Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Culture and civilisation

Terry Eagleton, writing in today's Guardian, warns that civilisation and culture are coming into conflict. He quotes Raymond Williams saying 'culture is ordinary', to which I would argue that the futile attempts to, as George Orwell had it, 'Marxise' it have for the past eighty years failed, largely because culture is not 'ordinary', nor does it fall into patronising little niches. The Marxists have tried and tried to claim culture as their own, but always failed. Eagleton later quotes Walter Benjamin, so I will do likewise, from 1936, on the subject of art – which may, of course, be both reflection and progenitor of culture:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.

This is a curious anomoly which has existed since 1455 and the invention of printing – indeed, even before that, with (relatively) mass produced block books. What is the original work of art? Taken out of its time, its moment, its context, shorn of its experience, how can one truly know that work of art? It loses an essential dimension. No reproduction, however good, can revivify that; indeed, no exhibition – which takes paintings out of their respective contexts and creates a whole, new, artificial universe in which they temporarily subsist – can ever truly get to the heart and soul of art. That is the way of it. There is no remedy.

It seems to me, reading Eagleton's article, that in his simplistic approach to culture he is similarly seeking to take it out of its time. He is not doing this in the same way – by creating a reproduced image – but the effect is the same: a diminution in the power that culture – or art – can hold over the observer, because of the loss of this essential dimension of timeliness. But, in Eagleton's case, this loss is deliberate, part of his tired dogmatism, his inability to move with the moment.

He does this by quoting Benjamin and extrapolating from that quote in a tendentious way. Benjamin, he says:

declared that 'every document of civilisation is at the same time a record of barbarism'. For every cathedral, a pit of bones; for every work of art, the mass labour that granted the artist the resources to create it. Civilisation needs to be wrested from nature by violence, but the violence lives on in the coercion used to protect civilisation - a coercion known among other things as the political state.

This initial point could be powerful, but the examples he gives are weak. They are, essentially, trivial. And in so doing, Eagleton tries to impute to culture something which isn't there; humans, those creators, recipients and benefiters of culture, do not think of culture in such terms. Culture should not be defined by negatives, by the cost it took to make. This reading of culture is a reading that doesn't exist, other than in the mind of one who creates it with the specific intention of knocking it down. A straw culture, perhaps. Eagleton is not, as with a reproduction of a work of art, giving us an image of culture in its entirety: he is seeking to subvert our understanding of it; he is trying to force on it a reading that doesn't exist. This is how, for example, Heart of Darkness becomes a 'racist' text: anachronistic interpretations are forced upon things, we are invited to regard them in a light which was not present when that work of art was conceived.

And yet Benjamin concluded in his study of art and reproduction that, despite their inability to reflect the heart of a work of art, such reproductions were a good thing. The 'technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.' It leads to a 'tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind'. It has a 'destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage'.

It is, therefore, revolutionary.

On the other hand, however, Eagleton's view of culture is entirely reactionary. It is the sad fate of all revolutionaries that they fall out of time and that their views, once fresh and radical, become tired and rehashed. They seek to resolve new questions with their trusty old answers. No matter that they failed in the 30s and the 60s and the 70s and the 80s. They try to dress the new limbs of new culture in the old garb of Marxism and wonder why soft, pink, vulnerable skin remains exposed.

What is Eagleton's prognosis? A battle between civilisation and culture:

We face a conflict between civilisation and culture, which used to be on the same side. Civilisation means rational reflection, material wellbeing, individual autonomy and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective and arational. It is no surprise, then, to find that we have civilisation whereas they have culture. Culture is the new barbarism. The contrast between west and east is being mapped on a new axis.

So there we have it. Let's overlook the fact that his descriptions of 'civilisation' and 'culture' are completely nonsensical. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and take him at face value. What is he telling us? We are facing a battle of east and west. This isn't new. This is straying into Samuel Huntington territory, the clash of civilisations, the free world against the forces of darkness. And what was Clash of Civilisations if it wasn't the Cold War reformulated? Or the Wild West reformulated? The Good Guys against the Bad Guys. Make your choices now – white hats or black hats. Eagleton, the old marxist, has no new answers. His prognosis leads nowhere, because it is constructed from arguments as withered as November leaves.

George Orwell, describing the same 1930s that Benjamin was writing in, made the 'mental connexion between pessimism and a reactionary outlook'. Prior to this was a period in which great art was produced, but:

[s]uddenly we have got out of the twilight of the gods into a sort of Boy Scout atmosphere of bare knees and community singing. The typical literary man ceases to be a cultured expatriate with a leaning towards the Church, and becomes an eager-minded schoolboy with a leaning towards communism. If the keynote of the writers of the twenties is 'tragic sense of life' the keynote of the new writers in 'serious purpose'.

How might we define the approach of Eagleton and his like today? Their world-view is dreary, reactionary, doom-mongering. And always wallowing, of course, in the unsaid, in the 'more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger' pompous tones of the truly righteous. If only, they suggest, if only you’d followed us all those years ago into the new world that we promised, then we wouldn't be in this fix. Civilisation would be cured, culture would be properly married to the masses, there would be harmony throughout the world.

But what, really, do they offer? They talk of liberty, of allowing culture the freedom to nurture new seeds, new strains. Noble words. But, as Orwell explains, the reality in the 30s was:

It was a time of labels, slogans, and evasions. At the worst moments you were expected to lock yourself up in a constipating little cage of lies; at the best a sort of voluntary censorship ('Ought I to say this? Is it pro-Fascist?') was at work in nearly everyone's mind. It is almost inconceivable that good novels should be written in such an atmosphere. Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.

This is the crux of it. This is why I hate Eagleton's rage at the dying of the marxist light, at his shallow, anachronistic, manipulative, deliberately reductive approach to the question of culture. Because it will lead to where? To stagnation – stagnation of culture, of art, ultimately of civilisation itself. And meanwhile the dogmatists will wring their hands and say 'I told you so' and 'whatever can be done?' and 'woe is us, oh woe is us'. And meanwhile those who mean civilisation harm will do civilisation harm.

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