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Culture Vs. Nature

Updated on May 12, 2020

From the very beginning of Terry Eagleton’s The Idea of Culture (2003), one can easily notice his Marxist theoretical background while approaching the dyad of nature and culture. Unlike the neo-Marxists, Eagleton ‘‘by no means is a classical Marxist … because he has maintained a degree of fidelity to the key elements of classical Marxist theory, such as that of base and superstructure” (Alderson, p9). Despite the fact that The Idea of Culture is a collection of essays, they are not cut and dried from each other. For instance, Eagleton deals with the dichotomy of nature and culture in the introductory essay entitled Versions of Culture. Basing his ideas on Raymond Williams, Zizek, Althusser, Jameson and other non-Marxist thinkers, Eagleton traces back the etymology of the term culture throughout history. He perfectly shows the shift of the term culture after it was associated with agriculture until it became an abstraction in itself. To put in Bacon’s words, “the culture and manurance of minds” (Bacon quoted by Eagleton, p.7). Eagleton critical work is a thorough study of what Raymond Williams calls the evolution of culture to the extent that some critic call his book by the bible of culture. However, he is not the first or the last one who sheds light on the problematic of culture and nature. These two concepts are nomadic and mobile in the sense that they alter with tides of time. Moreover, the complexity of both terms culture and nature makes it hard to distinguish between the two because they are related to a plethora of philosophical issues such as “freedom”, “determinism” and “agency” (Eagleton, p 8). Besides, the analysis of both terms is wavering between nature and the human nature. At any rate, the thesis of this paper is to reveal Eagleton’s various approaches to the binary opposition of culture and nature. It is also an attempt to spot his sarcastic criticism on cultural relativism, cultularism and postmodern thinkers such as Richard Rorty by waging war on the postmodern notion of pluralism and pragmatism.

A Materialist Approach Toward the Dialectic of Culture and Nature

As a starting point, it is worth mentioning Eagleton’s materialist approach while dealing with the conception of culture as a whole and the dialectic of nature and culture in particular. Consolidating his argument by Walter Benjamin, Eagleton famously states,

For Marx, culture has only one origin, and that is labor upon nature. That labor for Marxism means exploitation is one meaning of Walter Benjamin’s wise dictum that every document of civilization is also a record of barbarism … Walter Benjamin remarked that myth would endure as long as the last beggar meaning no doubt that ideology is indispensable as long as there is injustice (pp. 102-103).

Nature for Marx as it is for Eagleton is majoritarian while culture is minoritarian because of history, the nightmare from which Joyce tries to awake in his Ulysses. Historical materialism or Marxism bases its doctrine of history in its relation to modes of production in terms of the Hegelian dialectics. That is, thesis, and anti-thesis and finally a synthesis. “Marx’s philosophy is therefore devoted to analyzing how existing historical conditions have come about, how they hinder the realization of human potential, and how that potential can be realized … human consciousness is ultimately a product of matter, which is to say, the human engagement with the material world through labor” (Sedgwick and Edgar, p. 153). In other words, history is about the production of economy. What Eagleton’s means by the statement of “nature produces culture which changes nature” (p. 9) is this relationship of causality between the base and superstructure. Marx borrows this metaphor from architecture to show how modes of production manipulate culture including the arts, religion, the media and education.

Thanks to labor, the ideology of capitalism maintains its exploitation through cultural activities or what is called false consciousness. This is the thesis of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies (1972). For him, a myth is not the traditional meaning of a narrative about supernatural beings but rather it is the allusion to cultural values. It is linked to the distribution of power, an ideology. The fact that we take the connotative aspect of a particular sign seriously is what is what Barthes calls a myth. For instance, Barthes suggests that wine, as a substance is not associated with intoxication and the primary cause of crimes. On the contrary, wine is a metaphor of French identity. It is a part of France. This is how myths function in modern world. They take cultural objects and then transform them into universal and natural value. In this way, mythology turns culture into nature. (Graham, p36). Furthermore, since for Eagleton the term culture has its roots in Latin word colonus, the ideology of capitalism is quite the same as that of colonialism. Western empires take advantage of the colonized nature such as Africans and Native Americans. Some may call them Red Indians since the term Native American is paradoxical in nature.

Eagleton argues that the deconstruction of the binary opposition of culture and nature by what Derrida calls the “supplement” is nearly impossible because nature transcends itself to what is cultural. Consequently, “if nature is always in some sense cultural, then cultures are built out of that ceaseless traffic with nature which we call labor” (p. 9). To illustrate his point of view, Eagleton gives the example of how “cities are made of sand, wood, iron, stone, water, and the like, and are thus quite as natural as rural idylls are cultural” (ibid). In this way, one cannot differentiates between what is cultural and what is natural since the difference is blurred. This is quite reminiscent of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage in his The Savage Mind (1962) by a near reproduction of nature by culture. Lévi-Strauss gives the example of the portrait of a woman by the French painter Clouet. This painting seems real because of the use of thread and the reproduction of a lace collar (p. 22).

A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Dialectic of Nature and Culture

Moving from this material conception of nature and culture, Eagleton investigates the psychoanalytic aspect of the human nature, which is stepped in a surplus excess and enjoyment. Naturally, humans are unnatural. For instance, “you need hair to protect your skull, but there is no necessity to dye it purple … it belongs to our nature to transcend utility”. (Eagleton, p. 16). Eagleton borrows from literature in order to make his point clear. He quotes from the play of King Lear by Shakespeare,

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest things superfluous

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is cheap as beast’s

(Act II, sc. iv)

By devoting ourselves to the “bodily”, we are consequently captivated within the walls of our nature. Therefore, Eagleton deduces that culture or the human consciousness is irreducible only to nature.

Eagleton then sheds light on the Freudian analogy of civilization and the individual. In his significant book, Civilization and its Discontents (1930), Freud tries to find the answer to the question of what makes humanity suffers from frustration. According to Freud, neurosis is the result of society’s restrictions on a particular individual. Thus the only way out is to recognize the human libido in front of law, culture and particularly religion (Thurschwell, pp. 103/106). Yet, Eagleton and Freud conclude that the ultimate way for the libido/Eros is the Thantos meaning death “Culture is driven in part by that, which lies beyond all culture, death. If death drives us forward, it is only to return us to that blissful state of invulnerability before culture ever emerged” (Eagleton, p. 104). Nature is majoritarian again because in the end culture surrenders to death.

Criticism of Postmodernism

The majority of Eagleton’s works are a critique toward postmodernism including The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996), After Theory (2003) and The Idea of Culture (2000). The following quote interrogates different aspects of the latter including,

its cultural relativism and moral conventionalism, its skepticism, pragmatism, and localism, its distaste for ideas of solidarity and disciplined organization, its lack of any adequate theory of political agency: all these would tell heavily against it... the left… has need of strong ethical and anthropological foundations… and on this score, postmodernism is … part of the problem rather than of the solution (Eagleton quoted by Milner and Browitt, p. 201).

As a response to Lyotard’s “incredulity towards metanarratives”, which include Marxism, Eagleton does not consider postmodernism as after modernism. That is, a break with modernism. He adopts the same argument of Habermas in his essay, Modernity: An Incomplete Project (1984). For him, postmodernism is simply a failure.

Second, Eagleton criticizes the notion of cultural relativism by the postmodern thinkers or the culturalists as he calls them. What is meant by relativism here is “the doctrine that everything in human affairs is a matter of culture” (Eagleton, p. 88). The meaning of relativism springs from the pragmatism of Richard Rorty. This why Rorty is regarded as a postmodern philosopher for the reason that postmodernism and post structuralism are ultra-pragmatic (Sim, p. 199). For instance, Derrida’s deconstruction is skeptic toward truth. There is no universal truth and thus deconstruction adopts relativism. The skepticism of post-structuralism goes in harmony with the tenets of Rorty’s conception of pragmatism because “truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophy interesting theory about. For pragmatist, “truth” is just the name of a property which all true statements share … Pragmatists are saying that the best hope for philosophy is not to practice philosophy” (Rorty quoted by Sim, p. 201). Basing his argument on Wittgenstein, Eagleton argues that pragmatism “leaves everything exactly as it was … if all cultures are relative, then all of them are ethnocentric” (p. 89). Above all, the notion of Bhabha’s hybridity, which is also a characteristic of postmodernism “may be well cultivating when it comes to ethnic matters, but it is not universally so” (Eagleton, p. 18). At least but not last, pluralism, Eagleton suggests, makes the concept of culture absolute.

To conclude, it is worth to note that Terry Eagleton is much aware about the mechanism of postmodernism. For instance, Eagleton gives one of the famous definitions of deconstruction “reading against the grain” (Barry, p. 68). Eagleton makes use of deconstruction in order to reveal the aporias of postmodernism itself. Besides, the way he approaches the etymology of the term culture throughout history shows the influence of Eagleton by Foucault. The latter adopts the Foucauldian archaeology to dig deep into the history of ideas.

Work Cited:

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. The Noonday Press. 1972

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 1995

Eagleton, Terry. The Idea of Culture. Blackwell. 2000

_______________. Culture. Yale University Press. 2016

Edgar, Andrew and Sedgwick, Peter. Cultural Theory: Key Thinkers. Routeldge. 2002

Levi Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Weidenfeld and Nicholson. 1962

Lyotard, Jean François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated

by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massuni. University of Minnesota. 1979

Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity: an Incomplete Project”. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on

Postmodern Culture. Ed. Foster Hal. Bay Press. 1983

Sim, Stuart. Fifty Key Postmodern Thinkers. Routledge. 2013

Thurschwell, Pamela. Sigmund Freud. Routledge. 2000

Terry Eagleton
Terry Eagleton

© 2020 Issam El Masmodi


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