The Value of Culture (a reluctant tribute to the BBC)

As a cultural studies scholar, Jeremy Gilbert was sharpening his daggers for Melvyn Bragg well before his BBC programme on ‘culture’ aired. Here is why, and how, it unexpectedly lived up to a momentous task – well, up until the ‘80s.

We cultural studies scholars tend to think we own ‘culture’ as an object of academic inquiry (even while we’re used to hearing everyone else talk about it). So when I heard that Melvyn Bragg was to present a 5-part Radio Four documentary, The Value of Culture (listen here), I was seething and smouldering with anticipatory annoyance long before the programme aired, broadcast daily during the first week of January. Unlike the set of programmes using the same format (on the theme of ‘the written world’), which Bragg presented at the same time last year, this one was not branded as an extension of his weekly In Our Time programme, although to all intents and purposes it was. In Our Time is a highly regarded broadcasting institution with an elegant and effective format, bringing together three academics for live discussion of some issue in the history of ideas over 45 minutes, with Bragg chairing the discussion and driving it on. Membership of an Oxbridge college isn’t a necessary qualification for guests, who generally are world class authorities in their fields - but it seems to help.

My relationship to In Our Time is pretty much the same as my relationship to the London Review of Books - although, as an academic at a decidedly unprestigious university, every episode (or issue) that features no contributor from outside Oxbridge or the Ivy League serves to fuel my own prejudices and ressentiment, I can never fault the selections on an individual basis, and the sheer quality of the output always keeps me coming back for more. When it was announced, some weeks before broadcast, that Bragg’s theme for this mini-series would be the idea of ‘culture’, my expectations were certainly coloured by those prejudices. I work in the field of cultural studies, a discipline which has done more than any other in recent decades to focus attention on ‘culture’ in all its aspects across the English-speaking humanities and social sciences, and which is widely credited with having transformed and reconfigured those disciplines in the process, which yet remains almost completely unrepresented in British elite universities, despite the fact that its key founding figure - Raymond Williams - was based at Cambridge for decades. (see OurKingdom's series drawing on Williams' idea of the Long Revolution). I fully expected that my whole field would be entirely ignored by the cloistered mandarins of Radio 4. 

That first episode did little to change my mood, although it didn’t actually reinforce it either, and the fact that the first person mentioned in the whole series was Raymond Williams should have given me a clue as to what was coming. Beginning with an exploration of the debate initiated in the 19th century by Matthew Arnold, and his strong claims for the socio-political value of promoting a knowledge of ‘the best that has been thought and said’ and a general appreciation of ‘sweetness and light’, the programme set the historical scene effectively. A longer series with a less resolutely Anglophone focus might have mentioned Renaissance humanism, Giambattista Vico, Herder, Dilthey, and the entire German tradition of kulturkritik, but this wasn’t that programme and couldn’t be. A figure who was discussed in some detail was the great English socialist critic John Ruskin, for whom a certain kind of aestheticism was entirely compatible with a radical egalitarianism. There was no substantial discussion of his arguably more radical and prescient contemporary, William Morris, but I had to admit that, given the constraints of the format, I didn’t have much to complain about.  Disappointing – I had looked forward to the righteous anger with which I would respond, if only in private. 

The second episode was where my assumptions really started to look embarrassing. As I’ve mentioned, we cultural studies scholars tend to act as if we own the concept of culture, although of course we know we don’t. We nicked it from the anthropologists; or rather, the founders of our discipline, Williams and Richard Hoggart, both literary critics by training, who borrowed it from the anthropologists so as to use it in the internal war against their elitist enemies in the English departments (the expansive anthropological idea of ‘culture’ as ‘a whole way of life’ proving to be a devastating weapon against Leavis’ claim to be able to define what counted as ‘culture’ rather than mere ‘civilisation’). This episode of the programme detailed the parallel evolution of anthropology in the UK and the US with admirable clarity and rigour, in particular putting into context the emergence of cultural relativism as the central paradigm of the discipline in the 20th century. Once again, the focus was resolutely Anglophone, so Lévis-Strauss, for example, wasn’t discussed at all, any more than was the general role played by French structuralism in popularising  - in both anthropology and cultural studies - the idea of ‘culture’ as the specifically meaningful and symbolic dimension of human behaviour (an idea which partially displaced the vaguer notion of culture as ‘everything that humans do’ and which has itself been more recently challenged by the observation that various aspects of what humans do - from music to  romance to diet - cannot be adequately conceptualised only in terms of the production of ‘meanings’). Still, the account of the key conceptual debates and their current status was as complete as could be hoped, concluding with a convincing survey of the impact of Clifford Geertz’s work on culture as a site of meaning production and the dangers of Geertz’s implicit essentialism (not a charge that I think stands up to examination, but one worth exploring nonetheless), while the vintage footage of Margaret Meade discussing the implicit political argument of Coming of Age in Samoa was worth listening to the entire series for.

The third programme discussed (yawn) the ‘two culture’ debate, deriving from CP Snow’s famous claim in the 1950s that humanities scholars, who had undue influence on politics and broader culture, were still (as Arnold certainly had been) contemptuous of science and scientific education. Rather like the debate about the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, I really think this whole discussion now has the status which Williams would have called ‘residual’: it’s left-over from an earlier historical moment, although it seems to make sense to some people because it sort of resonates with their particular experience in some way. The days when the political class and the rest of the establishment were bound together by a common disdain for both popular culture and any form of practical, scientific or mathematical knowledge are surely behind us now, even if pockets of such attitudes remain. And yet, even here, the programme ultimately did justice to what I would consider the correct view, by giving considerable scope to the argument that Snow, his perspective limited to that of the Senior Common Room, was essentially reporting the prejudices of that same mid-century elite against whom Hoggart and Williams were preparing their devastatingly successful assault, and that even at the time these foibles had little relevance to the actual attitudes of the wider political class, never mind the wider population.

Still, most of this was fairly tangential to my own professional concerns. The next episode, on ‘mass culture’, was the one I had been waiting for, allowing my righteous indignation to simmer in the certain knowledge that my friends, mentors and icons were bound to be neglected, trivialised or misrepresented. It was the evening before that Anthony Barnett had emailed me, asking if I’d write a response to the series for openDemocracy. I smiled grimly as I accepted his invitation, despite a very pressing book deadline - my devastating critique would not be made only to my partner, our cat, and our children (aged 4 and 2) after all, but would have an international audience and would be read and re-read for as long as google searches could be made.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Almost all of my pre-emptive rage turned out to have been wasted. In fact, a large part of the programme was devoted to the emergence and development of cultural studies in the '60s and '70s, its complex political attitude to ‘culture’ and its study being rendered as intelligible as could ever be hoped by a short programme aimed at a large audience. Angela McRobbie’s articulate and persuasive explanations confirmed her position as the effective spokesperson for British cultural studies today. In fact, to be honest, this section of the programme amounted to frankly the best explication of where cultural studies had come from and what it was about for an entirely non-specialist audience that I’ve ever heard or read. Oh well.

Of course, nothing was said at all about the development of the discipline after the 1980s, and in particular its very complex and multifarious attitudes to consumer culture, which prompted me to wonder what interested listeners might learn if they were to make the obvious next step in pursuit of this topic, and consult wikipedia on ‘Cultural studies’. There I found, a fair, if not brilliantly-written account of the situation, which cited, amongst a few other sources...me. I was beginning to feel frustratingly like a mainstream member of the culture, well-served by a set of benevolent and well-managed institutions.

Perhaps the final straw was finding that I basically agreed with Roger Scruton on the question of ‘high’ vs ‘low’ culture: his point being not so much that we should defend a particular canon of ‘high’ culture, as that there is a case to be made for critical and informed discrimination within any genre of creative work. I’m not sure if I could persuade him that this attitude could even be brought to bear on the appreciation of house music (Joe Claussell, not David Guetta), but it sounded like it would be worth a go. More importantly, Scruton’s concession that the Beatles produced some timeless music surely proved that the whole ‘high’ vs ‘low’ debate is now just over: nobody today believes that entire genres can be either defended or dismissed in toto, while only fanatical neoliberals actually believe that all preferences are of equal value.

The final episode took the form of a public debate, recorded in Newcastle on the general question of the ‘value’ of ‘culture’ and in particular the question of what kind of culture could be funded. A woman from the Institute of Ideas did try to make the case that somehow everything everyone else thinks on both the Left and Right is rubbish. (This is the position which IoI representatives always take, which is why they make no sense, and succeed only in caricaturing themselves.) But the debate remained good-natured even while Chritopher Frayling dominated it, defending an essentially Williamsian egalitarianism with admirable precision. 

So there we have it. Nothing to rant about: an excellent piece of programming which covered an important debate as comprehensively as it could have done. I will say a few words in a moment about the topics that it didn’t cover (much), but first I think it really is worth pausing to reflect that this, after all, is what the BBC is for, and that it’s very difficult to think of anywhere else in our existing cultural landscape where it could also happen. Where else do crucial ideas and issues like this get a thorough airing for a general public? 

Of course, one answer is ‘on sites like this one’. Web publications like openDemocracy, a new generation of bloggers and new-wave publishers such as Zero books, have become the key sites for some kind of engagement between a radical intelligentsia and an interested public. But the latter, in these times of cultural fragmentation, is clearly quite narrow and self-selecting, and so these new media players don’t yet have the capacity or the position to be a defining influence. Which means they can be ignored. To take an example that relates to the BBC: openDemocracy’s ‘OurBeeb’ project was launched in 2012 with the aim of engaging with the BBC’s choice of a new Director General as a matter of public interest. It was, as its editors rightly claimed, entirely vindicated by the disasters that followed. But no notice was taken, and when one of its contributors got on the Today show she was rubbished. The left press, from the New Statesman through the Guardian to the London Review of Books, no longer plays the mediating role for a wider public than that it once did; and it also ignored ‘OurBeeb’. The Guardian made a breakthrough with the Hacking Scandal and humiliated Murdoch’s BSkyB takoeover, an immense achievement. But the frustration of the ‘Hacked Off’ campaign indicates the gates are slamming shut to protect the dominant order. This means that it is only, ultimately, programmes like In our Time and Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed  (which seems to have adopted almost exactly the role - that of telling a wider public what sociologists are doing - that New Society once had) and specials such as The Value of Culture which remain to fill this gap between intellectuals and the public in our cultural life, a gap which un-subsidised institutions almost certainly cannot fill any longer. Perhaps also, as Claire Enders argues, this role has now been abandoned by television and left to radio. It remains important to recognise when, indeed, it is fulfilled. 

Okay, enough gushing. What did The Value of Culture leave out? Well, there was precious little discussion, including in the final debate, of what must surely be the great question facing our society today: to what extent are we happy to accept a culture which is entirely dominated, not just by commercial logics, but by the logic of capital accumulation? I’ve discussed this matter on this site before, in particular with reference to the music industry, so there is no need to dwell on it further here. It’s a simple question really, and it’s been persistent since at least the days when both Matthew Arnold and his contemporary, Karl Marx, saw what the fiercely unregulated capitalism of Victorian Britain was doing to people and their way of life: do we want people who only want to make money (not just some money, not just enough money to live in luxury and produce their art, but absolutely unimaginable, effectively unlimited amounts of money) to run every single bit of our lives, or don’t we? And if we don’t, what are we going to do about it? The fact that so little public protest has followed the appointment of Peter Bazalgette, former creative guru of Endemol, the people who brought us Big Brother, as chair of the Arts Council, rather suggests that the answer so far is ‘not much’.

Of course, the whole point about the anthropological - and cultural studies - definition of ‘culture’ as ‘a whole way of life’ is that the arts are not all, or even most, of what our cultural life is about, and it is clear that the theme of trying to protect our culture - including our schools, our hospitals, our workplaces, our cityscapes and parks - from the predations of capitalism is an animating theme of both the recent protest movements and of ‘Blue Labour’ (as OuKingdom explores in its Blue Labour series). Still, it would be nice to hear someone in a position of leadership have the guts to say what everyone from me to Roger Scruton surely knows: that Big Brother was part of a process of hideous degradation of our public culture - disseminating a corrosive set of cynical, paranoid, meaninglessly competitive, pathologically individualist values which nobody outside the City or the Soho media circuit believes to be a viable basis for a healthy culture - and that the man who was responsible for it should not have been put in charge of the Arts Council. But of course, it wouldn’t be for Radio Four to be making this kind of statement.

Simply by allowing a programme of this nature to exist, however, it continues to remind us of the possibility - and necessity - of a culture which is not simply driven by the logics of profit and celebrity: and for that we should be grateful. 

All five episodes of the Value of Culture are available here until Jan 2014.

About the author

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His most recent book is Common Ground. See http://www.jeremygilbert.org for more information, or follow @jemgilbert