How Important Is Culture?
Of course, the answer to this question for most tigers is “I’m hungry, you interloper. Get off my territory or I’ll have your spin for a necktie.”
Given that my primary sapient audience is human, however, I need to address culture’s importance in their terms. Further, my statistics tell me that people in the centers of global capitalism make up the vast majority of people who read this blog. Because I am also embedded in a Western, specifically American, context, my judgments and any generalizations I make will be shaped to a Western and North American culture.
This blog’s primary purpose is to discuss culture, which in practice has meant individual critical pieces on works of mass culture, discussions of specific artists and cultural events, and a sprinkling of broader theorization about how culture should be approached and understood. Originally, the focus on culture derived from a specific job I held on campus educating people on how to think more critically about how they consumed media. At this point, I have no obligation to write about culture, meaning that when I write about it it is because I have a genuine interest in the topic. Working on this blog has also kept me attuned to major currents in popular culture studies and pushed me into larger projects like my work with Edward Said and graphic novels. This has conditioned me to be more apt at talking about culture rather than other topics, and because of that essays and posts about culture are easier to write.
None of this gives us a good answer for the larger question of how important culture is, however. I should clarify precisely what I mean. My answer is broad–addressing the significance of human culture to human society in general, above disclaimers applying–but is also specifically political. I am, as longtime readers might know, committed to a communist politics and the Marxist-Leninst-Maoist strand in particular. Therefore, when I write about culture I assume that it is a human-made response, a reflection of material circumstances. I reject “art for art’s sake” and accept that capitalism is a site of contradictions and class struggle. This class struggle, these contradictions, have their roots in material reality but are expressed through culture.
Marxist theorists are notorious for making the distinction between the base of human society–economic production, relations of production, how power is wielded by the ruling class through force and exploitation–and the superstructure, which encompasses the world of ideology and myths that arise from and also help reproduce the class structure of society. A crude and mechanical understanding of the superstructure, which includes much of what I would define as culture, would hold that it is only a reflection of the base, indicating what is “really going on” but in a nebulous and unreal way. Culture, in this scenario, is produced by the base but does not have any influence beyond that. I don’t believe that reality gives any substance to this idea. Ideology, stories, and myths are not in the last instance the primary drivers of history, but when people act according to what they read and see in their culture they can become incarnated into reality. Real life is messy and complex, and ideas from one historical mode of production–say, feudalism–might persist in society long after that mode of production has been superseded. Patriarchy, for instance, is not inherent to capitalism but originated in agricultural societies, becoming particularly hardened under feudalism. Yet it obviously persists as a vestige of the past within capitalism, morphing and adapting to a new economic and social reality. To take this further, we know that vestigial patriarchy, though it is not essential to capitalism in the abstract, has all kids of real implications for women even in the most “liberal” societies. Even where equality has become legislative writ, the liberation of women is woefully incomplete, which manifests in all sorts of horrifying ways.
Studying culture, therefore, is a worthy endeavor. Learning the language of the dominant ideology, criticizing it where it appears, unmasking its falsehoods, and bringing clarity and consciousness where there was once obscurity are all noble aspirations. I hope that this blog, however unimportant and obscure it is, might play some part in that mission. At the same time, there needs to be a reality check. Intellectual treatises on popular films and music are not going to overthrow capitalism, and to mistake understanding and interpreting the language of exploitation is not the same as fighting for the destruction of that injustice. We can understand how the culture industry at the centers of capitalism creates an atmosphere of consent, justifies our comforts, and obscures the imperialist and exploitative basis of our so-called “civilizations.” This will not do any good unless we actively work to overthrow the social order, i.e. capitalism, that produced our situation in the first place and continually strengthens and reorders the world according to its whims. Our primary vocation needs to be, to adapt Marx, change the world, not interpret it. Though a revolutionary movement is nothing if not armed with truth, carrying only truth when a rifle or stone or one’s body is needed is foolish. My blog, which isn’t even that great when compared to some others, is performing a secondary task, even if it can be important.
(As a side note, I think it’s good to emphasize that a humble attitude with regard to culture also helps us avoid moralistically condemning people for enjoying certain films or music. The dreaded term “problematic” conjures up all sorts of Internet demons I would prefer to avoid. Though I think being vigilant and critical is necessary, this doesn’t mean simply blacklisting cultural artifacts in most cases. For instance, I enjoyed The Lego Movie despite it being blatant advertising. The most important thing is that we recognize ideology when we see it.)
Not only that, but it pays not to be too serious. If anything, some realistic deflation and self-deprecating humor are more useful and winning in the long run than unbroken seriousness or, worse, petulant whining. Make no mistake: culture is important, and understanding it is also vital. At the same time, the work I do here is meant more for entertainment and edification than making a difference in the world. The best I can hope for is that every post leaves me, and a tiny sliver of the world, more illuminated than when I started. As for the real revolutionary work, I have been distinctly lacking in that department. Perhaps I’ll be able to report differently someday, but for now I humbly leave you with a quotation from Mao:
An army without culture is a dull-witted army, and a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy.
–“The United Front in Cultural Work” (October 30, 1944), Selected Works, Vol. III, p. 235.