Volume 19 Issue 45 | March 23 - 29, 2007
The Penny Post
What is culture?
By Andrei Codrescu
The Nazis dont 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 theyd read more books than he had. You cant 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 wont 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 wont 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 couldnt 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. Its shorthand for atmosphere, only instead of vapor and clouds, its 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 cant 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 isnt 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 dont 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 its joined with creative. Thats when I reach for both of my red pens.