I take it from Adorno that culture is, among others, a mode of confronting nature [or world] (2009, 146).
This definition of culture, provisional as it may seem, overlaps with that of technology being a mode of letting things occur (Heidegger 1977) largely for human purposes, yet most often with a robust kind of intervention for nature or world to speak its inner laws. (We may recall here Aristotle’s concept of logos apophantikos which means to bring to light the hidden principles of nature in its activity). This broadly suggests that culture relates to nature or world by encountering it according to a plan, a scheme, a way of letting things reveal themselves out of their own light.
Already this definition (of culture) is an instance of the antinomial, the equal weight of truth or non-truth percolating evenly into two incompatible terms, namely, encounter (with the connotation of the aleatory, of chance occurrence, or roughly, an event) and purposeful planning whose aim is to dematerialize the contingency of all actual and possible modes of occurrences; in short, to make everything calculable.
This paradox is resolved otherwise by breaking a zone of indetermination in terms of subordinating its non-sense to the axiomatic dictates of human freedom (a la Kant) acting on its own; donating, in the absence of originary sense, a secondary sense to what would have been impervious to meaning. But already the second sense is the originary point of beginning, there being no other way to begin. (Is not this second sense already an act of culture which creates and founds any sense we can conceive, including the opposite complement of culture, namely, nature? Are not the humanities at fault here by setting off these two otherwise exchangeable terms?)
Incidentally, where giving originary sense is concerned, this is also what set-theory in mathematics exactly performs—to nominate a set that is not a member of any set but which necessarily begins the whole study of sets (Badiou 2009); an infinite empty set, to the exclusion of all other sets, that is by no means conceived mathematically, rather by an act similar to that which has turned the world into a fable a la Nietzsche (1968).
Incidentally, the first myths of creation are stories of how the world is created by an originary act of giving, of the gods (always the gods) giving, until its perfection in monotheism where it is rather the One God, excluding all others, not without the violence of wiping them out, including their actual human employers, who gives the ultimate law, the only Law, the supreme sense or meaning.
And voila, the paradox is solved, by any means a leap of faith; a leap into practical reason (where Kant would have much to say). Nietzsche is not so far from Marx on this point. Marx was referring to the early priest-ideologists who created the world that we live in, not that there is no pre-given world, a world that is always already available for capture, for settlement, for dwelling, for building; a world where poetry is already in place, where love speaks a thousand words in a thousand plateaus in a thousand never-ending worlds of make-believe, rather this world would have no use to the species if it is not already transformed for human purposes. As Marx and Engels (1998) put it in The German Ideology: “Individuals have always proceeded from themselves.”
To bring home our point, this capacity of human freedom resonates strongly in Marx’s own subordination of the inherent conflict of capitalism to the one-party dictatorship of the oppressed class. The oppressed class in question here can be afforded, notwithstanding, the same characteristics as those that make culture operational, a way of breaking a paradox whose very nature as indiscernible, to quote Marx, “weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (Eighteenth Brumaire). To cast this nightmare, a counter-culture is summoned to carry out what is no different from an exorcising ritual—to cleanse, to purify, to purge; to level everything onto an imagined point of origination where everything begins anew.
This is the utopia of human freedom—to bend necessity, or what qualifies as the all-pervasive determinant of the indeterminate, the ineffable, the inarticulate, the uncanny, the unhomely, the Freudian unconscious, if you will; everything that melts into a paradox, so to speak, to freedom’s own self-unpacking rule. Here, we obtain a homologous network of complementary terms—axiom, freedom, fabulation. In a manner of speaking, an axis of composition whose unifying rhetoric is well-known—the destruction of the old.
Yet, as with Nietzsche, with the destruction of the real world the apparent one sets in with new possibilities on offer; a new mode of godding, of summoning a new god or gods whose goal is ultimate—to turn the world once more into a fable.
In lieu of a conclusion
With the turn of the century, we have welcomed a new mode of godding replacing the ethereal pride of the dreamland of all dreams, heaven they call it, where everyone else who gets to die gets each a big mansion (recall the movie Invention of Lying). This is the hyper-extensive realism of the infosphere commanding new ways of living or not living while still managing to live, the online-offline sway of our being-in-the-world in the present replacing Heidegger’s homely concept of being as the dance, the echo, the swaying to and fro of Being, as poetic clearing (Heidegger 1999). This is the hyper-real world which sets everything in place, in the order of quantum reality, complex algorithms, nano-machine and intelligence; in the order of the becoming-other of human who has never been human, who has always been other than human (ah, the hubris of all elitist inventions!), in an era where economies of confronting scarcity and a dying planet are giving way to precarious adaptation; in the order where capital threatens to finally erase its labor complement in the same manner that culture is overturning the independence of natural ecology. Welcome to the anthropocene.
Again, a whiff of Nietzsche: Are we looking at a new paradox in need of a new culture to break? Or do we need a break?
Adorno, Theodor. 2009. Kultur and Culture. Social Text 99 (27): 145-158.
Badiou, Alain. 2009. Logic of Worlds. Being and Event, 2. Translated by Alberto Toscano. New York and London.
Heidegger, Martin. 1997. Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc.
________. 1999. Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning). Translated by Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1968. Twilight of the Idols. Translated R. J. Hollingdale. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels.1975. Collected Works, Volume 5. New York: International Publishers.