The hoary old chestnut roasting on this December’s open critical fire is cultural value. Much loved by those wishing to instrumentalise the humanities, cultural value appears in European funding cfps (last year’s British AHRC had such a call) as a strategy to identify sources of utility through public-funded humanities projects. Theoretical responses from within the humanities are numerous. Some understand cultural production within a discourse of economics, most notably in Bourdieuan critical ideas such as cultural capital. Others seek to maintain an autonomous discursive space for cultural production (to preserve its political power): an important 20th C elaboration of the latter being Adorno and Horkheimer (see the 1944 and 1947 prefaces to Dialectic of the Enlightenment) and the Frankfurht School more generally. The debate has been long, complex, and often bitter. In the interests of this blogg’s clarity, therefore – and at the risk of pre-loading the terms of the debate – I can’t help but go back to some basics of the bipartite term.
There are many systems of value: religious, environmental, political and so on; each with their own explanatory discourse. The most measurable, perhaps, is financial value, and the science to articulate changes within that system is economics. The trouble with cultural value is that it has no unique science by which to account for change. Much more than a philosophy of mere style, Aesthetics is nevertheless uncomfortable with more overtly political, social determination of Artistic form. Political sociologies of the ‘text’, good though they are at describing the correlations between social political context and the artwork, have trouble accounting for an individual’s idiosyncratic experience of text; whilst an aesthetic experience is often forced to resort to religious language – think only of epiphany.
On the naughty step
The points I am making and am about to make are nothing new, but I do feel that some teasing out of terms is required. Otherwise the address could get messy, especially for the first term culture. Standard explanations have culture as part anthropology and part a concern with Art: the advice being to steer clear of slippage between the two. Thinking back to Nordic student days, however, I was always taught culture as a 4-part term, in the sense of biology, of a people, of that people’s Art and their sub-cultural formations. The lecture went as follows:
First we had Petri dishes, the bottom of a vegetable basket and forgotten corners of a station wagons’ boot [that’s estate cars to the Brits]. Not the reverse of nature, culture was nature. Out of the biological dirt rose culture and out of the soil rose Herder. At the end of the 18th C, when Johann Gottfried Herder (1744 – 1803) was formulating his social/anthropological ideas of ‘cultures’ (pl.), a welter of German-speaking peoples were beginning to think of themselves as ‘a people’ – mostly in counter-distinction to the French. German culture was something that grew out of German soil, and its values were equal to whatever neo-classical values the French wished to impose: “Men of all the quarters of the globe, who have perished over the ages, you have not lived solely to manure the earth with your ashes, so that at the end of time your posterity should be made happy by European culture. The very thought of a superior culture is a blatant insult to the majesty of nature” (Herder, Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, 1784-91). The negative side to Herder’s progressive ideas, however, comes with the blood and soil of national socialism, a century and a half later. As a category, though, both positive and negative sides of Herder’s culture is concerned with ‘a people’, with their heimat, and with the ‘natural’ organization of that people into a State. Unlike conditions for Prussians, Bavarians, Swabians and Alsatians in the 18th C, our world is far less national (post-national even) and much more multicultural. In a cosmopolitan context, it makes little sense to talk about one (more or less arbitrarily defined) people who happen to occupy geographical soil-space that just happens to be coterminous with the country’s borders and its expression as a ‘nation’. It makes more sense to talk about those people allied under one State organisation or – given the outsourcing of social organization to private corporations – corporate organisation. The update of Herder’s second category of culture for the neoliberal West, at least, is not national but state-and-its-corporate culture.
Part three of the lecture brought on Mathew Arnold: he of sweetness and light. If you have a culture-as-a-people, you ought to have evidence of that people’s greatness, of their best and highest expression: “… culture, that is, the disinterested and active use of reading, reflection, and observation, in the endeavour to know the best that can be known …” (Culture and Anarchy 1867, chapter IV, section 23); “Culture looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light … It seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; …” (Culture and Anarchy 1867, chapter I, section 31). But as Gurdjieff once remarked “every stick has two ends” and the wrong end of Arnold’s stick is elitism, dependant on the reduction of cultural production into high culture maintained through the discourse of its gatekeepers. However, in both positive and negative senses, there is a paradox, since Arnoldian culture is predicated on ideas of disinterested contemplation. The very idea of ‘no personal interest’ runs contrary to how value is calculated, at least by economics. For economics, something has value if it has utility, or is valuable, to me. In this respect we can see how refreshingly subversive the idea of cultural capital really is.
Lastly, within Herder people’s culture (now our state-and-its-corporate culture) with its highest cultural expression (cultural production, which, if its cultural-capital values run high enough, might be termed by some as interested Art), we have sub-cultural formations. ‘Hip hop culture’, ‘pop culture’, ‘a culture of dependency’ all point at specific groups and specific habits of behavior: “My word is my bond was the motto of the Stock Exchange in London. Indeed, the expression was also used to describe the culture of the City, the financial district. How it has changed … There was something deeply wrong with the culture of Barclays …” (“Banks and the culture of greed”, in LiveMint & the Wall St Journal. Wed, 29 August 2012). The problem, here, is that the minor ‘sub’ prefix demands its major counterpart and there is little ‘sub’ about many current sub-groups. For example, we can reasonably talk about (misplaced) values of a few investment bankers participating in a ‘culture of greed’ but are we talking about the centre or periphery or, rather, about intersections of power for which centre and periphery, sub-minor and major, are simply unhelpful terms?
Reading on the naughty step
When we think of contemporary reading practices, whether by individuals or by groups, and we want to think about cultural value, we ought then to be careful. A reading community might take on aclassic of canon literature and ascribe value to it. The cultural values that readers decode, however, might be from the work as an access point to the nation-corporate-state’s cultural heritage, which we find exemplified in the heritage industry and through activities such as literary tourism. Equally, the cultural value sought might derive from a perception of the work as high cultural capital, or high Art, and whatever that implies; or equally as a perception of the work’s ability to maintain the subcultural group (this book is good because we like it). So far so good. But what if the cultural values collide? I might not like the subculture that has hijacked a classic but conversely still believe I can gain something from its high-cultural wisdom while resisting any reading of the same work for how it elevates the nation-corporate- state’s status. More interestingly, I might also read so-called trivial literature and ascribe it high cultural value because it is genuinely providing a valuable source of insight into my life (as I imagine high Art has done) while not fulfilling any national or sub-cultural duties. The text I have just finished has high cultural value – it was a popular history of the world at 1913 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/may/08/1913-world-before-great-review – I’m just not sure what I mean by cultural. Can anyone help?