more than one hundred years after franz boas traveled to and wrote about inuit of cumberland sound in the central eskimo, it is possible to suggest that the descendants of the people boas worked with still have something to teach. boas’ work made a number of significant contributions, not least in advancing the concepts culture and cultural relativism that the professional discipline of anthropology rest upon. in these times, as the concept culture comes under threat from hybridity theorists on the one hand and from its own defenders on the other, it perhaps worth reminding ourselves that of all the great appropriations made from so-called ‘primitive peoples’ the concept culture may be the most significant and, the contemporary trends notwithstanding, most enduring as well.
the latter point deserves emphasis: the concept culture or the idea of culture existed in the european context until the mid nineteenth century as a notion of growth, refinement, the attribute of so-called ‘civilized’ society (the idea of what it means to be ‘cultured’) until exposure to varieties of non-europeans raised the possibility of alternative civilizations. more critically, conversations with some of these non-europeans who could talk about their ‘ways’, their ‘laws’, their ‘forms’ as distinct from those of their neighbors placed one firmly on the path that leads to a fully articulated notion of cultural relativism. the proper name boas fits here is a marker for one point in this dialogue. among the things modernity and post-modernity may rest upon — as firmly for example as cubism in painting may rest upon the artistic productions of african mask-makers — is a concept culture that derives from the heart of that which modernity defines itself against: primitivism. the teachings of those boas talked to, inuit of cumberland sound, are not therefore confined to the area of exotic curiosities but lead rather straight to the centre of what appears to define significant social values upon which the most so-called ‘advanced’ societies rest. this social value, the concept culture, remains critical inasmuch as it allows for non-essentializing descriptions of social difference. hence, although for example hardt and negri have argued that “culture is made to fill the role that biology had played”(2001: 192) and that “imperial racist theory attacks modern anti-racism from the rear”(2001: 191), the concept culture they refer to is one which moves in an essentializing direction (“from the perspective of imperialist racist theory… differences between cultures and traditions are… insurmountable” (2001: 192)). jettisoning the concept culture leads directly to abandoning any notion of social difference (“there is no outside” (2001: 186-190) is the hardt and negri claim) and ultimately abandoning any form of cultural politics: totalizing theory at this point places itself dangerously close to totalitarian ends. we have reached the other end of the world from cumberland sound.
boas’ legacy was a concept of culture constrained by a variety of ideological mechanisms. the central eskimo was itself expressive of a totalizing paradigm, an attempt to represent the totality of a particular culture, that for good reason is in question these days. similarly, boas’ work relied heavily on the material expressions of culture, culture as it is embodied through things. although he assiduously collected stories and other aspects of the social and ideological side of culture, material objects, technology, held a peculiar fascination for boas and his approach.
while paying the necessary tokens of homage to this founder-father-figure, what follows attempts to burrow within, to work the concept culture in a slightly different direction, a direction that resists totalizing encapsulation and that resonates with the in-discipline of native studies, itself a bastard child of anthropology. perhaps it may be described in proper post-structural philosophical fashion as a supplement: as native studies supplements anthropology and thereby problematizes it, this work may be a supplement to the work of boas. boas had the great advantage of working with inuit in cumberland sound who were in the full fluorescence of their culture, surrounded still by technologies of their own making, largely independent and self-sufficient, on the cusp of colonial relations. one hundred years later the inuit of cumberland sound, settled in the village of pangnirtung, continue to create vibrant and unique cultural forms, to inspire visitors, to offer lasting lessons for those who chose to pay attention. they have also had over a hundred years of colonialism and are immersed in untangling the colonial project.
methodologically this analysis works around an attempt to critically articulate or bring together tendencies in contemporary social theory with community based practice. the practice involves ‘going there’ as geertz (1998) would have it, visiting, listening, talking, waiting, assisting: mimetically adopting to the extent possible the norms of community life. at the same time it involves reflecting upon and reading what one encounters with an attention to particular issues that seem to constitute community itself. in some misshapen way this could be placed under the rubric of what is conventionally called ‘participant-observation’ and ‘field work’. however, to the extent that two forms of reading practice — the diacritical which involves bringing together disparate texts and the deconstructive which involves questioning strategic dualisms and calling into question the metaphysics of presence — are brought to bear, and to the extent that both terms ‘observation’ and ‘participant’ can be brought into question, it is preferable to characterize this as an ethics of reading.
furthermore the notion of field work presupposes a degree of opposition between ‘here’ and ‘there’ that may no longer be tenable (also pace geertz). nevertheless, there remains a need for understanding dominance — the terms ‘dominant’ or ‘western’ culture act as markers — and resistance. dominance, or the dominant culture, is that which is complicit with or more actively carries on the work of totalization. resistance signals the field of that which is still to be totalized. the concept or practice of ‘bush work’ might be a substitution for ‘field work’ particularly suited to the indiscipline of native studies. one goes into the bush carefully following the lead of the hunters or guides taking one there. to get ‘bushed’ is to undergo an epistemological crises sparked by the mimetic embodiments that too long an exposure to one’s guides provokes. as a methodology, ‘bush work’ involves opening oneself up to the ethics of the other, reconstructing one’s naming practices (exploding the concept of unnamed native informants), placing against the debased institutional ethics an operative, working (or working-through) ethics. since bush work involves simultaneously working with a notion of cultural alterity (the other is different) and the mimetic faculty (through which the other can be a part of us), it always involves a critical negotiation. dominick lacapra has argued that “the comprehensive problem in inquiry is how to understand and to negotiate varying degrees of proximity and distance in the relation to the ‘other’ that is both outside and inside ourselves” (1985: 140). as pangnirtung is outside and inside us, so we too remain outside and inside pangnirtung. reading the language of gestures in order to analytically situate these relations of, these oscillations of, dominance and resistance is in this context the work, or working through, of bush work.
the protocols of this work may be stated briefly: 1. culture here will be examined as it is practiced in contemporary modalities, rather than as objectified in things. objectification and material embodiment still remain critical concepts, but not in the manner practiced by boasian anthropology. by turning our attention away from things, we can pay closer attention to culture not as a residual element of some former purity, but as an engaged and contemporary set of practices. the notion of practice, so central to raymond williams’ (1989) cultural work (and, described as praxis, by the sartre (1976) of critique of dialectical reason), itself directs us to activity rather than the things produced by activity. 2. culture is of interest as the expression and embodiment of values. our interest is not in cultural diversity for its own sake, or in culture as exotic other and mere difference for its own sake. particular values, for example egalitarianism, for example trust, are here valued. cultural practices circulate these values, many of which are under attack in the dominant social forms. 3. gestures and the language of the gestural are a key component of culture. the habits of an individual may be read as a sign of some more deeply manifested trauma, the habits passed on through culture are equally signs of the deep structure of the culture, of the direction in which that culture works. these habits are often found in gestures, in material practices and actions of individuals which, if they are reproduced by enough other individuals, are as much a sign of culture as some esoteric technological form. 4. gestures are a writing with the body. inasmuch as the gesture is a trace of a cultural value, inasmuch as the gesture is an active form of a culture in quotidian practice, it is a sign open to interpretation, a form of writing. but this form of writing inscribes with the face, with movements of the body: it is a writing with the body, embodied writing. 5. each gestural utterance may be ephemeral, but cumulatively or socially these gestures leave a significant trace. the motion of hand or face seemingly disappears in the after instance of its practice, but having been, the gesture is the latest page in a book of values. it embodies, reinscribes, recirculates the values that give rise to it. those values are its trace. 6. a gesture may as easily be hegemonic as it is emancipatory. the salute to authority, the sign of the cross, most symptomatically the silence that greets the spectacle, these are all gestures that inscribe with the body an embodied subservience. there is nothing emancipatory about gesture qua gesture: but our interest in the material that follows is with gestures that move in emancipatory directions: signs of resistance to a totalizing field.
although he argues, in my view incorrectly, that gestures have disappeared from western culture by the end of the nineteenth century, agamben’s ‘notes on gesture’ remain a fruitful resource. the multiple forms of embodied subservience that circulate, although they inscribe hegemonic power rather than forms of resistance, still need to be understood within the language of the gestural. agamben does understand the ‘non-purposive’ nature of gestures, arguing that “the gesture is the exhibition of a mediality: it is the process of making a means visible as such” (2000: 57). this leads him to conclude that “politics is the sphere of pure means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings” (2000 59), a startling formulation and one that wholly accords with the analysis which follows.