Culture vs. Self-Knowledge

The word “culture,” as used with reference to human societies or societal customs, has been one of the key theoretical constructs in late modernity’s assault on being. I never use it, except in the most casual conversational context, without the qualification that the term is artificial, names an idea that is not only ill-defined but perhaps indefinable, and runs counter to the basic impetus to philosophy as I understand it, namely the desire for wisdom. From its historical roots, and ever more so in recent times as it has gradually dovetailed with, or rather been co-opted by, academic neo-Marxism, “culture” has served as an intellectual blockade against all efforts to penetrate human nature.

For culture denies nature. The notion that men are essentially products of the presiding conditions of location from which they derive — not that they are influenced or oriented in the world by these, as is necessarily the case, but that they are insuperably defined by them — entails a fundamental rejection of the idea that man exists prior to, or independent of, his “defining” environment. The underlying premises of such prevalent quasi-theoretical structures as cultural identity, cultural hegemony, cultural appropriation, and cultural diversity are that: (1) a person’s self-understanding is inseparable from his identification with a culture; (2) a person’s self-understanding is inauthentic if that person identifies with (i.e., accepts or embraces, in whole or in part) a culture different from that of his geographical, racial, and/or linguistic roots; (3) no culture is intrinsically superior to, or even properly comparable with, any other culture; however, (4) one culture, and only one, is intrinsically inferior to all the others — namely the culture that invented and fostered the theoretical notion of culture as a source of human identity.

If you examine those four premises carefully, you will observe that they constitute nothing more than the suicide pact that “European culture” has made with itself. Hegemony, that term the Marxist-Hegelians love to throw around in their critique of “Western imperialism,” turns out to mean nothing in historical practice but the West’s grand act of international self-flagellation. In fact, “self-flagellation” is an undue aggrandizement of the phenomenon at issue. Late modernity, in the final analysis, will someday be defined as the age of Western civilization’s masochistic plea for humiliating death by global stoning.

To return to the main point, however, we may conclude by noting that if culture is identity, then there is no genuine identity without culture, which is to say that there is no human nature that either transcends or underlies all local and material differences. On the contrary, the age of culture teaches that local and material differences are all we are, all we have to cling to, all we may claim to be proud of. To restate this from the point of view of mankind as he existed before the rise of “cultural identity”: We are now, all of us, forever bound by the accidents of our birth, forcibly limited by right-thinking and compulsory indoctrination to the horizons of mere custom and social norm — exactly the limits to growth and self-knowledge that the greatest men for thousands of years devoted (and often lost) their lives striving to overcome.

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