What is culture?

Posted by: | January 13, 2009 | Comments Off on What is culture?

The main statement of Williams’ article relies on the sentence ‘culture is ordinary’. Saying that, the author means that culture is produced, constructed, influenced, transformed and carried by ordinary people. In order to support and explain his idea, he criticizes and analyses two main theoretical trends. He first explains Marxism and the way it describes culture as dominated by upper-classes ruling the capitalist system and their values. Culture would be unavailable to ‘ignorant masses’. On the contrary William asserts that culture is a product of these different layers of society and that culture is not only concerned with elite and high education; culture is ordinary. According to him this mistaken interpretation of culture has led Marxism to the idea that culture can be prescribed and predicted, which apparently played a role in the authoritarian drift (prescribed ways of learning, writing and so on). Then he quotes Leavis whose theory was that our good old and traditional culture has been replaced and even undermined by our modern and industrialized state, the only last rampart being education to keep culture alive. This theory is related to the idea of a modern ‘cultural vulgarity’ especially with the new commercial aspect of culture. However (and to make things short), William refuses the link which seems to be often made between this transformation and the so-called ‘masses’ believed to be responsible for this new bad commercial culture. He thinks this is reversible. He makes a point at the end arguing about the importance of a more liberal and broadly expanded education to avoid the ‘polarization’ of culture, which also means that culture might be changing through its necessary acceptance of sub-cultures’ influences!

This allows us to make a link with Keesing’s article through a point that appeared to me as the critical issue of these two articles. Williams ends his article saying that they are no masses to control and that culture is ordinary and driven by the whole society. However, speaking of ‘masses’, ‘bourgeois culture’, or capitalism, he does point out the ambivalent relation between power and culture. I agree with him in the sense that one should consider culture as a production of the whole society, however I do think there is also a question of power which might influences a society’s culture at certain points of its history, as well as the interpretation of the concept of culture.

Indeed, he thinks that ‘cultural studies’ stressing on ‘the articulation of symbolic systems with class and power’ (such as Marxist or feminist theories) could help anthropology to challenge the reified and essentialist trend it has taken in regard to the concept of culture. Thus it is worth asking if there could be an important role played by dominant groups and powerful social circles in the production of culture and its transmission. William talked about the role of advertising in mass culture which could be seen as pursuing the interests of a capitalist system. Keesing alludes to the construction of European nation-states in the nineteenth century which precisely consisted in the creation of an ‘authentic culture’ by the elite in order to justify the concept of nation. Education was a crucial mean of cultural reproduction and national strengthening. We could also exemplify this peculiar relation between culture and power with the ‘cultural nationalist rhetoric’ of ‘third world elites’ used to trigger decolonisation and independence for these new states. I do think power and hegemony are important variables concerning culture and especially its essentialization. The relation to the other is crucial for the definition of a distinct culture and there is always a process of differentiation from the outsider. Keesing emphasizes on the concept of difference and ‘radical alterity’ and explains that anthropology has been focusing on seeing culture as ‘a bounded universe of shared ideas and customs’. Who defines who is in or out? Who has an interest in doing so? Most of the time political leaders or intellectual elites: the power. Labelling the other as radically different has always been a political tool at the international scale for instance. Advocating for a shared culture allows to hide potential conflicts and contradictions within a society.

That is why I think there is an ambivalent relation between culture and power. Our trend to essentialize cultures plays an important political role and fuels the misleading idea that the world is composed of inherently different cultures or civilizations (see The clash of civilizations – S. Huntington). Even though I do believe there are different cultural traditions and customs, I think it is dangerous to forget that culture is partly (at least) a social construction.


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