Article Title

Against Culturalism


David Bromwich


Listening yesterday to Professor Eco's sensible and genial remarks and thinking about their drift-that the universities perform a function not so different after all from the mass culture; that the distinction between high-academic and mass culture anyway is one of degree and not of kind; that the memberships overlap and we seem well enough able to take this in stride-I was struck, as Americans often are, by how different my experience of culture is from that of a European of the intellectual class. Eco was attacking with broad irony what must have seemed to him the louder side in a debate we Americans have all grown used to. Academic moralists regularly tell us how shallow academic culture is because, being a product of an elite, it does not represent the democratic yearnings of the populace. Meanwhile, in the culture at large, prospering satirists excoriate the public for its disappointment of the humanist ideal, and tax even the universities for having too far countenanced the vulgar taste. Eco dealt out jovial scorn to moralists of the second sort, and it was natural for us to take pleasure in his choice of targets.

Very likely his remarks would meet the same warm response from an audience at CBS or Time-Warner. But it seems to me that moralists, of both the media mission civilisatriceand the academic-populist varieties, miss a point about American life, and that, under the charm of a scholar mature enough to split the difference, we are in danger of missing the same point ourselves. All the pleasant talk about broadening the scope of intellectual culture, about mingling high and low more freely-like the talk one hears from the opposite side, about letting refinement do its proper work - assumes that plenty of Americans are born and bred to a high culture which it is possible to inherit. Only on that assumption does it make sense either to want people to inherit it more securely or to point out the desirability of breaking out of it at last. And yet, as anyone can tell you who has studied this country or who grew up here, we do not have a high culture of any considerable depth, visibility, potency, or real standing. America does not have, and never did have, a high culture one can break out of. It is - it was for all the Americans in this audience - something we had to break into. How does that circumstance affect the argument about the place of a university in a democratic culture, the argument to which Eco chose to give a European turn in this American setting?