Preliminary anthropology notes: on human ambivalence towards universality

Culture stands in an ambiguous relationship with universality. It is the result of invention and imagination, of what has traditionally been commended as the eminently human faculty of abstract, symbolic thinking, thanks to which our species can take pride in its ability to shape the world and one’s own destiny according to one’s desires. Speaking in metaphysical terms, culture comprises the set of shared practices, values, artifacts, norms and theoretical constructs through which freedom, the unifying trait of humanity par excellence, manifests itself, allowing us to transcend the binds of natural determinism.

Here, I do not wish to attempt to gauge the extent of such freedom, nor am I concerned with tackling the issue of whether or not metaphysical formulations of the problem adequately convey its nuances; let us suspend judgment on these matters for the time being, and accept these premises as at least somewhat valid, for the sake of fully understanding the argument I am presenting. What should interest us, now, is how this “second nature” we have crafted tends to disguise itself as “first nature”; how peculiar cultural traits, constructed out of the necessity to adapt a particular environment to our needs, become crystalized over time – that is, once again, naturalized, as their contrived quality is overshadowed and eventually altogether hidden, to the point of being forgotten, by the profound existential significance that such traits acquire for the community identifying itself through them.

This, I believe, is precisely what Homi Bhabha* had in mind when he addressed the «occlusion of the preconstruction of the working up of difference» that authorizes discrimination through stereotyping within colonialist discourse; for the process illustrates what is possibly the most basic and pervasive way in which human groups exercise that remarkable capacity to shape their reality and construct epistemological categories: pseudo-speciation** – an exclusive claim, on part of those who share the same culture, to the very “humanity” that should unite us all.

From the perspective of the individual, this amounts to the idea that only one’s own people are truly persons: complex thinking subjects belonging to the same species, characterized as having reached the highest degree of civility and enlightenment. Hence the interest sparked in anthropologists and philosophers alike by the recurring trend, among ethnic communities, to call themselves men or humans, while referring to outsiders in terms of “barbarians” or those who cannot speak (properly): being unable to use language implies the absence of abstract thinking, and thus an inability to imagine, to create, to be self-aware. Therefore, “we” are deemed to be the only real selves, entitled to mutual recognition, and “ours” is the only viable identity; “they” are merely “others”, non-selves.

It appears, then, that the primary endeavour in which our freedom is actualized is the systematic denial of each other’s humanity. From here onward, difference is no longer regarded as a neutral empirical fact, but is made meaningful, functional to the ethnocentric re-creation of the species. A preliminary, paradoxical conclusion could then be that what is truly universal amongst humans is our will and ability to tell ourselves apart from one another, to draw boundaries, to seek and highlight distinguishing features within our ways of life, in order to uphold them as evidence of our separateness, of our originality, of our being special – predestined, favored by fate. Perhaps saved.

*Bhabha, The Other Question, in “The Location of Culture” (1994)

**On the subject of pseudo-speciation, I mainly refer to Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s work Human Ethology (1984).