Letters

Letters Archive
Fall 1996, Vol. 5, No. 1
  • The Question of Culture
  • Politics, Ethics, and Terror
  • "History" and its Relation to Place
  • The Question of Culture

    The question of culture has made headlines in debates over the academic canon, cultural literacy, and multiculturalism. This year's Fellows Program, "The Question of Culture," will explore the development of the concept of culture through history and across academic disciplines. Nine faculty members representing five departments will meet weekly at the Center to discuss these themes. Letters recently met with the seminars directors, Jay Clayton, Professor of English, and James A. Epstein, Professor of History, to discuss the historical and contemporary debates about the concept of culture.

    LETTERS: Would you explain your motivations for designing a seminar on culture?

    CLAYTON: The concept of culture is clearly one of the most exciting topics today for the academic disciplines. It is one of the areas in which different disciplines are thinking through their own principles most radically, and it is also the place where disciplines are beginning to think about how they intersect with one another. This is particularly true in the fields represented in the seminar: history, anthropology, sociology, and English and Slavic literatures.
    Also, one of the things that is important about this seminar is that the concept of culture itself is undergoing a profound revision right now. We are at a jumping-off place for a new conceptualization of culture, and we hope that the fellows in this seminar can begin not only to think about how the term has evolved over the term the last one hundred and fifty years, but to help shape the way in which the concept is used in the future.

    EPSTEIN: I think Jay is right. One of the significant shifts in the concept of culture happened in the late 1950s and early 1960s, primarily in the work of Ray Williams, Richard Hoggart, and Edward Thompson. These British authors diverged from an older idea of culture as high art, as culture with the big "C," as, in Matthew Arnold's words, "the best which has been thought and said in the world." These authors sought to rediagram culture. In particular, Williams defined culture, in one of its senses, as a way of life, or the way life is experienced, which is what he meant by the phrase "culture is ordinary." Even in this new view of culture, though, the right/left political split is not very clear. Both the right and the left could be found decrying cultural decline and denouncing mass culture as stupefying, artificial, and polluting.
    Today, we have a somewhat different view of popular culture which has been opened up to us by a focus on cultural meanings, systems, or practices of symbolic notations or signification. The boundary between high art and popular culture has been broken apart, mainly through cultural studies and anthropological notions of culture. Now, we tend to see consumer culture as not necessarily indicative of some downward cultural spiral, but as, in fact, a very important place where creative meanings are being negtiated.

    LETTERS: How do you define"culture?"

    CLAYTON: It is really one of the most interesting words in our language. Raymond Williams takes it as one of the "keywords" of our time. What is most surprising about the notion of culture is that it seems to have shifted meaning at least three times over the last one hundred and fifty years. When one looks into the word "culture," one discovers that we have not had it for very long. Prior to about the mid-eighteenth century, the word "civilization" seemed to indicate everything that had to do with the human realm as opposed to the natural realm.
    During the Romantic era, "civilization" began to take on con notations of overrefinement and artificiality—all of the things that the Romantics rebelled against. This new word, "culture," came into use to refer to the aspects of the human spirit that the Romantics valued more than wit, civilization, and civility. So the first use of "culture" is Romantic in origin and meant what we call "high culture" today, the realm of the spirit, of the intellectual life, and of art—the things that most people still think of when they hear the word "culture."

    EPSTEIN: I have two reactions. The first is that, of course, the word has an even older meaning than the one Jay is talking about. It comes out of French and actually crosses the line between civilization and nature precisely because what it meant was or ganic growth.

    CLAYTON: Cultivation, exactly.

    EPSTEIN: Cultivation. The Romantic meaning of the word, by moving that meaning across that line, is also trying to mediate that line in civilization, something artificially created by humankind and therefore unnatural.
    My second reaction is that even in the Romantic movement, "culture" has the distinction between high and low. After all, in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth already blurs that distinction, because Wordsworth, along with a number of other Romantics, thought of culture as the highest achievements of humankind. The Romantics argued that the role of the artist was to recapture the language of ordinary people and reproduce it at some heightened level by reframing it in poetry. Hence, the Romantic argument already holds what might be considered a rather ambiguous relationship between what we would now mark as "high" and "low" within culture. When you get to the mid-Victorian period and to Victorians like Matthew Arnold, you get a much firmer placement of culture as high culture.

    CLAYTON: I agree with Jim completely. It is interesting that the Oxford English Dictionary cites passages from Wordsworth and Arnold as two of the earliest examples of this use of the word "culture." So Jim has traced the intensification of this meaning of "culture" as signifying high culture. I do not think that in Victo rian England you would have found the phrase "consumer culture." Commodification and culture were seen as two entirely different realms. That moves us toward the second historical meaning of "culture" that we are interested in investigating in this seminar.
    In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the anthopological use of the word began to emerge. This more expanded meaning defines culture as all signifying practices, all aspects of human behavior that have meaning, or are in any way involved with ritual or symbol, which means that language is culture, the way we dress is culture, the way we form families and raise children, our religious practices, our eating habits, and our manners are all culture. For anthropologists, the Arnoldian notion of high culture is just a subset of this more encompassing meaning of culture.
    What you find happening now in the third phase of the development of this concept is that scholars in the humanities, who once would have been interested solely in high culture, are now trying to integrate their analyses of artistic practices with a more anthropological definition of culture. This is happening most obviously in the field of cultural studies, which is probably the most exciting area of humanities research today, and is certainly the newest wave of humanities research. Cultural studies as a discipline is still emerging, but its area of studies concentrates on rethinking the boundary between what one might call the first and the second concepts of culture.

    EPSTEIN: I agree with Jay that cultural studies is without question one of the most exciting areas of contemporary scholarly endeavor. But one of its weak nesses so far is that it has been very focused on the here-and now and has tended to lack a historical dimension. One of the things that may be a part of this next wave of cultural studies is an attempt to give it more of a historicizing dimension.
    Jay's comments made me think of the problem of the historical formation of academic disciplines, and the way disciplines get institutionalized. On the one hand, I suppose institutional lodgment—having your own journals, departments, conferences, societies, and all the rest of it—is one of the things that legitimates the practice of a certain discipline and gives its rhetoric a certain cultural capital. Yet some times, oddly enough, the most exciting work is not done within disciplines as they exist, but rather precisely at the polnt at which disciplines are trying to emerge and achieve the status that may stultify them. Cultural studies is interesting precisely because it is floating out there without necessarily all the things in place that would allow it to speak with a disciplinary guarantee that it is doing some thing quite legitimate and authoritative.
    But returning to what Jay said, you could go back to where that anthropological view of culture starts. Someone like Max Weber, who is one of the first people say ing that we live within webs of cultural signification, is seen as one of the founders of sociology. But what is interesting to me about Weber is the way in which he knows no boundaries. Weber is equally interesting talking about religion, the formation of the state, bureaucracy, and law. Sure, we know Weber as a sociologist. But what makes him a great thinker is that he did not really pay much attention to disciplinary boundaries, partly because the boundaries did not exist. The boundaries were in the process of being made. Perhaps that is why we look to cultural studies. We think of interdisciplinarity as a new and trendy thing. But what cultural studies is trying to do is to recover some of the liveliness that got driven out of certain scholarly pursuits precisely at the points at which disciplines be came disciplines. One of the reasons the Robert Pelln Warren Center for the Humanities is so important is that it is a place where disciplines can come to gether and have this exchange.

    CLAYTON: Thinking about culture is thinking explicitly about a concept that is not bound by any of the traditional disciplines. In none of the three acceptances of this terms meaning is it confinable to a single discipline. Even the Arnoldian definition of culture transcended the study of literature to include music, the fine arts, some of the more inventive philosophers, and perhaps some of the more elegant nineteenth-century historians. The other two definitions are even less discipline-bound. The topic of the seminar represents something of a challenge to the organization of the university; it is the kind of topic that can best be explored in an environment such as the Warren Center, which takes as its mission the investigation of issues that exceed the boundaries of individual disciplines.

    LETTERS: Are standards of authenticity and inauthenticity still relevant to analyses of culture?

    EPSTEIN: Some notions of genuineness and authenticity are still tremendously important. If you look at the development of cultural studies and the way people have studied culture, you will see the search for so-called authentic cultures such as folk culture. There you have a notion that a culture is authentic because it has not already been touched by the artificiality of urbanization and, more generally, civilization. On the other hand, pop music or rock'n'roll would be seen as inauthentic because it is being sold. It would be perceived as inauthentic and artificial because it is commodified. Again, these kinds of distinctions are breaking apart now. But I suspect they still exist and have a certain political valence.

    CLAYTON: The issue of the difference between authentic and inauthentic culture is a holdover from a Romantic conception of the artistic work and the word "culture." The very thing we see happening today is the breakdown of the validity of that distinction. In a postmodern world, the question of whether rap is authentic because it is the expression of a subcultural group or whether it is inauthentic because it is highly commodified by multinational corporations is the wrong one to ask. The impossibility of answering that question in any useful way shows how the interpenetration of capitalism through all aspects of contemporary society has made the distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity a less useful way to think about culture.

    EPSTEIN: I would say that what we are left with then, after rejecting that distinction, is the debate over the extent to which we see the culture we now have as hegemonic in the sense that a theorist like Antonio Gramsci would use the term. This view portrays our culture as disabling because people embrace assumptions about certain horizons of expectation that do not allow them to resist the culture and politics they have. This view is opposed to the view that cultural productions such as rap music, for example, can be anti-hege monic, and hence are ways of challenging dominant ways of understanding society, life, race, and gender. I suppose the truth could be some combination of these two views. But we are still left with that kind of question over the extent to which one can take up oppositional positions within this culture, or the extent to which it is so all-encompassing, so all-powerful, so deadly in the way in which it has crept into our souls and beings that there is not this possibility of political change from within, that you cannot make music from within a consumer culture that actually challenges that culture.

    CLAYTON: One of the most distinctive things about the third phase of the word "culture" is that we are no longer just talking about a change in the definitlon; we are also talking about a change in the nature of culture. That is, the dispute between literary critics, who were interested only in high culture, and anthropologists, who wanted the word to apply to all aspects of our lives, was an argument over definition. Cultural studies does not simply merge those two definitions; rather, it maintains that the social fabric has changed. That may explain why so much of cultural studies has been focused on the present, on the postmodern moment. People involved incultural studies are often interested in this emerging formation of the relationship between realms of society that were once thought distinct. Cultural critics fre quently reject the distinction between the economic realm and the social realm, and between both of these realms and the literary or artistic realm. Attempts to isolate one realm from the others, even for the purpose of analysis, seem false to the changing nature of todays society.

    EPSTEIN: One of the ways the concept of culture in the postwar intellectual climate progressed also was a rejection of the notion of culture as a sort of residue what is left over after you have the real stuff.

    CLAYTON: That is right. In its crudest form, that was one of the consequences of the old way of thinking about high culture. After you had subtracted everything that mattered, like money and politics, then what you had left over was culture. But the distinction between the economic and the cultural realms is not the only division that seems less germane today. One of the most astonishing things to people who have been used to the modernist scorn for mass culture is to see how irrelevant that category is becoming to people engaged in cultural studies. The notion that mass culture, such as film, television and advertising, is radically distinct from high culture, whlch was a piety of a liberal, modernist stance toward culture, seems really irrelevant in a postmodern society. Some of the best video work being done today is taking place in Nike commercials, not just in performance art.

    EPSTEIN: What the modernist stance consists of is what I would call the "gone-to-hell-in-a-handbasket" theory of the world.

    CLAYTON: Right. We cannot be quite so pessimistic all the time.

    EPSTEIN: It really goes to the question of human creativity and what counts as human creativity. The whole question of what counts as a creative human endeavor needs to be rethought generation after generation, decade after decade. Take some thing like the teenager's bedroom with posters of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, black lights, or whatever it is that today's teenager has decided to throw together as his or her collage of cultural practices and artifacts, as itself an artistic expression or at least an expression of a certain kind of creativity. It is something that is very meaningful. We may be out of sorts with it, but that is not to say it is not meaningful to your aver age sixteen year old, or that he or she is not actually making for himself or herself meaningful cultural worlds out of the cultural practices and artifacts of the present moment. Not to study that, not to be interested, or to deny that that is being engaged in some form of creative activity is probably wrong.

    CLAYTON: The trouble that most people have in seeing the teenager's room as an interesting cultural artifact is that they only have one conception of value which they can apply to a cultural object. That conception of value is aesthetic value." You can argue against that and say, "Well, you the adult, are just mired in an old fashioned set of aesthetic norms and you cannot see the true aesthetic value of this collage." That is one possible way to make a claim for the value of the teenager's wall as aesthetic object. But I think it is not a very useful response. You are not going to convince many people from another generation that the cultural interest of the room lies in its aesthetic beauty. That respnse itself falls into an old pattern of believing that the only was we can think about culture is in aesthetic terms.
    Cultural studies would want to draw our attention not to the aesthetic characteristics, whether positive or negative, of the teenager's room, but to the meaningful, symbolic gestures that can be made by the teenager through the medium of this space, or the way in which the ideentity of the teenager can be shaped and altered by intentional acts on his or her own part so that you can think about the room as a response-a subersive response, perhaps-to normative pressures of a consumer society by the way in which the teenager revises the uses that these objects were intended for by their manufacuturers. So that reallly if you study it as a set of social actions, you see this room as a sphere of agency, as a way in which the individual can find room to maneuver in a world to which Marxists ascribe no room for individual agency.

    EPSTEIN: It is a hard question as to what kind of politics this is. I do think the question of culture touches on the question of politics. It is hard to know exactly how to react to what has become a very fashionable response to the disappearance of a certain kind of civic space and civic discourse in our society. I have to say on the one hand, I share some of that concern. But on the other hand, listening to Jay, I think that people may just be looking in the wrong places for how the exchange, the dialogue, the discussion has changed and maybe it is just that one is going to have to look somewhere else for where and how that discussion is going to take place. Maybe it is going to take place in very uncomfortable sites of communication and in ways that we are unaccustomed to dealing with and listening to. But there may still be action out there. Furthermore, worrying about having lost civic discourse is probably not going to be an effective way to recover it. We may not have to be quite as pessimistic as some present writers suggest. So maybe the state of civic discourse will turn out to be a little bit more uplifting.

    LETTERS: How do you view the issue of cultural literacy?

    EPSTEIN: There is a line that goes from Matthew Arnold to someone like, say, Mortimer Adler, who argues that there are certain great books that can and should be taught. What defines a great book for Adler? I think he almost would answer in the same way that Arnold did: "the best which has been thought and said in the world." When Adler is asked what defines a great book, what he says is a work that can be read and reread for profit. His argument is an argument that it is patently obvious in a similar way that a philosopher like G. E. Moore would say that we recognize certain moral precepts as good in the same way that, say, the color red is the color red. In fact, I think Adler would say that it is just obvious that Plato can be read and reread for profit, and it is just as obvious that, say, Mary Wollstonecraft is a derivative thinker.
    Important to the issue of culture is the question of whose culture and what culture should be taught. It is a question that I feel conflicted about. On the one hand, I rather wish that students would read Shakespeare's work, and read it for profit, enjoyment, moral uplift, whatever. But on the other hand, it seems that when you discuss cultural literacy, you could say it is a bit like complaining that not enough members of Count Basie's band could read music. You are testing them on the wrong thing. It may be, for all I know, that the students who we teach know all kinds of things; it just turns out they do not happen to know all kinds of things about Plato and Shakespeare. It seems to me that an entirely reasonable response from any bright and rather cheeky eighteen year old would be to say that an adult who does not know who Snoop Doggy Dogg is not culturally literate in this society. A lot depends on what you want to call cultural literacy.

    CLAYTON: The actual phrase "cultural literacy" comes from E. D. Hirsch's book by that title. His conception of culture is much closer to the third definition of culture that we have been using. Hirsch does not think that being culturally literate means knowing Adler's list of the great books. In fact, Hirsch and Adler are diametrically opposed in the debate. Hirsch believes that it is important for thinking that one have command of one's culture. His is an argument about how the brain works, and he beiieves that in order to think cogently, one has to have at one's command the re sources of one's culture. He is very relativistic about what one's culture is, and says that this is a continually changing and shifting field. Hirsch's view differs greatly from Adler's, which presents a list of masterpieces that will only gradually evolve over the centuries.

    LETTERS: What other contemporary issues are at stake in the debates about culture?

    EPSTEIN: First of all, there is the canon issue, which has thrown the academy into the political limelight in ways that we are not always accustomed to. The issue of what is being taught and what counts for culture be comes quite alarming for some people. Because after all, universities are supposed to be purveyors of culture. Maybe people would say to a professor at a university that it is alright to teach film. The older the films were, the bet ter the class would be. Obviously it would be culturally better if the films were black and white rather than color, and maybe even better if they were silent. There is a way in which culture becomes that which is almost archaic, and can therefore become a field of study. At a certain point, most people both inside and outside of the academy start saying, "No, that is not part of the cultural world that should be out there for serious cultural investigation, study, and teaching." But as Jay is saying, it is changing all the time.

    CLAYTON: A second issue that is at stake in this seminar is the question of multiculturalism. Whether culture is a single, uni fied field or whether we should actually think of society as made up of multiple, overlapping, and sometimes conflicting cultures is an issue that is inevitably raised by the topics we have been discussing. In particular, the notion that America has and should have only a single, unified culture is dependent on the Arnoldian definition of culture. But even the second definition, the anthropological and sociological definition of culture, could be employed to construct a single, unified field, a structural whole which defines America, a single set of normative ritual and symbolic practices. In anthropology and sociology to day, that model of the unified field of culture is under dispute too.

    EPSTEIN: That is an interesting and extremely important point that we have not talked about. Again it is very much bound to notions of politics and power. I would make two comments. The first is that the move ment I was talking about that was largely British and that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, despite its left wing politics, of course did impose in its own way notions of a cultural tradition. On the one hand, Raymond Williams opened up the field by talking about culture being ordinary, and also opened up literary tradition so that you could read the radical William Cobbett's Rural Rides alongside Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revoluhon in France. But on the other hand, there was a notion of tradition. It was not F. R. Leavis's great tradition, but it still was a tradition, and the tradition equalled British or even English culture. But what is missed are elements of the relationship between that culture and other cultures in the colonial and postcolonial world. Edward Said, who is a great fan of Williams, is still quite sharply critical of him for his imposition of a notion of a unified cultural tradition. It was a cultural tradition, after all, that excluded the whole field of writing that was going on in places such as the Caribbean and India, and all kinds of things that could be thought of as part of, if not a cultural tradition, something that would still be important to understanding the character of Britain and the British empire and postimperial world.
    The second point I want to mention is how important language is to all of this. It was only this spring that the Tennessee government moved to the idea that you can go to the Tennessee state driver's license office and take a driving test in Spanish. This is seen as a very controversial issue, and relates to some ironic cultural views. Conservative forces in our country say that the very people who speak an other language cannot treat it as their prlmary language, but must have English as their primary language. Now, you could say that in order to be full citizens and to participate in the society in which English is the majority language, people do also need to learn English. But at the same time, I do not think that is the actual position of the people who are putting on the ballot that English should be the official language of the United States, as if this some how were in dispute. It seems very important symbolically to say, "English is the official language of the United States," because some people have this notion that there has to be a unified cultural tradition that is the collective "we," and if we do not have that, then somehow bad things are going to befall us.

    CLAYTON: A final issue that is at stake is the future of culture. All of us are drawn to this topic because we are concerned about the ways in which our national cultures have evolved and are interested in helping to shape the ways in which they may develop. In a society such as the one we live in today, the definition of what counts as meaningful, what counts as valuable information, is essential. Since the concept of culture is one of the ways in which we distinguish between meaningful information and irrelevant information or white noise, our job of thinking about the concept of culture has very pragmatic consequences for the future shape of an information order. I hope that in the seminar we will be able to get into questions, for example, of the Internet and what the culture of cyber space might mean for us today and how the culture of cyber space forces us to rethink even the three definitions of culture we have already come up with, and perhaps points toward some un known, new configuration.

    Letters Archive Index

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