A Critical Summary of
Greenblatt, Stephen. "Culture." Critical Terms for Literature Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 225-32. Rpt. in Contexts for Criticism. Ed. Donald Keesey. 3rd ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1998. 477-92.
The term "culture" commonly refers to a society's beliefs, customs, morals, art, and laws. However, according to Stephen Greenblatt, because the term is used so frequently, it often doesn't mean much, pointing only vaguely to a variety of "capabilities and habits" adopted by human beings (478). However, the concept can still be useful to students of literature if defined and applied more carefully. In his essay "Culture," Greenblatt redefines the concept of culture in a fashion he believes can do more work for the literary scholar. This refined understanding of the concept, he believes, must begin with the acknowledgement that culture ironically "gestures toward what appear to be opposite things: constraint and mobility (478).
In asserting that culture signifies or indicates social forces of constraint, Greenblatt points out that every culture is formed by an "ensemble of beliefs and practices" (478). These beliefs and practices set up standards that "function as a pervasive technology of control" to structure and delimit the behavior the members of a society. For example, such standards may articulate certain ideals of appearance or behaviors in public. If people do something unacceptable, something counter to these ideals, then they suffer the consequences: everything from stares, sarcasm, contempt, or laughter to legal sanctions like imprisonment. The beliefs and values of a culture discourage people from going outside what is "appropriate" for that society; they are constrained by what society's expectations. At the same time, "a culture's boundaries are enforced more positively as well" (478). People are rewarded for conforming to the constraints of culture with praise from others, an admiring look, a pat on the back, a promotion, etc.
Refining a consciousness of culture on these forces of constraint can assist in understanding the cultural significance of a piece of literature. Greenblatt notes two genres of literature, satire and panegyric, as obvious examples demonstrating the constraints of a culture. A satire shows explicitly the reaction to someone who does not conform, while a panegyric praises someone who does. However, satires or panegyrics written years ago do not have the same power or emphasis today because the cultural customs, values, and beliefs upon which they were based are no longer in force for modern readers. As a result, the only way to fully appreciate these works is to examine the culture that they reflect and are embedded in. An important task of literary criticism, then, is "to reconstruct the boundaries upon whose existence the works were predicated" (478).
But for Greenblatt understanding "culture as a complex whole" and illuminating the cultural significance of literature involves more than reconstructing these boundaries. Culture may be a web of constraint, but at the same time it "functions as the regulator and guarantor of movement" (480). Although limitations must be present in a culture, these must also have enough elasticity to allow movement and adaptation. This elasticity allows a culture to change over a period of time. Furthermore, cultures survive only because of the experimentation and improvisation of societies. A society must tolerate and even encourage mobility to determine what attitudes, activities and aspirations fulfill its needs and foster its success. For instance, a culture may need to experiment with tyranny to realize it needs democracy. A culture may need to improvise and mediate or modify its constraints to accommodate the diversity of people needed for its work.
The cultural mobility Greenblatt speaks of is not random, nor is it a conscious exploration and pursuit of a social destiny. Rather it is an expression of a crucial social process that Greenblatt terms "exchange" (480). Culture acts as a "network of negotiations" for the exchange of goods, ideas, attitudes, and even people (480-81). In the negotiations of this exchange, the direction and destiny of a society emerges -- its conflicts and its goals. Cultural exchange also permits concepts to be traded and shared by different societies. From this, one society can adopt and apply ideas from other societies. Through its cultural forces of constraint, a society seeks to preserve itself, but through the cultural mobility of exchange, a society moves to modify itself.
Just as literature reflects cultural forces of constraint, so it reflects the cultural exchange that fosters mobility. For Greenblatt, "a culture's narratives . . . are crucial indices of the prevailing codes governing human mobility and constraint" (481). Great writers in fact are "masters of these codes"; consciously or unconsciously they are "specialists in cultural exchange" (481). Their writing captures not just one aspect of a particular culture or one over-riding system of constraint; rather it captures the many divisions within a society that contributes to its cultural exchange. A society is both articulated and transformed by literary texts. The study of literature, then, should focus on discovering in the text "structures for the accumulation, transformation, representation, and communication of social energies and practices" (481). Thus, the cultural exchange of literature is not limited to the record of exchanges that have taken place in the represented culture, for there is also an exchange that takes place between the reader and the text. This exchange between the reader and the text can invoke an even deeper level to culture.
Greenblatt offers a set of cultural questions about a piece of literature that can nurture this critical exchange of culture:
What kinds of behavior, what models of practice does this work seem to enforce?
Why might readers at a particular time and place find this work compelling?
Are there differences between my values and the values implicit in the work I am reading?
Upon what social understandings does the work depend?
Whose freedom of thought or movement might be constrained implicity or explicitly by this work?
What are the larger social structures with which these particular acts of praise or blame might be connected? (478-79)
By exploring literature through such questions, the reader may discover how the texts have absorbed so many components comprising a culture. If these components are brought together and their relationships with one another are understood, then literature can be a strong representation of a society's "'cultivation'" (479). The reader can examine the varying components, and determine how each contributes to the growth and alterations of a culture. This insight can only be achieved, though, by focusing critical discourse on a reconstruction of a complex culture.
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