The Culture Totem

The Culture Totem

"What We Talk about When We Talk about Culture" by Matthew Greenfield, in Raritan (Fall 1999), Rutgers Univ., 31 Mine St., New Brunswick, N.J. 08903.

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"What We Talk about When We Talk about Culture" by Matthew Greenfield, in Raritan (Fall 1999), Rutgers Univ., 31 Mine St., New Brunswick, N.J. 08903.

For many in the tribe of literary critics, cultural studies is now the rage. The very word culture has taken on high totemic status, with "an almost magical power to confer authority and assuage anxiety," notes Greenfield, an English instructor at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. "Merely to pronounce the word expands the territory of literary criticism," at the same time warding off doubts about the field’s basic worth. It lets English professors venture into far-flung areas to take up subjects such as the "intertextuality" of rock ’n’ roll or the history of images of physical disability. Universities, academic disciplines, and even campus bookstores have been busily rearranging themselves to show proper obeisance. Meanwhile, contends Greenfield, culture’s intellectual day may be passing.

The concept of culture invariably shifts the focus away from "the agency and intention of individuals and toward the mapping of larger structures," he notes. Borrowing the concept from anthropology, literary critics often employ a "simplified, distorted, or undertheorized version" of it, with the vagueness quite possibly only enhancing its "tremendous authority" in the field. Literary critics see culture as collective "games," as collective "performances," or, most commonly, as like a "text"--and therefore susceptible to literary interpretation.

But as critics shift their focus away from individual writers, toward "larger cultural systems," they run into difficulties, Greenfield says. One is how to explain historical change, in Marxist or other terms, when the cultural theories presume a "culture" with a coherent function or structure that is static or at least resistant to change.

Second, he says, the concept of culture is at odds with literary critics’ current conviction that "the borders drawn around" nations and other communities are "ideological fictions." To speak of "‘early modern English culture,’ " for instance, Greenfield says, is to treat "a political phantasm as if it were a fact," and to slight the various "groups, classes, and regions" on which the nationalist fiction is imposed.

"The third objection to the culture concept," writes Greenfield, "is that it leads investigation toward abstract generalizations and away from the insights, choices, and idiosyncrasies of individuals." It’s not enough to describe cultural "tool kits," he maintains. Critics must tell "how the tools are used by individuals."

Ironically, as literary critics have turned to anthropology for ideas and (as they hope) the prestige of science, many anthropologists, Greenfield observes, have been moving away from science and remaking their discipline "in the image of literary criticism--as an interpretive practice."

Prominent anthropologists, he says, now suggest that the concept of culture "may have outlived its usefulness." Many, conscious of how imperialist powers and other outside forces have influenced the supposedly isolated, coherent, and stable "cultures," have begun, he says, "to accuse themselves of a blindness to politics that amounts to a complicity" with European colonialism.

Although elsewhere in academe, the prestige of "culture" seems still on the rise, this is deceptive, Greenfield suggests. More and more literary critics will find out, as the anthropologists have, that the concept "no longer does the work that [they] want it to."


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