Mona Lisa’s moustache among memento mori

Culture. Second edition - Culture. First edition - Culture and the Real
May 27, 2005

I used to worry that I wasn’t cultured. Not any more. Culture is not the highest achievements in art, literature or music, it is the way of life of a whole society. Whatever I do, from wearing pyjamas to walking the dog, is culture. Which means I do not have to feel guilty about watching darts instead of reading Dostoevsky. Thanks to Raymond Williams, no one can any longer say that whenever they hear the word culture they reach for their gun because guns themselves are part of culture. It is everywhere and everything. But when Marcel Duchamp’s moustached Mona Lisa appears in Catherine Belsey’s book and on the cover of Chris Jenks’s, you do wonder whether culture really is as plural as these authors claim.

Jenks’s conceit that he has “a bouncy and inviting style” is debatable, but there’s no doubting that the second edition of Culture remains a classic introduction to the topic. He takes us on a journey that embraces the work of anthropologists such as Edward Burnett Tylor, who defined culture as that “complex whole, which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man in society”; sociologists such as Max Weber, whose theory of the “ideal type” helped regulate social behaviour; and critics such as Stuart Hall, who persuaded us to think of popular culture as more than a distraction or a dumbing down. Other accounts of culture that emerge are that it measures our distance from nature, that it stands for the human against the machine, that it is the pinnacle of human achievement, that it is a means of integration and a tool of stratification.

A recurring theme of the book is the relationship between culture and the social structure, and there are new chapters on subculture, visual culture and urban culture. Jenks reminds us that cultural studies is not the same as the sociology of culture, one is partisan the other neutral, but practitioners in both concur that we can use the word only in its plural sense: there is no culture, only cultures.

Fred Inglis would agree. The history of a concept, he insists, is the history of its use. For Johann Herder, culture meant the national character, for Lucien Goldmann it was a matter of social class, while for Martha Nussbaum it is a question of putting the passions back into social life. In Clifford Geertz’s phrase, culture is “the ensemble of stories” we tell about ourselves. Although he covers much the same ground as Jenks, Inglis does so in a far more committed and combative manner. Geertz famously analysed a Balinese cockfight, but an academic one is more fun. Sit back and enjoy as Inglis lays into lecturers for their “habitual superciliousness” and chastises the “high-IQ morons of a British Marxist persuasion” for failing to appreciate the significance of Richard Hoggart, who was right, Inglis insists, to claim that “commercial culture attenuates the thick actuality of a culture as lived in its local knowledge and accent”. The point of “theorising” about culture is that it leads us to consider “what form of life may conduce to wellbeing and human flourishing”. Inglis asserts that without some idea of the best that is known and thought in the world we have no defence against the march of managerialism. Yes, cultural is incorrigibly plural, and a good thing, too, but it also speaks of “beauty, truth and goodness”. We shouldn’t forget that.

I can almost see Catherine Belsey shaking her head at those last sentences. She moved beyond such chimeras years ago. Although Belsey echoes some of the characteristics of culture found in the other two books, it is about “making things”, she adopts a primarily Lacanian approach to the topic. It goes something like this. When we learn to speak, we lose touch with our organic nature; therefore, we are neither mind nor matter and are at the mercy of desire, which constantly mistakes its object. The purpose of culture is to allude to this loss, to provide symbols that prevent any encounter with it and to divert desire into something gratifying if not satisfying. So now I remember why I enjoy You Are What You Eat and why it does not make me happy. At least I think I do.

Belsey is provocative, but is what she says true? Why should we accept that Jacques Lacan’s account of human development is correct? Or that it provides the key to understanding all culture? And if you want to show that culture is about “resistance”, wouldn’t an analysis of how social structures constrain our experience of it be more useful? Despite the drawbacks, Culture and the Real is a challenging book, not least because Belsey claims that culture, finally, is an acknowledgement of death.

All three works could be useful on cultural studies courses, but Jenks’s will appeal more to the sociologists. He and Inglis give a good overview of culture and what is at stake in the term. Belsey arguably goes to its heart. I doubt that average undergraduates will be able to cope with all the demands these books make, but if they persist, the rewards will be great.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

Culture. Second edition

Author - Chris Jenks
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 234
Price - £55.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 415 33867 0 and 33868 9

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