Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture

By Susan Hegeman | Go to book overview

2
Dry Salvages: Spatiality, Nationalism,
and the Invention of an “Anthropological”
Culture

HAVING, in the last chapter, discounted one modernist fable that would name anthropologist Franz Boas the creator of “culture,” I must now reconstruct the case for a nearly indisputable point: that in a more complex way Boas was central to the creation of both the culture concept and the professional discipline of anthropology in America, and that he is an exemplary figure in the intellectual life of his moment. Moreover, I do see him as having instantiated a distinct conceptual break from previous views of human life, a break that enabled a wide variety of thinkers, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Horace Kallen, and Randolph Bourne (discussed at the end of this chapter) to reconceive racial, immigrant, national, and international identity in important new ways. However, I think it is something of a misreading to see Boas's contribution as being fundamentally antihierarchical or evaluatively relativist in nature; rather, his crucial intervention might be more properly described as a spatial reorganization of human differences.

To get at this point—and to stress the fundamentally modernist nature of this gesture—I will begin with what might seem to some like a detour, by invoking the idea of the “salvage,” a concept that rhetorically links an anthropological practice of Boas's early career with modernist literature, via the work of T. S. Eliot. The connection of Eliot to Boas is intended to be provocative: though a famous citer of anthropological texts, Eliot's persona as modernism's “public face” was that of an often obscure elitist, whose own controversial contributions to the meaning of culture called for the (re-)empowerment of a cultural aristocracy. 1 Moreover, the anthropology he did champion was the very kind of work, evolutionary comparativism, that Boas is most commonly seen as having delegitimated. Thus doubly antithetical to many conceptions of the Boasian “cultural” legacy—a spokesman for both “high culture” and outmoded ethnological thinking—Eliot' s work is, I will argue, similar to Boas's in one basic respect: namely, the common experience of a shift characteristic of modernism generally from conceptions of human history based on a vision of lineal, temporal advancement, to a more complex historical understanding that incorporates the possibility of spatial differences in humanity.

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