When I hear the word “culture”…

For more than a hundred years anthropology has been spreading sweetness and light. And now that the results are in—now that even the strangest customs from the remotest places have been recognized as truly human and entirely natural—it is plain that the popular verdict has been an enthusiastic assent. Its ethical understandings are widely regarded as benign. Its politics are as congenial to the liberal imagination as they are to the radical mind. Its broader implications have been sympathetically received by a wide range of people who have gladly melded its doctrines with their own. And if there is any one thing which explains this congeniality and appeal it is the persuasive conception of ‘culture’ which anthropology has bestowed upon the world.–Roger Sandall

Immanuel Wallerstein’s view of “culture” is especially attuned to its politicization, as an ideological construct, and as a weapon in contemporary civilizational debates in the capitalist world-system–culture as the ideological battlefield of the modern world system, as he says. It is a view of culture that I had adopted from before I entered anthropology for the first time, as a graduate student. One of Wallerstein’s favourite quotes is this:

“Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun”

“Wenn ich ‘Kultur’ höre, nehme ich meine Pistole.”

–which is often attributed to Hermann Wilhelm Göring (photo), commander of the Luftwaffe in Nazi Germany. We are told by others that it was in fact a common Nazi cliché, that was varied and used by several prominent Nazi officials, and that the line originally came from the 1933 play, Schlageter, where the line was:

“Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning!”

The phrase has become popular beyond Nazi usage. On the Web we can read the following renditions, and if you trust Google, the phrase has become most popular throughout the last thirty years, maybe not more than in Nazi Germany, but certainly for longer. In each case, a view of culture is expressed, sometimes mocking the concept, other times trivializing it, and often pointing to the same ways it has become instrumentalized in contemporary conflict. I am not sure an anthropological conception–or which one–has won out here. If Sandall thinks anthropology’s conception of culture has been persuasive, it often sounds like anthropology merely provided a word, and others fill in its meanings. Here are some of the more interesting examples that I found playing on the Johst/Göring line, to be found widely, as copied here primarily from books, newspaper articles, and lastly websites.

What do I do when I hear the word “culture”? I reach for my copy of the Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual.

When I hear the word “culture”…

…I reach for my gum (Babe Ruth?)

…I know it must be an anthropologist speaking (Hillary Lapsley)

…I reach for my computer (Billy the Hacker)

…I reach for my source code (David Darts)

…I reach for my mirror (Eric Herring)

…I reach for my knife (Sidney Hook)

…I reach for my Bible (The Irish Times)

…I reach for my Rangers scarf (on a forum for discussion of politics in Northern Ireland)

…I reach for my dictionary (David Barton & Martyn Bond)

…I [also] reach for my dictionary (Paul Bowman)

…I reach for my statistics (The Economist)

…I reach for my wallet (Ayn Rand)

…I reach for my purse (unnamed Treasury official in Ottawa)

…I take out my checkbook (Barbara Kruger)

…I reach for a set of job descriptions? A training plan? An organization chart? (John O’Connell, Jon Pyke, Roger Whitehead)

…I reach for the doorknob (Newsweek)

…I reach for the remote control to flip channels before the show gets too boring [preceded by “When I hear ‘postmodern culture’] (Yahya R. Kamalipour)

…I don’t reach for my gun. Instead I reach for Marx or for Mills and say that there are elite and mass definitions of social situations (Gary A. Kreps)

…I reach for my textbook on institutional theory (Crooked Timber)

…I reach for my mouth (Andrew Duncan)

…I reach for my identity (John Tusa)

…I switch on the radio (Virginia Madsen)

…I reach for my sex (Scott Fraser)

…I reach for the strudel (Gary North)

…I sit down at the table (mi accomodo a la tavola) (Franco Castelli)

…a bird EmErgEs from his [Satan’s] mouth (Padcha Tuntha-obas)

…I reach for my NOM (another stupid lolcat, directed at another stupid lolcat)

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23 thoughts on “When I hear the word “culture”…

  1. ishtar

    After the Iraqi first taste of US democracy, our motto now is :

    Whenever I hear the word “democracy”, I reach for my gun.

  2. ryan a

    ya, “culture” is another one of those terms that anthropologists helped to popularize long ago, and that they are now trying to combat in certain respects. another anthropological frankenstein that gets used for all sorts of political purposes. one fairly recent use of the term that drove me crazy was when david brooks argued that a lot of the socio-economic problems in haiti were due to “the culture” of the haitian people. as if there was one blanket cultural behavior that all haitians share. samuel huntington and lawrence harrison are two others who like to make huge generalizations based upon a particular understanding of whatever culture is. i can see why some people want to ditch the term entirely…

  3. Jeremy Trombley

    I can see the concerns with the concept, and I admit I’ve been struggling with this a lot lately, but I’m still not quite ready to give up the concept. Here’s a short post I did to add to your list.
    When I hear the Word “Culture”….
    Basically, I agree that there’s a problem with the essentialized usage of the term, as in Huntington, Harrison, and Brooks. But I think the term still captures some of the sense of external influence that comes with any kind of interaction. I’d love to hear other opinions, because I’d love to get this one settled in my head once and for all. :)

  4. Stacie Gilmore

    Culture reminds me too much of scientific taxonomy, dividing the world into species and subspecies based on observed similarities and differences. What’s the value in sorting people like that? So we can find different varieties to showcase in museums? I don’t like classifying people, but I do sometimes find it useful to see how other people classify/identify/group themselves and others. I know that some anthropologists try hard to define culture in other ways, and some of it’s very interesting and has helped me out at times, but it also gets convoluted.

    If you’re trying to work with a large group of people and can’t take the time to get to know each one, maybe identifying a common culture gives you a “best guess” method to make decisions.

    That said, I’d rather know people as individuals anyday than as cultural types. Usually what intrigues and fascinates me about other people isn’t for anthropological treatises. And if I don’t know someone that personally, I feel I shouldn’t be writing about them at all, at least not as a “people expert.”

  5. clive palmer

    “For more than a hundred years anthropology has been spreading sweetness and light. And now that the results are in—now that even the strangest customs from the remotest places have been recognized as truly human and entirely natural—it is plain that the popular verdict has been an enthusiastic assent. Its ethical understandings are widely regarded as benign. Its politics are as congenial to the liberal imagination as they are to the radical mind. Its broader implications have been sympathetically received by a wide range of people who have gladly melded its doctrines with their own. And if there is any one thing which explains this congeniality and appeal it is the persuasive conception of ‘culture’ which anthropology has bestowed upon the world.–Roger Sandall”

    Come on Mr Forte, you can do better than that! Roger Sandall is an extremely peripheral figure in social anthropology. He holds a very narrow set of views and seems forever targetting STRAW MEN. I suggest Jeremy, Stacy and Ryan READ his book and make up their own minds before agreeing here with Mr Forte – that is if they are a mind apart from Mr Forte.

    I think I have read upwards of 1000 or so ethnographic works over the years and possess many more in my library that I have only glanced at.

    Never have I seen anthropology spreading sweetness and light.

    1. Jeremy Trombley

      Clive, I’m sorry but I always take issue with the idea that I do not think for myself. Did you read my post? Does it not convey the fact that I’ve struggled with this concept on my own and for my own reasons? I know Stacy and Ryan and know that they have done so as well.
      Instead of coming around claiming that we’re merely parrots with no minds of our own, while boasting about your massive ethnographic library (what are you compensating for?), why not offer a different perspective? Why do you think culture is a valuable concept? How does it contribute to your thought? How have you thought through the critiques of Culture from Wallerstein to Abu-Lughod? Or do you merely parrot your precious books?

      1. clive palmer

        Your post was somewhat parrot fashion in the sense that you imitate Mr Forte’s nonsensicle post. Let me ask you a question: Which social anthropologist (say the last 40 years) has used the word culture in any sense other than as a hold all for convenience sake. I am not compensating for anything Jeremy; my point is that I have never seen culture used in the way Sandall or Forte says it is, and I have read a fair whack of ethnography. My question to you is why is Forte on this prolonged rant?

    2. Jeremy Trombley

      Sensical or not, my post was not a parrot of Max’s. I suggest that the concept may still have some value and explain what Culture means to me. But I then point out that it is used in so many different ways that it’s almost worthless to think about and might be better to come up with something different to avoid the Huntingtons and Brooks of the world. If the post is vague, it’s because I’m not completely convinced of either position – not because I’m trying to emulate Max.
      Honestly, if you hadn’t come in here insulting me and my friends, I probably would have just kept quiet and let Max respond. But it really pisses me off when someone implies that I don’t have a mind of my own. I wouldn’t make that assumption about you, no matter how strongly I disagreed with you. Can’t I agree with Max and others on some points without simply being written off as a mere puppet?

    3. Stacie Gilmore

      Clive, if we were parrots, you would’ve seen us whipping out our counter-counterinsurgency manuals.

      Discussing the concept of culture is common in anthropology, and sometimes it blurs into sociology and discussion of the relationship between society and the individual. But, I will give you the benefit of the doubt that, since you know nothing about us, you mistakenly read our comments as parroting what Max said. Although, it does get tedious to have to explain this over and over again. I’d encourage people to consider the possibility that individuals are in fact individuals before ranting about an army of mini-Maxes clawing at the doors and scaling the walls, as if he’s hatching them from eggs in a back room. More likely, you just need to get your eyes checked.

      I’m curious, though, about all those ethnographies you’ve read. What do you do Clive? Why do you read so much ethnography? All kinds of ethnographies or do you look for specific types? Why do you find them useful?

    4. ryan a

      Dear Clive,

      What point are you trying to make? And why are you telling me to go read Sandall before commenting? Did I mention him? Hmmm…no. Did you actually read what I wrote, or did you just skip the reading part and fill in the blanks for yourself?

      1. Maximilian Forte

        Clive, in case you’re interested in knowing, is perfectly free to come back and post here again without anything to block him. Apparently, for now, he chooses not to, which is a good idea if he planned on posting more of the same.

  6. clive palmer

    Jeremy and Stacy, I apologize if you feel I have “over stepped” too heavily among the more sensitive parts of this “mind”. I never meant to “insult” you – obviously “cultural difference” there LOL. Nevertheless, my observations and comments are accurate. I used the term “parrot fashion” to highlight that your posts mimic Max’s on a number of fronts. From a syntax analysis point of view its very interesting. You should check! As for being able to think for yourself – its probably a moot point – as it is with all of us. “Mini-Maxes” – brilliant, now that made me laugh.

    1. Jeremy Trombley

      Really? A crude syntax analysis is all it took for you to reduce our four agencies to a singular mind? Your observations and comments are BS if that’s all you have to support them. Why would you think that’s not insulting? In the future you should be more considerate – think before you comment.

  7. Stacie Gilmore

    Ok, I don’t even see the syntactical simliarities. All I can draw is that you argue we are targeting straw men because the culture concept isn’t as important as we make it out to be, that’s it’s just used as a hold for convenience. Others would argue that culture is the central concept of anthropology that holds the four subfields together. Note that Max even uses culture in his analyses, e.g. in discussion of Western imperial culture.

    That said, the question goes beyond anthropology because “culture” is used in many contexts outside the field. As Max pointed out, “it often sounds like anthropology merely provided a word, and others fill in its meanings.”

    Let’s look at this article on Egypt (just a random article I found on google news by searching for “culture”):


    A picture emerges from Dr. Mohamed EdBaradei’s words on culture, of Egypt as part “culture of fear”, poor, backward, and extremist, and part striving to hold on to its role as a high “beacon of culture,” the epitome of freedom and development. To transform from the one culture to the other, according to him, or to ensure they can maintain the status they already have, requires movement for democratic reform.

    Maybe it sounds nice at first glance, but it’s unclear from his words even what the people are fearful of. The government? Becoming poor and backward? And somehow many of these repressed fearful people are also extremists. He says, “When people are repressed by their own governments, it leads to extremism.” According to him are Egyptians afraid or are they repressed extremists? A bit of both? It’s hard to tell. Furthermore, if there truly is a culture of fear, he plays off that fear by suggesting that if Egyptians don’t achieve democratic reform, their high cultural status will fall, in fact is falling already: “We are losing our role as a beacon of culture for the Arab world. In many areas our country has actually been going backward.”

    Whether you agree or disagree with him, my point is simply that politicians and reformists, like anthropologists, characterise people in cultural terms. Discussion of culture helps them advance certain agendas (i.e. democratic reform) because, to certain other people, ideas like “cultural beacon” or “culture of fear” or the fearful possibility of loss of culture and status have persuasive meaning. Note that this article/interview is also in English targeted at a Western audience.

    To others, like ishtar, such words are probably no longer persuasive, since he says, “Whenever I hear the word “democracy”, I reach for my gun.”

    Those of us who study anthropology might take that one step further and think it prudent to question and double-check how WE use the concept of culture or how and why we study and write about cultures in the first place.

    1. Jérémy


      Stacie, I only wanted to say that Ishtar is a woman.
      (“Ishtar” is also the name of a goddess)

      Cheers :)

  8. Maximilian Forte

    It’s a bit late for me to jump in, and after 20-30 comments, it hardly seems necessary. I just wanted to offer my praises for Clive Palmer, who has shared some of his considerable light with us by revealing that speaking English makes Anglophones of us all. Who says that we do not plumb the depths of the biggest ideas on this blog?

    Yes, the syntax is very similar: it’s called English grammar.

    If this “Clive Palmer” at any point comes up with an argument of his own, rather than sniping at intelligent guests that he chooses to either belittle or dismiss, then I might have more to add. For now, he chooses to recline into the intellectually lazy position of dropping a few cryptic notes, lifting some passages from Levi-Strauss (L-S is important and special people, not peripheral like Sandall), informing us he has plenty books in his library (whereas I use my bookshelves to store a collection of snow globes and bowling trophies), and treating others as pupils that he will guide through questions…so that they may better write up his argument for him.

    I sense someone who is afraid to make his case. He would rather raze what is in front of him, lest he put his pet theory in jeopardy. Hence, the denial of individuality, rooted in an unspoken admission that stems from a deep seated inferiority complex, and thus the inevitable appeal to authority. I said: don’t let Levi-Strauss do your thinking for you, but he chose to ignore me, since has no other viable option.

    Has Palmer clicked on the Sandall link? Note the title of that essay? That’s how it fits in with this post. Did I praise Sandall, by merely extracting the opening quote from a somewhat dull essay? Or is there someone else that I actually indicated offered a view of culture that I had adopted? Otherwise, about two dozen names appear in this post–does this mean I endorse all of their statements? Palmer doesn’t understand collage, he is stuck on his diagrams of myths. And if he can call that post “a prolonged rant,” then the hyperbole speaks of a personality so delicate that it has probably been raped by a flea.

    Personally, I don’t care about who is peripheral or central because I know enough about how the academic game is played to be wise enough not to take this fandom and god worship too seriously.

    When you believe that individuals don’t matter, you end up with a “world” populated only by parrots, puppets, syntax, and cultural types. This is why some have to learn to put L-S back on the shelf, he died in the 1960s, and his body followed suit recently. I have my own uses for bits of L-S work, but I am careful not to become something useful to his legacy.

    The last thing you do when come to a site calling itself ZERO anthropology, is to expect to see old agendas and encrusted traditions upheld. Go all around this very page, around this post, and count the names of anthropologists you see quoted. Yeats? Eisenhower? Orwell?

    Smarten up Palmer, and don’t insult my guests so carelessly and needlessly again. Your next message will be what your actual argument is, and it was about Wikileaks. Anything else will get ignored.

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  10. Raoul Coutard

    “… I reach for my checkbook”

    Is Godard from Le Mepris /Contempt
    Kruger knows this, that’s where she got it.

  11. MTBradley

    Much as with Boas’ suggestions regarding Inuit terminology for frozen precipitation, anthropologists have succeeded in taking something which had an interesting and fairly delimited point to make in its original context and then all but entirely divorcing its interpretation from that context.

    This is why some have to learn to put L-S back on the shelf, he died in the 1960s, and his body followed suit recently. I have my own uses for bits of L-S work, but I am careful not to become something useful to his legacy.

    Yes, 1972’s La Voie des masques is without a doubt the work of a hack whose intellect had long since dimmed. And FYI, bashing a dead man often turns out to be fairly useful to their legacy.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      If that is what you call “bashing,” then suddenly you have developed an oh so very delicate thin skin, comical and valuable in itself. 1972? Yes, that totally changes my opinion, being two whole years beyond the 1960s. I suppose you had to come here to first hear that Levi-Strauss was one of the most influential, and yet least quoted anthropologists–everyone knew of him and his work, and hardly anyone has used it in the past 40 years. Your last statement is, of course, mere assertion without substance. Sorry to have struck such a raw nerve with you, again. You seem to have so many of them.

      And if you think I was suggesting that L-S is a “hack,” then you make one of yourself. Criticism, and noting what everyone already knows, that L-S’ work is no longer on the tips of everyone’s tongues, is not the same as saying he was a brainless dimwit (which is where you come in). It is to note what everyone in anthropology presumably knew already, that since the 1960s a radical series of shifts occurred in anthropology, especially with greater interest in political economy and history. But no, you have to read the personal and petty into all of this, because that is your contribution, again.

      To correct your first statement, this is not a post about anthropologists: hardly any are mentioned. It is in fact about how others react to the term, what it means to them, and how often culture is embroiled in battle. That’s all really, not a very heavy post–not when my closest friend (a non-anthropologist, thankfully) says “it’s light on the head.” I am thankful that SM linked to this, but there was so much else posted here in the last week that is much more worthy of note, not least of which is Jamil’s article on TIME. I am not thankful that SM linking to this seems to have acted as an invitation for you to come here.

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