Adam Ash

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Deep Thoughts: on culture

The Ubiquity of Culture – by Jeffrey J. Williams (Carnegie Mellon University

Review essay: Francis Mulhern, Culture/Metaculture (London: Routledge, 2000) and Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

If you are building a house, the first thing you do is probably not to plant flowers. You dig the basement, pour the foundation, frame the building, raise and shingle the roof, put up the siding, and so forth. Then, if you have time and money left, you might put in a flower bed. The flowers might give you pleasure when you see them, but they are not usually considered essential to the house; they do not keep you dry in rain, warm in winter, or fill your stomach.

The traditional idea of culture as high art conceives of culture as something like the flower bed. While we might appreciate and value artifacts we deem beautiful, they are not essential to our primary physical needs. In a no-nonsense, colloquial view, culture is ornamental, secondary to if not a frivolous distraction from the real business of life. In classical aesthetics, culture is defined precisely by its uselessness and detachment from ordinary life. In psychology, Maslow's model of a "pyramid of needs" places culture in the upper reaches of the pyramid, possible only after the broad base of material needs are taken care of, which are primary to psychological well-being. In the classical Marxist view, culture forms part of the superstructure, tertiary to the economic base, which determines human life.[ 1] Accordingly, studies of culture, like literary or art criticism, have traditionally been considered refined pursuits, like gardening or horticulture, but not of primary importance to society, like politics, economics, or business.

Culture of course has another familiar sense: rather than the flowers of human experience, it encompasses a broad range of human experiences and products. Though abnegating its special status, this sense likewise plays off the agricultural root of culture, expanding the bed from a narrow plot to the various fields of human manufacture. Over the past few decades, this latter sense seems to have taken precedence in colloquial usage, in politics, and in criticism. We speak of proclivities within a society, such as "sports culture," "car culture," "hiphop culture," or "mall culture." In political discourse, culture describes the tenor of society, such as "the culture of complaint," "the culture of civility," or "the culture of fear," and societies are defined by their cultures, such as the "culture of Islam," "the culture of democracy," or "the culture of imperialism," which generate their politics. In criticism and theory, culture, whether indicating race, class, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, abledness, locality, or taste, determines human identity, which in turn designates political interest. In short, "culture" has shifted from ornament to essence, from secondary effect to primary cause, and from a matter of disinterested taste to a matter of political interest. Consequently, pursuits that study culture, like literary or cultural criticism, have claimed greater political importance to society.

The reconception of culture does not dispel the idea of the house of society and the garden of culture, but reconfigures the process of construction. The question of a house presupposes the prior determination of culture, and a flower bed is not an afterthought but part and parcel of that culture; one's culture determines whether one would own a plot of land and want a house rather than an apartment or a tent, and whether one would want a manicured lawn and attendant shrubbery. Culture draws the house plans before one pours any cement; it is the material that generates the world with such possible human activities and with businesses that produce cement, lumber, and potted plants.

Nearly fifty years ago, Raymond Williams charged criticism to understand the conjunction of "culture and society." Now it seems that culture is society, interchangeable as a synonym for social interests, groups, and bases. Williams also charged us to examine culture in its ordinary as well as extraordinary forms, and it seems that the field of literary criticism has followed this mandate, undergoing what Anthony Easthope described as a paradigm shift, the objects of study expanding from high literature to all culture. However, if there is a paradigm of contemporary criticism, it designates not only an expansion of the object of study but a conceptual inversion of base and superstructure, culture shifting from a subsidiary (if special) role to primary ground. Even a social theorist like Pierre Bourdieu, who persistently foregrounded the essential significance of class, conceived of class less as a matter of material means than of taste, disposition, and other cultural cues. In the trademark phrase from his classic work Distinction , it is "cultural capital" that generates class position. Culture has become the base from which other realms of human activity--psychological, political, economic--follow.

The reign of culture has had its share of dissent. Marxists have attacked the rush toward identity politics as a fracturing of any unified political program as well as a fall away from the ground of class, and liberals like Richard Rorty have upbraided left intellectuals for their absorption in cultural politics at the expense of bread and butter economic issues like health care and labor rights.[ 2] In criticism, it appears that the field has absorbed Williams's lesson and moved, as Easthope succinctly put it, from literary into cultural studies, but not everyone has been satisfied with getting what they might once have wished for.

Terry Eagleton and Francis Mulhern, probably the two most prominent inheritors of Williams's mantle, have tried to correct the excesses of the reign of culture. Their books, Mulhern's Culture/Metaculture (2000) and Eagleton's The Idea of Culture (2000), take a middle road, acknowledging the significance of culture but quelling what they see as its present overinflation. I deal with them at length here because the books have been influential, published to considerable attention, including a long running debate in New Left Review ; they continue the legacy of Williams, and before him of Leavis, as standard-bearers of British cultural criticism; they represent the residual bearing of the New Left; and they each hold positions as leading Marxist literary intellectuals in Britain (Mulhern has been a New Left Review mainstay and chief surveyor of modern British criticism, notably in The Moment of "Scrutiny" (1979), and Eagleton was Williams's prize student and is the most prolific and prominent expositor of Marxist literary theory). The corrective stance of both books is their strength and their weakness: the strength that they disabuse some of the overwrought or misguided claims of current criticism, the weakness that they do not propose a major new vision of the study of culture. Both end, in fact, with calls for modesty.

Culture/Metaculture and The Idea of Culture overlap in broad outline. They are both short, concentrated books, Mulhern's in Routledge's revived "Critical Idiom" series and Eagleton's in the new "Blackwell Manifestos," rather than elaborate treatises or extended histories, reinforcing the sense of immediacy of calls for reform. They both sketch versions of cultural studies, take to task its current misdirection, particularly its absorption in questions of subjectivity and identity, and argue for a restoration of its political legacy. But they are very different in manner and style, characteristic of their authors. Mulhern, in a quickly drawn but assured survey, focuses on intellectual and institutional history, and his corrective is genealogical, attempting to supplant the British-centered genealogy with a broader, modern European one. Eagleton, in a ranging, topical examination, spins out a kind of history of ideas, and his corrective is definitional, more targeted against the errors of various forms of culturalism (like multiculturalism) as well as of contemporary theory overall (postmodernism, anti-foundationalism, and relativism), than a reconstruction.

Each book represents the distinctive roles Mulhern and Eagleton have fashioned as men of letters. Mulhern takes the role of serious don, earnestly laying out intellectual currents, as one would expect from the author of The Moment of "Scrutiny" or the editor of Contemporary Marxist Literary Criticism (1992). Eagleton takes a more puckish role, eschewing a dispassionate stance and disabusing contemporary criticism, often with dismissive barbs and witty turns of phrase. In his early incarnations, like Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976), Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), and The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990), Eagleton marshalled lively (if opinionated) critical histories, but in his later incarnations, like The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996), he tends more toward the broadside. Consequently, Eagleton's book is the more entertaining to read, but Mulhern's leaves more of an argument to digest.

Mulhern's argument turns on an unexpected but forceful reconstruction of the origins of cultural studies. He recasts its starting point from the Birmingham Centre to the longer and wider net of modernist Kulturkritik. The first half of the book surveys a group of modernist European writers who criticized modern society, including a range of writers such as Thomas Mann, Julian Benda, Karl Mannheim, Ortega y Gasset, Freud, Virginia Woolf, Orwell, T.S. Eliot, and Leavis, leading up to the inaugural moment of British cultural studies. What these writers have in common, and what Mulhern recoups, is their critical stance toward modern life under capitalism. What they also have in common, but what Mulhern discards, is their elitist remove from common culture and politics.

Mulhern fuses this tradition with British cultural studies. Why his account is unexpected is because cultural studies typically casts itself in opposition to Kulturkritik, whereas Mulhern argues that they both participate in the same "metacultural" discursive formation. Kulturkritik privileges an elitist minority culture, that draws upon a high tradition and sets itself against popular culture; cultural studies retains the same coordinates, but inverts Kulturkritik's values, privileging the popular and abnegating tradition, arguing not for a minority culture but for the worth of minority cultures. Both also claim the political authority of the cultural; the mistake is that they overestimate that authority. In Mulhern's narrative, Raymond Williams is a bridge figure, asserting the politics of culture but dispatching the paternalism of Kulturkritik (67).

The second half of Culture/Metaculture reprises the standard genealogy of British cultural studies, from Hoggart and Williams through Stuart Hall up to contemporary identity critics (mostly unnamed). Though Williams is cast as the legendary founder, Hall is the hero of the book ("The possibilities of Cultural Studies are nowhere so richly illustrated as in the work of Stuart Hall" [131]), praised in particular for turning attention to Empire and for proposing a "non-reductionist theory of culture and social formations" (101). Mulhern inventories Hall's achievements: his struggles in and against sociology; his assimilating structuralism to a revised Marxism; and his directing attention toward media in the 1970s, the politics of the welfare state in the 80s, and ethnicity in the 90s.

Despite these achievements, cultural studies has experienced a fall, drifting to banality, unreflective populism, and relativism (137ff.). Mulhern's most vehement castigation is that "politics is everywhere in Cultural Studies. The word appears on nearly every page," but without teeth, "predominantly phatic in accent" (150). Cultural studies finally "subsumes the political under the cultural" (151), where it again joins Kulturkritik, which likewise "reasoned politics out of moral existence, as a false pretender of authority" (151). Thus it only offers a "'magical solution' to the poverty of politics in bourgeois society" (168). This is a severe diagnosis, but Mulhern's prescription is relatively mild. He argues that cultural studies suffers from immodesty in placing excessive value on the political efficacy of cultural fields such as identity, an immodesty it "learnt willy-nilly from its authoritarian forebear, Kulturkritik" (174), and so recommends a dose of "modesty."

The strength of Mulhern's genealogical revision is to deepen the understanding of British cultural studies to modern European intellectual history and to discern its normally unnoticed ties to the terms of Kulturkritik. This is where Mulhern is most original and persuasive, demonstrating that cultural studies inherited rather than invented the problematic of culture, an insight usually forgotten in most histories of cultural studies, which start with Hoggart or Birmingham. The weakness of Mulhern's genealogy, however, is its partiality. It foregrounds only one family tree, of the European high modernist tradition, and that tree includes some distant relations while excluding some more expected branches. The spectrum from Mann to Orwell is a disparate amalgam, and it underplays, for instance, Adorno and others from the Frankfurt School. Lastly, it gives an exemption to Hall, who could precisely be seen as the pivotal figure for the turn away from Marxism to poststructuralism and the preoccupation with identity.[ 3]

In a review in New Left Review , Stefan Collini elaborates the first two limitations, and in a rebuttal Mulhern answers that he was not claiming a unity but doing a "historical morphology of discourse" (87) which might be extended back to Romanticism, and that Adorno and Marcuse represent a competing Marxist Kulturkritik (92-93).[ 4] The problem, however, is that Mulhern does claim to represent a "discursive formation," which implies a comprehensive frame, even if not entirely unified. It seems odd to leave out the Frankfurt branch, who obviously participate in the same tradition of Kulturkritik, sharing the same disdain for popular culture and privileging of high culture. That they represent the Marxist line of Kulturkritik is in fact usually taken as their legacy for cultural studies, and many accounts induct them into the discursive formation of cultural studies. But Mulhern's narrative of the fall of contemporary cultural studies mandates their exclusion; Mulhern sidesteps Frankfurt Kulturkritik because of the unity of the narrative he wants to tell that culminates in the political hubris of contemporary cultural studies.[ 5]

Perhaps this shows the stakes of any such genealogy. Genealogies purport a historical validity, but their primary function is polemical, to legitimate or delegitimate the heirs. Genealogies are not for the sake of the ancestors, who cannot benefit from them, but for the heirs; they are not veridic but pragmatic. Mulhern's polemic is to avoid the errors of the hubristic uncles (and one aunt) of Kulturkritik and to emulate the better uncles, like Hoggart and Williams, of the Marxist lineage of British cultural studies. However, one way that Mulhern himself carries out the inheritance of Kulturkritik is in his resort to modesty. Modesty, after all, is a moral imperative, not a political one, nor to my knowledge a Marxist one. Mulhern thus claims a moral authority over cultural criticism--in his term "metaculture"--and becomes an heir of Kulturkritik, or for that matter, of Leavis.

Mulhern's own project does not escape the metacultural problematic, especially in its focus on a "discursive formation." Though rhetorically buttressed with the materialist-sounding "formation," his history is almost entirely set within the realm of cultural discourse, and its political intervention occurs there. The field of reference of Culture/Metaculture is not the material base of society but literary and critical history. Such a history has some explanatory value and might hold a certain autonomy from larger social formations, but it is not the kind of history that traces the material institutions of criticism, such as the changes in publishing, the position of men and women of letters, the massive growth of the university, and the migration of those from the non-European world during decolonization, that formed contemporary cultural studies during the post-World War II epoch. It is not the kind of institutional history that he marshals in The Moment of "Scrutiny" for the interregnum between the great wars. In dwelling on a "morphology" of cultural criticism, Mulhern can only make a further metacultural claim, the check of modesty; he intervenes in the culture of criticism moreso than discerning the social history that conjoins with the culture of criticism.

Mulhern does advert to institutional history, but only as a dark spectre. While the primary plot of Culture/Metaculture is the familiar one of the dissolution of the class politics of Marxism to the localized politics of identity, there is a subplot, and its villain, impeding the proper marriage of culture and society, is institutionalization. Mulhern declares that institutionalization "is among the darker themes of the collective autobiography" (133). Its henchman is academic professionalism; while "Kulturkritik was . . . amateur . . . Cultural Studies, likewise but oppositely committed, has evolved into a profession" (133) and "an organized academic pursuit, from the later 1960s onwards" (92). This I find the most nettlesome argument of Culture/Metaculture . It undermines the case Mulhern has built for the continuous plot between Kulturkritik and contemporary criticism, supplanting it with a plot that privileges Kulturkritik and that relies on a kind of spiritual fall from a pure, disinterested state to a corrupt, interested state. It contradicts the account of the heroic origin of cultural studies in Raymond Williams and others, who were academics, the account of the initial formation of the Birmingham Centre, which was after all a moment of institutionalization, and the account of Hall as a model figure through the 70s to the 90s. Overall, it is historically fuzzy in yoking institutionalization, which is by no means a distinctively contemporary phenomenon, with the post-60s rise of identity politics.

Why does Mulhern, otherwise so careful, do this? He is drawn to two myths, that of the amateur man of letters or intellectual and that of a pre-institutional eden. The myth of the amateur is a commonplace, regularly wheeled out in TLS and other conservative venues that bemoan "the death of the intellectual," but the amateur was neither free nor independent; rather, it was a category enabled by the surplus of capitalist accumulation, which granted privileged training and leisure to pursue activities like criticism. The elitism of Kulturkritik was consonant precisely with the class position of the "amateurs" who propounded it, and their elitism was not only cultural but a disdain for democratic institutions. Surely this is nothing to be nostalgic about; rather than apologizing for being academic-professionals, I think it better to be gainfully employed in public institutions, without the disadvantages of a ruling class background.[ 6]

Moreoever, the era of the putative amateur does not represent a pre-institutional Eden, as any reader of George Gissing's New Grub Street will realize, but exhibits a different mode of institutionalization, in the modern period centered on journalism, publishing, and other literary institutions. The institution of the university, particularly under the welfare state, might easily be seen as a more rather than less democratic channel--perhaps of liberal rather than radical redistribution, but a redistribution nonetheless. It is doubtful that Raymond Williams or Terry Eagleton would have become prominent critics had they not been scholarship boys in the post-World War II university, and the opening of the profession of criticism to such critics could easily be seen as enjoining rather than impeding Left criticism. Rather than a draconian fall, one could instead view cultural studies' academic purchase as a victory in what was called during the 60s a struggle for institutions, which created the conditions to pursue the kind of work done by Hall and those at Birmingham, and presumably by Mulhern himself. This is not to hold up the largely academic location of contemporary criticism as an unalloyed good, but neither is it a dark theme.

Eagleton's The Idea of Culture is less concerned with the genealogy or institutional history of cultural studies and more concerned with its present practices. Though he does touch on Kulturkritik (in fact citing Mulhern) and particularly on Eliot's and Leavis' notions of culture, his focus is on its extant use, and his revision is not to reconstruct a better history but to redeem a better concept. His basic argument is fairly simple--that we should hold the idea of "culture as radical protest" over competing ideas, such as "culture as civility, culture as identity, and culture as commercialism" (129)--and his recuperation relatively modest, returning to Raymond Williams's "notion of a common culture," based on socialist politics (119).

Eagleton's more complicated move is to recuperate what "common" means. While it represented a radical democratic impetus against high culture in Williams's formulation, in contemporary cultural theory the notion of a "common culture" has taken retrograde associations: it speaks for hegemonic culture, eclipsing other ethnicities, sexualities, and so on; it assumes an essential core; and it projects a universal human condition, which elides particularities of various social groups. Eagleton, with some nuance, negotiates a middle position between the extremities of dominant and minority, essential and different, and universal and particular. His synthesis is the commonality of our bodies ("A common culture can be fashioned only because our bodies are of broadly the same kind," 111) and our "natural needs," which "are critical of political well-being" (99). Lest this seem a blatant essentialism, he allows that "of course human bodies differ, in their history, gender, ethnicity" (111). But, adapting current theories of the body which undergird identity studies, he asserts that "they do not differ in those capacities--language, labour, sexuality--which enable them to enter into potentially universal relationship with one another" (111).

In a sense, one could call this a pragmatic essentialism, similar to what the feminist critic Diana Fuss calls "essentially speaking," whereby one uses such concepts provisionally, acknowledging their limits, to achieve social goals. Eagleton spells this out in a 1990 interview: "I think that back in the seventies we used to suffer from a certain fetishism of method . . . . I would now want to say that, at the level of method, pluralism should reign, because what truly defeats eclecticism is not a consistency of method but a consistency of political goal" (76). Correspondingly, in The Idea of Culture Eagleton argues that the pluralism of identities does not achieve radical political change, but "To establish genuine cultural pluralism [first] requires concerted socialist action" (122). In other words, identity studies have it backwards, and socialist politics are prior to identity politics. Eagleton still resolutely avows the priority of the base.

While this argument for recuperating a common culture frames The Idea of Culture , the bulk of the book turns its energy toward disabusing various forms of contemporary criticism. That is, it is not a survey of cultural studies in the manner of Literary Theory or The Ideology of the Aesthetic , nor a reconstructive analysis like Mulhern's, but in large part an invective. Like Mulhern, Eagleton takes to task the over-emphasis on culture, particularly on categories like identity and its diluted sense of politics; pulling no punches, he claims that "Identity politics is one of the most uselessly amorphous of all political categories" (86). Thus he proposes, again like Mulhern, a check on culture's "assum[ing] a new political importance," and calls for more modesty: "it has grown at the same time immodest and overweening. It is time, while acknowledging its significance, to put it back in its place" (131). Unlike Mulhern, there is barely any consideration of the Birmingham project (in a hundred pages, there is only one mention--a favorable quote--of Stuart Hall). Also unlike Mulhern, Eagleton names a number of villains, and his real target often seems a wide-ranging band of those who espouse postmodernism (a number of sentences begin with phrases like "for the postmodernist"), cosmopolitanism, relativism, and anti-foundationalism rather than what ordinarily would be considered cultural studies. What most motivates him, it seems, is taking other critics down a peg.

While he claimed at one time that "deconstruction is the death drive at the level of theory" ( Walter Benjamin 136), now he seems to have reached a truce and absorbed some of its tenor (for instance, "cultures . . . are porous, fuzzy-edged, indeterminate" [96]). He instead turns his turrets toward pragmatists and postmodernists like Stanley Fish and Richard Rorty. Eagleton's strength has always been his unabashed, if sometimes unnuanced, polemical flair. The weakness is not only that such polemics cut with a broad sword, but that many of the critics he takes aim at have little to do with the study of culture. Fish, for instance, has only addressed cultural studies to dismiss it. In Professional Correctness Fish argues, like Mulhern and Eagleton, that contemporary critics wrongly conflate culture and politics, but unlike them, he finds the error to stem from Raymond Williams's original joining of literature and society in The Country and the City (45-46). Pace Williams, Fish wants to restore literature as a specialized field; he does not deny history or politics, but argues that they belong to a different realm and literary critics should stick to literature. While Fish held considerable influence during the heyday of theory, he has become a sort of literary reactionary (he remarks that many will consider his a retrograde view), and he has little influence on contemporary critics, at least in the U.S. Fish has been a favorite target of Eagleton's--elsewhere he calls him "a brash, noisy entrepeneur of intellect" (2003, 171)--but he has become an anachronistic enemy, like the Germans in movies, whom Eagleton reflexively invokes, almost with nostalgia for the battles of high theory and the time when the generation of theorists, like Fish and Eagleton, ruled the field.

Rorty presents a different case. While Fish adverts to a version of the pragmatist argument that theory, like principle, does not govern practice and has "no consequences," a substantial part of Rorty's work has been historical. Against the ahistoricism of analytic philosophy, Rorty has recuperated the history of pragmatism, from William James and John Dewey to Cornel West. Part of his criticism of philosophy has been its focus on arid, technical issues, making itself irrelevant to political life. Indeed, much of Rorty's recent writing has dwelt on social issues, deliberately following the example of Dewey, who was prominent in early twentieth century educational reforms and democratic politics in the U.S. Rorty himself has castigated the American "cultural left," as I mentioned earlier, for its narrowly academic address and its failing to take up basic social issues, like the minimum wage and universal healthcare.[ 7] This might represent a unionist or liberal position, on the model of the New Deal welfare state in the U.S., but Eagleton collapses it to a difference between Right conservatism and Left radicalism. It is actually one between social democracy and Marxism. Also, as I have suggested, Eagleton broaches a pragmatist position in his eschewal of method for the sake of political goals. He is closer to Rorty than he acknowledges, or, more to the point, productively sorts through.

In the midst of villains, the one unalloyed hero of The Idea of Culture is Raymond Williams, and Eagleton obviously follows Williams's keyword model. There is in fact a certain poignancy to Eagleton's updating the project of his teacher. But it also reveals something of the way that Eagleton has fashioned himself as a critic and the particular bias of his work. He has followed the Williams of Marxism and Literature in his theoretical surveys, of The Country and the City in his literary criticism, and even of The Border Country in a novel and a few plays, but not of Communication ,Television: Technology and Cultural Form , or Resources of Hope. While he has never departed from a Marxist credo (as some in his generation have), he has remained largely in the domain of literature, with forays to the history of ideas, but avoided cultural studies, despite its carrying out a significant line of contemporary Marxist criticism. This is especially striking in comparison to Williams's other prize student, Stuart Hall, or for that matter Arnold or Eliot. It indicates an odd blindness in Eagleton's work, all the more striking given that he is probably the most deft (if polemical) and popular surveyor of criticism. There is a way in which Eagleton has always resided in the moment of literary theory--first coming to prominence with Criticism and Ideology (1976), stamping the field with his bestselling Literary Theory , and for the past decade targeting postmodernism in The Idea of Culture as well as The Illusions of Postmodernism and After Theory (2004). His terrain of struggle has not been our common, ordinary culture, but the texts and concepts of the history of criticism and their latter-day permutations.

There is finally a certain intractability to the debate over culture. One dimension of its intractability stems from the term itself. "Culture" has become an impossibly capacious term that refers to a panoply of practices, products, and people. Like the air, culture is ubiquitous. The term "culture" has also become ubiquitous in critical practice, and no longer holds any precise meaning or force, or rather it suffers from an oversaturation of meaning that makes it amorphous. While the word, as Williams noted in Keywords , has one of the more complicated histories of usage in English, when Williams resucitated it, it had a distinctive polemical force against its elite usage, militating against the classed designation of "culture." In turn, Williams's revision enabled the study of objects normally excluded from literary criticism, disrupting the accepted paradigm of Cambridge English. Now, though it is sometimes used to invoke the rhetoric of disruption, it has become normal practice.

Eagleton and Mulhern respond to this dilemma to a degree, taking to task the expansion of the term and calling for the restoration of a more measured, former sense. But this tack represents a minor modification, tweaking rather than shifting the paradigm. As is the case with most restorations, it changes the name of the king rather than the conceptual model. And, like most restorations, it is unlikely to change the minds of those who have allegiance to the houses of identity. At best, it represents a weak solution to the dilemma, leaving the debate much the same.

Another dimension of its intractability is that "culture" is residually embedded in the framework of base and superstructure. The debate thus tends to fall out along the lines of an either/or choice, between the traditional Marxist account of the priority of the economic and the view of culture as having priority in determining human experience. Part of the problem is that this framework suggests a two-dimensional, spatial model, like a drawing of an iceberg, whereby the Marxist holds that the economic constitutes 90% of the iceberg supporting the 10% cap of culture floating above, and the culturalist holds that culture comprises most of the ice. The relation of the two tends to be configured as a zero-sum equation (base + superstructure = society), as a measurement of relative displacement in physics (society - base = superstructure). To put it another way, the framework tends toward subsumption, one conceived as encompassing the other, rather than each being contiguous and not able to be subsumed, so a full description would necessitate "both/and."

Eagleton and Mulhern try to restore a more austere notion of politics and economic determinacy. Although they show nuance in acknowledging culture as more important than merely superstructural, their condemnation of its paucity of political force rests on the residual construal of base and superstructure or of politics and culture. In his afterthoughts in New Left Review , Mulhern emphasizes that he is not dismissing the politics of culture but claiming that there is a "discrepancy" between culture and politics, and they are not reducible to each other ("Beyond" 100-4). Of course, but he still finds culture coming up short, and does not explain the discrepant value of culture.

The third dimension of the intractability of the debate about culture is that most arguments about its politics remain in the cultural field, as Bourdieu would call it, of literary criticism. They are arguments primarily over critical history. In other words, most arguments declaiming the paucity or mistaken politics of culture are culturalist arguments. Despite pronouncements of interdisciplinarity, most culture critics do not turn to political theory, political economy, or economics. Those in the literary field might draw on cousin humanistic fields of history or cultural anthropology, but not on harder social sciences. This might not be from bad faith but from professional standards, since one risks a naive amateurism tilling in fields without training. Or it might be from habit, that we tend to gravitate toward the discourses we are familiar with.

Eagleton and Mulhern, despite disclaimers, reflect the paradox of criticizing culturalism culturally--Mulhern reconstructing and revising the history of literary criticism, and Eagleton directing his polemic against the usual critical suspects. There of course might be better and worse ways to do this, but it is finally an internecine battle or an internal correction of the field rather than one that draws the field in a new direction or looks outside that field. Despite their taking to task the paucity of politics in cultural studies, neither Eagleton nor Mulhern themselves bring the disciplines of politics--political philosophy, political economy--into the debate.

To my mind, the best solution to these dilemmas is Nancy Fraser's work on redistribution and recognition, first proposed in her influential 1995 New Left Review article, "From Redistribution to Recognition?" and expanded in her 2003 book (with Axel Honneth), Redistribution or Recognition?. The virtue of Fraser's explanation is that it shifts the debate from the tired one of cultural studies, recasting the frame to a dualist approach, and working through political philosophy. Though Fraser's article appeared in New Left Review and drew considerable attention (including a 1999 volume of responses by Rorty, Judith Butler, Seyla Benhabib, and others, Adding Insult to Injury ), neither Eagleton nor Mulhern cite it. This is a glaring omission, but symptommatic of the gravitational pull of the literary field that they inhabit.

Fraser shifts the debate from the terrain of literary-cultural studies and the question of the correct ratio of culture to the terrain of political philosophy and the question of social justice. This is fundamentally a pragmatist move: the debate about culture turns on whether a particular view of the economic and culture is a correct representation of the world.[ 8] For Fraser, the interest is not to draw a true picture of reality but what best serves the goal of social justice. The enemy is subordination, and one might experience subordination both culturally, in the form of status, and economically, in the form of class.

Fraser distinguishes two lines of political philosophy, one aligning with Marxism that centers on class and economic distribution, the other from Weber and a certain line of Hegelian thinking about consciousness that centers on status and cultural recognition. Fraser starts from the belief that inequality derives from injuries of status as well as of resources. Identity politics thus are not irrelevant in the struggle to redress inequality; culture is not just "an antidote to politics" (17), as Eagleton asserts, but crucial to what Fraser elsewhere calls a "politics of needs."[ 9] Another way to put this is that needs are not just bodily, as researchers on childhood development tell us, but of consciousness. The goal is not to adduce the equation of economy and culture, but to adduce whether social needs are served justly and the consequences people suffer from both maldistribution and misrecognition.

Fraser foregoes entrenched either/or dichotomies. As she reasons,

Most such theorists assume a reductive economistic-cum-legalistic view of status, supposing that a just distribution of resources and rights is sufficient to preclude misrecognition. In fact, however, as we saw, not all misrecognition is a by-product of maldistribution, nor of maldistribution plus legal discrimination. Witness the case of the African-American Wall Street banker who cannot get a taxi to pick him up. To handle such cases, a theory of justice must reach beyond the distribution of rights and goods to examine institutionalized patterns of cultural value; it must ask whether such patterns impede parity of participation in social life. ( Redistribution 34)

Conversely, against a "culturalist view of distribution" that

suppos[es] that all economic inequalities are rooted in a cultural order that privileges some kinds of labor over others, [so] changing that cultural order is sufficient to preclude maldistribution. In fact, however, as we saw, not all maldistribution is a by-product of misrecognition. Witness the case of the skilled white male industrial worker who becomes unemployed due to a factory closing resulting from a speculative corporate merger. In that case, the injustice of maldistribution has little to do with misrecognition. It is rather a consequence of imperatives intrinsic to an order of specialized economic relations whose raison d'être is the accumulation of profits. To handle such cases, a theory of justice must reach beyond cultural value patterns to examine the structure of capitalism. It must ask whether economic mechanisms that are relatively decoupled from structures of prestige and that operate in a relatively autonomous way impede parity of participation in social life. (34-35)

The strength of Fraser's approach is that she tries to account for both without devaluing one or the other. She opts for a dual rather than singular solution. A well-known nettle in physics is how to explain the behavior of light: sometimes it behaves like particles that caroom and ricochet, sometimes it behaves like waves that oscillate in a more uniform motion. Fraser presents a kind of wave-particle theory of society, whereby social interaction behaves like the wave motion of culture, sometimes like the material particle of class. If one takes this dualist perspective, then one need not make a choice, and in fact the choice is a false one. Again, such a dualism is not a description of reality, but, pragmatically, a perspective:

Here redistribution and recognition do not correspond to two substantive societal domains, economy and culture. Rather, they constitute two analytical perspectives that can be assumed with respect to any domain" . . . Unlike poststructuralist anti-dualism, perspectival dualism permits us to distinguish distribution from recognition--and thus to analyze the relations between them. Unlike economism and culturalism, however, it avoids reducing either one of those categories to the other and . . . allows us to theorize the complex connections between two orders of subordination, grasping at once their conceptual irreducibility, empirical divergence, and practical entwinement. (63-64)

With Fraser, we should dispense with the debate over the correct ratio of culture, or the true picture of politics and culture. Rather, we should focus on what best serves the goal of justice and acting against injustice, whether it goes by the name of culture or class.


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