Thursday, July 19, 2007

What is culture?

Humans are forced into being; pulled wet and screaming into the chaotic matrix of the natural world without so much as an instruction manual. The history of culture is a record of the attempts by humans to explain human existence, and to mediate the ever-shifting space between nature and civilization. However, civilization viewed à la longue seems like nothing more than a convenient hiding place, a plywood stage built over an abyss. Culture then is an attempt to contest the dominance of nature while ultimately accepting its blind and cruel rule.

In recent years, an all-encompassing definition of culture has become standard in academia. Every non-instinctual human behavior that is specific to a certain civilization is labelled ''culture''. In one description, people wake up hungry by nature, but they decide to eat bacon and eggs because of their culture. This all-encompassing definition of culture has the benefit of appealing to a certain populist mindset which sees distinctions between ''high'' and ''low'' culture as ''elitist'', a term that strikes me as both insulting and meaningless.

Matthew Arnold famously described culture as ''the best that has been said and thought in the world.'' This is what we now call ''high'' culture, to distinguish it from ''popular culture'', which Arnold, and many nineteenth century moderns knew as ''barbarism''. While this definition gives rise to a certain arrogant exclusion, it has the benefit over the all-encompassing definition of avoiding a certain anarchy of forms. Perhaps we could call high culture that culture which rewards repeated readings, or simply that culture which shall endure.

Nietzsche, among others, believed that a nation had a ''culture'', in the broader sense, when there was a unity of styles among its artistic creations. Therefore, there was a French culture, but he believed there was no German culture; instead Germany was saddled with Cultural Philistines, who educated a sort of pseudo-cultural barbarism. In other words, he believed that democratic movements were poisonous for culture. In a society in which distinctions of taste are often taken as ''elitist'' and ''pretentious'', it's easy to see the appeal of these ideas.

Of course, the problem is that we can all think of art that is taken as ''schlock'' or ''kitsch'' or ''pop culture'' which strikes us as high culture. Certain genres, such as sci-fi or horror, are often excluded altogether from the realm of high culture out of hand. To give an example, Cronenberg's films The Fly and Videodrome are rarely treated as high culture, which they strike me personally as being. This might change with the forthcoming Fly opera!

Arnold distinguishes successful art as achieving what it sets out to do and displaying a certain level of ''high seriousness'', that is a fascination with good and evil, life and death, and the human condition. This brings us back to the idea of art as a mediated interaction with the realm of nature- an attempt to impose some order on the chaos of existence, or to write an ''instruction manual'' explaining what it means to exist. This concept of ''high seriousness'' also explains why high culture seems to endure. We can relate to Lear's struggle to deal with his own impending death because dying is central to the human condition.

I don't think we should take the term ''high seriousness'' as indicating that culture cannot be funny. Sections of Ulysses, for example, are side-splittingly funny; but Ulysses attempts to chronicle the entirety of the human condition, which puts us in the realm of high seriousness. Human existence is as tragic as it is funny.

Lastly, I think the term culture denotes a certain level of elaboration. It's not possible to distinguish bacon and eggs as culture, but anyone who has ever eaten a meal in France can attest that it is possible to imagine meals that attain the elevated level of culture. Conversely, it is possible to imagine relatively immediate works of art that are cultural. But the ideal tribal mask nevertheless displays unity of form, originality, high elaboration, and an interaction with nature.

One final question- is culture religious? I think that religious understandings of the world provide a complete framework for mediation between nature and civilization. Therefore, I would acknowledge that most cultures hitherto have been a translation of the sacred order to the social order, as Reiff puts it. I would also acknowledge that most cultures are defined by their religion- Hindu culture, Muslim culture, Judeo-Christian culture, etc. However, I also want to leave room for culture that is non-theistic, particularly existential culture (which has dominated in Europe), pagan cultures, and Buddhist culture. In other words, a civilization doesn't need to believe in Gods, but it helps.

Okay, so then a rough definition of culture would be human creations that mediate between civilization and existence/nature. Culture displays unity of form, originality, aesthetic sophistication, a high amount of elaboration, and what Arnold describes as ''high seriousness''.

Next installment: Why does culture seem to be at odds with consumerism? Where is culture to be found? What role can those of us who adore culture play in preserving or reviving it?

Note: This is a very rough draft. Additions or comments are, of course, welcome.
Update: I've added thoughts on the relation between pop and culture on Monday, July 23.


Holly said...

You don't mention the lowbrow that becomes "classic" ie high culture. Moby Dick, for instance, was pulp. Jules Verne wrote quite a bit of trash that became high culture. Charles Dickens--sure, people liked to read the serialized bits in the paper each week, but they still threw the newspaper away or wiped their asses with it when they were done. Pretty much anything in the Penguin Classics library is suspect in this regard.

There is apparently a failure or refusal to distinguish between a group and a culture, and in a way, I suspect that lies with historians and historical analysts. It's easy enough to point to a time period in the distant past that produced a thing (slaves, boats, art, music, empires, whatever) and say, "That is a cultural artifact, therefore, that was the culture" and then transfer that to very recent history (+/- 100 years), and point to the made things, and declare commutative cultural understanding. And it's plausible, right? Because we weren't there, and we (present company excluded) aren't historians. So that gets bought. And because historians are AKC certified, now it's fair game for ANYONE to say, "Historian Whoever said _____ comes from ____ culturally, and by the authority vested in me by having read that, and also by Greyskull, I declare that ______ has ______ cultural meaning."

So now we're pointing the finger of Cultural Identification around like a high powered flashlight in fog. And it's overwhelming, there is a LOT going on right now, even if you account for how much of what happens is filtered out by the brain's natural filters. In history, the connections and clues are often separated by vast voids. Not so with the present day; there is a firehose of data that one can dip into almost at random and assemble something that will pass for a theory of culture.

And, frankly, in a democratic society, it's got to be a jagged pill, to believe that high culture could be something which does not involve you. Even for those who are already elite--for instance, those in a position to pass judgments on what is or is not cultured.

At the end of reading what you've written, my very first thought was, other uses of the word 'culture' may cloud the waters. Culture, as when getting the tonsils swabbed and the goo rubbed onto a growing medium. Culture, as when we put a little Buddha figure in an oyster, and pry a little pearlized Buddha out of it later.

Sorry I'm all jumbled, hopefully that is of some use anyway.

Rufus said...

I've been thinking about the lowbrow/highbrow problem for some time. Because, almost intuitively, my idea of high culture automatically includes things like certain Madonna videos, or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that excell regardless of genre. I definitely think that sci-fi writing is unfairly maligned in these regards. I think that it's possible to come up with a definition of high culture that completely ignores genre and medium, so that we can acknowledge a graphic novel, for example, that has lasting cultural value. And, if we're going to embrace multiculturalism, at some point we probably have to forget genre altogether.

Actually, for their supposed snobbishness, I was most impressed by this aspect of French life- they make little distinction between the films that they consider to be the greatest and the novels, comic books, pop songs, or meals that gain the mantle of distinction. They have a sort of guiding principle of the 'good life' that seems to make distinctions of merit central across every imaginable aspect of civilized living. There are high cultural breads and barbaric breads, for instance!

Historians aren't supposed to make value judgments- we just contextualize. But, weirdly enough, I find most lit crit people I read do little more than contextualize!

I think there is a democratic idea that suggests that any distinctions of merit are selfish- "well, that's just like your opinion, man". This works well with television, a medium that can only distinguish if things are important enough to be on television, but not if there's a value difference between Charles Dickens and the Whopper.

This is also ideal for consumer cultures- everyone has their own tastes, all of which are equal. No salesman is going to suggest that Pirates of the Carribean 3 is an inferior film to The Passion of Joan of Arc, especially not to a paying customer. And customers like to be flattered. They like to be told that their easy, unreflective pleasures are a matter of personal preference, rather than a matter of cultivation.

Ideally, the best should separate from the worst in a free market- but it doesn't seem to work that way, does it? Art that gives the easiest, most fleeting pleasures seems to be the most successful. So in a capitalist economy, not only are everyone's tastes of equal merit, but somehow we end up with a sort of populist race downwards.

Of course, the first problem is that this artistic status quo is spiritually and mentally enervating. I see, on occasion, in my students, a real desire to be exposed to the best things ever created or thought. Some of them sense that pop culture is in the doldrums and high culture has been niche marketed out of existence. Their spiritual eyes are looking, but they've been painfully isolated from truth and beauty. And when struggling with the questions of life, Britney Spears isn't much help. The problem is that it's hard to find anyone who is willing to be that 'pompous asshole' who sets standards of taste.

And those of us in academia are no more willing to make these distinctions than anyone else. That Australian editorial from the pissed-off profs included this mind-boggling quote from their colleague: "Teaching school students that Shakespeare is more worthy than reality television is actively evil." But, for as transparently as this statement is bullshit, I've heard countless variations on it from academics.

But I think most of us sense that, even though we're drenched in a flood of images and ideas and objects, most of it will not endure. It's thin gruel. In 100 years, it will be much easier to tell what was culture in this era and what was crap. Supposedly 90% of everything produced is crap. But, I think it's more like 9,999 out of 1,000 at this point. I'm not convinced that a coherent culture in the larger sense is even possible anymore; but I do think we should root out and celebrate individual examples, whether they reveal themselves in theatre or grafitti.

I don't know if that cleared the waters or muddied them.