Terada, "Introduction"

Philosophy and Culture


Rei Terada, University of California Irvine

  1. These papers on philosophy and culture-culture, the vaguest of concepts—began as contributions to a set of panels organized by the MLA's Division on Philosophical Approaches to Literature for the 2006 convention. Our original call for work[1] invited

    papers responding to the perceived incompatibility of theory and philosophy, on the one hand, and cultural studies, on the other; analyses of theoretically and philosophically inflected cultural studies or culturally based philosophy; readings of historical and contemporary interactions between the two fields; theoretical and philosophical genealogies of the concept of "culture."
    Our committee wished to encourage discussion of philosophy and culture because we sensed that the term "culture," perhaps along with some versions of cultural studies, might be falling into disfavor even as its possibilities and complexities could scarcely be said to have been explored; and because we regretted the perception that philosophy and critical theory have been or should be opposed to the study of culture, or cultural thinking, because of some necessary incompatibility between abstract and cultural thought. (That philosophy and theory have often been hostile to cultural studies and cultural thinking institutionally is unfortunately the case; I would argue that this does not need to have been so, and has been a great mistake and a great loss to our disciplines.) Believing that "culture" continues to be a rich and generative concept for philosophy and critical theory, and that philosophical cultural studies is not at all difficult to find, we hoped to inspire reflection on the nature and the history of the relations that the concepts and study of culture and philosophy have had with each other so far.
  2. Arguably, those relations take a nascent version of their modern European form in the late eighteenth century. This is to say, first of all, that the history of the concept of "culture" itself is short. Schiller's assertion in the Sixth Letter of Aesthetic Education (1795), "Our reputation for training and refinement, which we justly stress in considering every mere state of nature, will not serve our turn in regard to the Greek nature, which united all the attractions of art and all the dignity of wisdom, without, however, becoming the victim of them as does our own [Der Ruhm der Ausbildung and Verfeinerung, den wir mit Rech gegen jede ander bloße Nature geltend machen, kann uns gegen die griechische nature nicht zu statten kommen, die sich mit allen Reizen der Kunst and mit aller Würde der Weisheit vermählte, ohne doch, wie die unsrige, das Opfer derselben zu Sein]" (Schiller, 90; Snell, 37, translation modified) implies that the Greeks had something better than disciplinary improvement. This something better is, in fact, beginning to take over the meaning of "culture"-to make "culture" itself designate a quasi-natural, more and less than merely intentional, enigmatic harmony among one's disciplinary practices. "Kultur" is not the word that comes to Schiller's mind as he searches for some alternative to "Ausbildung" (training, education). Attributing a "natural" quality to Greek humanity, Schiller also imputes ethnic character, falling readily into a racialized stereotype in a way that makes us nervous about the similarly collective and not-quite intentional sense of "culture" today.

  3. In English literature, it is not easy to find references to "culture" that take on the sense of a broad set of practices or knowledge before the Victorian period. One finds instead a strongly metaphorical use of the word, in which the sense of "agriculture" is applied as a self-conscious figure. "Culture" in this sense is the culture of something in particular—of the body, of an art, of a young mind-and is strongly intentional and opposed to unguided nature, or even to an economy's paths of least resistance. The sense is that of a deliberate training, similar to Greek paideia. It does not fully have the collective, enigmatic connotation of the contemporary term. Wordsworth's usage in Book XIII of The Prelude, where culture is associated with "language purified / By manners studied and elaborate" (190), is still old school, even as he feels his way, like Schiller, toward something else. It's not until Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (1869) that talk of culture in the current sense of the word becomes truly popular.

  4. In Europe in the Romantic period, "culture" seems to have been under construction, wavering from the intentionalism of the early modern figure, but not, for the most part, yet having attained the full-blown organicism of German idealist Kultur.[2] If this were so, we would not yet be able to assume that the invention of "culture" is necessarily implicated in an ethnicization of human production. Rather, it may be that "culture" comes into usage late in the day because earlier, notions of race that were utterly ontological did all of the work that would eventually come to be separated into concepts of race, class, nation, society, and culture. If culture were imported into debates about society from an earlier pattern of usage that stressed figuration and intention, it would have held potential for a mediation of concrete practices and projected deep structures, individual and social contributions, that could compete with the ontologically based mediation so conveniently offered by racial thinking. "Culture" and "race" may be often found together because they are competing for the same territory, not because they are one and the same; and they may each serve the convenient function of blurring the distinction between particular practices and a collective sense of "something else" without bearing the same implications or relying on the same assumptions. The myriad ways in which this is true can be explored in the work of a sophisticated practitioner of the philosophy of culture such as Georg Simmel.[3]

  5. In practice, most of the papers at the 2006 MLA did not take up the relation between philosophy and culture head-on. (J. Hillis Miller's paper below is an exception, and generated a lot of interesting discussion at its panel.) They investigated elements of culture, such as literary education (in Ted Underwood's paper) and the development of models of individuality and society (which play a role in Daniel Tiffany's, Thomas Pfau's, and Manu Chander's papers alike). They inquired into the dynamics of autonomy and collectivity that are recurrently at stake in the concept of culture. And in order to do so, they compared Romantic theories to modern or contemporary ones. Underwood reconsiders Foucault's resistance to historical continuity in the light of the Romantic pedagogy that instituted the study of discrete literary periods; Pfau compares Charles Taylor's attack on the teleological systematization of liberal society as an economy, and what Taylor considers to be an illusory negative vision of "freedom" that shadows that systematization, with Schopenhauer's attack on "free will." Tiffany traces an analogy between Leibniz's Monadology, Schlegel's monadic model of the poetic fragment, and the unmarked "placeless places" of modern nightlife, showing how poetry finds in the monad an evocative figure for its own project of externalizing interiority. Manu Chander argues that Kant's dual recognition of empiricism and rationalism echoes in Pierre Bourdieu's dialectics of society and individual agency—the give and take between "position" and "position-taking" or avowed position as social act. These papers gain perspective from Romantic (and sometimes pre- and post-Romantic) elaborations of the ways in which manifestations of individuality, interiority, particularity, and privacy may coalesce quite tenuously to express an aspect of collectivity. An echo of this same concern appears in Miller's association of cultural studies with interest in the patterns of the performing—if not strictly performative—individual body. Interestingly, in none of these essays does "culture" take the shape of a culture industry or an ethnicized fantasy (important as these possible shapes are). Implicitly, "culture" appears here mostly in earnest, as it were, as a temporary network of habits, ideas, affinities, and position-takings that is not as coherent as an ideology and that has no particular valence, shape, or size. They are critical of unreflective formulations of freedom, but they don't seem to give up on the spontaneity of culture as creative chance.

  6. Philosophical Approaches' call for papers also hoped to garner work that showed philosophy and cultural studies in action together, and the papers collected below move toward this goal in part or in whole. Miller calls for attention from performance and gender studies to to J.L. Austin's theory of performative utterances. Underwood's meticulous reading of period literature course syllabi historicizes his understanding of Foucault; Chander, working the other way around, from philosophy to reflection on the philosophical antecedents and implications of Bourdieu's sociology, reads the legacy of Kant's Antinomy of Taste within Bourdieu's work to analyze their common emphasis on a field of antagonisms. As Chander phrases it, "the theory of 'permanent conflict' within Bourdieu's conception of the cultural field is derived from the 'permanent conflict' between Kantian aesthetics and Foucauldian discourse-analysis that structures Bourdieu's work." In both Kant and Bourdieu, Chander suggests, the antagonism that is culture also implies continually the possibility of a solution to antagonism. Chander's essay thus complements Thomas Pfau's conclusion that nineteenth-century "pessimistic conceptions of freedom" should be read "less as a separate current opposing the dominant narrative of nineteenth-century liberalism" than as "a Blakean contrary" surfacing from within it.

  7. Daniel Tiffany's "Club Monad," meanwhile, enacts cultural and philosophical thinking on several levels. Of course the whole idea of reading Leibniz through modern nightlife and vice versa literalizes a cultural philosophy and philosophy of culture. Tiffany's explanation of how this can happen may be interesting for the modeling of "culture" itself. When in this essay "the verbal topology of monadic substance offers a useful model for the secret world of the club—a placeless place—and for the infidel poetry associated with the topology of nightlife," there is a riddling "correspondence" but no common source for Leibniz's philosophy, Schlegel's philosophical poetry, and "the actual sites of nocturnal culture"; we have to find the correspondence monad-style, expressed and reflected in particularities. I'd like to suggest that the unaccountability of affinity apart from its instances is not a weakness in the concept of culture but what culture, in Tiffany's essay, and generated by the essay, can productively be seen to be made out of. Because the history of the subcultural nightclub "survives for the most part . . . in writing" and because the writing in which its trace survives is itself obscure, the literal and the literary forms Tiffany studies point together toward a reality that is "fundamentally dissolute." This ontologically tenuous organization models a way of thinking about culture that we now find useful; what we now call culture often consists in "the expressive correspondences" between verbal, topographical, and sociological modes of the kind that Tiffany identifies, "its very existence placed in question by the obscurity of its material conditions," as Tiffany writes of nightlife. In such a culture we don't know in advance, and in a real and happy sense don't ever know, what group we are and how exactly we are hoping to be changed. "Club Monad" participates in a process of correspondence-seeking that, it finds, selects societies according to an unparaphrasable affinity that is as much verbal as habitual; this process never reduces the group solidarity of the moment to a nameable identity.

  8. From this perspective, the notion that "culture" implies a people because it has to belong to somebody is a kind of hysterical reaction to the presence of the second person pronoun, no more justifiable than the idea that a corporation, neighborhood or school is inherently a racial concept. The difficulty of construing the relations between deliberate practices and their non-deliberate outcomes, however, is real, and remains a problem that it's hard to imagine addressing without a philosophy of culture and a culturally historical philosophy.


1 The call for papers was written by David L. Clark, Claudia Brodsky, and myself. The published version differed in small ways from the draft reproduced here because of the MLA's space restrictions on announcements.

2 On the latter, see Cheah.

3 See Simmel on Culture, especially 36-46, 55-100.

Works Cited

Cheah, Pheng. Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006.

Schiller, Friedrich. Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen. Briefe an den Augustenburger. Munich: Fink, 1967.

---. On the Aesthetic Education of Man, in a Series of Letters, trans. Reginald Snell. New York: Ungar, 1965.

Simmel, Georg. Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings, ed. David Frisby and Mike Featherstone. London: Sage, 1997.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude (1805), ed. Ernest de Selincourt. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970.