Brief comments on Terry Eagleton’s latest book, Culture (2016)

See CultureCulture by Terry Eagleton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucid and concise readings of Burke, Swift, Herder, Austen, Marx, Wilde, and T.S. Eliot, among others. The book is less focused and persuasive when Eagleton traces the long and complicated dialectic between capitalism and various meanings of “culture.”

Eagleton’s own version of Marx’s base vs. superstructure dichotomy has various forms of cultural “superstructure” competing with each other and often canceling each other out. He also understands these competing versions of “culture” to be hubristic: each thinks it is the most powerful force of all, able at will to intervene into capitalism’s workings and alter its course, or free to transcend it. These various understandings of “culture” certainly don’t think of culture as secondary and determined by/complicit with economic forces and structures, as Marx did. Eagleton despairingly mocks cultural studies’ and postmodernism’s various forms of delusion in his Swiftian concluding chapter, “The Hubris of Culture,” which traces how capitalism and the marketplace have more power over our ideas of culture than ever before, basically erasing any possibility for culture to generate powerful oppositional ideas and energies, as opposed to various forms of consumerism and status acquisition.

Some quotations:
“[C]ulture has shed its innocence. Indeed, the history of the modern age is among other things the tale of the gradual demystification of this noble ideal. From [culture’s] sublime status in the thought of thinkers like Schiller, Herder and Arnold, it becomes caught up in a dangerously rhapsodic brand of nationalism, entangled in racist anthropology, absorbed into general commodity production and embroiled in political conflict. Far from providing an antidote to power, it turns out to be deeply collusive with it…. (148)

“[C]apitalism has incorporated culture for its own material ends… this aestheticized mode of capitalist production [the ‘culture’ industries, the ‘creative’ economy, etc.] has proved more ruthlessly instrumental than ever” (152). “Neo-liberal capitalism has no difficulty with terms like ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusiveness,’ as it does with the language of class struggle” (154).

“Today’s cultural politics … speaks the language of gender, identity, marginality, diversity and oppression, but not for the most part the idiom of state, property, class-struggle, ideology and exploitation. Roughly speaking, it is the difference between anti-colonialism and postcolonialism. Cultural politics of this kind are in one sense the very opposite of elitist notions of culture. Yet they share in their own way that elitism’s overvaluing of cultural affairs, as well as its distance from the prospect of fundamental change.” (160-61).

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