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The Promise and Limitations of Culture [Book Review]

6 June 2016

Terry Eagleton. Culture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016).

This is a great little introduction to the history of the “cultural concept,” anchored in the 18th century effort to understand  and critique rising modernity. As usual, Eagleton is witty and sharp-tongued, glosses things he doesn’t like or agree with a bit to facilely, and at turns infuriatingly snarky. But that is one of the reasons we read Eagleton, no? Also as usual, Eagleton is a bull-headed critic of postmodernism, here especially in its conception of what he calls “relativism.” I had mixed feelings about this chapter. On one hand, my own thinking about culture has been heavily shaped by American Pragmatism (especially the classics, Peirce, James, Dewey, and Mead) and I simply do not accept the radical idealism (that reality is only ideas, to put it crassly) of poststructural and postmodern thought, which separates human knowledge and action from the push back of the obdurate material world. So although I’m very much with postmodernism (a sweeping term if ever there was one) in its insistence on the contextualization of human knowledge, I’m more often than not unwilling to go all the way to the conclusions they draw about what that contextualism means. Nor am I willing to go with the postmodern phenomenologists all the way to human beings being more or less “black boxes” unknowable to each other. On the other hand, I’m a social scientist, and so a certain kind of relativism is a necessary methodological stance to be able to, as accurately as possible, understand people who are different from oneself in the most ethical way possible. Indeed, Eagleton later in the book builds this back in to his critique of culture as Romantic nationalism and culture as colonialism—but he doesn’t call it relativism.

All that aside, three things make this short book worth reading. First is the way that Eagleton employs Irish post-colonial thinking throughout the book to illustrate the complicated, fraught, and violent relationships between culture and power (he sets up the 19th century concept of “civilization” as culture’s foil, which he defines as modernity & imperialism). This was my first sustained exposure to Irish critiques of the British empire and I found it refreshing and fascinating, and honestly it opened up my eyes a bit to what might be some missing threads in Americanists’ histories & critiques of the Irish love and adoption of African American culture in the United States, seeing themselves as akin to African Americans as fellows ground under the heal of ongoing British colonial culture (albeit in the context of an independent, post-British evolving American empire).

Secondly, Eagleton turns toward a set of scholars who are normally dismissed in the humanities and social scientists as conservatives — Burke, Herder, and Eliot, especially — and suggests that there might be more to their conceptions of culture than meets the eye, and there might be some things there that are necessary in our current, fragmented world. I have a value that I don’t exercise much, which is that all ideas can and should be confronted and considered seriously, including ideas I find repulsive, dangerous, or wrong-headed. But in practice, I have very little time or desire to actually do so. Here, Eagleton forced me to consider that what reads like deep conservatism in Burke, might actually be radical anti-colonialism coming from an Irish thinker. I now feel like I have to revisit Burke more carefully. In all of these political thinkers, Eagleton rejects the potential for “romantic nationalism” in their theories of culture, but finds something important in the fact that they already in the late 18th century see cultural diversity as a normal and a good thing, and that they believe that culture can be both a way to create solidarity and a means to talk about values. In other words, Eagleton does not merely accept these so-called conservative thinkers at face value, but critically engages them to suss out what is useful and true, while separating and rejecting what is potentially dangerous and even fascist. For Eagleton, ultimately the more common idea that culture is an entire way of life ends up being more or less useless on any level because such an all-encompassing concept offers no clear ground upon which to base either a scholarly inquiry or a necessary criticism. It is simply, too damn big. On the other hand, the 19th century (imperialism) notion of culture as “elevating” and as the purview of the elite has its obvious inherent problems. Although it’s not exactly explicit in the book, it seems that Eagleton is arguing that we should “right-size” culture back down from its overly capacious “way of life” definition back to an ongoing debate about values and individual and social development, but maintaining the warning that even Burke and Herder gave, which is that such debates are contextual and vary from group to group.

In the final chapter, Eagleton leads us to his conclusion on the “hubris of culture” (meaning the hubris and folly of the academic focus on ‘culture’), and my third reason why I think this book is worth reading. Here he makes an oft-repeated materialist critique of postmodern politics, one which I happen to agree with, so I found myself nodding along. Culture cannot save us, and has indeed already been coopted both by neoliberalism and modern empire. We live in a world where culture has been massified, and massified culture is available in a pseudo-democratic way to everyone, which gives the veneer of “freedom” and “democracy” to systems of power and exploitation that remain largely unchalleneged and unchanged, but since the 1970s, largely unfettered by national regulations and checks to its power.

In a way, Eagleton is making an argument that we academics have been hoisted on our own petard, as we have fetishized “culture” for nearly 60 years in a way that has served the interests of global capitalism. From an American perspective, it would seem that our constant pattering about culture has led to a misidentification of oppression in the hearts of individual oppressors, in their feelings toward oppressed groups. The willingness to look at structures, even where it exists, seems to always get derailed by discussions of “hatred” and cultural difference. I’m in an odd position of having been education in the 1980s and 90s, and so not able to completely unwind myself from the focus on culture (indeed, my own Ph.D. and professorship is sort of predicated on that entire movement within academia). However, I’ve also been deeply dissatisfied with the ability of “culture” to offer any real kind of hope for liberation or the end of oppression, or even more modestly, the ability of culture to even begin the fight. Eagleton argues that culture has the potential, but that its mass production since the late 19th century has transformed culture into a pseudo-democratic cover for the systems of oppression in the first place, and that the humanities and social sciences have swallowed it whole.

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