chapter  1
16 Pages

After Culture?

I am by no means the first to ask whether the concept of culture might have outlived its usefulness. Its value has been queried from a number of different perspectives. Adam Kuper, noting the multiplication of its uses, recommends abandoning the concept in favour of a range of more specific terms: belief, art, custom, tradition (Kuper 1999: x). This reflects a widespread tendency within contemporary anthropology to eschew the term, not least because of its relations to the entangled histories of anthropology and colonialism. Niklas Luhmann takes a similar tack, suggesting that, from the point of view of understanding the dynamics of the modern art system, culture has proved to be ‘one of the most detrimental concepts ever invented’ (Luhmann 2000: 247). Richie Nimmo (2010), stressing the entanglements between the concept and the species-centrism of Western humanism, similarly urges that we should now put it to one side if we are to respond adequately to the ecological imperative of better understanding the relations between human and nonhuman actors. James Clifford’s assessment is more equivocal. While conceding that the concept of culture might have served its time, he also urges that whatever concept finally transcends it should preserve its ‘differential and relativist functions’ while avoiding ‘the positing of cosmopolitan essentialisms and human common denominators’ (Clifford 1988: 274-5). I take a somewhat different approach. It is perfectly clear that there are

now ways of engaging analytically with the practices that have conventionally been brought under the heading of culture that do not have much space for a concept of culture as such. This is true of the varied branches of assemblage theory and actor-network theory. These have undoubtedly stimulated new approaches to the social entanglements of cultural practices.1 Yet none of these has had much to say specifically about culture as a general concept. More to the point, these traditions have been significant points of reference for many of those who have suggested that we jettison the concept entirely. This is true of those post-humanist theorists who, via Deleuze, claim an affiliation to what Jane Bennett calls the ‘vital materiality’ derived from Henri Bergson’s work (Bennett 2010: v11). I draw strategically on these traditions in what follows. I do so, though, with a view to suggesting ways in which they might contribute to a critically renovated concept of culture that, in limiting

its application to a specific set of historical processes, will sharpen its analytical purchase. I pursue these concerns by exploring the interfaces between intellectual

traditions in which the concept of culture has played a pivotal role and those more recent traditions, briefly identified above, which have been either indifferent or hostile to it. So far as the former are concerned, I focus mainly on Anglophone cultural studies and on cultural sociology as represented by Pierre Bourdieu and the work that has developed in his wake. There are significant differences between these traditions.2 From the perspective of my concerns here, however, both describe a critical orbit around Kantian conceptions of culture, constantly seeking to pull away from it but without ever escaping its gravitational pull.3 That pull is exercised through different way stations: Matthew Arnold and English in the case of cultural studies, Émile Durkheim and sociology in the case of Bourdieu. Recent work has considerably weakened the hold that Kant’s work has exercised over the social and cultural sciences,4 and I will draw on this to show how key aspects of both these traditions remain in thrall to the conception of culture as a process of collective human fulfilment that Kant proposed. For it is this aspect of the Kantian legacy that is now most in question. There are, of course, already vast literatures exploring the relations between

these cultural and ‘a-cultural’ analytical territories. Deleuze has long figured as a force for critical renovation within cultural studies and cultural sociology,5

yet often in ways that align his concerns with long-standing vocabularies of culture and society. Larry Grossberg, for example, argues a case for forging strong connections between Deleuze’s concepts and those of cultural studies as represented by Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall: between Hall’s concept of conjuncture and Deleuze’s concepts of milieu, territory and diagram, for example (Grossberg 2010). In sociology, by contrast, post-Deleuzeian developments in assemblage and actor-network theory have attempted to rethink the social in ways that will detach it from its Durkheimian-Bourdieusian lineage.6 My interests tend more in this second direction in the sense that I am less concerned to explore areas of possible rapprochement than those of dissonance between such post-Deleuzian traditions and those formulations of the relations between ‘culture’ and ‘society’ associated with cultural studies and cultural sociology. The place from which I conduct this work is, broadly speaking, that

provided by Michel Foucault’s perspective of governmentality. This has been drawn on in what is now a quite extensive literature to examine how culture has come to constitute, in George Yúdice’s telling phrase, an expedient resource for the governance of contemporary populations (Yúdice 2003). I develop this aspect of Foucault’s work by interpreting what little Foucault had to say directly about the concept of culture in the light of his more general methodological precepts. These will provide two key building blocks for the approaches to the interpretation and analysis of culture I shall propose. The first of these derives from what Thomas Osborne calls the ‘“veridical” twist’

that Foucault brings to the concept of culture (Osborne 2008: 70). Insofar as it comprises a set of resources involved in the governance of populations, culture operates through the distinctive regimes of truth and forms of expertise that it instantiates. The second building block derives from the methods Foucault deploys in historicising objects of analysis that are commonly taken to be universal. By aligning these two perspectives I shall suggest that culture is best interpreted as a historically bounded set of truth practices that are implicated in regulating the ‘conduct of conduct’ in specific ways through their operations as parts of assemblages that are differentiated from, and ordered in specific relations to, the social and the economy. I shall, though, want to part company with Foucault so far as his accounts of Kant and the Enlightenment, and their implications for his understanding of the relations between culture and critique, are concerned. In his susceptibility to the legacy of post-Kantian aesthetics, Foucault sometimes remained caught within the ‘machinery of culture’ rather than providing a critical purchase on that machinery. These are matters that I pursue in greater depth in due course. My more

immediate concern is to amplify the veridical perspective I derive from Foucault and to identify its relationship to his procedures for historicising objects of analysis. I shall then return to elaborate more fully why the concept of culture now seems to be increasingly ‘unhinged’, in the sense of being unable to meet the conditions required to secure its coherence, and to outline the ways in which I propose to address these conditions.