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Cultural Critique in and of American

Culture
Kim Fortun
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

I first heard George Lipsitz at a colloquium while I was still in graduate school. This
experience had a greater impact on me than he might wish to take responsibility
for. In rereading his early writing, I recalled the giddiness brought on by my
first exposure to cultural criticism. It was excitingeven liberatingwhile also
sobering in what it drew out. The doubleness and double binds of cultural criticism
center my comments below.
A good place to begin would be the recent Congressional testimony by a
colleague of mine at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Thomas Zimmie, professor
and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Zimmie
was a member of a team sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF)
to investigate the levee failures in the New Orleans area caused by Hurricane
Katrina. Zimmie reported the conclusions of the team to Congress: There is no
simple answer as to why the levees failed. Field observations indicated various
causes: overtopping of the levees, erosion, failure in foundational soils underlying
the levees, seepage through the soils causing piping failures, and this is not a
complete list (Zimmie 2005).
I find this description of the multiple underdeterminations of levee failure
useful for thinking about cultural criticism for a number of reasons: It indexes the
multicausality behind most apparent causes, the way natural, technical, and social
systems are tied together, and our deep dependence on many kinds of expert knowl-
edge to maintain the sociotechnicalecological infrastructures within which we
live. It also demonstrates, by omission, that engineering knowledge alone is not suf-
ficient. The predictably uneven effects of disaster on different communities is not
mentioned, of course. However, even if one focuses on causes rather than impacts,
there is much more to figure out: about the organizational structure and culture of
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example; about functionalismthe focus
on how things integrate and work rather than disseminate and sometimes failas
a cultural logic that shapes professional practice and administrative orientation.
CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 21, Issue 3, pp. 496500, ISSN 0886-7356, electronic ISSN 1548-1360.

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CRITIQUE IN AND OF AMERICAN CULTURE 497

The NSF, in my view, should have had cultural analysts on their team. What
expertise would they bring? How should they conduct themselves? How, in our
practice and teaching, can cultural analysts prepare to be responsive to disaster? Let
us keep these questions, and an image of levees that failed for many reasons, in mind
as we consider this commentary by George Lipsitz along with his earlier work.
We live in a time of disaster. What is the task of the scholar? This is what I
hear Lipsitz challenging us to acknowledge and to ask. He tells us that there is no
time to wait; that there is disasteron the southern coast of the United States and in
Iraqthat requires our response and care now. He also tells us that the disasters of
our times are part of a neoliberal world order beset by possessive individualism and
runaway privatization, a product of a social warrant that naturalizes, occludes, and
legitimates disaster. So this is the situation: A catastrophic disasterproduced by
routinerequiring immediate action yet also requiring the slow work of scholarly
analysis. The double binds that I hear invoked by Lipsitz are familiar to me, partic-
ularly through my work in response to the Bhopal disaster, a disaster shockingly
similar to the disaster of Katrina, involving tangled social and technical failures. I
return to the phenomenaand phenomenologyof shock in my conclusion.
For now, let me just say that, logically, I should not have been shocked by
Katrina. I know a lot about how technical systems fail, with grossly uneven effects
on different communities. I know something about the interests, stratifications,
and institutions of the American South. And I grew up around hurricanes. I was,
nevertheless, shocked by Katrina and reminded of my commitment to a different
world order. I was also reminded of the double binds of scholarship within disaster,
a lesson that I first learned in Bhopal.
The double binds of scholarship within disaster center many anthropological
initiatives today, realized in calls for activism within anthropology and for a public
anthropology. Calls for activism and public anthropology, in my view, are pro-
foundly important. And they must be answered with great care. Professor Lipsitz
gives us much to consider on this front.

Presence of Mind, Anti-Intellectualism of Discursive Context


The first of these considerations is the question of how can we have what
Walter Benjamin called presence of mind?attunement to our own discursive
and material context (1969:9899). Lipsitz invokes this notion of Benjamins as
follows: Whiteness is everywhere in American culture, but it is very hard to see.
. . . As the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness
never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing
principle in social and cultural relations (1995:369). Identification, analysis, and
opposition to the destructive consequences of whiteness, Lipsitz argued, requires
presence of mindthe ability to notice key aspects of the present and how they
portend the future, even when they are more latent than overt and obvious and
when they are routinized rather than catastrophic.
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Presence of mind is also critical in figuring out what the scholar should
do within disaster. Critical, in my view, is recognition of the profound anti-
intellectualism of our timesrecognition of an institutionalized will not to know.
Consider, for example, the Bush administrations will not to know about global
warming, about the toxicity of mercury, or about environmental injustice. Given
this willful ignorance, habitual equations of scholarship and elitism must give way
to recognition of the importance of insisting on our role as scholars in politics.
Now is not the time to apologize for scholarship. We need to think deeply about
how to do scholarship attuned to our times, and about the kinds of collaborations
that will allow our knowledge to develop and disseminateinsisting, all the while,
on our relevance, even if we have to figure it out as we go.

Countermemory and Alternative Social Warrants


Toward this end, how can we pursue what Lipsitz has called countermemo-
ries, and the forging of alternative social warrants? In his article in this issueand
in much of his work in generalLipsitz emphasizes the countermemory and crit-
ical alternatives articulated by people who are subalternthose who are neither
represented nor able to speak themselves in dominant idioms. Black Mardi-Gras
Indians in New Orleans are exemplary figures in this regard. As scholars, we must
learn to listen to hear subaltern articulations, acknowledging what Lyotard has
called the differend: that which cannot be made commensurable with what we
know or translated into liberal humanism (Lyotard 1989). The work of disciplined
listening necessary here is critical scholarly work, as is the ironic and necessarily
experimental task of representing the subaltern in scholarly accounts. The subal-
tern is, by definition, not representable in the idioms available to us. Yet we are
called to represent the subaltern, in some fashion, nonetheless, in what becomes
for us a double bind.
Another double bind is embodied in the figure of the engineer who helps
figure out the many reasons why the levees failed in New Orleans. He is hardly
subaltern. Yet he, too, is another likely source of countermemory and an alterna-
tive social warrantespecially if he is engaged ethnographically and encouraged
to articulate his doubts and critiques as well as what he knows but perhaps did
not know he knew. Scientists and technologists are not immune to the disloca-
tions of disaster; new collaborations become possible when the world around you
screams.
In this particular historical moment, however, there are also many oppor-
tunities for routine collaborations between scientists, technologists, and cultural
analysts. Dramatic technical developments in recent years, within science and
engineering in particular, are creating what Michael M. J. Fischer (2004) calls
emergent forms of life that push all involved into a quizzical figuring out and
unusually open mode of operation. Cultural analysts, in my view, need to be ready
for opportunities to collaborate that such modes of operation tend to generate. We
CRITIQUE IN AND OF AMERICAN CULTURE 499

may discover the alternative social warrants that Lipsitz says are so important and
imminently availableif only we can learn to listen for them.
Listening, Lipsitz tells us, requires discipline and skill. We must, for example,
be prepared to account for both material and discursive conditions of production. As
Lipsitz has shown us, we work with terrible discursive inadequacies. The concepts
and discourse that dominate thought and action today are part of the problem,
even when these are deployed with charitable intent. We also work within material
conditions that shape and reflect these discursive inadequacies. Lipsitz is a master
at drawing out these connections. We have much to learn from him.
Professor Lipsitz also tells us of the significance of the media forms through
which we think and actforms that often overdetermine what we know and do
not know about the world around us. Scholars within disaster need to be very
savvy about these forms, recognizing how particular thought styles, genres, and
communicative modes enable us to see some things and not others and recognizing
how cultural analysts can provide what I think of as discursive resources.
In all, Lipsitz challenges us to work toward what I think of as methodological
acumenthe ability to be quick on our feet, ready to morph and reorient ourselves
and our projects as conditions emerge. Scholars within disaster, both catastrophic
and routine, need this kind of acumen, which comes from discipline, skill, and
patience.

Learning to Listen
I end with an anecdote recounted by Lipsitz:
According to a story often told among jazz musicians, when trumpet player Clark
Terry first joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1951, he rehearsed in his mind every
complicated technical maneuver that might be expected of him. The young musician
waited anxiously for instructions from the legendary band leader, but all his new boss
asked him to do was to listen. When Terry complained that anyone could just sit
and listen, the ever enigmatic Ellington informed him that theres listening, and then
theres listening, but what I want from you is to listen. Eventually, Terry came to
understand what Ellington wanted. Terry had been so preoccupied with what he might
contribute to the orchestra as an individual, that he had not taken time to hear what
the other musicians needed. He had not yet learned to hear the voices around him nor
to understand the space and silences surrounding him. Ellington knew that his young
trumpeter had talent as a virtuoso, but he felt that Terry had to learn how to bring his
virtuosity in harmony (literally and figuratively) with the rest of the orchestra. [Lipsitz
1990:615]

Cultural analysts must work to be virtuosos. The dangerous times in which


we live demand it. We also must learn to synchronize with other people and other
forms of knowledge, which means that we have to learn to listento really listen,
even at the risk of being shocked. We must use shock for critical effect, so that
we can engage in real politics as scholars, figuring out collaborations that turn our
differences into critical resources. In this lies the possibility for a different world
order. The levees, we must remember, have failed for multiple reasons. Many
different kinds of knowledge and action will be required to rebuild them.
500 CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY

George Lipsitz provides us with a powerful example of the contributions that


cultural analysts can make.

Note
Editors note: Kim Fortun is incoming coeditor of Cultural Anthropology (with Mike
Fortun). She grew up in Houston and has done work on the chemical industry and toxic
clean up along the Houston ship canal. She is also the author of Advocacy after Bhopal:
Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (University of Chicago, 2001).

References Cited
Benjamin, Walter
1969 Madame Ariane: Second Courtyard on the Left (1928). In One-Way Street.
Pp. 9899. London: Verso.
Fischer, Michael M. J.
2004 Emergent Forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice. Durham, NC: Duke Uni-
versity Press.
Lipsitz, George
1990 Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and
American Studies. American Quarterly 42(4):615636.
1995 The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the
White Problem in American Studies. American Quarterly 47(3):369387.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois
1989 The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Georges Van Den Abbeele, trans. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Zimmie, Thomas
2005 Statement of Thomas F. Zimmie before the Senate Environment and Public
Works Committee November 17. Electronic document, http://news.rpi.edu/update.do?
artcenterkey=1196, accessed November 25.

ABSTRACT Rethinking American Culture was a forum featuring the work of


George Lipsitz in a dialogue between American Studies and anthropology about the
ways in which new forms of commercial patterns and practices, new movements
of people and products, and new communications technologies are producing new
ways of studying culture. This dialogue addresses the struggles over the social
warrants of U.S. culture in the 21st century and how historians and anthropologists
might best describe and analyze such warrants and reconstitute these fields, both
of which are under pressure in a present moment of danger made all the more
visible by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. [social
warrants, American Studies, Hurricane Katrina, media, class]