark of poverty and fundamentalism that seemed impenetrable, and this moment of imminent confrontation resonated with the complex historical, cultural, and political dynamics of identity, religion, nationalism, colonialism, and a seething cauldron of south Asian geopolitics.

As Paulo Freire argued that world views are manifested in actions that offer insight into broader and prevailing social and political conditions, so Geertz maintained that societies "contain their own interpretations". This was not essentialism -- there were none of the conceits or romanticism of essentialist readings of the commonplace as encapsulated social and political axioms. Rather, these views were a call for analytical honesty, a participatory and political dimension to cultural analysis that works to gain some access to these "interpretations" by encountering and apprehending culture in forms of action. Cultural analysis becomes a kind of trial-by-fire, a description from a viewpoint of participatory engagement. By "participatory", I mean everything that the bloodlessness and obfuscation of so much of Cultural Studies is not -- an actual stake in action and consequence in a real world of politics.

The interpretation of culture is valuable when it attends to action rather than theoretical insinuation; to cultural volatility and contingency, and the broad determinants of social discourse rather than schemata and structure as critical ends. Interpretation has a participatory dimension -- an involvement, an engagement with culture described and interpreted -- which eschews the privilege of theory unimpeded by empirical evidence.

Author Biography

Martin Laba