19 04 06
"Culture" and the Analysis of Power
Translated by Aileen Derieg
as a Theoretical and as an Operative Concept
"Culture," wrote Raymond Williams in 1976 in his Keywords, "is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language. This is so partly because of its intricate historical development, in several European languages, but mainly because it has now come to be used for important concepts in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought."1 It is accordingly difficult to attempt to examine "culture" as a theoretical concept without ending up either referring to a plethora of definitions and applications or, as often happens in philosophical cultural theories, adding further definitions of the concept of culture to this multiplicity without taking the reasons for its complex historical, political and scientific semantics into consideration. Taken literally, though, Williams' remark holds a valuable suggestion for this kind of examination, specifically where he refers to the "use" of the term culture "for important concepts": it points to the operative character of the term culture.
I understand as an operative concept, following Eugen Fink2,
is a theoretical concept that is not essentially characterized by its
objective or thematic definition, but by the
intellectual operation that it allows for, and through which
the thematic concepts are first fixed in their definition. Operative
concepts thus form a conceptual medium, which remains impervious to a
thematic explanation to the extent that the subject fields that are
interesting for a theoretical consideration are first constituted
through this medium and in passing through it. For this
reason, Fink, whose reflections refer to philosophical systems of
thinking, calls operative concepts the "shadow of a
"The operative shadow does not say, however," adds
Fink, "that what is shadowed is remote, outside the realm
of interest – rather, it is the interest itself."4
Hence it is not solely a matter of what an interest relates to
(what one is interested in) – and this also applies
to the philosophical implications of every theory construction –
but rather of how it relates to something; and ultimately it
is also and especially a matter of the way in which the interest in
something and how the interest relates to it are linked with one
us first consider what the interest is of someone who is
interested in "culture". Especially since an interest in
"culture" in general and more recent Cultural Studies in
particular does not involve an inherently "closed" theory
construction, the question first refers back to the historical
semantics of the concept of culture. According to Raymond Williams5,
in its quasi thematic primary meanings the modern concept of culture
can refer to a "general process of intellectual, spiritual and
aesthetic development", consequently to the fields (occasionally
limited particularly to artistic activities) of symbolic
production in their processualness, on the one hand, and on the
other to "a particular way of life, whether of a people, a
period, a group, or humanity in general", consequently to
identifiable forms of life of human collectives
inevitably regarded as totalities.
light of the "complex and still active history of the word"6
Williams explicitly rejects any attempt to determine a "true"
or "proper" or "scientific" sense of "culture";
in other words, he turns specifically against a more precise
thematic fixing of "culture". What is significant is
instead "the range and overlap of meanings"7.
In fact, what can be read in the development of cultural studies and
the cultural sciences in recent years is less of an attempt to fix
one meaning of "culture" than constantly working on
expanding the frame of reference for these levels of meaning
and redefining the relationships between them. Of course, the
result of this kind of procedure is not only that the substruction
of collective totalities is adopted in the relevant cultural
analyses, but also that the linking of these perspectives of totality
with the sphere of the symbolic is taken over as a matter of course.
For this link it is ultimately of secondary significance, whether
"cultural totality" is taken essentialistically as the
"expressive totality" of an established collective8,
or in the sense of fundamentally inhomogeneous "maps of meaning"
corresponding to the "maps of social reality", within which
a "dominate cultural order" prevails, which is not,
fact, exactly this point, the linking of the level of symbolic
meanings with a substructed social totality, seems to touch on the
question of the how of interest in "culture". It is
specifically this linkage that never becomes thematic itself, and
which, for this reason, enables the characteristic oscillation
between the aforementioned main thematic meanings. And because this
linkage takes place in the concept of culture itself, this is
also what demonstrates "culture" – regardless of the
predominant thematic fixation – as an operative concept in
Eugen Fink's sense. Attempts at "operational" definitions,
such as that of the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, have
little effect on this: in his influential essay "Thick
Description" Geertz proposes a semiotic concept of culture,
which frames culture as the self-spun "webs of significance"
in which the human being is "suspended" and defines its
investigation as the interpretation of "social expressions"10
– only to link the idea of an "intentional exteriorization"
of meanings with the interest in culture as a "natural fact"11,
as a social totality identifiable on the basis of its forms of
Geertz' case, of course, there is a semiotic escalation of the
concept of culture, but the problem is a broader ranging one: it
relates to the question of the possibility and reality of translating
social "textures" into a "text of the social";
and it relates to the question of the interest that is in effect in
this kind of translation. Stuart Hall has pertinently articulated the
difficulties resulting from these questions regarding a theoretical
concept of "culture": "We are expected to presume that
culture will always work through its textualities – and at the same
time that textuality is never enough. But never enough of what? Never
enough for what?" Halls leaves this question open, which he
regards as emanating both a theoretical and political disturbance,
specifically pointing out that "from a philosophical perspective
[...] in the area of Cultural Studies it was always impossible [...]
to formulate something like an adequate theoretical concept of
cultural relationships and their effects."13
it even be decided then, whether the name "culture" should
be given to this Of-what and For-what? Does not the operative
"shadow" of the concept of culture possibly indicate an
extra-cultural dimension, in which the interest in "culture"
is inscribed? And would not a theoretical determination of "culture"
have to do justice to exactly this dimension, in which the "source"
of the linkage of symbolic production and the substruction of social
totality would have to be located?
us turn to the implications of what has been said at the level of
social practice, or more precisely: at the level of the forms of
"cultural politics", in which the transformatory and
emancipatory potentials of "cultural action" is seen in the
field of Cultural Studies. In his programmatic essay "Putting
Policy into Cultural Studies", Tony Bennett distinguishes
between two essential perspectives that have guided dealing with the
relationship of culture and politics within the framework of Cultural
Studies. In the first perspective "the emphasis falls on
modifying the relationship between persons and those cultural forms
which have borne consequentially on their formation"14.
The central concern here is to generate politically transformative
"practices of the self" through changed cultural practices.
The critical appropriation of existing cultural forms thus
simultaneously appears as cultural empowerment in the service
of emancipatory political concerns; the corresponding political forms
propose a certain path that the subject must traverse to rid
themselves of ideological illusions or to construct new, emancipatory
second perspective of a "cultural politics" relates to the
relationship of individual transformative practices to collective
political projects. Taking up Gramsci's theories, here it is first of
all a matter of producing "subjects opposed to the manifold and
varied forms of power in which they find themselves and, second, […]
to organize those subjects – however loosely, precariously, and
provisionally – into a collective political force which acts in
opposition to a power bloc"15.
Bennett's qualification is pertinent to the same extent as the
political perspectives of this approach are found in the ideological
coherence and unified articulation of a becoming political (class)
subject, and that it is "culture" – as a privileged field
in the struggle for hegemony, organizing through political education,
etc. – which allows this kind of articulation to be produced.
rightly emphasizes that both of these perspectives of a cultural
politics see "culture" essentially as an area of signifying
practices and accordingly stand for an idea of politics themselves,
which roots it in processes of signification, or for political forms
whose central means are significative and discursive practices.
However, this is ultimately the reason why these perspectives, in
Bennett's view, are not capable of devoting sufficient attention to
"the institutional conditions which regulate different fields of
example of this that is especially instructive in our context,
especially in terms of the problem of power to be discussed here, is
found in the context of Homi Bhabha's post-colonial hybridity
According to Bhabha, in the colonial context the development of
"hybridity" was primarily due to the colonial power having
to rely on the subjugated people assuming symbols and discourses of
authority, in order to concretely assert their domination. The
repetition of the relationship of dominion that takes place in
this assumption in the act of subjugation, however, is by no means
merely the representation of it. Through the repetition or through
the alienation that arises in it, it introduces a difference in the
given social relationships, which leaves neither the colonial
authority nor the oppressed society untouched, but instead
"hybridizes" them, thus temporalizing and destabilizing the
existing power relationships. The repetition alienates and transforms
the symbols of authority into signs of difference.18
restate the implications of Bhabha's approach to the relationship of
culture and power: the transition, in which Bhabha's analysis
locates the political change, occurs exclusively at the level of
signification. In this transition the cultural proves itself
to be an "effect of discriminatory practices", but
in the sense of a "production of cultural differentiation
as signs of authority", which intervenes in the exercise of
authority by representing its brittleness and transience19;
to a certain extent it is produced by the existing power
relationships, and it reproduces them, but so that the cultural
significations can simultaneously induce shifts of these power
relationships. In this way culture appears as a differential of
power, which means that it not only represents power's
instability (as non-identical with itself or, as Bhabha says, as
"partialization" of its presence), but also assumes power's
mode of functioning, thus changing its concrete form and
analysis thus inscribes itself in a view that is widely held today in
the more recent field of Cultural Studies with regard to the
relationship of culture and power, according to which the analysis
"of power structures in the cultural field" is suitable for
"making their mutability clear" at the same time20.
It is not a coincidence, however, that Bhabha returns again and again
to a discussion of representation, because the entire argument stands
and falls with the presupposition that cultural significations are
re-presentative in the sense that they dynamize the intrinsic
contradictions of a power constellation in an adequate way,
so-to-speak, specifically in the form of the cultural production and
the "hybrid" cultural subjects that promote an
"appropriate" transformation of existing power
relationships; in short: that "culture" can indeed be
unequivocally defined as a differential of power (instead of a mere
function of power).
we ultimately encounter here, as in other theory developments, is the
assumption of a (per se) trans-historical "cultural field",
that is supposed to ensure the legibility of social relationships in
a "cultural articulation" on the one hand, but on the other
also the mutability of these relationships through "cultural
production". It is this productivity, which – according to the
position of Bhabha and others – intervenes in the reiteration of
power, thus proving, both theoretically and practically, the
contingency of the relationships. At this point, however, a second
presupposition becomes evident, specifically where the operativeness
of power is interpreted as a reiteration that refers to a given
social order: Yet does not the problem of power, pointing beyond
concretely existing hierarchies, touch specifically upon the
conditions of the constitution of social orders, in a sense the
"relationshipness" of the relationships? It suggests itself
that these questions should be tied back into the linkage of symbolic
production and social totality, in which I have attempted to root the
operative character of the modern concept of culture.
us return to Tony Bennett, whose insistence on the significance of
institutional conditions does not simply aim at a more or less
influential "cultural" parameter (roughly in the sense that
existing "institutions" impose certain framework conditions
and constraints on the political-cultural practices of
signification). Instead, Bennett regards these "institutional
and, more broadly, policy and governmental conditions"21
as constitutive, not only for the political problems and
relationships that a cultural politics deals with, but also for the
various forms and fields of "culture" itself. We can leave
aside Bennett's practical conclusions here, turning instead to the
consequences that result for the theoretical and historical approach
to the concept of culture: Bennett's view specifically no longer
allows for limiting the historical reflection on the concept of
culture merely to a semantic problem, which nevertheless allows
applying a transhistorical concept of culture as long as the
historical concept's wealth of connotations is reflexively taken into
consideration. Indeed Bennett's view binds the historical semantics
as well as the theoretical determination of the concept of culture to
the specific historical-political conditions in which it
developed, in other words to political modernity.
Bennett finds an important point of reference for this kind of procedure in Raymond Williams' Keywords article about culture itself. This involves a fragment of a quotation from Milton's The Readie and Easie Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth (1660), a very early use of the word "culture" as a freestanding noun:
Williams is content to note that the words "Government" and
"Culture" can be read here "in a quite modern sense",
to the extent that the passage refers to a "general social
process", Bennett raises the obvious question about the
juxtaposition of "government" and "culture" that
is taken for granted: here "culture" characterizes "neither
the object of government nor, assuredly, its subversive opposite;
rather, it is its instrument"23.
In fact, as Bennett argues, Milton does use the word "culture"
in a specific modern sense, namely the sense in which it figured in
the late 18th and early 19th century as both, as object and
as instrument of governing: "its object or target insofar as the
term refers to the morals, manners, and ways of life of subordinate
social strata; its instrument insofar as it is culture in its more
restricted sense – the domain of artistic and intellectual
activities – that is to supply the means of a governmental
intervention in and regulation of culture as the domain of morals,
manners, codes of conduct, etc."24.
The crucial point here is the rooting of the general interest in "culture" and the increasingly institutional anchoring of the "cultural" in the "governmentalization of social life", in other words: in the simultaneously individualizing and totalizing techniques of social regulation that Foucault summarized in reference to the police science of the 17th and 18th century under the term "police". Bennett himself supports his argument with the following quotation from the Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (1806) by Patrick Colquhoun:
is probably Bennett's primary interest in institutions such as the
modern museum and in the possibilities of transformative political
action within modern cultural technologies that hinders him from
going into more detail on the "love of the Constitution and a
reverence and respect for the laws" that "culture" is
supposed to instill. Here culture quite obviously becomes – beyond
its general "civilising function"26
– the instrument of a social integration into the political
community. Yet what is meant by the "people" that
Colquhoun's text names as the object of this integration? Taking
recourse to Foucault Bennett rightly points out that "Police"
refers to individuals, specifically not in the legal sense, but as
"working, trading, living beings"27;
yet these individuals are interesting for police science precisely
insofar as they are components of a totality, and this
totality is, as Foucault said, the concrete "mass of the
population with its extent, its density, with, certainly, the
territory on which it is spread out"28.
real object, the real target of culture is the population as a
totality; and the spread of culture is at the service, in the police
science sense, of a comprehensive and capillary integration of
living, working, recreating individuals in this totality of the
Incidentally, this should not be regarded as a strange implementation of a police science that appears somewhat curious from today's perspective. The EU decision on "Culture 2000", the first large-scale cultural program of the European Union, constantly speaks in its preamble of "culture" as an essential element of "European integration", as contributing to the "affirmation and vitality of the European model of society", as a "factor in social integration and citizenship", finally concluding:
it is of course no longer the "improvement of morals", but
rather the "greater emphasis on the shared cultural heritage"
that is "to bring to life the cultural area common to the
European people" – a cultural heritage that is declared the
"key element" of the purportedly universalist political
principles of freedom, democracy, tolerance and solidarity.29
This shows that the "culture" aiming to integrate the
population can be related to both of the primary meanings of
the historical concept of culture described by Williams, that it has
been and is related to it: to the "general process of
intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development" as well as to
the "particular way of life" of a group, in this case the
becoming Europeans integrated through their cultural affiliation.
thesis is that an analysis of "culture" would have to start
from this point, which is not satisfied with accepting an operative
concept of culture claiming transhistorical validity and seeing in
differential cultural significations an effect of power, but also
already the inherent overcoming of existing power relations. Like
Cultural Studies, but from a different perspective, this kind of
analysis of "culture" as a historical function would
undoubtedly have to address the role of "culture" in the
formation of the modern national consciousness as well as the
contouring of the ethnological concept of culture in the context of
colonialism and its political administration and control structures.
It would have to be able to more closely define, for instance, the
specific role of "culture" in the genesis of (neo-) racist
thinking, which according to Etienne Balibar is determined by the
necessity of creating "'shared' affects and evidences among
individuals of a society, in which kinship in particular has
gradually lost its role as a determining social structure"30.
And finally, based on this kind of analysis of the "culture"
function Foucault's investigations of governmentality would also have
to be expanded and re-examined: Foucault saw governmentality as being
essentially constituted by the convergence of procedures and analyses
that referred to the "triad" of the population, political
economy, and security dispositives31,
and devoted little attention to the interest in "culture"
that developed historically in parallel. However, the current
discussions of migration policies, for example, demonstrate
increasingly clearly how closely this triad is interwoven with
various discourses on "culture".
of all, though, this kind of investigation of "culture"
would have to be undertaken as an analysis of the constitution
of the specific type of power that is manifested in the interest in
the "cultural". If the operative shadow of the concept of
culture, in which this interest is to be uncovered, is to be defined
specifically as a linking of the plane of the symbolic with
the substruction of social totalities, then it is no longer possible
to define "culture" as the area of "forms of social
expression", "signifying practices" or social "coding
processes" indicating a social substratum that may be
homogeneous or heterogeneous, but is in any case presumed to be a
totality. Instead, "culture" itself would be grasped as a
historically and politically specific and contingent form of
expression (in the sense of regulating a certain type of statements,
judgments, symbolizations, representations), which permeates and is
permeated by an equally historically and politically specific and
contingent form of content, so that a human manifoldness appears as
the totality of the population.32
From this perspective then, it is not the "life" of the
community that is "expressed" in culture; instead it is the
form of expression of "culture" that refers to the form of
content of the "population" as a totality of "living"
individuals thus actualizing a "culture" that can pass
through various integrative and differential determinations by
finalizing the functions of the symbolic and (re-) organizing the
materiality of the social.
consequence to be drawn from this would be to at least approach the
mention of "culture" and "cultures" that is so
taken for granted everywhere today with the appropriate measure of
caution and to devote more attention to what has perhaps always been
a factor in the modern interest in "culture": the
culturalization of the social.
complete version of this text was published in S. Nowotny/M. Staudigl
(Ed.), Grenzen des Kulturkonzepts: Meta-Genealogien (Vienna:
Turia + Kant 2003). I am very grateful to Birgit Mennel and Andrea
Salzmann for preparing the shortened version.
1 R. Williams, Keywords, London 1983, 87.
2 E. Fink, "Operative Begriff in Husserls Phänomenologie", in: E. Fink, Nähe und Distanz, Freiburg/Munich 1976, especially 185 f.
3 Ibid., 186.
4 Ibid., 189.
5 Cf. R. Williams, op. cit., 90.
6 Ibid., 91.
8 On the criticism of an "expressive totality", see: S. Hall, "Cultural Studies. Zwei paradigmen", in: R. Bromley et al. (Ed.), Cultural Studies, Lüneburg 1999, 124 and 127 (for the English version cf. "Cultural Studies. Two Paradigms", http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/hall.html).
9 Cf. S. Hall, "Encoding, Decoding", in: S. During (Ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader, London/New York 1993, 98.
10 C. Geertz, "Dichte Beschreibung: Bemerkungen zu einer deutenden Theorie von Kultur", in: C. Geertz, Dichte Beschreibung, Frankfurt/M. 51997, 9 (for the English version cf. "Thick description. Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture", http://hypergeertz.jku.at/GeertzTexts/Thick_Description.htm).
11 Cf. ibid., 28 and 22.
12 How else could the following statement from Geertz be understood: "By definition, only a 'native' makes first order [interpretations]: it's his culture" (ibid., 23)?
13 S. Hall, "Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies", in: L. Grossberg et al. (Ed.), Cultural Studies, London/New York 1992, 284.
14 T. Bennett, "Putting Policy into Cultural Studies", in: L. Grossberg et al. (Ed.), Cultural Studies, London/New York 1992, 24.
15 Ibid., 25.
17 H. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London / New York 1994, 102-122.
18 Cf. ibid., 113.
19 Ibid., 114.
20 G. Sandner, "Kultur as Gegennatur – Natur als Gegenkultur", in: L. Musner et al. (Ed.), Cultural Turn, Vienna 2001, 150.
21 T. Bennett, op.cit., 25.
22 Quoted from: ibid., 25, and R. Williams, op.cit., 88.
23 T. Bennett, op.cit., 25.
24 Ibid., 26
25 Quoted from: Ibid., 27.
26 Ibid., 28.
27 Ibid., 27.
28 M. Foucault, "Die Gouvernementalität", in: U. Bröckling et al., Governementalität der Gegenwart, Frankfurt/M. 2000, 66.
30 E. Balibar, "Der Rassismus: auch noch ein Universalismus", in U. Bielefeld (Ed.), Das Eigene und das Fremde, Hamburg 1998, 184.
31 M. Foucault, op.cit., 64.
32 On the concepts of the "form of expression" and the "form of content" and for the more general power theory background of these reflections, cf.: G. Deleuze, Foucault, Paris 1986, especially 39 ff., 44 ff., and 79.
Aileen Derieg (translation)
other languages"Culture" and the Analysis of Power "Kultur" und Machtanalyse La “cultura” y el análisis del poder