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April 26, 2007

Greenblatt's "Culture"

Greenblatt, ''Culture'' -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

“Culture” By Stephen Greenblat

Greenblat begins his essay by quoting Edward B. Tylor, who defines culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (437).

Greenblat wants to know why this is useful to literature students. His answer: Maybe it’s not. Why not? Well, take the word culture. Greenblatt points out that it is “impossibly vague and encompassing” (437). That means that just about anything can be attributed to it, anything can be related to it, it can be used to connect just about anything. The word “ideology” presents a very similar problem. These terms, because of their ambiguity, are rather meaningless. (This is particularly interesting to me after Karissa’s presentation on de Mann’s “Semilogy and Rhetoric” and the idea that there can be no universal signifier, yet the word culture seems to have limitless meanings, which therefore make it meaningless.)

In order to deal with the vagueness of the word “culture” we constantly have to use other words to make it more specific. Greenblatt gives examples such as “aristocratic culture” and “youth culture” but, as I thought about the validity of his statements, I realized that to truly narrow down out reference point when talking about culture, we really could go on forever trying to further qualify the term. For example, start with youth culture. Well, what kind of youth culture are we talking about? Let’s make it more specific:

American youth culture

Ok, but still, American is pretty big. We can be more specific than that:

American youth culture in the South

And yet even more specific:

Urban American youth culture in the South

And so on, and so on. All by its lonesome, the word “culture: means very little. Now, there is nothing wrong with this, even according to Greenblatt. But, he also points out that it is problematic when trying to provide “the backbone of an innovative critical practice” (437).

This leads Greenblatt to ask, not “why is culture useful to literature students?” but instead, “How can we get the concept of culture to do more work for us?”(437).

Greenblatt then introduces the ideas of constraint and mobility.

Constraint: This concept has to do, of course, with the limits on social behavior. Our societies have beliefs, practices, laws etc. that serve as a tool for conformity and they make up the cultural constraints Greenblatt is writing about.
We consider our limits in the United States to be, well, quite unlimited in comparison to many other countries. But, while we have many freedoms, they are never infinite! (Hmmmm, I think it might be safe for me to say “never” right there.)

So, if we have these constraints, these limits, then we must have consequences for going beyond these limits. Interestingly, the Greenblatt points out that the consequences we derive to punish the severe limit breakers – prison, execution, exile – are rarely as effective as the things we all encounter at one point or another for breaking cultural/social norms. He gives examples like condescending gestures, pity, contempt, sarcasm, silence.

There are also positive consequences for following within the boundaries of culture that make people stay within the constraints of a culture. Things like formal awards and prizes, to small, simple words of gratitude. It is very much about acceptance (just to throw in a bit of a psychological lens through which we can view things).

So how does all this work for us students of literature? Well, to begin, Greenblatt states that: “Western literature…has been one of the great institutions for the enforcement of cultural boundaries through praise and blame” (437). The obvious examples of this? Satire and panegyric.

Now, just to take a slight detour here, when I first read this part I had to think of Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because right now that is the novel I am helping to teach in the junior American literature classes at Greensburg Central Catholic. There has always been a lot of controversy around the novel with people claiming that it is racist, but the teacher and I have been stressing to the students about the satire and how the novel actually makes a comment against slavery and so it was challenging, and sometimes still does because of the touchy issue of race, those boundaries that Greenblatt is talking about.

Greenblatt goes on to say that the effectiveness of these works fades because the cultural boundaries change over time (although with the example of Huck Finn either it is not true, or perhaps more time needs to go by in order for it to be true). So, Greenblatt concludes that the “awareness of culture as a complex whole can help us recover” a “sense of the stakes that once gave readers pleasure and pain” by “leading us to reconstruct the boundaries upon whose existence the works were predicated” (437). To do this Greenblatt suggests we ask certain questions such as:

1. What kinds of behavior, what models of practice, does this work seem to enforce?
2. Why might readers at a particular time and place find this work compelling?
3. Are there differences between my values and the values implicit in the work I am reading?
4.Upon what social understanding does the work depend?
5. Whose freedom of thought or movement might be constrained implicitly or explicitly by this work?

6. What are the larger social structures with which these particular acts of praise or blame might be connected.

Greenblatt says that these questions are meant to “heighten our attention to features of the literary work that we might not have noticed” as well as to “connections among elements within the work” (438). He is sure to emphasize that although a cultural examination does require the use of resources outside the text that these resources do not replace the need for a close examination of the text itself.

One of the main things to note, as Tiffany and Vanessa and Dena did on their blogs. is that Greenblatt asserts that learning about the culture from which they came is a way to learn about the works as much as those works are a reference to help us learn about that cultural world from which they came, as an absorption of the boundaries and limits that once existed. So if the exploration of a culture leads to greater understanding of the work, than the exploration of the literature leads to a greater understanding of the culture. That is what a liberal education does for us (hence why American Literature is offered as a U.S. Cultures class to non-majors here at SHU).

As an example, Greenblatt references Shakespeare's As You Like It and talks about its commentary on manners and the ideas of proper "cultivation," both making fun of the customs of the day, as well as participating in it because " for even as his plays represent characters engaged in negotiating the boundaries of their culture, the plays also help to establish and maintain those boundaries" (439).

Jay uses a quotation from Greenblatt on his blog that emphasizes the usefulness of literature to affect culture:
"In any culture there is a general symbolic economy made up of the myriad signs that excite human desire, fear, and aggression. Through their ability to construct resonant stories, their command of effective imagery, and all above their sensitivity to the greatest collective creation of culture-- language-- literary artists are skilled at manipulating this economy" (Greenblatt 440).

One thing I noticed about Greenblatt's essay, is his ability to incorporate ideas that belong to other forms of literary criticism (which is significant since we talked about culture being all-encompassing, so it makes sense that the cultural criticism would be as well). So, on that note I would once again like to emphasize that Greenblatt seems to see literature as a signifier for culture (again getting back to that de Mann stuff!) and he sees it as intertextual as well when he states that "A culture is a particular network of negotiations for the exchange of material goods, ideas, and ...people" (439).

To close, I could like to point out this idea of mobility of culture and the role literature plays in it. The constraints mentioned earlier mean nothing without the implication of movement because of everything was still, we would not need boundaries. But, authors "take symbolic materials from one zone of the culture and move them to another, augmenting their emotional force, altering their significance, linking them with other materials taken from a different zone, changing their place in a larger social design" (440).

Posted by LorinSchumacher at April 26, 2007 10:51 AM


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