No Escape

Bruce Robbins

  • Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress edited by Samuel Huntington and Lawrence Harrison
    Basic Books, 384 pp, £12.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 465 03176 5
  • Culture/Metaculture by Francis Mulhern
    Routledge, 198 pp, £8.99, March 2000, ISBN 0 415 10230 8
  • Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account by Adam Kuper
    Harvard, 299 pp, £12.50, November 2000, ISBN 0 674 00417 5

Why are some nations so poor and others so rich? Two Harvard professors recently revived an old-fashioned answer to this unsettling question, and it sits plainly as the title of their book: ‘Culture Matters.’ Anyone who has ever agreed with them that culture does indeed matter will want to look at what they take this statement to mean. Adding so-called ‘Asian values’ – a more public-spirited, Confucian version of the Protestant ethic – to the 19th century’s self-congratulatory belief in the West’s ‘civilising mission’, Huntington and Harrison have discovered that the West can keep on congratulating itself – not this time on its exportable civilisation, but on its particular culture. The disparity between the misery of others and our relative well-being has nothing to do with colonialism or the IMF. Should you be told that the average life expectancy is 78.2 in Sweden and 39 in Sierra Leone, remind yourself that some cultures are cut out for success and others aren’t. Which culture you are born into is not something for which you are responsible. Neither are you responsible, therefore, for the likelihood that you will benefit from forty more years of earthly existence, or that while doing so you will benefit from an obscenely disproportionate share of the Earth’s resources.

Since the attack on the World Trade Center there has been much rhapsodic reference to the work of one of these two professors, Samuel Huntington, who had already anticipated this consoling message in a much discussed article which was subsequently enlarged into a book, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. ‘In the post-Cold War world,’ he wrote there, ‘the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political or economic. They are cultural.’ Refreshingly critical of ‘the West’s universalist pretensions’, Huntington admonished US policy-makers to give up their irritating insistence that what’s good for the US is good for the world. But respect for the world’s cultural diversity does not entail giving less support to the privileges of the West, or the US, when faced with demands from the less privileged. Why? Because our culture matters, too, and the sharing of power or prosperity would threaten our cultural identity. ‘The survival of the West,’ he concluded, ‘depends on Americans reaffirming their Western identity and Westerners accepting their civilisation as unique, not universal, and uniting to renew and preserve it against challengers from non-Western societies.’

We tend to think of cultures as smallish, fragile and unthreatening, and probably in need of protection. This makes them excellent camouflage for the world’s last superpower, whose heavily fortified borders now seem to be undergoing redecoration, under Huntington’s tasteful guidance, in charming faux-ethnic patterns. This makeover should come as no surprise. Referring to his native South Africa, Adam Kuper reminds us that ‘protecting’ cultural identities was also an official strategy under apartheid. Today, with brawny arrogance again forcing its way in among the vulnerable minorities sheltering under culture’s umbrella, the example is harder to pass over in silence. Never have the moral consequences of laying claim to membership in a culture, or accepting someone else’s claim to such membership, seemed so far from self-evident. As a result, many are now wondering in some bewilderment how culture could ever have been allowed to expand until there was no one it didn’t appear to include, nothing it didn’t appear to explain – until it had become (both Francis Mulhern and Kuper use the word) ‘everything’. Each of their books, one coming from literary studies, the other from anthropology, offers evidence that the concept of culture is itself experiencing a version of Alfred Kroeber’s explanation for the abolition of taboos: cultural fatigue.

According to Raymond Williams’s classic account, the notion of ‘culture’ (which was invented only at the end of the 18th century) achieved its influence and intellectual authority by setting itself up as a standard against which capitalist or industrial modernity could be judged. But, as the slipperiness of the target suggests – was it capitalism? or industrialism? or modernity? – ‘culture’ could become influential only by managing to represent different ideas of the objectionable. Technology was objectionable in a different way from vulgarity, for example, and different again from rationality, or from specialisation, and so on through both social inequality and equality. Those nostalgic for feudal hierarchy objected to the levelling effects of modernity; others objected to the disparities that remained between rich and poor: ‘culture’ had room for both forms of objection. This convenient vagueness obscured culture’s own locus. Where was this domain of free expression and organic wholeness to be found? In the historical past? In nature? Or was it imaginary, fabricated out of nothing at all? Did a belief in ‘culture’ make you a nature mystic or, on the contrary, a constructionist for whom anything supposedly natural was actually a social construct? In the long run, equivocations of this kind have led to the political ambiguities whereby the apartheid regime in South Africa, or the US State Department, or large corporations have been able to protect themselves from rational investigation by using the same cultural defence that serves protesters against globalisation or the destruction of indigenous peoples. For what it’s worth, they also made possible the founding of literary criticism as an academic discipline. Like any new discipline, criticism required both a certain leverage it could use against the status quo and a neutral space in which to conduct controversy. ‘Culture’ provided both. It made criticism critical, without allowing it to become too critical.

Francis Mulhern’s Culture/Metaculture is above all a protest against the conceptual limits that prevent literary criticism from becoming more critical. The book falls into two parts. In the first, a series of brief, stunningly incisive discussions of intellectuals, from Julien Benda, Thomas Mann, Eliot and Woolf through Orwell, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, Mulhern sketches the collective portrait of what he calls ‘Kulturkritik’. He is not blind to Kulturkritik’s virtues, but more interested in what’s wrong with it – namely, its political side effects. Speaking on behalf of culture, it finds itself looking down, for example, on ‘mass society’, which itself arose along with industrialism but was also a promising source of opposition to it. Kulturkritik devalues the machinery of political parties, strikes and so on by which such opposition might be mobilised. The warm immediacy of Hoggart’s cultural portrait in The Uses of Literacy obscures working-class self-organisation, Mulhern notes, to the point where it ‘renders politics unintelligible’.

Cultural studies, the subject of the second half of the book, seems to reverse Kulturkritik’s contempt for popular creative energies: like anthropology, it is committed to finding a positive value in ‘low’ or ‘ordinary’ culture, or culture as ‘a whole way of life’. But Mulhern argues, in the book’s strongest bit of polemic, that there is no real opposition between Kulturkritik and cultural studies. The latter’s expansive definition of culture is of no more use politically than the former’s restrictive one, which purports to stand outside politics. Politics functions in cultural studies merely as an ‘expletive’, devoid of conceptual content and pointing to no actual political choices. If we make the mistake of thinking that ‘cultural politics’ is ‘everything’, then politics in a more precise and demanding sense of the word will have ‘been talked out of theoretical existence’. Over-politicised, cultural studies is finally also under-politicised.

It is not difficult to mock the banal populism of cultural studies at its worst, the loyal but misguided efforts to wring from the routines of daily life a few drops of precious subversiveness. Critiques of it have become a popular genre in their own right; one might think of them as a metacultural substitute for the alternative politics they call for – metaculture, for Mulhern, being discourse about what culture is and does, a genre to which his own book naturally belongs. Marxists expend less energy in complaining about cultural studies (however justly) than would be required to demonstrate the superior explanatory virtues of Marxism. I for one would be more interested in having that demonstration, however, or an investigation of the strange power of the ‘everything is culture’ idea. It is, after all, an exercise of power to point to some property – femaleness, say, or heterosexuality or nationhood – that has been assumed to have a fixed, natural identity and to declare it to be a ‘cultural construct’, and one would like to know more about how such anti-identity impulses ever managed to make common cause with appeals to cultural identity. Did culture ever really force us to take anyone at their own self-evaluation? It seems on the face of it unfathomable that reasonable people should have arrived at the counter-intuitive notion of culture as ‘everything’, that it could have spread so widely, done so much explaining, inspired so much of the most lively and valuable scholarship (if also some of the silliest) over the last half century.

Many who share Mulhern’s dissatisfaction with this over/under-politicisation have found an attractive alternative in Max Weber, who famously preached the dignity of scholarly endeavour. Scholarship should be shorn of all redemptive political illusions, Weber argued, including that of helping to produce the better future into which it could itself survive, so transcending the individual scholar’s brief mortal span. As Mulhern puts it on his last page, ‘it is better, surely, to settle for lucidity.’ Yet there’s one meaning of the word politics that Weber did not have to take into consideration. Calling one’s subject matter political has been a way of claiming to do work of legitimate concern to the public, a claim put forward by scholars who might otherwise plausibly fear that society is simply not interested in ensuring their continued existence. Weber seems confident that one way or another there will always be scholarship, but this can no longer be assumed. In his eagerness to chastise culture’s political hyperbole, Mulhern does not explain why there should be any scholarship in the domain of culture at all, any employment for those who do or don’t choose lucidity. This is a question to which the Culture and Society tradition has provided an enduringly advantageous if also somewhat frustrating answer. There can be no settling of accounts with that tradition – which is what Culture/Metaculture seems to seek – without some indication of why the funds should continue to flow, of how a proposed new programme of scholarship might expect to win and defend its broad social legitimacy among the unconverted.

Adam Kuper is more forthright about the good things the concept of culture has accomplished in the field of anthropology – most prominently, in de-linking race from biology. In his earlier book The Chosen Primate: Human Nature and Cultural Diversity (1994), Kuper tried to do justice to the claims of the biological party (‘a universal human nature, genetically transmitted, largely shared with other primates’, that makes cultural differences inessential) and to the claims of their opponents, who ‘emphasise human adaptability, the great differences in customs and institutions between communities, the autonomous trajectories of cultural development, the cumulative value of the human cultural heritage. They remind us that because we know something about ourselves, we can also think about changing our ways.’ Kuper negotiates between these positions by telling a story, beginning with Darwin and slowly revealing the incommensurable timescales of cultural and biological change.

In Culture: The Anthropologists’ Account the focus is narrower and the attitude towards culture more critical. Kuper’s main topic is American anthropology in the middle and late 20th century, the period when (under the influence of Talcott Parsons) it redefined itself, after choosing to make culture its primary object of knowledge – and, according to Kuper, paid a stiff price for doing so. Again adopting a narrative mode, he traces the continuity between Parsons’s notion of culture – as a symbolic system treated in isolation from social organisation – and that of the later Clifford Geertz, who sees anthropology as a form of textual scholarship concerned not with people’s actions but with their interpretations of their actions. The limits of this view were exposed, Kuper argues, by the frightening abyss between Geertz’s culturalist reading of Java in the late 1950s and the anti-Communist massacres of 1965, which were dependent on ‘external forces’ like the CIA that had no place in his analytic scheme. In a similar exercise, he dismantles Geertz’s paradigmatic argument that culture is something which by its nature demands ‘thick description’. The example this time is a 1912 story of robbery, murder and retribution involving a Jewish trader, a Berber sheik and a French colonial officer. Despite the story’s complexities, Kuper shows, it hides no ‘impenetrable cultural mysteries . . . the parties grasped the nature of the business pretty adequately at the time.’ In short, a great deal of behaviour that is loosely attributed to culture makes perfect sense in non-cultural terms. Kuper goes on to argue that ‘culture comes to mean for Geertz something very like the culture of the old humanists: the epitome of the values that rule in a society, embodied most perfectly in the religious rituals and high art of the elite.’ This is not far from Mulhern’s point about the hidden and undesirable parallels between cultural studies and Kulturkritik.

Kuper’s three chapter-length profiles of American anthropologists (Geertz, David Schneider and Marshall Sahlins) are followed by a composite chapter on the younger (now middle-aged) generation of James Clifford and George Marcus, co-editors of Writing Culture. Here the tone changes. Up to this point Kuper has been gently expository, sounding like a veteran crowd-pleasing lecturer who assumes little prior knowledge, makes no pretence of originality, and knows how not to challenge his students to the point of causing them intellectual discomfort. The story takes precedence, with explanation coming (if at all) from accidents of personality, pop psychology, and – when Kuper dislikes his subjects most – the opportunist dynamics of career-making. He dislikes his subjects most when they’re what he thinks of as ‘Postmoderns’, whom he accuses of ‘extreme relativism and culturalism, the programme of Geertz, but stripped of all reservations’.

At this point, unfortunately, Kuper begins to seem rather obtuse as well as hostile. One would never suspect from his account that the demystification of culture he calls for has already been a major project of this ‘Postmodern’ generation. He quotes Clifford’s critique of Edward Said’s ‘cosmopolitan humanism’, but seems unaware that as early as 1990, Clifford had adopted cosmopolitanism as a positive term (albeit in the pluralised form of ‘discrepant cosmopolitanisms’) and that he has frequently been criticised in the US for his pro-cosmopolitan, humanistic leanings. Indeed, this follows logically from Clifford’s characteristic refusal to see culture as a bounded, village-like entity that simply ‘resists Westernisation’, his strenuous insistence on the so-called Western elements already present in non-Western cultures, and vice versa. It’s just these complications, which limit the concept’s usefulness without allowing us to dispense with it entirely, that lead Clifford to speak of the ‘predicament’ of culture (the title of his 1988 volume). It is Kuper’s predicament, too, and he should be able to say so.

Kuper distinguishes German, French and British traditions of thinking about culture. The German is romantic and ethnic; the French that of ‘civilisation’ or Enlightenment universality; and the British something approaching a synthesis of the German and French traditions. Kuper counts ‘nationalism’ among the aversions that define his own liberalism, but he implies that if the Americans got it wrong (with an improper synthesis of idealism and positivism), the British got it right. The tone of complacency echoes that of Samuel Huntington, whom Kuper twice cites, though not with special approval. Still, Kuper’s national preferences have the merit of underlining an oddity in Mulhern’s: the choice of the German term ‘Kultur’ – that is, the ethnic term – to stand for culture-theory across all of Europe. Like other critics in the Culture and Society tradition, Mulhern insists that the concept of culture is and always was generative of a narrow nationalism. Thomas Mann’s nationalism during the First World War and Orwell’s during the Second are cautionary examples. The alternative politics he most explicitly advocates (within his eloquent advocacy of politics itself as a restricted, specialised activity) is some form of internationalism. But the book displays a striking indifference to forming alliances. It seriously underplays the French or cosmopolitan strain among the Kulturkritikers, for example by allowing their elitism (as in the case of Benda) to discredit their anti-nationalism. And it has nothing to say about current forms of cultural internationalism, like that to be found among post-colonialists.

There is an intriguing parallel here to Culture and Society, which is so intent on embracing culture as a critical reaction to the Industrial Revolution that it tends to play down culture’s equal hostility to the popular democracy of the French Revolution. Mulhern is out to correct this anti-democratic tendency in the social criticism of the past century, all the more potent because so well concealed, but his desire to reinstate politics in the specialised sense makes this even more difficult. For specialisation in the domain of politics will value certain people and certain skills above others, just as specialisation in the domain of culture does. The same holds for internationalism, which is still trying to evade its image as a luxury item for the elite. To the extent that popular internationalism exists, it is arguably less a product of political organisations like the European Union and the United Nations than of transnational cultural flows. In short, there is no escape from culture to politics.