Some Implications of the Word “Culture”


The word "culture" is a battleground. Past meanings of the word have recently been routed once again and "culture," as redefined by members of the academy, has been made the field of study of a new discipline: Cultural Studies. Explaining some of the assumptions made by the proponents of this new definition of culture, I shall also show that it ultimately owes something to Christianity - in spite of the fact that part of the project of Cultural Studies is a diminishment of taking any religion, especially Christianity, seriously. Christians need to know how to speak to people who accept "culture" as it is currently defined, how to listen to what is being said, and how to respond.

Dr. Margaret Visser

Cultural Studies arose in French left-wing circles in the 1950s, and by the 1980s it was firmly established in English-speaking countries. Now, as a result of the existence of numerous and popular university courses, certain assumptions about culture have become widespread. Cultural Studies is almost invariably believed by its practitioners to be political in intent. It offers opportunities for the recently routed left wing to begin reinventing their point of view. Their interest is in popular as opposed to elite culture; seldom do they study anything less than a few decades old.

Their clearly avowed aim is to make people see the structures of power — frequently unspoken as they are, and often hidden, whether deliberately or in ignorance. They try to uncover ways in which modern objects (everything from clothing to computers) and myths (soap operas, detective stories, religion) manipulate people into thinking in ways which suit corporate power. The idea is that once the tricks and the structures are revealed, people will see through them and, undeceived, move on to different ideas. People will change.

Like so many aims and practices that appear totally modern and non-religious, there is here an implicit and unadmitted derivation from Christian sources. Moreover, although Cultural Studies is in the hands of people who do not understand religion, and try to "demythologize" it — saying for example that it is "authoritarian" or "unscientific," and therefore false — it is entirely possible to put across a Christian reflection to the public, even to unmask the unacceptable aspects of Cultural Studies, by using their very methods.

In a typically modern manner, Cultural Studies insists upon whatever facts and attitudes have previously been excluded from academic discourse. (Arguablythere is something healthy in this, no matter how absurd or confused or hypocritical the results may be: Christianity itself has a mandate never to dismiss anyone — especially people who have been rejected or unfairly ignored.) For Cultural Studies, everything is grist for the mill. And like grist, everything is ground down, and of equal import — pornography and holy cards, science fiction, prostitution, and museums. What is mostly subjected to dissection is things. If one is engaged in interpreting a culture, symbolic systems are vital to one's understanding of it. In a modern, consumerist culture, things matter objects, stuff you buy. These show others who we "are." People seem to ache to have their things explained to them. For they, as moderns, are interested in themselves.

One of the cardinal — but mostly unspoken — rules of Cultural Studies is, "thou shalt not believe in what thou art analyzing." The assumption is that no one can understand what they participate in. Cultural Studies practitioners are objective, says this illusion. But of course they are not, and cannot be. That insight is one of the achievements of the now-mostly-superseded era that called itself "postmodern." Postmodernism insists that nobody is uninvolved in what they observe. Cultural Studies, unlike Postmodernism, usually has a moral agenda, and claims to use "scientific" methods. In my recent book about a church, The Geometry of Love (Toronto: Harper Flamingo, 2000), I made it clear I was a religious believer. The first publisher to which the book was offered not only tried to prevent the book from being published, but demanded back their advance — all because I had not submitted the church to a mocking deconstruction.

Even so, the agenda that underpins Cultural Studies is reasonably worthy, insofar as it honestly intends to reveal underlying structures and so liberate people from oppression. But they assume that the agenda is theirs alone: they control it. We, the subjects of study, have nothing to say. We are not supposed to explain what things mean to us. They study us, even if they are ignorant of history and theology. We are studied. They "deconstruct" us. The term is useful because it presumes that what can be deconstructed must have been constructed — and so is crying out to be demolished. ("Analysis" in ancient Greek comes from the root-word luo, "I destroy".)

Elite culture is all but disqualified in the discourse of Cultural Studies. This concentration on the ordinary, on "everyday life," marks a momentous change in society — one which can be tracked by looking at the evolution of the word "culture."

"Culture" derives from the Latin verb colo - colere - colui - cultum. (The word "cult" is related). It means:

a) growing plants (15th century).
b) raising animals (18th century). The Enlightenment, instrumentalist vision of the world now classifies animals together with vegetable crops. Microscopic organisms, artificially cultivated, are also called a culture now (19th century).
c) our minds too can be cultivated like a field (first use, 15th century). "Culture" has come to mean, and for some still means, "a high degree of taste and refinement, brought about by polishing."

Sense (b) recurs here, in that a person of culture is probably also a person with breeding. There is something sinister in this: "culture" is thought, through the metaphor of breeding, to require being born in the right milieu, and then passing a lifetime in close contact with "cultured" people. Those not fortunate or well-born will be unlikely to achieve "culture," to be considered 'well-bred."

To unmask the power ploy implicit in this metaphor, as Pierre Bourdieu and others have done, is to reveal an entrenched social injustice. Christians can easily see that the moral energy that leads these scholars to dig for such an insight derives ultimately from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Here, people are redeemed not because of their own merit, but through God's mercy — which should lead to loving and selfless action. Christianity has always insisted that being favoured with "golden opinions" is unlikely to prove advantageous on the path to spiritual perfection.

d) In the next step, "culture" comes to be applied to "intellectual and artistic activity and the works — 'cultural products' — resulting from it" (19th century). Artists are now thought of as the new priests, seers, prophets, "creators." In addition, their products are themselves "cultural." Paintings are things — products. The consumer society has taken off.
e) The question begins to be posed: why should people use the word "culture" only of "high art"? Couldn't it refer to popular art as well — or to other phenomena? The word "culture," not without a fierce battle, now begins to mean: "the totality of socially transmitted behaviour patterns, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought" (early 20th century). The left-wing, democratic camp has won; elite culture is seen as only influencing the elite.
f) The products of culture are now considered an expression of a particular period, class, community, population. "Culture" thus becomes a plural noun, for different societies have different "cultures," and each society has different "cultures" within it (later 20th century).
g) Nowadays, "culture" refers to everything bearing meaning, regardless of hierarchies of importance. Not only are people equal, but their beliefs are seen as having equal value as well. Multicultural tolerance has played an important role in this development: we have learned not to assume that any society's culture is superior to another. People then come to feel that all "subcultures" should be worthy of respect, i.e. equal in value. "Value" comes to replace "morality" because "values" (plural) are subjective. My values are my own, yours are yours. "Morality," on the other hand, is distressingly common to all. People do not normally speak of "moralities." The word therefore seems "authoritarian," and makes a claim for inherent value. It is therefore suspect.

Some of the assumptions made by Cultural Studies bear emphasizing:

  1. There is no inherent value in anything, all value being relative. There is no place for the absolute, for the intrinsic — except as oddities to be studied and explained away.
  2. All cultural phenomena are constructed by society. Taste, for example, is not innate, but learned from one's class. "Taste " has become a model for the idea of "values" because it is about desire and preferences, and is constructed.
  3. All things social are potentially matter for study; nothing is shocking, nothing is too trivial, boring or ephemeral. Everything is grist.
  4. Elite things are almost, but not quite, disqualified. Elite art is good, for example, to analyze — even according to the moral and authoritarian codes of Cultural Studies.
  5. Despite the anti-elitist bias, Cultural Studies practitioners are of course turning themselves into an elite — studying and passing judgment on everyone else. Those studied are disqualified from practicing Cultural Studies.
  6. Things and attitudes interrelate, but only on one level. There is no such thing as the transcendent, because the transcendent is "above" everything else. Any meaning that is generated must be constantly, deliberately and inevitably undermined. It is extremely important for religious people to be aware of this agenda. Meaning (to be studied, not believed in) risks being authoritative. Modern social science abhors the authoritative, while itself making rules. Absolute meaning goes beyond things in themselves, and might end up pointing to something like God. Good modern secularists must fight this off, and work to prevent other people from thinking of such a possibility.
  7. Culture, in the West, is defined as being about change; the word has replaced more static, geographical terms like "milieu" or "setting."
  8. The new plural, "cultures" points to the modern fact of "multiculturalism," the new determination to value the "cultures" of all societies, not only our own. Of course, never has homogenization spread further over the world. As variety and alternatives disappear, Cultural Studies keeps examining anything different or strange, thereby helping them to disappear. Ultimately, the discipline is a homogenizing project, and in this it actually serves the powerful.

What might religiously-committed people make of all of this? Firstly, we, the community of believers, are being studied by these "experts" who have concluded that religion is a purely social construct, at best a "channeller" of "values." It still seems to attract a lot of people in The Culture. Therefore, the discipline tends to treat it with distaste but occasional wonder. Since it cannot be ignored, it must be accounted for.

Actually, it is entirely possible to turn the tables: to uncover the power structures that seek to stifle religion, to trivialize its messages, and to keep it out of public discourse. And as we are engaged in "the culture," so we should not take too withering a view of it. There is much about it that is admirable.

We are ourselves a part of the culture; we benefit from it, have helped to create it, and should give it its due. We should keep our sense of humour, despite the deep seriousness of the issue.

Let us demonstrate clearly the extent to which contemporary western culture depends for its moral energy upon the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. Let us articulate that we as religious believers have "roots," and know what they are. Most people are fully aware that contemporary culture is more and more fragmented and rootless, and that this is potentially, catastrophic. A related point is that Christianity's symbols and ideas are constantly being used for trivial ends — in advertising, for example. We could afford to object more to this exploitation.

Religious believers are now called "a religious culture," or several "religious cultures." However, we are very different from other "cultures," and we need to communicate this. For a start, we are committed — we aren't as mobile as some would like. We do not take it that everything is of absolutely equal value, that the ideas of Goethe are the same as those of Goebbels. We are convinced that human beings have intrinsic value, that they are children of God, even before they are granted "rights" by other people. We reject the idea that morality is "relative," but maintain that morality is prior to culture. Moreover, we are able to evaluate it and even judge it. Because we ourselves inevitably participate in "the culture," and because our tradition still undergirds it, we should notice what the culture says about us, what the prejudices are — but also what it envies about us. Finally, we have to discern what it is about the behaviour of religious people that may be found irritating and even dangerous — often rightly. What is it about the culture that we cannot accept, and why? The traffic should not be one-way, with each side believing they have only to teach and nothing to learn.


Margaret Visser “Some Implications of the Word "Culture"” Centre Points 9 (The Centre for Cultural Renewal, Winter, 2001): 1-3.

The Centre for Cultural Renewal, a non-partisan, non-denominational think-tank with registered charitable status in Canada and the United States, has been described as “the most credible organization in Canada addressing fundamental questions about politics, culture and faith.” For the past six years the Centre has been making a name for itself by hosting events that seek to articulate the relationship between the techniques and purposes of key areas of culture: law, medicine, politics, education and the arts. Iain Benson, a constitutional lawyer, is the Centre’s Executive Director.


Margaret Visser writes on the history anthropology, and mythology of everyday life Her books have been translated into French, German, Dutch, Portuguese, and Chinese Her most recent work, The Geometry of Love, Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in on Ordinary Church was published in Canada by Harper Flamingo in 2000 and in Britain in 2001 In 2002 Dr Visser will present the Massey Lectures, Canada's most prestigious public lecture series This article was edited by Ms- Justine Brown from a presentation by Dr. Visser to the Centre for Cultural Renewal's Canadian and US Boards in France, in April 2001.

Copyright © 2002 The Centre for Cultural Renewal

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