Essay on Culture and Its Meaning

Culture is usually thought to be a dubious word and one of the most complex words to define in as it has multiple meanings and has been changing its connotations and significations with each age and with each scholar. Each person seems to be defining the term in their own way and this adding to its multiple layers of meanings. Raymond Williams, the famous Marxist critic, a Cultural Materialist, thought that it is the most difficult word that he had come across as he states in his famous book Keywords.

When Raymond Williams came back to Cambridge after the war, he was preoccupied with one single word and its different manifestations – the word was “culture.” Raymond Williams comments – “I had heard it previously in two senses: one at the fringes, in teashops and places like that, where it seemed the preferred word for a kind of social superiority, not in ideas or learning, and not only in money or position, but in a more intangible area, relating to behavior; yet also, secondly, among my own friends, where it was an active word for writing poems and novels, making films and paintings, working in theatres. What I was now hearing were two different senses, which I could not really get clear: first, in the study of literature, a use of the word to indicate, powerfully but not explicitly, some central formation of values (and literature itself had the same kind of emphasis); secondly, in more general discussion, but with what seemed to me very different implications, a use which made it almost equivalent to society: a particular way of life” – “American culture,” “Japanese culture.”

The emphasis on this word by Williams makes it evident that it is one of the words in the vocabulary and parlance of English language which needs to be probed time and again to manifest its different facets and dimensions. Culture can be defined in multiple ways depending on from which position one is trying to define culture. Culture may mean the ideal, the best that is thought and written by the humankind which is a very narrow view about culture or Culture may mean a “way of life” which gives a much broader definition of culture and there has been accepted in today’s world as the definition of culture. In defining culture, the Marxist critic Raymond Williams has a great role to perform as according to him, there are at least three important ways of defining Culture –

“Culture as the Ideal – that is, when culture is “an embodiment of perfect and universal values” (“the best that has been thought and written”). In this kind of a view of culture, the notion and analysis of culture is limited to the rummage around and detection of such “timeless values” which are represented in the lives of the artists and writers or their works. In this definition of culture, which was prevalent before the 1960s, Culture meant the culture of the “ruling class” and all other ways of life was thought to be sub-cultured or uncultured.”

For example, in the colonial context, the European superiority complex led them to think as elite European male culture to be the only culture and whatever did not confirm to the culture of Elite European male was thought to be uncultured. When the Europeans visited Africa, they thought Africa did not have a civilization of their own and are uncultured beings as African way of life did not confirm to the European standards. In this context, it is to be remembered that Africans had a culture of their own, a civilization as rich as the European one; it is just that the Euro-centric ways could not see any culture in African ways of life. Same is not only true about Africa, but also about India, Latin America and host of other colonized countries.

Culture as Documentary means that all kinds of human thoughts, their language and linguistics activities, different forms of representations as well as conventions and experiences are represented and recorded. But even in this kind of a view of culture the descriptive act is done from the perspective of a comparison with the ideal – that is, Culture as an Ideal.

Culture as social – as “a way of life” which means that culture is expressed as the structure of feeling/ consciousness/ sensibilities/ sensibilities of a social group. In this kind of a view of culture, Culture is “analyzed, clarified and valued” in terms of meanings and values of ordinary behaviour and social institutions as well as in terms of their place in art and learning. As stated earlier, if we take this definition of culture as “a way of life” then it seems pretty clear that anyone’s way of life can be termed as culture. So according to this definition of Culture, Women have women’s culture, working class have working class culture, colonized have a culture of their own, students have a culture of their own and so on and so forth.

From these three definitions of culture it can be made out that when I. A. Richards and the New Critics are trying to define culture in their critical writing they have a very limited view of Culture as they think of Culture only from the point of view of Culture as the Ideal, in the sense of what is best written and thought about human beings and their civilization. This view of culture is not only biased but also at the same time has a very narrow scope as it talks about the elitist notion of culture.

Culture is not merely the ideal, as the ideal is something that is decided by the ruling class. And anything that does not bear resemblance to the culture of the ruling class is thought to be no culture at all. Here it is important to understand the Marxist concept of Base and Super structure to some extent as without doing so it is difficult to understand the modern notion of culture. The culture is also a construct of the ruling class and they tend to decide what “culture” would signify at a given point of time. For them it was very significant to define and mark what “culture” meant at a particular point of time as based on what is decided to be culture, they rule over the supposed semi-cultured and the uncultured masses.

From this Marxist presumption, there has been a lot of development in the Cultural Studies in the twentieth century where cultural production of texts and other narratives are seen from a particular point of view. It is significant to understand here that the Marxists critics had problems with this definition of Culture as the culture of the mass (the popular culture) is being denied any space in the definition of ‘culture as an ideal.’ Therefore people by Terry Eagleton and Raymond Williams hit back such definitions of Culture made of the Leavisites (F. R. Leavis and his followers) and I. A. Richards also criticized the notion of Canon-formation, as “the canonicity of the canon has become a yardstick to slot literary works as mainstream or otherwise.”

For Raymond Williams, Cultural materialism, a kind of theory that he proposes, is based on Marxism which is based on “the elaboration of historical materialism” – “Latent within historical materialism is … a way of understanding the diverse social and material production … of works to which the connected but also changing categories of art have been historically applied. I call this position cultural materialism.” Williams counter-posed to “high culture” – “This extraordinary decision to call certain things culture and then separate them, as with a park wall, from ordinary people and ordinary work.”

Similarly, Eagleton similarly bounced back on the Leavisites, as well as that of the critical writings of I. A. Richards by saying that with the coming up of the new classes into the scene, the notion of culture changed as the new group tried to reformulate things to make spaces for themselves. Eagleton says – “literature did more than ‘embody’ certain social values: it was a vital instrument for their deeper entrenchment and wider dissemination. Literature interacts with social forces and creates another set of values altering the existing system.” Or “With the need to incorporate the increasingly powerful but spiritually rather raw middle classes into unity with the ruling aristocracy, to diffuse polite social manners, habits of ‘correct’ taste and common cultural standards, literature gained a new importance.”

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