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Visual Culture CH1 - Visual culture an introduction John As...

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Visual culture: an introduction John As Walker a Sarah Chaplin
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eason, a is given ltions of iews from ,)8), ed. I. o. .s), Visual ; of New outledge, Jew York, :U's paper ~ the term ~g through lies to the ;t and the eds N. de ·103. ner in the rniversity (Chicago, see: John n 1994). 1 Concepts of ·culture l Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language . (Raymond Williams)l The study of culture concerns itself with what is most distinctive about humanity, if not with what is most crucial to its survival and well-being. Culture can be defined in one sense as that which is surplus, excessive, beyond the strict material measure; but that capacity for self-transgression and self-transcendence is precisely the measure of our humanity. (Terry Eagleton)2 When I hear anyone talk of culture, I reach for my revolver. (Nazi leader Hermann Goering, 1930s) THIS CHAPTER surveys the various meanings of the term .' culture' and looks at its relations with other words such as 'nature' and 'civilisation', and its connections to social structure, class, barbarism and human conflict. Culture and nature 'Culture' is frequently juxtaposed against the tterm 'nature', the implica- tion being that the two are rivals and opposites. Culture is there by defined as what human beings have done to, or added to, nature by means of their inventiveness and labour. (The word itself derives from the cultivation of land - agriculture.) The artefacts, technologies and cities that humans have made over the centuries are clearly cultural rather than natural phenomena. Even the countrysides of modern nations have been trans- formed by human labour to such an extent that there is little wilderness left on planet Earth. (Many animal species have been destroyed in the process.) However, this does not mean that nature and natural forces can be forgotten. Some thinkers regard the economy as 'determinant in the last instance' but in fact nature is still the final arbiter. Although humanity has striven to understand and subjugate nature, the control we exercise over it is far from complete. Furthermore, humans remain part of nature: we are still su bject to the laws of physics and evolution, to biological inheritance, urges and degeneration. It follows that culture cannot be regarded as com- pletely different from, completely opposite to nature. When studying
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8 I Visual culture: an introduction examples of human culture, therefore, we should always remember that they are constructed on a natural foundation. 3 Base and superstructure Some thinkers consider that the way societies are organised can best be explained via an architectural metaphor: a base upon which a superstruc- ture is erected. In this instance, the base consists of material resources, productive forces (labour power, industries, machines, technologies), the economy, while the superstructure consists of 'spiritual' phenomena such as ideology, art, religion, science and philosophy. The inference is that the base is primary and determining, while the superstructure is secondary and determined. (For societies to afford
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