Culture as Differentiation

“He will continue to insist, in fact, on an Idea, a standard of excellence, the ‘embodied spirit’ of a People’s knowledge, as something superior to the actual course of events, the actual run of the market. This insistence, it is worth emphasizing, is one of the primary sources of the idea of Culture. Culture, the ‘embodied spirit of a People’, the true standard of excellence, became available, in the progress of the century, as the court of appeal in which real values were determined, usually in opposition to the  ‘factitious’ values thrown up by the market and similar operations of society. “ 

-Raymond Williams (Culture and Society, 34)

 “Opposition” is arguably the most important word in this passage. Culture is realized in the establishment of divisions and oppositions. From the creation and institutionalization of societal and personal categories, culture emerges as a tool of evaluation and a standard of the ideal. Culture’s differentiations shape the individual subject and produce regimented systems of knowledge. These cultural processes maintain imbalances of power and construct distinct societal positions, including the nuanced role of the intellectual. In examining the citation above, a synthesis of Norbert Elias, Michel Foucalt, and Edward Said’s theories will illuminate the complex mechanisms and effects of culture as differentiation.

In this excerpt, Raymond Williams describes a distinction between the ‘embodied spirit of a People’s knowledge’ and the ‘actual course of events.’ Culture is defined by the separation between society’s purest philosophies and the widespread clamor of popular activity. In Culture and Society, Raymond Williams defines culture as an emergence of “the practical separation of certain moral and intellectual activities from the driven impetus of a new kind of society…” (xviii) By assigning society’s thoughts and actions into separate categories, the notion of culture relies upon constant oppositions. In his book The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias roots the German concept of Kultur in that society’s “tendency toward demarcation and the emphasis on and detailing of differences between groups” (5). Kultur refers only to intellectual, religious, and artistic facts, inherently separating these categories from politics and economics. Culture evolves from establishing these differences and divisions.

Such oppositions intrinsically manifest in evaluation. The word “superior” in the Williams quote above exhibits the hierarchical nature of culture as a means of differentiation. The Civilizing Process demonstrates how culture produces, judges, and orders distinct groups and activities. Defining the terms civilization and Kultur, Elias emphasizes “the manner in which they include certain areas and exclude others as a matter course, the hidden evaluations which they implicitly bring with them…” (4). The including and excluding process of cultural differentiation inherently validates or dismisses the judged ideas and actions. Those activities not included in the “embodied spirit of a People” are, in turn, implicated to be those that lack spirit.

Culture provides a framework in which certain categories are evaluated in their proximity to or distance from the ideal. Culture is the “standard of excellence,” in comparison to which all validated categories may be judged and then, in result, criticized or encouraged. In this way, culture is an antithesis to society’s flaws. As Elias describes, Kulture presents the ways of German middle-class intelligentsia as the superior alternative to the conduct of the courtly upper class. Established in the production of divisions, culture creates an ideal alternative in opposition to ‘the actual run of the market.’ Raymond Williams demonstrates that culture acts as a “mitigating and rallying alternative” to political and economic developments like Democracy and Industrialization (xviii). Culture produces a regimented standpoint from which society is criticized and establishes itself as the superior alternative to the current societal course.

Culture’s production of categories also leads to the cultivation of the individual subject. With distinctions between ideas and activities, culture constructs categories of human identity, which are both externally assigned to others and internally assigned to oneself. Michel Foucalt details this process, arguing that the divisions between fields of study establish norms and provide a regulated framework for self-formation. Foucalt demonstrates how “a collection of rules (which differentiate the permissible from the forbidden, natural from monstrous, normal from pathological, what is decent from what is not, etc.)” produces “a mode of relation between the individual and himself” (Preface to The History of Sexuality v.II, 334). By building boundaries around fields of discourse, culture separates the individual into categories (the emotion self, the intellectual self, the sexual self, etc.) based on culturally validated distinctions. These internal divisions are maintained through external systems of normativity and internal self-discipline that disseminate from the general to the personal. Even the most intimate areas of one’s life are products of these differential, regulatory mechanisms. The identities that compose the individual subject are the results of culture’s differential activity.

The importance of the term “knowledge” in the Williams citation cannot be underrepresented. The cultural methods of differentiation construct different categories of knowledge. Restrictions and evaluations are inherent within established fields of study. Edward Said explains how cultural systems that produce disciplines regulate our knowledge in order to fulfill societal needs prescribed by those with power. He writes in Orientalism, “We can better understand the persistence and durability of saturating hegemonic systems like culture when we realize that their internal constraints upon writers and thinkers were productive, not unilaterally inhibiting” (14). Academic disciplines, as products of the divisions between categories of knowledge, impose judgment and requirements on the valid topics, methods, and goals of study. The systems employed by Orientalists in their collection of materials, representation of the Orient, and dispersion of knowledge to the public were inherently regulated to maintain the international imbalance of power. By systematizing Orientalism as a specialized mode of knowledge production, Orientalists could sustain Western domination over the East. Culture categorizes, evaluates, and regulates knowledge. These systems are not objective but instead are informed by social, political, and economic aims.

The citation in examination contains another important element of differentiation—the distinct roles of certain people in relation to culture. In the passage, Raymond Williams relays the ideas of Wordsworth, who is dissatisfied with the unthinking public but upholds respect for the idealized ‘spirit of the People.‘ As a writer, artist, and literary critic, Wordsworth upholds his role as an intellectual within culture’s societal divisions. In Culture and Society, Williams interrogates the essence of culture by examining a multitude of theories and criticisms by authors, artists, philosophers, and scholars. Through this methodological approach, Williams demonstrates the role of the intellectual as the inventor, possessor, and defender of culture. Intellectuals uphold and shape culture by opposing the forces of current society that they deem destructive or illegitimate. Intellectuals are bearers of culture in that they disseminate the divisions, evaluations, and criticisms of societal developments throughout the population and its institutions. Elias exhibits how the intellectual class is intrinsically bound to its self-identification as the agent and possessor of culture. He writes that the “characteristic self-confidence of the intellectual” is tied to the fact that the German intellectuals “epitomized themselves by concepts such as Kultur and Bildung” (59). The specialized function of the intellectual is to provide the rest of society with superior systems of knowledge, art, philosophy, politics, etc. The role of the intellectual as an agent of culture is contingent on the distinction between “the ‘mob’ and the ‘cultivated few,’” as Williams describes (35). The position of the intellectual emphasizes the influence of differentiation between specialized roles in the production, transformation, and continuation of culture.

The selected passage by Raymond Williams indicates that culture is manifested in the production and regulation of divisions. These categories operate within both the general society and the personal self. Culture, as an ideal standard in constant opposition to the current course of society, imposes hierarchal evaluations onto activities and ideas. These systems are governed by political, social, and economic intentions to control knowledge production. The intellectual, as the owner and defender of culture, helps to disseminate the influential network of cultural divisions throughout the society. This network cultivates the creation of the individual subject. Exploration of culture as differentiation reveals the extensive and intimate effects of divisions in all spheres of life.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for Theories of Culture with Professor Gil Andijar at Columbia University

Works Cited

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Oxford: Blackwell, 1978. Print.

Foucalt, Michel. The Foucalt Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Random House, 1984. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York: Columbia UP, 1958. Print.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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