Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture

By Susan Hegeman | Go to book overview

1
Modernism, Anthropology, Culture

THERE ARE A NUMBER of ways that one might delineate a relationship between the concept of culture and the aesthetic and intellectual period we call modernism. Indeed, as it will become clear, I see this connection as multiply inflected. But, for the purposes of beginning, I will start by observing that the rhetoric of “culture” itself conforms neatly to certain modernist ideologies.

Critical accounts of “culture” as a term—of which there are sufficientexamples to comprise something like a genre—almost always begin with vexation, and exclamations at the word's ambiguity. For Raymond Williams in Keywords, “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” More recently, the prominent anthropologist Eric R. Wolf singled out culture for a discussion of “perilous ideas,” while Stephen Greenblatt's entry in Critical Terms for Literary Study begins by arguing that the traditional definitionof culture by E. B. Tylor “is almost impossibly vague and encompassing, and the few things that seem excluded from it are almost immediately reincorporated in the actual use of the word.” 1

The rhetorical function of this encounter with ambiguity and even “peril” is to bring coherence out of confusion, to show how the terminological anxiety can be banished. To this end, culture's definersoften suggest its vexatiousness results from a kind of internal paradox, an uneasy cohabitation of opposed meanings. There are a number of versions of this paradox, the most common being the observation that culture has something to do with both “legitimate,” or “high” culture and mass, everyday, or popular phenomena. The salient antithesis is then historicized, and frequently in such a way that one piece of the opposed set of ideas becomes a historical artifact, while the other, newer usage marks a kind of terminological revolution. Thus, Clifford Geertz definedthe emergence of contemporary usages of “culture,” whose salient feature for him is the emphasis on the particularity of human contexts, as a correction of the Enlightenment conception of the “uniformity” of human experience. 2

More frequently, however, the culture that is imaginatively swept away is defined as the “Arnoldian” view of culture as the attainment of social and aesthetic perfection. Like its related Victorian models of progress, this culture suggests a strict hierarchy of aesthetic, moral, and political value, which places the beloved objects and practices of the elite (and hence the elites themselves) in a position of superiority. This culture, in other words, is seen as part and parcel of the nineteenth-century legacy of racism, sexism, classism, and vulgar

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