The Culture Concept: Writing and Difference in the Age of Realism

The Culture Concept: Writing and Difference in the Age of Realism

The Culture Concept: Writing and Difference in the Age of Realism

The Culture Concept: Writing and Difference in the Age of Realism

Synopsis

"Culture" is a term we commonly use to explain the differences in our ways of living. In this book Michael A. Elliott returns to the moment this usage was first articulated, tracing the concept of culture to the writings -- folktales, dialect literature, local color sketches, and ethnographies -- that provided its intellectual underpinnings in turn-of-the-century America.

The Culture Concept explains how this now-familiar definition of "culture" emerged during the late nineteenth century through the intersection of two separate endeavors that shared a commitment to recording group-based difference -- American literary realism and scientific ethnography. Elliott looks at early works of cultural studies as diverse as the conjure tales of Charles Chesnutt, the Ghost-Dance ethnography of James Mooney, and the prose narrative of the Omaha anthropologist-turned-author Francis La Flesche. His reading of these works -- which struggle to find appropriate theoretical and textual tools for articulating a less chauvinistic understanding of human difference -- is at once a recovery of a lost connection between American literary realism and ethnography and a productive inquiry into the usefulness of the culture concept as a critical tool in our time and times to come.

Excerpt

In 1989, the German medical historian Barbara Duden commented on the usage of the word “culture” to designate a distinct way of life. “We often forget how recent it is that learned discourse started using the term 'culture,'” she stated. “When I was in my early twenties and studying at the University of Vienna, I recall that the only way to refer to this notion was to say 'Kultur im Sinene des amerikanischen Wortes cultureKultur as in the meaning of the American word 'culture.'” Her remarks raise the questions that have motivated my interest in the history of the concept of culture. What does it mean for this anthropological definition of culture to be identified as the intellectual product of the United States, for “culture” to be an “American” word? How has the American context affected the role the culture concept has played in “learned discourse”? And what other American words may have facilitated the emergence of this key term of our critical vocabulary?

For Duden, the “American word 'culture'” means thinking of culture as socially constructed networks of meaning that divide one human group from another. This definition of culture, with its rejection of social evolution and its implicit endorsement of a kind of relativism, was delineated by a branch of American anthropology headed by Franz Boas, himself a . . .

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