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Culture

“Culture” is not easily defined, not least because it can have different meanings in different contexts. However, the concept that lies at the core of cultural studies, it may be suggested, is very much the concept that is found in cultural anthropology. As such, it avoids any exclusive concern with “high” culture. It entails recognition that all human beings live in a world that is created by human beings, and in which they find meaning. Culture is the complex everyday world we all encounter and through which we all move. Culture begins at the point at which humans surpass whatever is simply given in their natural inheritance (cf. nature). The cultivation of the natural world, in agriculture and horticulture, is thus a fundamental element of a culture. As such, the two most important or general elements of culture may be the ability of human beings to construct and to build, and the ability to use language.

 

Gillian Rose’s use of the Jewish myth of the Tower of Babel is illuminating in this context (1993). At Babel, humans attempted to reach heaven by building a tower. God did not merely destroy the Tower, but in order to prevent a further attempt, He prevented communication by imposing a multiplicity of languages. This story is often seen as an allegory of language. Rose, however, takes it further, as an allegory of language and architecture. It is therefore seen to comment upon key themes of cultural studies, including the community, the conflict of diverse cultures, power, law and morality, and knowledge. Rose’s argument is that Babel represents, not simply an architectural project, but also the building of a city. Cities are a crucial cultural watershed, for in the city, diverse cultures (customs, beliefs and values) come together. In a city, people become aware, perhaps for the first time, that they have a culture, for there is always someone who disagrees with what you have always taken for granted. Our self-awareness as cultural beings is grounded in this confrontation, and thus in the exercise of power (as we struggle to sustain our own values against an assault form others). The point of Babel, and perhaps of all human culture, is that in the architectural achievement of the tower-city, humans gained a sort of immorality. While the individual may die, the buildings of his or her generation will live on and become part of the future. Cultures endure even though the individuals who built them die. So, at the very least, our understanding of time is transformed, and our understanding of history created. Yet this “reach,”, as Rose calls it, entails the loss of a naïve self-certainty. The unity and universality of the isolated, nomadic early Jewish tribe is confronted and questioned by its encounter with a plurality of other cultures and their claims to universality (cf. cultural relativism). Paradoxically, at the very moment in which we become aware of ourselves as cultural beings, we are both enabled, but can no longer ever be certain what is the right thing to do, and so in doing anything, we fall into conflict with others.


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