Cultural science? The ecological critique of modernity and the conceptual habitat of the humanities

Stephen Muecke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Should cultural studies defend itself against charges of 'postmodern cultural relativism'? Does anyone believe that their own culture is 'just one among many'? If we do not believe that the differences among cultures are just so much dressing up, that the differences are arbitrary, then there must be something at the core that really matters. This core is verging on the absolute, or the sacred; and its passionate defence is at odds with liberal pluralism. Anthropologists have been good at discerning the core values of the exotic cultures they study, but not so good at reflecting on the core values of their own democratic western cultures. The 'architecture' of western modernity (its concepts and practices) remains obscured for a reason: it is increasingly unsustainable from a generalized ecological viewpoint. This 'generalized ecology' asks questions like 'who or what has the chance to exist?' In a foundational moment, Durkheim used the primitivity of Australian Aboriginal religion to shore up the project of modern social science in Europe, and in the process gave the sacred a 'social function'. I will argue that as 'western' and 'non-western' knowledges negotiate with each other the sacred (that absolute I will never relinquish) is expressed, not as a normalizing 'function', but as cultural excess and sustainable life-line. It is now time to mount a critique of European modernity from an ecological platform in which indigenous knowledges play a significant role. This is not because indigenous people are 'closer to nature', but precisely because they have no interest in any generalized Nature. It is the European invention of this scientistic metaphysics of a singular Nature that stands opposite, and enables, the muddled pluralism of contemporary cultural studies. When, with Bruno Latour, we open up 'natures', and 'bring the sciences into democracy', then we can negotiate with a range of stakeholders about what really matters in a situation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)404-416
Number of pages13
JournalCultural Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 7 Aug 2009


  • Aboriginal Australians
  • Cultural science
  • Humanities
  • Modernity
  • Naturecultures
  • Political ecology


Dive into the research topics of 'Cultural science? The ecological critique of modernity and the conceptual habitat of the humanities'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this