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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, May 06, 2011

Culture is a Driving Force in History

Posted by Bill Benzon on 05/06/11 at 06:05 AM

Over at Arcade Gregory Jusdanis has raised the question of culture’s role in social change, lamenting the fact that the default and dominant view is that culture is “always the bridesmaid, never the bride.” Culture is treated as being epiphenomenal to the economy.

He believes otherwise, and I agree with him. Culture is itself a driving force in history. Jusdanis goes on to note:

So it was with relief that I read Nurdan Gürbilek’s recent book, The New Cultural Climate in Turkey. As Turkey’s foremost literary and cultural critic, Gürbilek describes the wonderful power of culture in society. Writing on the social transformations Turkey experienced after the military coup of the 1980’s, she shows the intense involvement of culture in the decades since then. She demonstrates, for instance, how intellectuals, pushed to the margins, jailed, and tortured, gained power by seeking refuge and freedom in cultural institutions.

He goes on to observe that

Nationalism is a perfect example of a cultural factor that can act as a force in itself. Colonized peoples, feeling themselves oppressed by foreign rulers, have often turned to culture (as identity and as artistic production) where they preserve something vital and untouched by the foe. And on the basis of this culture (traditional identities, inherited institutions, folk art, ritual), they try to build a new society, different from the neighbors and the colonial rulers. I have studied this in Greece.

In the decades leading to the Greek War of Independence of 1821 against the Ottoman Empire, Greek intellectuals living in Europe and within the Empire, sought to reformulate Greek identity. They provided a new geography of Greece, uncovered the links to the ancient past, reconsidered the ties of Greece to Europe, and tried to create a new type of language. In short, they sought to convince the peasant populations that Greek society was belated, that it lagged far behind developments in western Europe. Trying to rouse Greek populations with the arguments of belatedness, they sought to place culture at the forefront of their program of social engineering.

I’ve done a bit of work about how popular music has been important in social transformation in 20th century America: “Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues”.

I’ve also found Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture (Cambridge 2005) quite provocative. Ikegami argues that networks of artists were crucial to forging Japanese civil society. The publisher’s blurb (at Amazon):

In this path breaking book, Eiko Ikegami uncovers a complex history of social life in which aesthetic images became central to Japan’s cultural identities. The people of premodern Japan built on earlier aesthetic traditions in part for their own sake, but also to find space for self-expression in the increasingly rigid and tightly controlled Tokugawa political system. In so doing, they incorporated the world of the beautiful within their social life which led to new modes of civility. They explored horizontal and voluntary ways of associating while immersing themselves in aesthetic group activities. Combining sociological insights in organizations with prodigious scholarship on cultural history, this book explores such wide-ranging topics as networks of performing arts, tea ceremony and haiku, the politics of kimono aesthetics, the rise of commercial publishing, the popularization of etiquette and manners, the vogue for androgyny in kabuki performance, and the rise of tacit modes of communication.


Returning to America, in The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism (Chicago 1999), the economic historian (& Nobel Laureate), William Robert Fogel, argues that religion has been a driving force in American history, with periodic revivals asserting egalitarian claims over against social hierarchy that creates increasing gaps between the rich and the poor. From the publisher’s blurb:

To understand what is taking place today, we need to understand the nature of the recurring political-religious cycles called “Great Awakenings.” Each lasting about 100 years, Great Awakenings consist of three phases, each about a generation long.

A cycle begins with a phase of religious revival, propelled by the tendency of new technological advances to outpace the human capacity to cope with ethical and practical complexities that those new technologies entail. The phase of religious revival is followed by one of rising political effect and reform, followed by a phase in which the new ethics and politics of the religious awakening come under increasing challenge and the political coalition promoted by the awakening goes into decline. These cycles overlap, the end of one cycle coinciding with the beginning of the next.


Here’s the four cycles laid out in brief form. As the blurb has notes each cycle of revivalist activity lasts a century or more and goes through three phases. The American Revolution happened during the second phase of the first revival cycle and the Civil War happened during the second phase of the second revival cycle. The third cycle gave us the labor reforms, civil rights, and women’s rights movements of mid-20th century America.

The fourth cycle began in the 1960s:

1960-?: Return to sensuous religion and reassertion of experiential content of the Bible; rapid growth of the enthusiastic religions (including fundamentalist, Pentacostal, and Protestant charismatic denominations, “born-again” Catholics, Mormons); reassertion of concept of personal sin; stress on an ethic of individual responsibility, hard work, a simple life, and dedication to family.

Recall that the 1960s also produced the various religious and spiritual movements associated with counter-cultural activity. This cycle moved into its second phase during the 1990s:

1990-?: Attack on materialist corruption; rise of pro-life, pro-family, and media reform movements; campaign for more value-oriented school curriculum; expansion of tax revolt; attack on entitlements; return to a belief in equality of opportunity.

What will the fourth cycle yield in its third phase? For that’s what’s on the immediate horizon. 


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