Civilization and Culture

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The distinction between culture and civilization is acute indeed, even I missed it and I was trying to pay attention!

I needed help to see and when I picked up Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution, by mistake I might add (I was trying to get to another book), I couldn’t put it down and four hours later I heard the distant echo of my wife’s voice getting louder and louder through the haze, “Oh darling (that’s how she always talks to me), you’ve got to go to church, you’re leading, preaching, dancing, c’mon!

But in those four hours, wow!  And I would like to share what I found.

Eagleton is attacking the myths and inherent contradictions in the Western world regarding multiculturalism, democracy, ect.   Which was fascinating in its own right.  But rather than leave the global status on the well known but misunderstood peg known as ‘The Clash of Civilizations’, he dissects this further:

Civilization means universality, autonomy, prosperity, plurality, individuality, rational speculation, and ironic self-doubt.   Culture on the other hand, signifies all those reflective loyalties and allegiances, as apparently built into us as our liver is, in the name of which, people are prepared to kill.  Culture means custom, passion, spontaneity,  unreflective, unironic and a-rational.

Thus the West (by-and-large) has civilization, the non-west (by-and-large) has culture, and as if to hammer home the point in brutal irony, he adds, that colonizing nations are civilizations, while most (former) colonies are cultures!

Whilst these contrasts are not absolute, we can see how transnational corporations, in the business of profit and market domination, whilst being cultureless and unlocalized in themselves must pay tedious attention to how business is traditionally conducted in an alien culture (I’ve seen banks advertising on the TV this very thing showing their profound cultural insights with a very happy family at the centre, but always in the soft glow of a rising/setting sun, and without the rank poverty and economic injustice that will always be just out of screen shot)!

The in-built irony of the West is simple:  Western civilization is by definition a plurality of cultures.  Civilization needs culture of course but the multi-cultural experiment of the West since the end of WWII is a fragile thing indeed.  Thus civilization is precious, but fragile; culture is raw but potent.  Civilizations kill to protect their material interests; cultures kill to defend their identity.  The more pragmatic and materialistic civilization becomes, the more culture is summoned to fulfill the emotional and psychological needs that it cannot handle.

When culture is thus repressed, it returns with a bite because it is more localized, immediate, spontaneous, and a-rational than civilization, it is the aesthetics of a poetic kind of politics.  If ever the Enlightenment spawned anything, it was the starchy rationalist and his infuriatingly unpredictable younger brother, the romanticist.

Religion falls into both these camps, which is one reason for its incredibly enduring strength.  As civilization, it is doctrine, institution, authority, metaphysical speculation, transcendent truth, choirs, and cathedrals.  As culture, it is myth, ritual, savage irrationalism, spontaneous feeling, and the dark gods.  Thus Christianity started as a culture but became a matter of civilization.

Within the framework of the Dawkins-Hitchins debate (the two figure-heads of New Atheism which Eagleton tears plenty of strips off, are humourously referred to in his book as Ditchkins), the continual reference to culture as a way to close down arguments and prevent rational debate/dialogue is is part of the problem.  This appeal to culture becomes a way of absolving oneself from moral responsibility and rational argument.  And this is why Ditchkins is not a culturalist but argues against religion as if every religious person is, nothing but a silly caricature that Dawkins particularly is becoming known for – and that is his undoing because it shows his sloppy approach to history, worldview, religion in general and Christianity in particular.  I don’t like the man very much, but I know God well enough to know he is deeply loved!

The British are going through the cultural mill at the moment.  British culture!  What is it exactly?  British values?  What?  You mean secular capitalist values driven purely by market forces in a faceless multi-national world.  Ooh, yes please!  Culture, in the West now functions (or is trying to) as an alternative to failing (or more accurately, declining) religious faith.

Like religion, culture is a matter of values, intuitive certainties, hallowed traditions, assured identities, shared beliefs, symbolic action and a sense of transcendence.  Thus it is culture, not religion, which is now for many people the heart of a heartless world.  Karl Marx would be thrilled to discover that for some, culture serves as an opium substitute as well!  Culture trumps everything and you can’t even poke fun at it or ask hard questions, such as ‘Why?’  Islamic radicalism is as guilty of this as any other pocket of assumed cultural superiority.

When the English football fans chant “I’m English ’til I die, I’m English ’til I die, I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m English ’til I die.”  I really do agree with them, but it does sound like they’re trying to convince themselves of this qwerk of birth, or at least, remind others in case they’ve forgotten.  What are the opposing fans supposed to chant in reply?  “We know you are, we know you are!”

But culture trumps everything in a weirdly paradoxical caricature of itself.  If postmodernity is suspicious of foundations in any and everything, it needs to be careful, for in removing the old foundations of our civilization in the West, it is replacing them with its own cultural versions.  In this way, postmoderns are not really hostile to foundations, they’re just hostile to traditional forms of foundation, for they’ve just replaced traditional ones for make-it-up-as-you-go-along cultural ones, and by the way, don’t ask questions, or you’ll get the stare that really says, “Stop being irrational like those religious nutters!”

End of conversation.

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