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Culture, 1922: The Emergence of a Concept

Culture, 1922: The Emergence of a Concept

by Marc Manganaro

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Culture, 1922 traces the intellectual and institutional deployment of the culture concept in England and America in the first half of the twentieth century. With primary attention to how models of culture are created, elaborated upon, transformed, resisted, and ignored, Marc Manganaro works across disciplinary lines to embrace literary, literary critical,


Culture, 1922 traces the intellectual and institutional deployment of the culture concept in England and America in the first half of the twentieth century. With primary attention to how models of culture are created, elaborated upon, transformed, resisted, and ignored, Marc Manganaro works across disciplinary lines to embrace literary, literary critical, and anthropological writing. Tracing two traditions of thinking about culture, as elite products and pursuits and as common and shared systems of values, Manganaro argues that these modernist formulations are not mutually exclusive and have indeed intermingled in complex and interesting ways throughout the development of literary studies and anthropology.

Beginning with the important Victorian architects of culture--Matthew Arnold and Edward Tylor--the book follows a number of main figures, schools, and movements up to 1950 such as anthropologist Franz Boas, his disciples Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, and Zora Neale Hurston, literary modernists T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, functional anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, modernist literary critic I. A. Richards, the New Critics, and Kenneth Burke. The main focus here, however, is upon three works published in 1922, the watershed year of Modernism--Eliot's The Waste Land, Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific, and Joyce's Ulysses. Manganaro reads these masterworks and the history of their reception as efforts toward defining culture. This is a wide-ranging and ambitious study about an ambiguous and complex concept as it moves within and between disciplines.

Editorial Reviews

Available Light: Anthropological Reflections of Philosophical Topics
This is an excellent, original, well-written book. It makes a significant contribution to the history of both Modernism and of the concept of culture—as well as to the interpretation of some of the most consequential works of the interwar period. A most important work.
author of "Available Light: Anthropological Re fford Geertz

This is an excellent, original, well-written book. It makes a significant contribution to the history of both Modernism and of the concept of culture--as well as to the interpretation of some of the most consequential works of the interwar period. A most important work.
From the Publisher
"This is an excellent, original, well-written book. It makes a significant contribution to the history of both Modernism and of the concept of culture—as well as to the interpretation of some of the most consequential works of the interwar period. A most important work."—Clifford Geertz, author of Available Light: Anthropological Reflections of Philosophical Topics

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Culture, 1922

By Marc Manganaro


Copyright © 2002 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4008-2522-6

Chapter One


THE FOLLOWING treatment of the work of perhaps the century's preeminent architect of the culture concept, T. S. Eliot, operates essentially backwards, beginning with Eliot's relatively late (1948) disquisition on the culture concept, Notes towards the Definition of Culture, and progressing back to his poetic masterwork of 1922, The Waste Land. This perhaps counterintuitive move back in time is made quite deliberately, in the hope that demonstrating where Eliot ultimately arrived in his wrestling with complex models for culture can make us better appreciate where he started and what his start, with The Waste Land and the early literary criticism, helped to make conceptually possible. The pairing and ordering of the two works also is meant as an assertion that The Waste Land, no less than the later work of social criticism, operates as a formative piece of social criticism and that we simply cannot realize the extent to which the poem (and the early literary criticism) does important work on culture before understanding where Eliot ultimately took the concept. In this regard we can apply Eliot's notion of tradition to his own corpus: in Notes Eliot knows more about "culture" than he did in The Waste Land, but the poem is that which he knows.

Like Notes, The Waste Land functions as an argument on culture, though as I hope to illustrate in this chapter, it is an argument that moves in at least a few directions at once, dealing with culture rendered on the one hand as geographically bounded and essentially metonymic (in the tradition of Boas) and on the other hand as comparative and essentially metaphoric (in the tradition of Frazer). One could say that the richness of both of Eliot's texts arises in part from the confluence and collision of the competing models at work. Finally, throughout this chapter the stable and static text of the poem is emphasized less than the varying yet ultimately systemic ways in which the poem gets read, by Eliot himself (e.g., in the "Notes" to the poem as well as in his review of Joyce's Ulysses) and by generations of critics, whose responses also figure, significantly, as argument on culture.

* * *

Eliot had a significant investment in the culture wars of his times. Those times stretch out to some sixty years, and that investment contributed significantly to his being a chief architect of literary modernism, modern literary criticism, modern professionalism, and, one could say, late modernity itself. By 1948, when he published Notes towards the Definition of Culture, Eliot had long since consolidated his gains as a literary artist, critic, and editor; indeed, it had been a full twenty-six years since he published The Waste Land and become editor of the influential journal Criterion. And by 1948 he was already beginning to make a name for himself as a social critic (he had published his first full-length sociological treatise, The Idea of a Christian Society, in 1939).

In Notes Eliot, like Arnold before him as well as Raymond Williams and Clifford Geertz after him, calls attention to culture as a much-debated and powerfully deployable concept. Like Geertz, who twenty-five years later complained that the term culture had come to mean "everything" and hence "it is necessary to choose," Eliot straightforwardly admits that his "ambition" is to "rescue this word" from abuse. "I have observed with growing anxiety the career of this word culture," Eliot confesses, and then he proceeds to try to whittle the word down to more precise proportions.

The epigraph to Eliot's volume, indicatively, is the Oxford English Dictionary definition, not of culture, but of definition: "the setting of bounds; limitation" (79). Five years after the appearance of Notes, the anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn in their definitive review of the anthropological roots of culture mistook Eliot's definition of definition as "another (rare) meaning" of culture. And yet this mistake is intellectually understandable, given the tendency in formative usages of culture toward containment-for Arnold, of anarchy; for modern anthropologists, of the disparate acts, practices, and mentalities of a people into a comprehensible "complex whole." Despite Kroeber and Kluckhohn's real differences with Eliot (see below), they could not but unwittingly reproduce the notion that the development of culture as word and term was intimately tied to the setting of limits.

It would be easy enough to personalize Eliot's motive as a perverse rage for order. There is no doubt, for one thing, that Eliot's Anglo-Catholicism (he had converted in 1926, to the dismay of many) to a large extent fueled his social criticism, and indeed in Notes he explicitly criticizes Arnold for trying to prize apart religion and culture and declares his own intent "to expose the essential relation of culture to religion" (87). Kroeber and Kluckhohn in fact explicitly, and quite disapprovingly, note Eliot's argument that, in their words, "religion is the way of life of a people and in this sense is identical with the people's culture" (33). However, Eliot's religious motives do not in any complete sense explain where Eliot takes culture, or what or whom he takes from in getting there. More specifically, those motives, or other social political filiations and efforts, do not thereby divorce his conception of culture from previous or then current anthropological theorizing.

Eliot's treatments of culture in Notes are strongly tied to the legacy of institutional beliefs and practices within the field of anthropology at the time, such as when Eliot asserts that

the reader must constantly remind himself, as the author has constantly to do, of how much is here embraced by the term culture. It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale Cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his own list. (104)

Eliot's enumeration, emphasizing in this case material culture, embraces both elite and broadly anthropological conceptions of cultural materials, and his offer to the reader to create one's own "list" speaks to the quite apparent multifariousness of cultural representativeness: anyone's "list," he is suggesting, in its variousness and seeming idiosyncrasy will illustrate and argue for cultural wholeness and integrity.

Williams in Culture and Society rightly points to the broadly anthropological nature of Eliot's discussion of culture as "a whole way of life"-indeed, Eliot himself in Notes states that "culture is not merely the sum of several activities, but a way of life" (114)-and yet Williams traces the evolution of that sense of culture quite generally from the "rise of industrialism" and in that vein views Eliot as a genealogical heir to Coleridge and Carlyle (227-33). While the debt to Coleridge and Carlyle is there, clearly Eliot's impulse to delimit culture, to give culture "definition," owes a more immediate debt to modern anthropology's efforts to articulate a culture-and usually this means a primitive culture-as an autonomous social group having its own functionally distinct set of rules. Williams's comment that Eliot, "like the rest of us, has been at least casually influenced" by the disciplines of anthropology and sociology (233) is, to say the least, insufficient.

Any scholar of Eliot knows that he was a voracious reader of anthropology and that his anthropological interests surface in the various genres and phases of his career. In graduate school at Harvard he wrote an essay titled "The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual," which assessed the interpretive capabilities of a range of evolutionary anthropologists, including Tylor, Frazer, and Jane Harrison. Later he reviewed, in journals such as the Egoist, emerging volumes by social scientists such as Emile Durkheim and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and in his literary criticism he referenced, commented upon, and provided literary analogies to the work of anthropologists ranging from Frazer to E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Most notoriously, he planted anthropological "sources," principally Frazer, in his "Notes" to The Waste Land, and in later years he solicited and published work by anthropologists (such as Lévy-Bruhl) and reviews of anthropological publications (such as Robert Graves on Malinowski) in the Criterion.

Given the extent to which Eliot was familiar with, and worked within, an anthropological culturalist frame, it is hardly surprising to find him referring, in the first chapter of Notes, to "the general, or anthropological, sense of the word culture as used for instance by E. B. Tylor in the title of his book Primitive Culture" (94). Perhaps less noticeable, though more anthropologically specific and significant, is the second of what he terms the "three important conditions for culture," namely, "the necessity that a culture should be analyzable, geographically, into local cultures" (87).

This passage is likely to be rapidly glossed over; however, what would appear through most of the twentieth century as a self-evident assertion really needs to be contemplated as a once arguable proposition that grew into a set of specific social-scientific practices. Without the contributions of Tylor, Boas, and a host of other formative modern social scientists, would it have been possible even to assert that a culture as a discrete system is "analyzable" or interpretable; that it is "geographically" based, that is, readable in terms of its ties to a plot of earth; and finally, that it needs to be contemplated in a minimal compass known as the "local"?

In a general but easily overlooked sense Eliot's conceptualization of the "local" unit indeed would not have been conceivable without the by then powerful anthropological legacy of Boas. It needs to be remembered that in 1887, one year before Eliot's birth, Boas argued vehemently in the journal Science for Adolph Bastian's conception of the "geographical province" as the basis for anthropological study, precisely because it required arguing at the time, and strongly asserted in his debate with Otis Mason over the proper display of ethnological artifacts that "by regarding a single implement outside of its surroundings ... we cannot understand its meaning."

While Eliot's seemingly commonsensical imperative to read cultures locally-on the ground, so to speak-owes much to the Boasian culturalist template, it also makes possible, or puts into motion, a number of the sociopolitical arguments that modern cultural anthropology, thanks mainly to Boas, would find, and indeed did find, repellant. Kroeber and Kluckhohn, in fact, note that "anthropologists are not likely to be very happy with Eliot's emphasis on an elite," and to bolster their own critique they add that "the literary reviews have tended to criticize the looseness and lack of rigor of his argument" (33).

In Notes Eliot does generally read local culture (i.e., rural English culture) much as the evolutionary anthropologists Tylor and Frazer described primitive culture: distinguished from cosmopolitan culture by its simplistic social arrangement, on the whole making for an ignorant bliss. The elitism inherent in Eliot's arguments for the "preservation of local culture" has been criticized since the essays making up the volume were first published-a former colleague of mine once referred to Eliot's "let them sing folk songs" approach-and indeed it is hard to read passages like "it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born" without conjuring up that infamously, hauntingly prescient fascist modernist moment in 1934 when Eliot, in praise of local white Virginian attachment to the soil, advised against the existence of "any large number of free-thinking Jews" in any given local culture.

Much in Eliot's Notes was being contained, and yet Eliot's professed intention to delimit culture hardly succeeded in keeping it within bounds, either linguistically or anthropologically. In fact, and this was largely deliberate on Eliot's part, his effort produced a complex, highly variable, surprisingly elastic (if no less "elitist") formulation of the term that kept debate on the term rolling. Raymond Williams, the most assiduous and brilliant of Marxist critics on culture, noted that regardless of one's politics, one had to concede that Eliot, "in his discussion on culture ... has carried the argument to an important new stage, and one on which the rehearsal of old pieces will be merely tedious." If one did not take on Eliot's formidable pondering upon the term, his insistence that culture be considered on several complex interpenetrating levels, Williams remarked, one might as well "retire from the field" (Culture and Society, 227).

Eliot in fact opens his first chapter by dividing his discussion of "culture" under three headings-of the "individual," of the "group or class," and of the "whole society"-and then notes that "the difference between the three applications of the term can best be apprehended" by asking what meaning "the conscious aim to achieve culture" (94) has for each. While Eliot notes that the "general, or anthropological sense" of the term "has flourished independently of the other senses" (94)-which should be read as an assessment, not of the anthropological concept's lack of impact, but of its generativeness within the now secure, autonomous institutional framework of cultural anthropology-he also describes the relation between the anthropological sense and his three senses as transitional in nature: in the study of "highly developed societies, and especially our own contemporary society," the triadic relation between individual, group, and whole society needs to be considered, and in the process "anthropology passes over into sociology" (94).

Eliot then proceeds to demonstrate what he terms the "thinness" of Arnold's use of the term: Arnold cleaves to the culture as individual model, which, Eliot notes, rather simplistically assumes that culture is only consciously aimed at. Arnold makes the mistake, common "amongst men of letters and moralists," Eliot claims, of considering "culture in the first two senses, and especially the first, without relation to the third" (94). Arnold's argument, Eliot rather shrewdly notes, lacks a certain "social background" (94).

What Eliot challenges his readers to do is to keep at least three notions of culture in mind at the same time. Crucially, he notes that no one individual can possess all the aspects of culture at the same time: it is only society as a whole that can do that. And it is for that very reason that culture as an all-inclusive, integrative activity cannot be directed, particularly in a more "highly developed" society, which "develops toward functional complexity and differentiation." In "the more primitive communities," says Eliot,

the several activities of culture are inextricably interwoven. The Dyak who spends the better part of a season in shaping, carving and painting his barque of the peculiar design required for the annual ritual of head-hunting, is exercising several cultural activities at once-of art and religion, as well as of amphibious warfare. As civilisation becomes more complex, greater occupational specialisation evinces itself ... [and] it is only at a much further stage that religion, science, politics and art become abstractly conceived apart from each other. (96-97)


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