THR Web Features   /   January 29, 2015

What Is It About Culture?

Jay Tolson

Wood engraving after a drawing by Jules Gaildrau, 1857. Old Book Illustrations.

When the word culture was selected as Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2014, we at The Hedgehog Review took notice. Culture, after all, is our game, and the fact that more and more people are apparently puzzling over its meaning struck us as a matter of some, well, cultural interest.

Merriam-Webster’s editors base their selection solely on whichever word receives the biggest increase of visits on their web site during the course of a year. So what was it about culture that occasioned so much lexical befuddlement in 2014? The editors tried to explain:

Culture is a big word at back-to-school time each year, but this year lookups extended beyond the academic calendar. The term conveys a kind of academic attention to systematic behavior and allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group: we speak of a “culture of transparency” or “consumer culture.” Culture can be either very broad (as in “celebrity culture” or “winning culture”) or very specific (as in “test-prep culture” or “marching band culture”).

Searching for deeper significance, Joshua Rothman at The New Yorker saw the uptick of interest  as a sign that people were finding the word “unsettling,” and possibly more negative than positive in its connotations. “The most positive aspect of ‘culture’—the idea of personal, humane enrichment—now seems especially remote,” Rothman surmised. “In its place, the idea of culture as unconscious groupthink is ascendant.”

If culture has acquired a “furtive, shady, ridiculous aspect”—from the ritualized business and bureaucratic uses of the word (“corporate culture”) to the trivially commercial (“celebrity culture”) to the identity-oriented (“gay culture”) to the sinister behavioral (“rape culture”)—Rothman has found at least one thing to cheer about all this culture talk:

“Culture” may be pulling itself apart from the inside, but it represents, in its way, a wish. The wish is that a group of people might discover, together, a good way of life; that their good way of life might express itself in their habits, institutions, and activities; and that those, in turn, might help people flourish in their own ways.

In these less-than-joyous times, one wants to endorse the positive wherever one can find it. But Rothman comes to his optimism a little prematurely. The proliferating uses of culture may indeed suggest a growing, if inchoate, popular awareness that cultures, in the deepest sense, are those symbolic “webs of significance” (in anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s words) that provide humans with meaning and moral order. But we suspect this awareness grows out of an troubled sense of what is, at once, so powerful and insufficient about the deep culture of modernity: namely, its almost exclusive celebration of the autonomous individual loosed from all strong commitments and guided only by his or her (consumerist) appetites and preferences. Social critic Philip Rieff famously dubbed ours an “anti-culture,” and its deficiencies, including its therapeutic ethos, partly account for the multitude of mini-cultures that have emerged from it. These mini-cultures, based on everything from ethnic identities to hobbies to life-stages, do indeed “identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group.” But the affiliations and ties provided by such mini-cultures are ultimately fragile and contingent. None challenge the sovereignty of the individual and his or her elective affinities.

There are those who celebrate the proliferation of cultures, believing that a hundred flowers blossoming are far preferable to a single hegemonic garden. But it seems to us that a true culture—broad but not monolithic, sustained through deep commitments and the cultivation of virtues, but neither static nor rigidly hierarchical—is the only thing that has the potential to connect, and sometimes even unify, fractious humans living in a shared society and polity. Without such a culture, we are reduced to arbitrating our differences solely through such mechanisms as bureaucratic process or the law (and, in the latter case, placing an increasingly heavy, if not impossible, burden on the law’s finite resources).

The proliferation of mini-cultures within our larger anti-culture is but one feature of the modernity that we examine, in one way or another, in each issue of The Hedgehog Review. In the forthcoming spring issue (appearing around March 1), we examine the contemporary  “culture of transparency”—in which everything about us is revealed, and everything about us is used in tracking, appealing to, and even shaping us—and its place in our increasingly insistent “information culture.” Those two related mini-cultures merit a gimlet-eyed examination lest we accept their implicit meanings and moral claims without recognizing their limited and possibly dehumanizing consequences.

Jay Tolson is editor of The Hedgehog Review.