Book Review: Culture by Terry Eagleton
I have to wonder what Terry Eagleton’s publisher said upon first seeing the title of his newest book: “Culture? Culture of what?” “Culture of culture” might be Eagleton’s blank-faced reply. Having never met Terry Eagleton, I don’t know if he would be blank faced about anything—and after reading Culture, I suspect that Eagleton is filled with far too many witticisms to let an opportunity to slip by. Indeed, Culture, while a serious look at the state of culture as it has developed into the 21st Century, is also laden with incongruous, comical analogies that serve to highlight the ridiculously esteemed status culture has reached through its commodification. Perhaps the most tantalizing and frustrating aspect (feasibly a marketing ploy?) upon picking up Eagleton’s Culture is its lack of a subtitle. As a consequence, no indication is given about where Eagleton intends to bring the reader. In contrast, at least Homi K. Bhabha’s now-highly esteemed The Location of Culture (1994) points us to a “location.” Eagleton once praised Bhabha’s text as being written with an “exhilarated sense of alternative possibilities.”1 And so we might wonder what possibilities Eagleton is promulgating within the broad spectrum of culture, yet being bound by this short, 162-page treaty on the multifaceted and seemingly uncontainable subject. Within five chapters and a conclusion, Eagleton comes full circle through a brief historical patchwork and a selective focus to deliver a conclusion that attempts to undermine the pedestal-like status on which culture has been placed in the 21st century.
Eagleton begins broadly with “Culture and Civilization,” and lays out what he calls the “four major senses” for the definition of culture: “It can mean (1) a body of artistic and intellectual work; (2) a process of spiritual and intellectual development; (3) the values, customs, beliefs and symbolic practices by which men and women live; or (4) a whole way of life” (1). These relatively broad senses are partly the reason why a civilization’s culture is not merely something that can be grasped in a short period. There are myriad questions within these senses, for example: is culture material or symbolic (4); is it the performance of an action that has more value (5); is culture simply a descriptive way to delineate civilization (6)? For Eagleton, “civilization is the precondition to culture” (12), but culture may appear as a critique of civilization. In roots of the industrial civilization, culture began to take on an external value in and of itself. Yet, Eagleton is clear in his distinctions between the two and uses numerous analogies and likenesses, like these unusual combinations: “Civilization contains a good many phenomena that have no particular point, such as Sarah Palin, breeding whippets or churning out 30 different brands of toothpaste”; culture serves a purpose, to an extent: “Sniffing glue may be cultural in the sense of part of your way of life, but not part of a commendable way of life” (Eagleton 19). One aspect that becomes clear early in Culture is that Eagleton holds no interest in promoting an inclusive culture, nor is such a culture a controlling factor in his interpretation of civilization.
This rejection of the development and fostering of an encompassing ideal of culture is a counteraction to what Eagleton labels the “Postmodern Prejudices.” The primary argument here is that diversity in culture is not always a positive aspect, even though it has become a political and social norm to be inclusive. One of the major themes in this work is that culture has subverted the political, and at times, Eagleton believes diversity should be disregarded for unity: “It was not diversity that brought the apartheid system in South Africa to its knees, or plurality that toppled the neo-Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe” (31). In what he labels the “cult of inclusivity,” Eagleton begins his confrontation with the acceptance culture, clearly stating that it is dangerous to accede actions merely because of cultural ideology. We should not go about gauging actions relative to culture, Eagleton suggests, as culture and our nature are not one and the same (43). The postmodern prejudice is the “lack of enthusiasm” (31) for being open to seeing that diversity is at times just as important as inclusivity: “being more diverse about diversity, as well as acknowledging that difference may differ from one context to another, would signal a genuine breakthrough” (31-32). Inclusivity blinds us to the differences found within social classes and leads to the commodification of culture—a major point of contention for Eagleton—by turning culture into a product that is available to all who can afford the price. But, as one of Eagleton’s analogies suggest, this inclusive tendency is far from true: “Culture acknowledges no hierarchies, but the educational system is ridden with them” (36). Eagleton is stressing that there is value to be had by limiting the scope through which the culture label is applied to aspects of our varied societies.
In the third and fourth chapters, Eagleton lays his historical groundwork by selectively highlighting the position of culture during precise periods over the last 250 years, specifically looking at Edmund Burke, Johann Gottfried Herder, and Oscar Wilde. Beginning with the first two, Eagleton brings about his (sometimes shrouded) foundation concerning the developments on the ideas of culture. With Burke and Herder in tow, Eagleton contrasts the two men’s theories on culture, drawing from a variety of their writings. Politics quickly becomes inseparable from the discussion surrounding culture as both Burke and Herder were contemporaries of a tumultuous political period. Burke, we are told, “wishes to preserve an elitist culture, but is convinced that it must be responsive to the pieties of the populace if it is to survive.” Whereas, “Herder, more subversively, calls on the civilization of the governors to yield to the culture of the governed” (89). The contrast between populace and the governors is a juxtaposition of power among the everyday person and elite society. Through Burke and Herder (with a touch of T. S. Eliot and Raymond Wilson), Eagleton carries this clash between low and high classes over to his examination of Wilde, who serves as “An Apostle of Culture.” Coming from his “lowly” Irish background, Wilde used his wit and humor to temporarily establish himself in the ranks of the British nobility. Wilde serves to demonstrate the “fact that such forms could be so easily borrowed [from the British] implied that they were not as authentic as they appeared” (101). Life and art become embodied in Wilde’s ability to mold himself: “Nobody can live by culture alone, but Wilde came closer to doing so than almost any of his contemporaries. He is known as an exponent of art for art’s sake” (104). As such, for Eagleton, Wilde’s life is a symbolic marker in time for the transition of culture as it moved into the realm of mass production.
After what seems like a bit of meandering through chapters three and four, Eagleton begins a much more focused approach in “From Herder to Hollywood” in order to highlight the significant shifts that culture—as a concept—has experienced over the last 120 years. Culture has gradually taken on alternate forms, especially as it became viewed from a post-colonial stance: “Culture and purity no longer march hand in hand. […]. Given the unholy alliance between colonial power and nineteenth-century anthropology, the concept of culture is contaminated to its core by racist ideology” (Eagleton 131). The history of cultural notions undergoes a major swing, in Eagleton’s opinion, with the realization that culture is not broadly unifying but consists of “zones of contention rather than nodes of unity” (128-29), zones for which people are willing to die. The anti-colonial uprisings and an interconnected and emerging mindset of the twentieth-century serve as Eagleton’s historical backdrop. Alongside these anti-colonial elements, Eagleton touches briefly on the death of God, and the various efforts to substitute for God.2 The etymological link between “culture” and “cult” lead Eagleton to note the similarities between culture and religion: “Like religion, culture brings the most cherished of values to bear on everyday activity. Like religion, too, it is a question of fundamental truths, spiritual depths, right conduct, imperishable principles and a communal form of life. It also has its rituals, high priests, revered icons and places of worship” (Eagleton 140). Culture, Eagleton suggests, became an industry before it could become a bona fide religion or an ultimate replacement for God; the culture industry emerging with the modernist movement and its new forms of media eventually allowed commodified culture to pervade life’s many dimensions. As a direct consequence, politics, once viewed as distinct from culture by Edmund Burke and Johann Gottfried Herder, “became increasingly a matter of image, icon, style and spectacle” (Eagleton 147). And with postmodernism, culture has become intricately connected with power, and is therefore in need of being “put firmly back in its place” (Eagleton 148).
Culture has overrun us; it has become “inflated” and has turned into a culture of profit—these, among others, are Eagleton’s concluding remarks in “The Hubris of Culture.” Up until this point, he has been pinpointing cultural thinkers and historical events to demonstrate how culture has moved from what might be termed a subcategory for understanding life to an encompassing cultural politics. With a turn-and-attack approach, Eagleton points his finger at commodification of culture, labeling this cancerous inflation as the primary cause of the elevation of an inclusive ideal of culture. In this short conclusion, several targets enter Eagleton’s crosshairs but nothing is harder hit than the collapsing Western university as it is gradually replaced with administrative domination concerned only with education for profit. Similar sentiments have been propounded by Noam Chomsky3 and Benjamin Ginsberg4, among others, so this idea is neither especially groundbreaking nor original, and it arises quite unexpectedly. Commodification driven by capitalism has now succeeded in “assimilating what once seemed its opposite (‘culture’)”; in probably the brashest statement of the book, Eagleton equates the gradual demise of the university with some very unanticipated equivalents: “Along with the fall of Communism and the Twin Towers, it ranks among the most momentous events of our age, if somewhat less spectacular in nature” (152). While aspects of cultures rise and fall, the loss of the university, Eagleton claims, is driving a capitalist brainwashing, selling only a polished produce that eventually may not even need student buyers. Other targets include the 2008 financial collapse, the war on terror, and the inclusivity of political culturalism, which has given rise to uncommon leaders as Donald Trump. Ultimately, the commodification of culture creates a market that sells inclusivity rather than allowing for distinctions: for Eagleton, such a civilization is far too blind to the dangers it generates.
British to the core, Eagleton draws from his country’s history through snippets of glory but mostly with biting criticism of the superior cultural domination England has embodied throughout its history. Unfortunately, the trajectory of Culture is stretched far too sparsely for this work to serve as a tipping point for moving culture back into a more manageable realm. In some sense, Culture seems culled from leftover sections of Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God (2014), published just a few years ago—it also seems to follow a similar narrative formula. One of the drawbacks to Eagleton’s writing style in this particular work is that occasionally it is difficult to determine whether Eagleton is the one expressing the views or if what he has written is summation from one of the many writers he cites. While there are certainly thoughtful nuggets in Culture, the stunted conclusion to this short text does not tie the package together so that we know what to do with it. The commodification of culture might serve as an overarching theme through which Eagleton is driving his argument, but this unoriginal premise leaves the reader lacking the necessary answer to the question: Where is Eagleton going with Culture?
Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge Classics, , 2005), back cover matter.
This section is brief as Eagleton notes he has already spilled significant ink on the subject in Culture and the Death of God (London: Yale University Press, 2014).
Noam Chomsky, “How America’s Great University System Is Being Destroyed,” AlterNet, 28 February 2014, http://www.alternet.org/corporate-accountability-and-workplace/ chomsky-how-americas-great-university-system-getting (accessed 25 January 2018).
Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).