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Towards a Future in Cultural Anthropology
From Cultural Conservation and Participant Observation to Cultural Creation and Creative Participation
By Dr. Volker Dahlheimer (2008)
The aftermath of Globalization leaves the anthropological-cultural world not merely in pieces, as one of the most accepted anthropological analysts of the time, Clifford Geertz, postulates, but in dust: A seemingly atomized, incoherent mesh of individuals, who can’t be attributed to a specific ethnic background anymore, and who are barely representative members of the nation-states which issue their passports. By all traditional measurements, this conglomeration of individualized humans should not be able to organize its life in any orderly way. A closer look at the life-organizing forces of today reveals a growing strength of market powers as used by global business and a dwindling contribution to life-structuring issues from political and social aggregates.
Ethnic groups as independent formations (if ever they could be considered as such) have become obsolete since colonialization. In the wake of globalization - the term used for the after-effects of a development that has been powered by the seemingly unlimited chance to spread out, nation states are rapidly losing their life-formatting influence. But the planet is limited, and so is the growth of all organizations running on materialistic underpinnings.
When we apply any analysis of the recent conditions of this planet (with humans as a major factor) to the known concepts of culture, the results are disastrous. Without societal offers for identification as a valid member of a social entity, and, logically following, no security promise for the future, this condition of disconnectedness from any organized stability whatsoever can only lead to a fatal conclusion. A “survival of the fittest”- future seems inevitable.
Surprisingly, the world doesn’t actually look like this.
But what’s been happening? What is the new undiscovered organizational structure, which keeps things from falling apart into a dog-eat-dog society? Cultural theories can’t offer an explanation, nor do politics provide a satisfying answer. Natural sciences, the oracles of our last few hundred years of existence, turn their heads towards the catastrophic results of their parent societies and how to handle them, with few optimistic predictions, so far. And what of the Cultural Sciences? What is their outlook and how do they justify their right of existence, if their field of work, organized human society, doesn’t present itself as such anymore?
For the Cultural-Anthropologist, or for the Ethnologist, extinction might be on the horizon – approaching at a speed concurrent with the vanishing of their subjects. How much longer will it be possible to satisfy any money-provider with rational innovations that, preferably, pay flattering tribute to the self-ascribed god like standings of the actual human race? Plainly spoken: Who will need Ethnologists, if there are no more ethnic novelties, no more ethnic boundaries and ethics?
Let’s try to tackle this task with the tools of our own trade. What if new cultural ethics are emerging? Maybe they come with different ethnic boundaries. So what? And how much greater can an ethnological novelty be than news about the emergence of a new cultural group, perhaps a new cultural level or even an evolutionary step in its cultural iteration.
There exists just such a group revealing itself to anyone, who is willing to see it. Sociologist Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson dubbed it the Cultural Creatives, and I believe the name is apt. Creativity isn’t a thing that can be organized. Global modern society arrived at its current point by means of organizing its relationship to its surroundings. With no more physical growth possible society is now facing the challenge of organizing in relation to itself. It – I should say - we are doing it as we speak. But we don’t notice it happening through our scientific observing eye, which is used to capture a purely material world; rather we assume by indirect empirical phenomena the possibility that a non-materialistic reality might be in existence. The tools for measurement are lacking. But human intuition serves to make it palpable. Intuitive knowledge cannot be transferred into objective matter, which would be required by the sciences, but still it can be felt. Humans have probably always felt it, but the easy option of materialistic life-organization has prohibited it from gaining much importance during the period we call Modernism. Forced to deal with the consequences of a situation, in which inner relations to one’s self with its analog connection to its environment become dominant again over the modernist dichotomy and relativistic relationship towards a surrounding. As a result more people pay more respect to their feelings and intuitions. And their lives are oriented to intuition-based knowledge once again rather than to a static, materialistic reception of the environment. This viewpoint is not abandoned either, but, “worked through” and “transcended”, now to be used as a wonderful tool whenever needed.
This change on the cultural playground of the early 2000’s is palpable- feelable– for anybody who is willing to make the practical experience himself. And practical experience comes through creative participation with this life on earth, rather than through indirect and empirical participant observation, which is, unfortunately, still the most prominent tool of the cultural anthropologist. Creative participation means more than the collecting of evidence; it means creating and acknowledging its own cultural footprint, as well. The creative participant is entering into a situation with an inherent risk - the risk of becoming a part of the things that are going on around him and which are co-created by his or her presence. There is no convenient non-responsible observer position left anymore, but an interwoven entanglement with all and in everything – and this entanglement makes one able to feel what reality is about- even if one cannot put it into words, on film or even express it in thought.
In such an entangled position it makes no sense to separate ones own fate and feelings from the fate and feelings of others. Those times are over, if, indeed, we ever really witnessed them before. For science to draw a true picture of true reality; of the culture one is living in, it is necessary to accept a way of recognizing the world in a more than materialistic manner. A “wind-chill-factor” of sorts needs to be built in into the static observations of today’s theories, which are stuck in their own limited acceptance of dynamism. The only appropriate approach towards cognition of culture-in-the-making seems to be through Creative Participation, where a separation between the observer and the observed is completely voided for good, where feelings and realities are shared practically and equally by all.
Cultural Anthropology with its overlapping fields of interest into all sciences on campus, its “field-experience” for discovering a cultural merge first hand, and its ties to development politics, cultural exchange and education programs worldwide might be predestined to explore into a reality, which isn’t measurable, countable, or even describable - but in existence and palpable all around us.
- MARCUS George E.,Beyond Malinowski and after Writing Culture: On the future of cultural anthropology and the predicament of ethnography.The Australian journal of anthropology, 2002, vol. 13 ISSN 1035-8811