The Republic: Issue 3 – Culture in the Republic, Part One
Issue 3, July 2003
Author: Gerard Delanty
Republican thought is based on the idea of the essential equality of all members of the political community. In the republican tradition—in contrast to its main classical rivals, conservatism and liberalism—the people are a self-governing body who can never be replaced by elites or by an abstract edifice such as the state or a church. Republicans therefore distrust liberalism, with its characteristic assumption of the priority of the individual, and conservatism, with its respect for established authority and institutions. For this reason the republican tradition has held to a strongly social view of the nature of people, believing in the power of community instead of either the individual or the state. Republicans have always believed that a society is held together by the power of its public culture. Culture—the symbolic forms in which a society represents its values—is enacted in public and has a social function, as well as being a social creation. Since the ‘republic’ was a clearly defined domain—the Greek polis, the Roman civitas, the renaissance city-state, the modern constitution—the problem of its representation could, with difficulty, be solved. The republican polity could symbolically represent itself in a great variety of forms—as captured for instance by the ideals of fraternity, equality, freedom—which could be the source of public loyalties and national identities. It is precisely this assumption that is in question today: culture and society have separated. The result of this bifurcation—the ‘tragedy of culture’, as Georg Simmel called it in a classic essay—is that contemporary society no longer can create a representation of itself.1
In the last few decades, republican philosophy has entered into a deep crisis because culture is no longer coeval with society and may, in fact, be a kind of ‘anti-society’. Where classical republicans saw a shared public culture lying at the heart of society and as the basis of politics, today, in the eyes of many commentators, there are incommensurable publics based on different forms of life, contested politics, and multiple and competing conceptions of the common good. Daniel Lazare complains that America has become a ‘frozen republic’2. Multi-culturalism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, cultural politics, and identity politics of various kinds have all announced the demise of a shared public culture in favour of a diversity of cultures. The problem, however, is more severe than a simple separation of culture from society: both culture and society have become fragmented. A fragmented society can no longer be symbolically represented by cultural forms that have lost the capacity for integration. Does this tendency towards the fragmentation of culture mean the obsolescence of republican political philosophy? Has the apparent fragmentation of culture amounted to the end of the social? Is there a way culture can be reconciled to a conception of the social appropriate to the current situation? This question will be addressed in this essay.
Public culture and contemporary thought
There are three broad positions on public culture in contemporary thought against which a new republicanism must define itself: liberalism, communitarianism and postmodernism. Let us briefly look at these.
For liberals, culture is essentially private and the property of individuals who consume culture as private persons. Culture, thus, has been seen as self-cultivation (Bildung), as in the neo-humanist tradition associated with von Humboldt, or detached bourgeois contemplation, something to be collected and privately appropriated. In one of the most famous statements of liberal thought on culture, the mid-nineteenth-century writer Mathew Arnold described culture as an antidote to anarchy.3 Culture represented the stable and fixed values of the past, with which the present could be defined. For Arnold, culture was the opposite to anarchy—a uniform domain of ideas and values—while politics was a realm of anarchy. In the idea of a ‘liberal arts’ education, culture reflected the received wisdom: a canon of ideas which cannot be criticised because it is the basis of all evaluation. While classic liberals differed from conservatives in championing the inquisitive spirit of individualism, they became increasingly indistinguishable from conservatives in their desire to keep politics and culture separate. Today, there is no essential difference between neo-liberals and neo-conservatives.4 The turn to the market that is the defining tenet of liberalism today in effect reduces culture to privatistic consumption whereby culture loses its political character (that is, its capacity to provide a basis for action), its social character (that is, its shared nature), and its creative possibilities. At the most, as in rational choice theory, culture is a residual category that does not impinge on individual preferences. For these reasons, liberalism has become a politically, socially, and culturally bankrupt discourse. Yet, it is one of the most influential ways of thinking.
As a reaction to neo-liberalism, a second position can be identified: communitarianism. Largely a modification of liberalism, communitar-ianism has become a distinct approach since the early 1980s. Where liberalism rejects a belief in the inclusive nature of culture, communitar-ianism demands the recognition of culture as defining of a people: the demos is based on an ethnos. Rejecting, too, the exclusive preoccupation with individualism and liberalism’s ‘thin’ conception of culture, communitarians argue for a conception of society based on an underlying cultural identity and the recovery of shared values. Thus, political community must rest on a prior cultural community, defined in terms of common bonds, collective values and a shared sense of the common good. For some communitarians, liberalism must be adapted to a belief in community; for others, of a stronger persuasion, it is the belief in community that is prior. For this latter group, communitarianism and nationalism are very close; but for most, the challenge is simply to reconnect culture, in the sense of cultural community, with political community. This reconnection of culture with politics is supposed to re-inspire a faith in society that has been killed by the liberal ideology of possessive individualism. But, communitarianism with its ‘thick’ conception of culture has not found a viable answer to liberalism: its vision of culture is far too de-politicised and based on a pre-existing consensus that cannot accommodate the fact of diversity and conflict. Communitarianism, too, like liberalism, presupposes the autonomy of the national state and views the modern polity as based on a dominant cultural community. Perhaps the greatest weakness of communitarian thought is its backward looking view and tendency towards nostalgia, seeing the present in terms of the decline of traditional values.5
Postmodernism has emerged in opposition to both liberalism and communitarianism in rejecting all attempts to found a political order on a foundational principle. Its anti-foundational animus is also anti-representational: it rejects the capacity of culture to offer a representation of a social reality. In that sense, its conception of culture is one of ‘irony’ rather than symbolism, since the cultural form of the symbol contains a moment of truth that postmodernism believes must be renounced in favour of the recognition of the impossibility of shared meaning. In other formulations, such as Jean Baudrillard’s, culture is itself a form of reality and cannot, therefore, represent something outside itself since there is no outside other than simulations.6 However, translated into more concrete political terms, postmodernism amounts to the claim that culture, like all language and meaning-creation, is, in fact, what divides people. Where communitarianism holds to a strong view of culture as integrative and based on shared values, postmodernism sees only diversity and, increasingly, divisiveness. To a degree, a kind of postmodern liberalism has emerged with a retreat into private values and away from universalistic moral values, and postmodernism has also found its way into a kind of radical communitarianism that has given up all hope of a common community. However, what concerns us here is the view that culture has lost its symbolic and cognitive capacity to shape a society.
Each of the three positions on culture discussed so far—culture as individual consumption, culture as shared values, and culture as a domain of division—is inadequate. Public culture is not something that can be reduced to ‘thin’ values, as in liberalism or to ‘thick’ values, as in communitarianism, nor can it be seen simply as a domain of incommensurable divisions.7 The challenge for republican thought is to recapture a link with culture and society. Of what might this consist?
Transformations in culture and society
The argument made here is that republicanism must rethink the category of culture in light of some of the major transformations in contemporary society. Let us first consider how the current situation necessitates such a redefinition of culture.
Until recently culture was neatly separated into separate spheres. On the one hand, culture had an integrative role to play in affirming the dominant ideas of the status quo—of bourgeois society, of national states, of western civilisation—while, on the other, being simultaneously an instrument of differentiation, that is, a means of social ordering. By imposing evaluative criteria, cultural codes, and modes of distinction, culture was a convenient means of creating systems of classification by which self and other could be distinguished. It was also a powerful means of protecting social institutions from critique: cultural critique, in fact, had to be compromised. For example, it was modern societies—and generally republican orders—that invented the principle of secularism, by which religion must be taken out of the public domain (although in practice often reorganised into national churches) in order to protect it from the critique of the intellectuals. Shifting critique to the margins of society, when it did not impose cultural censorship, modernity created regimes of representation on culture that ensured compliance with power. The two faces of culture—its capacity for representation and classification—were further organised into various dualisms. Looking at the current situation, these functions and the dualism that sustained them are in crisis. We can mention at least six ways in which culture has undergone major transformation.
One of the major distinctions in the nature of culture was its division into high and low cultures, with high culture having a largely legitimating function for bourgeois society, while a de-politicised low culture served to entertain the masses. Today, as a result of changes in the nature of capitalism and new kinds of alternative and popular culture, this distinction has become blurred and is largely meaningless. It has also been undermined by the blurring caused by the extension of education to all classes. Mass education brought about a corresponding erosion of the distinction between knowledge and opinion. The result is that culture is not the property of an elite, codified by science, but is essentially democratic and revisable.
An older distinction, going back to the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, between civilisation and culture has also been called into question. Especially in the German tradition, culture—the high Kultur of the cultivated bourgeoisie—served as a point of unity beyond the material forms of life associated with the term civilisation. The decline of civilisation—a theme in much of early twentieth-century cultural criticism—might, thus, be resisted by a higher order of culture, where the most exalted values might be preserved by a cosmopolitan elite. However, in time, culture became overshadowed by cultures in the plural, and a progressive universalism crept into culture. The decline in universalistic ideas about civilisation helped to make this all the more possible.
A third dualism inherited from the modern period has also disintegrated today: the separation of the private and public. Largely as a result of feminism and its idea that the ‘personal is political’, the separation of the public realm from the private world of the household can no longer be maintained. Culture is not confined to a public domain untouched by a pre-political private domain but is ‘everywhere’. Some of the main expressions of contemporary culture concern the collapse of the distinction between the private and the public.
As a result of several decades of multiculturalism, cultures now exist in the plural and, moreover, the distinction between a majority culture and a minority culture is less credible. All cultures, whether majority or minority cultures, have been transformed by cultural mixing. Until quite recently, ethnic groups and immigrant groups were seen as being ‘cultures’ that had to be managed by official multicultural policies to ensure their ‘integration’ or, as the case might have been, their isolation from the dominant ‘society’. This distinction between incoming cultures and a majoritarian society has been undermined by cultural pluralism.
A further change in modern systems of cultural classification is in the relation between nature and culture. A basic assumption of modern western culture was the belief that culture was superior to nature (often associated with primitivism). In order that they might not regress to the ‘state of nature’, modern societies devised ways to purge nature from their cultures. Human society was believed to be characterised by the capacity to create symbols and engage in non-purposive communication. Nature lay outside the domain of culture. Today, in the age of the new genetics, post-human scenarios, cyborg culture, the risk society, and the socialisation of nature, this is no longer credible: nature has been conquered by society.8
Finally, we can mention that the separation of the world into discrete national cultures is no longer credible in the era of globalisation.9 The separation of national cultures was one of the means by which modernity reconciled the contradiction of universality and relativism. While participating in the universal order of civilisation, the belief that national cultures were internally unique was a basic assumption of the modern period. Once the belief in the universality of western civilisation collapsed, so, too, did the assumptions of national distinctiveness. Today, in the allegedly global age, the local and the global have been connected in many ways, allowing local cultures—under the rubric of hybridisation—to reinvent themselves in numerous ways. And, there is also an emerging world culture, sustained variously by global capitalism, information and communication technologies, and different orders of cosmopolitan politics.
In the light of these developments, culture has become a highly complex field. We can certainly say it does not easily offer a system of classification or a social representation that is rigid or compelling for all groups. This cognitive function is weakening, or, rather, different forms of classification are emerging in contemporary society. Yet, culture is one of the vital areas where societies are redefining themselves. With the break-up of the older codifications of culture, the new expressions appear to be diffuse: they are sites of resistance and are lacking in authoritative definitions of meaning. It is this situation that has led to false solutions, as in the three scenarios sketched above. Thus, culture retreats into personal forms of meaning (liberal pursuits, consumption, spiritualism), the false promises of a comforting illusion (communitarianism, nation-alism, ethnicity, tradition), or aesthetic constructions (postmodernism). In all cases, the possibility of connection with a belief in the social is sundered.
The idea of a public culture
In view of the foregoing analysis, what might constitute a republican theory of culture? To begin with, a republican position on public culture must accept the fall of culture and the end of all dualisms, many of which were central to earlier republican philosophies. Culture is inextricably bound up with politics. However, this does not mean that culture can no longer express shared values or that we have to give up all hope of a public culture. The argument proposed in this essay is that republican philosophy must evolve a conception of public culture that has a capacity to express divisiveness, differences and conflicts. Unless societies have a cognitive capacity to articulate their problems, they become sterile and cannot accommodate social change. Culture is not a public statement of what is shared in some simple sense of common values or consensus on the common good. Modern societies are too complex in their cultural composition and in their organisation for this to be possible. Given the huge diversity of contemporary societies, their overlapping nature, their technical complexity, the impact of globalisation and transnational processes, and the contingency of political and economic decision-making, culture cannot be based on an underlying consensus. Instead, culture must be seen as a domain of reflexive and critical commun-ication. This communicative conception of culture needs to be affirmed by republican theory in order to respond to the crisis of meaning in contemporary societies. In essence, then, public culture in the republican polity is not based on consensus but on the capacity of a society to negotiate differences.
The communicative conception of culture regards culture as essentially public rather than private as in liberalism. The public dimension of culture entails a communicative component that is all the more signif-icant today when everything is played out in the public domain. Cultural creation is taking more and more the form of public discourses in which societal issues and problems are thematised. The discursive nature of this is the defining feature of culture rather than a sign of the malaise of public culture. Such a communicative view of culture necessitates taking seriously at least four aspects of public culture: reflexivity [Reflexivity is used in the sense of something turned back on and applied to itself, e.g. cultural critique is applied to itself first and foremost; it implies a self-referential and critical attitude. (Ed.)], critique, diversity, and the negotiation of difference.
It is in the dimension of reflexivity that the distinctively transformative nature of culture is most apparent. Contemporary culture is highly reflexive where in the past it was relatively rigid and often tied to a representative function (to represent clerical or royal authority). Today, culture does not simply represent values or a higher aesthetic. The reflexive nature of contemporary societies makes this impossible. Reflexivity, meaning the application of something to itself, has entered many domains: including education (transferable skills), health and life-styles (dieting, self-monitoring), work (flexibility), and communication (the medium is the message). Reflexivity has become one of the most important forms of cultural reproduction that problematises the act of cultural creation and representation.
A second form of cultural reproduction is its critical function. The critical impulse has always been central to modern cultural formations. Beginning with the critique of religion and all forms of political censorship, the project of modernity defined itself by reference to the self-questioning and sceptical values associated with intellectuals. Critique stood for self-confrontation and anti-dogmatism; the autonomy of science and art from ecclesiastical and royal authority. Originally an activity associated with intellectuals and professional cultural producers (artists, writers, intellectuals and academics), it gradually became more and more a part of the wider culture of modern societies. Due to the mass media, mass education, popular culture and social struggles, the values of critique have become central to the cognitive structures of modern society.10
The third dimension of culture is its diversity. In our multicultural societies, culture is plural rather than singular. To be sure, cultural pluralism is not necessarily something new, as societies have always been plural in their composition. The formation of the modern nation state in the nineteenth century—and its ideology that a state must be based on a nation—tended to homogenise the older regional and ethnic diversities. In most countries, the nation imposed a rigid cultural form on diverse populations. Today, this is being reversed as a result of world-wide migration, multiculturalism, tourism, new popular cultures and cultural hybridisation. Republicanism has historically neglected this question of cultural pluralism, based as it was on a unitary view of the polity. The question of diversity leads to the challenge of finding common ground. If there is so much diversity, can there be common ground? Can people be equal and at the same time different?
The fourth dimension of culture can thus be formulated as the negotiation of difference. Despite the obvious fact of cultural diversity—as well as other kinds of diversity that are related to the spread of post-material values: gender, generations, class, life-styles—most societies have a means of reconciling their differences.11 This is one of the most difficult challenges for the republican polity. Especially when it concerns fundamental differences over conceptions of life and death—as in conflicts over euthanasia, abortion, cloning—the differences will be very great and will call into question the very cultural foundations of society. In these and other cases, secessionism and many religious conflicts, for example, common ground cannot be found since the conflict is of a zero-sum nature. Indeed, the preservation of difference may often be what the conflict is about. However, while these are serious conflicts for a republican polity to address, most conflicts are of a negotiable nature. One of the tasks for a republican conception of cultural conflict is to convert zero-sum conflict into negotiable conflicts. Where this is not possible, it may simply be a case of living with contingency. But, in the majority of cases, cultural diversity does not necessarily lead to cultural divisions, as communitarians believe. Nor does cultural diversity lead to an extreme and destructive relativism, as liberals fear. In actual practice, most cultures accommodate universalistic principles and, conversely, universalistic cultures—such as liberal and cosmopolitan values—are increasingly open to particularistic interpretations.12 Ever since the anthropologist Ruth Benedict introducted the term in the 1930s, we are all cultural relativists.13 Difference and, more importantly, the accom-modation of difference are partly accomplished fact in many societies today, and the recognition of diversity is an essential part of democracy.14
The analysis so far is that culture must be seen as fluid and open to different codifications or classifications. Culture is negotiable because it is not fixed or rooted in immutable principles. In this view, then, culture is not defined by reference to territory, the state, an elite, a church or a party. Culture consists of different forms of classification, cognitive models, narratives, forms of evaluation, collective identities, values and norms, and aesthetic forms. Some of these will be shared, others will not, but the critical issue is that culture does not have to be shared as such, since it is composed out of shifting frames and modalities which are appropriated in different ways. In other words, culture is defined by use rather than by inherent properties and always requires interpretation.15 Culture is thus pragmatic—as in pragma, or action—in that it is articulated by social actors in everyday life. This view of culture suggests that a pragmatic hermeneutics for culture must interpret culture within the context of social action. We are thus moving away from a view of culture as that which divides to a view of culture as a domain of diverse interpretations that are appropriated by social actors who must constantly negotiate the contradictions both within and between the different orders of interpretation from which they draw.16
Where communitarianism reduces culture to an underlying consensus, republican theory sees conflict as part of a strong polity where differences are made central to the public culture. It is in this respect that culture and individualism can be seen as reconcilable. According to an influential thesis, associated with Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, modern individualism has eroded the ability of contemporary American society to generate social capital.17 Civic engagement, voluntarism, and associational membership—epitomised in declining membership of bowling clubs, the quintessential feature of white Anglo-Saxon America—are in decline due to a nascent individualism, he argued, and consequently democracy is undermined. What makes democracy flourish is the stable core of a cultural tradition based on common values. This thesis must be rejected. Putnam ignores the reality that modern cultural values are, in fact, often sustained by a high degree of individualism and that conflict is not corrosive of but essential to the modern polity, which cannot rest on the traditional cultural ethos associated with the bowling clubs of Jeffersonian agrarian republicanism. Moreover, it was a view of culture that accepted the exclusion of large segments of the population—women and minorities—from the polity, the values of which were narrow, gendered, and closed to the reality of diversity.
Conclusion: culture as communication
A sociology of culture today does not accept the view that culture is a form of integration. An older sociology and much of classical anthropology were based on the belief that culture offers a model of cohesion for society, which otherwise would fall apart due to its conflicts. While this was heavily criticised by both the Marxist theory of culture and by critical theory—from Adorno to Marcuse—the assumption remained that culture was a form of legitimation, even if it was distorted by ideology and class power. The argument advanced in this essay is that culture is primarily a system of communication rather than a form of integration. While culture may indeed serve to anchor systems of legitimation, culture is fundamentally anarchic. It is always open to different interpretations and to new codifications.18
The most significant expressions of cultural creation in contemporary society are communicative ones. We have only to consider the role of the internet and more generally information and communication technologies to see that culture cannot be separated from its modes of communication. Thus, culture is not private contemplation, the representation of authority, or a domain of decentred simulations. It has a public dimension, but one that is not simply suspended between the private domain and the state, as was characteristic of an earlier phase of the project of modernity. Public discourse has a self-creating, autopoetic nature that is constitutive of the social bond and its cultural forms. Culture is also a medium in which citizenship is expressed.19 In addition to the classic social, civic and political rights, citizenship concerns cultural rights—relating to language, information, heritage, memories, and what in general concerns cultural, symbolic expression.
Integration, today more than ever before, is sustained by forms of communication, rather than by a stable system of cultural values and norms. Ideologies, too, have become unable to provide enduring systems of integration. Increasingly, a whole range of philosophers and sociologists have argued that societies are ultimately to be seen in terms of the modes of communication, rather than in terms of territory, juridical systems, and class structures, for example. Major epistemological shifts have occurred in science itself and more generally in knowledge, making the condition of uncertainty and contingency central to the contemporary mode of cultural consciousness.20 The cultural form of modern society is responding by becoming more and more discursive, for this is the only way it can accommodate the crystallisation of the cognitive order and the new modes of communication. A republican polity must evolve the cognitive capacity to cope with the increasing volume of communication.
Jürgen Habermas has analyzed modern societies in terms of the progressive extension of communication to all parts of society. Communication is now integral to all forms of cultural reproduction, he argues in several major works.21 No society can circumvent the critical and reflexive forces at work in modern culture, which have ‘rationalised’ societies’ modes of legitimation to the point that communication is now the cultural form of societal reproduction. The result is that a ‘postnational’ polity can only be based on cultural forms of commonality that can accept certain basic principles, such as procedural rules for the resolution of conflicts, the need for communicative solutions, and the limited patriotism of an identification with the constitution—a ‘constitutional patriotism’—rather than with territory, cultural heritage or the state.22 Habermas’s argument is an important one for republican theory. It shows how cultural forms of identification and loyalty are still possible and that, therefore, culture is reconcilable with diversity and is not threatened by conflict, but, in fact, is sustained by the constant negotiation of conflict.
A final point in conclusion is that the public culture of the republican polity is not to be identified with the state. This has been the fate of much of the republican tradition, as is evidenced by many countries, ranging from Ireland to France and the United States. Originally an expression of the autonomy of civic culture, democracy and the public domain, the republican values became increasingly identified with the state tradition and in many cases with nationalism. The result has been a loss of what Cornelius Castoriadis has called the ‘radical imaginary’ that lies at the core of every culture, defining its capacity to reproduce itself.23 One of the tasks of a republican conception of public culture is the recovery of the radical imaginary component of the public, which this essay has associated with a notion of communication.
Gerard Delanty is Professor of Sociology in the University of Liverpool. He is the chief editor of the European Journal of Social Theory and author of nine books, including Inventing Europe: Idea, Identity and Reality (Macmillan 1995), Modernity and Postmodernity: Knowledge, Power and the Self (Sage 2000) and Community (Routledge 2003), as well as numerous papers.
5 See G. Delanty, Citizenship in a Global Age (Buckingham: Open University Press 2000) and G. Delanty, Community (London and New York: Routledge 2003) for further discussion of the limits of communitarianism.
11 N. Smelser and J. Alexander (eds.), Diversity and Its Discontents: Cultural Conflict and Common Ground in Contemporary American Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1999) and A. Touraine, Can We Live Together? Equal and Different (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).
21 J. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1: ‘Reason and the Rationalisation of Society’ (London: Heinemann 1984), The Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2: ‘Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason’ (Cambridge: Polity Press 1987), and The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: Polity Press 1989).