August 13, 2003

Roger Sandall in TNC

What happened to the words culture and civilization? How did they go from being words used primarily in the singular, denoting an elevated human condition of sorts, to their newer alternative, if not contradictory meaning of simply a "way of life", no matter how base or barbaric it may be?

Roger Sandall evokes Orwell and identifies semantic devices like Bald Inversion and Barefaced Oxymoron, in the process of taking on the subject. (I shamelessly lifted the Orwell quote that now adorns my blog's banner. It just sounded "right" for me, and who knows, perhaps someday my semantic devices will be capitalized). Here are some key paragraphs, but it's worth reading the whole essay. From The politics of oxymoron, in The New Criterion.

What exactly is going on here? Three important terms have been subverted, weakened, corrupted, and destroyed. In the humanities, one hundred years ago, the meaning of “culture” was very like “civilization.” It denoted both a universal process of human improvement and the condition to which that process leads: an increase in amenity, an amelioration of the harsher aspects of life, a diminution of ignorance and fear, a flowering of the arts and sciences, and finally, crowning all, a “civility” which only peoples blessed with the mature religious, legal, political, and economic arrangements of “civil society” are fortunate enough to know. This evaluative meaning was entirely compatible with Matthew Arnold’s humanistic ideal—culture as acquaintance with the best that humanity had thought or said or done. It was not pluralistic. It did not involve “cultures” (plural) scattered all over the globe. It did not pretend that all cultures were broadly equal. Instead it visualized a single universal scale of achievement in which some things were decidedly better than others....

...the word had not just one meaning but two—and these two meanings were very far apart. Matthew Arnold’s usage was universal, hierarchic, and singular, fearlessly arranging things on a vertical scale of value from the worst up to the best. The other meaning lurking in the shadows was the meaning of “culture” in social science. This was local and pluralistic, and it had nothing whatever to do with better or worse. It simply denoted a social system—any kind of social system at all, at any level, anywhere...

...Soon it appeared that whereas the singular and universal Arnoldian vision had consistently stood for the best, the plurality of anthropological “cultures” could just as easily represent the worst—the least amenity, the deepest ignorance, the grossest delusions, the most vicious habits, and the absence of any art or science worth the name. However one chooses to define the semantic process involved (inversion, extension, expansion, or whatever) usages which would at first have seemed oxymoronic now won acceptance everywhere: street culture, jail culture, porno culture—while a generously accommodating modern sensibility found a place for drug culture too.

Posted by dan at August 13, 2003 01:21 AM
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