Elemental and Elementary

Elemental and Elementary

I’ve been looking at an anthology called Reading Images edited by Julia Thomas (2001). I ordered it by mistake. It mostly contains material I’ve read before (Foucault on the panopticon, Barthes from Camera Lucida, etc.)— pretty elementary stuff in contemporary approaches to visual theory. Reading Images is part of the “Readers in Cultural Criticism” series whose general editor is Catherine Belsey. I hadn’t encountered her before. The first line in the “general editor’s preface” stopped me in my tracks:

Culture is the element we inhabit as subjects (ix).

Belsey goes on to explain what she means by “subjects” pretty clearly, but she leaves the term “element” mostly undefined. It made me think—a lot.

Usually, I think of “element” as something physical with an irreducible component—the chemical definition. Obviously, Belsey doesn’t really mean it in this sense because the process of cultural criticism is to tease out those “elements” present in culture that interact and convey meaning. She doesn’t write culture is an element. She writes culture is the element. The usage seems to be quasi-metaphorical; some properties or implications of the term “element” are projected upon the subject “culture”—a form of source-target mapping. If this is the case, then what properties or implications of “element” are involved? While it would be easy to say that culture is elemental it is harder to say that culture can be nominalized as the element we inhabit.

However, to nominalize culture seems exactly what Belsey goes on to do. “Culture is the location of values, the study of cultures shows how values vary from one culture to another, or from one historical moment to the next.” Here, culture is a site which dynamically varies over time. “Culture does not exist in the abstract”—it is concrete and textual. However, this is paradoxical if one transfers another set of implications from the term elemental that she encourages by emphasizing the transitory nature. The “element” of culture can also be mapped as analogous to the concept of weather—the wind and rain are elements as well. Though they exist in nominal form, their true definition is one of transition or action. This, I think, fits Belsey’s usage better than a chemical definition.

”Culture is the atmosphere which we inhabit that acts upon us as subjects” is yet another metaphor that might be offered as paraphrase. I think it matches fairly well with her group of assertions:

If culture is pervasive and constitutive for us, if it resides in the documents, objects, and practices that surround us, if it circulates as the meanings and values we learn and reproduce as good citizens, how in these circumstances can we practice cultural criticism, where criticism implies a certain distance between the critic and the culture? The answer is that cultures are not homogeneous; they are not even necessarily coherent. (ix)

I think that the metaphor of cultural criticism as a sort of meteorology is fairly productive. What meteorology doesn’t study is why we like some types of weather and don’t like others. Though cultural criticism studies values in transition, it does not offer much to establish why those values might be preferred beyond a sort of comfortable look out the window at the landscape beyond being bombarded by changing values. The homogeneity and comfort of the viewer’s position is fixed from their room with a view—the place from which they write.

This seems like an elementary proposition.