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CulturePrintCritical dictionary

Theories of Culture

António Fernando Cascais

What is currently understood by the word culture derives largely from the secularization of religion. In the course of that process, culture was thought from several systems of oppositions, among which stand out: nature versus culture, following the answer to the anthropological question on the foundation of the human; civilization versus culture, corollary of the idea of the march of civilization as indefinite human progress; and primitivism versus modernity, which began by expressing Western ethnocentrism, largely widespread in academic and learned environments, as well as in political and popular environments.


Keywords: culture, psychoanalysis and culture, primitivism, ethnocentrism, technique

What is currently understood by the word culture derives largely from the secularization of religion in each one of the spheres of the relationship of human beings, namely with nature, with their peers, and with themselves. It can be said, very briefly - but not particularly less accurately - that the idea of culture came to answer the need to think Mankind both at a general or specific level, at a social or individual level, and at the level of the interrelationship between these. This was a slow process, gradually settled between the eighteenth and the end of the nineteenth century, and only fully attained in the twentieth century. In the course of this process, culture was thought from the following systems of oppositions: nature versus culture, civilization versus culture, primitivism versus modernity.

Partially overlapping the previous oppositions, the idea that human evolution had gone through three states - the savage state, the barbarian state, and the state of civilization - also prevailed in nineteenth-century thought in a widespread way. Peoples living in a savage state were considered as incapable of producing real culture. Barbarian peoples, in turn, would only be able to receive, assimilate and eventually pass on culture, which would be an exclusive attribute of civilized peoples, capable of creating and disseminating it. The possibility of Western culture's universalization was grounded in this conception of the modern West as the culmination of the march of civilization and thus made colonial power legitimate.

The secularization of philosophical thought, by bracketing the "divine hypothesis" as the origin of Humankind, is the indispensable condition for the theoretical emergence of the debate which opposed nature and culture. That is, if thought ceases to deal with man as divine creation, then all that concerns him can only have its origin in nature or history. The big debate which opposed nature and culture - and which the English language established as the debate over nature versus nurture - does not exactly concern the fact of culture, which can be considered as taken for granted by both contenders of that debate, but the foundation of culture - or rather, of the anthropological difference that forms culture. Its aim was to know if man had arrived at being what he is, gradually freeing himself from animality, through nature or history. In other words, it sought to know if culture results from biological evolution and if it can still, in some way, refer to its laws, or if, on the contrary, these lack any explanatory value, given that culture is defined precisely by the overcoming of the biological condition, and the laws that govern it are neither homologous nor even analogous to the biological functioning of Humankind qua species. Although this discussion precedes Darwin's theory of the evolution of species, it is specially heightened by Darwinian evolutionism and continues to have its sequels still today. This discussion was particularly relevant for anthropology, as can be noticed from Bronislaw Malinovski's position (1997) on this matter. According to him, the essential fact of culture lies in the organization of human beings in groups with a permanent character, and each culture owes its plenitude and self-sufficiency to the fact that it satisfies all the range of basic, instrumental and integrative needs. These, however, refer to the community as a whole, and not to the individual who always satisfies his physical needs under cultural conditions. In this sense, needs are not only defined according to exclusively biological determinisms. Instead, they end up becoming cultural imperatives, essential for survival, which makes vital needs and needs derived from culture have the same rigidity.

Among the tendencies that nowadays are inclined to see in the biological substratum the determining bases of human culture, sociobiology (Wilson, 1982) and ethical evolutionism (Changeux, 1996; Chiarelli, 1991) stand out. The controversy about which model of rationality should be adopted by a science of human phenomena - whether a model traced from natural sciences' methodology or an alternative model, as had long been isolatedly suggested by Giambattista Vico - is at the origin of the famous dispute over method, initially assumed by the philosophical hermeneutics tradition which opposed the explanatory method of natural sciences to the comprehensive method of cultural sciences. Auguste Comte's positivism made the scientific-natural model prevail in the foundation of social sciences. However, both their internal evolution and external criticism led to its replacement by an alternative model which values the specificity of human phenomena, namely their double character - historical and linguistic - and thus gives origin to the constructionist view widespread today in social and human sciences. Social constructionism rejects the idea of determinisms - both biological and social - and underlines the fact that human phenomena are built linguistically. The recognition of language's performativity, i.e. of its ability to produce effects and thus mould identities, also goes hand in hand with an increasingly widespread recognition of the fact that human beings are moulded by technique, and therefore that technique is incorporated in social practices and identities. The reciprocal exclusion between nature, culture and technique, which prevailed for a long time in Western thought, is thus overcome.

          The controversy which opposed civilization and culture, Zivilization and Kultur (Starobinski, 2000), dates back to German Romanticism and its essential features are so characteristic of the context in which it emerged that it is hard for it to disconnect from this context and update itself today with the meaning and relevance it had then. Nevertheless, its effects did not stop from reaching the present. The conception of the history of Humankind as the march of civilization was consolidated in the nineteenth century, and was shared by the cultural and political elites of Western countries, by the tendencies of positivist thought - mainly dominant in the natural and social sciences which considered them as their model of rationality - and by the tendencies opposed to positivism, mainly prevailing in the humanities and in the arts. Positivist tendencies conceived the march of civilization as an indefinite progress - material, social and cognitive - guided by modern natural science and the technology associated to it. Anti-positivist thought, namely in Germany, preferred to understand human progress as spiritual progress, evident in philosophy, in the humanities and in the arts, while privileged expressions of the spirit of a people or nation. Kultur would be the distinctive mark of peoples specially inclined for such, with Germany at the head, whereas from the Germanic point of view, Zivilization - which powers such as England and France exhibited to the world - had a character at once more cosmopolitan but, for that very reason, more materialistic and trivial. Accordingly, it was in Germany that the ideal of transforming the civilizing process into the Menscheitsbildung program - the construction of modern civilized man - was formulated in a doctrinal way.

          The opposition between civilization and culture was not, however, unanimous. The Freudian conception of the way we moved from nature to culture rejects that opposition. According to the Freudian psychoanalysis model, the process of moving from nature to culture essentially goes through the repression of instincts whose satisfaction is socially unacceptable and which, after being repressed into the unconscious, can only be expressed in a sublimated way, thus being channelled towards socially useful forms. At strictly individual level, the failure of this process of repression and sublimation can be at the origin of neurosis, which has an eloquent manifestation in the neurotic horror of carnality, of the fact that "inter urinas et faeces nascimur" (that "we are born between urines and feces"). Freud signals, nevertheless, that modern society - the most sophisticated from the point of view of the control of drives, and that seems more and better able than any of the ones before it to provide well-being, safety and happiness to its members - is, paradoxically, the only one that evidences a collective and widespread discontent, expressed in collective movements of flight, rejection and radical change. In this regard, Freud echoes the theme - largely glossed in literary and philosophical thought - of Weltschmerz, of malaise, of the mal-de-vivre, or of modern discontentment with civilization.

George Simmel (1993) is a pioneer in studying, from a sociological point of view, this internal laceration of culture in modern societies, those that sociology establishes as the sole object of its study. Norbert Elias (1989, 1990) breaks with the assumption that modern society is the result of the rupture with what precedes it, showing that modern civic culture is the fruit of socialization, i.e. of the change into a universal model, of the courtisan culture, typical of the aristocratic societies from the Ancien Régime. Modern man's model of behavior was universalized from the aristocratic courtier model. His politesse or courtesy is the fruit of a long psychogenesis which Elias called the civilizing process, and which culminated with the bourgeois civic-mindedness of the democratic States of Law. The civilizing process is broadly characterized by the progressive internalization of external coercions to individual behavior, particularly the unrestrained expression of passions, as self-containment which the individual starts to exercise upon himself, "civilizing himself". German Romanticism's Menscheitsbildung is no more than the idealized, doctrinal and programatic version of the civilizing process. Michel Foucault (1977, 1984) sheds an unprecedented light on Modernity, in a sense that corroborates Elias, but from the denunciation of the idea that modern - and apparently "civilized" - man is the result of a process of repression and sublimation, unlike the psychoanalytic conception and Max Weber's thesis which characterizes modern culture with the general features of rationalization (initiated by the Protestant ethic) and of the disenchantment of the world, resulting from the replacement of faith in the divine providence's intervention in history by the scientific explanation and technological control. In fact, Foucault shows how modern rational man is after all the result of the individual's discursive and technological construction which, cloaked in rationality, discipline and normalize him. Modern man, allegedly civilized, is therefore the product of the symbolic and technical mobilization which make him the most shapeable that ever existed, but also the most productive and with the greatest ability to build and rebuild himself. Culture and action - social, ethical or political - would thus not be distinguished.

          The idea of culture was also thought under the light of another binary opposition, between primitivism and modernity. This opposition originally expressed Western ethnocentrism, largely widespread in academic and learned environments, as well as in political and popular environments. Mainly at the height of European colonial expansion, in the modern age, "culture" had a semantic connotation which made it synonymous to ethnic exoticism, at the same time Western culture presented itself as the model of culture, precisely because it was not self-perceived as culture. Culture was synonymous to museological archaism, in contrast to modernity and the West which would have overcome the "primitive" stage of a culture circumscribed in space and time, to rise to universality, absorbing in itself the total human adventure. The march of civilization, with its indefinite economic, social, scientific and technological progress, would have uprooted Western culture from ethnic particularism to fulfill the meaning of the history of all Humankind. Colonial anthropology is largely responsible for this bias, and its victims - both colonized peoples and the West's own past - are united in a same "primitivism", invariably doomed to extinction under the civilizing action of the West. The denunciation of this bias has already made a long career and is at the origin of the current field of Cultural Studies, with Stuart Hall as its emblematic figure.



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