Defining Culture and Its Role in Literature: Stephan Greenblatt’s “Culture”

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Greenblatt begins his article by dealing with the idea of “culture” itself.  After all, the article is named “culture” and if it is going to be the main focus, the first step is defining what “culture” actually is.  He points out that culture has not always been part of literary criticism and in fact, the very “concept” of “culture” is relatively new.  He quotes the anthropologist Edward B. Tylor as defining 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).  Greenblatt, immediately after giving us this definition, challenges it.  Because really, what kind of a definition is that?  Defining culture by giving a long list of other concepts (some of which’s own definitions are vague) hardly leaves us with anything useful at all.  As Greenblatt humorously explains, “’culture’ is a term that is repeatedly used without meaning much of anything at all, a vague gesture toward a dimly perceived ethos” (437).  So again employing his usually strategy, Greenblatt asks a question and then answers it.  In this case he asks how we can make this concept that we use in such a vague way, more useful.

The first thing Greenblatt says we need to consider is that “the concept gestures toward what appear to be opposite things” (437) (surprise surprise, keep in mind that new historicism is heavily influenced by poststructuralism, so we all should have been expecting “opposite” to pop up somewhere).  The opposite things are: “constraint and mobility” (437). 

He deals with constraint first.  He explains that, “The ensemble of beliefs and practices that form a given culture function as a pervasive technology of control, a set of limits within which social behavior must be contained, a repertoire of models to which individuals must conform” (437).  He clarifies that these boundaries may be large and are enforced in three ways: extreme ways (such as “exile, imprisonment in an insane asylum, penal servitude, or execution”), more innocent ways (such as “a condescending smile, laughter poised between the genial and the sarcastic, a small dose of indulgent pity laced with contempt, cool silence”), and lastly there is positive reinforcement through rewards for “good behavior” including “spectacular” rewards (such as “grand honors, glittering prizes”) and “the apparently modest” (such as “a gaze of admiration, a respectful nod, a few words of gratitude”). 

After that, Greenblatt instead of dealing with the “mobility” aspect next, shifts to discuss how “constraint” relates to literature.  He explains that literature has been a very powerful force in constraining people to respect cultural boundaries.  He tells us that, “Works in these genres often seem immensely important when they first appear, but their power begins quickly to fade when the individuals to whom the works refer begin to fade, and the evaporation of literary power continues when the models and limits that the works articulate and enforced have themselves substantially changed.  The footnotes in modern editions of these works can give us the names and dates that have been lost, but they cannot in themselves enable us to recover a sense of the stakes that once gave readers pleasure and pain” (437).  This is when culture comes in.  Granted, we can never fully distance ourselves from our own position, no can we ever fully comprehend someone else’s.  But, an understanding of culture does help us to understand to some degree the boundaries that existed before. 

Greenblatt then provides us with a handy set of six questions which he explains are the starting point for us to consider the culture behind a work.  The questions are the following:

 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?

However, Greenblatt also gives us a warning after handing us these starter questions which I feel is extremely important.  In new historicism, we want to extend beyond the work we are reading into the cultural context, “but these links cannot be a substitute for close reading” (438).  So just because we need to consider the above questions, does not mean we can ignore the text or the implications it has.

He then clarifies that just because culture influences literature, that does not mean that literature has no power, or that it cannot work the other way around.  He says, “Cultural analysis then is not by definition an extrinsic analysis, as opposed to an internal formal analysis of works of art.  At the same time, cultural analysis must e opposed on principle to the rigid distinction between that which is within a text and that which lies outside.  It is necessary to use whatever is available to construct a vision of the ‘complex whole’ to which Tylor referred.  And if an exploration of a particular culture will lead to a heightened understanding of a work of literature produced within that culture, so too a careful reading of a work of literature will lead to a heightened understanding of the culture within which it was produced.  The organization of this volume makes it appear that the analysis of culture is the servant of literary study, but in a liberal education broadly conceived it is literary study that is the servant of cultural understanding” (438). 

Now, after explaining constraints relation to culture and literature, he gives examples of constraint in literature.  He briefly mentions Pope’s “Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot” and Marvell’s “Horatian Ode.”  He says that both of these show “the internalization and practice of a code of manners” (438).  However, his main example of constraint in literature involves Shakespeare’s As You Like It.  He uses two characters as examples, Orlando and Audrey.  Of Orlando he posits that, “Orlando’s bitter complaint is not that he has been excluded from his patrimony…but rather that he is being prevented from learning the manners of his class” (438).  So basically, unless we were informed about the culture of this time period, we as a modern reader could become sidetracked by why Orlando is not mad about receiving his seeming due (his inheritance) rather than focusing on what he is actually upset about.  If the reader does not understand primogeniture, the passage becomes much more murky and confusing and the reader can become distracted by unimportant details.  Of Audrey, Greenblatt explains that “even the simple country wench Audrey receives a lesson in manners from the sophisticated clown…” (438).  In other words, even a seemingly unimportant character in the play is constrained by cultural manner expectations.  Greenblatt sums up his example by saying, “…even as his[Shakespeare’s] plays represent characters engaged in negotiating the boundaries of their culture, the plays also help to establish and maintain those boundaries for their audiences” (439).  So even as these characters attempt to rebel against or discover their own places in respect to cultural boundaries, Shakespeare reaffirms these boundaries by writing about them. 

Greenblatt now moves on and uses Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen as a segue between constraint and mobility.  He notes the constraints present in it, as Spenser himself has said that, “The purpose of his vast romance epic…is ‘to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline” (439).  Yet, at the same time as Spenser says this, his characters constantly are “roaming an imaginary landscape” which hints at mobility.  Greenblatt explains this contradiction between constraint and mobility with the following, “…if culture functions as a structure of limits, it also functions as the regulator and guarantor of movement.  Indeed the limits are virtually meaningless without movement; it is only through improvisation, experiment, and exchange that cultural boundaries can be established.  Obviously, among different cultures there will be a great diversity in the ratio between mobility and constraint.  Some cultures dream of imposing an absolute order, a perfect stasis, but even these, if they are to reproduce themselves from one generation to the next, will have to commit themselves, however tentatively or unwillingly, to some minimal measure of movement; conversely, some cultures dream of an absolute mobility, a perfect freedom, but these too have always been compelled, in the interest of survival, to accept some limits” (439).  This is probably one of Greenblatt’s most important quotes.  He explains the relation between constraint and mobility, literature and culture.  No matter how free people may want to be, there will still have to be some limits or general anarchy will ensue.  Just as no matter how many constraints some people may want, there will always have to be some mobility, for it is impossible to completely eliminate it. 

Greenblatt explains the relevance of his previous quote, “What is set up, under wildly varying circumstances and with radically divergent consequences, is a structure of improvisation, a set of patterns that have enough elasticity, enough scope of variation, to accommodate most of the participants of a give culture…a great many works of art are centrally concerned with these improvisations” (439).  So our cultures must find a happy medium between constraint and mobility, so that most people can abide happily.  However, despite the fact that a sort of harmony has been created where most people can handle their amount of freedom, works of art (in particular literature) are still written about how one goes about dealing with this compromise.  Each individual may wish for more or less freedom, how does one come to terms with these cultural boundaries?  That is what art explores.

However, art is not entirely free despite its ability to explore these improvisations.  Even as authors attempt to discover how to relate to boundaries, “they do not merely passively reflect the prevailing ratio of mobility and constraint; they help to shape, articulate, and reproduce it through their own improvisatory intelligence” (439).  So, as they write about these boundaries in an attempt to improvise, they actually change the very nature of the boundary.  Continuing, Greenblatt says that “Even those great writers whom we regard with special awe, and whom we celebrate for their refusal to parrot clich├ęs of their culture, tend to be particularly brilliant improvisers rather than absolute violaters or pure inventors” (439).  He continues by stressing that even though this idea of our greatest writers being improvisers and not inventors may seem like it is demoting them to some degree, it actually isn’t.  Instead, he stresses that the important thing is the “exchange” (439) which takes place between different works and culture itself to create these improvisations (if you’d like to read more about these improvisations, I suggest Ellen’s blog) Greenblatt summarizes the relationship between constraint and mobility as he explains, “The two concerns are linked, for a culture’s narratives...are crucial indices of the prevailing codes governing human mobility and constraint.  Great writers are precisely masters of these codes, specialists in cultural exchange.  The works they create are structures for the accumulation, transformation, representation, and communication of social energies and practices” (440).    

Greenblatt finishes his article by stressing that students need to perceive the relation between history and literature and to stop trying to separate the two.  He also gives a bit of a disclaimer, saying that he realizes he has written “at moments as if art always reinforces the dominant beliefs and social structures of its culture,” he explains that he does realize this is “by no means necessary” (440).  He says he realizes that “in our own time most students reserve their highest admiration for those works that situate themselves on the very edges of what can be said at a particular place and time, that batter against the boundaries of their own culture” (440).  He ends by using Caliban in The Tempest as an example of this.  He says that, “If it is the task of cultural criticism to decipher the power of Prospero, it is equally its task to hear the accents of Caliban” (441).  In other words, it looks at both the things that reaffirm culture, improvise culture, and challenge it (if you’re still unclear on the ending, I suggest you check out Erica’s blog where I attempt to explain the ending of the article).      

For more information on Greenblatt's article, you can check out some vocabulary, some authors (or other people), and/or some literary works that he uses in it. 

Click here to read more on Greenblatt.


Chandrakumar said:

Iam doing research on new historicism at university of kannur in kerala,India
I wuold like to read more about stephen greenblatt
I have to read the works of stephen green blatt and the works about him

thanking you

Greta Carroll said:

I hope it helped! Thanks for reading :)

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