Notes on “Notes”

In a blog who’s mission is bounded by the desire to observe and report on culture and to promote regionalism, reading a book entitled “Notes Toward a Definition of Culture” seems de rigueur. Half the time ideological opponents find themselves debating topics they haven’t fully defined and making muddles because they’re talking about two different things.  To this end, defining a debate topic should be a premise, not an afterthought.

TS Eliot’s essay, written in 1949, thus begins by laying the basic groundwork for his belief in what ‘culture’ is.  Moreover, he believes the aim of culture is different for an individual, a class, or a society.  Culture is neither synecdoche (where a part stands in for a whole, for example, using the word “culture” as shorthand for “art” or “music.”), nor is it an achievable “goal” in and of itself, since it is merely a byproduct of actions. Note that a certain culture cannot be intentionally aimed at; merely eliminating some wrongs will change culture, but it is not possible to predict the culture that will emerge.  It is always possible to disintegrate what is, but not always possible to build what is not.

In his conversational critique of what could be termed ‘social reform’ he navigates through several sticky webs of rhetoric that accurately apply to 2011 as well as 1949. Here is a brief summation of three of his five points which relate to topics this author ponders frequently.

If there is an attempt to supply “mass culture” to a society it’s end result is to supply no culture to society.  Regionalism, friction, and disagreement are necessary for any culture to survive.  Certainly though there are plenty in the US who ‘get all het up’ about “Pressing 1 for English” and attending “multiculturalism’ seminars.  Fortunately the flip side of this is that sociologists have been able to finally distinguish what it is that makes “white” “American” culture.  (See, Stuff White People Like. And this Dunkin Donuts website.  Yes, my tongue is firmly planted into my cheek here.)  Seriously though, this desire for distinguishment (and some semblance of unity) is what is leading to a heightened emphasis on Small-Marts, and the “locavore” movement of late.

Next he states a fact not always perceived or admitted: that culture and religion are firmly bound up in one another.  In order to preserve culture one must preserve religion, “culture is the incarnation of the religion.”  Here he points out the embarrassing English fact that dog races and bishops have a lot in common.  In New England I would substitute the Red Sox juxtaposed with Catholicism slash Puritan sects (Congregationalists).  On the surface you may say, those two things are nothing like each other.  Yet since religion is what protects from boredom and despair, and if this is manifested in culture, I think the link becomes clearer with the Red Sox (or more generally baseball).  Preservation of Religion is what provides the link to older culture (this can hardly be argued in the face of Catholicism and it’s contributions to art, education, social programs, philosophy etc. in view of the last 1900 years).  Rootlessness does no good for plants, lack of religion does no good for culture.

Finally, let’s briefly discuss his with attempts to extricate the Education System from taking on the role of well, everything.  It shouldn’t be taking on the role of the family, the role of the church, and the role of culture imparter.  Although he agrees that education is desirable, it cannot produce happiness or equality or culture in and of itself, and therefore we must be careful not to fall into the role of believing it to be a panacea.   Unfortunately I often fall into this trap of believing in better educational systems with better “goals” in mind.  Certain literacy should be basic, but certain uniformity should not. (re: friction)

There’s a lot more tucked into this little essay, however, for now I’ll return it to the Beverly Public Library so that you can read it and argue with me.


Author: Beth M

I love new ideas & information, connecting people, and discovering New England adventures.

2 thoughts on “Notes on “Notes””

  1. I see what he’s saying about religion and culture being inextricably linked; I’ve had an opinion along those lines for a while, too, and I think Steve also blogged about it recently. What concerns me is that it sounds like Eliot is making religion out to be merely a servant or gardener for culture. Perhaps he did go into more detail and you just didn’t have the space to elaborate, but I feel that either culture provides a home for religious expression or religion and culture are partners in dialogue (I think I’d tend toward the former).

    Of course, for ‘non-religious’ folk, I can understand that they might see religion as an add-on to supplement culture; I just don’t know T. S. Eliot that well.

  2. In his essay he makes two points, which I tried to condense into one point here,which maybe didn’t do them justice. One is that culture can’t be preserved in the absence of religion. The second is that the preservation of culture/ religion are not the same thing. I took this as a strange recipe in which it wasn’t possible to always use exact measurement and get the same results every time. A certain level of culture doesn’t equal a certain amount of religion. A certain amount of religion doesn’t equal a certain amount of culture. And, in a parody of another truism, religion and culture are neither separate nor equal.

    He also spends a good deal of time speaking of how religion never was truly unified (he specifically means Christianity, which I think one can get a sense of even in debates in the New Testament), but always had varieties of schisms erupting, and still within it’s schisms it manages to provide a sounding board or base or expressions.

    I would say I tend to think of religion and culture in a never ending dialogue, though each side often misunderstands one another and uses different vocabulary. (so much the worse for both.) As for TS Eliot, he poses the question within the essay “Can culture maintain no religion base?” and I would tend to think, though he doesn’t explicitly answer, that his answer would be No.

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