“They Made the Whole Thing Up”

highfiveDo 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.

2 Replies to ““They Made the Whole Thing Up””

  1. An enlightening and an entertaining meditation. Granted that the whole thing is made up (or manufactured), I am left wondering where to go from there? Does one abandon or give up something because it is made up (“Christianity,” for example; or the sense of belonging to a “family”)? Or does one, like that guy in “Blow Up,” pick up the invisible tennis ball, throw it back to the harlequins, and join in the game? And are these the only alternatives, or is there a vast middle ground left open for both critique and creativity?

  2. The topic of a future post, given the way I left off in this one…. But giving up isn’t an option, it seems to me (even suicide signifies and pole-sitting ascetics are no less members of social groups), so the issue is recognizing the deeply implicated and arbitrary position from which we speak (i.e., I didn’t ask to be an English speaker, an inheritor/beneficiary of British colonial power), simultaneously seeing that ones interests are not universal, and then making tactical decisions which particular to press for wider influence. And that pressing spans the modes from persuasion on one end to coercion on the other, of course. As for creativity, accident, happenstance, novelty, etc., I’d place that in the broad domain where particulars fail to intersect and pass like intentions in the night, or to rephrase: the wide gap between ought and is, i.e., between universalized particulars and the many other particulars that were in the competition for the coveted contingent status of norm. Slang (creativity, in this quick example) is the product of normative system being undermined in contingent practice. But then “ain’t” makes it into the OED… So where there is system there is novelty, since something’s bound not to fit–miscellaneous is the name we give to novelty, until we rein it in, give it a Library of Congress number, that is. In academia, I think we call that “interdisciplinarity,” which becomes but one more discipline once it has its own budget line. So I see a constant oscillation between system and opposition, the latter becoming system as soon as the opposition drafts bylaws. Sort of what we might mean by hegemony, I guess.

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