Culture As Politics

“We need to change the culture.” So begins the prevailing script for political reflection and criticism of almost every sort today. Is the problem homophobia? We need to change the culture of masculinity. Is it financial malfeasance? We need to change the culture of Wall Street—or greed, or neoliberalism, or capitalism. Is it militarism? We need to change the culture of imperialism.

The list can be extended endlessly, and it doesn’t matter if the author is a business analyst writing about challenges confronting corporations and industries, a religious leader preaching a return to scriptural morality, or a political activist agitating against racist violence or the gender pay gap. All sides of every controversy agree: we need to change the culture.

Over the course of a century, and most intensively since WWII, culture has decisively shifted from background to foreground, from being the scene of the crime to its ultimate perpetrator. The genesis and motor of this shift are both too intricate to specify. But we can discern them everywhere, from the increasing influence of psychology and sociology in both academic disciplines (such as literary studies on the one hand and economics on the other) and public policy (such as the criminal law on the one hand and the social safety net on the other) to the rise of the Frankfurt School, “French theory” and Cultural Studies, each in its own way predicated on the axiom that the roots of social and political conflict are irreducibly cultural, consisting in a reflexive, dynamic network of symbolic, imaginary and material relations.

The hegemony of “culture” as ultimate Cause is ironic, if not paradoxical. Advanced by means of conceptual and empirical arguments against every form of reductionism, cultural explanation sought to decenter every ultimate cause, from God and Nature to Reason and sovereign subjectivity. The aim was double, or internally split. On the one hand, it was to identify the true causes of social ills, such as forms of psychological distress, crime, bigotry, group conflict, and the like. On the other hand, it was to demonstrate that the very category of “cause” is a category error—or, worse, an ideological conceit sustaining relations of power.

The result has been equally contradictory, with both champions and critics of the prevailing order consistently invoking culture as the ultimate source of every problem. And the solution is always the same: we need to change the culture.

Of course, there’s a rather obvious problem with this formula. The project of changing the culture is very daunting. Having traced the intricate web of interactions responsible for a given problem, the analyst leaves the impression that no practical intervention is likely to produce a sufficient or satisfactory transformation. In a further irony, academic treatises on the cultural origins of social ills tend to conclude with obligatory proposals that seem paltry in scale and plausibility by comparison. And this raises the question of whether such solutions represent a failure of critical imagination or, on the contrary, appear meek only because the preceding critique of dominant culture is vastly overstated.

And if this is so, then the gesture of tracing causality to the impossible complexity attributed to culture is a ruse. It serves as the wage paid to a prevailing norm militating against causal explanation. Hence the duality of cultural analysis, the way it both rejects ultimate causality and furnishes it in the form of hyperbolic complexity. The ritual invocation of culture as the cause eventuates in modest proposals that might easily be justified by reference to much narrower, more proximate factors.

The upshot is a bizarre disconnect between theory and practice. For example, gun violence is routinely traced to “the culture of” racism, masculinity, poverty, modern ennui, and the like, even as the widely understood solution is straightforward restrictions on gun ownership and use. The solution is easy to explain in terms of simple practical principles, which can only mean that the public handwringing about the cultural origins of violence serves a different purpose.

Indeed, if the solution to gun violence must be a change in the culture, only surrender and inaction can follow. The same principle is at work in the climate change debate, where self-appointed “radical” critics, such as Naomi Klein, have disastrously staked the fate of the planet on wholesale, global culture change. Want to reduce CO2 emissions? Abolish capitalism! If capitalist culture (as if there is such a thing) is to blame, no practical solution is forthcoming until we change this culture. And so no change is forthcoming. Social scientists have demonstrated again and again that emphasizing the vast scale of the climate problem hampers people’s motivation to endorse practical solutions. This raises the question of whether Klein is simply naive or still more cynical than the profit-seekers she rightly abhors.

Either way, the disconnect between the order of explanatory analysis and practical proposals continues to be reproduced. This is a major outcome of the cultural turn, which, again, is not restricted to academic discourse but pervades the public sphere and popular literature on business, health and so on.

It’s easy to conclude from all this that culture today plays the role of ultimate Cause, which it is suited to doing because the appearance of almost infinite internal complexity (and/or self-reference) insulates it from metaphysical temptation. It is a peculiar sort of fetish, one that consists in the disavowal of fetishism, presenting itself as the anti-fetish. From this vantage, the exhortation to “change the culture” serves to emphasize the lack of fixity and unity of the ultimate Cause. We can change it. But of course this very exhortation impedes the change it promises to enable: in practice, we can’t change it, precisely because the lack of fixity and unity makes it impossible to know where to start or how to go about it. Thus the appeal to culture allows us to disavow foundationalism while retaining its function. And by detaching it from the very order of social practice it is supposed to explain, we are able to pay ritual homage to this Cause in order to exempt ourselves from genuine responsibility for the effects this order produces.

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