Title: The Interpretation of Culture(s) After Television
Author: Lila Abu-Lughod, 1997


The Interpretation of Culture(s) After Television

Lila Abu-Lughod



This essay is dedicated to Clifford Geertz, whose ideas since I first encountered them as an undergraduate and whose support of my work at a critical moment meant so much to me. I have been stimulated by the work of anthropologists in the emerging field of media studies, in particular those in the Culture and Media Program of the New York University Anthropology Department. In 1996, Dilip Gaonkar and Ben Lee invited me to participate in a working group of the Center for Transnational Study. The papers they sent me to read inspired some of the thinking in this paper. Faye Ginsburg, Brian Larkin, Tim Mitchell, and Sherry Ortner gave me enormously helpful comments on an earlier draft. The research for the paper was enhanced by many who shared their knowledge and friendship. I am especially indebted to Fathiyya. al-'Assal, Omnia El-Shakry, Siona Jenkins, Hasna Mekdashi, Reem Saad, David Sims, Boutros Wadi', Liz Wickett, and the women I have called Zaynab, Fayruz, Umm Ahmad, and Sumaya. Finally, I want to thank the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Social Science Research Council, and New York University (Research Challenge Fund and Presidential Fellowships) for support that made the research and writing of this paper possible.

1. Clifford Geertz, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight," in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), 412-14.

2. Timothy Mitchell, "The Invention and Reinvention of the Egyptian Peasant," International Journal of Middle East Studies 22, no. 2 (1990): 129-50.

3. I use pseudonyms here to preserve some anonymity for the village women. The folklorist in question, however, is Elizabeth Wickett, whose dissertation is entitled "'For Our Destinies': The Funerary Laments of Upper Egypt" (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1993).

4. Clifford Geertz, "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture," in Interpretation of Cultures, 3-30.

5.Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives (Stanford, 1988).

6.Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford, 1988).

7.Sherry Ortner, "Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal," Comparative Studies in Society and History 37, no. I (1995): 173-93. For a classic celebration of television viewers' resistance, see John Fiske, Television Culture (London, 1987).

8.Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1984)

9. Roger Silverstone, Television and Everyday Life. (London, 1994), 133.

10. Ien Ang, Living Room Wars: Rethinking Media Audiences for a Postmodern World (London, 1996), 182 n. 1.

11. Debra Spitulnik, "Anthropology and Mass Media," Annual Review of Anthropology 22 (1993): 293-315; quote from 307.

12. Faye Ginsburg, "Culture/Media: A (Mild) Polemic,"Anthropology Today 10, no. 2 (1994):
5-15; quote from13

13. Brian Larkin, "The Social Space of Media" (panel organized for the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco, 1996).

14. Lisa B. Rofel, "Yearnings: Televisual Love and Melodramatic Politics in Contemporary China," American Ethnologist 21, no. 4 (1994): 700-722; quote from 703.

15. Purnima Mankekar, "National Texts and Gendered Lives: An Ethnography of Television Viewers in a North Indian City," American Ethnologist 20 no. 3 (1993): 543-63; quote Horn 553.

16. I am not alone in exploring this question. Among the growing number of anthropologists working on the ethnography of television and film are Walter Armbrust, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge, 1996); Victor Caldarola, Reception as a Cultural Experience: Mass Media and Muslim Orthodoxy in Outer Indonesia (New Brunswick, N.J., 1994); Arlene Davila, "El Kiosko Budweiser: The Making of a 'National' TV Show in Puerto Rico" (unpublished ms.); Minou Fuglesang, Veils and Videos (Stockholm, 1994); Faye Ginsburg, "Aboriginal Media and the Australian Imaginary," Public Culture 5, no. 3 (1993): 557-78; Brian Larkin, "Parallel Modernities: Islam and the Social Practice of Media in Northern Nigeria" (Ph.D. diss. in progress, New York University); Daniel Miller, Modernity: An Ethnographic Approach (London, 1995); Mayfair Yang, "State Discourse or a Plebeian Public Sphere? Film Discussion Groups in China," Visual Anthropology Review 10, no. 1 (1994): 47-60; and Richard Wilk, "Colonial Time and TV Time," Visual Anthropology Review 10, no. 1 (1994): 94-102, and "'It's Destroying a Whole Generation': Television and Moral Discourse in Belize," Visual Anthropology 5 (1993): 229-44. Those doing ethnographies of production include faculty and students in the Culture and Media Program at New York University such as Barry Dornfeld, Producing Public Television (forthcoming); Teja Ganti, whose dissertation in progress focuses on the Bombay film industry; and Nancy Sullivan, "Film and Television Production in Papua New Guinea," Public Culture 5, no. 3 (1993): 533-56. Also see Ruth Mandel, "Soap Opera in Central Asia: Privatization and Development" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco, 1996), and Andrew Painter, "On the Anthropology of Television: A Perspective from Japan," Visual Anthropology Review 10, no. 1 (1994): 70-84.

17. Important audience studies include James Lull, Inside Family Viewing (London, 1990); David Morley, Family Television (London, 1986); and the collection edited by Ellen Seiter et al., RemoteControl (London, 1989). Cross-cultural studies include Robert C. Allen, ed., To Be Continued ... (New York, 1995), and Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz, The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of "Dallas" (New York, 1990).

18. Lila Abu-Lughod, "The Objects of Soap Opera: Egyptian Television and the Cultural Politics of Modernity," in Worlds Apart: Modernity Through the Prism of lite Local, ed. Daniel Miller (London, 1995), 190-210. Debra Spitulnik's suggestion, drawn from functional linguistics, that one should examine the way "forms both presuppose and create the contexts for their interpretation" would make this notion of the framing of television messages more subtle. See Spitulnik, "Anthropology and Mass Media," 297.

19. Silverstone, Television and Everyday Life, 132.

20. For a discussion of the importance of the national as the relevant context for media Study, see my "Editorial Comment: On Screening Politics in a World of Nations," Public Culture 5, no. 3 (1993): 465-67. For an intriguing argument that the national context may no longer be as crucial as the transnational for analyzing Our contemporary cultural and political worlds, see Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Demensions of Globalization (Minneapolis, 1996).

21. I am grateful to Brian Larkin (personal communication) for this phrase.

22. Geertz, "Thick Description," 16.

23. Ibid,, 23, 24. Ibid., 21.

25. Michel Foucault, "Afterword: The Subject and Power," in Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (Chicago, 1982), 208-26; quote from 210.

26. I have borrowed this felicitous concept from George Marcus, "Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography," Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 95-117. In fact, my own larger research project involves art ethnography not just of Upper Egyptian villagers and urban television professionals but of urban working-class women who are as disadvantaged its Upper Egyptians but with different experiences of and relationships to the city.

27. All quotations from Fathiyya al-'Assal derive from an interview conducted by tile author on 26 June 1993.

28. For more on Egyptian feminist views of marriage, see Lila Abu-Lughod, "The Marriage of Feminism and Islamism: Selective Repudiation as a Dynamic of Postcolonial Cultural Politics," in Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, ed. Lila Abu-Lughod (forthcoming), and Beth Baron, "The Making and Breaking of Marital Bonds in Modern Egypt," in Women in Middle Eastern History, ed. Nikki Keddie and Beth Baron (New Haven, 1991), 275-91.

29. See Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam, and Nation (Princeton, 1995); Beth Baron, The Women's Awakening in Egypt (New Haven, 1994); and Mervat Hatem, "Economic and Political Liberalization in Egypt and the Demise of State Feminism," Internalional Journal of Middle East Studies 24, no. 2 (1992): 231-5 1.

30. Martina Reiker, "The Sa'id and the City: Subaltern Spaces in the Making of Modern Egyptian History" (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1997).

31. For India, see Veena Das, "On Soap Opera: What Kind of Anthropological Object Is It?" in Miller, Worlds Apart, 169-89, and Purnima Mankekar, "Reconstituting 'Indian Womanhood': An Ethnography of Television Viewers in a North Indian City" (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington, 1993).

32. For a discussion of the effects of this discourse on rural villagers, see my "Put in Their Place: Sa'idi Encounters with State Culture," in Rural Egypt at the End of the Twentieth Century, ed. Nicholas Hopkins and Kirsten Westergaard (forthcoming).

33. This point is made in materialist critiques of the culture concept. For good examples, see Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion (Baltimore, 1993), and Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, 1977).

34. Ulf Hannerz, Cultural Complexity (New York, 1992).

35. Arjun Appadurai, "Putting Hierarchy in Its Place," Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 1 (1988): 36-49; James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 1988); Nicholas Dirks, Sherry Ortner, and Geoffrey Eley, eds., Culture/Power/History (Princeton, 1993); and James Ferguson and Akhil Gupta, eds., "Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference," Cultural Anthropology 7, no.1 (1992).

36. Lila Abu-Lughod, "Writing Against Culture," in Recapturing Anthropology, ed. Richard Fox (Santa Fe, 1991) 137-62, and Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories (Berkeley, 1993).

37. Sloppy misreadings have interpreted this as implying that there are no cultural differences. See, for example, Sylvia Yanagisako and Carol Delaney's introduction to Naturalizing Power (Boston, 1995).

38. Marshall Sahlins, How "Natives" Think: About Captain Cook, for Example (Chicago, 1995), 12-13.

39. Appadurai, Modernity at Large, 16, 146-47.

40. Hussein Amin, "Egypt and the Arab World in the Satellite Age," in New Patterns in Global Television, ed. John Sinclair, Elizabeth Jacka, and Stuart Cunningham (Oxford, 1996), 101-25; this statistic from 104.

41. The notion of a "national habitus" comes from Orvar Lofgren, cited in Robert Foster, "Making National Cultures in the Global Ecumene," Annual Review of Anthropology 20 (1991): 235-60; quote from 237. See also Abu-Lughod, "Objects of Soap Opera," for a suggestion about how viewing television might create a sense of national affiliation despite the failures of nationalist messages to reach socially peripheral viewers.

42. The discussion of cosmopolitanism has become wide-ranging. In anthropology, Paul Rabinow's "Representations Are Social Facts" (in Writing Culture, ed. James Clifford and George Marcus (Berkeley, 1986)) was a starting point. Key texts are Appadurai, Modernity at Large; James Clifford, "Travelling Cultures," in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (New York, 1992); and Hannerz, Cultural Complexity.

43. He has agreed, however, to build his youngest son an extravagant "modern" villa – perhaps to mollify the youth whom he had forced into an arranged marriage, leaving behind a trail of gossip and the broken-hearted girl his son had promised to wed.

44. See Lila Abu-Lughod, "The Romance of Resistance," American Ethnologist 17, no. 1 (1990) 41-55; Lila Abu-Lughod, "Movie Stars and Islamic Moralism in Egypt," Social Text 42 (Spring 1995): 53-67; and Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven, 1992).

45. See Lila Abu-Lughod, "Finding a Place for Islam," Public Culture 5, no. 3 (1993): 493-513.

46. A particularly eloquent theorist of the processes of hybridization and translation is Homi Bhabha, The Location of Cultures (London, 1994).

47. Bruce Robbins, in Secular Vocations (London 1993), 194-95, argues persuasively that the efforts of James Clifford and Arjun Appaclurai to make us recognize cosmopolitanism as a feature of people and communities previously thought of as resolutely local and particular (cultures, in the old sense) enable us now to use the term more inclusively and to look for "discrepant cosmopolitanisms."

48. Appaclurai, Modernity at Large.

49. Ang, Living Room Wars, 66-81.

50. Geertz, "Thick Description," 30.

51. Ang draws on the work of James Clifford, Donna Haraway, and myself to support. this argument. See her Living Room Wars, 79-80.

52. This worldliness is what Ang says distinguishes "critical" cultural studies; ibid., 45-46, 79.

53. Anna Tsing, In the Realm of the Diamond Queen (Princeton, 1993).

54. Clifford Geertz, After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 43.

55. Much of this information comes from Siona Jenkins, "Lifting Roots and Moving Home," Al-Wekalah (March 1996): 36-37.

56. Tim Mitchell, "Worlds Apart: An Egyptian Village and the International Tourism I Industry," Middle East Report 196 (Sept.-Oct. 1995): 8-11, 23.