Culture and Confusion: Len Findlay’s Review of Concepts Of Culture: Art, Politics, and Society

Posted June 12, 2009 by Adam Muller, Associate Professor of English, University of Manitoba

I am writing with reference to the cursory job performed by Len Findlay in his review of Concepts Of Culture: Art, Politics, And Society, my recent collection of essays published by the University of Calgary Press. Space constraints prevent me from adequately responding here to Findlay’s peculiar objections to my own introduction to the collection, and I will content myself instead with a brief response to the confused account he provides of two of my contributors’ views, to the distorted sense his review conveys of the ambitions and coherence of their arguments.

To begin with, Findlay characterizes Christoph Brumann, whom he identifies as insufficiently attentive to aboriginal or indigenous perspectives, as little more than a Eurocentric conservative preoccupied with some mangled version of the Huntington Thesis. This is genuinely confusing since Brumann, who possesses considerable experience doing ethnographic fieldwork in urban and rural Japan, and who in this and other works reveals an acute awareness of the distorting effects of cultural bias-and whose essay has become extremely influential in cultural anthropology circles (it continues to be reprinted elsewhere)-is mainly concerned in his argument with challenging anthropologists such as Lila Abu-Lughod associated with the “Writing Against Culture” movement. I realize one typically reads through the lens of one’s own preoccupations, but in this case Findlay’s concerns with “correctness” actually get in the way of his comprehending what the material he is confronted with is actually-and clearly-about.

The same goes for Findlay’s reading of the article by Martha Nussbaum, the well-known philosopher and classicist whom he unaccountably refers to in the original version of his review (published on the Canadian Literature website) as “Felicity.” Instead of commenting on Nussbaum’s argument concerning the existence of human universals, an argument derived from the work on capabilities by the Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, Findlay focuses on, and misconstrues, Nussbaum’s claim that Marxism was born in the British library. Rather than exemplifying “bookish arrogance” on Nussbaum’s part, Nussbaum’s point is instead that Marxism’s particularism-its historical indebtedness to conditions characteristic of a particular European political and economic milieu-is too often unacknowledged during attempts to universalize its challenge to dominant social and economic orders in the non-Western world.

Given what I am tempted to describe as Findlay’s interpretive and critical incompetence, as well as his overt and puzzling mean-spiritedness, I suppose I should be grateful that he found any pleasure in, and learned something from, more than a third of my collection’s essays. But given his insensitive distortion of the core meaning of my anthology, his inexcusable misconstrual of both the strengths and weaknesses of a collection devoted to promoting transtheoretical dialogue on a broad and heterogeneous topic, I’m afraid there’s no comfort to be had. Findlay’s erratic and uncharitable comments finally do little to explain credibly either what works or what doesn’t in my collection. Nor do they do much to foster meaningful intellectual debate.