Re-placing Cultures

A dialogue among disciplines

Special Issue Guest Editor, Bruce M. Knauft, Executive Director, Institute for Comparative and International Studies, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology

Vol. 7 No. 5
April/May 2005

Special Issue

Re-placing Cultures
A dialogue among disciplines
Guest Editor, Bruce M. Knauft, Executive Director, Institute for Comparative and International Studies, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology

On transculture
Mikhail Epstein

I think the boogieman of AIDS has more resonance in the United States than it might have in a community in Africa, where people are accommodating to it.
Deborah McFarland, Associate Professor of International Health

Increasingly, our law is so tied up with the religiosity of this society that it’s not just repositioning law, it’s
repositioning the role of religion in American culture.

Martha L.A. Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law

Re-placing National Culture
Globalization and collective identity in the Netherlands
Frank Lechner, Associate Professor of Sociology

Digital Nationalism
Re-placing place in the Indian diaspora
Deepika Bahri, Associate Professor of English

Further reading

God’s Chosen Tongues
Hebrew and Arabic in the Qur’an
Devin J. Stewart, Associate Professor of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies
Further reading


Return to Contents

There is a strange reality in most universities: we know more
about the research of our colleagues across the country, even across the world, than we do of our colleague next door. Even on campus, when we hear a presentation of wonderful research on campus, it is more likely to be given by a visitor than by someone from our own university. Reciprocally, we ourselves are more likely to have our work read, to give our best presentations, and to launch our best ideas at conferences and visits away from home.

The structure of the academic profession encourages this tendency: those whose research most closely parallels our own are often affiliated with other universities. But the structure of academic review and promotion abets the problem. Though “service” and “teaching” are evaluated at our home institution, research credentials are gained through external validation. As a result, the structural value placed on sharing our research here on campus is often low. Though we may emphasize collegiality both as individuals and as an institution, the chance to really share our research with other faculty at Emory is often less than it could be. This is a shame, since we have an uncommon wealth of scholarly expertise right at our doorstep.

Recognizing this wealth and possibility, an ad hoc group of
faculty gathered around a conference table at the Institute for Comparative and International Studies (ICIS) last August to find a theme that would galvanize the sharing of research presentations by Emory faculty members for each other and for students on campus. In the process, we wanted to create dialogue between specializations in different areas of the world and across disciplines. One of the greatest challenges many of us face in the arts and sciences—and one of the greatest tensions across disciplines—is between perspectives narrowed to a restricted time frame or space, and those that link academic study to larger and ultimately global networks of influence.

More than academic, this issue engages the beliefs, cultures, and identities of people in many if not most world areas: to what degree does cultural identity cohere in a given place and time, and to what degree does it break down and reformulate in broader regional or even global terms?

The theme that thus emerged from our discussion was “Re-
placing Cultures.” Is social and cultural diversity declining across the world? Are cultures being replaced by forces of globalization? Or is cultural diversity being re-cast, re-positioned, and intensified in new ways? Especially since September 11, 2001, as cultural beliefs are embraced and polarized with new intensity, these questions take on special implications.

What is culture?

Anthropologists have stumbled and stuttered over this question for well over a century; books listing hundreds of definitions have been published by major figures in the field. If “culture” once had the illusion of being the academic province of anthropology, it is now everyone’s concern, including the academy’s. Cultural studies, post-colonial and subaltern studies, globalization studies, and academic fields from art history to zoology (yes, non-human primates have been argued to have culture) have broadened both our awareness and definitions of the term. For present and practical purposes, however, culture can be taken simply as the symbolic dimension of social life. As such, culture connotes those subjective orientations that are widely shared among a group of people—that inform our lives through language, beliefs, art, morals, customs, and other features commonly evident and transmitted by socialization and learning.

What happens to shared orientations and understandings, to received cultural sensibilities, amid forces of globalization and interconnection? Twenty-two Emory faculty members from thirteen departments addressed this question from different world area, topical, disciplinary, and historical perspectives in our “Re-placing Cultures” conference, which took place in the Joseph W. Jones Room of Woodruff Library this past January 28th. The conference offered an array of both faculty presentations and invited faculty responses across area and disciplinary lines in four categories: nationality in politics and fiction, mass media, icons and space re-presented, and historical knowledge in scholarly expression.

Having been at Emory since 1985, I had had the illusion that I knew a lot about the work of many of my fellow colleagues. Without realizing it, I had tended to put their research into topical, disciplinary, and subdisciplinary boxes of understanding. But I quickly realized during their presentations not just how different but how vibrant the work of my colleagues really is.

Three points stand out in my mind. First, the work of many of our Emory colleagues not only blurs the boundaries of academic borders, it blows them to smithereens. It is not our faculty research that tends toward the disciplinary, but, rather, the departmental and university structures within which we operate. Repeatedly during the day, I was struck not only by how rich and varied the presentations were, but how naturally they crossed spatial, temporal, and conceptual borders. And in contrast to the “lite” scholarship that sometimes attends academic border crossings, these connections underscored scholarly rigor and deep understanding.

Second, my colleagues were not just interested in or committed to their research, they were passionate about it. These were not classroom presentations aimed to bridge a gap of student comprehension. Instead I saw, at the risk of sounding corny, the joy of being able to share that intellectual drive and sheer curiosity that keeps most of us going—the mental fire that got most of us into the academic profession to begin with. Amid the demands, expectations, and pleasures of teaching and service at Emory, here was something different—a deep, irrepressible passion about our own work and a desire to share it with others who can understand it at our own level.

Third, I was struck by the correspondence between the title of our conference and the process taking place within it. Our topic was “re-placing cultures.” The presentations showed in myriad ways how the threat of cultural effacement or convergence was belied by the resilient, the unpredictable, the uncanny, and the often wondrous ways that culture works. As the symbolic dimension of social life, cultures fail to respect the boxes of time and place—and of ethnicity, nation, religion, and so on—that we may try to foist upon them. The Ecuadorian shaman combines the eagle of the U.S. and the condor of the Andes as reciprocal spirits of collective healing. A sixteenth-century nun of tortured discipline and bodily suffering creates an intricate interior castle through her writing. The Koranic text harbors rich evocations of Hebrew and Judaism, as Devin Stewart shows us in this issue of the Academic Exchange. Also in these pages, Frank Lechner demonstrates how contemporary Dutch identity is consonant with globalization but reflects national and localized identifications in fact. Likewise, Deepika Bahri herein offers a compelling look at how the twenty-first-century internet galvanizes the Indian diaspora into a virtual community that projects and reifies its homeland.

These vignettes reflect the fascinating diversity of the conference presentations across features of history, mass media, iconic presentation, and national politics and fiction. Unfortunately, only a snippet of this material can be presented in this Academic Exchange issue; more of the presentations can be found on the icis web site at Yet more broadly, as the interviews with Martha Fineman and Deborah McFarland in this publication suggest, border crossings and cultural re-positionings are also evident in the scholarship of Emory’s professional schools, including matters of law and legal precedent, and of local and global health.

In the conference itself, a similar process took place. The boxes of academic topics and time frames, of disciplines and categories, were outstripped. Mikhail Epstein put it well when he said culture can ultimately work not as a determinant but as a liberator of identity and understanding: “When we stand on the border between two or several cultures, it is like going from monaural to stereo; it is seeing one culture with the eyes of another, it is seeing all things with two eyes. . . . It is the capacity of transculture to free humans from the determinations of culture itself.”

As Professor of Sociology John Boli playfully suggested in the final commentary on Professor Epstein’s paper, it can be easy for such imaginings to lead us to neglect empirical groundings. Though I have sympathy for both perspectives, I could not help think that the conference, and its own broadening exchange, was itself an emergent example of transcultural communication—between academic perspectives that were based on different ways of knowing. It was not just the culture of other peoples that was being re-positioned and re-placed, but our culture as academics. We were re-placing our own academic culture.