What is Cultural Forms?
Cultural Forms is an interdisciplinary assemblage that cross-cuts the field of anthropology. This subfield originated as a program focused on folklore but eventually morphed into a concentration engaged in cultural studies broadly. Rather than providing a programmatic statement aiming to define this subfield, we offer the following snapshots of our research interests:
For me this focus on cultural forms is a concern with the skin of culture, its performances, its smells, its awkward and beautiful glances; it is multi-sensory and intermedial. Historically cultural forms have been misconstrued as static and calsified, in opposition to ephemeral and perhaps improvisational expressions. I understand cultural forms to be mobile and unstable; chimerical, restless, and volatile. My interest is in the way that they are constantly forming, re-forming, and de-forming – actually, I can't think cultural forms without thinking all of the variations that grow out of the word "form". The plurality of the term for me is crucial in capturing a sense of movement and dynamism without losing moments of coherence, centres, and points of reference.
Cultural forms foregrounds the social life of a variety of items and mediums (material, visual, rhetorical, performances, etc.) that circulate in the spheres of everyday life. The founding assumption is that forms are not transparent means of analyzing ideology; rather, they are constitutive of distinctive modes of sociality and consistently require and encourage interpretive work. Cultural Forms is attentive to the way various mediums become constitutive of social relations, as well as collectives that encompass both human and nonhuman actors. Concerning nonhuman agents and collectives, cultural forms becomes a means of rethinking what counts as sociality among humans.
Literature (whether oral or written), theatre, music, and other expressive genres prove fruitful sites for anthropological study because they provide indigenously generated reflections on social life. At the same time, they instantiate social interaction, arouse emotional responses, and often provide great pleasure. Our predecessors in the program, including such luminaries as Americo Paredes and Richard Bauman, pioneered the anthropological analysis of performance by pointing to the riches to be found particularly in stories; other faculty members have looked at the many meanings and pleasures people find in music. We continue to value all of these people’s contributions while turning our attention to many new types of expressive genres.
Cultural forms is expressed in my work and teaching via the understanding of how culture changes through the influence of historical events and political shifts. Renato Rosaldo often used the concept of cultural form in his writings on the Illongot Headhunters and cultural citizenship. He defined cultural form as the material manifestation of culture, specifically related to cultural changes that political relations produce. In his work he referenced the writings of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy. Giorgio Agamben employs the concept of form in all of his writings. My understanding of his usage of form is that this term refers to the material and ideological expression of life. Agamben specifically employs the term form when he addresses the outcome of repressive state policies. According to Agamben when the state implements state policies to remove some groups from political membership repressive techniques of governmentality produce changes in all cultural forms (i.e., material culture, a person's ability to remain healthy).
For me, cultural forms is about how something that feels like something forms up, deforms, falls apart or decays. It’s about aesthetics, the senses, the way that attachments and affects get magnetized to rhythms, tones of voice, qualities of light. It’s about understanding objects of analysis as not just complex but ambient, atmospheric, synesthetic. Cultural form is what pulls things into the consistency of a laugh or an edge. A composition that throws itself together. The intimacy of a collective lunge for sensory design. An attunement that takes form. A world inhabited. An open ambit. What kind of writing generates thoughts about cultural forms in themselves?
Among the various cultural forms that our program investigates, I am most interested in representational forms and practices—particularly those that constitute collective selves and others. My research considers historical and contemporary representations of indigenous peoples in North America in suchvenues as literature, media, museums, sports arenas, youth organizations, and scholarship. My students work on such topics as indigenous cultural politics, museum representation, representations of gender and sexuality, and representations of national identity, race, and ethnicity. In my graduate seminar on Representation, students construct an experimental exhibition on a topic oftheir choice, such as “the contact zone, “disorientation,” “memoryscapes,” “situated memories/landscapes of power,” and “display/displacement.”
Cultural Forms incorporates the study of how cultural knowledge is produced, embodied, and reproduced or transmitted. Cultural knowledge is embodied in such things as oral narratives, magical formulae, life lists, cook books, dreams, planting instructions, medical prescriptions, ethnobotanical classification systems, postcards, horoscopes, television shows, museum exhibits, iPod apps, musical scores and performances, scientific journals, and myriad other “things.” As such, they can be viewed as cultural forms that can be studied in or out of context, or they can be viewed in their performance, which includes not only representations of such knowledge but descriptions of the means and media of the encoding, transmission, and interpretation of such cultural forms. It also includes the means and media filters (our multiple sensory modalities) by which we acquire knowledge of the natural, supernatural, and social worlds constituting the environments in which we live.
Cultural forms means asking: what brings space to life? Is it something we can describe, define or predict? Is experiencing a space as "alive" an aesthetic judgment, an affective state? How is life something that touches not only individual organisms, but architectural forms, social spaces and built environments? How do we uncover shared sensibilites and perceptions about space? How can ethnographers write in ways that are grounded, lucid, sensuous, attuned to the natural word, human emotion, built form and landscapes?