Culture as Text and Texts as Culture

von Christian Huck

The incitation for this essay was a rather undefined discomfort with the well-known buzz phrase ‘culture as text’. I was wondering whether such a comparison of culture and text already implied an equation that could then be turned around into ‘text as culture’. While the ‘culture as text’ paradigm originated in ethnology, the discipline where I come from, Literaturwissenschaft, interpreted the so-called ‘cultural turn’ by analysing all kinds of texts as symptoms of culture, as a privileged access to the otherwise impenetrable realm of culture. Somehow, I had an inkling that there is some important difference between the two concepts of ‘culture as text’ and ‘text as culture’. When I started pondering this difference, I soon realised that this difference might have something to do with space, with the relation between culture and space, and with the relation between writing and space, and that between culture and writing. As soon as this triangle of culture, writing, and space unfolded in front of my mind’s eye, I knew I was in deep trouble, as none of its three corners seemed to provide a safe haven from which to set sail. Neither culture, nor writing, nor space is an unproblematic concept; all three of them are controversial, to say the least. But although I realise that I will not be able to define any of these concepts to anyone’s satisfaction, I will at least try to sketch an outline of the problems involved when transforming ‘culture as text’ into ‘text as culture’.

Ethnography: The Writing of Culture

Let me start with some lay observations on the work of the ethnologist, whose traditional realm has been the study of cultures. Here, spatial relations seemed quite clear-cut: The observing scientist came from somewhere far away to a group of people that lived in a relatively confined space. In order to make his observations accessible to a scientific audience, the ethnologist had to write his observations down and take or send his notes back home. Only through writing he could make his observations durable enough to be carried back to the place he came from, to the scientific community he was writing for.

Today, such practice is heavily criticised from within the discipline of ethnology. Paradigmatically, Stephen Tyler resumes that ‘writing-up’ is finally nothing else than ‘writing-off’. “Every act of representation,” he continues, “is an act of political suppression [...]. The step from oral to written in the ‘description’ is as much re-presentation as it is re-pression. Representation means repression, and writing is the method, the procedure of representation/repression.” What is lost, according to Tyler, is the “originary presence of the other.”1 One suggestion for solving this problem within ethnology is to start a dialogical interaction and engagement with this other.2 While it seems worth to embark on such a project in ethnology – as long as there are at least a few proponents of indigenous cultures alive, and although it surely involves its own theoretical and practical pitfalls –, I doubt that such a step is equally possible when studying texts. The engagement and dialogue with texts that for example Stephen Greenblatt suggests seems nothing more than metaphorical to me: Can you really have a dialogue with a text? Who answers?

Contrary to common genealogy, which sees Greenblatt’s ‘text as culture’ approach evolving from Geertz’ ‘culture as text’ concept, it seems to me that Greenblatt’s attempt to reanimate texts is quite the opposite of what Geertz is doing. Geertz famously turned the ethnologist from a writer into a reader when he declared: “The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong.”3 The ethnologist is now a reader who writes: “Doing ethnography is like trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript – foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, but written not in conventionalized graphs of sounds but in transient examples of shaped behavior.”4 It comes as no surprise that such a concept comes in handy for any hermeneutically trained philologist, whose job from Dilthey to Iser has always been to reconstruct manuscripts – ‘foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries’.

Unfortunately, the appropriation of Geertz by Greenblatt and others largely ignores the difference in the media of communication they are examining. Fundamental to Tyler’s above cited critique is the notion that, while the ethnologist might read culture like a text, culture itself is bare of texts. In Geertz’ writings, he, other than Greenblatt, analyses (or rather: de-scribes) ensembles of arguments, melodies, formulas, rituals, palaces, games, and many other things,5 but hardly ever he considers written or even printed documents. Culture, this seems to imply, is an oral phenomenon. It has to be an oral phenomenon, I will explicate in the following, because otherwise its supposed homogeneity, its stableness in time, and its limitation in space would be endangered, and thereby, I suggest, its whole status of being a culture.

Oral vs. Written Communication

Culture, in the way ethnology understands it, is based on interaction. The underlying rules and structures of a culture, which the ethnologist tries to disclose by observing them whilst they are actually enacted, have to be re-enacted over and over again in face-to-face situations, that is, in the presence of those who belong to a culture. Certain ritualistic objects can support such re-enactments, and secure a stability that is independent of personal recollection. Such objects – totems, paintings, etc. – can help triggering the memory of certain actions or communications, but they do not represent these actions or communications, or the rules underlying these. The culture itself, or whatever it is before it has been represented, remains unrepresented.

I would like to suggest that the central problem involved here is not so much a question of representation, and I seriously doubt that any ethnologist ever really thought that he could re-present a culture in his writings. The important distinction to note here is already employed by Geertz, but its consequences have been largely neglected. While writing is not transient, talking and acting is. This is not just an accidental variation, I would claim, but a categorical difference due to the respective media of communication.

Oral statements have to disappear immediately after they first appear; would they linger on, no other statement could be made. The sound of oral communication seems to use its complete medium; all of the surrounding air is set into motion by sound waves. Only when one formation has disappeared, another can appear, which than has to disappear for another to appear, and so on. Therefore, the elements of oral communication have to be ordered chronologically. Paradoxically, the arrangement of the communicational elements in time enforces the arrangement of its participants in space. Only those can participate in oral communication who a) observe the sequence of appearing and disappearing sounds and b) observe others observing the same sequence of appearing and disappearing sounds. Both the addresser and the addressee have to hear the utterance at the same time, and therefore have to be mutually present. This, I would claim, is the medial foundation of what we came to describe as culture.

With writing, the relation of space and time seems to be exactly the other way round. Although production and reception of texts are still bound to sequential time, the text itself, that is the medium of communication, orders its elements not chronologically but spatial. No word, no sentence, no book has to disappear for another word, sentence, or book to appear. They can all exist next to each other – and in longer and more complicated texts, this co-existence becomes an absolutely necessary prerequisite. Funnily enough, this spatial arrangement has an opposite effect on the participants of communication. They are now arranged in time. Writing and reading hardly ever occur simultaneously. If it does, it is often awkward, as in Geertz metaphor of looking of the shoulder of the writers of culture. For communication in the medium of writing there is absolutely no need for a co-presence of the participants, they can be, and mostly are: scattered in space.

Writing and Culture

This oppositional arrangement of space and time in oral and written communication has an important consequence: The ‘non-co-presence’ leads to a far lesser probability of a) understanding what is meant and b) accepting what is understood. For Jean-Pierre Vernant, the step from traditional to modern society is marked by writing. Written representations make debatable what otherwise only is: “To put a text in writing is to set down one’s message es méson, at the center of the community – that is, to place it openly at the disposal of the group as a whole.”6 In the language of systems theory, writing opens “the possibility of assuming the position of a second-order observer, observing, criticizing, and refining the observational instruments of others”7. Writing makes it possible to compare other people’s views of the world with one’s own, as they now exist co-presently, and discover differences within one’s peer group – heterogeneity instead of a supposed homogeneity. But writing places one’s observations not only at the disposal of one’s contemporaries, but makes it also accessible to later generations, and stableness is revealed as change. Finally, writing also disrupts the spatial limits of culture. While the spoken word can only be heard by those who are near, and while the totems and shrines only work on those who can see it, writing can travel across the boundaries of an interactional community. If there is anything like culture in the realm of writing, it has to produce new forms of interaction, because the media itself does not necessarily provide for such interaction. Culture, therefore, has to be produced.

Historically, writing produced culture. Only through persistent descriptions of certain oral phenomena like fairytales and folksongs by Herder and many others throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, differences between ways of living were rendered observable, and only through observation of such differences, the existence of different cultures could be proclaimed. The ethnologist discovered different groups of people, made the descriptions of these accessible to comparisons, and thereby invented the cultures he proclaimed to have discovered.8 But by proving through comparison that what they discovered was not necessarily as it was, these cultures became merely cultures, nothing more but cultures, something man-made that could be so or otherwise, something contingent.9 By arresting what otherwise would disappear instantly, statements are revealed as choices: not impossible, but neither necessary.

The Ends of Traditional Culture

Tyler’s critique of the writer who destroys an originary presence echoes the claim that the analytical mind is that which destroys what it observes; such a critique is well known and can be traced from Lessing to Schelling, from Novalis to Schlegel, and Horkheimer and Adorno.10 Baudrillard has transported this logic into the realm of ethnology: “For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been ‘discovered,’ and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it.”11 Maurice Blanchot terms this power of making visible in the representation what vanishes in that which is re-presented a “négation créatrice”.12 Only when the moment has gone, it can be ceased: as we know, the owl of Minerva starts flying at dawn. Whatever things are before we describe them as culture, their meaning to us can only be grasped in relation to other concepts. When we describe culture, it becomes part of the web of meaning that might be called ‘writing’ in a Derridaen sense.

With writing and the invention of culture, there comes society. For Johann Gottfried Herder, as for Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and for Matthew Arnold, and for many others, those cultures that transfer their cultural goods beyond their natural borders – by means of printing and other media of dissemination – become a machine, a “Riesenmaschine”13. This machine works beyond the control of the individual. Culture becomes an artificial civilization. Civilization comes from above, not from underneath, it is limitless, not spatial. The machine of civilization is as much the bureaucracy that comes out of writing, as it is the economic machine of capitalism. Hand in hand, so the story goes, they have destroyed most cultures, and threaten the remaining.

Texts as Culture

Cultural Studies do not examine cultures. Rather, they examine ‘texts’ – written text from literature to philosophy to manuals, but also videos, films, and similar cultural products.14 Most studies focus on the underlying attitudes these ‘texts’ imply: towards the relationship between man and woman, Westerners and Orientals, humans and post-humans, sane and insane, straight and queer folks, etc. Here, the contingency of the cultural is no longer a supplement that has to be suppressed, but the main attraction. What is male, what is oriental, what is human, what is madness, what is healthy, all this can be disclosed as a contingent social construction, a long story that turned out the way it did, but could have gone (m)any other way. The logic that follows from this discovery is easy: If it is made by society, it can be changed by society; if those constructs are a product of hegemonial rule, and not its basis, then the constructions as well as the hegemony based on it can be de-constructed.

As the proponents of Cultural Studies soon had to discover, simple exposure of such contingency did not change a thing, or at least not many things. On the contrary, every other suggestion of what is male, what is human or what is madness, was branded as similarly contingent as the one that was criticised. The answer to these conundrums was no longer to be found in epistemology, but in politics; definitions became a question of power. And power, to come back closer to my initial reasoning, is always a question of space.

Foucault’s interest in (semiotic) discourses was motivated, I assume, by questions about physical interaction between human beings: Why are some people turned inmates, why are some locked away in asylums, why are others physically punished for their sexual desire? The question that follows from this is the location of power. In Agamben’s reading of Foucault (and others), the essence of political power can be seen in the ‘ban’ and the ‘camp’ (Lager).15 Both categories signal a disposition over the spatial mobility of human beings; whether excluding internally or externally from the communications that make up society, both exclusions are a limitation of the right to move and dwell freely. Power is a question of allowing and disallowing bodies the right to certain spaces.16

The difference between an analysis of the Balinese cockfight and the panoptical discourse is, I would suggest, the difference between an interactional concept of culture and a textual concept of society. For Geertz, the space for the negation of rules and the space, where these rules have been established, are by and large the same. The Balinese enact their own culture in doing what they are doing. For Foucault, the space, where the rules are enforced, and the space, where the rules have been established, are not identical at all. The texts that establish a sexual norm are mostly not produced by those who suffer its consequences. In culture, I would deduce from this, interaction and society are not really to be differentiated. In modern societies, as Foucault analyses them, people encounter many different interactional settings with different participants; the realisation that in many of these settings similar rules apply, suggests a symbolic order that transcends interaction.17 Such symbolic order, that is: society, only evolves when communication learns to travel and exist independent of human beings, that is with the invention of writing, the press and other means of dissemination.

The Space of Culture

With this differentiation between interactions, which rely on the presence and stability of its participants, and society, which relies on the stability of its medium, we have come to differentiate two kinds of space. The space of indigenous cultures we have come to understand as being orientated by experience, feelings, and actions. In opposition to this stands the mathematical space, which is a priori and therefore untainted by human feelings. We have come to call this the global, in opposition to the local. I would like to add, that the experienced space is the space of the spoken word of interaction, while the mathematical space is the space of writing. Writing severs the space of communication; it disrupts the original dependence of communication on space.18 But it does not produce another form of space; the mathematical space remains an abstraction, there is no way from the local to the global, no summing up or combining.

The watershed between culture and society, between the local and the global, is a question of the reliability of expectations. Whereas in local space the results of actions or communications are predictable enough to assume causality, in global space such predictability is lost. (Of course, the spoken word is also subject to différance, and interaction is also a system beyond the reach of an individual consciousness – but it is only through writing that we know this, and as long as we talk, and forget writing and society, we might also forget the impenetrability of the psyche and the slipping of the sign.) We can never be sure, how our texts might be understood when it has travelled beyond our local space.19 Once communication has left the local, it enters the machine, the Riesenmaschine, which processes it according to its own rules. The violence of dictatorship tries to enforce the rules of culture on society when trying to control the effect of every communication, may that be public or private.

Glocalization, I think, means that the local is born out of the global. Only in the re-presentations of the local through and in the global can we see such an originary relation to space, which is unknown to those who experience it. Negri and Hardt are quite explicit in their critique of the newly awakening interest in cultures. Cultures, and this much is true, I think, are not what is destroyed or endangered by capitalism, by the global, by the machine, but its product, or rather: its other – or as Derrida has it: its spectre, the ghost in the dark that came to ‘life’ when the light was switched on. Culture is not what the global world of writing and money – which is to goods what writing is to words – has destroyed, but its fetish. Ethnology and science do not only murder their object, they also bring to birth culture, which cannot be on its own. Interactional settings are only discernible as such when they have come to be differentiated from society. An interest in cultures that forgets its relation and dependence on capitalism and (world-)society is at best naïve – as it is also to believe that capitalism is anything else but cultural, that is: contingent.


Cultural Studies, in contrast to the study of culture, are texts among texts. They cannot pretend to stand outside the ‘object’ they observe; in fact, the whole distinction between object and subject becomes questionable. Some students of culture, in order to show that they learned the post-modern lesson, help themselves by calling culture to be heterogeneous instead of homogeneous, open instead of closed, changing instead of stable. But this is only a crutch, and a weak one, too. It is more than anything a description of what it is not, as it acknowledges the disintegration of interaction and culture but neglects the evolution of new media of dissemination and the consequential advancement of society. To understand what culture might be today, one would have to try and understand the various spatial relations that are established by different media of communication, like styles, films, video games, chat rooms, etc. Other media, as well as certain textual practices, establish forms of interaction and orders of space that might simulate originary oral settings, but they do this under the aegis of society. To understand these new forms of culture, one has to develop a theoretical approach that allows us to think interactional settings beyond orality, and orders of space beyond the dependence human presence.


  • 1 Stephen Tyler: “Zum ‘Be- / Abschreiben’ als ‘Sprechen für’: Ein Kommentar” in: Kultur, soziale Praxis, Text: die Krise der ethnographischen Repräsentation, ed. Eberhard Berg & Martin Fuchs (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1999), p288/9; my translation.
  • 2 Cf. Martin Fuchs: “Textualising Culture: Hermeneutics of Distanciation” in: The Contemporary Study of Culture, ed. Bundesministerium für Wissenschaft und Verkehr & Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaft (Wien: Turia & Kant, 1999), pp. 145-156.
  • 3 Clifford Geertz: “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” (1972), The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p452. The following reading of Geertz is heavily indebted to Renate Schlesier’s enlightening article “Kultur-Interpretation: Gebrauch und Mißbrauch der Hermeneutik heute” in: The Contemporary Study of Culture, ed. Bundesministerium für Wissenschaft und Verkehr & Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaft (Wien: Turia & Kant, 1999), pp. 157-166.
  • 4 Clifford Geertz: “Thick Description: toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p10.
  • 5 Cf. Martin Fuchs and Eberhard Berg: “Phänomenologie der Differenz: Reflexionsstufen ethnographischer Repräsentation” in: Kultur, soziale Praxis, Text: die Krise der ethnographischen Repräsentation, ed. Eberhard Berg & Martin Fuchs (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1999), p57.
  • 6 Jean-Pierre Vernant: Myth and Society in Ancient Greece (New York: Zone Books, 1990), p207. [Mythe et société en Grèce ancienne (Paris: 1974).]
  • 7 Niklas Luhmann: “The Form of Writing,” Stanford Literary Review 9 (1992), p36.
  • 8 Cf. Dirk Baecker: Kultur, begrifflich (Witten: Wittener Diskussionspapiere, 1999).
  • 9 Niklas Luhmann: Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik 4 (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1995), p48.
  • 10 Cf. Manfred Frank: “Die Dichtung als ‘Neue Mythologie’” in: Mythos und Moderne, ed. Karl-Heinz Bohrer (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1983), pp. 15-40.
  • 11 Jean Baudrillard: “The Precession of Simulacra” (1983) in: Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985), p257.
  • 12 Maurice Blanchot: La part du feu (Paris: Gallimard, 1949), p312.
  • 13 Johann Gottfried Herder: “Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit” (1774) in: Herders Sämmtliche Werke 5, ed. Bernhard Suphan (Berlin: 1891), p508.
  • 14 See, paradigmatically, Mike Bal: Kulturanalyse (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1999).
  • 15 Cf. Giorgio Agamben: Homo Sacer: Die souveräne Macht und das nackte Leben (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2002). [Homo sacer: Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita (Torino: 1995).]
  • 16 Cf. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht: “Was sich nicht wegkommunizieren läßt” in: Kommunikation, Medien, Macht, ed. Rudolf Maresch and Niels Werber (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1999), pp. 329-341. Cf. p331: “Macht ist die Möglichkeit, Räume mit Körpern (einschließlich seines eigenen Körpers) zu besetzen, und das heißt auch: Körper aus Räumen verdrängen und Körpern den Zugang zu Räumen versperren zu können.”
  • 17 André Kieserling: Kommunikation unter Anwesenden: Studien über Interaktionssysteme (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1999), p216.
  • 18 Cf. Luhmann: “The Form of Writing”, p26.
  • 19 Michel Serres: Hermes V – Die Nordwest-Passage (Berlin: Merve, 1994), p96. [Hermès – Le passage du Nord-ouest (Paris: 1980).]