09/03/22 | By Phoebe Matthews

On A Common Culture: The Idea of a Shared National Culture

by Brian Russell Graham

In British letters, the idea of common culture has been discussed by figures as diverse as F. R. Leavis and Raymond Williams. Common culture has always been suggestive of a culture which is egalitarian. If we assume that each country has its own common culture, such culture, owing to that egalitarianism, is bound up with the business of bridging cultural differences between different groups in society. Whether people are divided by social class or cultural background or some other potential ‘divider’, common culture amounts to a shared domain which can potentially help bring people together, instead of leaving them in their parallel worlds, or driving them apart, in the way that we suspect today’s filter bubbles do. Of course approaching this subject today, we quickly realize that the establishment of such a culture would not entail all of a person’s culture becoming part of the shared domain. Much of individuals’ and groups’ culture (particularly in relation to lifestyle) is destined to remain outside common culture, especially in multicultural societies. But common culture might amount to a sizable common core that everyone has a stake in.

Against the backdrop of the divided societies of our times, I revisit common culture in my new book, On A Common Culture: The Idea of a Shared National Culture. Above all, the UK provides the main context for the study, and four of the book’s six main chapters deal with the UK. In chapters two and three, however, I discuss common culture on a more abstract and general plane, in order to help develop a sense of what might constitute common culture in different countries. In this blog, I’ll focus on this aspect of my study out of a sense that it is this more theoretical section which might carry the broadest appeal. After all, on that level my book is about how every society has a potential common culture.

The central thesis of the book is shaped by two important and compelling conceptions. If one of these points of departure is in wide circulation, the other is not. The latter is Canadian Northrop Frye’s conception of how, in time, culture in every country becomes more and more decentralized. It might be useful to include one or two longer quotations from Frye’s work, owing to his not being as well-known today as he once was. In a piece titled ‘Canadian Culture Today’, Frye concisely rehearses this point about culture:

What has been gradually revealed in this development is the fact that cultural movements are different in direction and rhythm from political and economic ones. Politically and economically, the current of history is toward greater unity, and unity in this context includes uniformity. Technology is the most dramatic aspect of this development: one cannot take off in a jet plane and expect a radically different way of life in the place where the plane lands. But culture has something vegetable about it, something that increasingly needs to grow from roots, something that demands a small region and a restricted locale. (Frye, 2003, 513)

The other idea is the familiar conception of cultural capital, associated with French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. To understand power, we need to think in terms of a number of different kinds of capital, in addition to economic capital: political capital, educational capital, etc., as well as cultural capital. I have reservations about the Bourdieu’s larger argument, which I shall come, to, but, because of its obvious usefulness, the idea of cultural capital is here to stay, and it forms a part of the conceptual framework of my study.

I’m going to speak about common culture in a moment, but first it might be useful to consider a culture lacking commonality. Such a culture is characterized by two features, tied in with the two ideas just mentioned. First, such a culture, denying the decentralizing process Frye speaks of, promotes only a single cultural capital or, at best, a small number of such capitals. Second, in such a culture, people of different socio-economic groupings consume different levels of culture, with little or no overlap.

These two features have significant implications. Identities get produced by the arts of different national locales. As Frye has observed, ‘Identity is local and regional, rooted in the imagination and in works of culture’. Consequently, the identities of a country (and perhaps its overarching identity, which I shall return to) get skewed by a concept of national culture lacking in inclusiveness or the spirit of commonality. Additionally, a society which has no common culture is characterized by a kind of cultural inequality. A class-based participation in culture – consumption focused on different levels of culture – results in different groupings being in possession of different types of cultural capital; and because of our attachment to value judgements, these distinctions set up a kind of hierarchy.

A truly common culture would be one in which the local cultures of the entirety of a country are included: commonality would arise from everyone being able to see that their (local) culture is also a part of the hodgepodge which is common culture. It would also be a culture in which, up to a point, different social classes enjoyed the same levels of national culture, the culture emerging as common or shared for that reason.

Needless to say, as such, a common culture is a culture which, to an extent, evens out differences in cultural capital. It doesn’t get rid of all cultural inequality, for much of each person’s culture is culture of other countries; but it makes a significant dent in such inequality, given that much of what we enjoy is the culture of the place we live in.

Common culture thus defined is also one in which, in addition to local cultures, all local identities in a country have their place. In a striking passage in Frye’s writings, he speaks of the geographic diversity of identity in his native Canada:

An environment turned outward to the sea, like so much of Newfoundland, and one turned towards inland seas, like so much of the Maritimes, are an imaginative contrast: anyone who has been conditioned by one in his earliest years can hardly become conditioned by the other in the same way. Anyone brought up on the urban plain of southern Ontario or the gentle pays farmland along the south shore of the St Lawrence may become fascinated by the great sprawling wilderness of Northern Ontario or Ungava, may move there and live with its people and become accepted as one of them, but if he paints or writes about it he will paint or write as an imaginative foreigner. And what can there be in common between an imagination nurtured on the prairies, where it is a centre of consciousness diffusing itself over a vast flat expanse stretching to the remote horizon, and one nurtured in British Columbia, where it is in the midst of gigantic trees and mountains leaping into the sky all around it, and obliterating the horizon everywhere? (Frye, 2003, 413)

Common culture would need to be fully inclusive in relation to such a range of identities. In my book, I go so far as to suggest that, via this route, common culture may ultimately generate a sense of national identity. It may be, I argue, that national identity is comparable to the effect produced by the typical photographic mosaic. When we look into the detail, we see that it consists of numerous distinctive identities. At the same time, it is not simply a random aggregate of different images; from one point of view, they make up a whole which is of at least equal importance.

I think it’s fair to say that my thesis involves at least two significant contrarian or heterodox elements. The first is that it rejects the solution to the problem of cultural inequality advocated by Bourdieuians, which stresses the avoidance of value judgements. Common culture provides an alternative solution to that problem, based not on a strict avoidance of such judgements and hierarchies, but on common consumption. The heterodox element is represented by the fact that, while they are not necessarily an organizing feature, value judgments do have a role to play in a full-scale conceptualization of common culture. The defence for this ‘move’ is that in my work value judgements, paradoxically, appertain to an argument which is egalitarian in its thrust.

The second is tied in with geography. It is true that my book rejects the transnational perspective (at least vis-à-vis the subject to hand), but what is perhaps more challenging to today's way of doing things is that my common-culture framework insists on the importance of regional identity rather than the more popular categories of identity promulgated by identity politics. If we want to disaggregate national cultures, we should break them down into regional and local cultures, rather than units tied in with the categories of identity politics. My study doesn't actually reject such categories of identity; but it places them into a specific context. To secure a common culture, we first need to make sure that we remember every local culture and identity. But we should also focus on making sure that we do justice to the diversity of each local or regional culture. When working with common culture, we are focused on the cultures of the locales such as Newfoundland or Mississippi or Yorkshire in England, and our versions of these cultures must pass muster as inclusive.

Brian Russell Graham is a two-time graduate of the University of Glasgow, where he completed an M.A. and PhD in English Literature. He has been living in Copenhagen, Denmark since completing his studies, and he currently lectures at University of Copenhagen and Copenhagen Business School. He teaches “The Circle of Stories: Literature and Genre”, one of the suite of courses offered by University of Copenhagen’s International Summer Programme. His first monograph, The Necessary Unity of Opposites, published by University of Toronto Press in 2011, is a study of Northrop Frye, particularly Frye’s dialectical thinking. In addition to his academic work, he has also published slow journalism in publications such as Quillette and Areo, amongst others. He is currently devising a course called "Theory and Its Discontents" for The School of the Ages, a new platform for online courses.


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