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  • The Ubiquity of Culture
  • Jeffrey J. Williams (bio)
Review essay: Francis Mulhern, Culture/Metaculture (London: Routledge, 2000) and Terry Eagleton, The Idea of Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).

If you are building a house, the first thing you do is probably not to plant flowers. You dig the basement, pour the foundation, frame the building, raise and shingle the roof, put up the siding, and so forth. Then, if you have time and money left, you might put in a flower bed. The flowers might give you pleasure when you see them, but they are not usually considered essential to the house; they do not keep you dry in rain, warm in winter, or fill your stomach.

The traditional idea of culture as high art conceives of culture as something like the flower bed. While we might appreciate and value artifacts we deem beautiful, they are not essential to our primary physical needs. In a no-nonsense, colloquial view, culture is ornamental, secondary to if not a frivolous distraction from the real business of life. In classical aesthetics, culture is defined precisely by its uselessness and detachment from ordinary life. In psychology, Maslow’s model of a “pyramid of needs” places culture in the upper reaches of the pyramid, possible only after the broad base of material needs are taken care of, which are primary to psychological well-being. In the classical Marxist view, culture forms part of the superstructure, tertiary to the economic base, which determines human life.1 Accordingly, studies of culture, like literary or art criticism, have traditionally been considered refined pursuits, like gardening or horticulture, but not of primary importance to society, like politics, economics, or business.

Culture of course has another familiar sense: rather than the flowers of human experience, it encompasses a broad range of human experiences and products. Though abnegating its special status, this sense likewise plays off the agricultural root of culture, expanding the bed from a narrow plot to the various fields of human manufacture. Over the past few decades, this latter sense seems to have taken precedence in colloquial usage, in politics, and in criticism. We speak of proclivities within a society, such as “sports culture,” “car culture,” “hiphop culture,” or “mall culture.” In political discourse, culture describes the tenor of society, such as “the culture of complaint,” “the culture of civility,” or “the culture of fear,” and societies are defined by their cultures, such as the “culture of Islam,” “the culture of democracy,” or “the culture of imperialism,” which generate their politics. In criticism and theory, culture, whether indicating race, class, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, abledness, locality, or taste, determines human identity, which in turn designates political interest. In short, “culture” has shifted from ornament to essence, from secondary effect to primary cause, and from a matter of disinterested taste to a matter of political interest. Consequently, pursuits that study culture, like literary or cultural criticism, have claimed greater political importance to society.

The reconception of culture does not dispel the idea of the house of society and the garden of culture, but reconfigures the process of construction. The question of a house presupposes the prior determination of culture, and a flower bed is not an afterthought but part and parcel of that culture; one’s culture determines whether one would own a plot of land and want a house rather than an apartment or a tent, and whether one would want a manicured lawn and attendant shrubbery. Culture draws the house plans before one pours any cement; it is the material that generates the world with such possible human activities and with businesses that produce cement, lumber, and potted plants.

Nearly fifty years ago, Raymond Williams charged criticism to understand the conjunction of “culture and society.” Now it seems that culture is society, interchangeable as a synonym for social interests, groups, and bases. Williams also charged us to examine culture in its ordinary as well as extraordinary forms, and it seems that the field of literary criticism has followed this mandate, undergoing what Anthony Easthope described as a paradigm shift, the objects of study expanding from high literature to all culture. However, if there is a paradigm of contemporary...

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