Multiculturalism without culture II: Between Culture and Cosmos

This post forms part of a series of entries that discuss Anne Phillips’ re-definition of culture in her book Multiculturalism Without Culture (2007).

Criticism of this classic conception of culture, in which culture is treated as a thing, is now commonplace within academia. Edward B. Tylor’s definition of culture in 1871 is traditionally used as an example of this reified vision: “Culture or civilisation, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits required by man as a member of society” (Quoted in Phillips 42). The evolutionary models of the nineteenth century informed notions such as Tylor’s. In this vision, cultures were situated in different developmental paths. In this path, non-Western cultures were labelled as “primitive”and representative of the prehistory of European cultures in a remote past. Western cultures were labelled as “advanced”, and were seen as examples of  here “primitive” cultures could eventually go.

At the turn of the twentieth century, anthropologists rejected the hierarchical vision of cultures that can be observed in Tylor’s definition. These anthropologists observed cultures as unified wholes, coherent and consistent in their own terms, each worthy of respect. This anthropological culturalism became the opponent of biological racism, which was partly supported by definitions of culture such as Tylor’s. Anthropologists opposed to the idea that cltures could be described as more or less refined/advanced/etc. However, this new conception kept many of the problematic characteristics of the classical nineteenth-century definition:

  1. the perception of cultures as clearly separate and distinct from one another
  2. the idea that each culture is a cohesive and coherent whole
  3. the assumption that the internal values and rules of a culture are necessarily difficult to understand or sympathise with for outsiders
  4. the idea that cultures reproduce themselves with little to no influence from the outside, nor exchange with other cultures
  5. the idea that the behaviours and beliefs of someone from a different culture are likely to be mysterious and difficult to understand, since even when there is sustained interaction, some fundamental differences remain
  6. the belief that values within cultures are broadly shared by all the members of it, with no internal conflict
  7. the notion that culture stands as an explanation for why people do what they do. Under this view, understanding how someone behaves can only be achieve by understanding some mysterious fundamental principles of his/her culture, specially when that individual is member of a non-Western or minority culture.

The problematic ideas related to culture that are listed above persisted in twentieth-century anthropology. However, some anthopoligists have criticised them for many years. Although anthropology was a key discipline in the invention of culture, within the colonial mindset and interests, some of them argue this reification was the only possible approach to understand what was not understood.

The anthropological notions of culture affected the subjects studied by anthropologists too:

Terence Turner’s study of the Kayapo villagers of the Brazilian Amazon is a classic example. When Turner began his fieldwork in the 1960s, the villagers did not perceive themselves as having a culture—they just saw themselves as human beings—and partly under pressure from the missionaries, had started to evolve different practices, including adopting a more Brazilian style of dress (wearing shorts or trousers) when they went into town. Through contact with anthropologists keen to document the Kayapo way of life, but even more important, through coming to realise that their culture could be a resource around which to mobilise the support of environmentalists and human rights activists, the Kayapo later discarded some of their Brazilian ways, elaborated old and new rituals, and made effective use of the Western media in their struggle for survival” (Phillips 43).

In the case above, the invention of culture for the subjects studied had a relatively positive effect. However, this has not been the case every time. The invetion of culture for some societies has had negative consequences too. One of the most important is the fact that cultural borders between groups that were much more fluid before the invention of culture, were suddenly closed.


Feminist academics have also noted that those aspects that are more hierarchical, oppressive or misogynistic in non-Western cultures tend to be regarded by Western investigators as “essential” and “defining” for those culture, while liberal and egalitarian elements tend to fall into disuse and are not considered essential. This phenomenon has had negative impacts in policy-making:

in India, “counting Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Untouchables became a critical political exercise.” Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that this had the effect of simplifying and homogenising identities that people lived daily in a far more heterogeneous way. The irony is that the obsession with differentiating and counting arose partly from reasons of fairness: trying to ensure that economic resources and positions of political representation were distributed reasonably evenly between different groups. But “the sense of multiple identities that propels people in their everydayness is too complex for the rules that govern the logic of representation in modern public life.” People had to place themselves in one ethno-religious-cultural group or another—with what have sometimes been disastrous results” (Phillips 44).

The vision of culture promoted in the first half of twentieth century had two large consequences still visible nowadays:

  1. the exaggeration of demarcations and boundaries between different cultural groups
  2. the tendency to determine the boundaries of cultures as the same of nation-states by appending “society” or “culture” to the name of a country (i.e.: Indian culture). This led to either the idea that living on one side of the border or another determined your belonging to a culture, or a “gradation of authenticity” in which those near the borders were less authentically from the national culture than those in the interior. Multicultural policies tried to address this problem by stating that nowadays migration had made it impossible to think of countries as boundaries for culture. However, this position still wrongly suggested that before these migrations there existed actual monocultural places.

Phillips contests the innacuracies of this antrhopological vision of culture:

The way the boundaries are drawn around each culture changes through time, as do the definitions of core practices and beliefs, with the first process often reflecting an outsider need to categorise and place people, and the second an internal struggle for power. Characterising a culture is itself a political act, and the notion of cultures as preexisting things, waiting to be explained, has become increasingly implausible. People draw on a wide range of local, national, and global resources in the ways they make and remake their culture. (So culture is not bounded.) There are always internal contestations over the values, practices, and meanings that characterise any culture. (So cultures are not homogeneous.) There is often some political agenda—reflecting power struggles within the group or the search for allies outside—when people make their claims about the authoritative interpretation of their culture. (So cultures are produced by people, rather than being things that explain why they be- have the way they do.) All these developments undermine the notion of a culture as defined by core values or underlying principles that differentiate it from all others” (45).


Against culturalist explanations

There is tendency to explain everything through culture, especially by those who rejected biological racism and economic determinism. The use of culture as an explanation for behaviour has turned into a way of justifying actions that otherwise one does not know how to explain. Culture has been usually invoked in cases where people seemingly behave in an irrational manner. In several of these cases, culture is invoked even though there are other much more plausible explanations for a behaviour. An example of this is what happened with female genital cutting in Senegal:

It [genital cutting] is paradigmatically cultural on the older materialist understanding, because it is hard to identify the economic purpose served by the practice. And it is paradigmatically cultural in Kuper’s “fallback” sense [used to explain irrational behaviour], because those who do not (or no longer) practice it usually find it hard to make sense of those who continue to defend it. In Mackie’s analysis, though, the persistence of genital cutting reflects the kind of collective action problem that can arise in any society, and it was overcome in the Senegalese example by the device of the collective pledge. He argues that the main reason the villagers continued with what they knew to be a dangerous and painful practice was neither ignorance of the dangers nor the overwhelming power of custom and tradition, but rather the knowledge that their own daughters would become unmarriageable if their family was the only one opting out. The women leading the Tostan [the nongovernmental organisation that fostered the end of female genital cutting] … persuaded villagers to sign themselves up to a date when they would all simultaneously abandon the practice. Faced with a reasonably reliable guarantee that others would follow suit, it became much easier for everyone to act, and in a snowball effect from 1997 onwards, one village after another collectively abandoned the practice. In 1999, the government—which had been supportive of the initiative—enacted legislation officially prohibiting genital cutting” (Phillips 46-47).

The case presented above showed female genital cutting prevailed in Senegal for practical reasons. The leaders of the tribes who supported the initiative did it for reasons any parent would understand (pain, health, dignity). However, they were afraid to make their daughters unmarriageable. There was no mysterious deep-rooted cultural meaning or irrational explanation to female genital cutting.  Therefore, there was no need to rely on a complex cultural explanation to understand the problem and doing so was not going to solve it.

Phillips is clear when stating that this case does not stand as the final word for culture: practical, economic and social explanations are not simply opposed to cultural explanations. What Phillips tries to point out, however, is the fact that culture as a “fallback” explanation for unexplained phenomena is overused. Thus, Phillips stands for a resistance to “the ideological uses of culture, and a willingness to see similarities as well as differences in the ways we all organise our lives” (48).


So what’s left?

So why bother with culture? Why not abandon it as an absurd simplification or hopelessly compromised concept? In some of the sociological literature, the scepticism towards culture does come close to jettisoning it altogether. Many social theorists now stress hybridity, diaspora, border crossings, and translation, arguing that the characteristic phenomenon today is a mixture of cultural assertion and refusal, cultural borrowing and reimagining: a complex negotiation and renegotiation of identities that defies the simple categories of original or traditional culture” (Phillips 48).

Although some stand for suppressing the notion of culture altogether, anthropologists have been careful in doing so. They present three major reservations when abandoning the use of the term culture:

  1. Abandoning culture and supposing there was nothing there before the invention of the notion is giving too much power and credit to Western thinking. Some anthropologists believe that saying culture is a complete external creation is supposing those subjects who adpoted the concept had no power but just reproduced and transformed what Westerner investigators introduced. Phillips, in this case, opts for a more moderate position. She speculates that boundaries between groups were there before, but may have been more fluid that after the taxonomical divide created by colonial anthropology.
  2. To negate the existence cultural difference does not coincide with the perceived reality of difference. Although Pihllips’ books is centred mostly in pointing out the problems of cultural exoticism, which make people believe they have largerer cultural differences than is the case, she does point out everyone cannot be reduced to “people just like me”, with the exact same motivations and values. Acknowledging the diversity and complexity of human societies is necessary, and there must be a way of doing it without exaggerating the differences.
  3. According to some anthropologists, even though the critiques of essentialised culture are well grounded, essentialist culture cannot be wiped out as completely wrong. Many people already know and live with this notion in their minds. Therefore they interprete their own behaviour within a reified and essentialist notion of culture. This phenomenon makes essentialised culture a social reality.

Considering these reservations, Phillips proposes a “multiculturalism without culture”. This multiculturalism would be one without unhelpful notions of culture, but that still accepts individuals are cultural beings:

Culture matters to people in many different ways. Some people actively endorse the cultural norms that have helped form them, believing that these represent a good way of living, and some may be quite strident about this, believing that their ways are not just good but the best. Others live their norms without thinking much about them, hardly even noticing that there are people who operate in a different way. Some will reject with indignation the suggestion that what they are doing is culturally inspired, insisting that this is not a matter of culture but religion, or not of culture but their well-grounded political beliefs. To say something is cultural makes it seem unthinking or unchosen, imbibed from the atmosphere rather than a position we can actively defend. But even when people have the most acute sense of themselves as autonomous, transcendent, self-propelled individuals, their beliefs, values, and choices will be pervaded by cultural assumptions and norms. Everyone is shaped, in some ways that we recognise and others of which we remain largely unconscious, by the norms and practices through which we have become the people we currently are” (52).


Culture, ethnicity, religion and race

Phillips identifies two problems still to be addressed in the prevalent conception of culture: 1) the confusion between culture, ethnicity, religion and race; 2) the tendency to equate culture with non/Western or minority groups.

  1. Confusion between culture, ethnicity, religion and race

According to Phillips, “culture” is now in Western societies a word used as an acceptable substitute for “race”. Moreover, Phillips states that, in some cases, racist people hide behind this language of “culture” in order to make their statements socially accpetable. However, people that are not racist also seem to refuse to use the word race, fearing any use of it will be racist or imply that the person believes races are a biological fact. The substitution of the word race, ethnicity and religion for “culture” has led to an exaggeration of cultural differences, since “culture” is used to refer to any differences found between societies. For Phillips, this is extremely problematic:

When culture is employed as a euphemism for either race or ethnicity (and ethnicity, being thought to be more cultural, is itself commonly employed as a euphemism for race), this can encourage policymakers to propose cultural solutions to problems that are better understood as social or economic” (54).

Suppressing the term race from policy makes it impossible for policy makers to give benefits to groups historically oppressed by the false perception of race. For instance, giving quotas in universities to African Americans in the US was difficult, since it had to be proven that they brought something new to the university in terms of cultural diversity. Giving benefits for belonging to a racialised group was not considered fair and was not perceived as beneficial to institutions as was cultural diversity. Thus, the only solution was to represent African Americans as culturally different, exaggerating the little to no cultural difference they presented from other Americans, in order to make possible integration to U.S. universities withint a policy that avoided using the word “race”. In the end, this provoked a strengthening of the stereotypes multiculturalism was supposed to be challenging. As Phillips explains:

Turning racial difference into cultural difference is, then, problematic. It can mean buying into racial stereotypes we would do better to challenge, substituting bland talk of cultural diversity for a more pointed analysis of racism, and obscuring what may be significant distinctions between those who live a chosen identity that enlarges and enhances their life and those who are discriminated against on the basis of their presumed identity. And while talking of cultural rather than racial difference avoids assumptions about biological determination and conveys no obvious implication about some cultures being better than others, it does not there by avoid all hint of racism. Indeed, it will often reproduce the fixity that has been the marker of more classical racism. When culture is treated (as in much popular usage) as something from which we can predict a whole swath of human behaviour, this edges disturbingly close to the racist treatment of skin colour or physiognomy as predictors of human behaviour. When people speak of the dangers of their culture being swamped by the migration of too many people from another, or it being better to keep some distance between cultures because of a natural human preference for living with one’s own, this is not so different from the fear of miscegenation. In what Balibar terms a “racism without races,” the dominant theme is “not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences,” not “the superiority of certain groups or people in relation to others but ‘only’ the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompati- bility of life-styles and traditions.” That the discourse employs the language of culture rather than race does not ensure its innocence” (56).


Although this problems exist, Phillips resorts to Tariq Modood’s differentiation between cultural racism, the vilification of someone for cultural her/his practices, and colour racism. Modood explains that there is a tendency to think of cultural racism as a mere undercover form of colour racism. However, according to Moddod it is possible for colour racism to dissapear without the dissapearance of cultural racism. For Phillips, however, this distinction is founded in a very narrow definition of colour racism. Phillips argues that colour racism as treating someone as lower because of their skin colour is surely almost extinct. For Phillips, this definition of racism is not useful to attack the problems people of colour face on a daily basis. Phillips prefers a broader and more complex definition of racism, taken from Balibar:

[racist are all the] practices (forms of violence, contempt, intolerance, humiliation, and exploitation), in discourses and representations which are so many intellectual elaborations of the phantom of prophylaxis or segregation (the need to purify the social body, to preserve ‘one’s own’ or ‘our’ identity from all forms of mixing, interbreeding or invasion) and which are articu- lated around stigmata of otherness (name, skin colour, religious practices).” (quoted in Phillips 58).

Both Balibar and Modood, however, coincide in their perception of a shift in which discrimination is increasingly focused in cultural and/or religious characteristics, rather than colour. Increasingly, religion is being considered a central and critical part of the cultural definition of groups in UK policies. This has made religion a non-negotiable part of their identity Phillips argues this is a reccent change, since religion was not used before as a fundamental aspect of cultural identity in UK policy-making. The intermixing of country of origin, religion and other cultural aspects is turning the problem of culture, race, religion and ethnicy even more complex. According to Phillips, the truth is that religion, race, ethnicity and culture cannot be separated, since they do not exist as things, which makes their distintion subject to political conditions.


2. Culture as non-Western or minority

According to Phillips, the second greatest problem with popular notions of culture is that culture tends to be equated with what takes place in non-Western and minority societies.

Normally people are so used to their own behaviour that they only see it is cultural when confronted to others. In general, Westerners describe what they do as belonging to “society”, while the word “culture” is reserved for what non-Western or minority groups do. This happens because what belongs to culture tends to stay invisible for those who are part of the hegemonic group. In consequence, hegemonic groups more easily observe how class and gender affect their actions and rarely cite culture as a reason for the way they do. People from minorities, on the other hand, seem to be constantly exposed to the labelling of whatever they do as cultural. Moreover, minorities themselves tend to consider culture as something essential for their identities, because it works as a way of contesting and defying hegemonic power. This identification of non-Western and minority societies with culture affects individuals from minorities directly:

it makes the cultural specificities of people from majority groups less visible, it encourages them to treat their own local practices as if these were universal rules of conduct, spawning much indignation against newcomers, foreigners, or immigrants who fail to abide by the rules. Cultural difference then becomes loaded with moral significance; being different equates with being wrong. Moreover, in many cases the individual from the minority or non-Western culture disappears as a moral agent, so that being different comes to be viewed as a reflection of a morally distasteful culture, rather than anything to do with individual judgment and choice” (64).


From Culture to Cosmos?

Critics of multiculturalism noramlly base their criticism in two points 1) that multiculturalism treats cultures as discrete wholes; and 2) that multiculturalism hopes to install a fake sense of purity of “cultures” that is not possible in the contemporary world. Phillips completely agrees with critique (1), but what about (2)?

The framework that originates from critique 2 is normally referred to as “cosmopolitanism”. Phillips quotes Jeremy Waldron’s definition of this movement:

cosmopolitanism is built on the multiplicity of allegiances that characterise any one person, the ways that “bits of culture come into our lives from different sources” with “no guarantee that they will all fit together … Waldron rejects the notion that the world divides up into separate and distinct cultures, arguing that in this age of mass migration, formed by empire and trade, cultural influences are radically dispersed. In his reading of it, multiculturalism is overly wedded to the idea that individuals find their sense of themselves through their communities, and to a vision of these communities as sitting side by side on a flat plane, touching perhaps at the edges, but not otherwise engaged. Cosmopolitanism is the better—and in the context of the modern world, the more authentic—alternative” (quoted in Phillips 68).

However, Phillips does not totally subscribe to Waldron’s position, arguing that:

  1. It comes from the vision of an elite that can fly regularly, do cultural tourism, and dip in different cultures at will, because of its wealth.
  2. It gives too little importance to local attachment and the problems that “not feeling part of a community” may produce in an individual who chooses one form of life over another.

Other version of cosmopolitanism solve these problems in diverse ways (Phillips quotes the work of Bruce Ackerman, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Martha Nussbaum). However, Phillips concludes, there is no reason to work on the frame of cosmopolitanism, that has its own faults and problematic versions, if it is also possible to work in an improved version of multiculturalism. Keeping the term multiculturalism avoids falling into a problematic political position:

My reasons for coming down on the side of a revised multiculturalism are partly theoretical and partly political. For both reasons, I think the task many have set themselves—to differentiate the new discourse of cosmopolitanism from an older one of universalism—is likely to prove beyond them, and that despite all the qualifications, cosmopolitanism will revert to a rather arrogant form of cultural imperialism” (69).

Finally, one last problem with cosmopolitanism as a substitute for multiculturalism is that the first one tends to be associated with an attitude while the second one is associated with policy. An attitude is more likely to put one culture over another, as Phillips explains:

To be cosmopolitan is generally understood as being capable of taking a critical distance from one’s habits or assumptions, willing to engage positively with those who are different, and able to adopt an attitude of reflective openness that frees you from the tyranny of the pure. I have no quarrel with the attributes, which I find highly attractive, but they are almost certainly going to develop more easily in some circumstances than in others” (70).

For Phillips, the fact that these attitudes develop more easily in one group or another  tends to create a hierarchical vision of cultures, as she explains:

People vary enormously in their capacity for reflecting on their own taken-for-granted assumptions, partly for reasons bound up in the particularities of personal history, but also because of the cultural, religious, moral, and political influences that shape their lives. Certain ways of thinking or living your life are more conducive to critical reflection than others; it would be an odd kind of cultural relativism to deny this. … Yet if cosmopolitanism is going to be defined by reference to an attitude, it is clearly committed to the view that some attitudes are better than others, and (despite Waldron’s endeavours) is likely to encourage the view that some cultures are better as well. At this point, one begins to wonder about the much-vaunted openness to difference” (71).

This Western-centric tendency of cosmopolitanism is the root of the political problems that cosmopolitanism faces when used as a framework for policy. Cosmopolitanism is egalitarian because it believes in the equality between human beings. However, it has no stance regarding the relationship between majority and minority cultures. For instance, cosmopolitanism tends to assume that the establishment of a common language will be an advantage for all communities, without addressing the fact that this will be more advantageous for some communities than others. Thus, cosmopolitanism does not address the fact that “all cultural groups have a role to play in shaping the identity of the country they live in, that those who got there first or who currently constitute the numerical majority do not automatically gain the right to impose their own cultural preferences on the others” (Phillips 71).  Moreover, there is a political problem with working within the cosmopolitanism frame. Multiculturalism is currently under attack too from people that support a return to more strict and narrower visions of national identity. Against this backdrop, Phillips prefers a multiculturalism without culture rather than a cosmopolitanism with an improved sense of cultural diversity. According to Phillips, this is not a time to retreat from everything that multiculturalism stands for, but to improve it by supressing reified notions of culture and that refuses to subject right of women to supposed cultural traditions.


Multiculturalism Without Culture I: Criticism of Multicultural Policies

This post forms part of a series of entries that discuss Anne Phillips’ re-definition of culture in her book Multiculturalism Without Culture (2007).


Anne Phillips’ 2007 book Multiculturalism Without Culture was written in the midst of conlicts between multiculturalism and feminism. This conflict took form in two ways: 1) a patronising Western-centred that imposed its views on those it was aiming to defend from cultural oppression; and 2) the rise of the defense of the rights of women by people who only seemed to care about feminism when related to the criticism of non-Western cultures (i.e.: feminism as a cue for racism). Confronted to this panorama, Anne Phillips proposed a solution based on a multiculturalism without culture:

a multiculturalism that dispenses with the reified notions of culture that feed those stereotypes to which so many feminists have objected, yet retains enough robustness to address inequalities between cultural groups; a multiculturalism in which the language of cultural difference no longer gives hostages to fortune or sustenance to racists, but also no longer paralyses normative judgment. I maintain that those writing on multiculturalism (supporters as well as critics) have exaggerated not only the unity and solidity of cultures but the intractability of value conflict as well, and often misrecognised highly contextual political dilemmas as if these reflected deep value disagreement. Though there are important areas of cultural disagreement, most do not involve a deep diversity with respect to ethical principles and norms, and many are more comparable to the disputes that take place within cultural groups” (Phillips 8).

Phillips proposes to achieve this through a deep critique of the concept of culture which, in its most extended interpretation suffers a from a huge problem:

the tendency to represent individuals from minority or non-Western groups as driven by their culture and compelled by cultural dictates to behave in particular ways. Culture is now widely employed in a discourse that denies human agency, defining individuals through their culture, and treating culture as the explanation for virtually everything they say or do” (Phillips 8-9).

The problems occasioned by this well extended uncritical notion of culture in the media and academia has occasioned huge conflicts where multicultural politicies have been installed. Phillips wrote the book in a post-9/11 Western world, where multicultural policies were questioned and accused of creating “terrorists at home”. Her proposal is also relevant today, in the context of the November 2015 Paris attacks, perpetrated by European citizens, and the increasing intervention of European governments in the Middle East. But what does Phillips’ theory have to do with literature and exploration? Phillips’ proposal is useful to critically study travel literature and its relation with the depiction of people and cultures in the nineteenth century, since it criticises a notion of culture that has part of its roots in nineteenth-century science and exploration texts.Understanding the way in which this notion of culture is problematic is useful for understanding of today’s political context, but also for doing a deep critical reading of nineteenth-century travel literature, taking into account the political, social, and economic consequences of what became the lens through which Europeans observed non-Europeans in modern times.



Multicultural policies in the Western world have been attacked from left and right in the past few decades. These attacks have been centred in three main points:

  1. For many, multicultural policies seem to be at odds with policies that foster equality. From conservative groups, these attacks are centred in the idea that it is against equality to create special laws for minorities. From the left, these policies have been attacked as against equality for affecting “minorities within minorities”. According to these critics, multicultural policies, built according to the petitions of leading members of certain minority groups, may overlook the needs of marginalised members within those groups. For instance, Multicultural policies tend to centre on demands presented by elder men from minorities, ignoring the desires of homosexuals, minors or women, who may be minorities themselves within those groups.
  2. Multiculturalism has been criticised as a movement that promotes disunity and division within societies that live under one government. For right-wingers, policies that permit the maintainance of certain traditions and the use of a minority language make difficult the integration of people to the majoritarian culture, thus fostering a sense of alienation. From a leftist perspective, multicultural policies that let minorities keep their traditions and language may be considered divisive because they not only limit the sense of belonging to a national group, but also the solidarity between members that may share other conditions, such as class or gender. Thus, multicultural policies seem discourage individuals from minorities to apply for welfare benefits, while fostering discrimination towards minority welfare recipients from  from non-minority welfare recipients.
  3. Multicultural policies have also been criticised because of the idea of culture they are based on. Multicultural policies tend to:

[present culture] as a falsely homogenising reification. Multiculturalism considers itself the route to a more tolerant and inclusive society because it recognises that there is a diversity of cultures, and rejects the assimilation of these into the cultural traditions of the dominant group. Much recent literature claims that this exaggerates the internal unity of cultures, solidifies differences that are currently more fluid, and makes people from other cultures seem more exotic and distinct than they really are. Multiculturalism then appears not as a cultural liberator but as a cultural straitjacket, forcing those described as members of a minority cultural group into a regime of authenticity, denying them the chance to cross cultural borders, borrow cultural influences, define and redefine themselves” (Phillips 14).

This third problem is in the centre of Phillips’ proposal. Although a fluid definition of culture may seem like the path towards a world where multiculturalism is unnecessary, Phillips reasserts: culture matters. According to Phillips, although clearly culture does not exist as most people perceive it, there is clear social discrimination that occurs because of the perceived racialisation and culturisation of groups, independent of its actuality. Confronted to this, Phillips intends to propose is a notion of culture that is both theoretically accurate and useful for the creation of policies, one that considers universalism, egalitarianism and perceived “cultural” belonging. This is what Phillips calls “multiculturalism without culture”.

Multiculturalism and political theory

In political theory, the problematic meaning of the term “culture” has been many times overlooked, explains Phillips. Oftentimes in political theory, cultures appear as quasi-legal entities that reclaim certain rights in a unified way. This not only strengthens the notion that there is actual cohesion within minority groups, but also makes political actions in favour of cultural minorities dependent of this supposed internal cohesion and coherence that makes them different from the rest of society. The vision of culture fostered by these policies supposses that culture is innately oppositional and, therefore, hybrids of two or more cultures should be just considered  new entities, in order to be able to define them in oppositional terms.

The lack of critical definitions of culture in political theory and policy making, according to Phillips, has fostered stereotypes and contributed to the retreat of multicultural policies in the Western world. Not questioning the concept of culture has radicalised the percetion of “otherness” that majority cultures have of minorities, making them perceive minorities as radically different in beliefs, values and norms, something very unlikely to be true. At least in part, the radicalisation of otherness srpung from the vision of culture promoted by governments with multicultural policies. This made it easier for anti-multicultural conservatives to present variety within society as a divisive force that promotes political instability.

Multiculturalism and feminism


Many feminists are aware of the dangers of an essentialist view of culture, since oftentimes those who act as guardians of a particular minority culture are the empowered male elders of the minority group. Thus, in many cases, as several feminist theorists have argued, multicultural policies overlook the needs and desires of oppressed groups within minorities, such as women.

For the same reason, the universalist framework of feminism has been accussed of discriminaation and bias in favour of “Western cultures”. Many feminists classify non-Western cultures as inherently patriatchal and incapable of change, while describing Western cultures as able of introducing changes that benefit women. This division represents changes in non-Western cultures as situations that critically endanger the whole existence of particular minority cultures. As a direct consequence arises criticism of multiculturalism. The abuse of women has been used to attack multiculturalism, since many atomatically identify non-Western cultures with illiberalism, while assuming Western culture always stands for liberalism, equality, democracy, etc.  Moreover, institutions and people not usually worried about the abuse of women seem now very concerned about abuse, but only when it takes place within non-Western minorities.

The apparent opposition between feminism and multiculturalism described above relies on the conflict between two, seemingly exclusive, ways of apporaching the relation between culture and women’s issues:

  1. EITHER cultures are inherently liberal or illiberal. These feminists apporach non-Western cultures as inherently illiberal and incapable of change, while describing Western cultures as liberal and improvable. This not only does not correspond with the reality of culture as a fluid process, but also underestimates the violence and oppression experienced by Western women.
  2. OR non-Westerners act according to their culture (and cannot be judged or ciritcised), while Westerners do it according to their personal choices. These feminists present any action of a racialised individual belonging to a minority is seen as a direct consequences of her/his culture, while actions of Western people are seen as their own personal decisions. Thus, according to this vision, when a white man beats his wife he is committing an aberration through a personal decision, while when a Muslim man does it, it is a consequence of his culture, as if he has no agency but only acts because of a pseudo-instinctive drive given by his culture.

In relation to this second vision, Phillips explains:

The perception of people as products of their culture, and culture as the all-encompassing explanation of what people do, is worryingly prevalent as a way of understanding people from minority or non-Western cultures… This way of thinking about culture makes it too solid an entity, far more definitive of each individual’s horizon than is likely to be the case. In doing so, it also encourages an unhelpful distinction be- tween traditional and modern cultures. “They” have cultural traditions; “I” have moral values” (31).

Thanks to the tendency of theorists to adopt vision 1. or 2. of this divide, Multiculturalism, which intended to fight stereotypes in culture, finally fostered them. Relying on the notion that cultures are radically different one from another, multiculturalism created its own stereotypes and promoted the idea that non-Westerners are always moved by different values, and are incapable of agency, change, or criticism.

Equality versus autonomy?

Phillips tries to solve the opposition between universalism, normally defended by feminists, and cultural relativism, in which culture cannot be judged by any moral standar. She intends to do this by redifining culture. The problem of “who gets to define what equality [or any other value] means” can be solved, according to Phillips, by destroying the idea that cultures live within impenetrable walls and in insulation from each other, and understanding that cultures are not cohesive units in which all individuals agree. Cultures, Phillips explains, have their own internal relations of power, are subject to historical transformation, and confront criticism from individuals outside and inside: cultures are subject to constant change and hybridisation, and have no clear or stable boundaries.

This new non-holistic vision of culture makes people free from culture as something that dictates their actions. However, it puts more pressure on the notion of personal choice. With the prevalent problematic vision of culture, for instance, when a woman wants to wear a headscarf she is considered coerced by her culture, while when she does not, she is considered as making a personal choice. Thus, the conflict between autonomy and equality is normally solved by supposing women are being coerced by their culture unless, curiously enough, the racialised individual takes decides to behave like the members of majority culture. This reading of how the tension between equality and personal choice in cultures takes place is one that negates agency to non-Western people. Phillips proposes that it is fundamental to try and find a difference between choice and coercion, since obviously cultural coercion can take place. Phillips argues that this can only be done when the real complexity of cultural pressures is understood, without treating culture as if it dictates (non-Western) people’s lives. This can only be achieved through a new understanding of culture.

Works Cited

Phillips, Anne. Multiculturalism Without Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Horace Walpole and the Patagonian Giants

On 1766, Horace Walpole published An Account of the Giants Lately Discovered: In a Letter to a Friend in the Country. In this texts, Walpole satirically addresses the rumours of the existence of giants in Patagonia. These rumours arose following the arrival of Captain John Byron to London who, having circumnavigated the world on board of HMS Dolphin, reported the sighting of people as tall as 9 feet. However, the myth of giants in Patagonia had originated as early as the 1520s, when Antonio Pigaffeta, chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan, reported the sighting of giants in the shores of Patagonia. All these stories proved to be exaggerations of the height of the Tehuelche people in the region, who were all at least four inches taller than the average European.

Portrait of Horace Walpole by John Giles Eccardt
Portrait of Horace Walpole by John Giles Eccardt

Apart of making fun at European people’s credulity, Horace Walpole uses his satirical piece as means of criticising European politics towards different territories. As early as 1766, Walpole already points out the inconsistency of political liberties enjoyed in Britain but inexistent in overseas territories. He also criticises the treatment of natives from other regions, slavery, the annexation of territories, economic colonisation, religious hypocrisy and even the notions of “civilisation” and “discovery” prevalent in the literature of the era. I recommend eveyone to read this piece: Walpole’s critique is not only incredibly lucid and ahead of its time, but also very funny.

After describing the supposed encounter, Walpole addresses the political relevance of the new discovery since, as he claims, his reader “will be impatient to know if captain Byron took possession of the country for the crown of England, and to have his majesty’s style run, George the third, by the grace of God, king of Great-Britain, France, Ireland, and the Giants!”. However, Walpole advises annexing the territory is not a good idea because “modern improvements are wiser” and it would be much more covenient to put giants “under their majesties, a West-Indian company!”. In this way, Walpole criticises not only direct territorial annexation but also the plans of economic domination, much preferable and cheaper for Britain, that were already emerging in 1766. For Walpole, annexation and economic domination are reprehensible. This can be seen when he ironically asks: “What have we to do with America, but to conquer, enslave, and make it tend to the advantages of our commerce? Shall the noblest rivers in the world roll for savages? Shall mines teem with gold for the natives of the soil? And shall the world produce anything but for England, France, and Spain?”. Here, Walpole critcises the greed on European nations, as well as the inconsistency in their thought: they claim European territories should be for the “natives of the soil”, except of course when Europeans travel to someone else’s soil. In this point, Walpole’s ideas are revelant even today.

English sailor offering bread to a Patagonian woman giant. Frontispiece to Viaggio intorno al mondo fatto dalla nave Inglese il Delfino comandata dal caposqadra Byron (Florence, 1768).
English sailor offering bread to a Patagonian woman giant. Frontispiece to Viaggio intorno al mondo fatto dalla nave Inglese il Delfino comandata dal caposqadra Byron (Florence, 1768).

Walpole uses the possible annexation of Patagonia or establishment of a West-Indian company in the region to take advantage of the giants, as an opportunity to criticise the treatment of African slaves and natives in overseas territories:

As soon as they are civilised, that is, enslaved, due care will undoubtedly be taken to specify in their charter that these giants shall be subjects to the parliament of Great-Britain, and shall not wear a sheep’s skin that is not legally stamped. .. [Experience] will teach us, that the invaluable liberties of Englishmen are not to be wantonly scattered all over the globe. Let us enjoy them ourselves, but they are too sacred to be communicated. If giants once get an idea of freedom, they will soon be our masters instead of our slaves. But what pretentions can they have to freedom? They are as distinct from the common species as blacks, and, by being larger, may be more useful. I would advise out prudent merchants to employ them in the sugar-trade: they are capable of more labour; but even then they must be worse treated, if possible, than our black slaves: they must be lamed and maimed, and have their spirits well broken, or they may be dangerous.

In this fragment, Walpole uses the example of the black slaves to illustrate the atrocities committed by the British and other Europeans towards the lands and peoples that lived in the territories they claimed for themselves. Moreover, Walpole points explicitly towards the economic profit extracted from the “civilisation” of “savages”. Walpole’s critique attacks one of the fundamental aspects that supported exploration and geographic expansion as an ethical action: the intention of “civilising” those groups considered savage and less fortunate. Walpole reveals that the process of “civilising” was fostered by mere desire of enslavement for economic gain. Later on, Walpole reveals how Christianisation participated also in this process of brutal exploitation and economic gain, when he explains that, of course, “The first thought that will occur to every Christian is, that this race of giants ought to be exterminated, and their country colonised”.

Ahead of his time, Walpole criticises the concept of discovery altogether. He does this when addressing how ridiculous it is that Europeans claim any land they land on as their own: “because whoever finds a country, though nobody has lost it, is from that instant entitled to take possession of it himself, or his sovereign”. Here, Walpole criticises the notion of ‘discovery’ prevalent in his time and still held by many today. By finding places “that nobody lost” and, for that reason, claiming them to themselves, European explorers supported the idea that things do not come into existence until Europe has recognised them.

Tehuelche family in their tent.
Tehuelche family in their tent.

Finally, even more ahead of his time, I would like to argue that Walpole’s texts suggests questioning the term “aborigine”, and probably by extension the word “native”. Firstly, Walpole explains that philosophers have classified Patagonian giants as “aborigines”: “that is, that their country has been inhabited by giants from the creation of the world”. Just after this, Walpole points out that, according to theories of the population of the world and the migration of human species, they must have come through Asia:

Did the monsters pass unobserved from the most Eastern part of the continent (the supposed communication by which America was peopled) to the norther parts of the other world, and migrate down that whole continent to the most southern point of it, without leaving any trace, even by tradition, in the memory of mankind? Or are we believe, that tribe of giants sailed from Africa to America? What vessels wafted them?

This second explanation about how Patagonian giants got to the place they were in requires Europeans to recognise the historicity of these giants, in order to be consistent with scientific discourses. Aborigines/natives must have come from somewhere, and therefore the notion of them as “aborigines” located in one place since the beginning of the world is not consistent. However, the inconsistency between theories of migration and population, and the ahistorical view held about aborigines or natives by Europeans is even prevalent today. This notion of “aborigine” or “native” suggests non-Europeans have been located where they are “from the beginnig of the world”. This is used to mark presence in a territory as a constitutional part of the self of non-European individuals. This also suggests that non-Europeans live in ahistorical realities unless they interact with Europeans.

Tehuelche family in Río Gallegos, Argentina, 1930.
Tehuelche family in Río Gallegos, Argentina, 1930.

The conception of “aborigine” or “native” that Walpole denounces is in the root of discourses that try to give recognition to native groups by saying they were “always” in a particular territory, and in that fact lies their right to land. Although this is a cause that I would approve of, these discourses suggest natives/aborigines are intrinsically tied to the land, as different from Europeans, who have the privileged of travelling anywhere in the world without losing their true self. In this prevalent definition of nativeness, non-European people that move to different territories are seen as “Westernised”, since their identity is tied to the land, while Europeans who travel always keep their selves intact, since they belong and own planet Earth as a whole. Moreover, the vision Walpole criticises is one that has been used to further disenfranchise non-European groups by not recognising their own history. Natives/aborigines are always described as “having lived in a certain manner since forever” until Europeans came. This generates a false vision of natives/aborigines as ahistorical people with no history or developments developed for themselves, without the presence of Europeans.

I want to argue that Walpole, in a manner that maybe is even ahead of many of the thinkers of our time, suggests that the above explained notion of natives/aborigines people is not even consistent with other scientific discourses that circulate. The two consequences of the held notion of nativeness, i.e.: the understanding of non-Europeans as (1) always tied to their land, which if they leave transforms them into “Westernised” individuals with no true self, and (2) ahistorical groups with no relevant events in their entire history until Europeans met them, have been historically used against those described as natives/aborigines. This vision of nativeness is present in most of the accounts of non-European groups even until today. I think these notions, used to limit the agency of non-European people, extension of a patronising vision towards them, must be abandoned. In order to do this, it is central to recognise the historicity of aborigines/natives from all over the world, who own a lively history, regardless their interaction with Europeans.

Robert Southey’s “Songs of the American Indians”

In 1799, Robert Southey wrote a series of five poems entitled Songs of the American Indians. The poems that constitue this small collection are “The Huron’s Adress to the Dead”, “The Peruvian’s Dirge over the Body of his Father”, “Song of the Araucans During a Thunder Storm”, “Song of a Chikkasah Widow” and “The Old Chikkasah to his Grandson”.

Robert Southey
Robert Southey

“The Huron’s Adress to the Dead” opens Southey’s series of poems in an elegiac tone. As will be the case in the rest of Southey’s Songs of the American Indians, the Huron poem’s speaker laments the death of a strong and famous warrior. This poem is placed in the past, previous to the European invasion of America, and refers to enemities between native North American groups. Although placed in a non-threatening past for Europeans, mentioning this previous enemities acknowledges the existence of history in America before the arrival of Europeans. This was not usual during Southey’s time, since natives were regarded as discovered, and literally coming to history, only when observed by Europeans. For the same reason, the thought that everything they did was ancient and ahistoric prevailed, rather than a historicised account of their own customs and social systems. In an Ossianic tone, the speaker laments the loss of a warrior and describes the weapons and other arctifacts as the fundamental symbols that identify the Huron individual. Similar to Ossianic poems, as well, is the general tone of lamentation and mourning, repeated in the rest of Southey’s collection. In this sense, this first poem has some characteristics that may link it to British antiquarian literature. This is very important, since it very likely led the reader to a vision of native americans as long-lost honourable civilisation of the past already in 1799.

“The Peruvian Dirge over the Body of his Father” continues the elegiac tone of the Songs of the American Indians. In this poem a son mourns the death of his father. This lamentation takes place after the invasion of European people in America: the son remembers how “the Strangers came to our shores”. Here, there is an interesting overlapping of the history of Native Americans in Southey’s imagination. Spaniards did not arrive to Perú sailing. However, Southey superposses the stories of all Native Americans in a homogeneous one, probably inspired by the accounts of the arrival of Europeans to Mexico. Moreover, this account of Europeans always coming as sailors, provides homogeniety to the colonisation process, supporting the identity of European invaders as maritime explorers and adventurers, rather than explorers by foot who slowly colonised the continent with expeditions from North to South. In this poem, Southey integrates the figure of the noble savage by idealising the pre-colonisation form of life in Perú. As the speaker describes it, before the coming of the Strangers “As all in the labour had shared / So justly they shared in the fruits”. Thus, according to Southey’s poem, Europeans also bring their unjust forms of labour to America. This lamentation is very contingent, not only because in fact Spaniards did enslave natives, but also because it reflects a European concern with the division of labour and the explotation of the working class in industrialised societies, which was very much in the mind of early Romantic poets. Worth noting is Southey’s description of Christianisation as part of the process of humiliation and enslavement that Peruvians had to endure. The poem ends with the speaker desiring his own death, since only in death he will get rid of the Strangers. Therefore, Southey’s poem ends with the resignation of the Peruvian people, who finally desire their own destruction over the humiliating conditions Europeans offer them in order to integrate them to their system, which Southey characterises by the conversion to Christianity and long working days with no just pay.

The poem “Song of the Araucans During a Thunder Storm” is different from all the other poems of the group because it does not follow entirely the elegiac tone. This poem describes the celebration of Mapuche people before a storm, through which they remember their family members fallen in battle. The remembrance of their brave and skillful family members who died in war incites the Mapuche people to battle harder with the invaders, who again innaccurately “came over the Seas”. In the poem, the Mapuche people succeed in wining a battle against the invaders. Through this depiction, Southey follows the well-spread accounts of the Mapuche’s capacity to expel Europeans from their territories because of their braveness and skill in war, as described as early as 1569 by Alonse de Ercilla in his epic poem La Araucana.

Young Lautaro [El joven Lautaro], Pedro Subercaseaux; Representation of the famous Mapuche leader Lautaro
Young Lautaro [El joven Lautaro], Pedro Subercaseaux; Representation of the Mapuche leader Lautaro
The “Song of a Chikkasah Widow” is an elegiac poem in which the speaker mourns the death of her husband. This song is similar to the previous ones in that it places Native Americans under siege and on the verge of destruction. However, this poems is special because, as the previous one, it does give the natives space for action. Different from the two first poems of the series, the “Song of the Chikkasah Widow” ends with a call for revenge: “Tomorrow the victims shall die / And I shall have joy in revenge”. The possibility of revenge lies in the killing of the war prisiones the group has acquired. She does not hope for a battle to lead the enemies out of Chikkasah territory, but to rejoice in the assessination of some individuals. Southey’s poem, although giving agency to natives, also presents their customs in a more savagely manner than in the previous poems.For example, Southey mentions the Chikkasah custom of gathering the scalps of their enemies, and it remarkably features a woman who will be in charge of avenging the dead warrior, her husband. In this sense, Southey’s poem is double: it does present the lamentations of a Chikkasah person which inspire compassion, but it also shows “savage” customs and what would have been considered improper and unwomanly behaviours in a Chikkasah woman.

The last poem in the collection is “The Old Chikkasah to his Grandson”. This poems starts with a celebration of the Chikkasah warfare skills and afterwards passes to the lamentations of a father who has lost his son in battle. Similar to the previous poem, this one remarks the search for revenge that the Chikkasah grandfather promotes in his grandson, as oppossed to the surrendered Peruvian native. In this poem, to avenge the memory of the father is the only way in which both his soul and his ancestor’s spirits will find peace. In this way, Southey’s series of poems that opened with death and surrender, end with the hope of revenge and the return of the Chikkasah grandson: “My Boy, I shall watch the warriors’ return / And my sould will be sad / Till the steps of thy coming I see”.

Southey’s poems conform a unity in their tone and rhetoric. All the poems have an elegiac tone, though through the collection native voices turn increasingly more active. The collection ends suggesting Native Americans must revenge. The imaginery Southey uses to give voice to Native Americans, however, is very similar to the one used by his contemporaries. He does identify in a very Romantic way the Native with nature, and uses the figure of the “noble savage” in all the poems. He also makes use of the imaginery provided by antiquarian representations of non-modern Europeans, such as the poems of Ossian. Thus, he uses a rhetoric that was identified with the past to give voice to Native Americans, posing them as relics of ancient times.

What is an explorer?

The relation between literature and science is a complex one. This is specially true when analysing travel literature, in which the figure of the scientist, the author, the adventurer, and the explorer, among many others, intersect within a text. In her article ‘What is an Explorer?’, Adriana Craciun addresses this complex issue by theorising about the figure of the explorer, one that she describes as a ‘third subject position alongside those of the Author and the Savant’ (Craciun 30).

According to Craciun the explorer is not a social persona that belongs to a particular discipline, but rather a consumers’ product created during the nineteenth-century as part of the tourist industry and nationalist projects. Thus, it is a category that was applied from the nineteenth backwards, to important figures such as Elizabethan travellers and James Cook. Often, critics have overlooked the fact that during the Enlightenment the category of explorer was divided into several hierarchies, such as ‘voyageur, navigateur, philosophe, herborizer, mathematician, mariner, privateer, whaler’ (Craciun 31). All of these had particular positions in society and responded to a particular social structure.

Adriana Craciun’s concern is that ‘The Explorer is a nebulous transhistorical figure to which we erroneously assign the origin of exploration, when we should be asking … “What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where does it come from, how is it circulated, who controls it?’ (32).

To answer these questions, Craciun studies the figure of Bernard O’Reilly, an Irish traveller who published a book on his Greenland experiences without the permission of the British Crown and the Royal Society. Craciun explains that: ‘In 1818, exploration writing was … more regulated, more collective, and more dependent on copresent scribal and oral networks than was commercial print culture, the domain of the charismatic Romantic Author’ (33). Because of his book, O’Reilly was expelled from scientific circles, since his publication did not follow the guidelines expected by the institutions. This stripped him of his right to call himself a scientist and discoverer.

The picture below shows an illustration of O’Reilly’s book Greenland. For Craciun, this image summarizes the problematic position of author, explorer, traveller, and other authorial identities that intersected in travel writing during the period. This image shows the traveller at the centre of a natural phenomenon: the spectre of Brocken. This phenomenon individualizes the spectator. The increasing individuality of the traveller and explorer, presented in O’Reilley’s drawing, foreshadows the transformations that the figure of the explorer would undergo in the nineteenth century.

“Luminous Phenom- enon,” in Bernard O’Reilly, Greenland, the Adjacent Seas, and the Northwest Passage (London: Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1818),
“Luminous Phenomenon,” in Bernard O’Reilly, Greenland, the Adjacent Seas, and the Northwest Passage (London: Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1818).

Another important issue addressed by Craciun is the fact that scientists that have gone down in history made use of self-promotion to make their adventures seem larger. The most prominent example of this self-promotion is Linaeus, who made of an 18 day trip to the Arctic on a whaler the source of extensive writing in which he presented himself as having endured hardship in exploration in order to return to Europe as an expert in all science regarding the Arctic. Linneaus turned into the single most important Arctic scientist and explorator when he came back: O’Reilly was expelled from fame and history because he tried to self-promote a book to enter ‘the exclusive ranks of explorers, at a time and place when the public designation of exploration as an idealized pursuit of disinterested knowledge was closely policed by a man whose Arctic experience also consisted of a summer whaling voyage’ (Craciun 42).

Craciun’s article sheds light on the problematic category of ‘explorer’, which has been undertheorised by critics, who use it indistinctively for different periods and forms of travel. Moreover, it problematises the role of authorship in the construction of this figure, as well as how it underwent transformation during the nineteenth century, when ‘Britain’s Arctic fever was significantly fueled by the ability of showmen, entrepreneurs, and men of science to exploit the Arctic’s unique visual properties through such new media as moving panoramas and stereoscopes’ (Craciun 43). Craciun concludes that ‘In the nineteenth century it would no longer be the authorization of state or com-mercial institutions that seemed to propel would-be Explorers into the unknown, but rather the power of commercial authorship, visual spectacle, and costumed public performance, which drew a heterogeneous group of voyagers toward the profitable display of autonomy, discovery, and identity’ (45).


Craciun, Adriana. “What Is an Explorer?” Eighteenth-Century Studies 45.1 (2011): 29–51. Web.