Democracy and Homeland Security: Strategies, Controversies, and Impact 

Part I. Papers Presented in Panels 1–4

Culture on the Front Lines: National Character, Evolution, and Emergence

Samuel Gerald Collins, Towson University

“Us” and “Them”—Redux

Is the “war on terror” also a “war on culture”? Is “homeland security” also “culture security”? In an interview shortly following his appointment as the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bruce Cole said, “The humanities tell us who we are as a people and why our country is worth fighting for. . . . Defending our homeland requires not only successful military campaigns; it also depends on citizens understanding their history, their institutions, and their ideals” (Beatty 2002). While it is doubtless quite perspicacious to link the humanities to the health of the nation in a time of war, Cole nevertheless raises some troubling questions in my mind, particularly in regard to deixis (the “us” presumably defended by scholarship in history, literature, philosophy, and anthropology) and to the selection of history, institutions, and ideals that might be seen as proper to that understanding. In other words, Cole suggests that there exists a set of traditions, histories, and texts that marks us off from them, and that, moreover, their proper understanding is essential to the health of the nation, whereas, presumably, a failure to appreciate this ontogeny will result in the nation’s dissolution. In this, Cole seems close to the post–September 11 writings of conservative lawmakers and commentators, who have been quick to equate ambivalence with American identity with military weakness, as in Sean Hannity’s best-selling diatribe, Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism (2004).

Complementing the effort to define “us” has been a drive to delineate “them” as not only a gallery of enemies (al-Qa’da, bin Laden, Hussein) but also an assemblage of texts, traditions, and institutions. Here, of course, President Bush has had to step more carefully; since Islam is a religion shared by putative allies, enemies, and U.S. citizens alike, there have been relatively few equations of the “war on terror” with religious war since President Bush’s 2001 characterization of the “war on terrorism” as a “crusade” (Greene 2003). Nevertheless, journalists and experts on Iraq and Afghanistan continue to interpret events in the Middle East through scriptural frames, liberally sprinkling their otherwise realpolitik commentary with allusions to religion and classical studies. Paradoxically, these conservatives ostensibly reject placing blame on Islam for terrorism yet reinscribe this etiology in interpreting political and military events as arising out of religion and cultural tradition. For example, in an April article in the Los Angeles Times on fighting in Fallujah, Alissa Rubin (2004), borrowing from journalistic representations of urban unrest in the United States, notes that “a culture of impunity has taken hold in Iraq.” However, she goes on to write that the attacks against U.S. Marines have been “according to Arab custom and especially tribal tradition” and, moreover, that “the specter of carnage at the hands of Western infidels taps deep into the Iraqi consciousness, raising revulsion. It raises images of domination by the Ottoman Empire and British, periods of profound humiliation” (Rubin 2004). That is, according to Rubin and others like her, the difference between terrorists and ordinary people is just one of degree; the ultimate telos is culture itself.

Domestically, what the editor of The Progressive, Matthew Rothschild, terms the “new McCarthyism” polices the boundaries between “us” and “them” through both censuring critical voices in the United States and vilifying more sympathetic portrayals of Islam (Rothschild 2002). It is, despite putative calls for secular universalism, a time of “The Passion of Christ,” where an ultimately narrow and conservative vision of the United States is contrasted to equally narrow and tendentious visions of the United States’s “others.” It is a time when “civilization” studies have enjoyed a somewhat menacing renaissance on college campuses and when less parsimonious—and ultimately more complex—postcolonial studies remain under a concerted attack from the right (Goldberg 2003). We can also see this with the post-9/11 treatment of immigrants; while most policymakers have taken care not to be perceived as anti-immigrant (although policies have, in fact, led to decreased levels of immigration and tourism), nevertheless immigrants have (again) come under renewed scrutiny as troublesome, transnational bodies passing between “us” and “them.” Accordingly, the Department of Homeland Security has taken as its mission not only the more effective policing of borders (through fingerprinting and the like) but also a stepped-up program of “cultural policing,” to “ensure that our immigration system promotes a common civic identity for diverse citizens” (DHS 2004).

And yet, this present period of orientalism abroad and McCarthyism at home is neither the first, nor will this, presumably, be the last; in the United States, the twentieth century has seen the regular recurrence of cultural binarisms during times of political and military strife, a cultural circling of the wagons firming up the (imagined) boundaries of “in group” and “out group.” Indeed, Palumbo-Liu (2002, 110) finds in all this disturbing echoes of past evocations of a long-discredited anthropological tradition of “national character” studies, where “National interests seem indistinguishable from ‘a way of life,’ and national policy seems synonymous with large, ‘civilizational’ imperatives.” Or, as Inkeles defines it, the study of national character is the analysis of “the relatively enduring personality characteristics and patterns that are modal among the adult members of a society” (Inkeles 1961, 173). In other words, whole nations (Iraq, Iran, North Korea) are said to be characterized by one set of qualities (violence, irrationality) while the United States is said to possess a diametrically opposed set (freedom-loving, individualistic, rational). Moving in a way back in time to a reified, bounded, and ethnocentric notion of culture critiqued by anthropologists and postcolonial studies since at least the 1960s, this would seem to be orientalist ethnocentrism at its most virulent, a particularly depressing development given decades of multicultural education on college campuses.

One reaction to this has been to rehearse the critiques of the past thirty years, a tactic deftly employed by scholars in multiple disciplines (Palumbo-Liu 2002; Little 2002). In this chapter, however, I turn to an examination of the study of national character in the 1940s and 1950s, its decline in the 1960s, and its aftermath in the late-1960s writings of Margaret Mead. I argue that not only can this tell us much today about the technologies through which hypostatized portraits of people are created, but that, following up on Mead’s postnational character studies’ insights, we might evade some of the same pitfalls and perhaps even transcend ideas of culture and conflict as the dichotomous frisson of “us” versus “them.” One of the architects of national character studies in the years leading up to World War II, Mead ultimately rejects her own theories, evoking a democracy prefaced on emergence and difference rather than a set of cultural characteristics. Finally, I hope to gesture to the sort of role anthropology might play in the question of “homeland security,” especially since anthropology has been instrumental in setting up the discursive technologies whereby other cultures are castigated as being “other” to the United States (Price 1998).

Part 1 of the chapter looks to the development of “national character” studies in World War II, while part 2 charts their fall from fashion during the more skeptical period of the 1960s. The final portion of this chapter considers this arc as a resource in our meditations on “homeland” culture. By taking the terms of the debate beyond the questions of essential identity, as well as, ultimately, beyond questions of “pluralism” and “universalism,” what hope might the study of “national character” offer us today?

Double V: Culture at Home and Abroad

During World War II, the success of the Allied effort was linked to cultural and social developments in the United States. After all, the United States, in what Henry Luce later called “The American Century,” was both rightful heir to European civilization and witness to its dissolution in the battlefields of Europe (Singh 1998). Sometimes, this “civilizing mission” could work in the favor of domestic reform; as Singh points out, civil rights activists could point to the continued disenfranchisement of African Americans in the United States as a weakness that could be exploited by Nazis. The Pittsburgh Courier’s “Double V” campaign, therefore, called for “a victory against the Nazis abroad, and a victory against racism at home” (Foner and Lewis 1983; quoted in Singh 1998, 474). However, these homologies between the military theater and the cultural theater depended upon delineating just what “American” culture was and how it differed from our cultural others. If the United States was a “sanctuary of the idea of civilization,” what were the contours of that civilization, and how did it differ from the world abroad?

These were some of the sorts of questions confronted by anthropologists joining the fight against fascism in the final months of 1939. Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Phileo Nash, Klyde Kluckhohn, Alexander Leighton, Ralph Linton, and many, many others were involved in policymaking, intelligence services, and language training during World War II; Stocking (1992, 165) has suggested that 75 percent of anthropologists were engaged in some part of the war effort (Price 1998). The study of culture—at least to anthropologists—was felt to have some bearing on the successful outcome of the war—but what aspects of culture, and how?

Nineteenth-century anthropologists understood the people of the world as living exemplars of evolutionary stages. While much of this involved the self-congratulatory measurement of the “less evolved” against the yardstick of Europe, there was also the belief that the highest pinnacles had not yet been reached; future cultural development would move inextricably toward even more civilized states. As John Lubbock wrote, “Even in our own time, we may hope to see some improvements, but the unselfish mind will find its highest gratification in the belief that, whatever may be the case with ourselves, our descendants will understand many things hidden from us now” (Lubbock 1870; quoted in Trigger 1998, 68).

However, the early twentieth century saw several challenges to these just-so stories of Western and European superiority, particularly in the writings of Franz Boas and his students. Working on several fronts simultaneously, the Boasians argued that (1) models of cultural evolution were abstractions divorced from the historically particular facts of cultural development, and (2) judgments consigning cultures to more or less developed places in these unilinear hierarchies were invariably ethnocentric and that, moreover, objective rankings of culture were an impossibility (Handler 1990).

In the wake of these critiques, anthropologists in the United States were left with much more local, flattened models of culture, and these integrative, more syntagmatic understandings had, by the 1930s, supplanted more comparative visions of culture as the grand narrative of human progress. In England, Bronislaw Malinowski’s functionalism (Malinowski 1922) oriented anthropologists toward the efficacy of each institution in a culture conceived as a system, while in the United States Boasians examined the normative development of the individual.

This “culture and personality” school in anthropology would stress an integrative and inherently conservative vision of culture, whereby the process of acculturation is one of normativeness favoring a characteristic distribution of personality types (Stocking 1992, 162). As Benedict (1934) writes in Patterns of Culture, the paradigmatic text for the culture and personality school,

The life-story of the individual is first and foremost an accommodation to the patterns and standards traditionally handed down in his community. From the moment of his birth the customs into which he is born shape his experience and behaviors. From the time he can talk, he is a little creature of his culture, and by the time he is grown and able to take part in his activities, its habits are his habits, its beliefs his beliefs, its possibilities his possibilities. (Benedict 1934, 2–3)

Despite her own identification with more marginalized “personality types,” Benedict’s anthropology suggests the apotheosis of the “average” personality as the functional outcome of deterministic, cultural systems.

Anthropologists have since critiqued this initial formulation of culture as altogether too homogeneous; in a way, her epigrammatic evocations of Zuni, Dobuan, and Kwakiutl peoples elevated stereotyping to the status of high theory. As Wallace critiqued a few years later (1952, 747), Benedict was confusing “mechanical and probability determination” in applying probabilistic understandings of culture to the determination of modal personality types. However, as Mead (1959, ix) was later to write in Benedict’s defense, these “average” interpretations in no way excluded deviance or heterogeneity. But, I would suggest, Benedict did characterize heterogeneity as deviant, an important distinction that was to influence the course of national character studies.

Whatever the status of individual difference in Benedict’s theories, one of the consequences of Boasian culture was the marginalization of change and development in anthropological approaches to the study of culture. Even though “historical particularism” modeled change, Boasian conceptions of culture nevertheless emphasized the regular, normative socialization. According to Trigger (1998, 226), one of the consequences of this rejection of narratives of evolutionary change was to “deny the possibility of genuine progress and therefore of overcoming deep-seated problems and creating a better type of society than has existed before.”

And yet, evolutionary thought was by no means completely exorcised. As Mead (1964) points out, Boas still believed in “the general propositions” of cultural evolution. That is, while rejecting the comparative, cultural evolutionism of the day as hopelessly unscientific and ethnocentric, he still defers on questions of the universal development, direction, and ultimate telos of cultural evolution. Despite, therefore, their formal separation, there nevertheless existed a chiasma between culture as something developing through stages to more complex states and culture as an integrated, homeostatic complex of traits. It was, then, this ambiguous conception of culture that formed the basis for the “national character” studies of the 1940s and 1950s.

At the end of 1939, with U.S. involvement in World War II growing increasingly likely, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson, and others formed the “Committee on National Morale” as an experiment in putting anthropology in the service of government. This involved more than just keeping spirits up; the recommendations of the committee amounted to bona fide, cultural engineering. As Mead and Bateson explained in a 1941 article, the morale builder

is concerned with evoking, promoting resonance in, all those attitudes that are coherent and socially adaptive; and especially he is concerned with facilitating those changes in the group structure that may be necessary if the coherent character structure is to be maximally effective. (Mead and Bateson 1941, 214)

By accentuating latent possibilities for cohesion while subverting those other elements that might contribute to discord, Mead and Bateson suggested that anthropologists might actively shape culture and, therefore, invigorate Allied spirits against the Nazis. However, this bore an uncomfortable resemblance to outright propaganda, made that much more uncomfortable by Mead’s, Benedict’s, and Bateson’s contributions to wartime propaganda in Europe and East and Southeast Asia, where the same techniques were used to sow discord and confusion; indeed, Bateson later regretted his Faustian utilization of anthropology in the service of the State (cf. Bakan 1989; Howard 1984; Price 1998). But here, Mead (1941) and Bateson (1941) would draw an ex post facto distinction; the morale builders were the ones who built upon the integrative, normative patterns of national culture, while the propagandists exploited the internal contradiction inherent in national, cultural patterns.

Over the coming months, national character studies undertaken for agencies like the Office of War Information formed the most visible part of the anthropological war effort, and Ruth Benedict, Klyde Kluckhohn, Ralph Linton, Alexander Leighton, Margaret Mead, and others contributed notes on European and East and Southeast Asian “national characters” that were to have helped both to predict tactics and to maximize the efficacy of Allied strategies. Bateson’s studies of German film yielded insights into the mechanics of Nazi propaganda (Bateson 1953), while Gorer, whose theories would prove the eventual undoing of national character studies in anthropology, recommended that the Japanese emperor himself should not be attacked by Allied forces, since this would further galvanize ordinary Japanese people to the defense of Japan (Gorer 1943). On the other hand, Mead’s studies of U.S. national character (And Keep Your Powder Dry) and Great Britain (The American Troops and the British Community: An Examination of the Relationship between American Troops and British) were undertaken to maximize Allied contributions to the war effort by capitalizing on the characteristic strengths and minimizing the weaknesses of Allied troops.

But the most monumental work produced under the auspices of the Office of War Information—and the best-known example of national character studies—is most certainly Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Working “at a distance” with varied texts, films, and Nisei informants incarcerated under Executive Order 9066, Benedict produced an ethnography that was consonant with her earlier work in Patterns of Culture in that it emphasized uniform patterns of socialization and cultural themes underlying modal personalities, but also quite unlike that work in its emphasis on induced culture change.

For Benedict, this meant that, in the postwar world, Japan had to become more like the United States,

accepting the authority of elected persons and ignoring “proper station” as it is set up in their hierarchical system . . . adopting the free and easy human contacts to which we are accustomed in the United States, the imperative demand to be independent, the passion each individual has to choose his own mate, his own job, the house he will live in and the obligations he will assume. (Benedict 1946, 314)

At the same time, a conquering power did not simply thrust these traits upon Japan; they were, in some way, already immanent in Japanese culture. For example, the two symbols that Benedict marshals for the title of the book—The Chrysanthemum and the Sword—symbolize both the pathologies and the promise of Japan in the postwar era. The chrysanthemum, a symbol of individual freedoms in Japan, should be allowed to grow in any way it wishes rather than be “desperately disposed by the grower’s hand” (Benedict 1964, 295). The sword, a paramount symbol of Japanese militarism, could also connote strong morality and self-responsibility; if only the militarism might drop away, the sword might become instead a symbol of civic virtue. Several commentators, such as Shannon (1995), have noted Benedict’s ethnocentricity here; Japanese culture will “improve,” after all, only when Japan becomes more like the United States or at least one version of the United States.

In the final months of the war, the purpose of national character studies shifted from the prosecution of the war to the architecture of the postwar order. Under the auspices of the Institute for Intercultural Studies, which Mead organized in 1944 as a corporation, and Columbia University, which sponsored the Research in Contemporary Cultures project, anthropologists produced several studies, the best known of which include Geoffrey Gorer’s The American People, a Study in National Character (1948), Margaret Mead’s Soviet Attitudes Towards Authority (1951), Rhoda Metraux and Margaret Mead’s The Study of Culture at a Distance (1953), and Rhoda Metraux’s Themes in French Culture (1954). Methodologically, the study of national character coalesced around a combination of ethnographic, psychological, and textual approaches, where interviews with informants were juxtaposed with Thematic Apperception and Rorschach tests as well as close readings of movies, newspapers, and consumer culture.

These methods ultimately informed the “American exceptionalism” of the mid-twentieth century, which, in the words of Radway (1999, 4), “manifested itself as a distinctive set of properties and themes in all things American, whether individuals, institutions or cultural products.” Indeed, this “national character” would prove a useful technique in the dyadic game theory of the cold war, where American policies and understandings hardened behind dichotomous understandings of American, Soviet, and (after 1949) Chinese cultures (Stouffer 1955; Laswell 1951; Hsu 1953). In addition, it would also prove useful in vilifying divergent “personality types” in the cold war—minorities, intellectuals, and cultural critics of all kinds (Gregg and Williams 1948). Minorities in the United States found themselves defined as “deviant” compared to the modal (white and middle-class) personality. And, in the national character tradition, cultural variations on “normative” institutions like the U.S. family were said to produce what Patrick Moynihan called a “tangle of pathologies” (Glazer and Moynihan 1970). Whether applied abroad or at home, national character studies identified what made “us” different from “them.”

But it also implicitly ranked them. National character studies were handy tools in diagnosing geopolitical strife as psychological pathology: Germans were aggressive, Russians despotic. The “healthier” national cultures—invariably the United States and its allies—were, of course, more stable and more integrated than the others were. In other words, “savagery” and “barbarism” moved from overtly racist stereotypes to covertly racist categories in the DSM; the rankings, however, remained the same. And like the unilinear evolutionary theory that preceded them, national character studies were prescriptions for change—courses of treatment for the psychologically distressed culture where nations characterized by “extremism” are also “inhabited by a proportionately large number of individuals with the personality traits we have seen associated with extremism” (Inkeles 1961, 194). Moreover, inducing more centrist personality types would ultimately produce democracy in the target society in this line of reasoning. It is not far from this body of theory to modernization theory, where, again, bringing prosperity to the “Third World” was premised on stamping out “backward” thinking of all kinds (Escobar 1995).

After the war, Mead, Bateson, and others brought this interest in directed culture change to the Josiah Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, a series of multidisciplinary conferences examining mental and physical phenomena through the heuristic of a body of cybernetic theory beginning with the work of Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, and others. Wiener, however, was not optimistic that cybernetic modeling could ever be used to shape culture and social life (Bateson 1972). Nevertheless, the anthropologists soldiered on, with Margaret Mead, at any rate, drawing on metaphors of homeostatic, cybernetic systems in her increasingly programmatic prescriptions for culture change (Mead 1942, 249). That is, institutions and practices from the different “patterns of culture” anthropologists had studied could be combined and manipulated through applications of positive and negative feedback loops. “National character,” a precipitate of an abstract, superorganic structure determining individual psyche, could be turned into a machine for the postwar order. In their role as mad scientists constructing Frankensteins of modernization, anthropologists could alter the superstructure of culture and the target psyche would change.

This is not to say that there were not critics of the national character studies; in fact, a series of sustained critiques in anthropology led to the general abandonment of national character studies. With the reintroduction of ecological and materialist studies in anthropology, many balked at the grand abstractions that informed culture and personality theories, and national character studies in particular. In an insightful passage, Wallace neatly catalogs the approach’s shortcomings:

The four assumptions are (1) that culture is an external environment uniformly perceived by and pressing upon all members of society, (2) that this cultural pressure determines a uniformity of behavior, including parental behavior (which largely defines the child’s experience), (3) that therefore all “normal” members of a society must have the same basic personality structure (“national character”), and (4) that consequently culture can be said to mold personality. (Wallace 1952, 747)

Indeed, having deduced “culture” from childhood development in the first place (a trick that Mead employs in good effect in Coming of Age in Samoa), the “proof” of national character is ultimately tautological. This was certainly the case with Gorer’s endlessly lampooned “swaddling” hypothesis, where the discomfort produced by the Russian practice of tightly swaddling infants led to suspicious, fearful adults cowed by authority; “the chief theoretical quarrel between Lenin and Rosa Luxembourg was on the question of whether the workers could develop ‘straight’ without the tight, ‘swaddling’ authority of the Central Committee” (Gorer 2001, 147). Thereafter, Gorer (and Mead) spent inordinate amounts of time defending their “diaperology” from critics drawn from anthropology and psychology (di Leonardo 1998; Gorer 2001). It was this, perhaps, even more than the more programmatic critiques of scholars like Wallace, which led to the eventual decline of national character studies in anthropology.

In addition, Mead’s work was losing its influence. Increasingly critical of her sweeping generalizations and her social engineering, especially as the McCarthy era gave way to a less politically quiescent professorate, anthropologists turned away from her academic work. And, like anthropologists themselves, who, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, were leaving behind such notions of bounded cultures, academics in American studies and area studies were adopting more complex models of cultural heterogeneity, power, and inequality that would become multiculturalism and postcolonialism, respectively. Although national character studies certainly hung on in intercultural communication and in business, its five minutes of academic fame had passed.

National Character Being to National Character Becoming

However imbricated in modernization theory, the national character writings of Mead and Benedict are nevertheless suggestive of something else less yoked to ethnocentric Western notions of progress and individualism. There is, in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword as well as Patterns of Culture, a sense that culture change might take place in distinctly nonteleological ways unforeseen by any state power and that democracy was a work in progress not necessarily achieved through emulating the United States in the 1950s.

Mead (1956) was to take up this theme in a transitional text, New Lives for Old, a restudy of the Manus of the Admiralty Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Her initial visit there in 1928 was entirely consistent with her work in culture and personality:

As far as I myself was concerned, I wanted to work among some Melanesian people in order to enlarge my experience for the Museum and to study the way in which primitive adults, who were said to think like civilized children, differed from primitive children. (Mead 1972, 168)

That eventual work, Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education (Mead 1930) was filled with the Freudianisms of the day, and in particular, parallels between gender, sexual competition, and so on. After a year there, neither Mead nor her husband, Reo Fortune, thought much of the Manus and she writes of sailing away with the intent of never returning again, “taking with me all I needed to know of their strange and savage life” (Mead 1956, xi).

However, during World War II, Melanesia had been one of the staging grounds for the Pacific Theater, and the movement of millions of U.S. troops through the area had (quite forcefully) stimulated sweeping cultural changes, among them the formation of millenarian “cargo cults” linking the appearance of Western commodities to the achievement of some utopian state. These were common all over New Guinea, but Mead was attracted to the Paliau Movement in Manus, a “cargo cult” that progressively looked to modernization as the way to achieve prosperity (Mead 1956, 452). For her, this made them not only anthropologically interesting but also useful for insights into new problems of the postwar world (Mead 1956, xi).

An examination of the Paliau Movement and particularly the movement’s leader, Paliau himself, Mead believed, might suggest answers to the burning questions of the postwar world overpopulation, social anomie, and the possibility of World War III (Mead 1956, 3–4). Through their openness to rapid change and their integration of changing circumstances in an existing Manus identity, Manus could serve as an example to the world around them, including the United States. Thus, in a departure from integrative, functionalist understandings of culture implicitly favoring stasis over change, Mead seemed to favor rapid change in all societies. As she wrote at the end of New Lives,

Thus it can be seen that throughout human history there has been a struggle between the proponents of closed and open systems, systems that could change their forms, accommodate new ideas, retain their allegiance of new generations within them rather than goad them into rebellion or desertion, systems that welcomed the ideas, the questions, and the members of other systems, and those contrasting systems which hardened into exclusiveness or conservatism, so that wars of conquest, the rack, the ritual trial, the war on unbelievers in which one attained merit by killing them, became their destructive methods of self-perpetuation. (Mead 1956, 457)

Although the “open system” that Mead champions is quite different from the arrested, mechanically deterministic models of national character that informed Mead and her cohort in the years surrounding World War II, its characteristics are nevertheless vague. Where did this change arise? Mead completely ignored the wartime intrusions and postwar colonialism that had literally torn Melanesia apart. Was this the change (destructive and oppressive) that the world was supposed to be open to? Did favorable culture change simply mean that the countries of the world should surrender to the whims of the West, remaking their lives in the image of the United States? Wasn’t this simply a more cataclysmic version of culture change than what Mead, Benedict, and Gorer had proposed before, simply speeding up the modernization machine for a post-Fordist era?

Mead (1964) was to take this up in what was to be her last book-length scholarly work, Continuities in Cultural Evolution. In this, she tried to reconcile different schools of anthropology, bringing together the specific and general evolution proposed by Sahlins (1960) and Service (1960) with her culture and personality understandings of the development of the individual. It was a call for anthropologists to again facilitate culture change by focusing on the evolutionary potential of the individual genius through the creation of what she called “evolutionary clusters.” In one sense, this was a hopelessly atavistic project, putting Arnold Toynbee to work in the service of a version of modernization quickly becoming discredited externally through the growth of dependency theory and the nascent postcolonial critiques of Frantz Fanon, and internally through the antiwar movement and the growing animosity toward the technocratic state.

In another way, however, Mead’s work—although indifferently received by an intellectual community contemptuous of what they saw as her constant pandering to the popular press (for example, in her frequently slipshod columns for Redbook)—suggests new ground for national character studies and anthropology in general. For one thing, she again rejects the idea of directed cultural change, arguing instead that cultural change of evolutionary importance must be spontaneous and emergent, proceeding from “the points of greatest freedom in the system” (Mead 1964, 255–56). She was to develop this theme in more detail in Culture and Commitment (Mead 1970), where she contrasts “postfigurative,” “configurative,” and “prefigurative” cultures. In a “postfigurative” culture, “The children’s future is shaped in such a way that what has come after childhood for their forbears is what they, too, will experience after they are grown” (Mead 1970, 14). In contrast, “A configurative culture is one in which the prevailing model for members of the society is the behavior of their contemporaries” (Mead 1970, 39). Finally, in the “prefigurative” culture, “Instead of the erect, white-haired elder who, in postfigurative cultures, stood for the past and the future in all their grandeur and continuity, the unborn child, already conceived but still in the womb, must become a symbol of what life will be like” (Mead 1970, 83).

That is, “culture” is an unknown, emergent quantity, completely unpredictable from what has gone before, and those of us in the older generation must, accordingly, “now move toward the creation of open systems that focus on the future—and so on children, those whose capacities are least known and whose choices must be left open” (Mead 1970, 87). For Mead, this represented the vast, global changes that had, as she often repeated, introduced a vast “generation gap” between adults and the Baby Boom generation where “the elders are set apart from any previous generation and from the young” (Mead 1970, 76). But more than this, I would suggest that this really represents a significant shift in her own theory; she, in other words, moves from the “postfigurative” theorizing of wartime national character studies to what we might call a “prefigurative” national character.

Upending the model of cultural determinism, Mead’s “prefigurative culture” is an effective reversal of the national character model, where the patterns of childbirth, weaning, and so on—culture conceived as a uniform patina—determine the future generation, to a model where the spontaneous emergence of new behaviors precipitates a continually changing culture-scape. Mead’s cultural evolution looks to the Bergsonian virtuality and the emergence of new, recombinatory forms, valuing complexity and emergent difference as part of a continuously ongoing process of structural coupling to a changing world (cf. Hayles 1999). As Grosz writes (1999, 28), this involves “seeing the future as bound up with the continual elaboration of the new, the openness of things.” Instead of the mechanistic determinism at the core of “national character” studies, where the reproduction of modal personalities in the next generation completes the pattern of culture and where change is externally introduced and can be technocratically engineered, Mead has moved to a model where difference is endemic and generative of still more difference and where the relation to the past is “problematized”: “national culture” conceived as unknowable quanta of spontaneous difference.

Breaking the National Kulturkreis

The events of the past three years have signaled a return to national character studies; again, policymakers and the reading public construe the world as a map defined by geopolitical culture-areas. For Huntington (2004), there is a “clash of civilization” model, where, by overlooking centuries of historical interconnections, he defines global conflict as arising out of the agon of “West” versus “rest,” a moral drama that is stultifying in its ultimately bleak forecasts for our collective future. Either “they” will win or “we” (defined by Huntington as white and Protestant Christians) will win; the cultural cold war can, at best, hope for an uneasy detente (Huntington 2004). In this formulation, all we have to look forward to are dull recapitulations of “civilizational” struggles, each of us dutifully playing out our respective cultural types. Or there’s someone like Benjamin Barber, who—despite his more liberal, more cosmopolitan politics—nevertheless pits a “Jihad” versus a “McWorld,” that is, the essentialism of national character studies through the back door. Putatively the rejection of “national character” in all its manifestations, he nevertheless promotes a cosmopolitanism that looks suspiciously like the United States in the NAFTA era (Calhoun 2002).

For Mead and other anthropologists of national character in the 1940s and 1950s, “democracy” entailed a characteristic set of personality traits, one associated with the absence of “extremism” as “potentially disruptive to democratic systems” (Inkeles 1961, 193). Thus, paradoxically (and here we can see some of the Eisenhower-era obsession with social order), the formation of a democratic society meant the cultivation of a bland, middle-of-the-road attitude—not too individualistic, not too communitarian, not too enthusiastic, and, indeed, not too democratic.

But what Mead’s turn from national character studies can tell us is that the promise of rapprochement lies in a shared appreciation for the as yet unknown (and, according to Mead, unimaginable) future cultural developments. What Mead can tell us today is that culture is emergent, complex, prefigurative, and stochastic, that change characterizes culture rather than stasis. “National character” is not just heterogeneous; it is pure contingency itself. As an alternative to ruinous visions of national character, Palumbo-Liu (2002, 127) suggests a “progressive humanism” “outside that of any particular nation.” I would take Palumbo-Liu one step further here and suggest an “anticipatory humanism,” that is, not only a mutual respect based on the multitudinous connections that make a mockery of attempting to divide “us” from “them,” but a humanism based on the generative differences that promise, if nothing else, to transform cultures into form unimaginable by younger generations. The promise of this antinational character is simply that the ultimate shape of the nation disappears over the event horizon of virtuality; not being able to define this continuously emergent culture means that efforts to secure our cultural borders, as it were, are, at the very least, pointless. At the worst, they may forestall the cultural futures that may be. Only through an “open system,” the radical democratization of culture, can we ensure the ultimate health of the nation. An anticipatory humanism is implicitly a respect for limitless cultural worlds that may one day exist.


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