This insightful book tracks the concept of culture across a range of scholarly disciplines and much of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—years that saw the emergence of new fields and subfields (cultural studies, the new cultural history, literary new historicism, as well as ethnic and minority studies) and came to be called “the cultural turn.” Since the 1990s, however, the idea of culture has fallen out of scholarly favor. Susan Hegeman engages with a diversity of disciplines, including anthropology, literary studies, sociology, philosophy, psychology, and political science, to historicize the rise and fall of the cultural turn and to propose ways that culture may still be a vital concept in the global present.
The Cultural Return
The documents having now piled up on its putative grave, what are the central arguments against the culture concept? The answer to this question is often shot through with the specificities of the disciplines from which the writer emerges, so that the anthropologist's concerns are never quite the same as the literary critic's, the cultural studies scholar's, the evolutionary psychologist's, the historian's, or the political scientist's. I'll return to the issue of disciplinarity later. But here, my effort is to be as synoptic as possible, in order both to systematize the often self-contradictory claims made against culture and to offer some account of how these arguments reflect larger concerns and trends.
So to begin, I offer the following list of common complaints against culture:
1. Culture is reified: it demarcates solid boundaries of belonging, without regard to complex processes of contact, creativity, and change.
2. There is no such thing as culture: its meaning is imprecise and it is insufficiently referential of the "real" structures of human existence.
3. "Culture" is just a sneaky word for "race," a scientifically outmoded and politically objectionable concept.
4. Culture is politically conservative.
5. Culture is substitute religion.
These issues are sometimes clearly related, as in the conjoined complaints that culture is conservative and that it represents covert religious thinking. Similarly, the idea that culture is just another way of demarcating race emerges from the idea that it is an abstract nothing: if "culture" means anything at all, then what it connotes simply recapitulates another problematic abstraction. At other times, what is striking is these critiques' significant opposition to each other. Thus the concern that culture is too easily reified, that it implies solid boundaries and demarcations of inclusion and exclusion that simply don't exist, is exactly the inverse of the worry that there is no such thing as culture, that it is a meaningless abstraction. It is in these sites of opposition that we see the real contours of the debate over culture since the cultural turn.
1. Culture Is Reified
In The Predicament of Culture (1988), a key document of the "cultural turn," James Clifford made an interesting prediction:
An intellectual historian of the year 2010, if such a person is imaginable, may ... look back on the first two-thirds of our century and observe that this was a time when Western intellectuals were preoccupied with grounds of meaning and identity they called "culture" and "language" (much the way we now look at the nineteenth century and perceive there a problematic concern with evolutionary "history" and "progress"). I think we are seeing signs that the privilege given to natural languages and, as it were, natural cultures, is dissolving. These objects and epistemological grounds are now appearing as constructs, achieved fictions, containing and domesticating heteroglossia. In a world with too many voices speaking all at once, a world where syncretism and parodic invention are becoming the rule, not the exception, an urban, multinational world of institutional transience-where American clothes made in Korea are worn by young people in Russia, where everyone's "roots" are in some degree cut-in such a world it becomes increasingly difficult to attach human identity and meaning to a coherent "culture" or "language."
Clifford nicely captures several things here. First, he historicizes a certain concept of culture, which he calls "natural culture," as the product of a particular moment and equally shows how inadequate such a concept is for conceptualizing a present characterized by what everyone would soon be calling "globalization." Yet despite his relegation of this culture to the past, Clifford's statement of another, more heteroglossic, mobile, and syncretic cultural alternative would become a central preoccupation of the cultural turn. So an interesting feature of the cultural turn is precisely "culture's" centrality as the frame of reference in the face of a widely held view that the term in its received meaning ("natural culture") is either inadequate to describing the present or downright politically objectionable.
In chapter 3, I'll offer a broad context for this paradox by accounting for why "culture" became such an important keyword in this specific period. But for now, we must simply note that one of the central gambits of the cultural turn, especially for anthropologists, was to identify and critique what they saw as an outmoded, inadequate, and stubbornly persistent usage of "culture." For many critics of culture emerging from this context, including not only Clifford but also Renato Rosaldo, Arjun Appadurai, and Lila Abu-Lughod, to name just a few, the concept is plainly still too connotative of an older way of thinking. It sneaks in subtle or not-so-subtle assumptions about homogeneity, purity, boundedness, and authenticity that are ultimately connected to an imperialist will to power over the colonial subject, the equally reified entity designated the "native." Moreover, this flies in the face of all other evidence that shows that culture is not rigid and reducible to static "patterns" but mobile, plastic, and promiscuous. The interesting stuff is not what fits but what doesn't; what exists on the borders and complicates assumed values, hierarchies, and categories, including those of self and other.
Of course, as a number of commentators on the doing-away-with-culture phenomenon have already observed, the older anthropological usages of culture were hardly as rigid, as invested in boundaries and stability, as many of their detractors made them out to be. Indeed, immersion in the history of the discipline has often proven quite the opposite, and a diverse group of anthropologists (but especially those in the Boasian tradition) have been recuperated precisely on the grounds that not only are they sophisticated thinkers about culture, but they anticipate this or that aspect of the cultural turn. Nevertheless, as Clifford's futuristic thought experiment indicates, there is a strong progressivist tendency to rewrite the discipline as one of a benighted past unfolding into an increasingly enlightened present. Thus Rosaldo for one contextualizes his refutation of the "classic norms" of his discipline, including the culture concept and traditional ethnographic practice, with an admitted "caricature" of disciplinary history, beginning with the figure of an imperialist "Lone Ethnographer." This figure of the "heroic period" and the "birth of ethnography" is subsequently supplanted in the equally composite moment of "classic ethnography" (1921-71).
Rosaldo's demarcation of this second period gets us closer to a plausible critical target of the cultural turn. It is the moment of Ruth Benedict's widely influential conception of distinctive cultural "patterns" modeled along the lines of personality types, the wide influence of British structural functionalism, Parsonian conceptions of social determination, and structuralism proper. In other words, what is really being critiqued in the caricature of older conceptions of culture is not so much "culture" but structuralist, culture-and-personality, and social-determinist deployments of the concept, all of which could fairly be seen, from the perspective of the cultural turn, as overemphasizing homogeneity, coherence, stability, and so forth. Which is to say, this moment also generally deemphasized individual agency, an issue of increasing interest to scholars of the post-1968 generation. This is the larger context for reading one of Arjun Appadurai's central complaints against culture: "The noun culture appears to privilege the sort of sharing, agreeing, and bounding that fly in the face of the facts of unequal knowledge and the differential prestige of lifestyles, and to discourage attention to the worldviews and agency of those who are marginalized or dominated."
The result of this culturalist critique of culture has been a twofold fastidiousness. First, it is almost obligatory in the literature of anthropology to state concern and skepticism about culture as a guiding concept on the predictable grounds of its reifying tendencies, followed by some palliative methodological proposals, such as refining one's usage of "culture" in some specific way, or abstaining from nominatives and using only the adjectival form "cultural." But such gestures also imply, and are part and parcel of, a general phobia about reification, resulting in a deep hermeneutic suspicion of generalizations of any kind. Lila Abu-Lughod, in her widely cited essay "Writing against Culture," states, "If 'culture,' shadowed by coherence, timelessness, and discreteness, is the prime anthropological tool for making "other," and difference, as feminists and halfies [people of mixed cultural identity] reveal, tends to be a relationship of power, then perhaps anthropologists should consider strategies for writing against culture." One of her central strategies for writing against culture, the creation of "ethnographies of the particular," takes explicit aim at the sin of generalization and its attendant associations of abstraction and objectivity.
In the midst of this panic over reification, it seems more than a little scandalous to ask, Is it always such a bad thing? There is a compelling reason why anthropologists in particular might be pressed on this point, for, as many have lately noted, sometimes with ill-concealed dismay, there are probably no people left on earth who do not assume that they have something called a "culture." While many such people can speak with a great deal of sophistication about that fact, such indigenous views of culture are certainly not fastidiously avoidant of reifications. Christoph Brumann puts the case as follows: "Whether anthropologists like it or not, it appears that people-and not only those with power-want culture, and they often want it precisely in the bounded, reified, essentialized, and timeless fashion that most of us now reject. Moreover, just like other concepts such as 'tribe,' culture has become a political and judicial reality."
Such "reflexivization" has long been considered a hallmark of what it means to be a subject in modernity: being able to conceive of oneself as embedded within historical time and space. To be Hopi or Fijian is no longer a matter of unselfconsciously going about one's (premodern) life but an active form of identity construction and maintenance. And this is also, of course, a clear example of culture's reification. Each of these specific cultures is now a thing out there in the world, which means that each is also susceptible to the commodification, theft, and investment of aura that characterize all of our modern identities. Hopi culture is now fully available to the uses and abuses of tourism, New Age nonsense, the art market, school, and copyright law. All of which explains the tristesse over this reification, which (as Claude Lévi-Strauss once helped us see) is in no small part sorrow for our own fallen selves. But we may as well be honest that this desire for a prereflexivized world holds a tang of romantic othering and acknowledge that there are both ethical and practical difficulties in wishing to deny someone this self-conscious sense of cultural identity, even with all its attendant theoretical problems.
All of which brings us to what we might call the romantic heart of the anthropological cultural turn. In the context not only of obvious and objectionable forms of cultural reification (as, say, in the South African usage of the idea of cultural difference to justify racial apartheid) but also of the nascent globalization that Clifford so clearly recognized, all that complexity and particularity, all those liminal cases and things that failed to fit the categories serve another function: to describe an ineffable culture that might be seen to avoid reification and thus somehow to slip out of the bonds of market logic. In a moment of the complete commodification of culture, perhaps culture could be so reconstituted to still mark a space of externality-of possibility. Of course, this space of externality is almost by definition indefinable-which brings me to complaint number 2.
2. There Is No Such Thing as Culture
While the critiques of culture that emerged from within the cultural turn worried over the problem of the term's reification, its dangerous solidity, another critique of culture of long standing has gone in precisely the opposite direction. No less a figure in anthropology than the famed British structuralist Mary Douglas once put the matter as follows: "Never was such a fluffy notion at large in a self-styled scientific discipline, not since singing angels blew the planets across the medieval sky or ether filled in the gaps of Newton's universe." For critics of culture such as Douglas, the problem is not culture's excessive solidity of meaning but precisely the opposite: if it is not an entirely meaningless abstraction, then it is certainly a "hyper-referential" concept in strong need of some reining in.
According to Adam Kuper, "culture" simply connotes too much, is too messy, and needs to be broken up into its various components-"knowledge, or belief, or art, or technology, or tradition, or even ... ideology"-in order to be properly analyzed.B /BThis list is itself telling: Kuper relegates to "culture" items that in a Marxist tradition might be called "superstructural." But this also implies a base. Kuper writes, "Political and economic forces, social institutions, and biological processes cannot be wished away, or assimilated to systems of knowledge and belief. And that, I will suggest, is the ultimate stumbling block in the way of cultural theory, certainly given its current pretensions." In other words, there are things that are simply, irreducibly, not cultural. Moreover, there are things that are not explainable culturally. The difficulties really start for Kuper when "culture shifts from something to be described, interpreted, even perhaps explained, and is treated instead as a source of explanation in itself."
I will get to a discussion of Kuper's specific criticisms, but first it is important to note that he is hardly alone in suggesting that there are other fundamental areas that cannot be "wished away, or assimilated to systems of knowledge and belief." Indeed, a very prominent strain of complaint against culture is that it fails to account for the "real" processes of human existence: the political, the economic, the social, or the biological.
For the prominent evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, "culture" has too long been the retreat of social scientists, whom they caricature as adhering to a rigid set of scientifically insupportable ideas about the human mind and an equally rigid superstructural model of culture in order to avoid acknowledgment of the basic biological foundations of human existence. In a thought experiment, they offer an interesting snapshot of how human behavior might be characterized, and of how the idea of culture might be put in its place:
Imagine that extraterrestrials replaced each human being on earth with a state-of-the-art compact disk juke box that has thousands of songs in its repertoire. Each juke box is identical. Moreover, each is equipped with a clock, an automated navigational device that measures its latitude and longitude, and a circuit that selects what song it will play on the basis of its location, the time, and the date. What our extraterrestrials would observe would be the same kind of pattern of within-group similarities and between-group differences observable among humans: In Rio, every juke box would be playing the same song, which would be different from the song that every juke box was playing in Beijing, and so on, around the world.
According to Tooby and Cosmides, each of these juke boxes would appear to behave like a "cultured" being in the following senses: because its original playlist of songs was large and diverse, its actual program of played songs would seem "complexly patterned"; because its programming was directed by a clock, its behavior would change over time; and because its navigational sensors required it to change its repertoire with any change in location, it would appear to "adapt" to new surroundings. But all these behaviors are products of the relationship between the environment and a "highly organized architecture that is richly endowed with contentful mechanisms." Tooby and Cosmides suggest that if this be considered culture at all, then it should be denominated as "evoked" culture, as distinct from what they consider the far more restricted field of "epidemiological" culture: behavior learned, or transmitted like the flu, from one person to another. Indeed, conspicuously absent from their thought experiment is any such consideration of inter-juke box learning or interaction: though all juke boxes may share a common "architecture," they are strict individualists.
Ultimately, of course, what interests the evolutionary psychologists is not the culture but the "architecture." But what, exactly is this, and where does it reside? Clearly, it is a product of evolutionary processes, and therefore it ultimately returns us to both our genetic makeup and the often rather speculative history of our species, with special attention to Pleistocene hunter-gatherers. The brain is also frequently evoked, as is the mind, as the repository of complex, "contentful" "modules" of human ability and behavior. This, we may say, is evolutionary psychology's base to the superstructural airiness of culture. But as Barbara Herrnstein Smith points out in her critique of evolutionary psychology, it's not as if this base ever goes entirely to ground. The brain here is not exactly the physical brain of the neuroscientists, while "the mind," as ever, is less a resolution to the problem of the relationship between behavior and biology than a statement of it. Rather, according to Smith, what the abstraction of "the mind" allows evolutionary psychologists to do is simply to posit another version of a familiar dualist model inherited both from the Chomskian linguistics to which they are indebted and from the longer tradition of rationalism. In another classic version of the traditional dualisms, culture (or human behavior) is the appearance to the reality of complex, information-rich modules.
Thus is one apparent abstraction (culture) banished, via the free deployment of another (the mind). This situation is entirely of a piece with other such attempts to wave away the apparent abstractions of culture by returning to the spurious solidity of something else. As Richard Handler notes in his refusal of this gesture by the editors of the volume Beyond the Cultural Turn, their rejection of culture for the "social" only seems to imply a comforting concreteness, when it is no less imprecise than "culture" as a term. Moreover, taken as a pair in this way, culture and the social simply become yet another dualism of reality and appearance, truth and illusion-or, as Handler interestingly notes, body and mind.
But isn't there some merit to the charge that culture has become too unwieldy-"hyper-referential"? I have written elsewhere about the tendency-again, typical of the moment of the cultural turn-to equate culture with totality, and about the not-uncommon reaction to this that regards the category of culture as too capacious. So I will grant that there are all sorts of good reasons for wanting to maintain a categorical separation between culture and other arenas, which one might wish to designate the social, biological, economic, or what have you. But as with any such implicit division, certain obvious questions arise, especially about how these various parts are then related to one another. For example, how is politics related to ideology? (Kuper asserts that politics cannot be "assimilated to systems of knowledge and belief," whereas others-Karl Marx, for one-consider politics part of the superstructure.) Do these arenas that cannot be "wished away" then have some kind of determinative impact on the content of the "cultural" sphere, or vice versa, or is culture something best understood as rigidly separate? There are a number of possible ways to address this issue, including a theory of mediation, in which other features of the human condition-even such presumably material items as "political and economic forces, social institutions, and biological processes"-are understood through and within a cultural matrix. In other words, saying that "everything is mediated by culture" is not the same thing as saying "everything is culture"; totalization (the process of making connections) is not the same as totality.
Of course, Kuper's other complaint, that it is a grave error to consider culture "a source of explanation in itself," makes it clear that he holds no interest in any theory of cultural mediation. Instead, he reduces such an idea to a category error, in which his limited set of cultural objects (belief, ideology, etc.) are not seen properly as the objects of explanation but erroneously as the sources or conduits of it. But we might as well concede that something else is at work in these efforts to put culture in its place. Ultimately, they reflect a desire to take all the conflict out of culture, for if it is mere appearance, superstructure, a small set of describable phenomena, then it is certainly not a difficult site of contestation over meaning itself.
3. Culture Is Nothing More Than a Sneaky Way of Talking about Race
As Kuper forthrightly acknowledges, there are long-standing national elements to the critique of culture. A native South African and a British-trained social anthropologist, Kuper is doubly poised to dismiss culture, which he describes as a largely American preoccupation. Kuper was impressed early and forcibly by culture's use as a central feature of national ideology in South Africa, where the preservation of distinctive native cultures was offered as a rationale for apartheid. Moreover, like Mary Douglas, he inherited from A. R. Radcliffe-Brown-an important founder of British anthropology who also spent formative time in South Africa-an emphasis on social structure as the central object of analysis, and a corresponding dismissal of culture as a mere "abstraction."
Reference to South African apartheid should remind us that this critique of culture, like so many others, carries with it a powerful moral charge. Implicitly or explicitly, culture's main function as a (mere) rhetorical construct signals not only its ethereal nothingness but its availability to more sinister uses: "culture" is used to say things that might be more precisely, but less politely, expressed by other obsolete or objectionable concepts such as race, nation, class, or even blood. Thus, just as the notorious example of South African apartheid is frequently invoked in arguments against the term, it is also often pointed out that "culture" serves to bolster class and ethnic distinctions by designating the specific heritage and arts practices of elites. Without such disturbing connotations, it is suggested, culture as a concept would be useless; with these connotations, it is best left unsaid.
Though many critics of "culture" have suggested its affinity to such objectionable or outmoded terms as "race," literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels has offered perhaps the most extended discussion of this connection. In Our America (1995), Michaels argues that the general multiculturalist American discourse of identity is simply a tricky way of talking about racial identity without making reference to race, or to a Social Darwinist's conception of "blood," which is race's ultimate reference. A tenacious debunker of liberal pieties, Michaels is in general concerned to critique a sometimes unthinking relationship to cultural discourse that a more obviously conservative writer might be tempted to call political correctness. Following a familiar argumentative structure in which he shows how his opponents are engaging in the very thing they would wish to repudiate, Michaels argues that those who would see culture as a more malleable way to think about identity are in fact recapitulating an older racism that they would doubtless find abhorrent. In a simple sense, then, what Michaels really seems to advocate is a radical and thoroughgoing repudiation of biological determinism. If this racist kind of thinking about human difference is unacceptable, he concludes, then cultural thinking, its cognate, should be too.
We could take up any number of issues here, perhaps the most obvious being the question of Michaels's goals in launching this line of critique. Not without reason, he has been read as supporting the kind of juridical race-blindness advocated by many American conservatives. But as his recent book The Shape of the Signifier (2004) clarifies, his desire to do away with both race and culture is part of a more concerted critique of identity itself. Returning to his early "Against Theory" essays, Michaels grounds his critique of subjectivity in a problem of literary interpretation: either you believe that meaning is there to be found in the text, or you believe that it is generated in the mind of the individual reader. In this fundamental division-which he locates as emerging with the development of literary theory in the 1960s-Michaels comes down squarely on the side that would say that meaning resides in the text. Indeed, he asserts that it is the job of interpretation to recover authorial intent. This problem of authorial intent is one of the most vexing features of Michaels's work in that he never really addresses what it might entail: Does the author's intention stay the same over the course of the creation of a work? Can there be unconscious intent? Could the author's intention be the product of forces outside the author's direct control? Rather than addressing these issues, which might even lead him back to some conception of a socially embedded meaning within a text, Michaels concentrates on what he sees as the disturbing political and theoretical consequences of the opposing view of meaning as residing in the subjective reading experience. Central among these consequences, he argues, is an overinvestment in identity, of which race and culture are simply versions.
Michaels's central concern about identity, repetitively offered throughout both of his last two books, boils down to the following: the descriptive proposition "We do/believe this because we have this cultural identity" soon becomes the prescriptive maxim "Because we have this cultural identity, we do/believe this." In a sense, then, Michaels's complaint against culture is both that it is an insubstantial nothing and that as a marker of identity it is too concrete. On the one hand, "culture" is a rhetorical sleight, a mere code word for "race," whose own ultimate referent and political significance in turn is a kind of biological determinism. On the other hand, insofar as "culture" connotes identity, which he worries is far too determinative of people's behavior and belief, culture is a reification. Ultimately, Michaels may well be a kind of existentialist, whose ideal is a space of radical freedom from externally imposed identity. If so, it is a position that unites him in some interesting ways with the likes of (Sartre-influenced) French philosopher Alain Badiou, who has explicitly rejected as vacuous any ethics based on a conception of cultural difference.
But let us return to Michaels's case for the connection between race and culture. In Our America, one of his central examples for the proposition that "culture" is no more than a code word for "race" is that of Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy (1920). According to Michaels, Stoddard abandoned his earlier arguments for white racial superiority when taking up the question of (European) immigration. In Stoddard's view, America's distinctiveness, not the relative inferiority of others, was the only necessary fact and rationale for defending it against the encroachments of foreigners. Stoddard's arguments confirm for Michaels that cultural pluralism conforms not only to the needs of nationalist bigotry but to racism. Indeed, "It is precisely this pluralism that transforms the substitution of culture for race into the preservation of race. For pluralism's programmatic hostility to universalism-its hostility to the idea that cultural practices be justified by appeals to what seems universally good or true-requires that such practices be justified instead by appeals to what seems locally good or true, which is to say, it invokes the identity of the group as the grounds for the justification of the group's practices." But again, this is not ultimately a statement about culture (or race) so much as it is about identity. A more penetrating look at the xenophobic uses of cultural discourse-now taken from a modern example with clear similarities to that of Stoddard-may shed light on how this objectionable field of culture is currently operating.
Since World War II, there has been a more or less official ban on racist rhetoric in most of western Europe. Yet there are those who publicly espouse prejudicial sentiments, especially against immigrants. And, as a number of observers have pointed out, they have couched their prejudices in terms of "culture." A notorious example of such cultural rhetoric was Margaret Thatcher's 1978 comment: "People are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people of a different culture. And, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world, that if there is a fear that it might be swamped, people are going to react and be hostile to those coming in." Thatcher's words would soon be identified as part of a concerted New Right effort to define an exclusive, but explicitly nonracist, British identity. They also contain many of the elements of European xenophobia with which we have become familiar: the assertion of a uniquely British (and implicitly superior) culture being overwhelmed by alien and incompatible cultures, conjoined with the implicit or explicit assumption that it is reasonable to wish to defend that culture from the onslaught.
Certainly, there are parallels between this rhetoric and traditional racism, not the least being the invocation of a sense of biological menace implicit in the reiterated idea of being "swamped" and the overweening and aggressive expressions of pride in the superiority of the dominant group. But as Verena Stolcke has pointed out, there are also important differences between this rhetoric, however objectionable, and that of traditional racism. In her view, modern racism represents a justification of the inferiority of social underlings so that patent inequities of society and of opportunity are transposed back upon the racial others, as products of their own well-understood, inherently inferior, attributes. With the rhetoric of xenophobia, however, the targets are aliens: outsiders to the nation-state. There is no assumption of either knowledge or inferiority of the other; rather, what is emphasized is incommensurability between "us" and the ineffable alien, and an inherent and wholly justifiable human inclination toward ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Thus modern racism and what Stolcke calls "cultural fundamentalism" are useful to their adherents because they seem to offer satisfying resolutions to two very different ideological problems. While modern racism conceptually resolves the apparent contradiction in the ideology of liberal democracy between equal opportunity and meritocracy, cultural fundamentalism works within the interstices of another great liberal contradiction: the UN-era civic religion of universal humanity rubbing up against the obvious facts of human difference and conflict.
At least in the context of right-wing anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, then, the rhetoric of culture is in no simple sense a replacement for racist rhetoric. Nor does it appear that race is an adequate interpretive frame for unraveling the complexities of, say, American xenophobia after September 11. As for Michaels's other conclusion, that cultural identity has become the determinant of thought or behavior, this case proves a bit more contradictory. Indeed, it seems that precisely the problem of immigration, and of many measures directed toward ameliorating its effects, is that there is a great deal of public uncertainty about the relationship between culture, belief, and behavior. Will banning hijabs in public schools make Muslim girls more French? Will insisting that the U.S. national anthem be sung in English foster a more culturally coherent form of Americanness? This problem of culture and belief will be addressed more extensively in chapter 5.
4. Culture Is Politically Conservative
As Fredric Jameson showed, Michaels's work has long been characterized as operating via a logic of homology. In Michaels's recent book, these homologous juxtapositions are sometimes arrayed in baffling logical forms (e.g., "If you think that differences in belief cannot be described as differences in identity, you must also think that texts mean what their authors intend" or "If you hold, say, Judith Butler's views on resignification, you will also be required to hold, say, George W. Bush's views on terrorism") that tend to suggest some greater axiomatic reach, some address to a larger cultural logic. In a subsequent essay, Michaels denominates this cultural logic as neoliberalism, the political economic order whose central ideological characteristic is its postideological, posthistorical transcendence of all opposing systems; its central slogan-to-end-all-slogans, coined by Margaret Thatcher and her allies, is TINA, "There is no alternative." Michaels's trenchant critique of culture is thus, in essence, that it participates in this postideological TINA thinking, in which an obsession with identity (for that's what culture is) masks the central-that is, economic and political-divisions and antagonisms within our society: "Culture ... has become the primary technology for disarticulating difference from disagreement" and for "disarticulating difference from inequality." This is powerful stuff, made all the more so because Michaels connects it to a broad historical and theoretical frame. This is also, according to Michaels, the logic of postmodernism and a wide variety of novels and literary theories (because they privilege subjectivity and therefore identity), and a whole host of postideological positions and theories, from the war on terror to the "biopolitics" of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire.
As my discussion of the new conservative uses of "culture" should illustrate, it is not at all clear to me that culture currently functions as a way to mask conflict. Indeed, Terry Eagleton, who also hinges his critique of culture on an antipathy to identity politics, points out that "in Bosnia or Belfast, culture is not just what you put on the cassette player; it is what you kill for." But Michaels's criticism is directed, not at the combatants in the world's hot spots, or even at garden-variety xenophobes and culture warriors, but at a (neo-)liberal academic reader. As such, it partakes of another long-standing strain of complaint about culture, namely that despite whatever alignments it currently suggests (and whoever espouses it or its cognates), culture is conservative at its core. Quoting Eagleton again (here working against his other point): "Culture is ... an antidote to politics, tempering that fanatical tunnel vision in its appeal to equipoise, to keeping the mind serenely untainted by whatever is tendentious, unbalanced, sectarian." This criticism is particularly strong in the Anglo-American literary tradition, where some of culture's most notable exponents have included conservative figures like Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and T. S. Eliot, and where the hidden or not-so hidden context of the discourse of culture has been reaction to the horrors of the French Revolution and whatever "anarchy" the masses might subsequently throw up.
In his landmark Culture and Society (1958), Raymond Williams tried to recuperate this conservative tradition for the progressive ends of a revivified working-class culture. But at least by some lights, this project was a failure. According to David Lloyd and Paul Thomas, Williams's work traces a history of culture that is largely synonymous with the Arnoldian project of the education of "best selves," which is seen as a necessary precondition for universal political enfranchisement-a necessary guard, in other words, against the disruptions of the status quo caused by real working-class politics. Lloyd and Thomas show that there is another, explicitly political working-class tradition that rejects the idea of cultural/educational prerequisites to political empowerment. For them, Williams doesn't so much recuperate a tradition for progressive ends as simply replicate the conservative logic of the politically dominant position.
This would be a powerful critique if Arnold were indeed the central figure of Culture and Society. Certainly, Arnold represents a punctuation mark in Williams's book, as befits a central codifier of culture in the British tradition. But rather than describing Arnold's particular achievement as the last word on culture (before moving on to a host of other figures), Williams portrays Arnold's culture as precisely the reification of a line of cultural theory begun by Arnold's conservative predecessors, including Burke, Coleridge, and Cardinal Newman. In other words, Arnold's is not the culture that Williams is interested in recuperating. Nor is it exactly that for Williams there are other, or parallel, traditions to be excavated-say, a tradition emanating from his more radical cast of figures including William Cobbett, Robert Owen, Thomas Carlyle, and William Morris, who took as their lesson from the French Revolution not a fear of the mob but the possibility of actively making history. Rather, all of these figures, the conservatives and the radicals together, are responding in their different veins to another desire: to unite the pieces of human existence shattered by the experience of modernity itself. Culture for Williams, then, is a discursive space marking out a desire for wholeness: not the reified spatial wholeness that makes the anthropologists so nervous but a moving, processual, creation and coming into being that entails the unity not only of such putatively separate spheres as the arts, education, politics, and economics but also of the individual and society.
This was a vision that would lead Williams inevitably to Marxism, but certainly not to what he called the "rationalist" part of that tradition that sectioned off culture, or some of its perceived components such as art or belief, into a separate or "superstructural" sphere. This idea, Williams wrote, "has come to overlay and stifle Marxism, with some warrant in its most obvious errors, but without having to face the real challenge which was implicit, and so nearly clarified in the original Marxist intervention." Rather, what attracted Williams to Marxism was its refusal of such separations in its trenchant identification and critique of reification and alienation and in its "recovery of the wholeness of history." We may think here, for example, of Marx's famous countervision to the modern division of labor, in which one might "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner." As for the Marxist conception of history, Williams wrote: "The original notion of 'man making his own history' was given a new radical content by this emphasis on 'man making himself' through producing his own means of life. For all its difficulties in detailed demonstration this was the most important intellectual advance in all modern social thought. It offered the possibility of overcoming the dichotomy between 'society' and 'nature,' and of discovering new constitutive relationships between 'society' and 'economy.' As a specification of the basic element of the social process of culture it was a recovery of the wholeness of history."
All of which is, of course, to say that culture is-or at least can be-a fundamentally dialectical proposition. William Ray locates within the complexity of culture, which he reads back into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European thought, a deeply dialectical "logic": "If [culture] accommodates so many competing accounts, it is because it frames truth, law, and identity not as stable structures or unvarying doctrines, but as the constantly changing products of a dialectic between individual initiatives of understanding and the rules and traditions which undergird them-and are continually being revised by them." Though Ray's analysis limits the logic of culture to one dialectical operation between the individual and society (I will want to explore others as well), it nevertheless serves as an important rejoinder to static conceptions such as Michaels's of culture as (a subset of) identity.
Indeed, with this general insight about culture as what Ray calls a "strategy" for understanding the dialectical relationships of certain key propositions, we can revisit the dismissals of culture by the evolutionary psychologists, as well as the complaints against culture leveled by the anthropologists of the cultural turn. Cultural evolutionists Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd offer satisfying refutations to the view that behavior is all in our genes by grappling with the truly complex, dialectical interactions of environment, genetic makeup, and learned behavior. They write, for example, "Selection shapes individual learning mechanisms so that interaction with the environment produces adaptive behavior." As for the anthropologists of the cultural turn, in their various concerns about the reifications of older and other conceptions of culture, we may now see them as attempting to unstick a reified conception of culture in favor of a dialectical understanding, which would, say, place the local practices of a given group of people into play with considerations of larger forces and processes (call them patterns, if you like, or structures). Their mistake has been to see the way out of reification in an ever-more scrupulous attention to particularity, when instead they might consider the significance of the dialectical operation that lay within their original critique of the concept.
Finally, it is only by attending to these issues of dialectics-which is to say, these issues of culture's real complexity-that we can properly read powerful critiques such as Herbert Marcuse's "The Affirmative Character of Culture." Marcuse describes "affirmative culture," a specific product of the bourgeois era, as simultaneously upholding the status quo and offering a powerful critique of its rationalizations of human life. "Its decisive characteristic is the assertion of a universally obligatory, eternally better and more valuable world that must be unconditionally affirmed: a world essentially different from the factual world of the daily struggle for existence, yet realizable by every individual for himself 'from within,' without any transformation of the state of fact." The central critical nugget of this culture, its utopian critique of the bourgeois culture that created it, thus soon succumbs to reification not only in celebrated cultural artifacts but in the work of the individual to become cultured: "Culture means not so much a better world as a nobler one: a world to be brought about not through the overthrow of the material order of life but through events in the individual's soul." Marcuse's solution to this problem is the "abolition of this culture," which can come about only through a complete transformation of the "material order of life." But in its place must come culture. "The reproduction of life will still involve culture: the molding of unfulfilled longings and the purification of unfulfilled instincts."
5. Culture Is Substitute Religion
Now that "wholeness" (and utopia) are on the table, we must turn to one final critique of culture, which holds that ultimately it is nothing more than a kind of secular religion. In general, this critique is a logical corollary to the idea that culture is inherently conservative, for it simply extends to culture the suspicion that religion is nothing more than an agent of stupefaction for the masses.
This argument has a number of variants. One strain of it, a close cousin of the guilt-by-association logic of the assertion that culture is inherently conservative, cites figures such as T. S. Eliot (again), for whom religion and culture were indeed closely linked. For Eliot, religion was in effect as close as the benighted masses could get to culture, which entailed not only a minute observance of the rituals of daily life of a certain place (say, England) but a priestly understanding of them as well. Working in a vein similar to Eliot's but arriving at the precise opposite point, Slavoj ?i?ek suggests that culture's current meaning boils down to religion (or rather, ritual) shorn of belief-as in the phrase "I don't really believe in it, it's just part of my culture." From the perspective of at least one important theological tradition, where the burning issue is the place of the faithful in relation to the surrounding "culture," both of these propositions seem a little startling.
Another variant of this critique grounds itself in historical arguments such as Marcuse's that culture has served as a central site of the critique of modernity. If modernity, as the Weberian story goes, is characterized by its increasing disenchantment, then surely culture's critique of modernity is at heart religious. Culture, then, entails some sort of return to a prelapsarian fantasy world, preceding all the divisions and reifications that bedevil modernity, not the least being that between religion and daily life. Geoffrey H. Hartman, who takes this view, suggests that we are then haunted by this fantasy: "'Culture' at present-I mean the ring and function of the word, its emotional and conceptual resonance-even when it is abusively applied, keeps hope in embodiment alive. Consciousness, as ghostly as ever, cannot renounce that hope in a living and fulfilling milieu." Culture, a spectral presence, is something that still calls to us out of our premodern past. But perhaps there is a different way to look at things, which addresses our desire, not for a more embodied being associated with the past, but for futurity.
There is a somewhat strained moment in The Predicament of Culture when Clifford juxtaposes the innovative ethnographic film Trobriand Cricket with Picasso's famous painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Clifford points to a scene in the film in which a Trobriand Islander is shown simultaneously umpiring the game of cricket, incanting spells, and eating betel nuts out of a blue plastic Adidas bag. Clifford suggests that an attention to such surprising juxtapositions, such "ethnographic surrealism[,] can help us see the blue plastic Adidas bag as part of the same kind of inventive cultural process as the African-looking masks that in 1907 suddenly appeared attached to the pink bodies of the Demoiselles d'Avignon."
To a contemporary reader used to anecdotes about globalization's promiscuous trafficking in goods and peoples, Clifford's effusion over the exotically located plastic bag (which Clifford declares to be "beautiful") naively overestimates the scene's significance. In retrospect, this enthusiasm for mixture and indeterminacy now seems characteristic of the cultural turn, which developed not only a taste for "pure products gone crazy" (to paraphrase Clifford, paraphrasing William Carlos Williams) but an excessive interpretive emphasis on the ineffable effects of an endlessly mutable and creative and certainly borderless "culture." But what we might call this aesthetic of the cultural turn also had a political dimension. The strain in Clifford's anecdote, the hyperbolic claim that the casual appropriation of a plastic bag is somehow comparable to the creative gesture of painting the work that inaugurated cubism, reveals the wish that some ineffable something-something profound, revolutionary-will emerge from the interstices of this kind of cultural contact. That is, something will emerge that escapes reification and market logic and reorganizes our conception of social space in the moment of globalization.
When Hartman offers us his Romantic take on spectral culture, he is of course alluding to Derrida's more famous argument that we (the subjects of neoliberalism) are haunted by Marx. This chapter has offered nothing but evidence for such an idea. For, if we consider the complaints against culture, they uncannily replicate those that have long been leveled against Marxism. Both culture and Marxism have been critiqued on the grounds of structural rigidity and insufficient suppleness with regard to the particularities of location, position, agency. Both have been implicated in critiques of "totality." Both have been accused of being romantic; false politics; false religion; false utopianism. So what, indeed, are we trying to dispel when we get rid of culture? Perhaps the last spectral whiff of another way. If culture shares these currents with Marxism, it is because it remains one of our best, most complex, discursive fields for conceptualizing possibility in the context of the closure of neoliberalism.
I would not say that we are haunted by culture; rather, we are haunted by the idea of a futurity-articulated through an idea of culture-that in our current political and philosophical moment seems unavailable to us. Or rather, we are haunted by certain cultures, whose meanings seem inaccessible to us now precisely because of the closures of historical possibility. This, I believe, is the case with the concept of "mass culture," the subject of the next chapter, whose political power can be understood only when it is restored to its specific critical context within modernism and the years before World War II.