19 04 06

"Culture" and the Analysis of Power

Translated by Aileen Derieg

Stefan Nowotny

"Culture" 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.

What 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 philosophy"3: "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 another.

Let 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.

In 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, however, uncontroversial9.

In 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 expression12.

In 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

Can 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?

"Cultural" Signification and Power Relations

Let 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 subject positions.

The 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.

Bennett 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 culture"16.

An 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 analyses17. 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

To 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 relational determinations.

Bhabha's 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).

What 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.

"Culture" and the Constitution of Power

Let 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:

"spread much more Knowledg and Civility, yea, Religion, through all parts of the Land, by communicating the natural heat of Government and Culture more distributively to all extreme parts, which now lie num and neglected."22

Whereas 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:

"And it is no inconsiderable feature in the science of Police […] to preserve the good humour of the Public, and to give the minds of the People a right bias … Since recreation is necessary to Civilised Society, all Public Exhibitions should be rendered subservient to the improvement of morals, and to the means of infusing into the mind a love of the Constitution, and a reverence and respect for the laws […]"25

It 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.

The 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 population.

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:

"If citizens give their full support to, and participate fully in, European integration, greater emphasis should be placed on their common cultural values and roots as a key element of their identity and their membership of a society founded on freedom, democracy, tolerance and solidarity."

Here 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.

My 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".

Most 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.

The 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.

The 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.

7 Ibid.

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",

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",

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.

16 Ibid.

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.

29 See also S. Nowotny, "Ethnos or Demos? Ideological implications within the discourse on 'European culture'",

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.

Stefan Nowotny


Aileen Derieg (translation)


other languages

"Culture" and the Analysis of Power "Kultur" und Machtanalyse La “cultura” y el análisis del poder