Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture

By Susan Hegeman | Go to book overview

7
On Getting Rid of Culture: An
Inconclusive Conclusion

And an idea, such as that of Culture, is apt to lead to consequences which its author cannot foresee and probably will not like.

(T. S. Eliot)

IN THIS FINAL CHAPTER, I will jump ahead to the present, to briefly interrogate the postmodern context of “culture,” and the legacy of its modernist antecedents sketched out in the previous chapters. Obviously, “culture” is very much with us, and very much a central term of our debates, many of which have their origins in the earlier parts of this century. Culture is, moreover, still a term related to the articulation of social space—indeed, so much so, that it is not surprising that it has come under new scrutiny in the light of postmodern critiques of “totalization” and totalizing theory: frequently invoked to describe bounded space and finiteidentities, “culture” seems in the context of postmodernism to have its definiteconceptual shortcomings. 1

In this conclusion, I will explore both “culture' s” limits and the limits of its critique by examining arguments that have been made recently by both anthropologists and literary scholars for the complete abandonment of “culture” as a critical term. 2 I will not suggest here that such radical arguments against “culture” comprise a dominant, or even an emergent, view among people invested in one way or another in things widely thought of as “cultural.” Nor, as will become clear, am I convinced that proposals to simply abolish a critical term will do what their advocates believe it will do. But I do find the drama of this proposal fascinating. The rhetorical gesture of clearing the “cultural” decks indicates at least a severe state of terminological uncertainty. More radically, it suggests a repudiation of the historical and philosophical contexts in which “culture” is thought to be a key term. It is thus an excellent site for examining the current status of the modernist culture concept, in light of new theoretical pressures. First, however, it is important to establish some sense of the deep continuities between our “culture” and its earlier counterpart.

-193-

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