Socect’s Weblog

Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

The Tangled Webs We Weave

Two problems with Geertz’s classic “web” metaphor of culture.

I’ve been thinking about Clifford Geertz’s oft cited web metaphor:
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” (The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973)

In teaching anthropology, I use that as one of the key concept of culture in the modern anthropological tradition (along with Tylors from 1871 and a few others)

Today I am reading Aiwah Ong’s article on cultural citizenship (Current Anthropology, 1996), in which she refers to “webs of power”; wondering to what extent that is a riff on Geertz (who, in turn, credits Weber)?

Two thoughts:
1. Culture and ideology generally refer to the same thing – ideation, and what Geertz is calling “webs of significance” (or webs of signification). The difference between the terms culture and ideology are not in the thing(s) to which they refer (their referent; denotation) but rather in their connotation. Culture hides or downplays power whereas ideology foregrounds it. Culture connotes the sort of taken-for-grantedness of the ways in which we think about the world; ideology makes explicit a sort of struggle over ideas (e.g. think of the difference between “advertising” – a form of culture and “propaganda” – a form of ideology). The problem is that neither of these ways of talking about ideation/webs of meaning is more or less correct. Both have some truth (value) to them, much of the struggle of “ideology” is in fact very hidden from view (“culture”); much of “culture” is actively struggled over (“ideological”).

2. One of the most important problems with the “web” metaphor is that when we think about a spider’s web (I take that to be the prototypical image) such a web has a master intelligence behind it – the spider. Spiders are singular entities, weaving their webs with specific intention and self-interest (to catch flies and eat them). But “webs” of culture, ideology and power are not spun by individuals alone by rather are complex-adaptive networks, spun by multiple agents not governed by a master intelligence or plan (unless one assumes a Diety or some such entity; but even then that is always cast as an unknowable, so for practical purposes there is not a master plan even if one believes in the existence of such in some ultimate sense). Bottom line – the “web” metaphor is a very engaging one; but misleading insofar as it implies a sort of singular agency. I do think that a lot of people (students; perhaps also scholars) project themselves into Geertz’s “web” as a singular agent – a liberal individual (spider!) who can ultimately control the web-spinning; or alternatively, the web image is taken as disempowering… we are flies caught in webs over which we have no control and from which we gain nothing. Neither of these implications of the web metaphor are correct or particularly useful.


October 18, 2010 Posted by | Research, Teaching | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Brief Life of “Squeezy”

I squelched the brief life of an emergent signifier today.
I feel a bit bad about doing so, which perhaps inspires me to blog about it… and thus at the very least create an archival record of the brief life and death of the very evocative word: “squeezy”.

This word is one that I have noticed my son using for some time (not sure when it first entered into his vocabulary). In fact, I was not entirely clear what he meant when I first heard him use it (which in part is what brought it to the attention of my consciousness).

Today may be the beginning of the end for “squeezy”, however, as I authoritatively stepped in and eliminated it from his vocabulary by suggesting a “correct” alternative. Here is an account of the events:

The animals (of which there were about 18… in plastic toy form) were fighting the dinosaurs (who were bigger and stronger, but out numbered about 2-to-1). This was happening on the floor, in the middle of our family room (I was sitting to the side, marking exams, trying to keep out of the battle). The fight, according to my son, was taking place in the middle of the road, making the road “squeezy” and nearly impassible to some of his larger (toy) busses and cars. He proceeded to demonstrate (“look daddy, look daddy”) how the road became more and more squeezy as the animals and dinosaurs closed in on one another in close combat.

A Very Squeezy Situation

A Very Squeezy Situation

At this point, I stepped in to explain that the word he wanted was “narrow”… the road was “narrow” not “squeezy”. He took a few moments, contemplating this, then smiled, moving the dinosaurs and animals yet closer together. “Look daddy, it’s more narrower!”

Children are a wonderful agents in the production of linguistic (and more broadly cultural) diversity. It is a bit sad that we have to constantly reign in their creative energies – in order that linguistic complexity not devolve in to sheer chaos.

April 29, 2009 Posted by | Random Walks | , , | 2 Comments

Culture’s Deep Currents

Culture involves deep currents of symbolic meaning. One imporant point in learning and understanding how culture operates is that anything we say, anyway in which we communicate with others, is bound up in these systems of meaning. They enable our communication; but they also constrain what we can say because we have to operate within the system as given (the system changes, but we cannot change it by fiat; rather only through discourse – which no single person ‘controls’). Symbolic complexity is also the basis for mis-communication and ambiguity. Here is my latest example (in a political rant sent to a couple friends; the main point here is in the last paragraph):

“I don’t want to be mean, but, let me put it this way…
Obama and Bidden are running against a crotchety old Vietnam-war vet whose running mate is a clueless beauty queen with a knocked-up teenage daughter.
Can the Democrats seriously lose this year?
That’s all I could think of when I woke up to the latest on the Sarah Palin fiasco this morning.
I know that portrayal is deeply unfair to McCain-Palin (even if I am not a fan of their politics). But that seems to be the ‘archetype’ or stereotype of Americana that they seem to be falling into (just as Obama has had to prove to white folks that he is King and not Malcom… the other night, he did that in spades – to use a deeply inappropriate metaphor).
Why does so much of the English language have to be so complexly interwoven with the tragic history of racism? For example, the other day as I was watching Barack give his speech, right at the end when the confetti was exploding all over the stage, my five-year old daughter came in. She looked at the tv and asked “who won”? (It DID look like a sporting event, after all.) I laughed and told her “Barack Obama” – pointing him out on the screen. We had a fairly long Q-and-A session about this (of the sort one has with a five year old… her endless stream of questions; my fruitless attempts to find answers that do not lead to another “Why?”). In the course of this, she found “Barack Obama” to be a completely incomprehensible tongue-twister. In the course of the Q-and-A, she finally settled on a moniker for our soon to be President of the United States of America… “Barry Banana” (closest word she knows to “Obama”). I think it is great – utterly hiliarious. Plus, she thinks “Barry Banana” is really wonderful. But then, there is a little nagging voice in the back of my mind remembering ugly episodes involving banana peels tossed and waved at black athletes when I was a little boy growing up in Kansas. And I fret that anyone hearing my daughter and I joking around about “Barry Banana” will take this totally, totally the wrong way. Grrrrr… can’t we all get over it and once and for all relegate racist bullshit to the dustbin of history? Sigh.”

September 2, 2008 Posted by | Random Walks, Teaching | | Leave a comment

Culture, Discourse and the “Kampung” in Singapore

Since Gillman Heights was on my mind, I’ll backtrack to a few weeks ago when I brought this up in lecture.

I used an episode from the Gillman Heights saga (too byzantine to relate in full here) to illustrate culture and discourse. It might come in handy in the future…

A bit of background… Gillman Heights is the condo complex that we had lived in since landing in Singapore (started with just two of us and expanded exponentially… dog, kids, live-in-domestic-help). Over the past year or more, it has gone through an en-bloc sale process, which is still unresolved. The message was that we would have to move. No one I knew was happy about this. GH was one of two designated housing estates for foreign lecturers at NUS. One of the nice things about GH was that it was about half NUS and half private (Singaporean) owners. I liked that mix.

The process of having to move out was very stressful in many ways. Not least of which was that after living there for more than six years, we had built up a very substantial network of friends and neighbors. This was especially true since we have small children. It was a really great community for them.

This issue of ‘en-bloc’ sales, and what it does to communities and social relations has been something of a hot-button issue in Singapore. There is even now a local drama series about it! It had also come up in the local papers.

Around the time we were coming to terms with all of this (in that we had just found a good place to move to – after looking at some 20 places), a letter appeared in the Straits Times:

“Sense of Kampung in Condos Overstated”

This was a reply to an earlier letter regretting the effects of en-bloc sales. (I hadn’t read)

The gist of the letter I read was that people who complained about the way that en-bloc sales hurt their sense of community were disingenuous and just fishing for a higher sales price. I was, I suppose the best word would be offended by the cynical dismissal of the sort of feelings and stresses I and many friends had been going through over the past couple years due to the GH sale.

So, I wrote my own letter, which didn’t make it into the paper but was posted on the online forum. (I had submitted the title “Gillman Heights is Our Kampung”; the ST Forum editors changed it to “It’s Our Kampung, Mr Lau”… stirring the pot a bit, but so be it).

The interesting bit – as an illustration of culture and discourse – is the commentary that accompanied the letter in the ST Forum. There were 19 posts, many banal (and sadly borderline racist). The interesting bit was a string of posts mainly by an author named “PitFighter”. PitFighter mostly trashed my letter and took largely the same stance as the earlier letter writer; mainly saying that I and others were misapplying the idea of “kampung” and that no such thing really existed in contemporary Singapore.

Here is the point about culture and discourse: Culturally, I and Pitfighter and all others engaged in this internet-mediated exchange had a general idea of what we (and each other) meant by “kampung”. In Singapore (as well as Malaysia), kampung is a common and well understood word. It exists, as all words and symbols do, in a field of related words, symbols, concepts and ideas. (For any who have read this far and have no idea what ‘kampung’ means, it is most often translated for non-Singaporeans or non-Malaysians as ‘village’, but also has connotations of ‘community’; in Indonesia, it often refers to neighborhoods in cities, but in Malaysia and Singapore it has a decidedly rural connotation… I wrote a book about this, but I’ll get to that in a minute…)

Culturally, kampung is a meaningful term in Singaporean and Malaysian English. It is precisely because it is a deeply evocative term that I and others use the term when writing about the en-bloc sale issue. Culture, as anthropologists (like myself), use the term refers to systems of meaning. By evoking a particularly potent word like “kampung”, one unleashes a complex network of meanings (in this case having to do with senses of community, neighborliness, mutual self-help, and so on). The power of the word lies in the fact that this system of meaning is more-or-less shared among those engaged in dialog. If the same letter were published in an American newspaper few if any readers would know what it meant.

But, here is the trick of culture. Meanings are always open to interpretation, revision, debate. That occurs through discourse – through culture (or more narrowly, language) put into action. Meaning is produced, reproduced and at times transforms (changes) through use.

The exchange between PitFighter and me in the STForum is a great example of that. We are basically asserting two somewhat competing versions of what “kampung” means. I was stressing the sense in which it means “community” or a network of people living near one another who a mutually supportive in a variety of ways. But, in Singapore (as well as Malaysia, though there are differences), “kampung” also has connotations of rurality, and more importantly is associated with tradition, the past, and everything that is the antithesis of “modernity”. As one or more of the authors disparagingly remark about a “kampung mentality” – unwillingness to change, stuck in the past, narrowminded.

Culturally, and discursively, there is no right or wrong, correct or incorrect usage. This is one aspect, by the way, of where ‘cultural relativism’ comes into anthropology. (Some people who study culture take the normative – that is to say, most common – usage as the ‘correct’ one; but one has to be careful about that, because it can have the effect of inappropriately and inaccurately portraying meaning as a fixed property; which it most certainly is not!).

My sense (without having done any confirmatory testing) is that in Singapore, perhaps more than Malaysia, the negative associations of kampung with a backwards mentality is especially strong. I would conjecture that this may in part have to do with the intensive campaign over many years in Singapore’s early post-independence history to move people out of kampungs (villages) and into HDB flats (highrises). To do this, among other things, it was necessary to drive home to people all the negative (or supposedly negative) aspects of ‘kampung’ from the idea of a backwards mentality to the lack of various modern facilities.

PitFighter and others in the forum thread are expressing and emphasizing these negative associations with the idea of ‘kampung’; while also arguing that many of the positive aspects of kampung (children running from house to house) are in an condo complexes a mere shadow of what was found in “real kampung”. [In this, they may well have a point; in fact in my book I argue that many of the social networks imagined to exist in kampung are much less tightly knit even in places now considered to be “really real kampung” in Malaysia in the late twentieth century.]

But in this exchange, there is not any right or wrong in the sense of referential reality (there isn’t some “real kampung” that we can go to in order to test my ideas against those of PitFighter); rather the issue is whose vision and concept of “kampung” is to predominate within Singaporean culture (or at least the culture of those who read and/or are influenced by the discourse found in the pages and website of the Straits Times). My own take is that I am arguing for the importance of localized “neighborly” communities. And from my point of view, PitFighter and several of the other contributers are inappropriately asserting that there is a necessary conflict between maintaining and nurturing such communities (on the one hand) and the dictates of progress and modernity on the other. (They might see the argument differently; and that is fine.)

There is much, much more of interest in this exchange. The implication (though not direct accusation) that a couple of “ang moh” (myself and the other writer with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name) were misappropriating the term “kampung” was interesting. There is much to be said about the issue of positionality (assumed, imputed, or otherwise). [Dia kata aku tak pernah ‘rasa’ hidupan di kampung. Alamak! Aku dah duduk di kampung yang pasti lebih ‘ulu’ dari kampung di Singapura!! Apalagi, itu sebuah kampung Melayu yang ‘betul, betul kampung!’. Walaupun aku seorang Mat Salleh, aku agak dah rasa kehidupan kampung…. But I digress.]

I’m running out of steam now, and will have to look back over this to see if it makes my point about the relationship between culture (as a system of meaning) and discourse (that system put into action, so to speak); and how through discourse, culture is contested – meanings are contested – and can change over time. As I said to the class when I used this example – they are (mostly) Singaporeans, its is up to them to read such exchanges, make of it what they will, engaging in the discourse themselves, be consumers but also producers (and creators) of meaning.

May 3, 2008 Posted by | Teaching | , , , , | Leave a comment