16.020 cultural divisions

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty (w.mccarty@btinternet.com)
Date: Fri May 10 2002 - 07:45:12 EDT

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                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 20.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Fri, 10 May 2002 06:20:39 +0100
             From: Hartmut Krech <kr538@uni-bremen.de>
             Subject: Re: 15.638 cultural divisions

    As a cultural anthropologist by training, I feel addressed personally when
    WM raises "a core problem in ethnography." As a human being, I can only
    draw upon my own personal life experience that is necessarily subjective
    and limited. But it is also the only concrete material to start with and
    work upon. In other words: I can only write about the experience of an
    "independent scholar" in Germany during the last decades of the 20th
    century. The new millennium has not yet begun for me.

    Theoretically speaking, cultural differences arise from different modes of
    communicating. Communication is an expression of the basic human capacity
    to symbolize and to negotiate a shared agreement upon the meaning of such
    symbols. Traditions of meaning and usage are transmitted within communities
    that we call cultures. The identity of such a community is embedded in the
    meanings that it attaches to more or less arbitrary symbols. We are not
    born humans, we are made humans by way of culture. Culture is the second,
    the proper nature of human beings. We can achieve this final and perfect
    state of true humanity by way of learning, literature, and the musical
    arts. Endeavours to reach this stage have been part of all humanisms that
    have come into being during the long course of history.

    One might expect that the problems of crossing the "frontiers of
    understanding" and of "translating the literature and interpretations of
    one research community to the other" have been solved already. Those are no
    new problems at all. And it is quite obvious that their lingering presence
    becomes even more pressing, as we are given the digital instruments that
    allow us at least potentially to encode all the knowledge of this world in
    one single language. But just take the word "the humanities" and you will
    encounter unsurpassable difficulties translating it into German. There is
    no equivalent in the German language describing all the nuances of its
    meaning adequately. To make matters worse, the "post-modernistic turn" of
    recent years has amounted to an inflation of subjective and often odd
    meanings attached to words of which they have never formed a part.

    In line with this disoriented post-modernity of interdisciplinarianism and
    misunderstood interculturalisms, there has grown a mainstream of academia
    that establishes its consensus through trivializing Genglish babbling.
    Sarcastically speaking, a fair share of the scientific establishment in
    Germany resembles a strange concoction brewed from such ingredients as the
    Prussian Civil Service applied to intellectual freedom, post-Cold War needs
    to control unwanted convictions by way of swamping fields of inquiry with
    trivial content (Gresham's Law applied to knowledge) and an uncontrolled
    race for public recognition of mediocre results. I may be excused for this
    harsh judgment by pointing out that similar problems seem to exist at least
    in France where efforts are under way to limit the effects of its
    scientific Mandarinate. At the root of this problem rests the fundamental
    question of who is given the material security to publish whatever he or
    she regards as scientifically valid. If your research duplicates studies
    that have been successful in the United States, you avoid the uncomfortable
    question if your findings are right or wrong. Your paper may even get
    quoted abroad and the stylish international look of your research
    annihilates any doubts about your political correctness. I do not want to
    waste your time discussing provincialism in science, although it may
    characterize an influential segment of a country's current scientific
    production. Very obviously that is a one-way street.

    The problems of bridging cultural traditions of meaning by finding a common
    denominator have been known to generations of scholars. There are several
    feasible solutions that are time-consuming. Although international
    collaboration among scholars is needed in a final stage, we must not be
    mistaken that only dedicated research in the course of several decades can
    pave the way in a terrain that has not been mapped before. The usual length
    of a research project will not be sufficient. The tendency to give
    employment to inexpensive "junior professors" immediately upon the receipt
    of their doctor's degrees will not bring about results that by definition
    are time-consuming. We are speaking of traditions that have taken centuries
    to develop. I am thinking of books of which there is only one single copy
    left, whose pages have not been opened for years, sticking together like
    the thin layers of a tissue-paper. I know what I am writing about.

    If you have read this far, you may want to learn more about the reasons why
    my research (about which I can only speak) has remained unpublished in
    Germany. Suffice it to say that I felt called as an anthropologist-to-be,
    when a group of Native Americans occupied a small village in South Dakota
    on the morning of my 22nd birthday, a few weeks before the Vietnam War came
    to an end. I then founded a society that became recognized as charitable
    under German law to provide information completing the picture behind the
    news headlines. To give it direction, I defined as one more field of
    anthropological practice all processes whereby communication is brought
    about between cultures through technical media (this was no new idea, of
    course, but my later terms "ethnopraxis" and "ethnotechnics" were). The
    American Indian leaders were finally acquitted by a well-meaning judge when
    he learnt that the FBI had amassed over 5.000 files on their activities,
    some of them illegally. Comparing my limited possibilities as an
    anthropologist to "observe" foreign cultures with those state-of -the-art
    surveillance techniques, I began to study the history of anthropological
    research techniques. In my dissertation ("An Image of the World") I have
    compiled a multitude of quotations from rare books that you will not find
    elsewhere, beginning with Magnus Hundt's definition of "anthropology" in
    1501. One hundred copies were printed photomechanically in 1989. Although
    my book traces the origin of scientific racism and although I was granted
    the second to best grade (magna cum laude) after five long years of
    litigation in German courts, my career had ended before it had begun. I had
    no other choice than to extend the scope of my research to comprehend other
    disciplines. This has led me to study on my own in special collections
    throughout Germany.

    On the negative side, I am looking back at twenty years of unemployment,
    interrupted by a total of fours years of short-term positions in local
    historical collections and four years of teaching as an Appointed Professor
    on a contract basis. On the positive side, I am aware that I have been able
    to spend an incomparable greater amount of time researching than any
    professor burdened with office work, examinations, grant proposals, etc.
    One might expect that I have an unrivalled store of information to feed a
    flood of publications making my name known in Academia. But before the
    advent of the Internet and electronic publishing, I was left at the mercy
    of slow-handed journal editors and publishers controlled by the same tacit
    assumptions and allegiances that govern the filling of academic positions.
    Even worse: I had to rent a safe-deposit at a local bank for my core
    material and pack up and seal three dozens of document files, when I came
    to know that nowadays even security locks can be opened without leaving any
    traces. When I apply for a position or grant in Germany, I can congratulate
    myself if my research proposal is not turned into somebody else's
    colloquium, symposium, or exploratory paper.

    Having studied psychology for a couple of years, I am aware of the dangers
    of paranoia and the narrow dividing line between delusion and reality. An
    old friend of mine, now a distinguished professor, head of a university
    department and referee for a national granting institution, has convinced
    me in long personal talks that my situation is no exception at all. Rather
    it follows from the customary procedures of how research grants and
    university positions are distributed among the shareholders in this game.
    If you are outside, there is no way to get in, no matter how dignified the
    research material may be that you happen to control.

    So, how can we solve the problem of "translating the literature and
    interpretations of one research community to the other" ? There is one
    simple truth that I have learnt over the years, a truth that even those
    will acknowledge whose business it is to prevent the emergence of
    applicable knowledge: Without at least one dedicated individual, nothing
    will ever happen in human affairs. Contrary to WM's suggestion, I do not
    think that there is so much cultural difference between the mainstreams of
    science and the humanities in Western countries nowadays. Rather the
    situation of the independent scholar remains unsettled.

    What do we need ? Independent scholars from foreign countries should be
    invited to co-teach courses and co-edit publications on their individual
    merits rather than their institutional affiliations. Although they may have
    spent much more time on their research than their institutional colleagues
    to qualify their findings, they are handicapped twice: in the application
    process and following the cease of their appointments. Also travel grants
    to international conferences should be available to independent scholars
    first and preferably from the conference organizers rather than third
    parties to avoid conflicts of interest. Both measures could resolve the
    difficulties of independent scholars to receive professional credits and a
    fair judgment of their research within their own countries. For example, I
    cannot apply for an academic position in a foreign country, because I lack
    the "three letters of recommendation" that are usually required

    In order to bridge cultures, we should begin to invest in individual human
    beings, as we already do in software and hardware. And we should be aware
    of individual biographies, the unlimited perfectibility of the human mind,
    as we should be aware of the persistence of cultural traditions that only
    in the eyes of some individuals appear to be counter-productive, inhuman,
    perhaps even cruel. Let me repeat: The philosopher's stone has been found,
    much of the way to make it useful has been gone, but we are still lacking
    the confidence in an individual's dedication and we still refuse to extend
    the material security that is necessary if we want to bridge cultural divides.

    If you feel called upon to help qualify the results of my research, please
    feel invited to get in touch. Thank you for your attention.

    Dr. Hartmut Krech
    The Culture and History of Science Page

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