The political career of the culture concept

Authored by: Tony Bennett

The Routledge Handbook of Global Cultural Policy

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138857827
eBook ISBN: 9781315718408
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315718408.ch38

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Abstract

My concerns in this chapter are with the discursive coordinates that shaped a distinctive episode in the political career of the cultural concept: that comprised by the role it played in the development of assimilationist conceptions of multiculturalism in the inter-war period through to the early post-war period. The key developments here focus on the successive elaborations of Franz Boas’s interpretation of the culture concept – briefly, the conception of culture as an ordered way of life – that informed the trajectories of American anthropology during a period when it was both intellectually dominated by Boasians and, somewhat contrary to Boas’s own inclinations, entering into increasingly close forms of collaboration with a range of governmental agencies (Mandler 2013; Price 2008). By focusing on this episode in the political career of the culture concept, I also aim to throw some fresh light on a later moment in its history when, in the founding years of British cultural studies, it was annexed to a conception of class politics in which the ways of life of working-class cultures were constituted as potential sources of resistance to dominant class formations. This interpretation of the concept departed from its inter-war history in being fashioned as a source for counter-conducts rather than as a governmental actor and, as an aspect of this, the way in which its relations to aesthetic conceptions of culture were interpreted also changed. I shall show how its earlier history as a policy actor in the United States rested on a particular governmental mobilisation of formalist aesthetics that informed the conception of ways of life as being endowed with a particular shape or pattern derived from the creativity of the people concerned. The initial phases of its use in British cultural studies detached it from the coordinates of race and ethnicity that informed its earlier American anthropological career, coordinates to which the concept has been re-attached in its later career in cultural studies in the light of its re-reading by Stuart Hall and others. While this later episode in the political career of the culture concept goes beyond the historical remit of my concerns in this chapter, it nonetheless informs my engagement with its earlier moments.

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