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july 2006

On culture


by Hans Durrer
Next Left: Popular culture meets high culture when Bob Dylan receives an honorary doctor of music degree at St. Andrew's University, Scotland (June 6, 2004)

"Culture," as Eagleton (2000: 1) states, "is said to be one of the two or three most complex words in the English language." As to the various meanings of "culture," Williams (1982: 11) elaborates:

"We can distinguish a range of meanings from (i) a developed state of mind — as in 'a person of culture,' 'a cultured person' to (ii) the processes of this development — as in 'cultural interests,' 'cultural activities' to (iii) the means of theses processes — as in culture as 'the arts,' and 'humane intellectual works.' In our time (iii) is the most common general meaning though all are current. It coexists, often uneasily, with the anthropological and extended sociological use to indicate the 'whole way of life' of a distinct people or other social group."

  The word "culture" thus, it seems, is too broad and at the same time too narrow to be greatly useful. In the words of Eagleton (2000: 32):
  "Its anthropological meaning covers everything from hairstyles and drinking habits to how to address your husband's second cousin, while the aesthetic sense of the word includes Igor Stravinsky but not science fiction. Science fiction belongs to 'mass' or popular culture, a category which floats ambiguously between the anthropological and the aesthetic. Conversely, one can see the aesthetic meaning as too nebulous and the anthropological one as too cramping."
  While it may well be, as Archer (cited in Eagleton, 2000: 32) observes, that the concept of culture has displayed "the weakest analytical development of any key concept in sociology and it has played the most wildly vacillating role within sociological theory," from a practical point of view such openness could be welcome. Contrary to Eagleton, one might argue that it is perfectly possible to judge science fiction despite being popular culture as belonging to the aesthetic category of culture — there are after all some "quality writers" — Stanislaw Lem, for instance — to be found in this genre. In addition, since culture is not static but constantly changing, developing as well as progressing (albeit slowly and seldom in straight lines) — Bob Dylan was once regarded as an outsider (and then definitely not representing popular culture), nowadays one would probably see him more as mainstream (and thus belonging to popular culture) — it is somewhat difficult to understand why popular culture (popular, after all, refers solely to the amount of items sold) should not be understood as culture, especially in times when the word combination "consumer culture" seems not only widely acceptable but to largely characterise modern culture as such.
Next Moreover, Zakaria (2003: 14) argues that culture has been democratised:
  "What was once called "high culture" continues to flourish, of course, but as a niche product for the elderly set, no longer at the center of society's cultural life, which is now defined and dominated by popular music, blockbuster movies, and prime-time television. Those three make up the canon of the modern age, the set of cultural references with which everyone in society is familiar. The democratic revolution coursing through society has changed our very definition of culture. The key to the reputation of, say, a singer in an old order would have been who liked her. The key to fame today is how many like her. And by that yardstick Madonna will always trump Jessye Norman. Quantity has become quality."
  While agreeing that there seems indeed to have been a shift in our understanding of culture, the conclusion that "quantity has become quality" is certainly questionable. Rather, it seems, there are various cultures and sub-cultures living comfortably side by side — to find on bookshelves the works of Bob Dylan next to the tomes of Shakespeare doesn't strike one as "inappropriate" anymore. This has largely to do with the appearance of "counter culture" in the 1960s — it basically meant a culture that stood in opposition to "high brow culture" which was seen (by some) as elitist and distinctly unexciting. Yet this "counter culture" movement that was, originally, probably as elitist as the established culture it opposed became — over time — increasingly popular and thus integrated in, and a part of, today's dominant culture. Seabrook (2000: 25-26), referring to the world of (New York) publishing, asserts:
  "The old aristocracy of high culture was dying, and a new, more democratic but also more commercial elite was being born — a meritocracy of taste. The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was "good" in the sense of "valuable," were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill was to define "good" in terms of "popular." This vast change in our civilization made itself felt in virtually every museum, library, university, publishing house, magazine, newspaper, and TV station in the country."
  Seabrook calls this newly emerging culture "nobrow" as opposed to high/low brow, the question however is whether this phenomenon is really so new. That "human nature itself in America exists on two irreconcilable planes," as Van Wyck Brooks (cited in Seabrook, 2000: 26) puts it, "the plane of stark intellectuality and the plane of stark business" one imagines to have always existed, and not only in America.
  Yet cultural differences still exist and one might ask if there is, say, a specific American, or Swiss, or Australian way of doing things? Milner (cited in Eagleton, 2000: 33) suggests that Australian culture consists of "distinctively Australian ways of doing things: the beach and the barbecue, mateship and machismo, Hungry Jack's, the arbitration system and Australian rules football." Machismo however cannot be said to be peculiar to Australia, and neither are beaches nor barbecue, as Eagleton (2000: 33) points out. On the other hand, machismo in Australia and machismo in, say, Mexico, seem nevertheless to differ as do beaches and barbecues for beach life — that is always closely linked to climate — on British and Australian beaches is certainly not the same.
  Moreover, as Edward Said suggests, "all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic" (cited in Eagleton, 2000: 15). In addition, one's personal experience of culture varies as much as does one's experience of religion, of sports, of probably anything one can think of.
Next However, as complex as any concept of culture is, "if we are to think seriously about the world, and act effectively in it, some sort of simplified map of reality, some theory, concept, model, paradigm, is necessary" (Huntington, 1998: 29). This means that for the sake of scientific and intellectual advance, as Kuhn demonstrated, paradigms are needed. "To be accepted as a paradigm, a theory must seem better than its competitors, but it need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it can be confronted" (Kuhn cited in Huntington, 1998: 30). In the words of Gaddis (cited in Huntington, 1998: 30): "Finding one's way through unfamiliar terrain generally requires a map of some sort. Cartography, like cognition itself, is a necessary simplification that allows to see where we are, and where we may be going."
  As convincing as this argument for simplification certainly is, there is also a danger inherent for it might — Mr Bush's famous "you're either for us or you're for the terrorists" — contribute to creating divisions among cultures that are far from useful if, say, peaceful coexistence were the goal. As Eagleton (2000: 38) reminds us:
  "In Bosnia or Belfast, culture is not just what you put on the cassette player; it is what you kill for. What culture loses in sublimity, it gains in practicality. In these circumstances, for both good and ill, nothing could be more bogus than the charge that culture is loftily remote from everyday life."
  Indeed, and not least because culture also embodies power relations: it helps to establish and maintain social hierarchies for, according to Bourdieu (Swartz, 1997: 285), "cultural resources, practices and institutions function to maintain unequal social relations." In other words, culture secures the predominant social practises, its function is to stabilise the existing order and must be thus seen as eminently political: it is power politics what cultural issues are predominantly all about.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre (2002), Language and symbolic power. Cambridge UK: Polity Press.
  • Eagleton, Terry (2000), The idea of culture. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Huntington, Samuel P. (1998), The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. London: Touchstone.
  • Seabrook, John (2000), Nobrow: The culture of marketing, the marketing of culture. London: Methuen.
  • Swartz, David (1997), Culture and power. The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Williams, Raymond (1982), The sociology of culture. New York: Schocken Books.
  • Zakaria, Fareed (2003), The future of freedom. Illiberal democracy at home and abroad. New York: W.W. Norton.
  2006 © Hans Durrer / 2006 © Soundscapes