Culture Up and Away
- Adam Muller (Editor)
Concepts of Culture: Art, Politics & Society. University of Calgary Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Len Findlay
This is an uneven collection of eleven essays (four of them by Canadian scholars, five of them previously published). Alas, the editor’s lengthy introduction is as uneven as the efforts that follow. One may learn a lot from working through this volume, but some of what one learns may be misleading, while relations among the three terms of its subtitle—art, society, and politics—are too seldom recast in any original or arresting way. This is not a book to be read continuously from cover to cover, nor one that I would be inclined to re-read in its entirety. Indeed, it strikes me as neither a good book for beginners nor particularly satisfying fare for anyone well versed in the study of culture.
In the opening 40 pages Adam Muller tries to frame the topic under the alarming cliché, “Unity in Diversity.” In his opening sentence we travel \back to Herodotus. We then shift to etymology in fast-food version of Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society and Keywords, too much of it drawn uncritically from a 1987 introductory cultural anthropology text by Lewis Langness which is virtually invisible in the literature in several disciplines with which this reviewer is familiar. Nor, tellingly, is Langness an authority upon whom any of Muller’s contributors draw. Muller then turns to Marvin Harris, a major figure of course in the development of cultural materialism, but he does so only to borrow a citation to Turgot without giving any sense of Turgot’s highly pertinent place in economic history or sufficiently underscoring that an emergent “science of mankind” was highly selective in its understanding of human diversity and fiercely acquisitive in its attitude toward nature. Matthew Arnold has “evolutionism” bizarrely ascribed to him along with a belief in culture’s ”inherent excellence.” We then get a potted history of anthropology as somehow key to understanding culture. A number of irritatingly brief allusions to complex bodies of work ensue, before Muller discloses his own bias while expressing two attractive but ill-found hopes: first, that his editorial judgment will foster the “spirit of rigorous interdisciplinary exchange and debate;” second, that the reader will come to recognize the “importance of analytic philosophy and liberal political theory to the systematic and comprehensive study of culture.”
The intermittently smug Eurocentrism of Muller’s Introduction is reinforced on the first page of Christoph Brumann’s defence of the concept of culture, where he claims that “scepticism over the culture concept has its origins in deconstructionist and poststructural thought.” How many Aboriginal thinkers did he wonder about, never mind listen to or read, before he made that claim? In a book published by a Canadian university press, such narrowness is unacceptable, and reminds one of the damaging absence here of work written from a First Nations, Inuit, or Métis standpoint. But then Brumann goes on to talk about Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis as “far from controversial within his own discipline” and widely accepted beyond it, and to distinguish between the “Political right wing” and “papal encyclicals.” In fairness, this essay was first published in 1999, but why then reprint it here? Muller apparently wants to take literary theorists down a peg or two by looking to disciplines other than his own, and by republishing the likes of Geoffrey Hartman, Jacques Barzun, and Felicity Nussbaum, who wish respectively to recapture culture for masters of the right sort, for a properly educated general audience sharing a genuine “popular culture,” and for academic first world dispensers of frameworks and norms to “ordinary non-philosophical people” worldwide—if such there be. Nussbaum’s claim that the “ideas of Marxism … originated in the British Library” reclaims the bookish arrogance she claims to disavow. It also illustrates the recurrent suspension or travesty in this collection of culture’s social determinants.
Fortunately, there are much better contributions from lesser names. Mette Hjort, for instance, offers a shrewd defence of “critical” multiculturalism, in part through linking it to the “place of consensus or conflict within our pedagogical imaginaries.” In the most compelling piece, Imre Szeman declares that the “humanities have become marginalized as a result of their inability to continue to grasp the concept that they have committed themselves to understanding.” Instead, they have become the “guardian of the good against commodity culture and commodity aesthetics” while a good deal of creativity and critique have migrated to pro-capitalist locations where commodification is king. In claiming (in line with Henry Giroux) that “contemporary mass culture constitutes a concerted form of ‘public pedagogy’” Szeman joins Hjort, Martin Roberts in his essay here on “Film Culture,” and Jim Parry on “Sport, Universalism, and Multiculturalism” to give a more open, persuasive, energizing sense of where and how cultural knowledge is produced and applied, and how the “new critical humanities” should understand their task in the “global present” where guardians are humoured and gangsters feted, yet critical resistance thrives not only in new locations but in newly mediated, historically specific versions of location itself. Cultural trends may be dominated by economic and academic elites, but a bucker is born every minute.
- Arctic and Human Remains by Renée Hulan
Books reviewed: Lobsticks and Stone Cairns: Human Landmarks in the Arctic by Richard C. Davis, A Long Way from Home: The Tuberculosis Epidemic among the Inuit by Pat Sandiford Grygier, and Confessions of an Igloo Dweller by James Houston
- Anishinaabenendamon by Margaret Noori
Books reviewed: Think Indian: Languages Are Beyond Price by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm and Basil Johnson
- Culture Up and Away by Len Findlay
Books reviewed: Concepts of Culture: Art, Politics & Society by Adam Muller
- Emily Montague by Janice Fiamengo
Books reviewed: The History of Emily Montague by Laura Moss
- Almosting by Kevin McNeilly
Books reviewed: Apocrypha: Further Journeys by Stan Dragland
MLA: Findlay, Len. Culture Up and Away. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #192 (Spring 2007), Gabrielle Roy contemporaine/The Contemporary Gabrielle Roy. (pg. 174 - 175)
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