The Intellectual Corner


What is Culture?

The term 'culture,’ a verb and abstract noun in constant change in time and space, attempting to explain how humans create, experience, interpret, and interact with the vastness, limits, simplicity, and complexity of their lived experiences, has countless and non-agreed definitions. In the modern period, defined by transformations brought about from the sixteenth century to today, culture is traditionally situated in a post-positivist epistemology of a one-nation-one-culture-one-language model. This narrow nationalist interpretation of culture dominates US K12 curricula and world language textbooks (Boylan, 2018; Hantzopoulous et al., 2014; Naber, 2008; Sleeter, 2017). Brisk (2006) notes that although well-intentioned, what poses in schools as cross-cultural curricula and instruction such as songs, dress, food, and other superficial representations of different national cultures add to stereotypes. Instead, "far more significant are students' life experiences and their families' and communities' body of knowledge and beliefs (p. 4).

The postmodern paradigm, prevalent in much of the humanities in US higher education, views culture as a fluid, socially and politically charged, and ideologically constructed concept. The study of culture through this lens "moves away from differences between cultures and towards the question of how people construct and use culture to make sense of each other [and implies] that all of us are equally engaged in the everyday construction of and engagement with culture wherever it is found" (Holliday, 2016, p. 23). Eagleton (2016), as we will see later, criticizes postmodernism's definition of culture for failing to set boundaries and limits. This section will save the reader from the over-cited 'iceberg' (Hall, 1976) and 'onion' (Hofstede, 2005) models. Suffice it to say that both models argue that the visible aspects of culture constitute a small percentage of culture as a whole way of life, and it is the majority of unseen elements that offend the most. Instead of reviewing the two models mentioned above, we will delve into culture's definitional evolution over the last 200 years in its historical and literary context.

Here, it is prudent to note that the study of culture and intercultural communication, or pondering thereof, is not particular to the early modern, modern, and postmodern periods. Great civilizations of times past have also left written evidence speculating on the idea of culture and its relation to human experience. Let us take, for example, al-Jahiz, whom we mention specifically because the Islamicate's contribution to human civilization is historically excluded or minimized in the US K12 and tertiary curriculum. In his Epistles or Rasaa'il, al-Jahiz, the Afro-Arab polymath of 9th century Abbasid Baghdad and Basra, developed 

a definition of adab, one of the medieval Arabic terms that encompass culture, etiquette, and literature, among others. Al-Jahiz states, 'innama al-adab 'aqlu ghayrika tuzīduhu fī 'aqlika,' which translates, with interpolation, to 'adab is simply someone else's mind that you add to your own.' This may imply that for al-Jahiz, culture, as a whole way of life, is comprised explicitly of the human elements that are learned, constructed, and transmitted as opposed to the human elements that are natural, involuntary, and innate. Moreover, in his work On Translation, al-Jahiz notes the importance of interculturality for accurate understanding and communication:

And what about the differences between restricted, unrestricted, and abridged speech? How do we induce him to know the syntactical structure of the language, the habits and customs of the people and their means and methods of reaching accord? These are but a few of many things to be considered. Furthermore, whenever the translator is ignorant of or insensitive to any one of these things, he will commit errors in interpreting. (Jackson, 1984, pp. 104-105)

For a more detailed discussion on the intellectual milieu of al-Jahiz, see Ibn Abi Tayfur and Arabic Writerly Culture: A Ninth-Century Bookman in Baghdad by Shawkat Toorawa (2005). For our study, however, we will focus on three main works on the definition of Culture: Eagleton (2016), Dasli and Diaz (2017), and Arasaratram (2015). Eagleton (2016) critiques culture's modern and postmodern collusion with capitalism and nationalism. Dasli and Diaz (2017) challenge interculturalists to look outside the conventional confines of criticality in order to confront dominant neoliberal ideologies in critical language and intercultural communication pedagogy. Arasaratnam (2015) argues that new frameworks are needed to understand cultural diversity and identity in the digital age. First, let us take a quick look at the contributions of Hobsbawm and Ranger's edited work, The Invention of Tradition (1983), before moving on to a brief introduction to modern and postmodern notions of Culture.

Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) shed light on traditions that, although perceived to be from time immemorial, are, in reality, more recent inventions than people think. These 'invented traditions' often have two main functions. They are either invented or used by the powerful elite to manipulate the powerless masses. Or, alternatively, they are invented by varying institutions to help preserve social unity in response to challenges brought about by the rapid social changes that have quickly taken root over the last 200 years. Hobsbawm claims that in response to the social changes in the late nineteenth century, numerous traditions were mass-produced in Europe to foster national unity due to the waning influence of other societal institutions, such as the church and regional affiliations. For Hobsbawm, invented traditions are essential for historians because they are evidence of how particular societies relate to their past in reaction to their present. The work aims to provide a framework to better understand the recent origins and invented nature of historical, cultural, and social traditions during the rise of imperialism, colonialism, and nationalism. Another area of interest in this foundational work is Hobsbawm's explanation of the difference between tradition, custom, and convention. Tradition, he argues, implies rituals, norms, values, symbols, and behaviors that establish and imply an unchanging continuity with the past. This is important to invented traditions since they are explicit and implicit rules of a ritualistic or symbolic nature that seek to establish a sense of stability and continuity with a selective past in a quickly transforming present. The opposite of tradition is custom, which is malleable, flexible, and changing with the times. Conversely, a convention is a daily routine void of ritual and symbolism. According to Hobsbawm, the significant difference between tradition, custom, and convention is that tradition has an ideological basis, whereas custom and convention do not. Now we will turn to Eagleton to look at how the notion of culture has changed over the long 19th and short 20th centuries.

Eagleton's work Culture (2016) sheds a lucid and witty perspective on the changing notions of 'culture' from the premodern to postmodern periods. He divides the work into six sections: Culture and civilization, postmodern prejudices, the social unconscious, an apostle of Culture, from Herder to Hollywood, and the hubris of Culture. From the outset, in the chapter on Culture and civilization, Eagleton notes that 'culture' is a complex word comprised of four major senses:

  1. a body of artistic and intellectual work;
  2. a process of spiritual and intellectual development;
  3. the values, customs, beliefs, and symbolic practices by which men and women live; or
  4. a whole way of life (p. 1).

Noting contradictions, Eagleton observes that culture, in the first sense of the term, usually involves avant-garde and innovation. At the same time, culture in the fourth sense of the term, involves habit and custom. On the one hand, the first three meanings may seem more helpful in defining boundaries, whereas the fourth run the risk of having no boundaries. The added difficulty with the fourth definition, as Raymond Williams (1921-1988) notes, is that the definition of culture over the modern and postmodern periods has continuously been forced to be extended to the point that it has become synonymous with our whole everyday life. Eagleton adds that while his teacher, Williams, was right to notice the inflationary tendencies of the notion and definition of Culture, that should have sounded more alarm bells to Williams than he gave attention. Eagleton further notes that Williams differentiated between the first and the fourth senses of Culture by noting that the British working-class movement was more of a matter of political institutions like trade unions, for example, than art and poetry. The emergence of clubs, coffee houses, tea tables, pubs, and other social spaces, in Britain during the First Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) created domains of discourse for a new enlightened middle-class, resulting in the emergence of an innovative, ambitious, and effective brand of cultural politics. For Schiller and Burke alike, Culture as an aesthetic and social conception needed to yield to new political pressures of a rapidly changing society. In this context, Culture should serve as a harmonious model for consensus between the ruling class and the populace, as opposed to a situation where the state finds itself using brutal force to suppress civil society, in which case the state will fall victim to the new and driven civil society. Eagleton states, "behind the shift from culture as personal cultivation to culture as social salvation lies the arrival on the historical scene of an alarming new actor: the common people, and the industrial working class in particular" (Pg. 117). For Mathew Arnold, culture is no longer confined to accord and unity among rulers, for it must also incorporate the ruled. In this context, culture becomes the opposite of anarchy and a way to subdue class warfare. For the Romantic humanist tradition, Culture as art, apart from art for art's precious sake, becomes a vehicle for reimagining and reconstructing culture as civilization. The goal of radical politics for Morris, like Marx, both on the left wing of the Romantic humanist tradition, "is to project one sense of culture into another - to extend a creative power currently confined to a minority to social existence as a whole" (p. 121). For Eagleton, to view Culture and civilization as the same or synonyms may be proper for premodern and tribal societies, but it is not valid for today's world, a fallacy he finds in postmodernism's view of culture; of particular interest to our study. He maintains that one of the significant differences between culture and civilization is that civilization is fueled by an ideology that eventually gets caught up in the maintenance of political power; not the case for Culture. What Culture and ideology do share is that they are both functionally variable terms; what may be cultural or ideological at one time and place may not be cultural or ideological at another time and place. He notes that postmodernism theorists from the 1980s embraced the doctrine of culturalism, the idea that everything in the world is cultural, coupled with cultural relativism, which denies any universal truths or values.

To see everything as relative to culture is to turn culture itself into an absolute. It is now culture that one cannot dig beneath, as it used to be God or nature or the self…culture is not identical to our nature, as the culturalists claim; rather, it is of our nature. (pg. 42-43).

The problem is that culture, and the notion and definition thereof, has been subsumed, appropriated, and usurped by capitalism. Particularly late-stage capitalism. Especially in its fixation on continuous growth through never-ending exploitation of raw materials working hand-in-hand with the scientific lab of innovation and mass-production alongside consumerism where everything has become a commodity, even Culture itself. The rich invest, and the rest endlessly buy. Therefore, Eagleton asserts, Culture needs to be revisited and put into its proper place. His most damning line to postmodernists in Culture is "if those who speak of culture cannot do so without inflating the concept, it is perhaps better for them to remain silent" (pg. 162). He concludes that central questions confronting humanity in the new millennium have cultural aspects, such as drugs, hunger, and war, but culture in and of itself is not the core of them.

To be continued...