There’s a historical sense, too, in which “culture” is a polemical word. In the nineteenth century, Williams explains, “culture” was often opposed to “civilization.” Civilization, the thinking went, was a homogenizing system of efficient, rational rules, designed to encourage discipline and “progress.” Culture was the opposite: an unpredictable expression of human potential for its own sake. (It’s for this reason that a term like “the culture industry” has an oxymoronic ring.) Today, we don’t often use the word “civilization”— we prefer to talk, more democratically, in terms of culture—but we’re still conflicted. We can’t help but notice how “civilized” life seems both to facilitate culture and to deaden it. Museums make it easy to see art, but they also weigh it down. Rock and roll sounds better in a club than in a concert hall. […] The most positive aspect of “culture”—the idea of personal, humane enrichment—now seems especially remote. In its place, the idea of culture as unconscious groupthink is ascendent.

Joshua Rothman: The Meaning of Culture (New Yorker)

and his blog


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