Under the heading Culture: Some Begriffsgeschichte, Michael C. Carhart writes: ''From the very beginning culture was a complicated concept, and those who used the term seldom agreed on what it meant.'' Could it not be argued that this is still the case today? The only difference being, current culture (in the UK at least) is more a form of culture lite.
Culture has been dumbed down, infiltrated by mediocrity, not to mention drained and cleansed of nigh all meaning, value and importance. Culture certainly no longer resembles that to which Raymond Williams - a pioneer of Marxist literary theory – was referring in his influential work Keywords, from which Carhart quotes: ''Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. This is so partly because of its intricate historical development, in several European languages, but mainly because it has now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought.''
First of all, culture is no longer of a necessarily intellectual persuasion. Depending on spin and mass interpretation, culture has now evolved into mass consumption; the simpler/easier to ascertain, understand and market, the better. So where culture was once Voltaire, we now have Ant'n'Dec. Secondly, culture is also no longer of a necessarily incompatible design. This is due to mass marketing, dilution and the intrinsic desire for simplification/globalisation. Hence, Che Guevara having evolved into far more of a fashion accessory than that of a cultural or political icon.
That said, Carhart goes a long way in reminding us that: ''there was no such thing as human nature. There was only human culture.'' To a degree, this remains true today, although as previously mentioned, a lite version of; which makes The Science of Culture in Enlightenment Germany all the more a refreshing read. It's a reminder (if nothing else), of a time when virtue was something to be adhered to, rather than dismissed like a discarded orange peel.
In the Chapter 'The Sociology of Ancient History,' the author writes: ''The rise of polite learning and polite society marked a renewal of the humanist enterprise [...]. Good taste referred to the cultivation of sensitivities and the ability to draw fine distinctions – in the arts, but also in reasoning, ethics, and experience generally. To have good taste meant to conduct oneself well in all aspects of life. Courtesy and politeness pointed toward a person's aesthetic sensitivity in general, and one could tell much about a person's cultivation by observing his or her comportment in daily life.''
The powers that be in Parliament, ought to take serious heed of the above. If they are in any way serious about fixing what is clearly a broken society, this book makes for fundamental reading. Throughout, Carhart has provided a well-informed dissertation of substantive, but often unknown episodes, in the intellectual history and culture of eighteenth century Germany (and Europe); from which society at large, would be wise to draw. Even if only to ascertain that culture cuts through political differences, and is more than capable of breaking down barriers and healing differences.
The Science of Culture in Enlightenment Germany
By Michael C. Carhart
Harvard University Press – £36.95