The Web on The Meaning of Culture

I'm going to make another exception (these have been frequent in this blog lately) and "research" a book thoroughly before acquiring and reading it (...thoroughly). I have ordered John Cowper Powys's The Meaning of Culture via Interlibrary Loans and intend to take it quite seriously. I am, still, a student of culture theory and I happen to believe that every cultural theorist should acquire one special author whose theory of culture will be the hallmark of their own thinking of culture (I won't explain this odd belief now, but I might in the future). Powys published A Philosophy of Solitude in 1933 and The Meaning of Culture only a few years earlier, in 1929. For posterity I'll remark that I found A Philosophy of Solitude by googling for "a philosophy of solitude" (just after trying "a semiotics of solitude" first, of course). It was dumb luck that Powys came up, ney, that he had written such a book. I am a bit skeptical if this next book will be what I think it is, because the meaning of culture is an ambiguous issue and I couldn't stand one book about culture by Alfred Schweitzer at all, so I worry if I will like this. That's why I'm going to prepare myself first.

On 'The Meaning of Culture' by John Cowper Powys

...by the mid-1920s, advancements in film and radio provided new alternatives for cultural enrichment and entertainment...
The very same could now be stated about the internet and digital media, which has provided incredibly innovative alternatives for cultural enrichment and entertainment. This is just something that cannot help but to change with advancements in technoculture.
[Everett] Martin organized lecture series, small group discussions, and study groups on a wide variety of topics. He was best known for taking often abstruse material and making it available to a heterogeneous audience, and for understanding the need to write for adults striving to move beyond the boredom of their work and their everyday lives.
This is something I would like to be known for. Powys's book is one example of such abstruse material.
They [Warder and Peggy Norton] had a huge success with Everett Martin’s book on education, The Meaning of a Liberal Education, selling 15,000 copies, and they wanted a ‘companion volume on culture.’ They approached Powys who had been giving lectures on the Art of Self-Culture for many years. He had also written a little-known pamphlet for Haldemann-Julius in 1926 entitled The Secret of Self-Development, which contains many of the ideas to be found in The Meaning of Culture, albeit in truncated form.
Now this is a Powys I recognize. Self-culture sounds like a notion I could embrace. The Hermeneutics of the Subject by Foucault was, after all, approaching this same concept - self-cultivation.
Powys had the idea that ‘this sort of book ought to have a good academic sale over here if no better than that.’ In fact, it had little academic sale but it proved hugely popular with ‘the common reader’ and was one of the few books of his that remained in print for many years.
Luckily "every meaning has it's homecoming" as Bakhtin suggested, and even The Meaning of Culture will have it's academic homecoming if I manage to find something of use to me on its pages.
Eighty years later, in this time of recession, the book is just as relevant. Not just to the young man or woman on the dole or in a dead-end job, but to everyone who struggles to find some way of dealing with a world they did not make.
Indeed this is something that everyone in society will have to contend with in some way or other.
What it behoves culture to do is to save the individual in the midst of this industrial hubbub and endow him with enough peace of mind to breathe, to look round, to look forward and backward, to take stock of his emotional and intellectual resources and to see where a calm happiness can still be found. And such an individual man or woman, carrying to a comfortless job through clanging streets the cheapest of old school-editions of some immortal book, can mount the stairs of his secret psychic watch-tower and think the whole antheap into invisibility.
This is a kind of prosaic style that must be gotten used to. It may even be possible to sythesize these notions into more familiar ones (perhaps those of semiotics). Emotional and intellectiual resources (along with energetic resources) can be framed in terms of Peirce's interpretants, for example. That the individual needs saving might sound like a christian motive, but the part about breathing and being conscious of one's immediate environment and "place in time" is very much akin to a "psychedelic" type of writing which is evident olse in A Philosophy of Solitude.

The Meaning of Culture: Amazon.co.uk: John Cowper Powys: Books

John Cowper Powys could never be straightforward or orthodox but here he sets off with a useful purpose.
His style of writing is indeed anything but straightforward and he does seem like a "nonconformist" type of person, from what I've read, but I see him embarking on a useful purpose in A Philosophy of Solitude as well.
The book is in two parts: Analysis of Culture which deals with, in separate chapters, Philosophy, Literature, Poetry, Painting and Religion: Application of Culture which covers Happiness, Love, Nature, The Art of Reading, Human Relations, Destiny and Obstacles to Culture.
I wonder if this distinction could be applied to cultural semiotics as well? For example, on the one hand place the subfields of cultural semiotics: semiotics of literature, semiotics of poetry, semiotics of art, and semiotics of religion (there seems to be no need for a "semiotics of philosophy", though); and on the other hand, the material which these subfields approach: nature in culture (ecosemiotics), reading of nature (ecocriticism), sociosemiotics (human relations), etc. This doesn't seem very feasible or useful, but it was a neat thought-exercise.
Mr Powys describes for very reader that citadel which is himself, and explains to him how it may be strengthened and upheld and on what terms it is most worth upholding...
I have an inkling that there may be a lot about the relationship of self and culture in Powys's book.
George Steiner has made the bold claim that his works are 'the only novels produced by an English writer that can fairly be compared to the fictions of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky'.
With such a glowing review I am tempted to someday read his novels as well.

John Cowper Powys - Wikiquote

One always feels that a merely educated man holds his philosophical views as if they were so many pennies in his pocket. They are separate from his life. Whereas with a cultured man there is no gap or lacuna between his opinions and his life. Both are dominated by the same organic, inevitable fatality. They are what he is.
The difference seems to be between achieving a degree, for example, merely for the sake of receiving a degree as if it were a sort of intellectual capital ("Take me seriously, I have a degree!") and between the truly cultured man who lives his knowledge, whose life revolves around his knowledge, who is his knowledge.
"The meaning of culture" is nothing less than the conduct of life itself, fortified, thickened, made more crafty and subtle, by contact with books and with art.
Thus, on the one hand, culture is "a total way of life" and on the other hand it is "fortified, thickened, made more crafty and subtle" by means of so-called "high culture" resources - books and art.
Love, in spite of all rational knowledge to the contrary, is always in the mood of believing in miracles.
I recalled this: "Love is a holy mystery and ought to be hidden from all other eyes, whatever happens." (Dostoyevsky 1992: 67)
The love that interferes and knows not how to leave alone is a love alien to Nature's ways.
Oh you, philosopher of solitude! But then again it seems to be true - clinging to a loved one will wear the love out fast.
We are all creators. We all create a mythological world of our own out of certain shapeless materials.
And thus we find a social (or cultural?) constructivist in Powys.

Chakravorti, Sandhya 1966. The Meaning of Culture by John Cowper Powys. Indian Literature 9(1): 93-95.

John Cowper Powys, in the words of his contemporaries, is 'a living philosopher abounding in wisdom and beauty.' His words have a bewitching power, his vigour, humour and imagination infect the reader, who finally agrees with the author that the recreaction of the mind on lines selected by itself is the very essence of culture, and that, as such, true culture was, is and ever will be personal, individual and anarchistic. (Chakravorti 1966: 93)
Oh wow. So Chakravorti sees in Powys... Freedom! I'll keep an eye out for this suggestion, that true culture is idiosyncratic, in The Meaning of Culture then. It does seem to fit his philosophical modus operandi.
CQWhat has been suggested in this part of the book is a view of culture, by no means the only possible one, wherein education plays a much smaller part than does a certain secret, mental and imaginative effort of one's own. (Chakravorti 1966: 93)
I wholeheartedly agree with this view. It also falls in line with Arthur Bannister's critique of Tartu Ülikool and his self-education in Olev Remsu's Kurbmäng Paabelis.

The Meaning of Culture by John Cowper Powys | LibraryThing

...as Powys describes it, "culture" is not a matter of showing off your good taste, or mastering a prescribed syllabus of classic works, but of cultivating an attitude of receptive contemplation in your everyday life.
Librarything user named hauptwerk has written the most extensive review available on the web. This passage suggests that Powys is aware of the connotation and does not endorse the "high culture" definition of the word, but rather a "total way of life" of a person with an "open mind".
Powys discusses several contexts for the development of this cultural sense, of which the most important being nature and reading. The solitary contemplation of a pastoral scene is for him the prototypical cultural experience, bringing the individual self into contact with the "not-self" and thus encouraging a sense of awe and mystery. Books are likewise an essential part of culture, because they treat the mysteries of life, love, and death.
Thus it seems that the "not-self" aspect has been a part of culture theory for a long long while. In this case the "not-self" seems to be nature, just as it is in Lotman's Rousseau-inspired theory. I'm interested if this "cultural sense" is just a turn of the phrase or if it is an actual notion and whether Powys writes about a "culture sense" similarly as some today speak of "social nerve" or something like that.
For this reader, the book is somewhat marred by some odd, fuzzy metaphysics. We read, for example, that "What we call Nature or the universe is a congeries of mysterious units of energy, each with a material side and a psychic side, which are perpetually, by an ultimate and absolute movement of their essences, creating new worlds. Thus there are as many separate truths or illusions as there are units of apprehension or bubbles of transitory being." Umm, yes.
hahahahahahah. Apparently this reviewer does not recognize Jakob von Uexküll' Umwelt theory in this. I'm quite sure Powys has many fuzzy and odd metaphors, but this example is simply great! It means that one can be on the lookout for talk of Umwelten in The Meaning of Culture.
On many pages I felt a shock of recognition as I saw, put into words, a feeling that I had experienced dozens of times but never succeeded in describing.
I experienced this already with A Philosophy of Solitude.

Light for the Way: The Meaning of Culture - John Cowper Powys

...the deep symbolic meaning of such objects as a plough, a sword, a grindstone, a windmill, a boat, a cradle, a coffin... the friendliness of wind-tossed smoke, arising from hearth or chimney... [...] ...rivers and highways that carry old legends, old memories, old tragic transactions into the unborn future... All these things and the emanations proceeding from these things, possess some mysterious quality in common; and it would seem that this quality cannot be named by any other name than that of the poetical element in life.
Oh wow. This probably originates from the nature part of the book. The implication, that life itself has a poetic element about it, could be put to some good use in cultural semiotics.

On the Meaning of Culture | Fourcultures

Technology publisher Tim O’Reilly sees this as a strength, since it’s part of what gives an individual or an organisation a personality.
"Great companies always have this sense of authenticity, while "me too" companies have a culture made up of the latest management fashions."
But it can also be a great weakness. Having matched one’s opinions to one’s life and one’s life to one’s opinions it then becomes next to impossible to see the life that exists beyond the opinions, or the opinions that exist beyond the life.
This was this blog's reply to Powys's excerpt about how "a merely educated man holds his philosophical views as if they were so many pennies in his pocket." I think Tim O'Reilly's contention applies to a lot of things. I'd say that this applies to universities and imply that Tartu University has a sense of authenticity while many new modern universities are almost carbon copies of other new modern universities. And I'd also say this about students or theoreticians. There are those who have a sense of authenticity, either because of their unique research object, eclectic sources or just their attitude, and there are those who, as Colin Cherry warned, "regard the science of the day as finality" and do whatever it is that everyone else do, because that seems to be the only viable thing to do at that moment.
Powys nicely put his finger on exactly the point that Cultural theory seeks to expose: the point at which we abandon our ideas of opinion or philosophy and resort to the claim that ‘this is how the world really is’.
I have seen this in one of my not-so-adequate lecturers, who self-confidently misinterprets some well-known psychological theories and makes wild claims about reality that are based on those misinterpretations.

Fortner, Robert S. 2005. Radio, Morality, and Culture: Britain, Canada, and the United States, 1919-1945. Carbondale: SIU Press.

This in the great struggle between culture and destiny ... culture will be constantly at war with public opinion. Public opinion is always trying to democratize culture - in other words to prostitute it and change it. Public opinion ... is always seeking to encourage the laterst fashions and obsessions in art, ... in thought, religion and taste. Against all this, culture stands firm; grounding itself upon the external elements of Nature and human nature.
This excerpt is quoted in this book about Radio, Morality, and Culture alongside with a quote about the 19th century by Bernard Shaw, and is followed by a discussion on industrialisation and architecture. OMG so eclectic I can't breathe. I think what Powys is saying here is that "true culture" is well rooted (I would say in history and literature, but he makes claims for Nature and human nature), while "public opinion" (I'd like to read: "popular culture") revolves around "what's hot at the moment".
Powys's remarks in 1929, which are quoted at the beginning of this chapter, would have been inconceivable one hundred years earlier, although they belonged to the tradition of the Victorian cultural critics - John Ruskin, William Morris, and Matthew Arnold. While Powys's comments were perhaps not unexpected, given the earlier concerns about the impacts of "mechanization" of cultural practice, his dichotomy - culture and public opinion - was one that would only have made sense following the introduction of radio into Britain or even North America. In Britain Powys's comments pitted civilization against popular entertainment - classical music against jazz or ballads - and questioned radio at its most basic level: was it to uphold the moral and aesthetic values of what had come to be recognized as "the best" by the cultural elite, or was it to pander to the masses? And this was not the first time that such a question had been asked of the media. (Fortner 2005: 3)
If I read Powys and discover that he does not conceive of culture in that quoted passage as "high culture" of the elites but as the "true culture" of the individual, then I'm not going to go easy on Fortner for confusing Powys with Adorno.

Fawkner, Harald Williams 1986. The Ecstatic World of John Cowper Powys. Cranbury: Associated University Presses.

John Cowper Powys never traveled by air. He was hostile to a number of modern inventions; he considered television to be harmful to human intelligence (LNR, 145). (Fawkner 1986: 229)
This is an actual boox on Powys by a literary critic/scholar. In this regard - hostility towards television - Powys is akin to both Ray Bradbury and me. I don't own a television and haven't enjoyed pre-programmed/televised entertainment for a long while (athough I do enjoy watching certain shows as most young people watch them - by downleading a full season).
John Cowper Powys often lived in extreme solitude during the time of his most intense literary creativity in the 1930s. (Fawkner 1986: 229)
This makes only sense, just as travelling between the continents by sea: more time to actually write.
In The Meaning of Culture, Powys discusses erotic love in relation to personality. It is obvious, he writes, that sex and love "should affect it from centre to circumference" (VIII, 136). In Mortal Strife it is pain, not pleasure, that receives his chief attention, yet here again the mind is subject to a centrifugal motion: "The great circle of the soul is not reduced to smaller size, but it is cleansed of its duskiness and its opacity. From centre to circumperence the microcosm is washed clear" (IV, 68). (Fawkner 1986: 229)
I find it interesting that our familiar center/periphery is here centre/circumference. Also, I have still found nothing to elaborate the relation or non-relation of sphericity and circumplexity - although, to be fair, I haven't searched, too. Powys's statements on sense make sense insofar as he published a philosophical book titled In Defence Of Sensuality in 1930. This is all that I will quote from this book (these originate from the "notes" section), although I am tempted to read it in full some day.

Norton, David L. 1993. Equality and Excellence in the Democratic Ideal. In: Wohlgelernter, Maurice (ed.), History, Religion, and American Democracy. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 273-293.

As Socrates long ago advised, injustice harms the perpetrator more than the victim. Envy and ressentiment are, as Nietzsche warns, a very costly indulgence. They are given up by individuals who have something important to do, because such individuals recognize that tehy cannot afford them. They become "a point of national character" (Mill's term, but my thesis) where the ordinary run of human beings are made to believe that they have no potential excellence and nothing important to contribute. In our time John Cowper Powys writes, "Conceit seals up the exploring antennae of your free sensibility. Malice and hate distract you and waste your life-energy. Possessions make you a fussy super-cargo." (Norton 1993: 290)
Plato's Gorgias; Nietzsche's Ecce Homo; and Powys's The Meaning of Culture. Is this an odd combination? I'm not sure. I like Socrates's advice, as I'd like it to apply to local homophobes who are becoming especially organized and try to do injustice to campaigns that teach tolerance. But then again this advice seems like an ideal, an untrue statement. It seems so because I haven't read the actual dialogue and haven't been convinced that the perpetrator is in fact the one who is more harmed by his/her own injustice. The latter bit seems to be the point of Powys's quote here, as conceit ("excessive pride in oneself") does seem to "seal up" your openness to others. The other two sentences seem equaly true, although they are expressed in characteristically powysian metaphors.

Gower, Jon 2009. The mirror of the arts. In: Davies, Geraint Talfan (ed.), English Is a Welsh Language - Television's Crisis in Wales. Wales: Institute of Welsh Affairs, 72-79.

As a somewhat unfashionable writer, John Cowper Powys, put it in his The Meaning of Culture, 'The art of self-culture begins with a deeper awareness, borne in upon us either by some sharp emotional shock or little by little like an insidious rarefied air, of the marvel of our being alive at all: alive in a world as startling and mysterious, as lovely and horrible, as the one we live in'. (Gower 2009: 75)
Put what? Let's scroll up.
Wales similarly produced actors who distinguish themselves the world over - think of Michael Sheen, Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rhys Ifans, Daniel Evans, Matthew Rhys and Ioas Gruffudd. And with Duffy recently garnering a clutch of Brit awards and bands such as the Stereophonics making No 1 albums you'd have to admit a certain buoyancy to the arts in Wales at present. Which makes homegrown television arts product all the more important. (Gower 2009: 74)
So the marvel of our being alive at all makes homegrown television all the more important? What the actual fuck. That must be a non-sequiter. I do hope I can put Powys in better use than quoting his beautiful prose at random. God damn the media theorists who think ("somewhat unfashionable") culture theory is something to sprinkle around their text to make it seem more deep! I also take it as a symptom of post-text-editing (e.g. post 1990s and the success of personal computers) era text editing, which happens to copy and paste stuff without thinking it through.

O'Reilly, James 2010. Publisher's Preface. In: O'Reilly, James; Larry Habegger and Sean O'Reilly (eds.), The Best Travel Writing 2010: True Stories from Around the World. Palo Alto: Solas House, Inc., xiii-xv.

Another of my favorite books is The Meaning of Culture by John Cowper Powys, in which he makes the claim that reading creates a different kind of human being. Travel does much the same, as you can see through the eyes of the contributors to this book. I hope some of them, and their stories, come to haunt you, just as do some people whom you meet on the road, even briefly, and who then go on to become the shades of your "memory palace." (O'Reilly 2010: xiv)
The previous guy should take example from this. Powys is praised, his claim is reported not quoted, and it is tied to something revelant in the context. Here I actually learned something about Powys's book and I am taken by the notion of "memory palace" because it reminds me of Bayard's notion of "inner book."

Powys, John Cowper 1916. One Hundred Best Books. Online Distributed Proofreaders Team.

The absurd idea that one gets wise by reading books is probably at the bottom of the abominable pedantry that thrusts so many tiresome pieces of antiquity down the throats of youth. There is no talisman for getting wise - some of the wisest in the world never open a book, and yet their native wit, so heavenly-free from "culture," would serve to challenge Voltaire. Lovers of books, like other infatuated lovers, best know the account they find in their exquisite obsessions. None of the explanations they give seem to cover the field of their enjoyment. (Powys 1916)
This is an online version of one of Powys's early books. Too bad it doesn't have page numbers. Here, Powys seems to contradict his own later claim that - now I'm citing the previous quote I found - "reading creates a different kind of human being". I'll have to keep an eye out in The Meaning of Culture as to what he actually says in 1929.
Strangely and wonderfully it blends itself with those other moments when the best books in the world seem irrelevant, and all "culture" an impertinent intrusion; but however it comes and however it goes, it is the thing that makes our gravity ridiculous; our philosophy pedantic. (Powys 1916)
And this is the other passage in this book that mentions culture. It seems that Powys is negatively disposed towards culture in 1916 - it is as-if "impertinent intrusion". Again, I'll have to see if this has any impact on his later writings.

O'Loughlin, John 2010. Millennial Projections. London: Centretruths Digital Media.

"Thus the degree of beauty inherent in a phenomenon will be proportionate to the intensity of soul there?" Judith philosophically suggested.
"That must be so," Gaston affirmed, as he took full possession of his free hand. "If a phenomenon lacks soul, it must lack beauty. An automobile is for that reason not beautiful but, rather, streamlined or flash. The great Welsh philosopher John Cowper Powys contended, in The Meaning of Culture, that beauty is connected or associated with the poetic, which was his way of saying soul. No car has a soul, so a car can never be described as beautiful." (O'Loughlin 2010)
I'm not so sure if the poetic is so rigidly associated with the soul that they can be approached as synonyms. But the contention does seem Powysian, from what I've gathered above. The suggestion that non-living things cannot be truly beautiful seems also somewhat acceptible. I recalled that when I was a 17-year-old rate.ee commentator, I once claimed that only girls can be beautiful and boys can only be handsome. Now I know that both terms apply to both genders. Again, I'll see if this quote holds up in Powys's discussion of the poetic element of life. This is, by the way, fiction I'm quoting here.

Books That Have Shaped How I Think - O'Reilly Media

In The Meaning of Culture, John Cowper Powys makes the point that the difference between education and culture is that culture is the incorporation of music, art, literature, and philosophy not just into your library or your CV but into who you are. He talks too about the interplay of culture and life, the way that what we read can enrich what we experience, and what we experience can enrich what we read.
This seems to be a point than can be easily incorporated into a cultural semiotics. For if I wish to use "culture" in Powys's "meaning", it is relevant that descriptions of nonverbal behaviour or concourse be a part of culture and instilled (so-to-say) in literature (verbal concourse) or art (visual concourse). I'm quite sure that music (lyrical concourse) is also a possibility (I've tried "reading concourse" in one of my favourite rap albums), not to mention philosophy (theoretical concourse).
Sometimes, as with The Meaning of Culture, the book is a part of my regular mental toolbox.
Something similar is stated by the only review The Meaning of Culture has received at goodreads. A user named Lynda writes: "This was the first book like this I read. I was in junior high. It was a difficult read the first time, but I went back to it often. This book has had a profound effect on my life and attitudes." Obviously, there is something to Powys's book.

And that's it. I perused through the first five pages of google search results for this book. This was The Web on The Meaning of Culture - a glimpse into how Powys's book has fared in online resources. Quite well, it seems. Although "a somewhat unfashionable writer", he has influenced some people greatly and become actually something of a fashionable author to quote in media studies. I hope I will enjoy reading The Meaning of Culture as much or more than I did A Philosophy of Solitude. And it is quite possible that these will merely be an introduction into his other philosophical works (there are several) and maybe even his novels.


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