Why I’m Not Going to Talk About “Culture” Anymore (or Bill O’Reilly and the Guinness Shamrock)

Bill O’Reilly, primetime gladiator, walks into a bar. Specifically, it’s an Irish pub. Bill is traveling, covering immigration in El Paso, Texas, and he’s thirsty. He pulls up a stool at the bar, orders a Guinness. The bartender pours it and hands it over. “You’re a patriot,” says Bill. Bill picks up the chilled glass (made in Mexico). He sees that in the beer’s luxuriant head, the bartender has drawn a frothy shamrock. He tips the glass back, then replaces it on the bar top with a satisfied sigh.

Before Bill can take another swig, he’s recognized by the gray-headed, mustachioed cowboy, two stools down: “Ain’t you that fella on TV?” “Pinhead,” thinks Bill as he raises his glass in a friendly salute. “I appreciate whatyur doin’ standin’ up to them Yankee lib’rals. They’re tryin’ to make this count’ry wurn big San Fran’Cisco. What’n we need is mur folks like you n’ me.” The cowboy stands up, lays a twenty on the bar, tips his hat, and leaves. Bill finishes his beer in merciful silence.

I offer the above illustration in an attempt to prove a negative: that the term “culture” is without semantic value (bless its heart). Actually, it has several important meanings that are so continually conflated with one another that I’ve had enough of it. I worked in five such meanings into my story above. There are certainly more in circulation, and some may even have snuck in uninvited. Feel free to discuss those I failed to include (or exclude) in the comments. Let’s talk about the ones I know about:

1)  The Language Game

This meaning of “culture” is so pervasive that it’s invisible. How does Bill know that O’Leary’s Pub in the El Paso strip mall offers cold drinks? How does he know stools are for sitting? Why does he wave his drink at his fellow patron? These unconscious knowings and reflexive doings are are all signs of his being situated in culture. He is able to interpret and respond in a symbolic environment from which his experience is constructed. This is the culture that precedes culture.

2)  Without Borders

But “culture” is not limited to this symbolic environment. In fact, Bill is immersed in a particular culture and particular cultures. He’s an New Yorker in Texas town on the Mexican border drinking Irish beer. And yet, all of these cultural identities can overlap and interact in the culture we call American. “Ah,” you say, “isn’t that lovely?” Well sure, but that’s not my point. This muddle of identity and difference is a sign of conceptual incoherence surrounding, you guessed it: “culture.”

3)  Generally Accepted Moral Principles

For those of you who don’t know, Bill O’Reilly is (or was) a self-proclaimed “Culture Warrior.” Often, “culture” or especially “the culture” gets used as shorthand for the moral atmosphere of some broadly conceived society. Now, no doubt, social mores are part of the symbolic environment and the tribal allegiances discussed above, but talking about them as culture creates confusion on every level as cause and effect become hopelessly tangled.

4)  Art (Extra-Utilitarian Production)

This is the new-old wave of culturetalk, especially in Christian circles. With the culture war mired in quag, the new watchword is “cultural production.” What the Moral Majority failed to accomplish with power, we shall now achieve with beauty. Of course, as these culture-makers will tell you, we’re not just talking about fine arts here. We’re talking about the shamrock, the beer, the glass it’s in, the brushed aluminum doors to the bar, right down to the immaculately filled-out FAFSA that put the architect through college. Now, if it sounds like you’d need prescription rose-colored glasses to see each of those artifacts embodying the beauty of culture, well, I’m inclined to agree.

5)  Everything-Other-Than-Nature (And God)

And in truth, so are the culturetalkers. See, I first noticed this issue with “culture” in Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making, which all flippancy aside, contains many valuable insights into the church’s role in society. Crouch ultimately realizes that any of the narrower definitions of culture I’ve outlined above yields incoherence. So he makes the radical move of redefining “culture” to include everything touched by human hands. There’s God and Creation, and Creation contains Nature and Culture. Now, I’m not a metaphysician, but I know some metaphysicians read this blog. Help me out here. That’s ontologically useless, right? And probably wrong? And it’s Scotus’s fault?

So to sum up, I’m proclaiming an indefinite moratorium on my own culturetalk. If I mean morality, I’m going to say “morality.” If I mean art, I’m going to say “art.” And if this experiment interests you, you’re more than welcome to join me.

[Picture of Bill O’Reilly from Wikipedia]

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • http://twitter.com/EMMilco Elliot Milco

    This reminds me of those times in college when I would argue with people that China doesn’t exist. We speak of it constantly, but what exactly “China” is between the land mass, the population, the laws, the government, the diplomats, and all the rest, it’s very difficult to say. Well, that was fun to argue, and ultimately silly, but it did a good job of highlighting some of the blind assumptions that go into using big words like “China” or “the US”. I think you’re up to something similar here. In reality, culture is a totally legitimate word and it has definite uses, but when we try to pin them down and understand what “a culture” is we end up with a lot of fuzz and some unpleasant demarcation issues.

    On the other hand, I do think that the idea of “culture” is more legitimate, has a stronger “metaphysical basis”, than the idea of the nation-state. The identity of a nation state is established by a government and very frequently irrelevant to the actual geographical, social, and economic lines of division in a given place. While it seems ridiculous and counterproductive to hypostatize things like “American culture” and “Irish culture” and so on, pretending that there is some shared essence among these groups which can be participated in to a greater or lesser extent (the “true Irishman”, or the “true Texan”, Dixie through and through, etc.), at the same time, the habits and ideas which make up each of these cultural essences are real, and are widely shared, and they do have a reasonable amount of predictive power. The affirmation of the reality of “culture”, without settling for shallow cultural types or artificial unities, is a necessary consequence of the recognition that families and communities form themselves by the communication of certain ideals, modes of speech, and manners of behavior. Culture is very real, and very useful, and flows beyond familial and social structures (which are natural expressions of human activity, and therefore have a strong metaphysical basis) into more formal and general structures: national rites, forms of civic piety, widespread presuppositions about the world, basic standards of behavior, modes of worship. If you want to deny the existence of culture, really, you’re veering into a nominalist attitude toward human behavior. The admission of the shared forms of activity known as “culture” is necessary for any moderate realist picture of human society. If you’re going to ditch culture, you’ll have to reject a lot more before long…

    So, the short version: culture isn’t everything, just like not everything is a ritual or a liturgy or a sacrament. Culture is a broad designation for a set of habits shared among a population, and can be used more narrowly to designate the modes by which filial, civic, and religious piety are expressed socially. Yes, it’s potentially vague, no it’s not metaphysically useless, yes the denial of its reality implies a kind of nominalism, no it is not quantifiable or easily definable in particular cases, but no this does not make it a baseless or meaningless notion.

    • Grotoff

      So “culture” is like a fundamental particle? The more you try to pin it down, the less you really understand about it.

      • http://twitter.com/EMMilco Elliot Milco

        Well, no. Trying to pin it down isn’t the cause of its being elusive.

  • Emily DeBaun

    I can definitely see your point about the semantic ambiguity of the word “culture.” I am, however, curious about the use of culture as a verb – maybe it’s a concept better described by its influence than by its inherent qualities.