- Parts in Wholes (and Wholes in Pieces): The Afterlives of Culture
When the unique destiny and fragility of British culture can be invoked to justify anti-immigration policies or creationism defended with a view to protecting organic cultural variety it would appear that something has transpired in the valence of the concept of culture such that an earlier oppositional content—found, for example, in Franz Boas or Raymond Williams and avowedly antiracist and counterhegemonic in tone—has been definitively forgotten or lost. Susan Hegeman’s new book, The Cultural Return, takes as its object the complex associational fate of culture in an age in which it is as much the prerogative of oppressed minorities as it is that of majoritarian hegemony itself. Though her analysis extends beyond the aforementioned case, craning (sometimes awkwardly) across disciplines to shake out and taxonomize the diverse connotations and usages of culture, her general (and very useful) thesis is that the social sciences and humanities have shelved the heuristic value of culture at precisely the height of its popular and political purchase. This may, she suggests, have significant consequences for the way we politically model relations between past, present, and future.
According to Hegeman, the “repudiation of culture” is a “trans-disciplinary phenomenon,” one that stands to become, or already has, [End Page 339] a full-fledged academic zeitgeist. This is the intellectual tendency that “best represents our current perceived moment of intellectual rupture with the recent past” (7). The word “culture” in this formulation functions as a shorthand for what Fredric Jameson (among others) has called the “cultural turn,” that shift, first registered in the 1980s and 1990s in the Anglo-American academe, which saw the birth of movement disciplines like Cultural Studies and the New Historicism, but which also triggered existential crises in established fields like literary studies, art history, and philosophy. The injunction to context enacted by the new concept of culture—political and historical factors often methodologically bracketed by these fields—dragged back into the domain of everyday practices and relations objects long sequestered by the requirements of disciplinary reproduction and vanitas. This was experienced by many working within these fields as blunt-force personal trauma, a displacing encounter with their own specialized limits and competencies, but also a painful invalidation of basic disciplinary pleasure, the love of one’s object—whether it be literature or art—which drew so many researchers to these fields in the first place.
Conflict within and between disciplines then spilled over into highly sensationalized media narratives about the despoliation of knowledge and art by politics; according to evangelical church groups and conservative pundits, tenured atheists and feminists were undertaking a war against American values and against the (cultural) civic religion required to prevent society from devolving into moral and economic chaos. Though its place in the university was always precarious and often directly contested by a whole array of skeptics ranging from professors of business to parents frustrated at the politicization of the classroom, the basic postulates of Cultural Studies—the historicity of culture, its vital role in the production and reproduction of subjects, the idea of culture as a site of social struggle over values, as well as politically precious images of the future—found their way into the bloodstream of the humanities and social sciences in subtle, but impacting ways. The basic heuristic potential of culture was effectively indisputable.
Hegeman believes that the ground on which this consensus was established is now beginning to erode. She argues that the last ten years have seen a theoretical shift away from the centrality of culture towards a whole host of new universalities and truths—a shift, in other words, away from mediation, context, and politics and towards immanence, texts, and ethics. In literature, this has expressed itself in calls to a return to aesthetics and to the study of the formal [End Page 340] intricacy and structure of literary works. This is framed in the same language used to describe market corrections, a kind of natural equilibrium reached in the aftermath of...