Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Culture and Community

This essay is a sequel of sorts to Primitive Romance.

There could scarcely be two words which enjoy more esteem than art and culture. Indeed any man of letters would fancy himself a connoisseur of the these things. Yet the casualness with which these terms are bandied about ought to cause use pause.

Let us consider culture first. Culture is one of several words deriving from the Latin verb collere, to till. From collere we use colony, cult, and culture. Obvious differences aside, these words share several senses: that of a particular place and a particular value, and that this value ought to endure and must be tended to. To embrace all of these notions is the essence of the agrarian man, but culture does of course extend beyond him. Yet these general characteristics, no matter the specifics to which they are applied, have implications, all of which fall under the category of bounds.

Yet it is also possible to speak of culture as the opposite: culture as creativity, i.e. culture as breaking bounds. If we say that a culture has ideas which bind it together, we may also say its art is a creative act of expressing those ideas. Alan Bloom described this as "culture as art." [Bloom, 188] Now in Bloom's discussion of culture we see a similarity with T. S. Eliot's essay, "Notes Toward the Definition of Culture." There Eliot noted that various aspects of a culture, e.g. religion, politics, and science may struggle for dominance with creative result. He gives of course the example of Sophocles' Antigone which in this line of thinking is an even more extraordinary work, but extraordinary for perhaps what it is not. It is not a treatise on human nature, duties to family versus duties to the state, the rights of rulers and citizens, and religious obligations. Such a work could have been written by a philosopher or intellectual and read by no one. Yet that it is artistic, that it was performed and received  by an audience means that all of those complex conflicts were meaningful to the audience. Culture is here what Bloom said, "the house of the self, but also its product." [Bloom, 188]

Now speaking of Antigone, Bloom and Eliot both touched on what is the most obvious question of culture: where does it come from? Bloom emphasizes the aspect of cohesion and the "harshness" which is needed to create community, quoting Rousseau in II, 7 of The Social Contract where he discusses how the Legislator must transform individuals so they will function as a society. Rousseau writes that "if each citizen is nothing, can do nothing, except by all the others, and the force acquired by the whole is equal or superior to the sum of the natural forces of all the individuals, one can say that the legislation is at the highest point of perfection it can attain." This emphasis on unity was shared by Plato but criticized by Aristotle, who suggested too much unity would destroy self-sufficiency, the affection people have for their private property, and the bonds of friendship. In contrast Eliot acknowledged cohesion was necessary but also stated that culture cannot be made but must be "grown from the soil" and that you cannot encourage it culture but only remove what stands in its way. [Eliot, 19] In Eliot's conception an individual has a culture, so does a class, and so a society. He adds that a society ought to refrain from setting before the group what can only be the aim of the individual. [Eliot, 19] This is a rather fascinating addition which while it has implication for liberty ought not to be interpreted strictly or even primarily in terms of liberty.

Now how did we get from culture to politics? Perhaps because as with politics culture has personal and communal aspects. Indeed as the state's activities are what everyone politically has in common, so a society's culture is what everyone has in culturally in common. It would seem also that as federalism and republicanism describe the cascading effects of hierarchical laws on society, so Eliot's description of personal, local, and societal culture. Bloom argued that politics disappears into "subpolitical (economic)" or "what claims to be higher than political (cultural) activity." It seems to me we tend to separate all three. We consider that which is economic inherently banal and at best a necessary evil, we consider politics practical, and culture the most esteemed. What expression might we say acknowledges any connection amongst these features of life? It will be even more interesting to add this spin to the question: what expression is a celebration or affirmation? Whether political or artistic, we tend to consider positive affirmations to be either partisan or dogmatic. For example modern political movies are mostly partisan hit-piece documentaries, not films which extol particular virtues. Today we find the genre of encomiastic literature quite off-putting and we consider pieces like Horace's second ode and Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito propaganda. When it comes to economics we separate it too from art. We don't like to think of a painter receiving a commission for a particular work; he ought to be given a "grant" and allowed to make what he wants. We don't like to think of Shakespeare having to put seats in the theater, Bach re-using his cantatas in his oratorios, or Mozart adding arias to Don Giovanni to appeal to a different audience.

So of course creating art has political, economic, and finally cultural dimensions, but perhaps we should approach the question from another direction. Of course whoever creates art, like whoever creates anything to trade, does so to sustain himself; but who partakes in art does so voluntarily. So an artistic event is partly defined by the artist and part by the audience, at least insofar as the experience is defined to  some extent by a shared language (in the most general sense.) Now as we have noted before this language is largely inherited. We don't get to decide what culture we inherit and so an artist cannot come up with a completely new language if he hopes to share his ideas with anyone. Yet languages do change for a variety of reasons and clearly cultures do too. Clearly then culture is not simply something to be inherited and stored, but something to be lived.

We seem to have considerably complicated our discussion of culture for now we must consider the aspects of 1) participation (politics and economics), 2) expression (art), and 3) ideas. Before we move away from politics, though, let us make a digression. Let us consider Western liberal democracies and say, notionally at least, they are all founded more or less upon the notions that government exists to permit man his "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The first two of those ideas are essentially political and economic, only the third is philosophical. It is also rather vague and as a result, as Plato said, in a liberal democracy we will see constitutions of every kind. One of the features of a liberal country is that it pushes many questions/ideas/values which were once set as a national policy into the private sphere.

So how does this liberality square with culture? Well, it seems to make speaking of common values harder, but again we are speaking of politics. Is it not possible to have a culture, people with shared values, without the use of force by government? Our partial definition of culture as bounds sort of complicates this question. Notionally it is possible to have bounds not delimited by law, bounds no one will cross but which in fact carry no penalty for transgression; voluntary bounds, if you will. Can we still call these bounds then? If not, then can we be said to possess culture?

This then is a test of liberal democracy. They can certainly be said to be freer and more materially prosperous, but do they surpass the cultures of other societies? Do they create art which extols particular values? Do they use a rich and living language to make such expressions? If they do then they are vindicated, but if not, why?

Now I'm not fingering freedom as the enemy of culture and I'm not saying liberal countries do not or cannot have culture. Not at all. In fact we haven't really answered our question about culture: namely, what is it? We have, though, in attempting to define it, continually come back to the question of community by way of politics, economics, and art. Now apart from describing proximity the word community implies some shared idea. Now Bloom makes the interesting suggestion that "everything connected with valuing comes from religion." [Bloom, 211] He discusses this in the light of Nietzsche and the notion that myth-makers lay down values for a society. Sacred ideas, their protection in law, and the fact that they are shared ideas are central toward establishing a culture. This is of course in concert with the concept of "culture as bounds" that Eliot prescribed. Indeed the concept of religion, of religio to the Romans, is essentially the notion of constraint, the notion that something commands your reverence or awe. It commands your subordination and it is the pious man who submits to this, to the claims his gods, his family, and his country have on him.

Certainly a liberal man will balk at the notion of submission, or at least forced submission. Too he will be disturbed by the notion of the state funding cults of worship for particular deities. Yet to the Romans all of this was everybody's business, everyone shared in the danger of divine retribution and the need to perform the requisite ritual to ensure success. Now I mention this not to suggest the Roman way ought to be emulated but to emphasize the similarity between the religious impulse and the esteeming or valuing impulse. Now we have added religion to our snowballing discussion of culture. Let us not be afraid to make one more discursion and mention philosophy. Philosophy is perhaps the only notion to enjoy more esteem than either art or culture. Despite the obvious meaning of its name, we can distinguish two facets of philosophy, a desire for the truth and a desire to do good. Now note those two goals aren't entirely complementary. To seek the truth is to risk of undermining the culture one has inherited. Certainly you can have a culture based on ideas believed to be true, but can you have one based on truths acknowledged to be provisional? Can you have a wholly progressive culture any more than you can have a wholly conservative one?

Nietzsche thought the Romans at their height lived without philosophy, presumably in the earlier days of the republic before Augustus attempted to grasp the threads of the fraying culture and fasten them to the idea of the Empire to preserve them. They did not go poking into their myths. I think it would be worth looking at a few quotes from Nietzche's Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks in our discussion.

If philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker.  [27]

. . .an unrestrained thirst for knowledge for its own sake barbarizes men just as much as a hatred of knowledge. The Greeks themselves, possessed of an inherently insatiable thirst for knowledge, controlled it by their ideal need for and consideration of all the values of life. [31]

A period which suffers from a so-called high general level of liberal education but which is devoid of culture in the sense of a unity of style which characterizes all its life, will not quite know what to do with philosophy. . . [37]

Philosophy is then a two-edged sword, a truth-seeking discipline which runs the risk of undermining everything that has been inherited. Yet how does one use it then, how does one use it with a "consideration of all the values of life?" Ought one impose limits on it? Can one? If one did could you rightly call it truth-seeking? Let us look at a few more quotations.
If readily forced for once to speak out, philosophy might say, 'Wretched people! Is it my fault if I am roaming the country among you like a cheap fortune-teller? If I must hide and disguise myself as though I were a fallen woman and you my judges? Just look at my sister, Art! Like me, she is in exile among barbarians. We no longer know what to do to save ourselves. True, here among you we have lost all our rights, but the judges who shall restore them to us shall judge you too. And to you they shall say: Go get yourselves a culture. Only then will you find out what philosophy can and will do.'" [38]

Philosophy is propelled by. . . an alien, illogical power–the power of creative imagination. [40]

Philosophy is distinguished from science by its selectivity and its discrimination of the unusual, the astonishing, the difficult and the divine, just as it is distinguished from intellectual cleverness by its emphasis on the useless. Science rushes headlong, without selectivity, without 'taste,' at whatever is knowable, in the blind desire to know all at any cost. Philosophical thinking, on the other hand, is ever on the scent of those things which are most worth knowing, the great and the important insights. [43]
It is hard to reconcile different paths of discovering the truth: tradition, revelation, reason. Bloom seemed fond of the notion that man ought to be a "tense bow," that he should struggle with opposites and not harmonize them. Only that conflict will permit creativity and the creation of values. [Bloom, 198]

Yet what does Nietzsche say? Not that philosophy will lead to culture, but "Go get yourselves a culture. Only then will you find out what philosophy can and will do." Philosophy then is perhaps not an end in itself, it is not the sheer knowledge of science, but something which ought to enrich and ennoble. And ennoble what? The culture, the body of ideas which constitutes a people and their manners and festivals and all the expressions of those ideas. And it is an artistic expression, at once personal and communal, earthly yet sublime, inherited yet created, which is the strongest expression of and in a culture. Without these ideas and expressions, what is there for philosophy to glorify or ennoble?

Again: what is culture? Perhaps Eliot was on the right track when he suggested culture as the "incarnation of religion." It is the turning of an idea into a way of life, and it is doing so with vigor and joy.

Some may think that, like great cultures of the past, there needs to be some threat of force behind the bonds which compel. Yet force holds only bodies, not minds. In some respect a liberal democratic society is the ultimate proving ground for ideas: to grow and prosper and prevail there, without the threat of force, requires the strongest belief and the most glorious expressions. To lament a lack of culture in such a country then, is to lament either the lack of power to force people or the lack of strength in one's own expression. One need not embrace a Nietzschean perspectivism or the will to power to see culture as competitive. One need not see the philosopher as the "procreator" or the "creator of the world." (Beyond Good and Evil, s.206.) Yet Nietzsche can be most instructive. It seems to me often the case that when people seek to promote a value they seek to do so through law and to force people to behave a certain way. This commands obedience through fear and/or habituation. In contrast it also seems that to persuade through lifestyle, through creative expression, is far more persuasive, enriching to and respecting of the individual, and vivifying to the value and culture. There is no law which is as persuasive as artistic expression and the sight of a joyful man living his values.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind:  How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Simon and Schuster, New York. 1987.

Eliot, T. S. Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. Harcourt, Brace, and Company. New York. 1949.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (trans. Cowan, Marianne.) Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Regnery Publishing. Washington DC. 1998.

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