Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Culture and conflict

Terry Eagleton has an odd piece in the Guardian today on the theme of a supposed contemporary conflict between culture and civilisation. I can't help thinking that there is a subtext, the continuation of his spat with Martin Amis by other means. He writes:

These days the conflict between civilisation and barbarism has taken an ominous turn. We face a conflict between civilisation and culture, which used to be on the same side. Civilisation means rational reflection, material wellbeing, individual autonomy and ironic self-doubt; culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective and arational. It is no surprise, then, to find that we have civilisation whereas they have culture. Culture is the new barbarism. The contrast between west and east is being mapped on a new axis.

Civilisation is "ironic self-doubt" and culture is "unreflective"? Can't we have doubt without irony or a reflective culture? Where do these definitions come from? Is there no Western culture or Eastern civilisation? It is all very puzzling. Another weird aspect of the piece, apart from these arbitrary definitions, is that, as a Marxist, Eagleton seems to disassociate contemporary conflict from material conditions and place it in an idealist framework of, in my view, a false dichotomy between culture and civilisation.

The trouble is that there are real conflicts here. Culture might be 'collective' and 'customary' but it can also be brutal, oppressive and violent. And when it morphs into political movements, it can be a vehicle for the interests of powerful groups in society. But, for Eagleton, it is civilisation that is the violent one.

Civilisation needs to be wrested from nature by violence, but the violence lives on in the coercion used to protect civilisation - a coercion known among other things as the political state.

And civilisation is, implicitly, the West.

The big problem with all this is that the most pressing political conflict of the moment is not between civilisation and culture or East and West. It is one where secular and democratic forces, religious and ethnic minorities, women and gays, artists, musicians and writers, as well as established, and decidedly unlovely, elites are all being confronted by an ultra violent, authoritarian religious obscurantism. It is also being fought mainly within the East, with a far higher body count, despite the atrocities in New York, Madrid and London. You can call it what you like, but I know what side any left leaning person should be on, and with Eagleton these days I am never sure.

Norm is also perplexed


Anonymous said...

Indeed. See what's happening in Gambia in relation to gays for 'culture' in Eagleton's terms at its, possible, worst. In the light of which, the old CNT/FAI road with religious obscurantism appears even more attractive.

Anonymous said...

Civilization and culture used to be on the same side? Not in World War One they didn't. I may have got this the wrong way round but didn't the court Professors of the Hohenzollerns (ie a very large proportion of the German professariat of the time) argue that World War One was a war between Anglo French Zivilisation and -the far superior - German Kultur. So good old Terry seems to have reached back to Troeltsch and the others who put out the manifesto of intellectuals in favour of the German War effort. Well, that's entertainment.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right that he's continuing to kick Martin Amis.

"Civilisation means rational reflection, material wellbeing, individual autonomy and ironic self-doubt;"

That's Amis, and Barnes, and McEwan, and British literary intellectuals in general.

"culture means a form of life that is customary, collective, passionate, spontaneous, unreflective and arational."

Bunch of religious nutters jumping up and down burning books and shouting Death to Rushdie.

But he's the usual slippery Eagleton and he's not going to be that explicit. So he takes those notoriously difficult words, "civilisation" and "culture" and says that they mean what he has decided what they will mean in this instance.

George S said...

The straight proposition, as I understand it, is that rather than thinking in terms of religion or lack of (Islam v Christianity, Islam v Atheism, Christianity v. Atheism) one might consider Islamism, say, as a cultural aspect of a specific religion. Not all Islam has to be Islamist, in other words, but there is a kind of culture in which Islamism can flourish as "a repressed that returns with a vengeance". (I always tend to worry about that particular repressed).

The terms are awkward of course and he goes by his own definitions, which is, I think, the chief problem. It is fascinating how this kind of reversal, in which you point to a phenomenon and call it A, then becomes the definition of A.


What I think he was trying to identify, if I want to be picky about it, were some differences between two kinds of culture: one that works on passion and concentrated group identity, another that works on irony and diffuse individual identity.

Don't you think that such a distinction exists? I watch these two ways of going about life creating havoc in Hungary, and some such distinction seems reasonable to me.

How far civilisation and culture are the best terms I don't know, and may be less important than the phenomena themselves.

The conclusion he draws at the end is, I suppose, a continuation of the spat with Amis, but when he says -

"The distinction between Hitchens or Dawkins and those like myself comes down in the end to one between liberal humanism and tragic humanism. There are those who hold that if we can only shake off a poisonous legacy of myth and superstition, we can be free. Such a hope in my own view is itself a myth, though a generous-spirited one. "

- I cant help thinking there is something in this. That, if you like, the conflict isn't between the religious sense and the anti-religious sense, but between the liberal and the tragic.

I would like to think the liberal has the last word, but I have a certain apprehension that the tragic usually has its say, and telling people that religion is a lot of rubbish is not going to solve it.