Cultural value – again

Cultural Value

 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?

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3 comments on “Cultural value – again
  1. http://www.digitalreadingnetwork.com/cultural-value/

    Hi Simon. The above is a great essay, and I’m really sorry I didn’t manage to respond to it sooner.
    In my defence – or do I mean, in the spirit of completely shameless self-promotion? – I had published an article on the exact same topic on the #culturalvalue initiative blog the day before, so I was a little talked-out on the subject: http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

    Before I get down to saying what I find particularly interesting about your essay, I feel obliged to point out that you draw a false dichotomy between the Frankfurt School and a more recent Bourdieusian school:

    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.

    One of the most interesting things about Bourdieu is that while he – no less than Adorno etc – does in fact focus on what he calls the ‘autonomous’ pole of the field of cultural production as a space for critique of political power, he combines this focus with awareness that such critique is inevitably compromised by the relationship of the cultural field as a whole to what he calls the ‘field of power’; moreover, he extends this analysis to the academic field, within which he too operates. There’s a particularly good discussion of this aspect of Bourdieu’s work in Sarah Brouillette’s book, Postcolonial Writers and the Global Literary Marketplace:

    In drawing distinctions between the restricted and extended subfields of the literary market – in brief, between the mass market and its more elite counterpart – it is Bourdieu’s sociology of the literary field which scholars tend to reference. Yet in the postscript to his most recent articulation of this sociology, published in 1992 as Les régles de l’art and in English translation in 1996, he emphasises the increasing obsolescence of his own pioneering work on authorship in a way that actually clarifies its central implications. Before the publication of The Rules of Art… Bourdieu had claimed influentially that the rise of a market that made it possible for authors to make a living by writing was accompanied by an ideology of separation from market concerns. That split had seemed like a generative assumption of the majority of Bourdieu’s work on the literary field… For example… one of the assumptions of the body of The Rules of Art is that the idea of the artist as autonomous from the economic sphere is inseparably linked to the rise of a commercial culture that allowed artists to make a living producing art….

    That said, in the postscript to The Rules of Art… Bourdieu promotes the very autonomy [that] his oeuvre to date had seemed to question so consistently and rigorously. He claims that if intellectuals are going to continue to have a role in public, political life, it will be due to their belief in their own autonomy. Indeed, the power of intellectual intervention in the political sphere will depend upon general acceptance of the ‘relative’ autonomy of the intellectual fields of art, science, and literature, and upon social validation of the values of disinterestedness and expertise associated with them [Bourdieu 1996, p. 340].

    Brouillette, 2007, p. 62-63

    In other words, while Bourdieu values autonomous culture for its provision of a space from which to critique political and economic power, he is aware that its autonomy (a) is only relative, (b) must be fought for, and (c) is dependent on the very commercial culture that continually threatens it.

    Now that’s out of the way, I wanted to focus a little on your concluding paragraph:

    A reading community might take on a classic 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.

    It seems to me that what you’re dealing with here are some of the central questions of fan studies. For example, your point about the hijacking of classics reminds me of the opposition between ‘bookverse’ and ‘movieverse’ fanfiction, e.g. in Lord of the Rings fandom (I’m showing my academic age here). And this leads to the question of whether fan practices are conservative or resistant, or both. For example, fans who privilege books over movie adaptations are being conservative in one respect, since they are drawing upon a general belief that the reading of books is ‘better’ than the watching of films; on the other hand, they are resisting the appeal of what is unarguably a more heavily commercialised sector of the entertainment industry. A similar conundrum can be posed with regard to those who ascribe high cultural value to so-called trivial literature and those who don’t. If I might promote a little more of my own work, I published a study which seemed to show that it was possible for readers both to value what you are (with some discomfort) calling ‘trivial literature’ but which I usually call (with probably equal discomfort) ‘popular fiction’ and to maintain a commitment to a traditional cultural hierarchy in which the ‘classics’ are considered to belong on a different level entirely: the readers I was studying appeared to do this by ascribing different kinds of value to each. Should anyone be interested to read more, the details of the paper are here (with a link to the repository copy for those who don’t have a subscription to European Journal of Cultural Studies):

    http://www.danielallington.net/distinction-intentions-and-the-consumption-of-fiction-negotiating-cultural-legitimacy-in-a-gay-reading-group/

  2. Simon says:

    Thanks Daniel for your comments. False dichotomy – that’s fight’n talk Dan. For a start, if my text reads as though I’ve set up a dichotomy then that is bad penmanship on my part. I see no dichotomy. I agree with all you say about Bourdieu and that after Rules the discussion turned to a ‘relative autonomy’. Jacques Ranciere comments on the political function of autonomy (that autonomy is in itself politically functional), which puts Bourdieu, as you rightly say, in company in spirit if not in letter with Adorno. The emphasis I aimed for was it is no coincidence that Bourdieu presents his argument using economic terms, as he does in Distinction. He could have gone for, say, biology as Luhman did in System Theory. For the terms of my essay, the importance is that Bourdieu finds it necessary to use economic language as a means to discuss behaviour in the field. The reference is my short hand – sorry – for indicating simply that we need not be afraid of using terms from economics.

    Re. fan fiction. I suppose so. I’m not saying anything new really, and can trace the origins in my head at least back to Radway’s Reading the Romance. I don’t have access (or haven’t got round to gaining access) to the kinds of empirical reading studies that you write about and conduct, which would be needed to prove the point, but isn’t it likely that any reading group would have conflicting responses across the parameters of what ‘culture’ might mean. I can imagine readers in Cosmopolistan reading Amitav Gosh’s Sea of Poppies with some distain for its courting of white establishment-culture Man-Booker values (remember the Booker-family fortune came from sugar plantations in British Guiana, the home of Demerara) while at the same time admiring its culture as ‘sub-cultural identification’ decodable from its narrative of Lascar sailors, and being divided on its eligibility for becoming and Arnoldian cultural hit. In short, ‘culture’ is one hell of a slippery term.

    • isn’t it likely that any reading group would have conflicting responses across the parameters of what ‘culture’ might mean.

      Yes, absolutely. If you want, I’ll send you a copy of the article I link to above. It’s a (mostly) qualitative study of a gay reading group (i.e. book club), and how its members dealt with a book that some considered to have no value whatsoever, some considered to have value as an amusing read but not necessarily as an object of discussion, and some considered to have value both as an amusing read and as an object of discussion. This was all tied up in conflicting notions of what gay culture was, and of what the relationship was between ‘serious’ literature and popular or middlebrow entertainment.

      Incidentally, your comments about Amitabh Ghosh and the Booker remind me that I’ve done a reception study of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. Coverage of the book was overwhelmingly positive in Canada, the US, India, and the UK – though strangely not in Ireland; then there was a tiny explosion of outrage in the Indian town where parts of the book were set.

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