Stefan Collini now gives free expression to the concern that was already evident in his first response to Metaculture.footnote1 If the historical category of Kulturkritik and my unorthodox use of it have been prominent in the exchange to date, this is in large part because it is overdetermined by issues whose charge is contemporary and prospective. ‘Defending cultural criticism’ is Collini’s title, not ‘leave it to the historians’. Of course, criticism and history cannot be simply partitioned in this case. Collini insists with more than conventional force on the continuity between them, and with reason. Nevertheless, I will say nothing more about historic Kulturkritik, except in passing. Neither of us is ready to concede, and others will weigh the arguments for themselves.

That Collini really is engaged in a defence is beyond doubt. But what is the substance of the position he wishes to defend? My purpose here is to attempt an outline of his cultural criticism, as it emerges in response to Metaculture and in a selection of other relevant writings from the past fifteen years. It will be necessary to tread lightly. Having begun his scholarly career as an intellectual historian in the contextualist style of Quentin Skinner and his collaborators, Collini has gone on to develop a recognizably literary approach still further at variance with the textbook histories of thought.footnote2 He has little sympathy with those who expect or impute ‘doctrine’ or ‘system’ or ‘theory’ in the thinkers he studies, and even modest ‘views’ can be put in their place, which is between ironizing quotation marks.footnote3 Anyone approaching his own writing in that spirit is open to the charge of intellectual crassness. However, he has given some headwords as preliminary guidance: culture, politics, intellectuals. Others will emerge in the course of discussion.

Collini begins by relieving the phrase ‘cultural criticism’ of its everyday ambiguity. It is not, or not only, criticism of culture. Culture is what animates and orients the critical practice, whose object is society or, better, ‘prevailing public discourse’. This is culture as ‘artistic and intellectual activities’—not the only meaning of the term, he agrees, but, as Raymond Williams recognized, the ‘primary’ one. The criticism it underwrites is politically modest in ambition and effect, not driven as metacultural discourse supposedly is, and certainly not fated to reactionary conclusions. ‘Distance’, ‘reflectiveness’ and generality are its defining critical qualities. Its touchstones can be found in T. S. Eliot, but also in Matthew Arnold before him, in George Orwell and later in Richard Hoggart ‘and so on’. This is recognizable as a self-description (except in its evocation of Eliot, whom I for one would not have thought to associate with Collini’s critical journalism). What is less clear, however, is its logic.

Collini emphasizes the semantic difficulty of ‘culture’: this was the opening note of ‘Culture Talk’, and he strikes it again in his second essay. But the difficulty is not simply semantic, and it cannot be resolved, even temporarily, by a self-aware, negotiated protocol of usage of the kind he now sets out. For if the restrictive meaning of culture is in one respect shared, as familiar currency, in another it is a site of inescapable contention. It is possible to reach a working agreement about the kinds of thing that count as instances of ‘culture’ in his sense; there will be boundary disputes, but none so fierce as to unmake the field as such. However, the empirical reference of the term is overdetermined by its disputed conceptual significance. The ‘other meanings’ of culture, which Collini peaceably sets aside for other occasions, inhabit its ‘narrower sense’, as parties to a conceptual antagonism now inherent in it.

Two constructions of this same ‘sense’ are especially pertinent. In the first, culture marks a convergence of positive values in opposition to non-culture, the prevailing order of good sense. This, in the language of Metaculture, is culture as principle. In the second, associated with Williams and cultural studies, the narrow empirical reference survives alongside the wider one, but under a different concept. The same material is now thought differently, understood as a specific historical formation of values and practices, a ‘high’ register within the social relations of meaning as a whole. Literature and philosophy are not simply dissolved into ‘a whole way of life’, a phrasing that Williams borrowed from Eliot in his early formulations of his own distinct object of inquiry, which was ‘the relations between elements in a whole way of life’.footnote4 Even where they are set aside in favour of the unexplored world of popular pleasures and identifications, as they were, with deforming intellectual consequences, in the new routines of cultural studies, they persist as aspects of a reconstructed object, the social relations of meaning as a whole. Were it not so, the new concept of culture would simply invert the dualism of the old, foreclosing its own theoretical implications, which reach into every corner of empirical ‘culture’. The old ‘sense’ of culture is an aspect of the historical object of the new one, which is what Yuri Lotman termed ‘the semiosphere’ (a coinage that has the signal advantage of not being that damned word).footnote5 Reiterated uncritically, it is too much for the purposes of Collini’s cultural criticism, just as the second, properly understood, is too little.

Culture in the first case is too much in that it presupposes a subject that can occupy that site of convergence, speaking from and to a general interest. Not welcoming the philosophical burden of that logic, Collini dismisses its embodiment, Arnold’s ‘best self’, as ‘dubious and unappealingly dated’, and that, apparently, is that. The second construction accords more closely with his intramundane appreciation of culture and society, but not in a way that furthers the project of cultural criticism. For in this case, art and ideas take shape and direction in the same divided historical world of sense that frames ‘prevailing public discourse’—to which, indeed, they bring their distinctive varieties of texture and finish. ‘Distance’ can be more than conventional, yet still measurable within the space of the ideological dominant. He will not have forgotten Williams’s analysis of the English industrial novel, in which strong, eloquent witness to the reality of working-class suffering coexisted, imaginatively, with an ungovernable fear of mass irrationality.footnote6 Literature is no less prone to such disturbance of vision when it turns ‘reflective’ in the stronger sense, and examines the relationship between its own genus, culture, and society. For example, it would be difficult not to read Hardy’s Jude the Obscure for what, in one clear sense, it is: a critique, in tragic mode, of the prevailing social order of culture. Yet it is not easy to overlook the ambiguity of its truncated biblical motto, which puts learning itself in question: ‘the letter killeth’.footnote7 Untimely death has been a standard outcome in the English ‘condition of culture’ novel, figuring a narrative judgement on those characters who think to honour culture, or aspire to it, or think to impart it, or simply inherit it. Reardon in New Grub Street, Bast in Howards End, Melinda and her family in A Judgement in Stone are, like Jude and Sue in Hardy’s novel, among the slightly ridiculous victims of culture’s ambivalent relationship to its best self.footnote8

The doubled reflectivity of the critic—intellectual activity directed to the arts—offers further adverse testimony, suggesting that distance is too purely formal a criterion to assist the inevitably substantive choices entailed in any criticism of society. Eliot took his critical distance from postwar Britain, with explicitly reactionary intent. Hoggart also measured a distance, from the vantage point of culture ‘in the narrow sense’, but made an antithetical reading of present dangers and possibilities. His critique of cultural commerce did not extend to the capitalist property-relation itself, or to the paternalism of official cultural policy. Williams’s crucial initiative, following on from his critical reflection on ‘the idea of culture’, was to bring both into theoretical view as the matrix of contemporary cultural organization, and to urge a socialist alternative based on a revised theoretical account of culture. There is a reductio ad absurdum in these comparisons. Here are three reflective, critically distant contributions to postwar discussion of culture and society. They all meet Collini’s minimum criteria for cultural criticism, and they are mutually incompatible. Yet it is difficult to see how a critic equipped only with the developed aptitudes that Collini specifies could set about discriminating among them—how ‘culture’, so reduced, could energize and direct a critique.