Monday, June 27, 2011

ET: Almanac

Culture---what a word! Up to a few years ago it meant two or three related things easy to grasp and keep apart. Now it is a piece of all-purpose jargon that covers a hodge-podge of overlapping things. People speak and write about the culture of almost any segment of society: the counterculture, to begin with, and the many subcultures: ethnic cultures, corporate cultures, teenage culture, and popular culture. An editorial in The New York Times discuesses the culture of the city's police department, and an article in the travel section distinguishes the culture of plane travel from the bus culture. On par with these, recall the split between the "two cultures" of science and the humanities, which is to be deplored---like the man-and-wife "culture clash," which causes divorce. Artists feel the lure---no, the duty---of joining an adversary culture; for the artist is by nature "the enemy of his culture," just as he is (on another page of the same journal) "a product of his culture." In education, the latest fad is multiculturalism, and in entertainment the highest praise goes to a "cross-cultural event." On the world scene, the experts warn of the culture wars that are brewing.

At the bottom of the pile, "culture," meaning the well-furnished mind, barely survives. Four thousand cultural facts in dictionary form have recently been laid on the coffe table, but it may be doubted whether this bonanza will by itself cultivate the fallow mind, lift it out of day-to-day interests, and scrape it free of provincialism. A wise man has said: "Culture is what is left after you have forgotten all you have definitively set out to learn." How did culture in this sense---a simple metaphor from agri-culture---lose its authority and get burdened with meanings for which there were other good words? These mini-culture created on the spur of the moment are obviously fictitious. But again, they express the separatism already mentioned. It arises from too much jostling with too many people---nothing but constraint at every turn, because the stranger, the machine, the bureaucrat's rule impose their will. Hence the desire to huddle in small groups whose ways are always congenial.

The hope of relief is utopian; for these small groups are not independent. Their "culture" consists only of local customs and traditions, individual or institutional habits, class manners and prejudices, language or dialect, upbringing or profession, creed, attitudes, usages, fashions and superstitions; or, at the narrowest, temperament. If a word is wanted for the various pairings of such elements, there is ethos. The press---not to say the media---with their love of new terms from the Greek, could quickly make it commonplace.

- Jacques Barzun, "From Dawn to Decadence"

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