Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State

By Allen, Peter S. | Anthropological Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State


Allen, Peter S., Anthropological Quarterly


Michael Herzfeld, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State. New York and London: Routledge, December, 2004 (2nd edition), 280 pp.

From his earliest days in the discipline, Michael Herzfeld has shown an inordinate interest in theory. His first book, Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modem Greece, is a theoretical treatise and even his ethnographies (The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village; A Place in History: Social and Monumental Time in a Cretan Town; and The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value) are notable for their combination of high quality ethnographic description and extensive theorizing. Other books, like Anthropology through the Looking-Glass: Critical Ethnography in the Margins of Europe and The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy, are entirely theoretical. Even his introductory textbook is entitled, Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society. Moreover, virtually all of his dozens of published articles are largely theoretical commentaries. The trajectories of his career and publications strongly suggest that Herzfeld is determined to make a truly significant theoretical contribution, not just to the discipline of anthropology or even the social sciences in general, but to the intellectual world at large.

With the publication of Cultural Intimacy in 1997, Herzfeld made his bid to join the ranks of the elite company of social theorists of nationalism like Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson whom scholars of nationalism fail to cite at their peril. The concept of "cultural intimacy," despite some criticism (most of it constructive rather than damning), has resonated with scholars from a number of disciplines and now, ten years after Herzfeld coined it, it seems destined to join such seminal concepts as Andersen's "imagined community" and Foucault's "gouvernmentalitè" as sine qua nons of any discourse on the subject of nationalism and the concept of the nation-state.

In and of itself, cultural intimacy is a rather simple and not-very-profound concept. Herzfeld describes it as "the recognition of those aspects of a cultural identity that are considered a source of external embarrassment but that nevertheless provide insiders with their assurance of common sociality..." (3). Exploring what he calls "creative dissent" within the seemingly seamless fabric of the nation-state, he strives to understand how people "can negotiate the terrain of social identity and daily life in the...modern nation-state, and how they can be fiercely patriotic and just as fiercely rebellious at the same time" (91).

Cultural intimacy can be registered in many ways and Herzfeld admits that it is not unrelated to simplistic self-stereotypes or "national traits" like the "stiff upper lip" of the British; but despite the apparent simplicity of this concept, Herzfeld is able to imbue it with profundity while also demonstrating quite convincingly how cultural intimacy has serious implications for our understanding of nationalism and the nation-state. Ultimately Herzfeld achieves his goal of demonstrating that "state ideologies and the intimacy of everyday social life are revealingly similar" (3), even when the latter appear to stand in direct opposition to the former.

One way Herzfeld illustrates this is through an exposure of the ironies, inversions and paradoxes in which he so delights. Throughout the book he demonstrates how disparate groups often invoke the same rhetoric/images/tropes to justify contradictory actions or ideologies. For example, he argues that the law and the lawless often resort to the same clichés when acting in opposition to each other, citing the case of Cretan sheep rustlers and the authorities of the Greek state as well as that of self-styled militias and the U.S. government, all of whom invoke a "formerly perfect social order" to justify their contradictory actions (109). …

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