The intimate workings of culture: An introduction

Christopher Berk, Joshua Friedman


This Cultural Dynamics Special Issue on “The Intimate Workings of Culture” examines the complex ways power, audience, and imagination are implicated in the social practices and politics of cultural intimacy. First theorized by Michael Herzfeld in 1997, cultural intimacy has proven to be a productive lens through which to explore the dialectic between the construction and contestation of collective identities. The contributors—Joshua Friedman, Jamie Shenton, Christopher Berk, and Tamar Shirinian—expand the concept’s geographical and contextual scope by applying it to Indigenous Australia, post-soviet states, American ethnic identity politics, and social media. The contributors’ shared emphasis on the emergent and indeterminate interrelationships between audience, imagination, power, and politics within the intimate workings of culture provides valuable templates for new arenas of analysis and inquiry.

Navigating cultural intimacy in Tasmanian Aboriginal public culture

Christopher Berk


This article examines the utility of, and embarrassment around, strategic essentialism in Tasmanian Aboriginal public culture. My argument is informed by extensive participant observation in community-led education programs. Australia’s Tasmanian Aboriginal community has historically been defined by outsiders in terms of racial and cultural deficiencies. These judgments preceded and followed their supposed 1876 extinction. These education programs, catering primarily to elementary school students, idealized Tasmanian Aboriginal culture by emphasizing continuity and connection into deep antiquity. They also included moments in which private anxieties about essentialism, deficiency, and what I term their taxonomical fuzziness are made public. The delicate interplay between essentialism and private feelings about loss, appearance, and cultural inferiority is best understood in relation to Herzfeld’s “cultural intimacy.” I argue that approaching public culture through this concept forces researchers to engage with the pervasive fluency of stereotypes through which Native and Indigenous voices regularly must speak in order to be heard.

Serious Jews: Cultural intimacy and the politics of Yiddish

Joshue Friedman


This article shows how the concept of cultural intimacy can help scholars better analyze ethnoracial identity politics in the United States. It draws on ethnographic research with Yiddish language activists, or “Yiddishists.” Yiddishists define their engagement with the language through a discourse of “seriousness”—marked by hard work and intensive study. Seriousness, as a kind of affective orientation and cultural aspiration, offers Yiddishists a powerful, if subtle, resource to contest power relations in the American Jewish community. Through everyday discourses and performances of seriousness, Yiddishists set themselves apart from an American Jewish “mainstream,” or “establishment,” while simultaneously critiquing the grounds on which mainstream American Jewish institutions and individuals claim to speak on behalf of the community. Seriousness does this, I contend, by resignifying dominant American Jewish language ideologies about Yiddish as signs of American Jewish cultural intimacy—specifically, communal embarrassment over perceived deficits in knowledge about Jewishness.