Culture and socialism

Issue: 122

Terry Eagleton

All human beings are prematurely born, helpless and dependent, unable to look after themselves. This applies not just to Oxbridge dons but to the whole of the human species. Later on, if all goes well, we will achieve a degree of autonomy—but only on the basis of a continuing dependency, this time on culture rather than nature. Only through the form of dependence on others we call culture can we come to be self-sufficient, which is no doubt one reason why the word “monster” in classical antiquity meant among other things one who sees himself as self-dependent and to that extent is in conflict with his or her creaturely nature. Sophocles’s Oedipus is a case in point—that canny entrepreneur of himself whose suppressed parentage will return to destroy him. We all like to fantasise that we have a posher pedigree than we actually do or (even more deludedly) that we have no pedigree at all—that we sprang from our own heads or loins. Since that which was never born can never die, this yields us the comforting illusion of immortality.

This is certainly the case with what we might call bourgeois man, or Faustian Man, whose desire is infinite and whose will is unconfined. He must therefore secretly regard himself as wholly immaterial, since materiality is a constraint. This is a creature who recognises no end, origin, ground or goal but himself. When his phallic tower is demolished by terrorist aircraft he instantly resolves to build an even bigger one in its place. A case of slow learning if ever there was one…

Since we are all born prematurely, with a donnish inability to cope, we will all die very quickly unless culture moves in on us right away. I don’t mean by this that Stendhal or Shostakovich are essential for our survival. I mean culture in the sense of a system of nurture, “nurture” being a word which for Shakespeare mediates between nature and culture. The playwright Edward Bond speaks of the so-called “biological expectations” with which we are born—the expectation, he writes, that “the baby’s unpreparedness will be cared for, that it will be given not only food but emotional reassurance, that its vulnerability will be shielded, that it will be born into a world wanting to receive it, and that knows how to receive it”. Unless one of those faces around the cradle actually speaks to the infant it will never become a person at all. It will be human, of course, since this is a matter of the sort of body it has, but becoming a person is a project, not a given. Measuring contemporary capitalism by this single criterion, Bond refuses to grace it with the title of a culture.

Culture, one might note, is here a descriptive and a normative term at the same time. It describes in a neutral way what must actually happen for us to survive, but it also refers to a kind of loving and is thus a value term as well. Without some culture of caring geared up to greet us we simply won’t flourish. In this sense, the word “culture” leaps the gap between fact and value—between what is the case and what is desirably the case. Far from just rising shakily on our paws and licking ourselves down, we are born with an enormous hole in our natures, which culture must instantly plug if we are not to die. It is natural to us to be lacking. And since our premature birth results in an unusually long period of dependency on those human beings immediately to hand it gives rise to an unusually intense intimacy with them. This in turn results in a particularly traumatic severance from them at a later point, which is what gives rise to that curious human invention known as psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is a science concerned among other things with how the fact of our interaction with other bodies breeds certain conditions relevant to value: fantasy, neurosis, psychosis, denying that the grey-haired old codger who arrives at the school gates is your father rather than grandfather, pretending he’s just a wrinkled old family retainer and so on.

All of which is to say that culture is of our nature. A very different proposition, note, from the postmodern claim that culture is our nature. For the postmodern ideology we might dub culturalism, culture goes all the way down. It is, so to speak, wall to wall. You can’t ask what is being culturally constructed, since the answer to that must also be a cultural construction. This fashionable brand of culturalism, one which is rife all the way from Al Qaida to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, is among other things a disavowal of our fragility and mortality. Al Qaida is culturalist because it believes that values, religious ones in particular, are what matters, more so than material matters. For both Al Qaida and the American Dream, materiality is constraining rather than enabling, which is no doubt one reason why both parties have a somewhat casual way with human flesh and blood. Neither the ICA nor the American Dream (I haven’t consulted Al Qaida on this point) would agree that, whatever else we may be, we are in the first place natural material objects. Anything more glamorous, sexy and fascinating we can get up to has to be got up to on this basis. For the anti-culturalist view I’m proposing here culture is required by our peculiar kind of creatureliness, by the sort of species-being we share, by the kind of material bodies we have.

Only a linguistic animal—that is to say, one which moves within a world of meaning—can be said to have a culture. To live in a world of meaning is to share a sensory world with others of one’s kind in a way that transcends mere bodily contact. It isn’t just to add something extra to a sensory world but to transform it at a stroke. It is to extend the body outwards into a complex set of networks and institutions, and this in turn extends the body inwards, lending it its spiritual depth and interiority. The whole of civilisation is an extension of our bodies. Technology is a kind of prosthesis. And this is made possible by the kind of labouring, linguistic, conceptual, self-transformative, self-transcending bodies we have (or are). (Whether we “have” bodies or “are” bodies is a fascinating issue we must leave aside here.) As Ludwig Wittgenstein remarks, if you want an image of the soul, look at the human body.

Now this is both our delight and our disaster. The linguistic, culture building creature has the edge over its fellow animals in all sorts of ways. Indeed, it is hard to suppress a shudder of humanistic contempt when one thinks about all that we can do and they can’t. We can stockpile nuclear weapons, torture Muslims and blow the heads off small children, for example, none of which are within the capacity of moles or badgers (unless they’re being remarkably furtive about it). Language or conceptual thought allows us to sit loose to our own bodies, as well as to the bodies of others, unhinging us to some extent from our constraining sensuous responses. It is hard to strangle someone with your bare hands since the intra-specific inhibitions on killing a member of one’s own species would kick in and succeed in making us sick. And though it is unpleasant to have someone throw up over you, it is a great deal more agreeable than being strangled.

We can, however, override these sensuous inhibitions by killing each other at long range, an ingenious strategy which squirrels and earthworms have so far disastrously failed to come up with. (Why? Because a non-linguistic being can’t invent a rifle.) Language, and the cultural or conceptual world of which it is the medium, is the catastrophic triumph we have over our fellow animals. If this dangerously two-edged sword permits us to torture, it also allows us to perform major surgery without just throwing up over the patient’s body all the time. It does this because it helps to objectify the world, set it over against us, which is a source of alienation and achievement. Unlike aardvarks and alligators, we can be ironic and play the trombone, write Little Dorrit and care for the sick. Linguistic culture also means that we can enter into relations with others more intimate and intense than just bodily interaction, which is what we mean by spirit, soul or consciousness.

Consciousness is more something between us than within us, more like dancing than a rumble of the gut. Because of this unique form of communication, we can dissolve the walls of our bodies and get closer to each other than touching. Sexual relationships, for example, are mostly a matter of talking (or am I missing out on something?). For sign-making animals like ourselves, physical action isn’t a way of getting closer to each other than words. In fact, actions like hugs or handshakes only make sense within a world of meaning. Sharing signs isn’t a substitute for sharing things; it is a way of sharing them more deeply.

Entering into language was certainly a fall. But like all the best falls it was one up and not down. It was a fall up from sheer innocent animality into the guilt laden domain of culture and history. It was, as the theologians say, felix culpa—a fortunate fall. To live in a world of meaning is both our glory and our terror. Language, or conceptuality, sets us free from the dull constraints of a biological routine into that form of collective self-determination we known as history. I don’t want to be odiously patronising here: I’m sure moles and badgers are splendid little chaps in their own way, and no doubt slugs and tapeworms make marvellous companions once you get to know them. It is just that their existence looks from the outside just a trifle boring, which is the last thing one can say of the flamboyant career of a species apparently set on destroying itself.

Because we live culturally and historically, our existence is at once enthralling and spectacularly precarious, whereas the lives of our fellow creatures are for the most part tedious but secure. Or rather they are insecure only because we are around. Being eaten by a tiger is not in the least tedious for us, but it is routine for the tiger. Having history means that we are never able to be fully identical with ourselves. Like language itself we are constitutively unfinished—and this means that death is always arbitrary and gratuitous even when we see it coming. As Lady Macbeth recognises but her husband does not, it belongs to our natures to transgress our natures. Living in a world of meaning also allows us to reflect on the grounds and validity of our meanings—in other words to do theory—which is another way in which we are not self-identical. In reflecting on ourselves, we divide ourselves into two, becoming both subject and object of our thought.

A creature doomed to meaning is one constantly at risk. It would seem, for example, to have no solid ground to its existence, since there is always more meaning where that came from, and meaning is in any case inherently unstable. There can be no such thing as a final interpretation, in the sense of an interpretation which does not itself need to be interpreted. There could be no final word because a word only has meaning in terms of other words. We are able to live historically because the kind of bodies we have are self-transcending, which is to say that they allow us within certain limits to determine the way in which we are determined. We are determined in such a way as to be able to make something creative and unpredictable of what makes us. Language offers a model of this, because it is a regular, fairly predictable system of conventions but one which all the time allows us to generate strikingly original speech acts which no one has ever heard before. A poem is the best example of such utterances.

Language allows us to make present what is absent. It punches a hole in the indicative mood and ushers in the subjunctive—the sphere of imagination and possibility. With language both futurity and negation are born. A dog may be vaguely expecting its master to return, but it can’t be expecting him to return at precisely 3.57pm next Tuesday. As for negation, it is language which allows us to do this as there is no negativity in reality. Speech introduces nothingness into the world.

The problem with this constant negating and transcending of the present (which is what we mean by history) is that linguistic creatures can develop too fast. Evolution, by contrast, is mind-blowingly slow and boring but safe.

Linguistic animals are perpetually in danger of overreaching themselves and bringing themselves to nothing. Their chronic condition is what the ancient Greeks knew as hubris or which modernity knows as the myth of Faust. We are always likely to be undone by our desire. In fact there is something perversely self-doing about it: a self-delighting, self-squandering, demonic recklessness which Freud called the death drive. When it comes to taking a gratuitous delight or obscene pleasure in the destruction of others simply for the hell of it, this recklessness is traditionally known as evil.

So what has all this got to do with Gordon Brown? Let me try to sidle my way from culture to politics by way of King Lear. Shakespeare, in Lear but also elsewhere, sees culture as a kind of surplus or excess, a superfluity over and above strict necessity. But he also sees that this superfluity is necessary to us as well. Superfluity belongs to our natures. Culture is a supplement—but it is one which is built into our being. Shakespeare sees that to overflow the measure, as he writes in Antony and Cleopatra, is somehow part of our measure, that transgressing the norm belongs to what we are. This is why Lear cries, “O reason not the need!” when he is asked by his brutally utilitarian daughters why he needs even one knight in his retinue.

At one point in the play Shakespeare seems to be arguing his way from the idea of surplus and the senses to the idea of socialism. Struck by the unfamiliar sight of the naked, defenceless poor, Lear exclaims, “O, I have ta’en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just.” What Lear means is that power is without a body. Power is fleshless. If only it had a body, if it had senses, it would feel the misery it inflicts, and thus might stop doing so. What blunts the senses of power is a surplus of material property, which provides it with a kind of surrogate body, a fat-like swaddling of material possessions. And this is what insulates it against compassion. So the point is for power to shuck off its surplus fat to the poor (“shake the superflux to them”), which will then both improve the conditions of naked wretches and allow power itself (Lear himself) to feel, to re-appropriate its body, to be rehumanised. (The nearest thing to the play on this score, incidentally, is Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, a document which similarly seeks to argue its way up from the material body to communism, from the somatic to the socialistic. Marx, too, sees that socialism is essential if we are going to start feeling our bodies again.)

As Lear goes on: “Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man That slaves your ordinance, that does not see Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly, So distribution should undo excess, And each man have enough.” If the senses of the rich and powerful weren’t so swaddled and pampered, the rich might be moved by the deprivations of the poor to share with them the very goods which currently prevent them from feeling their misery. The rich are quarantined from compassion by an excess of property, whereas the poor are impoverished by too little of it. The renewal of the body and a radical redistribution of wealth are closely allied. Communism and corporeality, here as elsewhere in Shakespeare, are closely related ideas.

“O reason not the need!” Gift, gratuity, lavishness, non-necessity, superabundance: these things are constitutive of what we are, or rather, of what we could become in politically transformed conditions. This, surely, is one reason why artistic culture is so vital all the way from the romantics to Oscar Wilde. It represents a form of production which is radically for its own sake, done just for the hell of it. As such, it is an implicit critique of utility simply by the miracles of its existence, a living rebuke to the Benthamites and avatars of exchange-value.

Art becomes that mysterious thing which, like the God from which it tries to take over, is its own ground, end and origin, which keeps conjuring itself spontaneously up from its own unfathomable depths for the sheer delight of it, which stoops to no external law and refuses to be judged by any grim faced tribunal of history, Geist, production, benevolence or utility, but which lives only by the law of its own autonomous being (auto-nomus)—and which in doing so resembles nothing quite so much as us, as men and women, or at least what men and women might be in a society in which we, too, would be treated as ends in ourselves, in which human existence might no longer be bent to the imperatives of a bloodlessly instrumental reason but could become, as Marx puts it in the Grundrisse, a matter of “the absolute working out of creative potentialities…with the development of all human powers as such as an end in itself”, which is to say, in his idiom, the realm of freedom rather than the domain of necessity.

Astonishingly, then, from romanticism and aestheticism to modernism, art is most profoundly political when it’s least functional. It is most politically engaged and instructive when it broods over the miracle of its own being in a civilisation where, strictly speaking, it ought to be well-nigh impossible. Ours is a culture where the commodity, whose reason for being lies entirely outside its sensuous being, is the norm for what defines an object and where the work of art thereby becomes the very opposite of the commodity, even if it is now in fact for the first time part of general commodity production.

In the battle between nature and culture, nature always finally has the upper hand. It’s known as death. In the shorter term, however, the aim of socialism is for culture and self-delight to be where labour and necessity once were. There’s an important conflict within the socialist tradition over how this is to be best accomplished: do you try to make work creative in the manner of a William Morris, so that artistic culture becomes a paradigm of non-alienated labour, or do you try to abolish work altogether, in the style of Marx and Wilde? Is the best possible reason for being a socialist the fact that you object to having to work? For Wilde this is certainly the case. In his view, once the realm of necessity has been automated, we will simply lie around the place all day in loose crimson garments in various interesting postures of jouissance, reciting Homer, sipping absinthe and being our own communist society. Indolence is a sign of the coming socialist kingdom. It’s absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. The aristocrat is the forerunner of the communist, rather as the landowner has a sneaking affection for the poacher as opposed to the petty bourgeois gamekeeper. The culture which is at present the preserve of the privileged few is also a utopian image of a future beyond the commodity, on the other side of iron necessity.

This, however, involves a shift in the very meaning of culture, from the more restricted sense of the term, roughly, art, to the broader sense of a whole way of life. Art defines certain qualities of living which it’s the task of a radical politics to generalise to social existence as a whole: this, I take it, is a key insight of Raymond Williams, who died twenty years ago last year. Let me put these points in rather baldly propositional form:

(1) Culture in the broad sense—culture as language, symbol, kinship, community, tradition, roots, identity and so on—can be summarily defined as that which men and women are prepared to kill for, or die for. This isn’t true, as you may have noticed, of culture in the sense of Stendhal and Shostakovich, except perhaps for a few seriously weird types hiding out in caves somewhere too shamefaced to come out and confront the rest of us. As capitalist civilisation develops, this gemeinschaftlich idea of culture grows more and not less powerful, as an abstract globalism breeds a myopic particularism.

(2) This means that culture has on the whole ceased to be part of the solution, as it was in the heyday of liberal capitalism, and has instead in advanced capitalism become part of the problem. The generous, utterly well-meaning, hopelessly idealist view that culture could provide the common or universal ground on which we could all ultimately meet, regardless of our social, sexual, ethnic and other differences, and could thus offer a much needed form of spiritual cohesion in a fragmentary society, has ceased to be viable even for most liberal bourgeois critics.

At the same time, however, culture as a radical utopian image of the kind I’ve discussed has ceased to be current too. Instead culture speaks the language of conflict and antagonism rather than consensus and universality. The three movements which have dominated the political agenda from the mid-20th century onwards—revolutionary nationalism, feminism and ethnic struggles—all see culture as the very idiom in which their demands are articulated, in a way that was not so true of the traditional industrial struggle.

(3) Finally, we are shifting from an opposition between civilisation and barbarism to one between civilisation and culture. The political left has always insisted that civilisation and barbarism are synchronous, not sequential—not just that civilisation was dredged laboriously from barbarism but that the two are secretly sides of the same coin. No cathedral without a pit of bones; no high culture without wretchedness and exploitation. Nowadays, however, civilisation means individuality, universality, autonomy, irony, reflection, modernity and prosperity, whereas culture signifies spontaneity, conviction, collectivity, specificity, tradition and (generally speaking) impoverishment.

It isn’t hard to map this opposition on a geographical axis. Whereas there used to be parts of the globe which were civilised and others which were barbaric, there are now bits which have civilisation and other bits which have culture. Who said there was no progress in our thinking? The only problem for the left, before it rushes to dismantle this flagrantly ideological contrast, is that there are, of course, aspects of so-called civilisation which are precious and progressive, and aspects of so-called culture which are bigoted and benighted. And on that I impeccably even-handed note, I leave the question as one for you to ponder…