What do we mean by culture? How extensive is its terrain? Has culture limits? Can it tell us anything important about ourselves? And what pleasures does it have to offer?
There was a time when all cultural phenomena were traceable to human nature. This foundational concept provided an effective bulwark against change: the new was doomed to fail because it was, by definition, contrary to human nature. A generation ago, cultural critics overthrew the tyranny of human nature, and put culture in its place.
Culture had the virtue of allowing for difference, acknowledging the diversity of cultural values and practices. But it rapidly came to occupy all the available space. Now it was culture that explained everything, specifying what existed, defining our identities, ‘materialising’ our bodies. Culture became foundational. A thoroughgoing attribution of primacy to ideas, to the cultural script, has installed a new kind of tyranny. This version of culture allows itself no limits, no alterity, no resistances to speak of – and no place for desire.
It was the nineteenth century that specialized in theories of everything, centred on a single determining cause: the economy, for example, or sex… Since then, without necessarily abandoning their insights, we have reread these theories to develop more relational accounts of causation. Not just the economy, say, but the economy in relation to politics and ideology; not simply sex, but sex in relation to death, and each in relation to the conventions obtaining at any particular time.
In this book I propose that we understand culture in relation to the real. I have borrowed the term ‘real’ from Jacques Lacan to define what we don’t know. The real is not reality, which is what we do know, the world picture that culture represents to us. By contrast, the real, as culture’s defining difference, does not form part of our culturally acquired knowledge, but exercises its own, independent determinations even so.
In Martin Heidegger’s view, language throws into relief the world of things, making visible separate entities, objects, colours, sounds. And in this sense, he claims, language constitutes the means by which ‘a people’s world historically arises for it’. I like the image of reality popping up as things are named.
For more on her observations, please read Culture and the Real by Catherine Belsey.
Excerpts are from her Preface to her book.