Culture Redux (HUM 415)

The point of these three readings– Williams, Brooker, Toohey– is to place two fairly basic concepts into brackets, to convert them into heuristics in order to sharpen our critical perspective on the study of culture and history.

Theoretical writing is intended to defamiliarize the world we live in, to challenge common sensical assumptions. Unquestioned, unexamined, common sense simply excuses us from thinking. Thus Catherine Belsey writes:

“In practice, common sense betrays its own inadequacy by its incoherences, its contradictions and its silences. Presenting itself as non-theoretical, as ‘obvious’, common sense is not called on to demonstrate that it is internally consistent. But an account of the world which finally proves to be incoherent or non-explanatory constitutes an unsatisfactory foundation….”

We need to establish at least a provisional foundation in order to contend with the texts we’ll be reading throughout the semester.

In that vein, please take ten minutes and read what follows.

“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.

Ultimately, 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. 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”– i.e. a focus on products (artifacts) and practices (“signifying/material practices”). The emphasis on signifying and material practices is a way of invoking yet another concept: ideology.

A cultural text (ex. the Call of Duty advert) is a message transmitted from its producer to its audience. Yet the meaning of a given cultural text is not limited to what the producer might have intended. You and I, in receiving or consuming this message, engage in signification ourselves. We relate the message to a wider social and cultural context, we form judgements about it based on “taste” (which is itself the product of training– nobody’s born loving jazz; that preference is acquired).

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

Now consider these:

“Culture begins at the point at which humans surpass whatever is simply given in their natural inheritance” (Edgar and Sedgewick 102)– i.e., here is a definition which pits Culture against Nature.

In this sense culture is an abstraction, a category that immediately gestures at that which lies beyond it. To speak of culture is to tacitly invoke what it is not– i.e., “non-culture” or Nature. On the other hand the significance of Nature– its various meanings– is cultural. We can reflect on objective reality only through language, which is cultural (and ideological).

Culture determines even our most intimate “unsocial” experiences– material 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.

Culture is activity; it is the point of contact between thought and matter.

Culture is a site of socialization. It is the process by which we learn to be human, but also a space where the contradictions & disturbances of civil society might be resolved:  “a sort of premature utopia abolishing struggle at an imaginary level” in order to “not resolve it at a political one” (Eagleton 7).

A good example for this last might be a football game. Fans of the same team assert their collectivity as supporters of, say, the Raiders and in doing so claim a common identity or achieve a version of solidarity.

Note also that culture can be a medium of self-realization or identity-formation. The styles I wear, the music I listen to, are supposed to say something about me. We judge others by their cultural choices.

Alternately, culture can function as a critique of present inadequacies. In this sense culture becomes a space in which we may compare present realities with future potentialities. Thus, “culture can unite fact and value, as both an account of the actual and a foretaste of the desirable” (Eagleton).

One of the great intellectual advances of modernity was the spread of the notion of cultural relativism. Granted, this idea has its limits. But the outcome of the ubiquity of this notion is that it is no longer acceptable– at least in enlightened circles– to deride the other’s culture simply because it doesn’t resemble our own.

Even so, pundits and editors routinely blame culture for various social problems. 1 in 3 African-American men between the ages of 17 and 34 are in prison, on parole or awaiting trial? In the 19th century many politicians and public intellectuals would have said Race was the cause. Given that such statements are no longer accepted as factual, some of their 21st century counterparts now assign responsibility to some “pathological” strand in African-American culture (which is, in any case, not monolithic).  What this indicates is that with the pluralization of culture, the term is no longer simply positive. (“A culture of dependency, of criminality, blah, blah, etc.) It also suggests that culture has replaced the role of race— this, I would argue, is pure ideology– as the major determinant of individual and group behavior.

Significantly, in the contemporary period– particularly in the “developed” or “first” world– culture has moved to the very center of economic life. As a consequence, culture, its production and consumption, operates at the core of the global capitalism. At one time the US possessed a heavy-industrial economy. This is no longer the case. Two of the biggest drivers for the accumulation of capital belong to 1) the Finance sector and 2) the culture industry. How many films were produced in Hollywood last year? How many in Haiti?

And lastly, culture travels, and as it travels it is transformed.