Decoding the Complexities of Culture: Review of ‘Culture’ by Terry Eagleton

Culture is an “exceptionally complex word”, says Terry Eagleton, and as constant agents who interact with it in our daily affairs, we know how complex it is to write a book about culture, that too in less than 200 pages. Terry Eagleton, in his book ‘Culture’, puts forth a similar attempt, and one can easily say that he has succeeded.

'Culture' by Terry Eagleton

Eagleton starts his book with a brief preface where he lists out his intentions, that this book in its totality “sacrifices any strict unity of argument to approach its subject from several different perspectives.” Terry Eagleton’s central argument is that Culture is a “social unconscious”, and to cement this argument, he takes the help of thinkers like Edmund Burke, Johann Gottfried Herder, T.S. Eliot and Raymond Williams. The author also takes an anticipatory bail in the preface itself about the overwhelming amount of “Irish motif” running throughout the book, in his attempt to build this central argument.

The book is divided into five chapters, with each chapter dealing with a different aspect with which Eagleton wants his readers to engage. The first chapter titled ‘Culture and Civilisation’ talks about how culture is an integral part of human civilization, and further about the contrasts and similarities between the two. Eagleton makes a pertinent observation about how the usage and the meaning of the two words – Culture and Civilization – have changed starting from the premodern times to our modern age. The author then elaborates on his view about the dual nature of culture and civilization; that is, how both seem to be normative and descriptive at the same time. Eagleton also makes some interesting remarks about the links between the origins of the notion of ‘culture’ as such and the onset of industrialization.

The second chapter, ‘Postmodern Prejudices’ is a precise commentary on the intricacies caused by the interaction of postmodernity and culture. Eagleton uncovers how the postmodern slogan of ‘inclusivity’ masks differences, and argues that rather than inclusivity, what we need is ‘unanimity’. “Different viewpoints,” Eagleton writes “are not to be valued simply because they are different viewpoints.” Postmodernity’s “self-appointed censors,” who are ignorant of how political opinions are formed, readily remove all discussions of political movements from the forefront and replace them with just political correctness arguments, which tend to diffuse conflicts and frame economic and political issues as cultural ones alone. Eagleton also concludes that contrary to the claims of culturalists, “Culture is not identical with our nature” but it is of our nature.

Eagleton’s main cultural theories and findings are largely contained in the third chapter, “The Social Unconscious.” He writes “This social unconscious is one thing we mean by culture”. With references to Freud and Lacan at the beginning of the chapter, the reader might assume that Eagleton is aiming to develop his arguments from a psychoanalytical standpoint. However, it was only a viewpoint the author was attempting to implant in the readers’ brains. The chapter heavily relies on the ideas and teachings of two thinkers – Edmund Burke and Johann Gottfried Herder – who were both vocal critics of colonialism and for whom culture is more essential than politics. Eagleton finds that Burke “prizes order” while Herder “values freedom”. The author says that the “unfathomable specificity of human affairs” is what we know as culture and juxtaposes Antonio Gramsci’s hegemonic power with Burke’s view on culture. In the later parts of the chapter, he elaborates on the evolution of language and culture. If, till now, the chapter mainly depended on conservative thinkers to make the case of ‘social unconsciousness, Eagleton goes to Raymond Williams towards the end of the chapter to explain the radical version of it. He notes that, unlike Elliot, for Williams, culture essentially is unplannable and “always a work in progress”.

Up until this point, the book dealt with issues related to the theory of culture. In the fourth chapter, suitably titled “An Apostle of Culture,” Eagleton shifts his focus to the “summary of the thought” of Oscar Wilde. Eagleton notes that both Wilde and Burke were Irish, which made them vocal critics of Britain’s colonial aspirations, and “ended up biting the hand that fed them”. Unfortunately, the author didn’t touch the realms of dependency theories which almost and mostly deals with similar complexities. Eagleton cites that being Irish necessarily contributed to the formation of Wilde’s career and his openness to the idea of modernism; “To be marginal to a language and culture” he writes “is also to be freer than the natives from its ruling forms and conventions, and thus to be less hamstrung by them”.  For Wilde a known proponent of ‘art for art sakes’, notes Eagleton, art wasn’t a “question of fleeing from life into art” but on the contrary a “question of turning one’s life into a work of art”. Eagleton also put forth a striking comparison of Wilde with Marx, even though there was a fundamental difference in their end goals. Wilde sees individualism as the goal of socialism which is diametrically opposite to Marx’s views. But what Eagleton finds is that the “Romantic sense of the richness and diversity of individual lives” seen in Marx is similar to Wilde, and both of them aspired for a world without labour so that people have “time for the more vital business of self-development”.

The last and final chapter ‘From Herder to Hollywood’ talks about the evolution of culture through modern times. Culture, Eagleton notes, came to prominence as a “critique of industrialism, but also as a rebuke to the notion of revolution.” He further writes that “it became a key concept in the language of Romantic nationalism.”  This form of romantic nationalism can be traced to the works of D. H. Lawrence and Friedrich Schiller. This recent development can be seen in Jane Austen’s writings, where ‘politeness’ emerges as a substitute for ‘culture.’ Over this period, Eagleton observes that art also found a new audience, the common people, and can be attributed to the ‘new array of social institutions’ that rose post the industrial revolution. This form of romantic idea, warns Eagleton like any other brand of ethics pave the way for the dogmatic version of cultural nationalism. Also, during this time, poets and artists took centre stage in recently evolved concepts of liberalism and democracy. He finishes with a critique of the latest addition to capitalist modernity in the form of cultural industry. The book ends with a brief concluding chapter ‘The Hubris of Culture’, which neatly sums up all arguments presented over the last five chapters. To tie things up, Eagleton warns that the central question that confronts the new millennium is not cultural but a political one.

The compounded nexus of culture is not fully explored in Eagleton’s book, nor does he make a similar claim in his book. However, what distinguishes Eagleton’s study of culture from that of other cultural critics or postmodern thinkers is that the core of Eagleton’s criticism revolves around labour, which, according to Karl Marx, is the only “progenitor” of civilization. A great deal of his analysis deals with the origin of the notion of culture and its relationship between colonialism, and its subsequent evolution into an academic discipline that was “contaminated to its core by racist ideology”. Like an ethnographer, Eagleton transcends back into time and age, and studies literature, theory and thought to demonstrate this “unholy alliance between colonial power and nineteenth-century anthropology”. Although he is conscious of the cultural industry’s power, he does not respond in a puritanical manner and sees the widespread popularization of literature and art as a negative development. He acknowledges that modern industry also made it possible for millions of people to consume what was prohibited to them, however, the only objection to this industry phenomenon is the profit motivation that drives this cultural upsurge. And the remedy he offers is the collective consciousness that relies majorly on strong radical political movements. At a time when we are overwhelmed by advertising brands and dopamine inducing Instagram content, Terry Eagleton’s short book provides us with a lot of insights and perspectives to tackle this critical juncture of human civilisation, and must be read by any student of social sciences to grasp and overcome this harsh reality.

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Jacob Joshy is currently pursuing MA economics at South Asian University, Delhi.