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伊格尔顿:文化与社会主义

文艺理论与批评2010.1

所有的人在出生之际,都尚未发育完全、不能自立、有赖于他人帮助并且没有能力照料自己。这并非只针对牛津大学教员而言,而且适用于整个人类。如果不出意外,人们将会获得有限程度的自主,但仍然以不断依赖为基础,不过,这次依赖的不是自然,而是文化。只有依赖我们冠之为文化的这种外在力量,我们才得以逐渐自给自足,毋庸置疑,这可能是为什么在古希腊时期"怪物"这个单词意味着另类,因为他自以为可以自力更生,以至于违背了生物本性。索福克勒斯的俄狄浦斯是一个非常合适的例子,他自己的精明谨慎隐藏了他的出身,这反过来导致了他的毁灭。我们都喜欢幻想拥有高贵的血统,当然事实上不是;或者甚至更为欺骗性地幻想,自己根本没有血统,也就是说,我们是从自己脑袋里蹦出来的,或者说是自己创造了自己。既然没有生,也就不会有死,因此,人们就会飘飘然地沉浸于欣慰愉悦的将会永恒的幻想之中。
显而易见,所谓的资产阶级式的人物或浮士德式的人物往往就是这样的,他们的欲望永无止境,他们的意愿难以满足。因此,他们必定会私下以为自己已经彻底摆脱物质的纠缠,而不再受到物质性的制约。这些家伙除了自己以外,不能看到终结、起源、基础和目标。当他们的生殖崇拜之塔被恐怖分子的飞机撞毁之后,他们不假思索地决定,要在原址重建一幢更大规模的楼。如果还有来日,我们将拭目以待......
因为,我们都是早产儿,就像大学教员一样没有能力应付周围环境,所以,如果没有文化随之而来,我们就都会迅速死去。不过,我的意思并不是说,司汤达或肖斯塔科维奇对我们的生存就是必要条件。我是在培育系统意义上使用文化的,"培育"这个单词是莎士比亚用来调和自然与文化的。剧作家爱德华·邦德[2]在谈到我们所谓的与生俱来的"生物期望"时写道,期望就是"婴儿的无备状态将得到无微不至的呵护,它得到的不仅是食物,还有情绪上的抚慰,它的脆弱性能被庇护,它将降生在一个想要接受他的世界之中,这个世界也知道怎样接受它。"那些环绕着摇篮的面孔如果没有一张能和婴儿进行实际交流,它就根本不可能成长为一个人。当然,它会是人,因为它拥有人的身体,但是成为一个人是一项工程,并不是一出生就能成为人。因为邦德用这种唯一标准来衡量当代资本主义,所以,他拒绝用文化的标题给其装点门面。
显而易见,文化这个术语在这里既是描述性的,同时又是规范性的。因为它以中性的方式描述了我们若要生存就必须面对的实实在在的事物,但是,它同时又涉及一种关爱,所以它本身也是一种价值术语。如果没有一些关爱的文化敞开胸怀欢迎,我们绝不会兴旺成长。从这种意义上说,"文化"这个词沟通了事实与价值之间的鸿沟,也就是说,文化沟通了现实和意愿之间的鸿沟。我们不会摇摇晃晃地利用爪子站起来,也不会舔干自己再躺下来,在出生之际,我们的自然就有一个巨大的黑洞,如果我们不会死亡,文化一定就会马上填补它。我们天生就是缺失的。由于过早出生导致了我们在极其漫长时期内都不得不直接依赖他人,这同时也产生了与他人非常密切的亲情关系。不过,相应地,这也会在后来的某一时刻与他们分离时导致一种特殊创伤,这也导致了喜欢刨根问底的人类发现即所谓的精神分析学的兴起。精神分析学是一门关涉着许多事情的科学,包括我们与他人的身体相互联系的事实如何孕育了与价值相关的某种条件:幻想狂、恐惧症、精神病,拒绝承认来到学校门口的那位头发斑白的老头子是父亲(或更应该说是祖父),而假装他只是一位满脸皱纹的年迈的家庭仆人等等。
所有这些都表明,文化出乎于我们的自然。然而,要特别指出,这与后现代的主张"文化就是我们的自然"大相径庭。对于我们可以冠之以文化主义的后现代的意识形态而言,文化行进在方方面面,可以说,无处不在。你不能问,什么正在被文化建构,因为答案同样必定是一种文化建构。文化主义这个时髦品牌充斥在方方面面,从基地组织到当代艺术学院,除了其它以外,还包括不承认我们的脆弱性和必死性。基地组织是文化主义者,因为它相信,价值(特别是宗教)比物质问题来说是一些更值得考虑的事情。不论是对于基地组织,还是对于美国梦来说,物质性都更多的是束缚而不是使其有能力,毫无疑问,这可以解释两个组织为什么都在对待人类的血与肉上显得有些漫不经心。不论是当代艺术学院还是美国梦(在这个问题上我不考虑基地组织)都会同意,不管我们可能成为别的什么,我们首先都是自然物质性的事物。任何我们所能达到的程度,如迷人、性感和令人神魂颠倒等等,都不得不以身体为物质基础。就反文化主义者的观点而言,我在这里要建议,文化是需要的,我们特有的生物性需要它,我们共同分享的物种需要它,我们的物质性身体需要它。
只有语言动物,即步入有意义世界之中的动物,才能说拥有文化。要生活在意义世界之中,就要与其他人通过超越单纯身体联系的方式来共享一个感官世界。它不是仅仅要给感官增加一些额外的东西,而是要一下子改变它。它将使身体向外部一系列复杂网络制度延伸,相应地,同时也向身体内部拓展,赋予它以精神深度和内在性。整个文明就是我们身体的延展。技术是身体的假肢。它们之所以可能,是由于我们拥有的(或者我们所是的--我们拥有身体还是我们就是身体,这是一个非常迷惑人的问题,我们必须暂且将其搁置)劳作的、语言的、观念的、自我改善的、自我超越的身体造成的。正如路德维希·维特根斯坦所言,如果你想要知道灵魂的形象,打量一下人的身体就了然于心。
现在来看,这既让我们欣悦,又成为我们的灾难。这种语言的、文化造就的生物在各个方面都胜过了其动物伙伴。事实上,一旦想到我们可以做而它们不能做,是很难压抑住人本主义的神经质蔑视的。例如,我们可以贮备核武器、折磨穆斯林、将小孩子的脑袋炸飞,这些没有一个是鼹鼠或袋狸所能做到的(除非他们极其隐蔽、让人难以察觉地从事这一勾当)。语言或观念思想使我们可以忽视自己的身体,也忽视他人的身体,并在一定程度上使我们与束缚性的感官反应分离开来。徒手勒死一个人是很困难的,因为不能杀死同类成员的禁忌将会使我们感觉不安或生病。尽管将某人从头上扔过去也不是一件愉悦舒服的事情,但它比把这个人勒死来说,要舒服惬意得多。
然而,我们可以无视这些感官禁忌,在漫长岁月中互相杀戮,这是一个足智多谋的策略,黄鼠和蚯蚓根本不能比得上(为什么?因为一个非语言存在不会发明一支步枪)。语言和以语言为媒介的文化世界或观念世界,是我们在动物伙伴身上取得的灾难性胜利。如果这种充满危险的双刃剑允许我们去虐待折磨,它同样允许我们施行重要的手术,而不是只把病人的身体扔出去完事大吉。之所以这样做,是因为它有助于把世界变成客体,使我们与其面对面,这也是异化与成就业绩的源泉。不像土豚和鳄鱼一样,我们可以冷嘲热讽,也可以演奏长号,写作《小杜丽》[3],精心照料病人。语言文化也意味着我们可以与其他人建立更加密切的亲情关系,而不是仅仅通过身体互动来相互联系,这也是我们借助精神、灵魂和意识所表达的东西。
意识更是我们之间的而不是我们内部的东西,它更像是舞蹈艺术,而不是内心的咕哝。由于这种独特的交流形式,我们可以融化身体之间的隔膜,从而与其他人建立起比触摸要更为密切的关系。例如,性关系更多地与谈话有关(或者我遗漏了一些更为重要的内容),对于我们这种符号动物而言,在与别人建立密切关系方面,身体行为并不比言辞有效。事实上,像拥抱和握手这样的行为只在意义世界中才有意义。共享符号并不是对共享事物的替代,它是一种更为深刻地共享事物的方式。
进入语言无疑是一种堕落。但是像一切最有趣的堕落一样,它是一种向上而不是向下的堕落。说它是向上的堕落,是因为它从绝对清白无邪的动物状态堕入负担沉重罪恶的文化与历史的区域。正如神学家所说,它是幸运的罪过,也就是说,它是一种幸运的堕落。生活在意义世界之中,既是我们的荣耀,又是我们的恐惧。语言或观念系统使我们从生物规则的单调束缚中解脱出来,又进入了那种集体自决的形式,我们知道那就是历史。我不想在这里流露面目可憎的优越感:我相信鼹鼠或袋狸在它们自己的方式中是响当当的小男子汉,毫无疑问,一旦你逐渐认识蛞蝓和绦虫,就会发现,它们都可以达成令人惊异的友好关系。当然,从外部来看,他们的存在的确是令人讨厌的小玩意儿。这是一个明显地正在自我毁灭的物种在谈及自己辉煌生涯时所能说的最后事情。
因为我们的生活是文化的和历史的,所以我们的存在便立刻变得既引人入胜,又动荡不安,相形之下,其它生物伙伴的生活在绝大部分时段是单调的,但却是安全的。或者更确切地说,它们之所以是不安的,是因为我们在它们的周围。对于我们来说,被老虎吞食一点儿也不单调,但对于老虎来说,只不过是按惯例行事。拥有历史意味着我们永远不可能与自己同一。就像语言本身一样,我们的构成尚未完成--而这意味着,即使我们知道死亡正在迫近,仍会觉得它的到来专断而无理。正如麦克白夫人认识到而她的丈夫没有认识到的那样,违背我们的天性也属于我们的天性。生活在意义世界之中,也会使我们反思意义的基础和有效性,换句话说,也就是建构理论,这也是我们并非自我同一的另一种方式。在反思我们自身时,我们自己分裂成两部分,我们既是思想的主体,又是思想的对象。
命定成为意义生物不得不步入不断历险的征程。例如,它的生存似乎总是没有结实基础,因为总是有更多的意义涌现出来,在任何情况下,意义本质上总是不稳定的。没有可以作为终极解释的这种东西,因为解释并非它本身,它也有待解释。也没有终极单词,因为一个单词只有与其它单词相关时,它才会有意义。我们之所以能够历史地生活,是因为我们的身体是自我超越的,也就是说,我们的身体允许我们在一定限制之中决定我们被决定的方式。我们是以这样的方式被决定的,因此我们能够创造性地生活,这也使我们的生活有些不可预测。语言就是这样的一种典范,因为它是一种规则的、极容易预测的惯例系统,但是这个系统一直允许我们生产一些令人惊异的原创性的尚未有人听过的言语行为。诗就是这种言说的最好例子。
语言使我们能够表述不在场的事物。它在直陈语气中撕开一条裂缝,引进虚拟空间,即想象性和可能性的空间。有了语言,未来和虚无也随之而来。一只狗可能会朦朦胧胧地期盼它的主人归来,但是它不可能期盼他刚好在下礼拜二的下午3:57归来。至于虚无,那只是有了语言,我们才可以做到这一点,因为在现实中没有虚无。言语将虚无引入世界。
对在场的不断否定和超越(这也是我们借助历史所表达的)的问题在于,语言生物可能发展得过于迅猛。相形之下,进化非常缓慢和极度无聊,但却是安全的。
语言生物不断地面临超出他们自身能力所及以至于将自己带入一无所有的危险。这种慢性疾病在古希腊人那里被称为导致自己毁灭的狂妄野心,而在现代性中被称为浮士德神话。我们总是可能毁灭于自己的欲望。事实上,总能见到与欲望有关的执迷不悟的自我行为:自我陶醉、自我放纵、恶魔似的放荡不羁,弗洛伊德将其称之为死亡冲动。当它为了填充欲望的深渊而开始在别人的毁灭中得到丧失理性的快乐和淫秽的愉悦时,传统上把这种放荡行为称之为邪恶。
那么,这一切与英国首相戈登·布朗有何相干呢?让我通过《李尔王》把话题从文化引向政治吧。莎士比亚在《李尔王》和其它地方,把文化视为一种剩余或过剩产物,也就是说,它是最必要东西之外的非必需品或奢侈品。过剩属于我们的天性。文化是附加品,但是它已经融入我们的存在。莎士比亚也看到,所溢出的已经成为标准,正如他在《安东尼与克莉奥佩特拉》中所写的,溢出标准在一定程度上已经成为标准的组成部分,打破规范是我们的天性。这也是为什么李尔王咆哮道"需要没有理由"的原因,那时,他的冷酷功利的女儿在问他为什么还需要一位骑士作为侍从。[4]
莎士比亚在剧中的某一处似乎指出了从剩余观念和良知发展到社会主义理念的路径。当李尔目睹到衣不蔽体、孤弱无助的穷人时,他被这种非常陌生的景观所震撼,情不自禁地感叹道:"啊,我一向太没有想到这种事情!安享荣华富贵的人们啊,袒露着身体到外面来体味一下穷人所忍受的痛苦吧,分一些你们享用不了的福泽给他们,让上天知道你们不是全无心肝的人!"李尔要表达的是,权力没有身体,也没有血肉。如果权力有了身体,有了感觉,它就会体会到身体所承受的痛苦,因而有可能停止这些行径。使权力的感觉钝化的是物质财富的剩余物,这些东西提供了一种替代性的身体,就像长布条包裹的用材料填塞起来的鼓囊囊的东西。这隔绝了人的恻隐之心。因此对于权力而言,关键是摆脱多余的脂肪,并将其给予穷人("分一些享用不了的福泽给他们"),那么这种做法一定会既改善穷人衣不蔽体的悲惨状态,又会使权力自身(李尔自己)去重新感觉,重新调整他的身体,使其恢复人性(顺便说一句,在这点上,与这部戏剧最相似的文本是马克思的《1844年经济学哲学手稿》,它也以类似方式寻求指出从物质身体到共产主义,从肉体到社会主义的路径。马克思也认为,如果我们要重新感知我们的身体,那么,社会主义就是必要的)。

如李尔王继续咆哮的:"上帝啊,让那些穷奢极欲之徒赶快感受到您的威力吧,他们役使您的法则,他们不能看到什么,因为他们不会感觉了,因此分配不应该过量,让每一个人都得到他应得的一份吧。"[5]如果富人和权贵的意识没有被这样地阻隔和纵容,那么富人就可能被穷人的匮乏所触动,从而会与他们分享物品,而这些物品正是目前妨碍他们体会到穷人的苦难的东西。富人由于财富过剩而丧失了恻隐之心,而与之相反,穷人根本没得到什么东西,完全处于赤贫状态。身体的更新与财富的彻底分配密切相关。共产主义和身体在此与莎士比亚戏剧中的其它地方一样,是密切相关的理念。
"噢,需要没有理由!"礼品、礼物、奢侈品、非必需品、多余之物:这些东西是我们的有机组成部分,或者说是在政治转型条件下我们可能成为什么样的有机组成部分。确信无疑,这是为什么从浪漫主义到奥斯卡·王尔德时期,艺术文化一直是如此至关重要的一种原因。它代表一种完全为了自己的生产方式,也就是从事艺术只是为了自己的快乐。它本身通过其存在的神秘美丽而含蓄地批判了赤裸裸的功利主义,是对边沁主义者和交换价值的化身的有力谴责。
艺术逐渐变得神秘莫测,就像它极力取代的上帝一样,以自己为基础,源于自身,也终于自身;为了自己的神秘异常的欣悦快乐,它能不断从自己的深奥莫测的深渊中魔幻式地自发地涌现出来;它不再屈从于任何外部法则,拒绝任何历史、精神、生产、仁慈或功利的生硬严肃的法庭的审判;但是,艺术的运转靠的是它本身的自主存在法则,而且在自主化时,它没有仿照任何东西,甚至没有考虑我们这些男男女女,或很少考虑男男女女在某个社会中会是什么样子的,在这个社会中,我们总会被看成以我们自己为目的,人类存在不可能向冷冰冰的工具理性规则弯腰屈膝,而是逐渐成为如马克思所描述的,"所有的劳作都出于创造性的潜能......发展了所有的人类的力量,劳动就是自身的目的",也就是说,用他的富有特色的术语来说,是自由王国,而不是必然王国。
令人吃惊的是,从浪漫主义和唯美主义到现代主义,尽管艺术已经没有什么功能,但它依旧是最具政治性的。它所从事的是最彻底的政治性工作,富有启发性,因为它在一种文明之中冥想出一个神奇美丽的空间,尽管严格地说,它是完全不可能实现的幻象。我们的文化现在成为这样一种文化,对于存在来说,商品理性完全与其感性存在对立,但是商品却成为界定其他事物的标准,而艺术品因此成为商品的对立面,即使现在事实上艺术也在第一时间成为一般商品生产的组成部分。
在自然与文化的斗争中,自然总是最后占了上风,那就是死亡。但是,在更短时期内,社会主义的目标是在劳动和必然性曾经存在的地方创造文化和自我欣悦。在社会主义传统之中存在着一种重要冲突,即如何最大程度地创造文化和自我欣悦:你是以威廉姆·莫里斯的方式创造性工作,使艺术文化成为非异化劳动的典范,还是以马克思和王尔德的风格,团结起来想法设法废弃工作?反对工作的事实是成为一个社会主义者的最好理由吗?对王尔德来说,显然如此。在他看来,一旦必然王国运转起来,我们就只需整天躺在宫殿里,身着舒服宽松的绯红色的家居服,摆出各种各样富有意义的狂喜姿态,背诵荷马,品尝苦艾酒,进入我们的共产主义社会。懒惰是将来的社会主义王国的一种符号。它根本不会感到所谓的罪恶。贵族是共产主义者的先行者,就像地主对非法入侵者私下怀有的感情似的,贵族也反对庸俗的资产阶级的看守人。现在还保留了少数特权的文化,同样也是一种超越商品的未来乌托邦的景观,而在其对立面,则是生铁似的必然性。
然而,这涉及了文化的真正意义的重大转变,从狭义的定义即艺术转变成广义的定义即生活方式。艺术界定了生活的特定品质,而激进政治学的任务就是在作为整体的社会存在中把这种特殊品质普遍化:我要说明,这是已经去世21年的雷蒙·威廉斯的重要洞察。让我将这些要点以更直接的形式说出来:
(1)可以将广义的文化--文化作为语言、符号、亲缘关系、共同体、根源、身份等等--简要的界定为男男女女准备为什么而杀戮、为什么而死。然而,正如你可能已经注意到的,这并不是司汤达和肖斯塔科维奇意义上的文化,除了可能还有一些严谨的怪诞不经的躲藏在某个洞穴之中的文化,但是它太胆怯了还不敢出来面对我们这些人。随着资本主义文明的发展,这种文化共同观念越来越强大,而不是越来越没有力量,正如抽象的全球主义繁衍了目光短浅的排他主义一样。
(2)这意味着,在整体上来看,文化不再是有效地解决问题的办法,就像它在自由资本主义的全盛时期所发挥的作用那样,而是成为发达资本主义的问题本身的一部分。在高尚的、善意的、绝望的唯心主义者看来,文化本来可以提供普遍的基础,使我们能最终相聚,无关乎我们的社会、性别、种族和其它差异,能在一个支离破碎的社会中提供非常必要的精神凝聚力的形式,但是它现在已经不再可能,甚至对于最自由的资产阶级批评家来说也是如此。
然而在同时,文化作为那种我已经讨论过的激进的乌托邦景观现在同样不再可能。取而代之的是,文化现在谈论的更多的是冲突和对抗的语言,而不是共识和普遍性。20世纪中期以来支配着政治事务的三大运动:革命民族主义、女性主义和种族斗争,都把文化看作一种实实在在的语言,用它来表达他们的需求,这种方式显然不是传统的工业斗争。
(3)最后,我们正在经历一种从文明与野蛮之间的对立到文明与文化之间的对立的转化。政治左派总是坚持认为文明与野蛮是同步的,而不是递进的,即文明不是某些人认为的,是从野蛮中辛勤挖掘积累而成的,而是说,它们两个是一枚硬币的两面。任何一座教堂都不可能不掩盖着一些鲜血和骸骨,任何一种高级文化都不可能没有痛苦和剥削。但是,现在,文明意味着个体性、普遍性、自主性、反讽、反思、现代性和富裕,而与之相对,文化则意味着集体性、特殊性、自发性、信念、传统和(简单地说)贫困。
很难从地理轴上来勾画这种对立。过去习惯于认为地球的部分是文明的,而其他的则是野蛮的,与之相对,现在是一些部分拥有文明,而其他部分拥有文化。谁说我们的思想没有进步?留给左派的唯一问题是,在他们猛烈地瓦解这种臭名昭著的意识形态的对比之前,所谓的文明的一些方面确实是弥足珍贵的和进步的,而所谓的文化的一些方面是确实是偏执狭窄和愚昧无知的。[6]我不遗余力地想强调这一点,我也希望各位来思考它。


本文原载于《国际社会主义》第122期,2009年3月



[1] 本文原载于《国际社会主义》第122期(2009年3月),译文参考了陈华锋先生的节译(《文化与社会主义》,载《国外理论动态》,2009年第9期),特此说明并致谢。另外,本文的所有注释皆为译者所加,不再一一说明。

[2] 爱德华·邦德(Edward Bond),1937年生,英国剧作家。他出生于伦敦工人家庭,15岁辍学做工,22岁开始写戏。他强烈关注现代生活中的暴力问题,主张改变产生暴力的社会条件。

[3]《小杜丽》(Little Dorrit)是英国作家狄更斯的长篇小说。

[4] 李尔王的原话:啊!不要跟我说什么需要不需要,最卑贱的乞丐,也有他的不值钱的身外之物;人生除了天然的需要以外,要是没有其它的享受,那和畜类的生活有什么分别呢?

[5] 伊格尔顿在这里有误,这句话是两只眼珠都被挖去的葛罗斯特所说的。

Culture and socialism

 

Issue: 122
Posted: 31 March 09

Terry Eagleton

All human beings are prematurely born, helpless and dependent, unable to look after themselves. This applies not just to Oxbridge dons but to the whole of the human species. Later on, if all goes well, we will achieve a degree of autonomy—but only on the basis of a continuing dependency, this time on culture rather than nature. Only through the form of dependence on others we call culture can we come to be self-sufficient, which is no doubt one reason why the word “monster” in classical antiquity meant among other things one who sees himself as self-dependent and to that extent is in conflict with his or her creaturely nature. Sophocles’s Oedipus is a case in point—that canny entrepreneur of himself whose suppressed parentage will return to destroy him. We all like to fantasise that we have a posher pedigree than we actually do or (even more deludedly) that we have no pedigree at all—that we sprang from our own heads or loins. Since that which was never born can never die, this yields us the comforting illusion of immortality.

This is certainly the case with what we might call bourgeois man, or Faustian Man, whose desire is infinite and whose will is unconfined. He must therefore secretly regard himself as wholly immaterial, since materiality is a constraint. This is a creature who recognises no end, origin, ground or goal but himself. When his phallic tower is demolished by terrorist aircraft he instantly resolves to build an even bigger one in its place. A case of slow learning if ever there was one…

Since we are all born prematurely, with a donnish inability to cope, we will all die very quickly unless culture moves in on us right away. I don’t mean by this that Stendhal or Shostakovich are essential for our survival. I mean culture in the sense of a system of nurture, “nurture” being a word which for Shakespeare mediates between nature and culture. The playwright Edward Bond speaks of the so-called “biological expectations” with which we are born—the expectation, he writes, that “the baby’s unpreparedness will be cared for, that it will be given not only food but emotional reassurance, that its vulnerability will be shielded, that it will be born into a world wanting to receive it, and that knows how to receive it”. Unless one of those faces around the cradle actually speaks to the infant it will never become a person at all. It will be human, of course, since this is a matter of the sort of body it has, but becoming a person is a project, not a given. Measuring contemporary capitalism by this single criterion, Bond refuses to grace it with the title of a culture.

Culture, one might note, is here a descriptive and a normative term at the same time. It describes in a neutral way what must actually happen for us to survive, but it also refers to a kind of loving and is thus a value term as well. Without some culture of caring geared up to greet us we simply won’t flourish. In this sense, the word “culture” leaps the gap between fact and value—between what is the case and what is desirably the case. Far from just rising shakily on our paws and licking ourselves down, we are born with an enormous hole in our natures, which culture must instantly plug if we are not to die. It is natural to us to be lacking. And since our premature birth results in an unusually long period of dependency on those human beings immediately to hand it gives rise to an unusually intense intimacy with them. This in turn results in a particularly traumatic severance from them at a later point, which is what gives rise to that curious human invention known as psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is a science concerned among other things with how the fact of our interaction with other bodies breeds certain conditions relevant to value: fantasy, neurosis, psychosis, denying that the grey-haired old codger who arrives at the school gates is your father rather than grandfather, pretending he’s just a wrinkled old family retainer and so on.

All of which is to say that culture is of our nature. A very different proposition, note, from the postmodern claim that culture is our nature. For the postmodern ideology we might dub culturalism, culture goes all the way down. It is, so to speak, wall to wall. You can’t ask what is being culturally constructed, since the answer to that must also be a cultural construction. This fashionable brand of culturalism, one which is rife all the way from Al Qaida to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, is among other things a disavowal of our fragility and mortality. Al Qaida is culturalist because it believes that values, religious ones in particular, are what matters, more so than material matters. For both Al Qaida and the American Dream, materiality is constraining rather than enabling, which is no doubt one reason why both parties have a somewhat casual way with human flesh and blood. Neither the ICA nor the American Dream (I haven’t consulted Al Qaida on this point) would agree that, whatever else we may be, we are in the first place natural material objects. Anything more glamorous, sexy and fascinating we can get up to has to be got up to on this basis. For the anti-culturalist view I’m proposing here culture is required by our peculiar kind of creatureliness, by the sort of species-being we share, by the kind of material bodies we have.

Only a linguistic animal—that is to say, one which moves within a world of meaning—can be said to have a culture. To live in a world of meaning is to share a sensory world with others of one’s kind in a way that transcends mere bodily contact. It isn’t just to add something extra to a sensory world but to transform it at a stroke. It is to extend the body outwards into a complex set of networks and institutions, and this in turn extends the body inwards, lending it its spiritual depth and interiority. The whole of civilisation is an extension of our bodies. Technology is a kind of prosthesis. And this is made possible by the kind of labouring, linguistic, conceptual, self-transformative, self-transcending bodies we have (or are). (Whether we “have” bodies or “are” bodies is a fascinating issue we must leave aside here.) As Ludwig Wittgenstein remarks, if you want an image of the soul, look at the human body.

Now this is both our delight and our disaster. The linguistic, culture building creature has the edge over its fellow animals in all sorts of ways. Indeed, it is hard to suppress a shudder of humanistic contempt when one thinks about all that we can do and they can’t. We can stockpile nuclear weapons, torture Muslims and blow the heads off small children, for example, none of which are within the capacity of moles or badgers (unless they’re being remarkably furtive about it). Language or conceptual thought allows us to sit loose to our own bodies, as well as to the bodies of others, unhinging us to some extent from our constraining sensuous responses. It is hard to strangle someone with your bare hands since the intra-specific inhibitions on killing a member of one’s own species would kick in and succeed in making us sick. And though it is unpleasant to have someone throw up over you, it is a great deal more agreeable than being strangled.

We can, however, override these sensuous inhibitions by killing each other at long range, an ingenious strategy which squirrels and earthworms have so far disastrously failed to come up with. (Why? Because a non-linguistic being can’t invent a rifle.) Language, and the cultural or conceptual world of which it is the medium, is the catastrophic triumph we have over our fellow animals. If this dangerously two-edged sword permits us to torture, it also allows us to perform major surgery without just throwing up over the patient’s body all the time. It does this because it helps to objectify the world, set it over against us, which is a source of alienation and achievement. Unlike aardvarks and alligators, we can be ironic and play the trombone, write Little Dorrit and care for the sick. Linguistic culture also means that we can enter into relations with others more intimate and intense than just bodily interaction, which is what we mean by spirit, soul or consciousness.

Consciousness is more something between us than within us, more like dancing than a rumble of the gut. Because of this unique form of communication, we can dissolve the walls of our bodies and get closer to each other than touching. Sexual relationships, for example, are mostly a matter of talking (or am I missing out on something?). For sign-making animals like ourselves, physical action isn’t a way of getting closer to each other than words. In fact, actions like hugs or handshakes only make sense within a world of meaning. Sharing signs isn’t a substitute for sharing things; it is a way of sharing them more deeply.

Entering into language was certainly a fall. But like all the best falls it was one up and not down. It was a fall up from sheer innocent animality into the guilt laden domain of culture and history. It was, as the theologians say, felix culpa—a fortunate fall. To live in a world of meaning is both our glory and our terror. Language, or conceptuality, sets us free from the dull constraints of a biological routine into that form of collective self-determination we known as history. I don’t want to be odiously patronising here: I’m sure moles and badgers are splendid little chaps in their own way, and no doubt slugs and tapeworms make marvellous companions once you get to know them. It is just that their existence looks from the outside just a trifle boring, which is the last thing one can say of the flamboyant career of a species apparently set on destroying itself.

Because we live culturally and historically, our existence is at once enthralling and spectacularly precarious, whereas the lives of our fellow creatures are for the most part tedious but secure. Or rather they are insecure only because we are around. Being eaten by a tiger is not in the least tedious for us, but it is routine for the tiger. Having history means that we are never able to be fully identical with ourselves. Like language itself we are constitutively unfinished—and this means that death is always arbitrary and gratuitous even when we see it coming. As Lady Macbeth recognises but her husband does not, it belongs to our natures to transgress our natures. Living in a world of meaning also allows us to reflect on the grounds and validity of our meanings—in other words to do theory—which is another way in which we are not self-identical. In reflecting on ourselves, we divide ourselves into two, becoming both subject and object of our thought.

A creature doomed to meaning is one constantly at risk. It would seem, for example, to have no solid ground to its existence, since there is always more meaning where that came from, and meaning is in any case inherently unstable. There can be no such thing as a final interpretation, in the sense of an interpretation which does not itself need to be interpreted. There could be no final word because a word only has meaning in terms of other words. We are able to live historically because the kind of bodies we have are self-transcending, which is to say that they allow us within certain limits to determine the way in which we are determined. We are determined in such a way as to be able to make something creative and unpredictable of what makes us. Language offers a model of this, because it is a regular, fairly predictable system of conventions but one which all the time allows us to generate strikingly original speech acts which no one has ever heard before. A poem is the best example of such utterances.

Language allows us to make present what is absent. It punches a hole in the indicative mood and ushers in the subjunctive—the sphere of imagination and possibility. With language both futurity and negation are born. A dog may be vaguely expecting its master to return, but it can’t be expecting him to return at precisely 3.57pm next Tuesday. As for negation, it is language which allows us to do this as there is no negativity in reality. Speech introduces nothingness into the world.

The problem with this constant negating and transcending of the present (which is what we mean by history) is that linguistic creatures can develop too fast. Evolution, by contrast, is mind-blowingly slow and boring but safe.

Linguistic animals are perpetually in danger of overreaching themselves and bringing themselves to nothing. Their chronic condition is what the ancient Greeks knew as hubris or which modernity knows as the myth of Faust. We are always likely to be undone by our desire. In fact there is something perversely self-doing about it: a self-delighting, self-squandering, demonic recklessness which Freud called the death drive. When it comes to taking a gratuitous delight or obscene pleasure in the destruction of others simply for the hell of it, this recklessness is traditionally known as evil.

So what has all this got to do with Gordon Brown? Let me try to sidle my way from culture to politics by way of King Lear. Shakespeare, in Lear but also elsewhere, sees culture as a kind of surplus or excess, a superfluity over and above strict necessity. But he also sees that this superfluity is necessary to us as well. Superfluity belongs to our natures. Culture is a supplement—but it is one which is built into our being. Shakespeare sees that to overflow the measure, as he writes in Antony and Cleopatra, is somehow part of our measure, that transgressing the norm belongs to what we are. This is why Lear cries, “O reason not the need!” when he is asked by his brutally utilitarian daughters why he needs even one knight in his retinue.

At one point in the play Shakespeare seems to be arguing his way from the idea of surplus and the senses to the idea of socialism. Struck by the unfamiliar sight of the naked, defenceless poor, Lear exclaims, “O, I have ta’en Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp; Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, That thou mayst shake the superflux to them, And show the heavens more just.” What Lear means is that power is without a body. Power is fleshless. If only it had a body, if it had senses, it would feel the misery it inflicts, and thus might stop doing so. What blunts the senses of power is a surplus of material property, which provides it with a kind of surrogate body, a fat-like swaddling of material possessions. And this is what insulates it against compassion. So the point is for power to shuck off its surplus fat to the poor (“shake the superflux to them”), which will then both improve the conditions of naked wretches and allow power itself (Lear himself) to feel, to re-appropriate its body, to be rehumanised. (The nearest thing to the play on this score, incidentally, is Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, a document which similarly seeks to argue its way up from the material body to communism, from the somatic to the socialistic. Marx, too, sees that socialism is essential if we are going to start feeling our bodies again.)

As Lear goes on: “Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man That slaves your ordinance, that does not see Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly, So distribution should undo excess, And each man have enough.” If the senses of the rich and powerful weren’t so swaddled and pampered, the rich might be moved by the deprivations of the poor to share with them the very goods which currently prevent them from feeling their misery. The rich are quarantined from compassion by an excess of property, whereas the poor are impoverished by too little of it. The renewal of the body and a radical redistribution of wealth are closely allied. Communism and corporeality, here as elsewhere in Shakespeare, are closely related ideas.

“O reason not the need!” Gift, gratuity, lavishness, non-necessity, superabundance: these things are constitutive of what we are, or rather, of what we could become in politically transformed conditions. This, surely, is one reason why artistic culture is so vital all the way from the romantics to Oscar Wilde. It represents a form of production which is radically for its own sake, done just for the hell of it. As such, it is an implicit critique of utility simply by the miracles of its existence, a living rebuke to the Benthamites and avatars of exchange-value.

Art becomes that mysterious thing which, like the God from which it tries to take over, is its own ground, end and origin, which keeps conjuring itself spontaneously up from its own unfathomable depths for the sheer delight of it, which stoops to no external law and refuses to be judged by any grim faced tribunal of history, Geist, production, benevolence or utility, but which lives only by the law of its own autonomous being (auto-nomus)—and which in doing so resembles nothing quite so much as us, as men and women, or at least what men and women might be in a society in which we, too, would be treated as ends in ourselves, in which human existence might no longer be bent to the imperatives of a bloodlessly instrumental reason but could become, as Marx puts it in the Grundrisse, a matter of “the absolute working out of creative potentialities…with the development of all human powers as such as an end in itself”, which is to say, in his idiom, the realm of freedom rather than the domain of necessity.

Astonishingly, then, from romanticism and aestheticism to modernism, art is most profoundly political when it’s leastfunctional. It is most politically engaged and instructive when it broods over the miracle of its own being in a civilisation where, strictly speaking, it ought to be well-nigh impossible. Ours is a culture where the commodity, whose reason for being lies entirely outside its sensuous being, is the norm for what defines an object and where the work of art thereby becomes the very opposite of the commodity, even if it is now in fact for the first time part of general commodity production.

In the battle between nature and culture, nature always finally has the upper hand. It’s known as death. In the shorter term, however, the aim of socialism is for culture and self-delight to be where labour and necessity once were. There’s an important conflict within the socialist tradition over how this is to be best accomplished: do you try to make work creative in the manner of a William Morris, so that artistic culture becomes a paradigm of non-alienated labour, or do you try to abolish work altogether, in the style of Marx and Wilde? Is the best possible reason for being a socialist the fact that you object to having to work? For Wilde this is certainly the case. In his view, once the realm of necessity has been automated, we will simply lie around the place all day in loose crimson garments in various interesting postures of jouissance, reciting Homer, sipping absinthe and being our own communist society. Indolence is a sign of the coming socialist kingdom. It’s absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. The aristocrat is the forerunner of the communist, rather as the landowner has a sneaking affection for the poacher as opposed to the petty bourgeois gamekeeper. The culture which is at present the preserve of the privileged few is also a utopian image of a future beyond the commodity, on the other side of iron necessity.

This, however, involves a shift in the very meaning of culture, from the more restricted sense of the term, roughly, art, to the broader sense of a whole way of life. Art defines certain qualities of living which it’s the task of a radical politics to generalise to social existence as a whole: this, I take it, is a key insight of Raymond Williams, who died twenty years ago last year. Let me put these points in rather baldly propositional form:

(1) Culture in the broad sense—culture as language, symbol, kinship, community, tradition, roots, identity and so on—can be summarily defined as that which men and women are prepared to kill for, or die for. This isn’t true, as you may have noticed, of culture in the sense of Stendhal and Shostakovich, except perhaps for a few seriously weird types hiding out in caves somewhere too shamefaced to come out and confront the rest of us. As capitalist civilisation develops, this gemeinschaftlich idea of culture grows more and not less powerful, as an abstract globalism breeds a myopic particularism.

(2) This means that culture has on the whole ceased to be part of the solution, as it was in the heyday of liberal capitalism, and has instead in advanced capitalism become part of the problem. The generous, utterly well-meaning, hopelessly idealist view that culture could provide the common or universal ground on which we could all ultimately meet, regardless of our social, sexual, ethnic and other differences, and could thus offer a much needed form of spiritual cohesion in a fragmentary society, has ceased to be viable even for most liberal bourgeois critics.

At the same time, however, culture as a radical utopian image of the kind I’ve discussed has ceased to be current too. Instead culture speaks the language of conflict and antagonism rather than consensus and universality. The three movements which have dominated the political agenda from the mid-20th century onwards—revolutionary nationalism, feminism and ethnic struggles—all see culture as the very idiom in which their demands are articulated, in a way that was not so true of the traditional industrial struggle.

(3) Finally, we are shifting from an opposition between civilisation and barbarism to one between civilisation and culture. The political left has always insisted that civilisation and barbarism are synchronous, not sequential—not just that civilisation was dredged laboriously from barbarism but that the two are secretly sides of the same coin. No cathedral without a pit of bones; no high culture without wretchedness and exploitation. Nowadays, however, civilisation means individuality, universality, autonomy, irony, reflection, modernity and prosperity, whereas culture signifies spontaneity, conviction, collectivity, specificity, tradition and (generally speaking) impoverishment.

It isn’t hard to map this opposition on a geographical axis. Whereas there used to be parts of the globe which were civilised and others which were barbaric, there are now bits which have civilisation and other bits which have culture. Who said there was no progress in our thinking? The only problem for the left, before it rushes to dismantle this flagrantly ideological contrast, is that there are, of course, aspects of so-called civilisation which are precious and progressive, and aspects of so-called culture which are bigoted and benighted. And on that I impeccably even-handed note, I leave the question as one for you to ponder…

 

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