Edward Sapir on French culture

Sapir wrote in 1924 in a splendidly titled article, “Culture, Genuine and Spurious“:

The whole terrain through which we are now struggling is a hotbed of subjectivism, a splendid terrain for the airing of national conceits. For all that, there are a large number of international agreements in opinion as to the salient cultural characteristics of various peoples. No one who has even superficially concerned himself with French culture can have failed to be impressed by the qualities of clarity, lucid systematization, balance, care in choice of means, and good taste, that permeate so many aspects of the national civilization. These qualities have their weaker side. We are familiar with the overmechanization, the emotional timidity or shallowness (quite a different thing from emotional restraint), the exaggeration of manner at the expense of content, that are revealed in some of the manifestations of the French spirit. Those elements of French civilization that give characteristic evidence of the qualities of its genius may be said, in our present limited sense [of culture not as high culture nor as all of a people’s traditions but as the practiced ‘genius’ of a civilization], to constitute the culture of France; or, to put it somewhat differently, the cultural significance of any element in the civilization of France is the light it sheds on the French genius.

From this standpoint we can evaluate culturally such traits in French civilization as the formalism of French classical drama,  the insistence in French education on the study of the mother-tongue and of its classics, the prevalcence of epigram in French life and letters, the intellectualist cast so often given to aesthetic movements in France, the lack of turgidity in modern French music, the relative absence of the ecstatic note in religion, the strong tendency to bureaucracy in French administration. Each and all of these and hundreds of other traits could be readily paralleled from the civilization of England. Nonetheless their relative cultural significance, I venture to think, is a lesser one in England  than in France. In France they seem to lie more deeply in the grooves of the cultural mold of its civilization. Their study would yield something like a rapid bird’s-eye view of the spirit of French culture.

One notes that some of this theoretical advice is still being learned today, as when people take pains to demonstrate that some cross-cultural cultural phenomenon (say, the global presence of McDonald’s chain restaurants) varies radically in local significance. As Sapir points out, the same ‘trait’ can take on very different significances in different places.

If one were to give a more systematic reading, this essay would deserve further note for its hostility to cultural comparison, for its hostility to radical social change (cultures must be taken for what they are, and change slowly, he argues), for its theory of the value of history, for its dialectic between ‘collective’ and ‘individual’ culture, for its quasi-Frankfurt School critique of cultural standardization, and for its lament of a contemporary loss of access to meaningful, valuable forms of activity. David Graeber has recently argued that “American society is better conceived as a battle over access to the right to behave altruistically [than as a site of pure market rationality],” claiming furthermore that liberals have monopolized access to ‘doing good in the world’ by largely monopolizing the culture industries (and alienating the working class in the process). Sapir long before had already written: “The vast majority of us, deprived of any but an insignificant and culturally abortive share in the satisfaction of the immediate wants of mankind, are further deprived of both opportunity and stimulation to share in the production of non-utilitarian values.” Admittedly, the class and political analysis is less developed by Sapir, but the fundamental observation is strikingly similar.

Now, as you might guess from its title, the real thrust of the essay has to do with evaluating cultures not in relation to each other, but in relation to a highly un-politically-correct ideal of ‘genuine’ culture, which, to simplify in the extreme, involves having the possibility for meaningful, creative life in an organically developed cultural landscape that endows everyday social action with some more-than-instrumental significance. By this criterion, Sapir takes pains to point out, the most technically advanced ‘civilizations’ are not necessarily the most genuine cultures; indeed, he suggests that primitive societies, everything else being equal, are more likely to be genuine cultures on account of their lesser degree of social differentiation and division of labor.

But this isn’t a good time for an exposition of Sapirian culture theory: the purpose of this post is simply to remind us all that even famous anthropologists can and do serve as merchants of cultural stereotypes. To offer my own ethnographic perspective, I have yet to encounter a surfeit of epigrams here in France, and to judge by the university system, it is far from obvious that ‘balance’ or ‘clarity’ are indeed the dominant French cultural values. However, if by chance you find yourself entertained by Sapir’s schematic view of French culture, I do recommend that you also look up what he has to say about the existentialist Russians, or again about the Americans — “where a chronic state of cultural maladjustment has for so long a period reduced our higher life to sterile externality.”

4 thoughts on “Edward Sapir on French culture

  1. This article, by the way, was recommended to me by a French philosopher — hence the link with my own research topic. Curious to find that American anthropology can become at least a very marginal object of French philosophical attention.

  2. Edward Sapir wrote that article.

    Honestly what are they teaching you people these days? This is one of the most famous pieces in the canon of American anthropology. Go give your systems prof hell for not making you read this earlier (and getting the attribution right).

    Kids these days grumble grumble…

  3. Thanks for the correction, my bad. I fixed it in the post, not to pretend I didn’t screw up but just because it seems to me that the post is, in fact, saying something that’s still interesting in spite of the stupid error. (For future readers, I originally typed ‘Boas’ where I should have typed ‘Sapir’. I think it was one of those off-by-one kinds of cognitive processing errors where the brain magically substitutes a similar word related to the word one meant to write.)

    Also, Rex, you say this is among the the most famous – hence important? – pieces in American anthro — are you serious? It’s very fun to read, but the analysis of ‘French culture’ is, to be more frank than I initially was in the post, lazy and pretty classist to boot, and I’m not sure it’s the best theoretical contribution to culture theory I’ve seen either. I mean, ‘spurious cultures’ are to be judged as such on the basis of the insufficiency of their structure of means-ends relations? That requires a better argument than I see in this piece.

    OK, but I’ll stop being defensive because I was wrong. I can’t say I’m entirely above that impulse.

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