The merging of the concepts of culture and civilisation gave rise to the belief that the evolution of modernity, as well as the material development process that underlies the creation of an anonymous and amorphous mass society, were increasingly threatening humanity. The impersonal and allegedly malevolent forces of normalcy, industrialisation and mass production technologies became the targets of intense criticism from the 1940s onwards from the intellectuals who followed the appearance and the expansion of mass society. These theoreticians are part of the so-called Frankfurt School, heir to the German kultur tradition which likens culture with civilisation. In striking contrast to a view of culture focusing only on scholar manifestations of human thinking and artistic production, culturalism emerges as a current which defends culture as a differentiating concept within a social community. Culture is, under this perspective, a category applicable to the whole of human thinking and productions, abstracting itself from the formulation of aesthetic judgements of opinion.
Material culture appears as the specific expression of the coherence of organic communities, corresponding to ‘ways of life’ through which these communities intend to rekindle the references that confer them identity. Under the culturalist view, cultural identity stems from the identification of the members of a given community with a series of symbols recording, in a coded way, laws and rules passed on from generation to generation.
Culturalism is based on a Marxist model with a basis/superstructure, introducing culture as the basis of that very model. While classic Marxism reduced culture to a ‘superstructure’ of society, i.e. to an economic and industrial basis product, culturalism adopted a critical Marxism which explained the legitimacy of power relations prevalent as the result of a multitude of cultural, economic and determining political forces, though competing and diverging amongst them (Turner, 2000: 24).
According to the traditional Marxist theory, ideology consists in a source of alienation for the working classes since they are a kind of filter that disguises the ‘true’ relations between the proletariat and the surrounding world. The aim of ideology would be to build a ‘false consciousness’ of the individual and its rapport with history. Realizing how narrow the adoption of a strictly Marxist approach to the material forms of culture would be, culturalists opposed the idea that by perpetuating the value of a certain society, cultural objects could become totally dominated and manipulated from the outside. Culturalism imparts a crack in the definition of ideology, by considering consciousness not as false but rather as a conceptual framework through which takes place the lived experience of daily material conditions. The concept of social class is thus defined by the way men live their history, largely conditioned by the material relations of production within the context where he is born – or in which it voluntarily ingresses (Thompson, 1968: 15). Bearing in mind that popular ideologies only become ‘tangible’ by the observation of behaviours, practices, institutions and texts pertaining society, the need to assess those material forms becomes a pressing one for culturalism.
The definition of culture lies in three clearly distinct categories. The ideal of culture, the first, is the equivalent to the study of the perfection of human realization in terms of absolute or universal values. The role of cultural analysis, based on this cultural ideal, consists in the discovery and the description of values that might be regarded as making up a timeless order and which make a permanent reference to the universal human condition. Then come the texts and practices of culture that have survived the passing of time as document archives. According to this definition, culture is the equivalent to an intellectual and imaginative work in which thought and human experience are recorded throughout. Under this definition, the aim of cultural analysis is critical assessment. As such, it may take the form of an analysis similar to that adopted as regards the ‘ideal’ of culture: an act of critical filtering until the best of what was done and thought in the world is found. However, cultural analysis may also involve a less exalted practice: the cultural as a critical object of description and of literary, historical or artistic interpretation and evaluation. Lastly, culture may be defined socially, corresponding to the description of a particular way of life. This anthropological positioning presupposes cultural analysis as a method for the reconstitution of particular ways of life, contributing to the clarification of its meanings and its implicit and explicit values.
By insisting on the idea of culture as the living experience of ordinary individuals, realised by way of the daily interaction with the texts and practices of daily life, culturalism breaks decisively away from the elitist ‘ideal’ of ‘culture’. The culturalist concept of participation is a democratic one, and founded on culture as a common project, i.e. in a community of experience. Culture then becomes synonymous of what the members of a community create in their daily living. The project of a common culture implies a permanent participation process in the creation of references and meanings, with emphasis on the ability to freely decode what was encoded with a certain purpose in mind. In this view, the meanings introduced by any authority entity should correspond to the actual living of the individuals in such a way they may be able to adequately decode them. If not, the common citizen will end up attributing a different meaning (concept) to the one desired to the significant (acoustic or visual image) transmitted by the authority entity. One concludes that the cultural message must respect the material context where the receiver is to be found so that it may have the desired impact.
Whilst seeking to analyse the complex organisation of culture as a way of life, the core aim of culturalism is to understand through which culture is/was lived. In short, it aims to reconstitute what Raymond Williams calls ‘the structure of feeling’ (1977: 128-35), namely the values shared by a group, class or community. The term is used to describe a discursive structure consisting in a cross between the cultural ‘unconscious collective’ and ideology. Therefore, culturalism proposes to interpret the structure of feeling by means of documented records, from poetry to fashion to architecture. The importance of documented culture is that, more than any other elements it expresses life in a direct way, when the living witnesses remain silent.
Nevertheless, as culture always hinges around three axis, the situation gets complicated: the culture lived in a determined time and place, and only entirely accessible to those who live within that context; documental culture of all types, from art to daily records, corresponding to the culture of a period; selective tradition culture as a factor binding lived experience to history.
Lived culture is the cultural experience of individuals in their daily existence, in a particular place and moment. Those who have full access to this culture are only the ones who experience their structure of feeling. After the historical moment wanes, the structure of feeling begins to disintegrate. Cultural analysis can access this time and moment through this documental record of culture. But the very documental record is scattered under the process of selective tradition. Many details are lost between the lived culture and its reconstitution by way of cultural analysis. The selectivity of cultural traditions inevitably produces a cultural register, a cultural tradition, marked by the rejection of considerable areas of what was lived culture. Besides, there is always a tendency to relate this selection process with present-day predominant interests of various orders, including those of the dominant class.
‘The traditional culture of a society will always tend to match the system of contemporary interests and values since it does not consist of an absolute work but in a continuous selection and interpretation.’ (Williams, 1961: 69)
This idea has profound ramifications for the scholar of popular culture. We are therefore to conclude that the relevance of the work performed in the past, in any given future situation, is unpredictable since the selection is invariably done in light of present-day interests. If that is the case, we may then infer that absolute opinions pertaining to the scholarly and the popular in contemporary culture should be formulated with some degree of ambivalence. This uncertainty stems from the fact that selective tradition is open to historical realignment, in a potential swirl of historical contingency. Thus culturalists propose a cultural analysis modality knowing that cultural tradition consists not only in a selection but also in an interpretation. By making a text, or cultural practices, return to its historical moment, cultural analysis sets a clear distinction between the structure of feeling which characterises that cultural time, and the way this text has been used and understood in the present. Cultural analysis thus calls the attention to historical alternatives to contemporary interpretation and the present values on which it is founded. We are then able to differentiate all historical structure within which culture expressed itself from contemporary structure amongst which culture is used. Culturalists hope, by working this way, to articulate real cultural processes.
Culturalism breaks away with an elitist perspective of culture in many ways. First, art appears much like any other human activity, equal in value to ‘production, trade, politics, and family’ (Williams, 1961: 55). Emphasizing the need for a democratic study of culture, culturalists make a distinction between middle and working class culture as regards institutions and ways and habits of thinking. Whilst middle class culture points towards individualism, the working class sets itself apart through collectivism.
In its genesis, the British-inspired culturalist movement celebrated popular culture as opposed to scholarly conduct of the middle- and upper-classes. After the war, this movement called the attention to the need to distinguish between popular and mass culture, the latter of American influence. Concerned with both the false identification of popular and mass culture, as well as with the growing enthusiasm of the working class for mass culture products in post WWII, culturalists instigated an investigation centred on how cultural goods, which follow the logic of bourgeois capitalism, are used daily by the common citizen. The main purpose of studies on the consumption of cultural goods was to show that consumers of those goods cannot be narrowed down to consumed products, involving themselves instead in a class fight for cultural domination through its cultural practices. Under this perspective, cultural goods made available by the culture industries should not be mistaken with their daily use. Beyond the philosophic, critical or artistic analysis, culturalists examined the multiple languages we resort to in order to confer sense to the lived experience. The values conferred upon those languages may be used to support and sustain the existing ideological structures.
Due to its tendency to question classical Marxist determinist pretext, Antonio Gramsci’s theory became an influence to culturalists: his analysis of the concept of hegemony allows to better contextualise the daily consumption of material culture. Although the underlying ideological strategy of hegemony is a strategy of coercion, persuasion and cooperation, it operates in an implicit or connotative way. Hegemony is the principle which allows the tacit consent through popular consent (Jenks, 1993: 82-3). Culturalists advocate consent as crucial to the understanding of the essentially cultural manifestations of representation as a political phenomenon. According to this perspective, cultural leadership or the hegemony of certain cultural forms over others, works not by domination but by consent obtained by persuasive means, amongst which massed education and literacy (Said, 1993: 59). All the elements of the superstructure converge with the intent of exerting an ideological hegemony within a given culture, from religion to the media to jurisprudence. In a developed mass society, the centre of power encloses, through technology, the peripheries in an ever more encompassing way. Even the cultural practices which allegedly resist their integration into the dominant culture are many times made to serve that very same dominant culture. Therefore, it is important to deconstruct the operating way of allegedly subversive cultural practices so we may understand that power is not exercised in a linear fashion and in a vertical axis, but rather is characterised by its ubiquitous dissemination.
Modern age produces its identity and reproduces the signs of that change by developing production technologies. In an age before mechanical reproduction, the singularity, spontaneity and creativity of a work of art lied in the privileged possession of the population sector which, due to its dominant class position, had access to this consumption. The ‘aura’ of the work of art would consist in this. Mechanical reproduction thus led to the advancement of cultural objects, and so all individuals have access to art. However, the democratisation of cultural production risks making culture itself a good (Benjamin, 1980 : 87). Art has a material base in the structure and organisation of a given society, its beliefs, means of production and its political organisation. So, each means of cultural production carries with it a specific means of reception of the cultural product.
If, on the one hand, culturalism focuses on the importance of contextualising the cultural assets within the conditions of material production that produced them, on the other hand it regards material culture as resistance to economic based determinism in its many guises. Change becomes an integral part of selective tradition through which the cultural legacy is assimilated and perpetuated from generation to generation. Nonetheless, this transmission is not imposed, but takes place using a permanent negotiating process which allows the dominant classes to incorporate some resistance leeway relative to the other social groups. Hence, in light of present-day interests, the reinterpretation of canonical meanings is allowed so as to guarantee the long term survival of material culture. The famous Marxist statement according to which men make their own history, but not under the circumstances they have chosen, is translated by culturalism by means of this tension of not only recognising the concrete existence of material production conditions, but also the human ability to permanently transform them by actively participating in the prevailing hegemonic structures.
Benjamin, Walter ‘The Work of Art in an Age of Technical Responsibility’, transl. Maria Luz Moita, in Sobre Arte, Técnica, Linguagem e Política. Lisboa: Relógia d’Água, 1980 (1936), pp. 70-113.
Jenks, Chris ‘Culture and Materialism’, in Culture. London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 66-95.
Said, Edward Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1993.
Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.
Turner, Graeme British Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 2000.
Williams, Raymond Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Williams, Raymond The Long Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.