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RE: Culture as dialogic relation

I also experienced a similar chain of events in Chile. The Doctors left in the family the decision of telling or not telling. Quite different from the USA where the doctor-patient relationship is not so intensively mediated by social relations (as it is in Russia) and where doctors have a bigger authority than relatives. The person in question died without being told. I disagree but kept myself apart as I was not close enough to the person involved and respected the decision of their immediate relatives. Still, her physical decay was so evident that I always wondered if telling her the "truth" would not be redundant. What strikes me of Eugene example and my experience in this case is that in some contexts the family seem to have rights over a relative's body. In Chile is the same thing, specially when people is old. Decision making over our bodies is socially processed. And the feelings of responsibility and guiltiness for doing or not doing are also socially or family distributed. One thing is the family shared truth, the other is the physical one. Sometimes they go together, some others they don't. For some, dying without making both coherent may be a lie, for some others, may be a softened way to go. Is that good? Don't know. It's just different. (What should we do with the cultures that practice female circumcision? Charge them as barbaric or practice cultural tolerance?) My personal opinion is that in things like these there are not "rules". We can invent them, of course. But at the end of the day, decisions are always idiosyncratic. In the case of Eugene it saved a life. In the case of my family saga, it may have done an inevitable death less psychologically painful and making the stay of the person even longer, Whatever the case, it is in the extreme situations of sickness and death where the hands of culture are the most evident. We don't die alone 

David D. Preiss
home page: http://pantheon.yale.edu/~ddp6/

-----Original Message-----
From: Eugene Matusov [mailto:ematusov@udel.edu]
Sent: Wednesday, July 07, 2004 4:07 PM
To: xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
Subject: Culture as dialogic relation

Dear everybody—


Warning: This message is very long…


Mike wrote in his attached message,


I strongly sympathize with Eugene’s point about the relational nature of friendship and Clifford’s way of thinking about culture. But how to I think about a thingless world, personless, no body there, just relations? Not how even to talk about the absence of

an inside of culture being absent the duality inside-outside is invoked, or in denying a

separation between inside and outside, inside and outside are invoked.


When I contract cancer, there is something rather inside about what is happening to me. My wife, to be certain, is affected in many ways that follow the objective laws of

the external world, our life-long friendship, her introspections about her past, present,

and future. She also “feels for me” in a very literal, not psycho-babble sense. But is

she not there? Could I have a relationship with her if I had never met her? (Certainly

I cannot not have a relationship with her, even if she were to disappear from where she is reading on the couch this moment, never to return).



A rock appears solid and unchanging, but is not. As Eugene says, its all relational, but relations with out “things” relating are more than my tiny mind can deal with except by using all the tools at my disposal to parse reality differently, for the purposes at hand.”


Mike, I wonder where you read in my message that I argue for “a thingless world, personless, no body there, just relations”? It is NOT what I meant. Relationships are not possible without bodies and things. Relationships are mediated and embedded. And so on…


Let me illustrate the idea that culture does not have “internal territory”. Ironically my example also involves a case of cancer.


About seven years ago, my uncle, who still lives in Russia, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. However, he was not told about that -- rather he was told that he had curable ulcer. It is quit a typical practice in Russia (and before in the Soviet Union) not tell a patient about his or her terminal illness. The doctor usually lies to the patient but tells the truth to the closest relatives. They lie to the patient to save his or her feelings, to keep hope, and prevent depression.


When my father, who immigrated to US and lived in California, told my wife and me about his brother’s cancer and that his family and his doctor kept the truth about cancer from my uncle we were very angry. The situation was aggravated by the fact that the doctor recommended an immediate surgery for cancer before it could spread, while my uncle thinking that he had ulcer was planning less radical treatment for his ulcer of going to a southern Russia resort to drink mineral water. According to the doctor, going to mineral water resort not only would have postponed the surgery and let the cancer spread but this particular mineral water in addition to other medicine against ulcer that my uncle planned to take could have facilitated growth of the cancer tumor. My wife and I were angry because under this serious threat, neither my uncle’s wife nor his daughter (my cousin) did not want to tell him truth. They tried to convince my uncle to undergo “ulcer surgery” and not to go to mineral water resort. In part, they called my father to elicit his support in convincing my uncle to undergo the required surgery without telling him the truth.


My father and my mother were ambivalent. They acknowledged that it was “stupid” not to tell the truth but they were not willing to call my uncle and tell it. When I pushed my father, he said that they were about 70 years old and they did not have time enough for breakdown their relations. He said that he did not want to lose his brother because by going against his wife and daughter’s will he would become enemy number 1. My counterargument was that it would be better to be enemy number 1 with alive brother than “a good relative” with a dead brother. But neither I nor my wife could convince my father. So, I told him that I was going to call myself. My father was reluctantly negative to this idea…


Meanwhile, during these few days of the debates, my parents got visitors from East Coast of the US. My dad’s college friend and his wife came to visit them. My dad’s friend was also a very close friend of my uncle since their college time. His wife was a retired medical doctor also from Russia. His friend was as ambivalent as my parents but his wife, as a doctor, strongly took our position that my uncle had to be told the truth. Finally, she decided to call herself as a compromise with my parents.


She called and told the truth to my uncle. My uncle immediately agreed to undergo the surgery, which was very successful. He lives now without cancer but… His wife and daughter have stopped talking with their friend and his wife. But even more, my uncle has stopped talking with them as well – they became enemy#1 as my father predicted. Two years ago when I visited my uncle and his family in Russia I talked with him (and other relatives) about that. I also talked with my parents, my brother, and other relatives in US. Here is the summary of my conversations:


My US relatives (all immigrants from the Soviet Union): Russia is an irrational, barbaric, and backward country. People there are stupid and selfish.


My Russian relatives: “You [i.e., immigrants from Russia] are Americanized” (they did not use the term “internalization” although J). “You become very cold, calculative, and arrogant. You calculate everything. You lost your soul and spirituality (“duchovnost’”). You do not understand us anymore.”


Talking to my uncle, I said that I had been planning to call him myself. He said, “I think that you would have done it differently than my friend’s wife.” I replied that I doubted that I have done it differently.


But I would like to find an approach to do it differently! I’m not searching for how to win an argument or convinced my Russian relatives or make my American relatives and myself more understanding. I just want to make a circle, a community again… Maybe it is a utopia but maybe not…


I like Latour’s idea of “ready made science/truth” in contrast to “science/truth-in-action.” I think my US and Russian relatives referred to “ready made cultures” while I’m searching for “culture-in-action.” I’m not saying that my US and Russian relatives are wrong but I think it is more useful in the given conditions to find ways of disrupting and redrawing the socially constructed boundary between our communities than to spend time on accurate description of the already constructed and stable boundary constituting these cultures. I also think that Latour’s notion of interobjectivity can be useful for this purpose.


What do you think?



PS I just talked with my very close Russian friend on the phone. His mother is very-very sick – she had a lung and heart problem (I do not know how this disease is called in English). However, his mother does not know the true diagnosis and prognosis. And my friend is not going to tell the truth to her. After long debates with me, my friend replied by almost repeating an old peasant from Luria’s experiment (about Russian tzar). He said that my truth works well in America and his truth works well in Russia

My wife’s aunt died of cancer last March without knowing her true diagnosis. So many of my other Russian relatives.


Eugene Matusov, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Education

School of Education

University of Delaware

Newark, DE 19716, USA


Office: 1-302-831-1266

Fax: 1-302-831-4110