The Culture Concept

The use of the word "culture" to refer to distinctively human ways of being is of relatively recent vintage. The term comes from the Latin, cultura and its root, colere, which means to till or cultivate the soil, conjuring the image of human labor massaging nature into crops. With this root meaning it has always held great promise as a metaphor for thinking about any conversion of raw nature into a habitable world through the exercise of human labor and attention. The metaphor was reified into a concept during the Enlightenment, when it was first put to good use in the writings of the German theologian, Johann Gottfried Herder in the late eighteenth century. In the 1780s, Herder, who stands in the Romantic branch of the German Enlightenment, wrote a work called Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, in which he reflected on the processes through which people assimilate and apply the learnings of their forebears. He suggested calling this process "culture" (Kultur), "for it is like the cultivation of the soil," and goes on to claim that the "chain of culture ... stretches to the ends of the earth. Even the natives of California and Tierra del Fuego learned to make and use the bow and arrow; they learned their language and concepts, practices and arts, just as we learn ours." In this sense, they, too, are "cultured."24

The difference between cultures, Herder proposed, lies in the workings of divine providence, according to which God has seen fit to appoint to each people a particular kind of happiness, which each people then organizes itself around as a way of life. In this and other essays, Herder develops a second and related concept that later became influential on cultural anthropology (a discipline that did not yet exist): the notion of the Volkgeist (folk spirit). According to his notion of the Volkgeist, every people has a unique genius with which it pursues, under the influence of its inherited arts, language, folksongs, and religion, as well as the natural climate in which it finds itself, an aspect of "humanity" which providence has entrusted to them to develop. Thus, in surveying human societies around the world, one can expect to see a great variety of experiments in how to be human, and to grant each experiment the respect owed to its having exercised the peculiar genius and mode of happiness assigned to it by God.

In all the institutions of peoples from China to Rome ... we can recognize the main law of nature: Let human beings be human beings! Let them shape their situation according to what they hold to be best In all the different parts of the earth, marriage, the state, slaves, clothing, houses, recreation, food, science, and art have been made into what people thought was best for their own or for the general good.25

Herder stops short of granting equal validity to all societies, but he does counsel that goodwill be extended even to those diverse ways of living that his readers cannot understand. Those cultures that endure over time, he proposes, have lived responsibly toward God's "holy, eternal laws," and been genuine "images of God on earth."26 Cultures are spiritual entities, each embodying and carrying forward their portion of God's ideas. And those that have failed have simply suffered their own effects.27

Given that the meaning of the term culture is a hotly contested one in academic circles, both within and between the three disciplines for which it serves as the central object of study (the humanities, cultural anthropology, and cultural studies), a brief consideration of these divisions of opinion is essential. One way of parsing the prevailing theories is to break them down into three rather clear understandings of culture:

• Culture as a standard of excellence - Here culture is viewed as an ideal to which individuals and societies ought to aspire. We become "cultured" by being exposed to and struggling to understand certain touchstones of literature, philosophy, poetry and art, works that represent great achievements of the human spirit, and by internalizing the values that have produced them - aesthetic, moral, philosophical and religious values. Familiarity with such luminaries as Plato, Virgil, St Thomas, Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Freud, Tolstoy, Picasso, T.S. Elliot, and Martin Heidegger, and training in the arts, cuisines, athletics, proper apparel and social manners are the means by which we become cultured persons. Each great civilization has a culture, and while the canon of artifacts that carry it will be different, it will point to the same values and ideals to which the cultures of other great civilizations aspire. This approach is associated with the field of studies traditionally referred to as the humanities. While it is sometimes written off as an elitist view of culture, the same dynamic is at work in a multitude of transmuted forms. Wherever the belief is found that some artifacts of a culture are intrinsically more valuable than others (e.g., that the music of singer-songwriters is a more authentic expression of the human spirit than that of singers who buy their songs and are backed by studio musicians, or that independent films are more attuned to life than Hollywood blockbusters), or that certain genres, writers or performers are more capable of allowing us to transcend our small selves and be carried into communion with some great truth or dimension of reality that makes us better persons, a cultural ideal is in play. Thus, most forms of culture criticism - from New Criterion to Spin - demonstrate the continuing strength of the view that culture is a standard of excellence.

• Culture as a way of life - In this understanding, sometimes referred to as "the modern anthropological view of culture" (with a clear debt to Herder), the idea is that there are multiple cultures in the world, each of them self-contained and internally coherent, each one a homogeneous, functioning organism driven by its own peculiar genius. This conception of cultural wholes is often traced back to Edward B. Tylor, the curator of the University Museum at Oxford, who published a paradigm-setting book in 1871 called Primitive Culture. The opening sentence reads: "Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society."28 This is the concept of culture that is found in the classic period of the discipline of cultural anthropology (roughly 1910-70), associated with such figures as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Ruth Benedict. It is the presumption found in the ethnographies that were written by these scholars and their students, who would travel to remote parts of the world to live among and observe the people of "primitive cultures," to record their various exotic (to us) family arrangements, child-rearing techniques, religious beliefs, arts and technologies, political structures, and economic practices. Upon returning to their university departments, they would write up their field notes and add reflections on what underlying views about reality integrated this people into a cultural whole, distinct among the multitude of cultures around the world. This is the view of culture most of us received who grew up reading National Geographic, and some version of it is still prevalent in cultural anthropology, although it is eroding.

• Subaltern cultures - This view rejects the understanding of cultures as monolithic and integrated wholes, and proposes instead that the integrated system of values that pass as cultural wholes are actually ideologies of power by means of which the dominant segments of a society seek to maintain their power over its subaltern, or subordinate, communities. Subaltern communities are constituted by age, race, ethnicity, gender, etc., and often develop into "subcultures," in the sense that they share a way of life, and particularly a use of speech, common values, solidarity in suffering and a shared self-image, that distinguishes them from the dominant culture. Subcultures have an arsenal of ways to resist their oppression, including a fluid semiotics of "style," by means of which they shield themselves from and undermine the dominant culture through the guerilla tactics of slang, ironic practices of consumption, and the development of gestures, codes of conduct, and icons with meanings impenetrable to all but the cognoscenti. This view is central to the field of cultural studies.

Given that these three competing uses of the term "culture" are at the heart of three flourishing disciplines (the humanities, cultural anthropology, cultural studies), they are important to distinguish as theories of culture. Each of them isolates something crucial about this thing we call culture. Rather than get bogged down in choosing sides in these debates, it is possible to work with a broad theory that borrows a little from each.

Culture as a standard of excellence suggests that human beings objectify into concrete artifacts certain enduring ideals and values that they believe have the power to lift us outside of ourselves and make us better persons. Culture as a way of life recognizes that human beings seek a coherence in their pursuits that includes the whole sweep of our activities - from the most mundane to the most elevated. Theorists of subaltern cultures instruct us in the maneuverings of power for which culture offers cover, and the class interests and resentments for which cultural artifacts serve as instruments.

Incorporating the central insights of each of these competing theories leads to this three-fold understanding of the concept of culture: Through culture we seek to grasp, consolidate, and transmit a coherent order of values that we perceive to be transcendent and therefore worthy of pursuit. These values are discernible in the whole range of cultural artifacts, from poetry, music, and moral beliefs to economic practices, technology, and cooking utensils. The values that organize a culture are never static, but always struggling into new configurations. Each of these insights can be found in at least seminal form in Herder, who managed to hold them together.

It has been suggested by some that the idea of culture has replaced religion as the preferred abstraction into which we have stashed our most sacred truths, the vessel into which we place our fetishes to be guarded and revered. Literary critic, Terry Eagleton, believes that the concept of culture has come for many in the West "to substitute for a fading sense of divinity and transcendence."29 Reading the leading theorists representing each of the definitions of culture above, it is not hard to sense that, respectively, refinement of taste, integrated wholeness, and subordinated peoples function as objects of veneration. Perhaps this is the wild ride that has been taken by Herder's assertion that cultures are the embodiments of God's ideas in subsequent generations of scholars, who have distanced themselves from God-language but not from the desire to find something transcendent within culture.

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