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Essay, HIB Basic Course, History & Culture Spring 2011

Approaches to Culture: Historical & Contemporary Views

Allan KortbĂŚk House 3.1.1



This essay attempts to identify the cultural approaches explored in the texts in question on a generally descriptive basis as opposed to an explicative one. Concurrently whilst the different approaches are compared and contrasted, this takes place on a very concise, imprecise level.

The first text in question is a discursive document that introduces the perceptions of several influential standpoints on culture. Culture in this text is viewed as an abstract concept whose true meaning has not yet been defined. The concept of culture is therein a dynamic one, in that it is ever changing. Three categories of definitions of culture are identified, namely


Culture as a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development


Culture as particular way of life, whether of a people, a period, a group or humanity in general

III) The works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity” (Williams, 1976. 90)

The aforementioned categories form the anchorage upon which the remainder of the Giles and Middleton text hinges the various perceptions on culture that it describes.

Categories I and III are discussed through citations of theorists such as Arnold, Clifford, Macdonald and Hoggart. Matthew Arnold’s fin de siècle view on culture at the latter part of the eighteenth century is explored briefly in the Giles and Middleton text. According to Giles and Middleton, Arnold perceives being cultured as “having a familiarity with that body of knowledge –philosophy, literature, painting music, which for him constitutes the best” (Giles and Middleton 1999 11.) In other words, culture in Arnold’s eyes is haute couture, which he believes should be at the disposal of the masses. Arnold makes no mention of mass culture in his view on culture, a perception which is taken up by Clifford, who concerns his judgments with the imposition of Western ideals of beauty and aesthetics on other cultures whilst defining culture as “all the objects generated by a society or a particular way of life, or at least those that are considered collectable by museums and art galleries” (Giles and Middleton 1999.13.) The imposition of ideals of beauty and aesthetics on mass society is taken a step further by both Macdonald and Hoggart, both of whom bemoan “the stultifying and manipulative effects of a commercially produced culture” (Giles and Middleton 1999 17.) A discussion of the third categorization of culture (III) is presented through the assertions of Williams, who explores the symbolism behind objects such as buildings, with particular references to the symbolic connotations of cathedrals.



Building on some of the final postulations of the first text, in particular Williams’ position regarding structures of feeling and their broader implications with society, Van Dijk’s critical discourse analysis text considers the role of culture in shaping power dynamics via critical discourse analysis. Here, a modern approach to culture is presented in the form critical discourse analysis (CDA), an emergent reaction against the dominant formal paradigms of the 60’s and 70’s. The Van Dijk text argues that social inequalities are reproduced through science and scholarly discourse, highlighting the role and influence of CDA in the exploration of concepts such as power, dominance, hegemony, ideology, gender, race, social structure, social order and so on and so forth. Social inequalities between those with power and those devoid of it are identified as are the manifestations of these inequalities, namely via implicit appearance via discourse structures that can take the form of media discourse, political discourse, ethnocentrism, anti-Semitism nationalism and racism. (Van Dijk, 2008 97.) This intermeshes with the views relating to the indoctrination of the masses by the elite that the likes of Arnold, Clifford and Macdonald identified in the previous text (see previous paragraph)

Lene Christiansen’s text on Zimbabwe’s domestic violence law and symbolic politics of protection exemplifies how political discourse can be used to create and promote a particular culture, based on the stipulations pertaining to critical discourse analysis presented in the Van Dijk text. The author goes as far as branding the Zimbabwean regime it discusses as being an orchestrator of “a culture of violence” (Christiansen 2010, 421.) This so called culture of violence is legitimated through symbolism and discourse with the overall aim of gaining popular support. Christiansen cites the use of “state sovereignty rhetoric” on the part of the ruling regime in Zimbabwe against former colonial power (The British) as a means of strengthening patriarchy and solidarity. (Christiansen 2010, 424.) Gendered imagery via symbolic politics are another instrument by which the ruling regime promotes and exports its cultural notions to the public masses, whereby connotational images are created through visual elucidations of the ruling elite (The ZANU party in this case) as a benevolent masculine force; a protector of the people in the face of encroaching perils that threaten the harmony of the state (colonial opposition) Violence and uprising against this external threat are reinforced by the creation of binary oppositions that include pro- ruling elite (i.e. pro-ZANU) factions and culture and exclude “external” parties, both foreign to the Zimbabwean state as in the case of the British and within in it, as in the case of the MDC party.

George L Mosses’ text on nationalism and respectability and Natalie Zemon Davis document’ on the sacred and the Body Social in Sixteenth- Century Lyon present a view on culture that is anchored on gender and sex as a historical study. Both approach the matter from different standpoints. Mosse links cultural movements to Page


sexuality stating that culture is a phenomenon that has been viewed differently for men and women alike. It follows that normalcy and abnormalcy have also been viewed differently throughout the course of history. The document also identifies a link between sexuality and nationalism, postulating that nationalism provides the means through which sexual attitudes can be tamed into respectability. “Desirable” sexual traits are identified as being of importance to the nation state whereby exceptions to these predetermined ideals are regarded as threats (as was the case in pre-revolutionary France) (Moss 1981, 221-246)

In the Davis text, gender and sexuality are discussed on a less meticulous level. The sexual body in this context in far less obvious than it is in the Mosse text, as David analyses fourteenth century Lyon as a sexual entity in itself. The city is described metaphorically as a body, from which the material world organizes itself accordingly. Davis identifies Protestantism and Catholicism as two separate languages which mark and interpret urban space, urban time and the urban community. (Davis 1981. 62) As Davis says of the reformation Pastor, Viret, “ Viret offered another biological image of the Christian community, which he pulled and separated from the old body and which, in my opinion expressed more authentically the Calvinist urban vision – that of ligaments, the nerves and the senses” (Davis 1981, 65)

The texts pertinent to the final section of this essay both deal with the notion of constructing culture. The Greenblatt text elaborates upon the constructionist approach to culture of the historically significant fraudster, Sir John Mandeville. Mandeville’s take on culture was to introduce an element of familiarity to the unfamiliar (the prevalent myths of the time, in a world that was not linked in the manner it is in this day and age) In doing so, Mandeville’s writings took the European perspective on foreign culture from metaphor to metonymy, inciting a mentality geared towards discovery. His interpretation of culture hence came to pass as the relevant interpretation for many others in the society of the time and indeed of the future, his assertions heralded by scholars, explorers and scientists alike. One can in fact go as far as saying that Mandeville remapped the world or at the very least the construction of the world, creating a new perceptual outlook towards it. Given that his eloquent tales of his tidings were not written in the manner of a pragmatist, his postulations may be classified as accidental. What’s more, his motives are not entirely clear cut, due to his anonymity (there is little proof that he ever existed, at least in the capacity in which he describes himself in his tales.) However a critical perception of Mandeville would argue that his position is indeed a very deliberate, willing one, by virtue of the very same anonymity that mystifies the readers of his adventures. (Greenblatt 1988 pp 27-51)



The text on Transnationalism by Jakob Feldt deals with a constructivist take on culture too, albeit on a more pragmatic level than the Mandeville text. The standalone concept of transnationalism is explored as a means of interpreting culture. Transnationalism intends to do away with the idea of “the indigenous,” pointing out that at a certain point we are all or once were colonizers. (Feldt p 2) Hence, the organic past is discarded and discounted in of favour the possibility of harmony within society as a means of constructing a sustainable future. Kallen points out that culture and difference are conditions for man just as the natural world itself is laden with differences. Despite these differences, man does however share a basic identity. (Feldt p 10) Kallens’ assertions personify American liberal pragmatism and 20th century attitudes to culture, whereby culture is perceived as a learning experience that represents a social hope for all and which advocates for movement in place of sedantarism.

To conclude, the texts in question present various perceptions of culture. The first text by Giles and Middleton considers culture via three contemporary categorizations of the concept, discussing approaches to it through the interpretations of individuals such as Arnold, Clifford and Williams. Van Dijk’s text examines culture as an expression and derivative of power, and Lene Christiansen’s article exemplifies a real-life scenario of a manifestation of culture via political discourse. Culture as a sexual expression via gender and sexuality is examined via the Mosse and Davis texts and lastly, culture as a social construct is explored by the Feldt text on transnationalism and the Greenblatt document on Mandeville.

Question 2

This essay explores the approaches to culture identified in the previous question, using historical and cotemporary examples from the course materials. Not all of the approaches are discussed and exemplified in depth, instead, one specific approach from those cited in the concluding paragraph of question one has been selected and exemplified. Emphasis is placed on the notion of culture as constructionist process, a standpoint that is exemplified in a modern context in the Feldt text on transnationalism, and in a more historical setting in the Greenblatt text on the wonders of the new world. The two examples are compared and contrasted in brevity.

Constructing the world through culture is a feature of world society that has been at the heart of history for many years. One could go as far as saying that cultural constructions are not merely imagined, they are actually physically and socially built to reflect a reality that particular cultures adhere to. Philosophically, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche paved the way for the American pragmatist movement which founded many of the postulations of constructivism as it is known today. Nietzsche observed that truth was created rather than discovered (Burke 1998, p 78) whilst Schopenhauer assumed that the world constituted the representation of the individual “the world is my Page 5

representation / Die Welt ist meine vorstellung” (Burke 1998, 78.) Working on these primitive suppositions, theorists such as Foucault identified discourses as “practices that systematically construct (forment) the objects of which they speak, forming a definition of cultural constructivism that is still in use in the time and space of the present day. (Burke 1998, p 79.) Flanked by the French historian Michel de Certeus’ suggestion that ordinary people (the masses) were capable of independent thought, creativity and inventiveness, it follows that all history is cultural history and that all inventions and discoveries bear a constructivist approach of one sort or another. (Burke 1998, p 78)

As far as inventions go, the new perception on the unknown world that Mandeville provided is as constructivist a perspective as they get. Mandeville’s travels construct a new reality of a world that few knew anything about and were hence unable to relate to rationally by providing “a representation of the external worlds that does not so much depend upon as call into being an external reality, a self authorizing, self authenticating representation that cannot be falsified or diminished in value through circulation” (Greenblatt 1988, 38) Concurrently, Mandeville quite literally, re-maps the global perspective on the unknown, transforming metonymy into metaphor by familiarizing and even befriending the unknown and unfamiliar. The dexterity of it all is exemplified by the preMandeville conceptualization of the world map which entailed envisioning the epicenter of the map as a “mystical center and a unique place of honour. Epstorffs map of the world” (Greenblatt 1988, 43). As Greenblatt says of Mandeville’s reconstruction of the world map of the time “In the spherical world, when you have one landscape, you always have the shadowy presence of another” (Greenblatt 1988, 43.)

A more pragmatic and for that matter, modern example of constructing culture avails itself in the text in the Transnationalism by Jakob Feldt. Still a fairly nascent notion, transnationalism takes its departure in radically opposing the both American melting pot mentality and European nationalism. (Feldt 2011 5) An abolition of the indigenous in favour of “living well with our own people” is cited as the foundational framework for inter-national solidarity between nations and nation states (Feldt 2011, 5). More poetically, views on culture as a symphony that hasn’t been written in advance and within which “in society each ethnic group is the instrument” are provided by Kallen (Feldt 2006, 12) Perceiving culture as a constant movement is thus a feature of transnationalism, in opposition to sedentarism, whereby emphasis shifts from nation to trans, from sedentary, stable and fixed to moving and transcendental. Where Mandeville re-mapped the world by shifting emphasis from its epicenter by creating other poles and centres via familiarizing the unfamiliar, transnationalism shifts the emphasis of a base in the form of a house, a homestead, a town and so on from a stable concept (as advocated for by sedentarism) to a flexible one. Additionally, where sedantarism places uncategorized objects and concepts into prejudicial holograms, transnationalism encourages, just like Mandeville’s tidings, an openness towards the unknown, reflecting what Creswell would describe as a shift from sedentarist to nomadic metaphysics. (Creswell 2006)



It is abundantly apparent that culture can be perceived from many varied and contrasting prisms. Constructivism is but one of many perspectives on the matter, a position that holds that conceptions of reality are not merely imagined but in fact, constructed in some way or another that reflects the mannerisms and even attitudes of particular cultures. Historical examples of constructionist approaches to culture can be sourced in the Greenblatt text, within which Mandeville’s perceptions of the world alter the manner in which the rest of the world perceives the unknown. A more modern, pragmatic example of constructivist perspective can be found in Jakob Feldt’s description of transnationalism, a rather nascent position on culture that, metaphorically speaking, sees culture as a never ending script with has no beginning and that is constantly being shaped and sculpted. Where Mandeville’s stance is more accidental, transnationalism is more deliberate. However both postulations represent a shift from the sedentary to the nomadic, both construct, tailor and cultivate a specific perception of culture.

List of references Christiansen, Lene Bull (2010) Versions of Violnce. Zimbabwe's domestic violence law and symbolic politics of protection. In: Review of African political econonomy. Vol 37 no 126. pp. 421-435. ISSN: 03056244 Burke Peter : What is Cultural History ? Seocnd Edition 2008. Politik ISBN 978-0-7-7456-4410-3 Cresswell, T. (2006) On The Move. London. Routledge Davis, Natalie Zemon: The Sacred and the Body Social in Sixteenth Century Lyon in Past and present, no 90. 1981, Oxford University press. Pp 40-70 Feldt, Jakob Egholm, Re-considering Trans-Nationalism: Historical and Conceptual Reflections, Roskilde university. 2011 pp. 1-23 Giles, Judy & Middleton, Tim (1999) what is culture? In: Giles & Middleton 1999. Studying culture. A critical introduction. Blackwell. London. Pp. 6-29. ISBN Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous possesions, the wonder of the New world in The Clarendon Lectures (Oxford university / Chicago University) 1988. pp27-51 Mosse, George L: Normal and Abnormal Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century in Journal of Contemporary History, vol 17, no 2. 1982 pp. 221-246. Van Dijk, Teun A. (2008) Critical Discourse Analysis. In Van Dijk (2008) Discourse & Power. Palgrave. New York. Pp. 85-101. ISBN: 0-631-20621-3 Williams, R (1976) Keywords : A vocabulary of culture and society. London : Fontana.







Approaches to Culture