Shakespeare is our contemporary. So is Aristotle, and El Greco, and Murasaki Shikibu, the Japanese court lady who, a bit more than a thousand years ago, wrote The Tale of Genji, considered by many to be the first psychological novel in the whole world. They are our contemporaries because what they thought and did still affects us, and we still respond to them.
More importantly, as members of the human species, learning more of our skills and knowledge during our lives than what we were born with, we all depend on this legacy. And the resources we have – both the things whose presence we inherit and the actions we learn to perform – are just as much a part of our world as the things we create and actions we invent ourselves.
This is one reason why the study of cultures as an academic discipline needs a methodology which can adequately respond to all cultural phenomena of all ages and places that are relevant for us, here and now. However, most research on cultural studies pays attention only to the products of recent activity. As someone who has done research on a broad range of topics from philosophy to literature and modern art, and on subject matter from different regions of Asia and Europe, academically as well as for my works of fiction, I am quite sure that the current tools of cultural theory are not very helpful for a more holistic approach.
Indeed, one way to define the often-debated term “culture” is to use it for all those things and actions that make our lifeworld meaningful. I use the word “meaningful” in two senses quite deliberately: on the one hand, these meanings are shared, and thus enable human society to function, but on the other hand, they are deeply personal, experienced, lived.
The new way to look at culture that I am proposing in my book, “Meaning in Action”, constantly tries to connect these two aspects to each other: I argue that culture is made up of “texts” (that is, anything that can be interpreted) and “practices” (meaning-producing or meaning-altering actions in which one can participate). Traditionally, research has always privileged either the one or the other: for example, studied classical works of art for what they express, or, again, sociologically analysed the role of art in the construction of certain value systems in society.
What I think should be done is a combination of these approaches. Clearly, each cultural phenomenon has both these aspects simultaneously. Texts are produced, disseminated and transmitted through practices and practices rely on texts. Books may be standing next to each other on a shelf, but the circumstances in which the ideas in them first took material form are often so different as to seem beyond comparison. And dancers from various traditions may be performing what seem only graceful movements to an uninformed observer, but may indeed be carrying sophisticated meaning. It is only when we approach texts and practices separately, on their own terms, that we can know enough about them to combine our knowledge into an informative whole.
I put the method to test in two cases studies, one of which is dedicated to the emergence of new styles of poetry in the time of Dante Alighieri, the other to the emergence of contemporary art in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. These two cultural phenomena may, at first glance, seem to be beyond comparison, and yet they exhibit strikingly similar features when we observe the rise of new forms of thought, together with new technologies, in a rapidly changing political atmosphere, and in contest with other bids.
Rein Raud is professor of Asian and Cultural Studies at the Tallinn University and a visiting professor at the Free University of Berlin. His previous books include Practices of Selfhood, co-written with Zygmunt Bauman and published by Polity in 2015. He is also an author of fiction, one of the four writers to represent Estonia at the London Book Fair this year, in the framework of the focus region programme. His latest book, Meaning in Action: Outline of an Integral Theory of Culture, is available from Polity.