Do you know Radiolab? I think it’s a tremendous show, offering sophisticated social analyses but doing so in a very engaging format. The other day they replayed an older story (from November 2011) on the history of the high five.
Give it a listen. It’s about a half hour but it’s worth it. (And they make reference to the above pic.)
One of the premises of Culture on the Edge, influenced by our reading of Bayart, are the problems associated with offering culturalist explanations — “Oh, they do this or that because of their culture” (e.g., “Well, you know what Canadians are like…”). The problem for social theorists, of course, is that this thing called “culture” does not exist in the way we often think that it does; instead, it is a generalization that collects a diverse number of quite possibly discrete materials (i.e., objects) and immaterial states (i.e., dispositions), portraying them as if they are not only inherently connected (e.g., this seemingly coherent and apparently distinguishable thing we might call “Italian culture” or “African American culture”) but also as if it somehow exerts force on us (or better, in or through us). Despite how much we may take them for commonsense accounts of the world (“Well, you know what the Irish are like…”), culturalist explanations, in this analysis, turn out to be not all that different from what late-19th century scholars once thought were the irrational, superstitious beliefs of “uncivilized” pre-moderns; for when seen with a more critical eye, explaining behavior based on the invisible effects of some domain known as culture is not far from what scholars once named (i.e., demeaned) as magic. (Aside: as Bruno Latour phrased it, we have never been modern.)
Pressing this critique further, though, we ought to look more carefully not just at “culture” in “culturalist explanations” but also that other word: “explanation.” And that’s where Radiolab comes in, for in this one story it is evident that the situation is far more complex than any causal explanation likely portrays it. (“Beware of monocausal explanations,” I tell students.) For just a few minutes into the story it is obvious that answering the seemingly simple question, “Who invented the high five?” turns out to be pretty complex — complex enough that listeners begin to recognize that the people generating the explanation are creating it from possibly innumerable choices. (I say “possibly innumerable” because we, like the reporter in the story, don’t even know some of the other causal chains that led [whether recognized today or not!] to this or that innovation — which currently unknown archive do we have to stumble upon to unearth them?) We therefore select the most workable solution (as the writer Joan Didion once phrased it in her comments on how narrative functions) from among a variety, based on our criteria as the generalizers, and then we run with it — such as which of the various originators of the high five we prefer.
So, when it comes to offering explanations, could it be that, to phrase it rather inelegantly, we just make the whole thing up? (Which brings to mind David Hume’s critique of causality, no?) If so — and it’s a big “if,” I realize… — then it suggests that the interesting thing is not that some people invoke supernatural beings in their explanations of the world — as is so interesting to some cognitive scientists now working on naturalistic, explanatory theories of religious belief — but that we, as humans (those cognitive scientists included!), create any sort of causal explanation in the first place, all in an effort to understand a possibly untidy world as an ordered, sensible place over which we, as the generalizer, seem to have control. What do we make of explanations if this is how we approach that effort? Would we, for example, be satisfied by a scholar of religion who recently claimed in the national media that “blacks in America have been drawn to Yoruba for more than a half-century because it offers them an ancient spiritual heritage”— well…, I guess answering that might all depend who constitutes the “we” and what we think of those three loaded words: ancient, spiritual, and heritage.
That our various attempts to explain, and thereby exert control over the world (including each other), don’t always complement one another is something that can’t go unnoticed, of course; but instead of just professional disagreements it sometimes has rather profound consequences. Exploring that, however, is best left for another time.