The Concept of Culture

"Culture" is not a natural kind, like silver or dandelions or trout; nor is it an intentionally fabricated artifact, like Walkmans™ (which require trademarks) or Napalm, or the Chicago Bulls. Like "religion," it lies somewhere in between these two - more malleable (because dependent on human use) than the first, but less consequent upon explicit human decision than the second. The concept of culture is itself a cultural artifact, which came into being only in the eighteenth century. Before then, entirely different conceptual schemes informed what now gets collected under the concept of "culture." We can narrate the development of "culture," thereby highlighting some of its latent tensions and complexities. This is meant not as an adequate historical narrative, but rather as a useful heuristic device; it transforms culture from something obvious into something "denaturalized and suspended before our eyes as an object of scrutiny" (Masuzawa 1998:91). This history is thus primarily a way to see "culture's " complexity.1

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