The Hubris of Culture and the Limits of Identity Politics

BanksyEagletonTerry Eagleton at Commonweal:

THE IDEA OF culture is traditionally bound up with the concept of distinction. High culture is a question of rank. One thinks of the great haut-bourgeois families portrayed by Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann, for whom power and material wealth are accompanied by a lofty cultural tone and bear with them certain moral obligations. Spiritual hierarchy goes hand in hand with social inequality. The aim of advanced capitalism, by contrast, is to preserve inequality while abolishing hierarchy. In this sense, its material base is at odds with its cultural superstructure. You do not need to proclaim your superiority to other peoples in order to raid their natural resources, as long as by doing so you maintain the material inequalities between them and yourself. Whether Americans regard themselves as superior to Iraqis is really neither here nor there, given that it is political and military control over an oil-rich region they have in their sights. Culturally speaking, late capitalism is for the most part a matter not of hierarchy but hybridity—of mingling, merging, and multiplicity—while, materially speaking, the gulf between social classes assumes ultra-Victorian proportions. There are plenty of exponents of cultural studies who take note of the former but not the latter. While the sphere of consumption is hospitable to all comers, the domain of property and production remains rigidly stratified. Divisions of property and class, however, are partly masked by the levelling, demotic, spiritually promiscuous culture in which they are set, as they were not in the era of Proust and Mann. In contrast to that stately milieu, cultural and material capital now begin to split apart. The brokers, jobbers, operators, and speculators who float to the top of the system in their spiritual weightlessness are hardly remarkable for their aesthetic wisdom.

The breaking down of cultural hierarchies is clearly to be welcomed. For the most part, however, it is less the upshot of a genuinely democratic spirit than an effect of the commodity form, which levels existing values rather than contesting them in the name of alternative priorities. Indeed, it represents an assault less on cultural supremacism than on the notion of value as such.

more here.