Boris Lvin (bbb) wrote,
Boris Lvin

Раса и культура

Известно, что в наше время любые (ну, или почти любые) идеи о том, что свойства человеческого характера могут иметь наследственно-генетическую природу, принято объявлять "расизмом" и клеймить. Понятно, откуда растет эта традиция - из вполне благородного неприятия расовой ксенофобии.

Известно также, что недруги указанной идеи обычно противопоставляют ей мысль о том, что свойства человеческого характера имеют исключительно культурное происхождение.

В этой связи любопытны замечания, которые сделал известный славист-музыковед Ларс Ли в своей рецензии на несколько книг - включая одну Эстер Кингстон-Манн (которую я, видимо, читать не буду), и другую Янни Коцониса (которую я считаю исключительно ценной; к счастью, ее уже перевели на русский).

Рецензия называется "Experts and Peasants", напечатана в журнале Kritika, № 4 за 2001 год

Эти замечания формально отталкиваются от обсуждения указанных книг, но на самом деле имеют вполне самостоятельное значение. Вот они:

A Skeptical Look at "Culture"

A central part of the rhetorical strategy of the books under review is the concept of "culture." This is especially true of Kingston-Mann and Kotsonis. Kingston- Mann insists on "culture": she puts it in her title and makes it a central part of her case. She uses it primarily in an ideological way: anyone who disagrees with her about the peasant obshchina is disrespectful of peasant culture. Kotsonis uses the word more casually, yet it is ubiquitous in both his material and his commentary. For Kotsonis, as for Kingston-Mann, the agronomists’ dislike of peasant malokul'turnost' shows their lack of appreciation for genuine peasant culture. Kotsonis also uses the word in an explanatory way to support his "permanent backwardness" thesis. Why were Russian agronomists so uniquely dismissive of peasant potential? Kotsonis argues that it was because an autocratic political culture based on caste unconsciously permeated their outlook.

A full engagement with these books requires some grappling with the concept of culture. These two particular cases can serve as a springboard for some general reflections, since the use of "culture" is of course very widespread. My plea will be for a more distanced and critical use of the word, given its fantastic array of meanings and connotations.

My first observation is that culture-talk seems to saturate today’s – well, today’s culture (hard to avoid, this word). The Left uses it, the Right uses it, the academy uses it, the street uses it – the word is found in a thousand book titles and myriad letters to the editor. We are exhorted to be "culturally tolerant." We are called "culturally illiterate" if we do not know who said "to be or not to be." "Culture" is an easy, off-hand, throw-away word that hardly requires thought. We are awash in "culture."

Given this context, it behooves those who want to use "culture" in scholarly analysis to show some rigor about the meaning of the term. The books under review fail to do this. Kotsonis uses it casually without critical reflection. Kingston-Mann, it is true, gives us a definition of the term, but it is stuck back in the end-notes, as if she knew it would not be of interest for most readers. She defines culture as "a complex of all the symbols and values that create the ideological frame of reference through which people attempt to deal with the circumstances in which they find themselves". This definition is not particularly helpful. Who exactly has culture – individuals or groups? Is she referring to all the symbols and values that give meaning to my life and that are presumably to some degree unique to myself? Or is she referring only to the symbols and values I share with others? If only shared values count, then with whom are they shared? Is it the people in Montreal where I now live, the Americans I grew up with, the academics I keep in touch with by e-mail, or the music-lovers I see in concert halls? Kingston-Mann speaks of "a Western culture which includes the social science of economics." Does she mean to imply that all of Western society shares a unique complex of symbols and values? What exactly do I culturally share with, say, the 19th-century Catholic Quebecois habitants whose genes I share? What does Kingston-Mann mean when she speaks of a complex of symbols and values – a tight structure of interacting symbols similar to language (according to some theorists), or merely a set of loosely connected symbols and values? Some of my own values, alas, directly contradict each other – does this mean they are not part of a "complex"? Are we talking about official beliefs or genuine beliefs? Is behavior included in the definition of culture? Is it possible for behavior to be noncultural – that is, not influenced by my beliefs and values? And if not, what do we gain by asserting that culture is a cause (or even the only cause) of behavior?

Any use of "culture" as a serious analytic tool must rest on answers to questions like these. But in most cases "culture" is little more than a casual term of rhetoric. In the present case, Kingston-Mann and Kotsonis use "culture" mainly to attack Russian intellectuals who exhibit "cultural intolerance," who are prisoners of "tsarist political culture," and who choose the wrong part of "Western culture" to emulate. Thus Kingston-Mann announces the target of her book to be anybody who denies that "peasants possessed values, institutions, or a "way of life," i.e., a culture, to which they might feel some loyalty". She means to say to which they might justifiably feel some loyalty – everybody realized that the peasants were loyal to certain values and institutions, but many thought that these were bad values and bad institutions and therefore that peasant loyalty was foolish.

This point brings up the question: is Kingston-Mann’s use of "culture" a particularly effective tool in her defense of the obshchina? "Culture" was not invented to explain change but to explain lack of change. To use "culture" to explain innovative, open-minded, economically rational behavior is possible, I suppose, but it goes against the grain of the historical use of the concept, and there are other sophisticated conceptual tools that do the job better. Kingston-Mann assures us constantly that the obshchina was actually quite flexible, that it did not inhibit economic progress, that it responded to various needs that outside observers tended to ignore, and so forth. That is, she wants us to believe not only that the peasants felt loyal to the obshchina, not only that that this loyalty was legitimate, but also that it was rational. But might not this be better handled by some variety of economic or rational choice theory that brings out the hidden strengths of the obshchina (along with its costs, because, pace Kingston-Mann, there must have been some costs)? Such a defense would be stronger than merely asserting peasants had a right to their way of life.

So far I have tried to bring out some of the ambiguities and difficulties of the culture concept that we all use so freely and easily. But there is an important technical difficulty in its use by historians of Russia, especially Russia at the turn of the century: the people in those days used the word "culture" all the time themselves, but their usage came from a tradition and with a set of connotations very different from our use of "culture." (Should I say that we have different "culture cultures"?) The potential for confusion is illustrated by Yanni Kotsonis’s book, in which two very different uses of the word jostle together: "kul'tura" as used by the social agronomists and "culture" as used by Kotsonis himself in his running commentary. Kotsonis never reflects critically on the clash of meanings that results.

To make a stab at sorting out the issues: kul'tura was a hierarchical conception that implied the need for the people to acquire some basic skills and habits that the elite already had. The main connotation of malokul'turnost', as far as I can make out, was deficiency in literacy and hygiene. Reading and bathing were the lower rungs of a ladder that eventually led to highbrow musings on art and literature by the "highly cultured." Thus kul'tura was quantitative: you could have more or less of it. This outlook implies, indeed insists, that malokul'turnost' was removable. Thus the fact that the agronomists harped on peasant malokul'turnost' argues against Kotsonis’s "permanent backwardness" thesis.

Of course, this set of connotations has not died out today, as we demonstrate when we call someone an "uncultured slob." But the anthropological view of culture that percolated into the public domain starting with its popularization by writers such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead is strikingly different. According to this outlook, everybody has a culture – and indeed, the more wild, strange, and incomprehensible someone’s behavior seems at first glance, the more fun we have in demonstrating that it really all emanates from "culture." From this point of view, to call someone "uncultured" is not to call that person ignorant or uneducated, but rather subhuman, beast-like.

We may also ask: what word used back then is closest to what we mean today by "culture"? I would argue for a surprising answer: "race." This answer is not as paradoxical as it seems. Back then (and even in some quarters today) "race" did not have an exclusively biological definition. It often just meant a large group of people who shared a historical destiny and were in some way similar to each other. The early popularizers of "culture" attacked the biological aspect – what we would call the racist aspect – of this kind of concept. But in so doing, they allowed many of the other assumptions of "race" to become embedded in "culture." These assumptions included ideas about group identity based on an integral way of life, the existence of rather sharp boundaries between groups, the possibility of ranking groups hierarchically, and the difficulty and slowness of real change.

This last aspect is worth stressing. While the early popularizers of "culture" rebelled against the racist assumption of relative immutability, they left the door wide open to the existence of a "national character" that changes slowly and usually superficially. Because of this, culture-talk can easily be used as a weapon of prejudice and xenophobia – in fact, it is much more convenient in this regard than a rhetoric of race that has become thoroughly unrespectable. It is crude to say "expansionism is in the DNA of the Russians" – but it often passes for wisdom and insight to say "Russian culture is imperialist." As this example is intended to show, we specialists in Russian affairs have a particular reason to be wary of this kind of culture-talk: it is the rhetorical weapon of choice of Russophobia. Who has not heard explanations of the Russians’ current problems based on their unfortunate cultural traits, such as envy, sloth, risk-aversion, dependence – you name it.


To sum up: "culture" is more of a convenient rhetorical weapon than a serious tool of analysis. It is so widely used and over-used today that it is legitimate to doubt how meaningful it really is. Specialists in the Russian field who feel the need to adopt it need to keep two things in mind. First, the clash between "culture" and "kul'tura" requires explicit critical attention. Second, all of us should be aware of the widespread use of "culture" as a vehicle for irresponsible generalizations about the Russian people.

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