Universities have started banding together to negotiate favorable contracts with software vendors. With new effort, a group of them aims to exercise similar leverage with publishers on behalf of students.
If ideas are tools -- “equipment for living,” so to speak -- we might well imagine the culture as a heavily patched-up conceptual backpack that has been around the world a few times. It has been roughly handled along the way.
The stitches strain from the sheer quantity and variety of stuff crammed into it over the years: global culture, national culture, high culture, popular culture, classical and print and digital cultures, sub- and countercultures, along with cultures of violence, of affluence, of entitlement, of critical discourse …. It’s all in there, and much else besides. How it all fits -- what the common denominator might be -- is anyone’s guess. We could always draw on the useful clarifying distinction between: (1) culture as a category of more or less aesthetic artifacts, perhaps especially those that end up in museums and libraries, and (2) culture as the shared elements of a way of life.
The difference is, in principle, one of kind, not of quality, although assumptions about value assert themselves anyway. The first variety is sometimes called “the Matthew Arnold idea of culture,” after that Victorian worthy’s reference, in his book Culture and Anarchy, to “the best which has been thought and said.” Presumably music and painting also count, but Arnold’s emphasis on verbal expression is no accident: culture in his use of the term implies literacy.
By contrast “culture in the anthropological sense” -- as the second category is often called -- subsumes a good deal that can be found in societies without writing: beliefs about the nature of the world, ways of dressing, gender roles, assumptions about what may be eaten and what must be avoided, how emotions are expressed (or not expressed) and so on. Culture understood as a way of life includes rules and ideas that are highly complex though not necessarily transmitted through formal education. You absorb culture by osmosis, often through being born into it, and much of it goes without saying. (This raises the question of whether animals such as primates or dolphins may be said to have cultures. If not, why not? But that means digging through a whole other backpack.)
The dichotomy isn’t airtight, by any means, but it has served in recent years as a convenient pedagogical starting point: a way to get students (among others) to think about the strange ubiquity and ambiguity of culture as a label we stick on almost everything from the Code of Hammurabi to PlayStation 4, while also using it to explain quite a bit. Two people with a common background will conclude a discussion of the puzzling beliefs or behavior of a third party by agreeing, “That’s just part of their culture.” This seems more of a shrug than an explanation, really, but it implies that there isn’t much more to say.
One way to think of Terry Eagleton’s new book, Culture (Yale University Press), is as a broad catalog of the stuff that comes out when you begin unpacking the concept in its title -- arranging the contents along a spectrum rather than sorting them into two piles. In doing so, Eagleton, a distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Lancaster, follows closely the line of thought opened by the novelist and critic Raymond Williams, who coined the expression “culture as a whole way of life.” Williams probably derived the concept in turn, not from the anthropologists, but from T. S. Eliot. In distinguishing “culture as ordinary” (another Williams phrase) from culture as the work that artists, writers, etc. produce, the entire point was to link them: to provoke interest in how life and art communicated, so to speak.
For Williams, the operative word in “culture as a whole way of life” was, arguably, “whole”: something integral, connected and coherent, but also something that could be shattered or violated. Here, too, Eagleton is unmistakably Williams’s student. His assessment of how ideas about culture have taken shape over the past 200 years finds in them a pattern of responses to both industrialism (along with its spoiled heir, consumerism) and the French revolution (the definitive instance of “a whole way of life” exploding, or imploding, under its own strains). “If it is the cement of the social formation,” Eagleton writes, culture “is also its potential point of fracture.”
It may be that I am overemphasizing how closely Eagleton follows Williams. If so, it is still a necessary corrective to the way Williams has slowly turned into just another name in the Cultural Studies Hall of Fame rather than a felt moral and intellectual influence. His emphasis on culture as “a whole way of life” -- expressed with unabashed love and grief for the solidarity and community he knew when growing up in a Welsh mining community -- would sound remarkably anachronistic (if not ideologically totalizing and nostalgically uncritical) to anyone whose cultural reference points are of today’s commodified, virtual and transnational varieties.
And to that extent, Eagleton’s general survey of ideas about culture comes to a sharp point -- aimed directly at how the concept functions now in a capitalist society that he says, “relegates whole swaths of its citizenry to the scrap heap, but is exquisitely sensitive about not offending their beliefs.”
He continues, in a vein that Williams would have appreciated: “Culturally speaking, we are all to be granted equal respect, while economically speaking the gap between the clients of food banks and the clients of merchant banks looms ever larger. The cult of inclusivity helps to mask these material differences. The right to dress, worship or make love as one wishes is revered, while the right to a decent wage is denied. Culture acknowledges no hierarchies, but the educational system is riddled with them.” This may explain why culture is looking so raggedy and overburdened as a term. Pulled too tight, stretched too thin, it covers too many things that it would be difficult to face straight on.
Somewhere along the way, Nietzsche’s apothegm “That which does not destroy me makes me stronger” lost all the irony and ambiguity it had in context and turned into an edifying sentiment -- a motivational catchphrase, even on the order of that poster saying, “Hang in there, baby!” with the cat clinging to a tree branch.
“Destroy” is often rendered “kill,” giving it a noirish and edgy sound. Either way, the phrase is uplifting if and only if understood figuratively, as a statement about mental resilience. For when taken literally, it is barely even half true, as a moment’s reflection reveals. A life-threatening virus can make us stronger -- i.e., immune to it in the future -- but a bullet to the brain never will. That truth would not have been lost on Nietzsche, who understood philosophy as a mode of psychology and both as rooted in physiology.
He expected the reader not just to absorb a thought but to test it, to fill in its outlines and pursue its implications -- including, I think, a contradictory thought: Whatever does not kill me might very well leave me wishing it had.
While riding her newly repaired bicycle early in the fall semester of 2003 -- pumping the pedals hard, with the strong legs of someone just entering her 50s and determined not to feel it -- Christina Crosby, a professor of English and feminist, gender and sexuality studies at Wesleyan University, got a branch caught in the front wheel. She went flying from her seat, landing on the pavement chin first, fracturing two vertebrae in her neck. The broken bone scraped her spinal cord. One indication of how fast it all happened is that reflexes to break a fall never kicked in. Her hands were not damaged at all.
“Serious neurological damage started instantly,” Crosby writes in A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain (NYU Press); “blood engorged the affected site, and the tissue around the lesion began to swell, causing more and more damage as the cord pressed against the broken vertebrae. I also smashed my chin into tiny pieces, tore open my lips, slashed open my nose, breaking the cartilage, and multiply fractured the orbital bone underneath my right eye.” She had been wearing wire-frame glasses and the force of the impact drove the metal into the bridge of her nose.
Crosby spent three weeks in the hospital, unconscious in intensive care for most of it, and only found out later, from her lover, Janet, that the neurosurgeons and plastic surgeons “debated who should go first.” The plastic surgeons won. It sounds as if they had proportionately the more hopeful and effective job to do -- piecing together her chin from fragments, reconstructing her mouth, removing the eyeglass frames from her flesh and leaving only a half-moon scar.
The neurological damage was much more extensive and included both paralysis and a loss of sensation from the neck down. In time, Crosby regained limited use of her hands and arms and could begin to overcome the extreme (and dangerous) atrophy that set in following the accident. She was able to return to teaching part time at Wesleyan in 2005.
The author refers to herself dictating the memoir, but it feels very much as a piece of writing -- that is, as something composed in large part through revision, through grappling with the enormous problem of communicating sequences of experience and thought that few readers will have shared. The accident occurred relatively late in her life and without warning; the contrast between her existence before and after the catastrophic event is made even starker by the fact that she cannot remember it happening. “My sense of a coherent self,” she writes, “has been so deeply affronted” that the book in large measure serves as a way to try to put the fragments back together again without minimizing the depth of the chasm she has crossed.
“You become who you are,” Crosby writes, “over the course of a life that unfolds as an ongoing interaction with objects and others, from the infant you once were, whose bodily cartography slowly emerged as you were handled by caregivers whose speech washed over you, to the grown-up you are today, drawn beyond reason to one person rather than another.”
On that last point she has been extraordinarily fortunate in whom she found herself drawn to: the bond she shares with Janet seems like a rope across the abyss, or more like a steel cable, perhaps. (I call her by her first name simply because the author does. The view from Janet R. Jakobsen’s side of things may be read in a thoughtful essay from 2007.) At the same time, A Body, Undone is anything but sentimental about the possibilities of growth and healing. As doctors lowered the dosage of Crosby’s painkillers, new forces imposed themselves on her daily life:
“I feel an unassuageable loneliness, because I will never be able to adequately describe the pain I suffer, nor can anyone accompany me into the realm of pain …. Pain is so singular that it evades direct description, so isolating because in your body alone. Crying, and screaming, and raging against pain are the signs of language undone. … I have no exact account of how pain changes my interaction with my students and my colleagues, but I know there are times when I don’t feel fully present. It’s not that the pain is so bad that it demands all my attention, but rather that it’s so chronic as to act like a kind of screen.”
No pseudo-Nietzschean bromides to be had here. There is also the difficult new relationship with one’s bowels when they cease to be under any control by the brain -- the discovery of a whole terra incognita beyond ordinary feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment. Crosby discusses her reality with a candor that must be experienced to be believed. And the reader is left to face the truth that one’s embodiment (and the world that goes with it) can change utterly and forever, in a heartbeat.