Volume 19 Issue 45 | March 23 - 29, 2007

The Penny Post

What is culture?

By Andrei Codrescu

The Nazis don’t get quoted much, except for Herman Goehring, who said, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my revolver.” When Goehring said that he meant that he would like to shoot all intellectuals (Jews) because they’d read more books than he had. You can’t shoot a word, like “culture,” but you can certainly shoot the people you might think “cultural” or “cultured.” Goehring was an out and out murderer, but the career of the word “culture” gives me pause. The word has very much detached itself from any living entities that might contain it and has made a careeer of its own, like a balloon that won’t stop inflating.

Everything is now said to have a “culture.” We have “Nazi culture,” we have “corporate culture,” and every city has its own culture (Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, New Orleans). Insert “the culture of” in front of any noun, and you won’t get much dissent. I have a friend who was hired to change “the corporate culture” at a large company, and she quit after a month because she couldn’t get her teeth into the word “culture.” She knew that what needed to be done was to fire a bunch of people and put in a new code of ethics, but “culture”? Well, that was like dandelion seeds. To change it you have to leave the earth.

The purpose of the word “culture” these days is to express something large and unwieldy that has nonetheless some common features. It’s shorthand for atmosphere, only instead of vapor and clouds, it’s made of thoughts, ideas, people and operating procedures. For historians and archeologists, “culture” has come in handy to describe humans in the past, but inflation reigns even there. Saying “neolithic culture” is an easy way to skip a few hundred thousand years, while saying “Vichy culture” is to turn the word into an adjective, a vaguely signifying qualifier.

The word “culture” has either a positive or negative sense depending on what you already think about the thing it qualifies. The “culture of New Orleans” generally means good things: music, food, easy-going people, street festivals. It is invoked to bring business and tourists to the city. There is no doubt a real culture at the origin of this bloated gumbo, but that culture is not so easily described. For one thing, culture is poverty: the expression of people who can’t afford the ready-made. Most Americans appreciate such a thing only if it comes packaged as a ready-made. Live culture, in New Orleans or anywhere else, is difficult to package because it is an evolving artistic activity whose purpose is to undo such generalities as the “culture of…” In other words, most of what marketers, journalists and academics call “culture,” is not.

Ezra Pound called the real thing “kulchur,” to describe an activity, instead of a qualifier. Unfortunately, that “k” brings it closer to Goehring than to yogurt, so it isn’t of much use now. In 20th century Europe a “cultured” person was a professional, not an artist. The culture of this “cultured” type consisted in keeping up with intellectual fashion, and the culture he was marinated in ranged from the classics to the latest kitsch. No self-respecting artist until the late (very late!) 20th century refered to anything as “culture,” as in “the culture of Bali.” We don’t have much of that type of person in America, but we have plenty of P.R. men who find the word marketable.

The only thing worse than “culture” is when it’s joined with “creative.” That’s when I reach for both of my red pens.

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