One of our most brilliant minds offers a sweeping intellectual history that argues for the reclamation of culture’s value
Culture is a defining aspect of what it means to be human. Defining culture and pinpointing its role in our lives is not, however, so straightforward. Terry Eagleton, one of our foremost literary and cultural critics, is uniquely poised to take on the challenge. In this keenly analytical and acerbically funny book, he explores how culture and our conceptualizations of it have evolved over the last two centuries—from rarified sphere to humble practices, and from a bulwark against industrialism’s encroaches to present-day capitalism’s most profitable export. Ranging over art and literature as well as philosophy and anthropology, and major but somewhat "unfashionable" thinkers like Johann Gottfried Herder and Edmund Burke as well as T. S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Raymond Williams, and Oscar Wilde, Eagleton provides a cogent overview of culture set firmly in its historical and theoretical contexts, illuminating its collusion with colonialism, nationalism, the decline of religion, and the rise of and rule over the "uncultured" masses. Eagleton also examines culture today, lambasting the commodification and co-option of a force that, properly understood, is a vital means for us to cultivate and enrich our social lives, and can even provide the impetus to transform civil society.
Fans of esteemed literary theorist Eagleton (Why Marx Was Right) will be pleased with this analysis of culture as the sum of "values, customs, beliefs and symbolic practices." Eagleton carefully distinguishes culture from civilization, "a world which is humanly manufactured." He places particular emphasis on two 18th-century thinkers, political theorist Edmund Burke and philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, for realizing culture's populist potential. His historical survey, which also touches on several later writers (Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, Raymond Williams), traces his subject from the French Revolution to the War on Terror. Eagleton argues that contemporary crises, such as "the clash between Western capitalism and radical Islam," are wrongly reduced to clashes of culture when they are geopolitical. In a diatribe against cultural studies, he accuses the discipline of not challenging class disparities, "deal in sexuality but not socialism, transgression but not revolution, difference but not justice, identity but not the culture of poverty." He bemoans modern capitalism's nefarious influence, arguing that this has led to "the global decline of the universities," in which they have become "pseudo-capitalist enterprises under the sway of a brutally philistine managerial ideology." Though these scathing critiques come across as shortsighted, they still contain Eagleton's characteristic wit. He does not make the "true" definition of culture any less elusive, but his book is nonetheless an impressive display of erudition.