The Idea of Culture (Blackwell Manifestos) (Wiley-Blackwell Manifestos) Paperback – 26 May 2000
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"In this brief volume, Eagleton has produced both a thoughtful analysis of cultural theories as well as a shrewd, liberal dissection of current social and political trends." Publishers Weekly
"Eagleton′s latest book promises to be an important addition to the field of cultural studies." Library Journal
"A magnificent reassertion of timeless cultural values." The Observer
"A voice of sanity amid the roar of turbo–capitalism."Independent</>
"As always, Eagleton shows a provocative wealth of learning. He is able to see the many sides of a problem, to put it in context and suggest new ways of viewing it, a healthy corrective to the soundbite society."Times Higher Education Supplement
"Stimulating and very readable. The Idea of Culture is a book which challenges our attention."The Irish Times<!––end––>
From the Back Cover
′Culture′ is said to be one of the two or three most complex words in the English language, and the term which is sometimes considered to be its opposite, ′Nature′, is commonly awarded the accolade of being the most complex of all. Terry Eagleton′s book, in this vital new series from Blackwell, focuses on discriminating different meanings of culture, as a way of introducing to the general reader the contemporary debates around it.
In what amounts to a major statement, with pointed relevance to the world in the new millennium, Eagleton launches a critique of postmodern "culturalism", arguing instead for a more complex relation between Culture and Nature, and trying to retrieve the importance of such concepts as human nature from a non–naturalistic perspective. His book sets its face against a certain fashionable populism in this area, as well as drawing attention to the deficiencies of elitism. It makes radical inquiry into the reasons, both creditable and discreditable, why ′culture′ has come in our own period to bulk as large as it does, and provocatively proposes that it is time, while acknowledging its significance, to put it back in its place.See all Product Description
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However, for whatever reasons, in his brief book titled The Idea of Culture, Eagleton makes no discernible effort to pitch it to the cheap seats, occupied by readers who are intelligent, engaged, and generally well educated. The intended audience for The Idea of Culture seems clearly to be people like Eagleton himself who have read and remembered everything of importance ever written in cultural studies and the humanities, broadly construed. Given that, his failure to refer to philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer's book Truth and Method and its pertinent and instructive treatment of the concept tradition seems a mistake, though there are so many references in this book that I suppose this sort of oversight was inevitable.
Oddly, moreover, with the exception of Marx and a few anthropologists, references to the social sciences are notable by their absence in a book whose substance would seem to scream for their inclusion. This, it seems to me, is a costly failing, one that makes Eagleton's job much more difficult. The sociological insights into the nature of culture included in Emile Durkheim's account of the collective consciousness, George Herbet Mead's the generalized other, and Peter Berger's rendering of taken-for-grantedness provide exactly the sort of information Eagleton could put to excellent use. Nevertheless, the only sociologist Eagleton mentions is Pierre Bourdieu, in a brief sentence that reads like an excuse to drop another name.
In consequence, Eagleton gives us a peculiar history of culture that, I think, is needlessly long and has too many dubious references based on Eagleton's humanities-intensive assessment of what is important. I suppose his efforts to disabuse us of misuses of culture are well placed, but some are obvious and treated at length when a passing observation would have been enough. Eagleton could, for example, briefly make his case that, as often employed, culture is devoid of any reasonable specificity and concreteness, having been used in a conveniently lazy way as an umbrella term or grab bag for just about any sort of ideas and activities, however shallow and banal, and then he could have moved on. After all, as Eagleton makes clear, he sees plenty of non-trivial and much less easy to understand misuses of culture that merit a good deal of attention. The relationships among culture, the nation, and the state is are interesting examples.
In his discussion of the distinction between nature and culture, Eagleton is at odds with rigid cultural determinists, scholars and others who construe everything, however solidly, irrevocably, and immovably natural they present themselves, as fundamentally cultural rather than innately natural. It's as if a dug up and hauled away ton of coal does not exist until it is transformed into a source of heat to be burned in man-made stoves to make reading rooms more comfortable for members of the literati who read Proust on winter evenings. Yes, Eagleton would acknowledge that coal certainly has its place in culturally prescribed practices and significations, but he would insist that, first and foremost, it is naturally occurring, and its existence should be explained in those terms. Eagleton understandably seems eager to avoid the embarrassment experienced by the editors of the journal Social Text who published an article that construed the law of gravity as a social convention, only to learn that the manuscript, written by a physicist, was a hoax.
When all is said and done, the primary distinction between types of culture, as Eagleton presents it, is between manifestations of ostensibly universal truths and standards of excellence, on the one hand, and ensembles of everyday, taken-for-granted practices, on the other. All of us participate in the latter cultural forms, and we do so as members, without reflection or evaluation. It's just how things are done, and the wherewithal to proceed in this way exists as if it were inscribed in our central nervous systems, a product of commonplace activities that have occupied our time and shown us the way to be members of a particular human group beginning in early childhood. By the time we are adults, the repertoire of unacknowledged interpretations and behaviors defines us and our world.
Moreover, there is always more contained therein than we realize -- we know more than we are aware of -- and are thereby able to deal with new arrangements that come along in an unannounced, unscripted way. As a mundane example, say someone is late for an appointment with a dentist, and offers the excuse that he or she had a flat tire. Did anyone ever explicitly teach the dentist that a flat tire is a reasonable excuse for lateness? Of course not, but the dentist, nevertheless, unself-consciously recognizes it as such. It's a commonsense extension of the culture that he or she has already internalized.
For Eagleton, the primary difference between those whose lives are lived wholly in this everyday culture and the favored few who have access to universal truths is reflexivity or self-consciousness. Those who live day to day taking things unself-consciously and as they come, lack the resources and vantage point to critically evaluate what they do. By contrast, those with access to the privileged and advantageous position of being familiar with universal values are capable of making judgments, reflecting on the taken-for-granted, and guiding the less detached and less well informed in making better use of their lot. Eagleton credits the literary critic and scholar T. S. Eliot with this account.
For my purposes, the distinction just introduced creates problems where there need be none. It acknowledges high culture, such as the finest of fine arts or religion, but raises needless questions about the source of universal standards that are especially troublesome in a book about culture. Whether a specific culture is benign or malignant, I find culture as treated by Durkheim, Mead, and Berger much more useful. For present purposes, the elitism that seems, for better or worse, to be an inescapable aspect of the humanities, just gets in the way.
Eagleton would have done well to make more of the cultural differences inherent in the Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft distinction. The former has a richly prescriptive culture and provides security in membership and position, though it may be insular and oppressive. Culture in the latter setting, by conatrast, is thin, much less prescriptive and embracing, lending itself to creation of anomic and egoistic circumstances. This distinction is noted in The Idea of Culture but is not well developed. Once again, I think, Eagleton's failure to appreciate the contribution of the social sciences as far back as the Nineteenth Century makes his work more difficult and less compelling. Why he settled on the bifurcation due to T. S. Eliot escapes me, especially since it raises unanswered -- perhaps unanswerable -- questions as to its provenance.
Furthermore, as Eagleton notes, it's commonplace to refer to a feminist culture, an American gun culture, a Neo-Nazi culture, and so on. However, these fail the taken-for-granted, unself-conscious test that I think is crucial. It seems that we need to find new ways of referring to social forms that are collective and real but not cultural.
Also, I read the Kindle version of this book, and the Index has a bunch of terms, but no pages to go along with them, and they are not hyperlinked to the book either, so the index is extremely unhelpful, or even pointless. Hopefully, they can fix that.
As I read through the book, one point became overwhelmingly clear--the author, Terry Eagleton--has a huge bone to pick with the United States. I live abroad in Europe, and so I am fairly used to the negative and comically narrow minded view people have of Americans, however I had yet to encounter it in something touted as academic material.
He attacks pretty much everything about American culture, grossly generalizing about American's treatment of everything from the body, religion, intellect, speech and even their sense of identity.
A few quotes: "If people of truly surreal fatness complacently patrol its streets, it is partly because they have no idea that this is not happening everywhere else. Americans use the word 'America' much more frequently than Danes use the word 'Denmark' or Malaysians use the word 'Malaysia'. No doubt this is what happens when your view of other countries is for the most part through a camera lens or from a bomber". (pg 91).
Really? What does the author base his assertation that "Americans use the word 'America' much more frequently" on? He doesn't cite any sources, just makes an unfounded claim which he uses to segue into his next gem that our view of other countries is for the most part "through a camera lens or from a bomber." That's right, Mr. Eagleton, no one in the US travels and everyone agrees with war! How simple!
Or how about, "A statement like 'He rejected my proposal, and even though I kept insisting he was adament in his refusal', becomes in some youthful American-English 'Like he was all "uh-uh" and I was like kinda "hey!" but he was like "no way" or whatever'". (pg 91).
Right, because most Americans lack the ability to form or articulate meaningful ideas.
I am by no means a champion of American society or culture, however I think Eagleton's opinions are completely shallow, petty and smack of tabloid-style sensationalisism pandering to people who love to hear that Americans are fat, stupid and God happy. The ideas about Americans seems based more on a study of Hollywood movies than on any real, unbiased and factual information researched on the part of the author.
I am truly saddened and disgusted by the content in this book.
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