Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture

By Susan Hegeman | Go to book overview

Introduction
The Domestication of Culture

THIS IS A BOOK about the idea of culture as it was understood and deployed in early-twentieth-century United States, a moment when, as the anthropologists A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn put it, “the idea of culture, in the technical anthropological sense,” had become “one of the key notions of contemporary American thought.” Writing from midcentury, they also noted that, used ubiquitously, the term was in danger of losing whatever precision it might have possessed “in the technical sense”: “Psychiatrists and psychologists, and, more recently, even some economists and lawyers, have come to tack on the qualifying phrase ‘in our culture’ to their generalizations, even though one suspects it is often done mechanically in the same way that mediaeval men added a precautionary ‘God Willing’ to their utterances.” 1

We should recognize the problem. “Culture” is still everywhere—still a “keyword” in our various conversations about ourselves and others, still somehow connected to what we understand to be a usage derived from anthropology, still a confusing tangle of connotations, and still perhaps so overused as to have become the stuff of slightly pious platitude. 2 On the other hand— precisely because of this interesting combination of ambiguity and discursive centrality—“culture” is also a word that has received an enormous quantity of philological and historical attention. Thus, we may be generally certain of a long and complex history of the term, most commonly (and plausibly) beginning with the Romantic nationalism of Johann Gottfried Herder and his contemporaries, or, in the British context, with the history of industrialism and the thought of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century figuressuch as Edmund Burke, Thomas Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold. 3

However, I will focus instead on a moment that I see as in effect necessitating the broader project of locating the origins and meanings of “culture.” For, I would suggest that the very phenomenon that Kroeber and Kluckhohn described, and the context of current debates surrounding “culture” in the United States, is largely the product of a more recent moment, the first half of this century, when the term emerged and was elaborated upon in a diversity of interesting sites: in the social and aesthetic criticism of the modernist little magazines as well as in the work emerging from the newly academicized disciplines of anthropology and sociology. 4 But perhaps most remarkably, what Kroeber and Kluckhohn saw as “culture, in the technical anthropological

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