Culture, Periodization, and the Contemporary (ContCult)

On Friday we talked about some of the defining features of the contemporary period. Remember that this periodization is subject to debate; there are potentially any number of other periodizations. For example, we could move the date forward from the early 1970s to 1989, when the USSR began to fragment, a process culminating in 1991. The causes for that transformation have predictably been bowdlerized for political purposes, usually as a caricature of Ronald Reagan singlehandedly defeating the forces of “totalitarianism” with a frosty glare, after which the Liberal Capitalist West assumed its throne at the apex of human history. Still, given that the world was at one time considered to be politically and economically Three Worlds– a scheme that ended with the dissolution of the Second World (or “socialist camp,” as some have called it)– a compelling argument might be made that the “New World Order” (a phrase from Bush I) functions as a core characteristic of the contemporary, our present. The point, however (one point anyway) is that the way we divide history into discrete and coherent chunks is a critical and political matter. Thinking about those divisions is important intellectual work. Consider for instance, the practice of “decading”– of grouping years into sets of ten, an activity we seldom question even though it seems almost completely arbitrary. Did “the 60s” as a cultural and political moment end in 1970? Did it begin in 1960? Or how about that tired old bromide, “if you’re not a radical at twenty you’ve got no heart; if you’re not a reactionary when you’re thirty you’ve got no brain.” Are things really that simple?

The link I gave you in the last post offers some potential metrics for the contemporary. To them we might add some of the cetnral themes of this course: the difficulties of postcolonialism, the increasing hybridization of cultural forms, the presence of an American (US) Empire, a permanent state of diaspora for many peoples of the world, etc. We’ll have occasion to test drive some of these ideas as the semester progresses.

Culture:

“Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language,” Raymond Williams tells us. And if you read his etymological explication of that term then you’ll probably agree.

Raymond Williams. defines culture in several ways:

1) “A general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development”– i.e. as training for the individual but also on a larger scale, ex. the cultural development of Europe, Africa, the American South, etc.

2) “A particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, or a group”– a broader, more anthropological definition which would extend beyond a canon of great works. In this usage, all groups have their own culture. Taken to an extreme we can think of not only the culture of a particular religious or ethnic group but the culture of computer programmers, the culture of cookie jar collectors, etc.

3) “Works and practices of intellectual and esp. artistic activity”– a focus on products (texts) and practices (“signifying/material practices”)

Culture, then, for our purposes, has to do with text, practice, value, experience (and of necessity subjectivity and identity– more on these later).

Culture travels, and as it travels it is transformed. Arjun Appadurai will have more to tell us on this point, but for now we could broaden the concept of culture to its most capacious: culture is human activity. Culture determines even our most intimate “unsocial” experiences, practices of the body such as eating, sleeping, defecating, copulating, etc. It is in this respect that we can begin to see that it is not entirely feasible to completely separate Culture from Nature because human beings are the nexus between them.

On Monday we’ll discuss “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” by Arjun Appadurai. The PDF for that assignment is on the HUM415 page.

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