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  • The Question of Culture (and Anarchy)
  • Tim Walters (bio)

“culture, —eternally pressing onwards and seeking —”

Matthew Arnold

In the end—but the question is precisely whether it is desirable or possible to reach the end and close the books—“Who, we?” is the determinant question not only of the current “culture wars” but of every conceivable discussion of cultural or multicultural identity and indeed of every reference to the concept of culture as such. “Who, we?” is the question of culture.

In the U.S. the expression became famous in its rhetorical mode, where the addition of scare quotes places the “we” under suspicion in order, usually, to reject it outright as an illegitimately homogenizing if not directly oppressive identity. (The classic formulation, “Who, ‘we,’ white man?” has the remarkable quality of being entirely intelligible when uttered by a white man—in response, say, to Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention.) It means “What gives you the right to include me in your ‘we’?” But the answer to that question (as if an answer were sought) is, simultaneously, “everything” and “nothing”—which is to say that the matter of right is irrelevant. The invocation of the “we” or the “our” is a purely performative speech act, the rawest and no doubt one of the most powerful instances of ideological interpellation. Its grasp upon any particular ends just insofar as the latter has the will (and that means the power) to refuse the interpellation. The socio-political history of the U.S. since 1945 can be understood in terms of the ability of [End Page 349] various minorities and other marginalized groups to muster the political power to reject the homogenizing identity imposed by the invocation of “we Americans.” But the question is not entirely rhetorical, for it necessarily implies a contrary sense of identity, if only by negation. The rhetorical rebuke, in other words, is always already the genuine self-interrogation: “Who, ‘we’?” already says “Well, then, who we?”

Cultural identity depends upon an answer to this question; indeed, it just is the answer. The answer is meant to convey something of the content of what makes us who we are. In the current culture wars, the defenders of a common “American” culture maintain that the answer refers to our culture’s “lasting vision, its highest shared ideals, and aspirations, its heritage.” “Our society,” we are told, “is the product of Western civilization,” and a primary task of higher education is to harbor and transmit the knowledge of that civilization. William Bennett’s 1984 manifesto “To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education,” from which these formulations are taken, revels in this rhetoric of material wealth and the gifts of the dead. 1 The “accumulated wisdom of our civilization” (30) constitutes an “inheritance” (9) which it is the task of professors, in the role of trustee of the estate, to transmit, unsoiled, unchanged and undiminished, to “its rightful heirs” (1). If the students can avoid falling victim to the legion of “ideological” (or merely incompetent) professors (6) who would squander the wealth or dispute its value, they will become members of an endowed class, captains of cultural capital, “shareholders in our civilization” (4).

The value and the solvency of the cultural inheritance presumably depends on its precise content. Bennett speaks of “serious truths [and] defensible judgments” (8) and produces a predictable list of required authors (32 men, 2 women, 1 non-white). In lieu of a detailed inventory, however, Bennett invokes the most famous formulation from Matthew Arnold’s 1869 essay Culture and Anarchy. “Expanding on a phrase from Arnold,” Bennett writes, “I would describe the humanities as the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience” (3). The recourse to Arnold is unsurprising and well motivated. Like Arnold, Bennett points to an educational and social crisis pitting our cultural heritage [End Page 350] against a dangerous tendency toward fragmentation, contentiousness and ideological bias. Like Arnold, Bennett is alarmed by the precipitous decline in the former decorum and seriousness of intellectual endeavor, and the headlong march into chaos and nihilism. Surveying the state of religion—and...

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pp. 349-365
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