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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.
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
Culture and nature
'Culture' is frequently juxtaposed against the tterm 'nature', the implica-
tion being that the two are rivals and opposites. Culture is thereby 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
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
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
subject to the laws of physics and evolution, to biological inheritance,
urges and degeneration.
follows that culture cannot be regarded as com-
pletely different from, completely opposite to nature. When studying