On culture: influential 20th-century arguments

Attempts to define culture have indeed long resorted to claims of totality, inflected in their implications by changes in social and intellectual history. Such inflections provide an adequate gauge of the values and concerns that have informed the history of the past century. The work of anthropologists in the first half of the 20th century (and especially in the period between the two world wars) yielded the most influential definition of culture in our age, that which sees it as coterminous with ‘a whole way of life.’ The phrase – designed to occlude and replace the narrower (but nonetheless lingering) sense of culture as the epitome of human achievement in thought, writing and the arts – enjoys a referential breadth that might seem to carry a belated echo of the Terentian dictum, ‘nothing human [is] alien to me’ (which had resonated so strongly in the humanist tradition). In contributions from scholars such as Ruth Benedict (e.g. Patterns of Culture, 1934), this all-encompassing anthropological interest in the human expanded the western experiential and imaginative awareness by focusing on non-European cultures, their riches and complexities, and grounded the ethical assessment of cultural diversity on relativist arguments; all this, it should be noted, a few decades before a concern with cultural and linguistic diversity, combined with denunciations of Eurocentrism, became mainstream in academic discourses and protocols of inquiry. No less influentially, the ambition of a few groundbreaking early- to mid-twentieth-century cultural anthropologists to glimpse the structured, unique wholeness of a human community through a sharp focus on some of its components characteristically resorted to organicist tropes, images of integration and coherence (e.g. Benedict 1934: 45-7 and passim).

Conceptually and discursively, such contributions found their consequence in critical discussions of ‘culture’ from a variety of intellectual and ideological postwar backgrounds. In general terms, these discussions foreshadowed key developments in the disciplinary landscape of the late twentieth century – as argued below, with recognisable consequences for discourses on translation. T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (written as a series of articles during the war, collected and published in book form in 1948) explicitly borrowed the ‘whole way of life’ description from anthropological sources, but balanced vehement pleas for preserving the ‘level’ of the individual and group, of elites and traditional institutions, against the communal sense of a shared pattern of experience (Eliot 1948: 21-4, 120-1, passim). These traits of Eliot’s vision, combined with his understanding of culture as the outcome of ‘organic’ development rather than human deliberateness, came to be seen by many as epitomising the reactive (if not reactionary) response of the traditionalist intellectual to the panorama of political and socio-economic change – which included, of course, the unstoppable encroachments of mass culture – that characterised the postwar world. However, if the ‘whole way of life’ definition could be enlisted by Eliot for fighting a rearguard action on behalf of a world under erosion, it would even more evidently suit the intellectual and ideological prospects of those who cherished the ‘tomorrows that sing’ of ‘progressive’ political programmes, and saw in the world of the 1950s the conditions also for an analysis of past and present that could buttress expectations of a reconfigured future. For scholars such as Richard Hoggart (The Uses of Literacy, 1957) and Raymond Williams (Culture and Society 1780-1950, 1958; The Long Revolution, 1961), education, with an inevitably strong emphasis on the central role of language as regards identity, was a key element in such expectations – which also involved high appreciation of the traditions of popular (working-class) culture, and a marked wariness of the technological and commercial allure of mass culture. Williams’s contributions, prominently including his distinction in ‘The Analysis of Culture’ between the ‘ideal’, the ‘documentary’ and the ‘social’ approaches to culture (Williams 1961: 57ff) – the latter obtaining most of his attention – are duly credited with playing a foundational role as regards the discipline of cultural studies, indeed a major development in the intellectual and academic history of the final quarter of the twentieth century.

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