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Thursday, April 4, 2013


What is meant by the word "culture"? In other words, since all human ideas and activities are cultural by definition, the cultural is, in theory, everything and nothing, yet people mean something a bit more specific when they say culture or cultural.

That was a question I posed to my class yesterday. The answers I came up in class, with some further elaboration this morning, with were these. I wasn't looking for the standard anthropological answer.

1) Culture is only culture when it is a problem, somehow. For it to be a problem you have to have two cultures, or two definitions of culture. Hence everything in cultural theory has to be trans- or inter- or multi-.

2) Culture is symbolic. It is the meaning attached to whatever the phenomenon is. So eating garlic is not cultural, but believing that garlic is symbolic of Spanish culture is, in the way that Barthes talks about le bifsteak as a sign of francicité. For a meaning to be cultural it has to attach itself to some kind of "identity."

3) Cultural debate is about legitimacy. What gets to count as culture, what gets to be studied or granted symbolic importance.

So to synthesize these points, culture has to do with the jockeying for legitimacy among contested symbols of identity or identification. It only becomes visible as such when there is a conflict over legitimacy.

Once this is clear, I will know how to define cultural exceptionalism: all cultural theory is exceptionalist, to the extent that it defines symbols of identity in a way that is charged with value judgments. That's how far I've gotten today.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

You write:

"the jockeying for legitimacy among contested symbols is identity or identification"

I think that "is" is a typo, but I'm not sure what is supposed to be there. As? Of? For?