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Ethnology’s Rivers & Tributaries

Review by Richard Wirick

Gods of the Upper Air
Charles King
Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, 370 pages

It does not get much better than this in a profile of the history of ideas and disciplines. King traces the vast and quite positive influence of Franz Boas, the towering Prussian-Polish anthropologist who virtually invented anthropology’s cultural branch when he fled Hitler to set up camp at Columbia and Barnard in the twenties. The man started out by being culturally embattled for his left-wing politics, shoved up to a remote section of the humanities building near Butler Library to keep him away from impressionable fellow faculty members. But his history of various civilizations had established him as the guru of early ethnology, an unlikely subject for a product of the “Prussian schoolmaster” (whose sternness and cruelty led Thomas Mann to lay Twentieth Century wars at the footstep of such a figure’s influence), but who indeed (Boas) carried facial scars from fencing with swords on Berlin playgrounds in his grammar school days. Boas started penniless in the U.S., an outcast Jew who refused the professions and merchant mantles of his fellow co-religionists. But as King points out, by the 1930s, almost every cultural anthropology department in American (and foreign) colleges was chaired by one of Boas’s PhD students. This writer worked in the library of Kroeber Hall as a Berkeley undergraduate, Arthur Kroeber being Boas’s very first doctoral acolyte.

As Louis Menand has pointed out, Boas kept his creation—anthropology—in the solid corners of a hard science. He was an empiricist, who “collected facts, and was not inclined to theoretical speculation.” “But he thought,” Menand goes on, that “the basic fact about human beings is that the facts about them change, because circumstances and environments change. This is why field work was the sine qua non of his practice—to gauge the combinatory engine of genes, environment and culture, researchers had to be out in the muddle and muck of the primitive atmospherics of one’s subjects. His student Ruth Benedict did very little field work among the Zuni, the Kwakiutl and the New Guineau highlanders she studied, and after only a few trips to Samoa Margaret Mead stopped visiting or even considering new data. The great Continental father of cultural anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss, did hardly any field work after his study of West-Central Brazilian river natives. These brilliant, but somewhat armchair naifs of Boas’s classrooms and influence, began to make ethnography resemble crypto-colonialism, the Western ‘scientist’ telling the native’s own story without talking to or observing his subject.

Boas was blessed by acolytes of genius, four in particular. The first was Benedict, whose sometimes sloppily reasoned comparison of disparate cultures (‘Appollonian’ or group-identified Zunis as opposed to ecstatic, ‘vision-quest’ Plains Indians) in Patterns of Culture had a staggering influence—really a foundational one—in the discipline. His second prize student was Margaret Mead, whose Samoan studies of pre-marital sex among South sea island cultures ruffled the feathers of genteel, armchair academic ethnologist. Ellen Deloria was the third (“All my best students are women” said Boas). No anthropologist better understood and documented the languages and customs of upper Plains Indians, particularly her native Oglala Sioux, than did this dynamic, inexhaustible Teacher’s College transplant. As soon as she was out of Oberlin, Boas heard tell of her language recordings, summoned her to N.Y. and his graduate programs, and the result was the classic ‘Dakota Languages’, a combination of essay studies and Smithsonian recordings that form the groundwork of Native American language investigations. She took the Boas mantle across the street to Barnard to spearhead his influence among female college students, who further branched out and carried the gospel to all corners of academia.

Boas’s third prize student was the Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston, who showed, as an African-American novelist, Northern readers a way of life somewhat at odds with the growing integrationist mentality which she did not entirely share. Hurston’s work was—though not traditional ‘anthropology’—was most representative of Boas’s influence. The idea behind her novels was that we cannot see our way of life (our “culture”) from the inside, just as we cannot see our own faces. The culture of the “other” serves as a looking glass, as Benedict put it in Patterns of Culture, “The understanding we need of our own cultural processes can . . be arrived at by a detour.” The outward focus was what we needed to understand the correspondences and similarities of a foreign culture with our own’s qualities of mind. But in looking past the mirror we hold up to ourselves and directly at the others’ lives, we grow our laboratory of specimens, deepen our grasp of what culture is.

And what is that most laden of terms? Benedict wrote of it as “coexisting and equally valid patterns of life which mankind has created for itself out of the raw materials of existence.” The idea was to assess which practices were core and which were peripheral, isolating the ones that produce for a people the kind of society they want and are most adept at perpetuating.. So the anthropological mirror described above has a moral purpose. Sometimes the unusual in another culture gives us a better idea of the flux of markers in our own. We see how repellant practices can become acceptable with a certain depth of understanding. Noting that Mead’s first book jacket for Coming of Age featured a topless adolescent girl, she wanted us to see the tribal and arbitrary as possibly having a reasonableness we can come to take for granted. The seminal next-generation anthropologist Clifford Geertz, writing about Benedict, said this was “portraying the alien as the familiar with the signs changed.”

These early explorations of how and what culture “is” gave rise to what it yielded as a true instrument of analysis of a people. If we see it as a lens through which we view a social group, then we are trapped in generalizations and making possibly unfounded conjectures about a ‘Navajo consciousness’ or a ‘Kyrgyz consciousness.” It will sometimes be hard to find differences among groups if this inter-subjectivity, with all its commonness with other perspectives erasing distinctions, becomes the dominant metaphor. On the other hand, once one distinguishes a group’s culture from its social structure—which positivists like Geertz attempt—then culture becomes tossed-off epiphenomena of tribal structures, something that only glosses the underlying etiology of forms of life. Another potentially dangerous weakening of the term’s usefulness—aimed often at Levi-Strauss with his rigid taxonomies of cooking and genital classifications—is that the ethnologist weakens her vision by seeing a culture as a frozen specimen, stuck in time’s rictus for we students to study.

Boas’s answer to this was to see cultural practices as existing in a constant flux, much as perception appeared to Whitehead in Process and Reality. Culture for Boas was “diffusion,” or what he called “the spread of changing forms and practices across space and time.” Deloria also rejected isolating her Sioux “talking boxes” in the time and place of their gathering. She thought that Sioux culture was nothing if not the way it was presently lived, with its combination of pre-white settler customs and 20th-Century ways of life, including the horribly diminished lives of Indians in the reservation system.

King of course does not miss the notion of “culture” now in our gender-exploratory and politically, culturally divided country. The differences between the Red and Blue state’s views of things—from an outsider’s perspective—goes back to Boas’s first discoveries that cultural traits were plastic and not immutable, that they are not naturally predetermined, and that variations within groups are greater than variations between groups. (Note this concept’s deft refusal to rigify and ‘hard science’ differences within a terribly divided 2019 American political climate, while at the same time rejecting all forms of racism and ethnic prejudice.) With these illusions of what culture is not (but has been claimed to be) out of the way, the old nature-nuture debate does not seem as acute as it was. Nature gives us the raw clay that caused Geertz to say that it is human nature to have culture, and for the collective consciousness of a people to identify with it. Lesser animals are presumed to learn to “know” how to live by adaptation. People are more world-creating; as the philosopher Dennett says, “the mind makes up the world.” Our human consciousness progressed to where we are allowed to choose how to respond to our environment. To the Mayans, a pyramid-topped hill was a door into the house of the gods; to an Amazon land developer it is something to bulldoze out of the way, and both of them are ‘correct.’. “We can’t rely on our instincts; we need an instruction manual, and culture is the manual” (Menand again). We discover it at the same time we are creating it. It is the pure product of our imagination, laid over the interconnected imagination of others; somehow it coheres into a fabric, a pattern hardened in the crucible of time.

Richard Wirick practices law in Los Angeles.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #25