‘Cultures’ do not hold still for their portraits

(James Clifford)


The political and social sphere in Australia has recently seen numerous forms of violence, both micro and macro, both symbolic and literal – sexual assault, chronic workplace underpayment and the continuation of police violence against Aboriginal people being some stark examples. To a greater or lesser degree, these events and structures each have been imputed in the media to ‘cultures’, be they a culture of violence, patriarchal culture, or colonial cultures of dispossession.

Let me say from the outset that I think that social forces are causal. When Scott Morrison fails to read police documents pertaining to the alleged sexual violence perpetrated by people working under him (as he failed to do with the then Attorney General): when businesses from restaurants to universities consistently and egregiously fraudulently underpay their staff; when white settlers cannot imagine themselves as culpable within a logic of dispossession and colonisation – in all these instances, there is something more than individual culpability in play.

However, too frequently in the media one hears journalists – and good, solid ones at that – use the notion of culture as a catch-all term that barely points to any more than an overdetermined aggregation of causes.

So for instance we are told that while we have to hold the police to account, we also have to consider the culture surrounding it, and even when we talk of reform, redress and address, always at the centre is the implication that, it’s either ‘a culture’ or an individual that is to blame.

There are problems with this dichotomy and I would submit that its binary nature is partly an effect of neoliberal discourses. These problems arise insofar as talk of culture relates individuals to social (‘cultural’) forces while either exonerating the individual or leaving the explanatory function resting on a force-field called ‘the culture’ that is difficult to shift, transform or locate redress within.

If Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there was no society, only individuals, neoliberal discourse has become perhaps more sophisticated. Where the socius had been made up of individuals for Thatcherian conservativism, with no society or culture in sight, the neoliberal constellation that contains but has also moved beyond it now offers ‘the culture’ as the catch-all explanation for anything and everything that is not reducible to the individual.

So what are we talking about when we talk about ‘the culture’? The problem is that for those who study it, culture is as ephemeral and difficult to pin down as it is so apparently easy for the journalists, social critics and politicians who ascribe social phenomena to it, albeit differently difficult. What kind of epistemic object, then, is (‘the’) culture?

It might be grandiose to suggest, but for many social theorists, culture is as difficult to locate as the particle is in quantum physics.

Whereas Newtonian physics describes a world consisting of determinate particles obeying deterministic laws – with every outcome traceable, at least in principle, to a specific cause – quantum physics places us in a radically different realm of observation. It proposes that observation changes the nature of the particles observed such that we cannot know their basic elements but only the circumstances within which these elements might appear within certain conditions of probability. So too, culture can be located in specific actions and events but it is not a thing in itself, a force hanging in the air, external to the social actions and events within which it is immanent, manifest, actualised.

Contemporary popular discourse treats culture precisely as such a free-floating determinative force. Understood in this way, culture explains everything but non-specifically, it explains no causes and no effects, it explains nothing except insofar as it is identified as the cause for everything.

These would-be Newtonian accounts of culture have been quite clear about certain things: policing of violence against women functions against the backdrop of a broken system, Indigenous deaths in custody, too, are the result of a broken system, as is wage theft in numerous industries. However, when social theory is called upon to explain the brokenness of these systems, what has filters out into the mainstream is not a complex theory of culture but rather something with exaggerated explanatory value which also, ironically, explains little of nuance; something called ‘the culture.’

What we might engage with instead are, for instance: systems of inquiry mentality (as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda has termed it) whereby government bureaucratic processes generate discourse, distribute findings and recommendations and find recommendations unimplemented. Another area of critique we might engage in is the culture of bureaucracy more widely, rather than using bureaucratic language to talk about ‘the culture’. Instead, where culture is both cause of individual behavior and bracketed from it – say, if the alleged criminal behavior of a politician or a police officer cannot be accounted for legal reasons – we regress back to ‘the culture’ as a valid but overly broad explanatory mechanism.

British sociologist Sylvia Walby and her co-authors have taken issue with theorists who insist that individualised violence must be passed over in order to focus on wider social and political violence, and have shown that this violence is gendered and subject to structural patterns without resorting to a notion of the individual or reducing their analysis of structural causation to ‘the culture.’ I would add, there are problems on both sides of the equation: holding an individual to account might have little effect on the broader issue in question, be it violence against women or Indigenous deaths in police custody; on the other hand addressing the broader structural conditions that produce these forms of violence risks standing in for the redress of specific individuated claims to justice.

The language games within which we are placed by neoliberalism threaten to reduce us to one or the other pole in the dialectic. So, we should absolutely call out cultures that manifest and effect behaviours that are harmful. But in doing so, we need to know something about culture beyond these neoliberal language games that are, presently, quite lost between a concrete sense of individual action and an external sense of social force.


Jordan Mckenzie, Rachel Loney-Howes, Paul E Griffiths, Roger Patulny, and Andrew Whelan all read one or several stages of this piece and provided invaluable feedback. Any oversights are my own, but I am grateful for their readings.

Image by Michala Lipkova

Michael R. Griffiths

Michael R Griffiths lives in Marrickville. He teaches decolonial literature at the University of Wollongong. In 2018, his first monograph The Distribution of Settlement was released by UWAP.

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  1. Mmmmmm … culture and cultures and cultural myths and cultural identities are difficult to pin down at the best of times, and at the worst of times there is little hope of positive outcomes, particularly as beliefs and values are always changing, mostly for the environmental negative. Which is why natural environments, often the binary opposite of cultures, have been and are now, and will more progressively so into whatever future there is left, decide when cultures are eclipsed by extinction, unless there is a whole world radical rethink on these pressing cultural issues. (End of sermon.)

    How long were they approaching down my roads
    As if they owned them?
    S. Heaney

  2. Culture is a social construct, but it’s being proposed as though it’s this miasma that floats above. It may be a large “entity”, but just as the ocean, vast though it be, is composed of water, culture is composed of individual minds, opinions and relationships.
    You’re right that some people like to blame a boogeyman of culture, but we need to understand that people live and breathe culture. To blame culture IS to blame persons – we need to never forget that, and stop letting people pretend otherwise.

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