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Review of Terry Eagleton’s
The Idea of Culture


Perhaps rather predictably, Terry Eagleton concludes The Idea of Culture1 by admonishing us to ‘put [culture] back in its place’ through a recognition of the need for an ‘enlightened political context’ to prevent our intimate relation with culture from becoming ‘morbid and obsessional.’ (131) The image evoked here is of some vague entity called ‘culture’ which is somehow out-of-place and must be set aright with the proper (socialist) framework. This topologically condenses the first offering of the ‘Blackwell Manifestos’ series which Eagleton has penned with his usual confident style. This is not to say that we end up with an entirely clear idea of culture, or of why Western culture is particularly displaced, after reading this slim but dense volume. However, after working through the twists and turns of his dialectical style, we do better appreciate his insistence on the need to enlist the political dimension when faced with the ‘uselessness’ of identity politics or the ‘sophistry’ of postmodern ‘culturalism’. (86, 92) With Eagleton, we expect more polemic than systematic argumentation and this is precisely what we get in his intervention on culture. However, this approach actually works quite well here in conjunction with an important thesis Eagleton develops. The very representation or idea of culture is professed to be self-split; the contours of culture are therefore quite ambiguous and actually play a constitutive role in the content it represents. So what we end up with is a rather fortunate parallel between the dialectical tension between the form and content of particular elements within the text and the (often contentious) approach taken to that very text by the post-Marxist author himself.

Certainly the book is timely. Published just before 9/11 and thus before ‘terrorism’ began to take over where the Cold War left off, culture continues to be a hot topic for the academic left who rightly perceive it as occupying a unique conceptual knot, dwelling at the intersection of many important debates as global capitalism seems to proceed unchallenged. Eagleton begins to untie that knot with his first chapter, providing us with an etymological account of the term as thoroughly grounded in material processes. Anticipating a later chapter in which the traditional opposition of nature and culture is tackled directly, the emphasis is on the gradual dialectical movement of culture through history into increasingly greater abstractions from its initial form, which was at first virtually indistinguishable from nature. More importantly, by seeing ‘culture as the medium of nature’s constant self-refashioning,’ any discussion of culture that does not consider the political dimension is wholly incomplete. (3) Thus, by glossing on the work of his former mentor Raymond Williams, as well as other re-occurring figures throughout the book like Matthew Arnold, Eagleton sets out to exorcise the twin evils of postmodern ‘cultural relativism’ and identity politics by re-appropriating culture qua anti-capitalist critique. He reasons that, because of the inherent lack in nature (6), the very word ‘culture’ is the ‘site of a political conflict’ which results in very different conceptions of culture, from classical utopian critique to artistic creation (19), and it is the job of the dialectician to trace out how these conceptions have constituted shifting responses to the historical crises of domestic class struggle and Western imperialism. (25) Rehabilitating the political dimension of culture will not be easy, he notes, as our current notion of culture is quite divorced from politics and economics. But in a curious dialectical twist, it is for that very reason why it holds its own solution. Eagleton provides his own version of Hegel’s ‘the wound is healed only by the sword that smote it’ when he remarks that ‘[c]ulture is thus symptomatic of a division which it offers to overcome.’ (31)

Indeed, the second chapter – ‘Culture in Crisis’ – lays the groundwork for the remainder of the book with the introduction of a key theoretical element. He implies that while we are today trapped in between too wide and too narrow notions of culture, this might actually be our greatest strength, provided we accomplish the necessary reflexive reversal. (32) While Eagleton’s dialectical prose is difficult to summarize, precisely because it is dialectical there must necessarily be an element that appears within the text which again embodies that very dialectical approach. We find such an element in his notion of ‘Culture vs. culture’ which, despite being continuously refashioned throughout his book, retains the elemental matrix of a proper signifying dyad: one term is abstract, universal, unmarked (Culture), while the other is concrete, particular, marked (culture). They are thus not two extremes on the same level or continuum, but rather form one and the same element, albeit viewed from different vantage points. Eagleton’s implicit point here is that the inherent split of the term ‘culture’ that this dyad seeks to capture has, throughout history, resulted in quite diverse understandings of what we call culture. Two opposing recent views include Rorty’s relativization of Culture via his rather apologetic idea that only the West today can be truly empathetic to downtrodden societies since only the West has the required leisure to do so (47), and the (rather Adornian) idea that modern authority is now capable of enlisting even the peculiarities of artistic culture to secure the universality of its power matrix. (50)

Thus, by the time we get to the perhaps obligatorily entitled chapter ‘Culture Wars’ (which, of course, brings to mind Wall Street Journal articles from the early 1990s in which elitist high culture squared off with popular culture), we thoroughly expect Eagleton to frame matters in terms of real casualties. As he writes, such a war is ‘no longer simply a battle of definitions, but a global conflict... of actual politics, not just academic ones... not just a tussle between Stendhal and Seinfeld... [but] concern such questions as ethnic cleansing.’ (51) He provides us with many examples of how this will be reflected on the conceptual ‘Culture vs. culture’ level, where, for instance, new forms of barbarism can paradoxically emerge as particular cultures (53), while Culture can provide its own standard, linking a specific (Western) civilization with universal humanity, by presenting ‘itself simply as a form of moral persuasion.’ (54) Conversely, culture has become the basis of the nation-state (58), so again the political and cultural dimensions are inextricably intertwined. But whereas classical modernity’s great problem of how to synthesize empty universals with blind particularity was solved by the aesthetic dimension of artwork, we see that today Culture can no longer act as an unifying agent for a nation due to the proliferation of multiculturalism. (62) Working toward a solution to this modern-day problem, Eagleton rather favorably considers Arnold’s speculations on the need to revive culture with a sense of duty that the Christian religion once provided, but sadly reports that ‘capitalist secularization’ too easily sabotages such past linking between absolute values of Culture and the daily life of culture. (69–70) This only serves to underscore the pressing need for a radical politics to challenge both the ‘flawed universality of Culture and the blemished particularism of culture’ (80), thereby allowing us to assume the gap between the two as such, as well as facing up to our responsibility for its manifestation on the geopolitical level as a very real conflict ‘between Western civility and all that it squares up to elsewhere.’ (82) Because it is the ‘most uselessly amorphous of all political categories’ (86) which can only serve to distract us from this pressing task, we can understand but perhaps not completely sympathize with his rather relentless expressions of distaste for identity politics and other postmodern detours.

One such detour, which Eagleton has dubbed the ‘California syndrome,’ is important enough to merit a sustained attacked on the American reaction to the dialectic between nature (physical responses of the body) and culture (meanings). (87–8) While providing many opportunities for his renowned wit and raising legitimate points on the contradictions of US hedonism set against its puritanical discourse, one still finds it a rather shameful rant when considering that Eagleton is, of course, a member of the very same British intelligentsia which not so long ago enjoyed its own cultural superiority on a global scale. Forgetting to include his own European gaze in the picture he paints of American society may be excusable, but for a mind as nuanced as Eagleton’s not to explicitly consider that such US excesses are the result of a global capitalist economy and therefore cannot be conveniently reduced to the inevitable consequences of the activity of its own national economy (however disproportionately large it is), is rather sloppy and again points toward his own European problem with American cultural jouissance. Literary critics, even Marxist ones, do not make good economists. Fortunately, if this represents the low point of his book, in the very same chapter (entitled ‘Culture and Nature’) and immediately following this excursion, we find its high point in the form of a critique of postmodern ‘culturalism.’

Eagleton rejects the postmodern doctrine on the natural, which says that it is ‘no more than an insidious naturalization of culture... [or] simply the cultural frozen.’ (93) We can see why Eagleton does so by making use of Lacan’s sexuated logic. Placing such cultural relativist thinking into its correct (feminine) logical form, the statement would reads as: ‘there is no X that is not cultural,’ which simply amounts to a quite legitimate claim that if each element X is examined one by one, it could easily be shown to have cultural, and not natural, origins. But it is quite illegitimate to read that statement as equivalent to ‘all X are cultural’; that is, to blatantly claim, as postmodern culturalists do, that ‘everything is cultural’ and this is precisely the error Eagleton sees them making. In contrast, Eagleton considers the human subject as a linguistic animal caught between nature and culture. (98) He does so by accomplishing the proper (masculine) gesture of conceiving this ‘no X’ as the impossible ‘natural’ exception, as something that nevertheless has a certain ontological ‘weight,’ while rightly understanding this ‘no X’ ultimately as having a mythical status. Eagleton enlists the work of the Lacanian psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek to further explicate how it is that we naturally ‘sit loose’ in our determining symbolic contexts. (97) Marx, Nietzsche and Freud are also invoked to further back up his conclusion of how it is that ‘[n]ature is not just the Other of culture. It is also a kind of inert weight within it, opening up an inner fracture which runs all the way through the human subject.’ (110) In terms of Lacanian sexuation, Eagleton’s impressive accomplishment here is nothing short of the ‘impossible’ gesture of conceiving both the feminine and masculine subjective positions simultaneously.

Such a solution is perhaps not so easily understood, which may be one reason why there is need to write a final chapter with which the publishers probably intended to provide the reader with a sense of closure. The title ‘Towards a Common Culture’ may indicate this, but as well there is also a sense here of continual movement or activity that belies the possibility of fully achieving a new universal stasis. Certainly Eagleton’s tactic here of contrasting two thinkers as divergent as T.S. Eliot and Raymond Williams on their respective solutions to the Culture vs. culture fissure underscores that we are to ‘sit loose’ with respect to any renewed common culture that is proposed, even one that is couched in a politically favorable context. (112–23)

One curiosity of this final chapter is his dismissal of the ‘celebrated “turn to the subject,” with its heady blend of discourse theory, semiotics and psychoanalysis, [which] proved to be a turn away from revolutionary politics, and in some cases from politics as such.’ (128) As a long time advocate of Žižek, who has for the last two decades placed the hope for revolutionary change precisely on the very same psychoanalytic subject Eagleton himself seems to champion as key to his own politics, this statement is quite inconsistent. A more general problem of the book is its use of too obvious examples to illustrate theoretical points. But whatever the shortcomings of The Idea of Culture, it not only serves as a critical introduction to recent debates surrounding the notion of culture, but impresses upon the reader the necessity to ground that notion in the substantial politics with which it is inextricably linked.

1 Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000)