Culture Gulch

Scott McLemee reviews Terry Eagleton's new book, Culture, which unpacks the concept in its title.

May 25, 2016
Yale University Press

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.


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