November 1, 2011
by Francesco Erspamer
Donzelli, 169 pp., € 16.00
JOHN WELSH - The Invention of Culture
It is a conversation all too familiar for anyone involved in the humanities. It happens most frequently in situations of involuntary socialization—parties, receptions, dinners—but it can happen anywhere you find yourself in the company of strangers. Sooner or later, the question comes up. “So, what do you do?” You respond. You’re a student, perhaps a graduate student or a young teacher. “What do you study?” Philosophy maybe… or romance languages, art history, or music. In short, you are a person of culture. “Oh, what are you going to do with that?” It should be an inoffensive question, merely a springboard to conversation. It feels more like a threat. It is as though you have just been asked to validate not only your choice of major or career, but your very existence. The fact that you have heard the question before doesn’t mean you have a decent response. You start to feel indignant. You turn the question against the asker. This person, you tell yourself, obviously has no appreciation for culture. No cultured person could possibly ask such a question. Anyone who understands culture knows that it needs no external justification. Or at least that is what you’ve always told yourself. It is our favorite snobbery as humanists. We don’t feel we should have to explain ourselves. As a result, very few of us can.
But recent changes in the landscape of higher education—perhaps best encapsulated by the closing of prominent foreign language programs at the State University of New York—suggest that we are going to need to learn. The humanities are under attack; culture must find a way to remain relevant in the 21st century. In his latest book Paura di cambiare (Fear of Change), Francesco Erspamer suggests a radical starting point: to save culture, we must first destroy it. No, this is not a kind of neo-Futurist manifesto; these are not the ramblings of some lunatic book-burner. Erspamer, a specialist in the Italian Renaissance at Harvard University, is anything but an enemy of books. He wishes neither to burn old books nor to prevent the multiplication of present and future books. What Erspamer wants to destroy is not culture itself, but our concept of culture. “It is necessary and urgent,” he explains, “that culture rethink itself.”
Although Erspamer’s critique of the concept of culture is difficult to summarize, the most pressing problems stem from how culture relates itself to knowledge and time. More specifically, culture must redefine itself with respect to science and the past. According to Erspamer, it is important to recognize that culture has not always existed as a separate category of knowledge. Rather, the concept of culture emerged alongside modernity. Erspamer traces the beginning of the experience of modernity to the 1500s when the creation of the printing press, geographic exploration, and the scientific revolution created a sense of discontinuity with the past. In this sense, intellectuals such as Niccolò Machiavelli and Francis Bacon were thinkers “of modernity” even if widespread consciousness of modernity did not emerge until the late 1700s. Among the products of modernity was the sense of a split, at first acknowledged primarily in the scientific community, between branches of knowledge. According to Erspamer, culture owes both its definability and its very existence to its contrast with science. Despite this, one of culture’s most evident characteristics is its “nostalgia for the unity of knowledge, or actually for the myth of its own supremacy.” Erspamer is not interested in re-establishing the unity of knowledge or in reaffirming the superiority or equality of cultural knowledge with respect to science. Quite the contrary, he believes in a radical separation between the objects and ambitions of science and culture that preserves a value for both types of knowledge. Erspamer explains that many day-to-day tasks life would be impossible without a vision of a world that is “simplified and absolute” in which some facts can be known with certainty and many outcomes can be predicted logically.
There is, in short, a realm of certainty. This, Erspamer suggests, is the realm of science. “In modernity,” he explains, “science will occupy itself with certainties… Science, in its sectors, knows; and knows that it knows. Culture will deal with the rest.” In carving out a space and role for culture to “deal with the rest”—that is, with the realm of doubt outside the realm of certainty belonging to science—Erspamer suggests a controversial compromise. To retain its “monopoly on doubt,” culture must relinquish any claim to certainty. What is in fact culture—uncertain, relative knowledge—must not masquerade as science. Culture must not wear the mantle of certainty, or banalize scientific theories to serve its own needs. Culture can maintain value through its “diversity and relativism” but should remain “a dispersed knowledge, contrasted to the professional knowledge of science.”
Most importantly, culture must develop a more constructive relationship with the past. Time, and specifically the past as a cultural creation, is a favorite subject for Erspamer whose previous book, La creazione del passato (The Creation of the Past), deals extensively with the topic. Our conception of culture, according to Erspamer, is crippled by a fetishistic obsession with the past. Erspamer suggests that culture responds to the trauma of modernity by using the past “to vaccinate the present against itself.” It deals with modernity by denying it, choosing instead to contemplate a past which is now innocuous because it has already ended and been resolved. It is in this strategy that we discover the deeply conservative nature of culture, the fundamental “fear of change” that supplies the title of Erspamer’s book. By enclosing itself within the past, culture cowardly shirks its responsibility to engage with the present, instead choosing to become a self-referential, solipsistic system. In this way, Erspamer explains, “culture becomes the reality to be studied rather than the study of reality.” But despite engaging entirely within an absent past, contemporary culture reinvents itself as present, as a complete body of knowledge that is “ready for use”—and can therefore claim authority to speak about what is true in the present. For Erspamer, the notion of culture as “ready for use” is no longer an adequate immunization for the challenges of the postmodern world. “Globalization and overpopulation, neoliberalism and integralism, new technologies and mass culture require other kinds of immunization, other vaccinating ideologies and above all else a differently armed vigilance against their abuses and excesses,” he explains. In contrast to a culture “ready for use”, he proposes a model of culture “under construction”—in which culture would conceive of itself as always in the act of becoming, always subject to change, re-evaluation, and addition. Unfortunately, it is difficult to conceptualize exactly how this model of culture would function.
In truth, Paura di cambiare stops short of articulating exactly what culture must become. Erspamer destroys considerably more than he creates. But, unlike the form of culture he criticizes, he does not withdraw his hand from the difficulties of the present. He puts himself out there, unafraid to take a strong stand and make bold statements. Not all of his opinions will be popular. You are unlikely to agree with all of them. And yet, you are equally unlikely to emerge from Erspamer’s book with your conception of culture unchanged. Paura di cambiare is currently available only in Italian (all English translations are my own), although an English translation is under consideration. Erspamer’s Italian is uncommonly elegant, evocative, and readable. However, the text is dotted with a dizzying array of allusions to critics, theorists, and philosophers that can prove quite intimidating. For this reason, as well as the general complexity and difficulty of the subject matter, Paura di cambiare is not recommended for a casual reader. While drawing primarily from Italian sources for examples, the work is generally applicable and pertinent for scholars and students from a wide variety of disciplines. In fact, it is a vitally important read for anyone with a stake in the continued relevance and vitality of culture. The humanities are under attack, and perhaps they deserve to be. The years to come may require an entirely different conception of culture. Paura di cambiare may not clearly identify an easy road forward, but it may help to remove, or at least identify, some of the obstacles that stand in the way. Although it is unlikely to appeal to all readers, it is a daring, original, and timely contribution to a vital conversation.
John Welsh is a graduate student in Italian studies at Harvard. His primary academic interests include 19th and 20th century literature, film, theater, and translation. His criticism tends to focus on issues of representation, ethics, and material culture. In his non-reading hours, John enjoys listening to podcasts, watching Premier League Soccer, drinking Kombucha tea, playing guitar, and complaining about Notre Dame Football.