Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cultural Capital

There are some concepts that are obviously transferable from economics into the field of literature, and others that are less obvious -- or even a bit of a stretch. I'm going to take a stretch and discuss the idea of cultural capital in light of Mises's Chapter XVIII. Action in the Passing of Time, Section 6. The Influence of the Past Upon Action (Human Action, 505-514).

A person born into a particular culture at a particular time and raised in that culture accumulates, over his or her lifetime, cultural capital. That is, a variety of world views, concepts, ideas, etc. accumulated from what is read, heard, seen, etc. In Western culture, that includes the Bible and a variety of literary and artistic works. In English-speaking countries, that would include the Bible -- particularly the King James Version -- Shakespeare, Blake, Milton, etc. We may not necessarily know where phrases like "Even the devil can quote scripture" (mistakenly believed by many to be from the Bible, but actually from "The Merchant of Venice" by Shakespeare) or the concept of the serpent in the Garden of Eden being the devil really comes from (again, not the Bible, but Milton's "Paradise Lost"), but they are part of our heritage. One reads Shakespeare and proclaims, "Oh, that's where that comes from!" One is also familiar with the Oedipus complex, if not the Oedipus plays (which, ironically, disprove the Oedipus complex). The DNA of Athens and Jerusalem runs through the West -- we cannot escape it.

Literature within a culture must build upon its cultural capital for it to be comprehendible to that culture. Changes can be made, but they have to be made in light of that original captial.

First, let us get out of the way what Mises says about capital and how it is not applicable to what I am discussing:

"Capital goods are intermediary steps on the way toward a definite goal" (503).
First, cultural capital -- ideas -- are always intermediary and can never be anything else, precisely because there can never be a "definite goal" of culture. This is where the equation between the two falls apart. But if we keep the modification in mind, the idea can still generate some potentially fruitful avenues. Mises points out that, "The more the accumulation of capital goods proceeds, the greater becomes the problem of convertibility" (505). This is likely true too of cultures. The more capital goods have been accumulated by a populace, the less likely it is going to have new ideas penetrate it. Nevertheless, we see the same thing happening in culture as we have seen in the economy, where

The spirit of sweeping innovation may get hold of men, may triumph over the inhibitions of sluggishness and indolence, may incide the slothful slaves of routine to a radical rescission of traditional valueations, and may peremptorily urge people to enter upon new paths (506)
The result sometines is that

Doctrinaires may try to forget that we are in all of our endeavors the heirs of our fathers, and that our civilization, the product of a long evolution, cannot be tranformed at one stroke (506)
If you did not know this was from a work on economics, you would swear Mises was talking about the arts and literature. Indeed, this is true. We have had those who have tried to radically break with our cultural past -- particularly with postmodernism -- and the consequences have been problematic at best. More and more the average person is uninterested in the arts and literature as those works become less and less relevant to them precisely because of their cultural capital. Works that succeed continue to tap into that cultural capital, even as they encourage people into new directions. But one must first make it clear to the reader or viewer that they are in familiar territory while at the same time showing them new ways.

While is true that cultural capital, like

Capital goods are a conservative element. They force us to adjust our actions to conditions brought about by our own conduct in earlier days and by the thinking, choosing and acting of bygone generations (506)
it is also true that without this contact with the past, we are lost, wanding aimlessly, not knowing where to go, or even where we are. We are impoverished immensely by this. We have to start all over again, from nothing, building on nothing. This is not a path to greater cultural wealth; it is the path to cultural destruction and poverty.


  1. I don't think I agree that postmodernism (a least in the arts) tries to radically break with the past. It sees that that was the stated goal of modernism ("make it new"),& postmodernism abandons the idea that anything can be truly new,therefore becomes transparen about its indebtedness to past works as well as its status as artifice.

  2. Well, I did paint with perhaps too broad a brush. There are postmodernist works that certainly do fit your description. But there are other postmodernist works that are the postscript-to-modernism insofar as they really do try to break with the past, including Modernism. Of course, the Modernists never did really break with the past -- even the surrealists tried to justify their position by pointing to past works they considered surrealist. But there were others in the tradition of Dadaism (out of which comes much postmodernism) that does try to radically break with the past. We see in postmodernist literature both strains as well. It is right to observe both strains at work in postmodernism. The vein you are talking about has its own problems, different from the vein I was talking about. But I should be more careful in my distinctions (also it would help if these two veins, which are almost the opposite of each other, weren't called by the same thing!).