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Appraisals and Comments

Studies in Rhetoric and Culture

 

Michael Carrithers

Report about the Rhetoric Culture Conference on General Theory

 

The International Rhetoric Culture Project has been running for just over three years, gathering an international collegium of scholars-mostly anthropologists, but also rhetoricians, linguists, psychologists and others-around the shared speculation that culture is best thought of as a rhetorical, persuasive resource. On this view persuasion and conviction reach into all corners of social life, and the tools and schemas of culture are continually created by human beings to formulate and work their will on one another. This perspective, we think, opens onto fresh discoveries across the whole of social and cultural anthropology.

The project was initiated by Ivo Strecker at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz in Germany and Stephen Tyler, at Rice in the US. The collegium comprises mostly colleagues from North America and continental Europe, but also from the rest of the world as well. Among them are Nurit Bird-David, Donald Brenneis, James Fernandez, James Fox, Dilip Gaonkar, Chris Gregory, Stephen Gudeman, Michael Herzfeld, Pierre Maranda, Philippe-Joseph Salazar, Bo Sax, John Shotter and Dan Sperber. The practicalities-organisation of meetings, editorial work, communications and encouragement-have been borne mostly by Ivo and his team in Mainz, supported by generous grants from the Volkswagen Foundation.

The present force of the rhetoric/culture idea derives, I believe, from the cumulative development in anthropology of a historicising perspective. By about the 1980's, anthropologists had come to realise that our fundamental working ideas, deposited in the terms 'culture' and 'social structure', were too inflexible to capture the constant change that social and cultural life across the globe throw before us. New figures of thought such as 'process', 'construction', 'invention' and 'performance' crept into our conceptual vocabulary to capture some of this quicksilver movement, and 'agency' began to be a useful idea. The conviction grew too that social life does not move as in serried ranks or alone through plainly specifiable causal forces, but also through constant messy and mutual action and reaction, a sort of Brownian motion, of people upon one another. Against this background two notions associated with rhetoric/culture, that our learned schemas of thought are themselves created and changeable, and that we use them to influence and move one another, now seem especially fruitful. They do at least allow us anthropologists to relax into the experience of historicity and yet still find some patterning sense in our older ideas of structure and culture.

A number of volumes of theoretical argument and ethnographic illustration and illumination are to be published by Berghahn. They are devoted to general arguments and exemplary ethnographic cases. Some volumes will concern language and the rhetorical will, and thus recognises the privileged place language has among the means of persuasive force-imagery, narrative, gesture, music-which human beings use on one another. Even though British social anthropology has been little represented in the collegium (with the exception so far of myself, David Zeitlyn and Richard Werbner, not all of us British anyway), the ghost of a social anthropological classification hangs over the forthcoming volumes: one will concern economic life, another kinship and social relations, and others religion, the politics, and so on. I have written a report of recent developments and controversies in the Project in the Durham Anthropology Journal, to be found at www.dur.ac.uk/anthropology.journal/.