The Hubris of Culture

And the Limits of Identity Politics

Unlike media moguls, literary critics have always harbored doubts about their own importance. On the one hand, there is no denying that literature deals with the most fundamental of human realities, which may be enough to confer a degree of status on those who trade in it. On the other hand, ever since it deserted the public sphere to enter academia, the study of literary works has been a peripheral pursuit, to the point where it is not hard to imagine university departments of literature (indeed of the arts and humanities in general) becoming a thing of the past. Academic literary studies were greeted with cries of genteel derision when they first emerged (did a gentleman really require formal instruction in the literary arts of his own language, any more than in the art of how to carry his rifle while out on a shoot?), and must nowadays confront a more streetwise form of skepticism (do such recondite pursuits really contribute anything to a buoyant economy?).

It was the concept of popular culture, among other new developments, that rode to the rescue of a literary criticism at risk of losing its social relevance altogether. Once literary scholars ventured into the study of film, media, and popular fiction, there could be no doubt that they had some plausible claim to centrality. They were, after all, engaged with artefacts consumed by millions of ordinary people. A different kind of centrality was assigned to those literary intellectuals who, decades earlier, threw in their lot with revolutionary nationalism—men and women who, in exchanging the seminar room for the battlefield, could lay claim to world-historical status. The Irish revolutionary Thomas MacDonagh, having conducted his last university class (on Jane Austen) in Dublin, left the campus to take part in the anticolonial insurrection of Easter 1916, and later met his death at the hands of the British army. The road from Mansfield Park to militant patriot proved shorter than one might imagine. Once the revolutionary nationalist tide began to ebb, it was ethnic politics and postcolonial issues that helped secure a broader role for cultural theory, just as the growth of the culture industry had done already. The so-called War on Terror played its part, too, as cultural affinities, ethnic identities, and religious convictions billowed into global political discord. Before then, however, cultural and literary studies had been lent a powerful new lease on life by the rise of sexual politics, which for the past few decades has been one of its major preoccupations. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, then, there seemed no doubt that the concept of culture had a future which would last at least as long as jihad, and which only the demise of cinema and television, along with the disappearance of libido from the face of the earth, might seriously imperil. Culture as a concept had not only come of age, but seemed in some quarters to reign supreme.

It was, however, in danger of overrating its own importance. Take, for example, the ambiguity of the term “culture industry.” If the word “industry” is a measure of how far cultural production has extended its reach throughout modern civilization, it is also a reminder that the chief motives for this are by no means cultural ones. Like General Motors, Hollywood and the media exist primarily for the sake of their shareholders. It is the profit motive that impels culture to spread its sway across the globe. The culture industry testifies less to the centrality of culture than to the expansionist ambitions of the late capitalist system, which can now colonize fantasy and enjoyment as intensively as it once colonized Kenya and the Philippines. In a curious irony, then, the larger mass culture looms, the more it appears as a phenomenon in its own right, but the less of an autonomous zone it actually is. Besides, the more influential this culture grows, the more it reinforces a global system whose ends are for the most part inimical to culture in the normative sense of the term.

The conventional postmodern wisdom is that this system has now taken a cultural turn. From the rough-spoken old industrial world, we have now evolved to capitalism with a cultural face. The role of the so-called “creative” industries, the power of the new cultural technologies, the prominent role of sign, image, brand, icon, spectacle, lifestyle, fantasy, design, and advertising: all this is taken to testify to the emergence of an “aesthetic” form of capitalism, in transit from the material to the immaterial. What this amounts to, however, is that capitalism has incorporated culture for its own material ends, not that it has fallen under the sway of the aesthetic, gratuitous, self-delighting, or self-fulfilling. On the contrary, this aestheticized mode of capitalist production has proved more ruthlessly instrumental than ever. “Creativity,” which for Karl Marx and William Morris signified the opposite of capitalist utility, is pressed into the service of acquisition and exploitation.

There is no clearer example of the way capitalism is intent on assimilating what once seemed its opposite (“culture”) than the global decline of the universities. Along with the fall of Communism and the Twin Towers, it ranks among the most momentous events of our age, if somewhat less spectacular in nature. A centuries-old tradition of universities as centers of humane critique is currently being scuppered by their conversion into pseudo-capitalist enterprises under the sway of a brutally philistine managerial ideology. Once arenas of critical reflection, academic institutions are being increasingly reduced to organs of the marketplace, along with betting shops and fast-food joints. They are now for the most part in the hands of technocrats for whom values are largely a matter of real estate. A new intellectual proletariat of academics is assessed by how far their lectures on Plato or Copernicus boost the economy, while unemployed graduates constitute a kind of lumpen intelligentsia. Students who are currently charged fees by the year will no doubt soon find their tutors charging by the insight. In moving some of its academic staff to new premises, one British university recently issued an edict severely restricting their ability to keep books in their minuscule offices. The dream of our universities’ boneheaded administrators is of a bookless and paperless environment, books and paper being messy, crumply stuff incompatible with a gleaming neo-capitalist wasteland consisting of nothing but machines, bureaucrats, and security guards. Since students are also messy, crumply stuff, the ideal would be a campus on which no such inconvenient creatures were in sight. The death of the humanities is now an event waiting on the horizon.

What ought finally to have discredited the faith that capitalism has shifted to a new cultural mode was the financial debacle of 2008. One consequence of such upheavals is that, for an inconvenient moment, they strip the veil of familiarity from a form of life that has ceased to be regarded as a specific historical system. By throwing its inner workings into relief, they allow that life-form to be framed, objectified, and estranged. As such, it ceases to be the invisible color of everyday life and can be seen instead as a historically recent mode of civilization. Significantly, it is in the throes of such crises that even those who are supposed to run the system begin for the first time to use the word “capitalism,” rather than to speak more euphemistically of Western democracy or the Free World. They thus steal a march on some sectors of the cultural left, which in their zeal for a discourse of difference, diversity, identity, and marginality ceased to use the word “capitalism”—let alone “exploitation” or “revolution”—some decades ago. Neoliberal capitalism has no difficulty with terms like “diversity” or “inclusiveness,” as it does with the language of class struggle.

It is imprudent for the Masters of the Universe to talk of capitalism, since in doing so they acknowledge that their form of life is simply one among many, that like all other such life-forms it has a specific origin, and that what was born can always die. It may be that capitalism is simply human nature, but it is hard to deny that there was a time when there was human nature but not capitalism. What the crisis of 2008 put most embarrassingly on show, however, was how little the system had fundamentally changed, for all the excited talk of lifestyle and hybridity, flexible identities and immaterial labor, rhizome-like organizations and CEOs in open-necked shirts, the disappearance of the working class and the shift from industrial labor to information technology and the service industry. Despite these innovations, the momentary crackup of the system revealed that we were still languishing in a world of mass unemployment and obscenely overpaid executives, gross inequalities and squalid public services, one in which the state was every bit as obedient a tool of ruling-class interests as the most resolutely vulgar of Marxists had ever imagined. What was at stake was not image and icon but gargantuan fraud and systemic plunder. The true gangsters and anarchists wore pinstripe suits, and the robbers were running the banks rather than raiding them.


THE IDEA OF culture is traditionally bound up with the concept of distinction. High culture is a question of rank. One thinks of the great haut-bourgeois families portrayed by Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann, for whom power and material wealth are accompanied by a lofty cultural tone and bear with them certain moral obligations. Spiritual hierarchy goes hand in hand with social inequality. The aim of advanced capitalism, by contrast, is to preserve inequality while abolishing hierarchy. In this sense, its material base is at odds with its cultural superstructure. You do not need to proclaim your superiority to other peoples in order to raid their natural resources, as long as by doing so you maintain the material inequalities between them and yourself. Whether Americans regard themselves as superior to Iraqis is really neither here nor there, given that it is political and military control over an oil-rich region they have in their sights. Culturally speaking, late capitalism is for the most part a matter not of hierarchy but hybridity—of mingling, merging, and multiplicity—while, materially speaking, the gulf between social classes assumes ultra-Victorian proportions. There are plenty of exponents of cultural studies who take note of the former but not the latter. While the sphere of consumption is hospitable to all comers, the domain of property and production remains rigidly stratified. Divisions of property and class, however, are partly masked by the levelling, demotic, spiritually promiscuous culture in which they are set, as they were not in the era of Proust and Mann. In contrast to that stately milieu, cultural and material capital now begin to split apart. The brokers, jobbers, operators, and speculators who float to the top of the system in their spiritual weightlessness are hardly remarkable for their aesthetic wisdom.

The breaking down of cultural hierarchies is clearly to be welcomed. For the most part, however, it is less the upshot of a genuinely democratic spirit than an effect of the commodity form, which levels existing values rather than contesting them in the name of alternative priorities. Indeed, it represents an assault less on cultural supremacism than on the notion of value as such. The very act of discrimination becomes suspect. Not only does it involve exclusion, but it must inevitably imply the possibility of a superior vantage point, which seems offensive to the egalitarian spirit. Those who prefer Billie Holliday to Liam Gallagher (and what right have they to judge in any case?) are simply being elitist. Since nothing is more common than evaluation in pubs and sports stadiums, this aversion to ranking is itself an elitist posture. Distinctions give way to differences. The cuisine of Florence, Arizona, is neither better nor worse than that of Florence, Italy—simply different. To discriminate is unjustly to demean one thing while falsely absolutizing another. To judge that Donald Trump has less humility than Pope Francis is to thrust Trump self-righteously into the outer darkness, thereby flouting the absolute value of inclusivity; and who am I to arrogate such authority? From what odiously Olympian standpoint has one the right to pontificate that feeding a gerbil is preferable to microwaving it?

The bogus populism of the commodity—its warm-hearted refusal to rank, exclude, and discriminate—is based on a blank indifference to absolutely everyone. Careless for the most part of distinctions of class, race, and gender, impeccably even-handed in its favors, it will yield itself, in the spirit of a whorehouse, to anyone with the cash to buy it. A similar indifference underlies the historic advance of multiculturalism. If the human species now has a chance, for the first time in its history, to become thoroughly hybrid, it is largely because the capitalist market will buy the labor-power of anyone willing to sell it, whatever their cultural origins. There are, to be sure, some transitional tensions at work here. At present, it is the economy that is promiscuously open to all comers, and a certain current of racist culture that wishes to discriminate. A capitalist market accustomed to being culturally embedded in the nation state, whose military firepower and social homogeneity served it well over the centuries, now pitches different ethnic groups together; and the racist and neo-fascist forces that this unleashes threaten to splinter the national cohesion on which a globalized economic system continues to depend.


FOR THE MOMENT, then, culture and the economy are in some sense out of synchrony. While the latter can go global, it is not so simple for the former to wax cosmopolitan. One can, to be sure, hang around polyglot cafés or enjoy the music of a score of nations, but culture in this sense of the term lacks the depth in which values and convictions need to be rooted. There are indeed international allegiances for which men and women have been ready to die, not least in the socialist tradition; but culture, as Edmund Burke was aware, draws much of its resilience from local loyalties. It is hard to imagine the citizens of Bradford or Bruges throwing themselves on the barricades crying “Long live the European Union!” Far from producing citizens of the world, transnational capitalism tends to breed parochialism and insecurity among a large swathe of those subject to its sway; and it is toward racism and chauvinism, not into cosmopolitan cafés, that this insecurity is likely to impel them.

While some forms of culture have increased in significance, others have diminished. Nobody believes any longer that art can fill the shoes of the Almighty. Culture as a critique of civilization has been increasingly eroded, undermined among other things by the postmodern prejudice that any such critique must address itself to an illusory social totality from an equally illusory standpoint of absolute knowledge. It has also come under siege from the intellectual treason of the universities. The critical or utopian dimensions of the concept of culture are rapidly declining. If culture signifies a corporate way of life, as it does when we speak of deaf culture, beach culture, police culture, café culture, and so on, then it is hard for it to serve at the same time as a yardstick by which to assess such forms of life, or to evaluate social existence in general. So-called identity politics are not remarkable for their self-critical spirit. The point of engaging in, say, English folk culture is to affirm English folksiness, not to question it. Nobody becomes a Morris dancer in order to satirize the whole sorry business.

At the same time, there are political cultures (gay, feminist, ethnic, musical, and so on) that are indeed deeply critical of the status quo. They inherit the dissenting impulse of Kulturkritik while jettisoning its spiritual elitism. They also reject its abstract utopianism for a specific way of life. If they challenge the patrician remoteness of the tradition that passes from Friedrich Schiller to D. H. Lawrence, with its disdain for modernity, they also differ from those corporate life-forms that exist simply to affirm a particular social identity, rather than to cast a cold eye on the social order as a whole. Nobody but the most sorely misguided of citizens becomes a Morris dancer in order to overthrow capitalism, whereas many a feminist has greeted the prospect with acclaim. Political cultures of this kind combine critique with solidarity in something like the style of the traditional labor movement.

Yet though identity politics and multiculturalism can be radical forces, they are not for the most part revolutionary ones. Some of these political currents have largely abandoned their hopes in this regard, while others never entertained them in the first place. They differ in this respect from the powers that drove the British from India and the Belgians from the Congo. Those campaigns were quite properly a matter of expulsion and exclusion, not in the first place of plurality and inclusivity. They also envisaged a world beyond the horizon of capitalist reality, even if those visions were to be for the most part thwarted. Today’s cultural politics, by contrast, is not generally given to challenging those priorities. It speaks the language of gender, identity, marginality, diversity, and oppression, but not for the most part the idiom of state, property, class-struggle, ideology, and exploitation. Roughly speaking, it is the difference between anti-colonialism and postcolonialism. Cultural politics of this kind are in one sense the very opposite of elitist notions of culture. Yet they share in their own way that elitism’s overvaluing of cultural affairs, as well as its distance from the prospect of fundamental change.


WHAT, FINALLY, OF the so-called War on Terror? Is it not here that we should look for the persistence of cultural questions in political society? Perhaps one might see the collapse of the World Trade Center as a surreal explosion of archaic cultural forces at the very heart of modern civilization. The clash between Western capitalism and radical Islam, however, is primarily a geopolitical affair, not a cultural or religious one, rather as the recent conflict in Northern Ireland had little to do with religious conviction. There has been much talk in the region of the need for an amicable encounter between what is blandly known as “the two cultural traditions,” Unionist and nationalist. It is thus that a history of injustice and inequality, of Protestant supremacy and Catholic subjugation, can be converted into an innocuous question of alternative cultural identities. Culture becomes a convenient way of displacing politics.

As in the case of revolutionary nationalism, culture may supply some of the terms on which material and political battles are joined, but it does not constitute their substance. By and large, fundamentalism is the creed of those who feel abandoned and humiliated by modernity, and the forces responsible for this pathological state of mind, like those that give birth to multiculturalism, are far from cultural in themselves. In fact, the central questions that confront a humanity moving into the new millennium are not cultural ones at all. They are far more mundane and material than that. War, hunger, drugs, arms, genocide, disease, ecological disaster: all of these have their cultural aspects, but culture is not the core of them. If those who speak of culture cannot do so without inflating the concept, it is perhaps better for them to remain silent.

This essay was excerpted from Culture, published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Terry Eagleton. Reprinted with permission.

Published in the April 15, 2016 issue: 

Terry Eagleton, the Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, is the author of more than fifty books in the fields of literary theory, politics, and religion. He lives in Northern Ireland. This essay was excerpted from his new book, Radical Sacrifice, published by Yale University Press. Copyright ©2018 by Terry Eagleton. Reprinted with permission of Yale University Press.

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