1. Concepts and Purpose
1.1. Towards a Definition
Whenever cultural issues are to be dealt with, there has to be some awareness, some definition of what is meant by the mere word of "culture". But of all more or less abstract concepts, that of culture belongs to the most difficult ones, having spawned a seemingly endless debate in scholarly surroundings as well as in the lay public. "Culture" is a word used by everybody, but it is used by everybody differently.
Starting from its mere lexical meaning, "culture" is a rather blurry concept, its basic aspects being agricultural cultivation and religious worship, extending into the way of life. From the Greek perspective, hê paideía, culture is rather cultivation of the mind, of the soul, it is education, erudition. Initially, culture is rather not used as a single word but mostly in combination with others to specify its range of use, like in cultura agri, agriculture. These two, the need for cultivating the earth to get nourishment, as well as the spiritual need for explaining the world, are primal before anything we today are able to claim as culture. A nation can only rise to greater cultural achievements when it has freed itself from being preoccupied mainly with the utmost basic requirements, thus the so-called cradles of civilization were cultures populating the fertile regions around the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris, Ganges, Indus, Changjiang or Huanghe. Only when the groundwork has been laid, when basic techniques have been developed, civilization and culture can commence to prosper in the less life-supporting areas. In the beginning, culture basically means civilization, so that both terms have often been used as synonyms. But while both terms may share their basic preconditions, "culture" then goes further.
"Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action."
How to approach a concept like that of culture? One way might be to try to establish a clear-cut definition like the one shown above, which is a difficult but not impossible task, the difficulty stemming from the outright ambiguity and all-encompassing scope of the initial concept, dating back precisely to the primal roots of civilization. To arrive not at a definition but at an understanding of the scope of culture, several aspects of the term "culture" will be looked at in the following. The first aspect has already been mentioned: Culture as a synonym for civilization, describing a rather peaceful, settled, "cultured" way of living as opposed to savagery; meaning cultivation, the application of control mechanisms:
"[Firstly] culture is best seen not as complexes of concrete behavior patterns - customs, usages, traditions, habit clusters - as has, by and large, been the case up to now, but as a set of control mechanisms - plans, recipes, rules, instructions (what computer engineers call ‘programs’) - for the governing of behavior. The second idea is that man is precisely the animal most desperately dependent upon such extragenetic, outside-the-skin control mechanisms, such cultural programs, for ordering his behavior."
Into this, all aspects of life can be drawn: Amongst them manners of eating, drinking, clothing, walking, socializing. Now the subjectivity of the concept and the problem of deriving a definition become a bit clearer: What exactly are the criteria for a cultured lifestyle? Who is savage? The chief example here can be the process of "civilization" the "cultured" Europeans brought to the Native American "savages", to these "barbarians" who "were friendly at first but usually alienated in short order by slaving, murder, torture, and extortion". At the end of the day, the surviving or militarily superior power can always lay claim on possessing a superior grade of civilization. In this use, "culture", as well as "civilization" can serve as synonyms for empires, nations or tribes, allowing for a more euphemistic application. But sometimes when a culture disappears, either through destruction or assimilation, this also means the disappearance of the specific tribe or band or nation, as it happened in Gaul under Roman rule or in America during colonization.
A second, more specific use of the term "culture" is an even more subjective one: as a synonym for "art" or special artistic endeavor and quality. "Art", however, is again a hard word, originally meaning something artificial, only in the context of culture it becomes something outstanding - as well as something outstandingly subjective. It is also from this perspective that the original opposition of high and low culture seems to have arisen.
Such oppositions are another way of approaching culture, or rather the scope assigned to culture. High-low oppositions; national, foreign or global culture; individual culture etc. So there has grown to be a difference between the original lexical meanings and today’s understanding and context-dependent connotations or re-definitions, with the old idea still dimly visible in the background. To differentiate between subjective and objective properties of the term will again be a subjective viewpoint, as even objectivity can mean different things from the subjective standpoint each individual has. An objective approach thus may only be possible in dialog and cooperation, in subsuming different approaches.
Culture can be influenced by many factors, amongst them politics and the philosophy behind. So talking about culture without the historical setting in mind would rather impede understanding than promote it. Today’s Western culture has largely been altered by the democratization of the polity, by processes of liberalization, freedom movements and economic betterment, the grade of prosperity rising on a general level. These changes still have to fight against what we inherited from the past - past concepts and masterworks challenging today’s achievements, creating also lobbyist agenda as in the high-low propaganda war.
An aspect usually not that often reflected upon is the question of who is in possession of culture. Usually, our anthropological fixation is not really questioned. But in search for a wider perspective, for the scope of culture, the question has to be asked if there can be other cultures than just human cultures, the perspective for now restricted to Earth. What about animal culture and animals producing art? Cats paint, and so do elephants:
"A non-human species creating art. Some refer to the new movement as Dumboism."
So what are the prerequisites of culture? Self-awareness, consciousness, a soul? Elephants have death rituals, Japanese macaques have been seen imitating behavior and integrating it into their activities. Animals can learn and adapt themselves to situations which could never have been integrated into their instincts nor their genetic code. Watching and studying animals can thus tell a lot about human nature, about what is animal and what is human within us, but equally, what can be assigned to be human within animals.
It cannot be enough to state examples for culture - culture has a reason, it is also the manifestation of a need, of necessity, also of commodity. So it is the use of culture which will be addressed in the following.
1.2. Towards Use
Culture can manifest itself in various ways, visibly and invisibly. Even the culture of the mind, of the soul, the civilized or cultured attitude, will appear in words and actions of the respective individual. Such manifestations may occur in lifestyle and private life, work and art, if these areas were to be divided. Lifestyle and private life would for instance be clothing, eating and drinking, living space, learning, entertainment and societal life; work in a conventional sense would mean any paid activity, art anything without a clear purpose. But can the latter two points be upheld in light of the entertainment industry, in which art is produced for profit? What would work be for those making a living from their entertainment and educational interests? Can watching a movie be a productive activity? Clearly, the use derived from each activity is a highly subjective category, and a very individual one as well. That makes matters not less intermingled - on the contrary, clear-cut definitions like the Benedictine "ora et labora" have become increasingly dubious, the Roman differentiation between otium and negotium, leisure and business, whereas leisure would also contain private education, is becoming even more fluid since the era of e-commerce also allows for people to be paid for surfing the web.
As people are increasingly freed from working for their subsistence, as working weeks tend to contain less hours, others through technology being allowed to work at home, less time falls victim to obligatory work, the remains of the day being freed for cultural activities like socializing, reading, tv, movies, arts or sports. The concept of spare time, formerly only known to the very rich, has entered the homes of virtually everybody not only in Western culture but everywhere where technology allows for a more effective work schedule. To fill the time, cultural activities other than basic human interaction and labor have to set in.
But what are the uses of such killing time, what can count as cultural activity?
"What counts as culture is a matter of degree; broadly, culture ought to broaden our horizons and help us see the world in a new way. Culture stands above the concept of entertainment, although broadening our horizons is often entertaining."
Thus culture can be used as diversion, as entertainment. Today a rather normal and accepted activity, in societies much more depending on labor force so-called idleness could be a case for capital punishment, like illustrated by the Draconian laws. The functions and benefits of playing and entertainment have in recent times been subject of intense research and reflection. The observation of animals can illustrate the need for playing as being necessary for training and strengthening mind and body, and apart from sports, also computer games which some would usually regard as a waste of time can actually help improving hand-eye-coordination or to relieve stress.
"Computer games afford some of the most interesting and complex behavior and cognition that can be studied in the laboratory. They can be used to generate complex stimuli, to elicit complex responses, and to provide complex reinforcement of behavior."
Seeking mutual entertainment can be an important factor in social life, fostering contacts and friendship; as seems American business culture to be dependent on the game of golf.
"Today’s science fiction is often tomorrow’s science fact. [..] To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit."
Culture can be a promoter of improvement. A first step for such improvement could be self-reflection, one of the functions of both fiction and history. In learning about society and humanity, mistakes can be recognized and solutions be found. The enlargement of the horizon may seem a very noble task today, almost a prerequisite for each citizen, but this is largely due to the benefits of democracy. In past ages, the acquisition of knowledge in general was strongly limited to one’s profession. In suppressive societies, collecting information is almost an act of rebellion. But improvement cannot be planned in advance. An Einstein cannot be planned, neither can a Shakespeare nor a Martin Luther King. Apart from the utmost basic crime prevention and ethical considerations, any kind of restriction laid upon society thus has to lead to a restriction and retardation of progress. The culturally most active and productive eras have been those promoting freedom, sometimes creativity had to happen in niches allowing for it, like it happened even in the most restrictive times through private sponsorship and patronage. While cultural works may find a way to emerge anyway, a restrictive contemporary society would be at the losing side when it doesn’t allow for a wide variety of culture and art. Through reflection and diversion, popular culture and technology encourage diversity - which would be the nature of "diversion".
"... culture provides the link between what man are intrinsically capable of becoming and what they actually, one by one, in fact become. Becoming human is individual, and we become individual under the guidance of cultural patterns, historically created systems of meaning in terms of which we give form, order, point, and direction to our lives. And the cultural patterns involved are not general but specific."
Studying culture in its increasing variety still seems to be considered a novelty. Cultural Studies are a relatively new movement, overshadowed by the long tradition of literary studies. Literature, however, does belong to culture, being an integral part of it. Thus the division between literature and culture, rather than the division between literature and music, is an utmost artificial and also very dangerous one, standing in the way of obtaining a more complete view of culture. Literature cannot exist in a vacuum, it needs a background as does it need readers. Both are situated within the cultural framework - and cross-references in literature towards the rest of culture are not only uncommon but necessary. The medium of literature is the written word, the book usually, whereas media like film, television, music and painting would manifest themselves in other ways. All these, however, are equally original (or equally non-original) manifestations of creativity, belonging to the realm of cultural elements.
Literary Studies, with a long tradition and a well-established (although not the less criticized) canon of works and methods, can claim an area of research which mightn’t be small, but which at least is more or less comprehensible in its scope. Cultural Studies, on the other hand, defies any easy definitions and limitations. To a not so small part this is due to the arrival or refinement of newer media during the past decades; developments in television, cinema, arts, music and - more recently - the internet continue to cast their shadows over the well-established market of literature. Criticism often tends to ignore these trends in their starting phase, distrusting the humble beginnings, later it is shaped by this initial prejudice. The sheer amount of material also lets individual quality be buried under quantity, the medium becomes a collective term pre-defining its general quality, basing the judgement not on the individual work but on the medium it is produced for.
Since its beginnings the American Studies movement has had the intention of utilizing a more general view of culture, of being an interdisciplinary form of cultural studies, but still the impact of literature seems to be larger; literature is still considered more high-brow and more primal than other forms of art. Possibly there’s also a fear of superficiality: Literature can be said to be more reliable. With restricting the range mostly to literature as a medium, the scope can still be contained. But opening up to all forms of culture would need to deal with various art forms and media for which specialists would be needed, thus the treatment of contemporary music, painting, photography, architecture, television, movies is rather the exception than the rule. This may be due to the still present critique of cultural studies, but such criticism cannot be upheld in the future. If the American Studies movement intends to fulfill its promise, the separation of literary versus cultural studies makes no sense anymore. Such a separation is also a strange cut: Literary studies should belong to cultural studies, should be a part of it rather than an opponent.
"Art is an important agent then in the transmission of culture. It is one of the ways in which the roles by which men and women are expected to pattern their lives are communicated and passed from generation to generation."
Culture doesn’t only portray the life of human beings, in return it can very strongly influence it and enlarge perception. With the arrival of television, the outside world suddenly was given a face. Without leaving their homes, people can actually see other cultures and countries which otherwise would have been inaccessible to them. With the internet, borders between individual countries have become transparent. With each piece of fiction, our own imagination can be spurred to reach new heights. But before such developments are talked about, there’s need to turn to the criticism of culture first.