Comments, EdgeNotes, In Focus

Practical Lesson #1: How to be a cultural theorist

How can we do cultural analysis? How do we avoid the opposite perils of mere journalism or arid abstraction?


Steve Latham


Journalism is important in pointing out immediate developments, in new pop song genres for instance, but the danger is remaining enmeshed in surface phenomena.

On the other hand, academicians may describe philosophical movements which fail to connect with people’s everyday experience.

Marxist theoreticians used to talk about the ‘totality’, claiming that their framework gave privileged access to this holistic understanding of society.

With postmodernism, Jean-Francois Lyotard wrote, scepticism towards such ‘metanarratives’ crept in; and writers began to emphasise the local and small-scale, ‘stories’ instead of the ‘Story’.

Such suspicion about complete explanations rejected the Enlightenment project’s claim that supposedly value-neutral rationalism could provide foundations for knowledge.

However, the resultant relativism left us with no ability to suggest meaning or significance to the multiplicity of social phenomena.

We actually need to analyse the particular and the general, the macro and micro levels of culture; and provide some kind of schema for connecting them in a meaningful relationship. At a basic level, this may mean noting repetitions and patterns. Although, to progress beyond simple categorising, some explanatory framework is also required.

This also distinguishes ‘chronicle’, the record or list of events, from ‘history’, which goes beyond, to interpretation and explanation.

So-called ‘listicles’ of fascinating ‘factoids’ on the internet, may be interesting or surprising; but although popular, do not advance our understanding.

Another approach is to identify openings, new developments, and to project them into the future: to promote creative design-thinking for action, as lateral thinker Edward De Bono advocated.

Another is to concentrate on closures, endings; for example, in Jared Diamond’s book on the ecological ‘collapse’ of civilisations, which can alert us to dilemmas facing our own age.

Delving into the past is sometimes an excuse for nostalgic escapism; but it may provide us with valuable lessons: to avoid mistakes, or recover lost potentials, even from the failed hopes of history.

Here we need to balance our personal preferences for optimism or pessimism, the positive or the negative. The one can make us incredibly naïve, the other may reduce us to depressed inaction.

The philosopher of science, Roy Bhaskar, tried to escape from relativistic postmodernism, through ‘critical realism’.

By practical engagement with the world, we can attain, he claimed, true, although not exhaustive, knowledge of reality.

This entailed identifying ever larger frameworks by which we can interpret our findings, whether in the natural or social sciences.

Welcomed, initially, by Marxist thinkers, like Alex Callinicos, as a correction to relativism, Bhaskar was soon rejected, when he stated that ultimate meaning only came through a spiritual world-view.

The same happened to Alasdair Macintyre, who pointed out that reason always operates within a community of tradition. For him, this led from Marxism to a renewed Thomistic Catholicism.

As for physicist Niels Bohr, the question is: what can the ‘final screen’ be for any unifying conception of reality, including the cultural? Or is there only fragmented chaos?

(Photos: Pixabay)

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