Talking culture: New boundaries, new rhetorics of exclusion in Europe

Verena Stolcke


In the contemporary debate concerning European integration and the “problem” of Third World immigration no less than in developments in anthropology in the past decade, the boundedness of cultures and cultural difference have gained new prominence. Anthropology needs not only to explore how globalization affects the discipline’s classical subjects but also to pay more attention to the new ways in which cultural differences and cleavages are conceptualized at its source. In effect, the political right in Europe has in the past decade developed a political rhetoric of exclusion in which Third World immigrants, who proceed in part from its ex-colonies, are construed as posing a threat to the national unity of the “host” countries because they are culturally different. This rhetoric of exclusion has generally been identified as a new form of racism. I argue, instead, that, rather than asserting different endowments of human races, it postulates a propensity in human nature to reject strangers. This assumption underlies a radical opposition between nationals and immigrants as foreigners informed by a reified notion of bounded and distinct, localized national-cultural identity and heritage that is employed to rationalize the call for restrictive immigration policies. Following a systematic comparison of the contrasting conceptual structures of the two doctrines, I conclude that the contemporary cultural fundamentalism of the political right is, with respect to traditional racism, both old and new. It is old in that it draws for its argumentative force on the unresolved contradiction in the modern conception of the nation-state between an organicist and a voluntarist idea of belonging. It is new in that, because racism has become discredited politically, it attributes the alleged incompatibility between different cultures to an incapacity of different cultures to communicate that is inherent in human nature.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/714414