Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Response to Arjun Appadurai's "The Future As Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition"

Drawing on delineations of culture in the anthropological canon and their intersection with Appadurai's use of the term in his recent book "The Future As Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition", Hylton White thinks through the entanglement of culture, history and economy.
There is so much one could say about these essays, which advance but also reorient, or at least mark a quite significant shift of emphasis in Appadurai’s work, extending but retooling his effort to put together a theoretical vision that he thinks would be more adequate to the world that has been created since the collapse of the socialist project. As extensions of his earlier work, they of course take the global condition as a starting point, both conceptually and in the kinds of empirical objects to which almost all of the essays attend. Whether he is writing about financial speculation, or urban social movements, or the meaningful conditions of possibility for popular violence, especially against minorities, Appadurai is never very far from concerns that all of us, in every part of the world, would recognize as being some of the most immediately compelling ones that face us in our own respective surroundings. So although he quite emphatically takes the stance of “the view from Mumbai” (113ff) here, that view will not disorient or seem overly unfamiliar to people who engage the world from Johannesburg, or even from New York. Anything else would be surprising, of course, since Appadurai reminds us several times here of an idea that he has made key to his own understanding of the peculiar shape that “the structure of the conjuncture” (Sahlins 1981) takes in a world like ours: the idea that the local is not just a work in messy progress, just as much as the global is, but also, even more to the point, that the local is itself a space created only by, even as, the confluence of many lines of global composition. If Marx (1857) described the concrete as being concrete because of its many determinations, Appadurai says that the local is the local because of its concentration of many globalizations. To discern and give names to those lines of composition is his project here as much as it was in Modernity at Large, even if, as he notes in his introduction to this collection, the world of the new millennium is one that makes us attend as much to the “bumps” as to the “flows” of global order. 

As the title tells us, the making of the future is the arena where Appadurai wants to pursue this broader theoretical agenda now, and in that we already see a shift not just in object but also in orientation. On re-reading now, as Chapter 1 in this volume, the well-known introduction to The Social Life of Things, we are reminded that Appadurai has long conceived of the social world as a kind of informational space: a domain where diverse imaginations cluster on a topography of pathways, conveyances, enclaves, diversions, overflows. The reference to “bumps” will signal that this spatial conception of social facts continues in the new work as well. But by Chapter 15, on “The Future as Cultural Fact,” we have moved towards a much more pressing concern with time. By giving that last essay’s title to the collection as a whole, Appadurai positions the book in some ways as a response to Jane Guyer’s call (2007) for an anthropology of the futures people posit, fear, await, defer, or dissolve in their activities. Also much like Guyer, Appadurai wants to investigate these productions of the future by examining the interplay of economy and culture. That intersection is where I want to focus my remarks as well, but let me come to this gradually, by starting with just one of these terms: Appadurai’s notion of culture.
I start there because, as followers of anthropology’s recent intellectual history will know, the irony of the matter is that “culture” is a much less likely term than is “economy” to be found within the title of a major work in the field now. In polite speech among anthropologists in the early 21st century, culture is almost as abject a term as any of the discipline’s repudiated inheritances. Yet Appadurai uses “culture” in the noun form more than a hundred times in these three hundred pages, not counting bibliography, footnotes or headers, and repeatedly in that most avoided plural: “cultures”. Coming from a figure of Appadurai’s generation and stature, this insistence suggests not just analytical method, but manifesto: a statement about the nature and the promise of anthropology, at a time when all the social sciences face great institutional and intellectual difficulties.
To be clear, these are not the “cultures” of Mead and Benedict, let alone of Tylor and the like, and Appadurai is an ambivalent anthropologist. He begins the book by renouncing much of the field as a scrabbling about in a “cabinet of curiosities” (5), aka the ethnological record, and close to the end he complains that anthropologists’ concerns with what is passing from the face of the earth have “confined” (285) the imagination of the discipline. Statements like these have become obligatory gestures of self-distancing embarrassment, of course, and one has to ask what the ritual of their repetition in text after text is covering up in the broader self-conception of the discipline. But despite succumbing at moments to this impulse, Appadurai much more consistently and decisively follows another. Douglas, Dumont and other anthropological theorists animate most of these essays because the concern Appadurai shares with them is an interest in identifying, not so much how culture shapes the behavior of human others, but rather, almost the opposite, how culture allows human actors to make worlds otherwise through their practical activities. This interest in the otherwise of human life is anthropology’s signal contribution to the lexicon of modern critical thinking. Of course it can be made into a charter for fixating on the essentialisms of otherness, but most of anthropology’s major theorists have in one way or another treated culture as a doorway onto the open-ness of the human condition, rather than to its closure. As Andrew Sartori puts it in his account (2005) of the global history of the culture concept, wherever culture appears as a term in modern intellectual life, in South Asia, Europe or elsewhere, it does so because it articulates the emergence of a new interest in the underdetermination of human affairs by externalities or givens. Although he does not put it in so many words, and in fact refuses to offer us a definition of culture as such, Appadurai is firmly in that tradition here when he describes the making of futures as a cultural activity.
Specifically, in Appadurai’s scheme, culture is linked to the open-ness of human life by the fact that our assemblages of representation, disposition, practice and thought are the media for the development of two distinctive capacities for being otherwise. The first of these is the ability to imagine forms of human life as forms of life worth living: what Appadurai calls the capacity to aspire (126). The second is the capacity to devise the social ecologies, the material, institutional and intellectual arrangements, within which lives worth living are plausibly livable: a dimension of what Appadurai calls “the social life of design” (257ff). In both respects, Appadurai is pursuing a set of interests in the construction of worth as an aspect of human activity, in a way that marks the book, among many other things, as contributing to the renewal of a broader anthropological interest in questions to do with value (Graeber 2001, Lambek 2008, Robbins 2013). The capacity to aspire is a cultural one, Appadurai says, because it involves positioning oneself with evermore confidence and competence in a field that comprises, not just individual means and ends, but collective understandings of the good that make those means and ends the elements of value that they are. At stake here are the many visions of well-being and of worthiness in human life that people have developed and continue to develop in the context of particular forms of collective social existence. And likewise for the latter: Appadurai says that forms of life can be re-conceived in the active voice, not as so many given patterns of culture, but rather as the pragmatic, contested, aspirational making of valued social environments in the face of all the forces that oppose such human designs.
To put Appadurai’s argument in other words, the capacity to be otherwise that we call culture is a vector of ethical reaching: a capacity that always stands at least partially, potentially, in a negative, even in a critical relationship to given states of affairs--rather than simply reflecting or affirming them. But then what is the worldly life of this capacity? Where do we find it, and how can it be nurtured? Again, two things stand out within Appadurai’s account of this. One is that, being cultural, the capacity to aspire is not an individual property but a relational one. One cannot hope to be otherwise except through others. But the second is that it is not the default condition of a social existence either. For one thing, it is unequally distributed: more readily at hand for the rich and powerful than for the poor (188). For another thing, and this is the major theme of the essay that gives the book its title, the capacity to aspire involves “an ethics of possibility” or of open-ness, and this is an ethos Appadurai puts in stark contrast with another one, an “ethics of probability” that animates much of our social life as well. The latter is the ethic of the contemporary financialized economy as he portrays it, and so we come to the question of the relationship between culture and economy in his argument. In the present age, as Appadurai describes it, the relationship between culture and economy is an antagonistic relationship between two kinds of spirit or ethos: one in which the diversity of collective goods is imagined, another in which the impulse is instead to manage risks. What global futures emerge for us in coming years will depend on which of these spirits is victorious. 
There is much to find appealing and inspiring in this argument. I am especially drawn to Appadurai’s conception of culture as value-creating praxis, which I think will help us return to a range of questions that were once at the critical edge of anthropology, but which we have left unanswered since we turned away from realist approaches to the analysis of culture (Turner 1984; Munn 1986; Comaroff and Comaroff 1991). But I also want to ask questions of Appadurai’s scheme, and especially about how far the economy of our time is really susceptible to being understood in terms of the language of spirit.
In that regard, Appadurai’s model is Weber, of course, and especially the question that Weber leaves to his readers at the very end of The Protestant Ethic, when he asks what will take the place of a Calvinist ethos that gave up its life as spirit when the technical and the institutional forms of modern capitalism objectified and materialized it. Appadurai says that the calculation of risk is more and more becoming the logic of this economy. (In the final part of the book, he also describes the emergence of a “spirit of uncertainty” (238) that gambles on the inadequacy of the instruments or devices that pursue such calculations, but the ethics of probability is nonetheless the driving force at work.) When Appadurai uses this argument to take on Callon (1998) and others who see the economy as an actor-network, I find myself in sympathy—but asking nonetheless what would have given rise to probabilistic thinking, as well as to gambles against it, if the calculating devices themselves are indeed not enough to explain the kind of spirit that puts them to work. Here I claim no historical expertise at all, but surely one could speculate that spirit and device alike are responses to the experience of an objective condition of practical uncertainty, created by the irrational and impersonal logic of capital as an overarching socio-historical reality. Ever since The Social Life of Things, Appadurai has resisted any attempt to conceive of capitalism as, in his words there, repeated here, “a vast impersonal machine, governed by large-scale movements” (52). But might it not be the case that the sheer abstraction, inscrutability, and crisis-ridden gyrations of a “vast impersonal machine” of growth are themselves the very conditions of necessity for the kinds of calculations, risks and gambles that Appadurai identifies. It is certainly an option Weber himself considered and left in play, when he talked about the way that spirit in general had fled from the metal forms of modernity. 
If this were the case, it would mean that several parts of Appadurai’s story could be narrated somewhat differently. It might help us think about modernization theory in another light, for example. Appadurai says that modernization theory is misunderstood when it is regarded as essentially, or formally, Eurocentric (228), a point with which I agree. But he also says that modernization theory is an example of a species of thought that he labels as trajectorist, or focused on progressive developmentalism. And trajectorism is a habit of thought that he does describe as peculiarly Western both in origin and in impulse (224). No doubt there are resources in the Western tradition on which such thinking could base itself, but within that same tradition one could just as easily find resources for cyclical and other nonlinear ways of considering time. Surely the question is not whether Western thought is itself trajectorist, but under what historical conditions its trajectorist possibilities become the most compelling ones by comparison with others. Could we not see historical experiences of capitalist growth as one major spur towards towards this selection of linear images? This would certainly help explain why we see a similar faith in development emerge in the non-Western world at times in the modern age as well, which we cannot do so readily when we root that faith in uniquely Western legacies.
More broadly, though, to take seriously the impersonal logic of capital would mean that the vectors of culture and economy relate to one another not as two competing spirits in the modern age, but rather as spirit and system. We would have to take Marx as seriously as Weber in constructing such an account of the economy, and then we would have to ask in what ways capital relates to the conditions of possibility for culture. If culture is the condition for the capacity to be otherwise, then what we would have to consider here is the relationship between capitalism and freedom. In such an account, the limit to the capacity to aspire would be more than its unequal distribution between the rich and the poor, as much as that is important. Understanding the limit to the capacity to aspire would require that we also trace how human action everywhere is mediated, deferred and disconnected through its dependence on the forms of economic life dictated by the peculiar nature of capital. And although he would not put it this way, I think this is where Appadurai’s conception of culture as freedom takes us almost necessarily.

Hylton White is senior lecturer and head of department at the Anthropology Department, University of the Witwatersrand