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Is Culture A Universal Language?

Image courtesy of Zumstein/DeviantArt.

Staff Writer Jagoda Ziolkowska reflects upon the many faces of culture – an ideal of unified beauty or a powerful tool for manipulation?

“Books, not guns. Culture, not violence”, declares Theo (Louis Garrel) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie The Dreamers, as the character discusses the dramatic political scene of 1968 while sipping fine red wine from his parents’ cellar. In the scene, he compares Mao Zedong to a visionary director, who, by leading his followers like cast members, is on his way to creating a grand film for a better future. This, however, is quickly countered in a decisive, albeit drunk, response from his companion Matthew: “But it’s not true. It’s book. A book. Just one book… In this big epic movie, everybody is an extra.”

The sequence is worth attention not only for its aesthetic value; it also hints at an issue that is left remarkably unrealised despite lying at the crux of some of the most serious and complex problems of our past, present and almost certainly our future.

Culture. Everyone has their notion about it, and yet no one is sure what it means. Is it collecting art, going to the opera and listening to Vivaldi in a scarlet gown with a glass of champagne in hand? Or is it reading newspapers, exchanging stories with local people while travelling abroad and going out for dinner with friends? No matter what your response is, it almost certainly involves some dose of utopia – even if you don’t realise it. Don’t all those examples entail a sense of bettering oneself, bonding with others and generally bringing some goodness to this cruel world? Don’t they all remind us of the importance of beauty, love and, most of all, the shared human experience?

But let’s pause for a moment. Isn’t it culture that the young challenge, rebelling against their ancestors? Isn’t it the reason why ethnic and religious conflicts break out? And finally, doesn’t it contain inherent contradictions that may never be reconciled, let alone agreed upon by the whole society? Can culture, then, really be a universal language?

Starting from the seemingly harmless theoretical debates within the academic circles, we easily notice that the idea of culture, and especially its amorphous nature, has wreaked its fair share of havoc. On the one hand, we have critics and poets, such as F. R. Leavis and Matthew Arnold, who saw culture as “sweetness and light”, “the best which has been thought and said in the world”. In their view, great cultural and especially literary works, which you may have heard of referred to admiringly as ‘the Canon’, were supposed to be the beacon of hope which can guide the corrupted society back on the route of pursuing self-perfection. (This makes David Hare’s comment ring with a new kind of irony. “The English Cambridge faculty in the 50s and 60s was a snake-pit. You just looked at those horrible people being horrible to each other and you thought, well, if this is meant to be the civilising effect of the study of literature, I don’t want anything to do with it.”)

On the other hand, there are figures such as Raymond Williams, who, without denying the undoubtedly artistic execution of such idealistic, perhaps slightly lofty theorisations of literature, argued nonetheless that culture is in fact “ordinary”, and is made up of the everyday activities that together constitute various lifestyles. This may not seem like a radical statement nowadays, but it was indeed quite revolutionary at the time – my own BA Culture, Media & Creative Industries course here at King’s would not have existed if it wasn’t for the development of cultural studies.

It can be tempting to dismiss those disagreements about the scope of culture as futile arguments, whose only purpose is for academics to achieve prestige and cement their position on campus grounds, with no reflection in the real world. But if that really is the case, it may be a good idea to consider a specific element of culture which should be tangible to everyone: beauty.

According to Plato’s objective ideal of goodness, pursued and cherished, the concept should evoke the same elevated emotions across the world. But does it? Do you think that an established art critic with a classical education will readily agree with a Gen Z TikTok influencer who states, casually echoing certain scholars, that beauty is nothing else but a social construct? Don’t discussions about beauty standards often lead to – paradoxically – extremely ugly confrontations? Not only does the very existence of such disputes directly contradict the idea of beauty as a universal force of truthfulness, but it also appears that the concept of beauty – being one of the most fundamental underpinnings of cultural expression – actually causes divides between people.

What, then, are the values of culture? And what is the actual value of culture? To the despair of aesthetes, politicians seem to have found an answer: it is extremely efficient as a tool of exercising control.

The manifestations of this are manifold. While processes of enforcing a particular culture on other nations and ethnicities, such as ‘Germanisation’ and ‘Russification’, have left their mark on the historical canvas, the present is also truly a goldmine of examples. Just one of those is commissioning Congolese artists to write songs that align with the mission of NGOs working in the region, and later criticising them for being too politically autonomous because of their potential to distort the image that the West holds of Congo. 

You also may have heard of the concept of soft power, whose apparent effectiveness contributed to the increased interest of governments and organisations in cultural diplomacy around the world. Although hard power is making a recent tragic comeback, that hardly signifies an abandonment of the instrumental use of culture. Consider the bilateral banning of books and movies by Ukraine and Russia, or the decision to hold off the screening of Oppenheimer in Japan partly due to its extensive portrayal of the genius of an American scientist and minimal exploration of the disastrous effects of one possibly the defining moment of human history. 

In fact, the “books not guns” phrase does seem quite ironic in the darkest sense today as university students have to balance speaking out on campus with the risk of being seen as condoning terrorist acts. On the other hand, for some, invoking “just one book”, in the words of Matthew from The Dreamers, is enough to justify bloodshed.

Of course, each of those cases could be juxtaposed by a multitude of truly heartening instances of artistic collaborations bringing huge tangible help, showcasing common values while celebrating cultural differences in times of darkness – whether it is the Live Aid concert of the 80s or a group of Syrian students colouring the longest public staircase in their town. The number of occasions that we have seen artists come together to paint, dance or sing their hearts out, all united by the goal of making a difference in one of the most beautiful ways possible, is really quite extraordinary. The power of culture to create connections between people is undeniable – it touches us on a deep personal level. But that is part of the problem.

The truth is that we unconsciously tend to see culture as the last preserve to regain humanity in times that seem absolutely hopeless and desperate. It always works, right? And what if it doesn’t? We’ll ignore it. Confirmation error. We need to believe there is something we can resort to in order to tap back into the feeling of shared humanity. Actually, maybe it’s the belief that matters. Culture has been at the frontlines of every significant social movement. It certainly changes the scene. But whether for better or worse – that depends solely on us.

In the end, there is one thing we need to remember: culture is not a remedy to all our problems. Yes, it can help us speak when we don’t have the right words. Yes, it can bring people together to look at the world from a fairly similar perspective for a moment. But it can also be disruptive, and divide us just as successfully as it unites. It’s contradictory. It’s hard or even impossible to tame. And, above all, it should never be used as a simple excuse for ignorance and lack of decency in everyday life.



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