The Power Of Shakespeare

Shakespeare was a genius, to be sure. There is even a strong argument to be made that he was the genius of English literature or English theatre. He was not particularly strong on coming up with original plots: he preferred instead to borrow them from Holinshed, ancient mythology, or recent English history. But his good points more than compensated for that defect. His use of language leaves even the best writers breathless, wishing that they could someday be that good. The new words he coined and added to the English language alone—more than 2,000 of them—would qualify him as one of the most important builders of the tongue. And his representations of the human condition were astonishing. One particularly shining example is the character of Hamlet, whose vacillating, over-intellectualizing, self-absorbed mind was of a type that would not be seen in any other writer for centuries. Dostoevsky rediscovered this character and made him the basis for the Notes From Underground and several other books, but it was Shakespeare who developed the character first. That his works remain popular, and continue to move people, through a sometimes murky cloud of 400-year-old language, is a testament to the power and brilliance of Shakespeare’s accomplishments.

The problem with talking about Shakespeare, though, is that the fantastic mastery of the English language, the brilliant new words, and the stunning, perceptive treatment of human realities and emotions, leads some commentators to get rather emotional themselves. It is not enough that Shakespeare is, when all is said and done, the greatest genius ever to have taken up a pen in English. They insist that every word Shakespeare ever wrote was perfect and eternal, and that his writing represents not only some eternal truths, but every eternal truth, all at once. The quotation at the top of this paper is a prime example of this kind of critical comment about Shakespeare.

The problem with this sort of sweeping generalization is that it simply cannot be true. The human experience is too broad and too diverse for “man … in all his aspects” to be represented in a play. Indeed, a person might live a rich and varied life for a hundred years and not embody all the aspects of the human condition. Many people live out their lives without committing murder or plotting to overthrow their government; but murder and treachery are as much “aspects of man” as love or honour are.

However, if any playwright could “present man simultaneously in all his aspects”, it would be Shakespeare. As a test of this, we will examine “Macbeth”. On the surface, it is a relatively simple play about treachery and revenge. Are there, as the quotation at the head of this essay suggests, other levels to the play? We will explore “Macbeth” in the light of this quotation; in turn, “Macbeth” will shed some light on the quotation itself.

I. i. is a wild and woolly introduction to the play: because the Witches are not human, they have nothing to add to our exploration of man’s aspects. In I.ii., the dominant theme is one of valour and glory in battle. Macbeth is revealed as bold and warlike. The battle is going badly for King Duncan until “brave Macbeth”, fighting his way through the enemy lines, reaches the traitor Macdonwald and “[unseams] him from the nave to th’ chops,/ And fixed his head upon our battlements.” (Macbeth I. ii. 16, 22- 23) In his defeat of the Norweyans, Macbeth’s strength in battle is reinforced, but this, and the image of treachery brought up by the late Cawdor, no other aspects are revealed.

In I. iii., we meet Macbeth for the first time, and his aspect is as a fairly sympathetic character, at least to begin with. This fits with what we have heard about him in the last scene. By the end of the scene, though, we see ambition begin to appear within him, when he realizes that two of the titles the Witches had told him of, already belonged to him: “Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor:/ The greatest is behind.” (Macbeth I. iii. 117-118) The aspect Shakespeare presents here is how quickly a man can begin to be seduced by ambition.

I. iv. is a scene concerned with order and hierarchy in human affairs. Justice is done in Cawdor’s death, and the general tone of honour and doing what is fitting is reinforced by the general approval of the way that Cawdor died: “as one that had been studied in his death,/ To throw away the dearest thing he owed,/ As ‘twere a careless trifle.” (Macbeth I. iv. 9-11) Macbeth is a part of the hierarchy too: “The service and the loyalty I owe,/ In doing it, pays itself.” (Macbeth I. iv. 22-23) The aspect that Shakespeare presents here is a hierarchical and correct one.

We see one of the only traces of marital love in the play, in I. v. Macbeth writes a fond and familiar letter to his “dearest partner of greatness”, and in it we see a shadow of what the relationship between Macbeth and his wife might have been before the play began. (Macbeth I. v. 11) But the scene quickly turns to present another aspect of humankind: blind ambition. If Macbeth flirts with ambition when the Witches first make their prophecies of greatness, Lady Macbeth grasps it with both hands, begging the Spirits to “unsex [her] here,/ And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty!” (Macbeth I. v. 41-43)

The next scene with a powerful aspect to represent is I. vii., which gives full expression to Macbeth’s ambitious plots of treachery. Remorse is here, too, as Macbeth realises that he is Duncan’s “kinsman and subject,. Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,/ Who should against his murderer shut the door.” (Macbeth I. vii. 13-15) But Lady Macbeth’s ambition gives strength to Macbeth’s treacherous thoughts, and by the end of the act he has resolved to murder Duncan.

The treachery begins to come to a head in II. i., as Macbeth takes his dagger and sets off to do the deed; there is also an element of treachery in his presenting an innocent face to his friend Banquo, while is intent on murder. In II. ii. we see more of the same, as Lady Macbeth drugs the watchmen, careless of whether they live or die. Macbeth kills Duncan, and his wife urges him on when he falters, being attacked by guilt about what he has done. But despite her accusation that he “[does] unbend [his] noble strength, to think/ So brainsickly of things”, Macbeth still ends the scene overcome with remorse over what he has done: “Wake Duncan with thy knocking: I would thou couldst!” (Macbeth II. ii. 44-45, 73)

The drunken Porter, cracking dirty jokes and generally falling about the place, presents an alcoholic aspect at the beginning of II. iii.; the latter half of the scene is concerned with fear and revulsion of murder, well expressed in Macduff’s shocked cry: “O horror! horror! horror!/ Tongue nor heart cannot conceive, nor name thee!” (Macbeth II. iii. 64-65) Macbeth also gives a good presentation of deceit, glibly expressing shock and sadness at Duncan’s fate: “Had I but died an hour before this chance,/ I had liv’d a blessed time” (Macbeth II. iii. 92-93) He then goes on to lie about the way the supposed “murtherers” died.

As Act III begins, Macbeth begins to pile treachery on top of treachery, and to plot murder on top of murder. We see the aspect of paranoia presented too: Macbeth suspects Banquo of plotting against him, and determines to do Banquo like Duncan got done: “Banquo, thy soul’s flight,/ If it find Heaven, must find it to-night.” (Macbeth III. i. 140-141) Interestingly, in the Murderers that Macbeth retains, we see an early form of Nihilism: “I am one, my Liege,’ Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world/ Hath so incens’d, that I am reckless what/ I do, to spite the world.” (Macbeth III. i. 107-109)

Throughout Act III we see the realisation of Macbeth’s treachery, as his plot is concluded and Banquo is murdered. The aspects of man that Shakespeare shows us here are mostly ones we have seen before, in Macbeth’s earlier murder of Duncan. In III. iv. we see paranoia again, as Macbeth begins to worry about the survival of Fleance: “Then comes my fit again: I had else been perfect.” (Macbeth III. iv. 20) And with the entrance of Banquo’s ghost, we see, depending on how we want to interpret it, either a presentation of man’s desire to believe in the supernatural, or a presentation of how humans can be driven mad by brutal acts. Paranoia and terror are the dominant aspects of the end of the scene, as Macbeth is almost incapacitated by fear, as the ghost continues to appear.

In III. vi., we see the aspects of suspicion and revenge portrayed by Shakespeare. Lenox and his companion are restless under Macbeth’s rule, and desire to see Duncan’s son and heir placed on the Scottish throne. They suspect that Macbeth may not be blameless in Duncan’s murder, and hatch a plan to depose Macbeth. For more information go to

By this point in the play, Shakespeare has presented most of the aspects of humanity that he ever does. In IV. iii. we see a suggestion of lust in Malcolm: “there’s no bottom, none/ In my voluptuousness: your wives, your daughters,/ Your matrons, and your maids, could not fill up the cistern of my lust.” (Macbeth IV. iii. 60-63) There is self-awareness, too, in his realisation that he would not make a good king: “Nay, had I power, I should/ Pour the sweet milk of concord into Hell,/ Uproar the universal peace, confound/ All unity on earth.” (Macbeth IV. iii. 97-99)

But mostly we see more of what we have seen before: hierarchy when Malcolm submits to MacDuff, revenge when they begin to make war against Macbeth, madness in Lady Macbeth’s drop into insanity, and so on. There are many aspects of humanity that have been presented, perhaps more than one might expect from a superficially straightforward story of murder and revenge. But has the human condition been presented “simultaneously in all [its] aspects?” To choose some examples at random, is religious piety presented in Macbeth? Is altruistic charity? Is the love of a parent for a child given any real treatment? To take a look at the other side of the coin, is sexual inversion, or the urge to be cruel to animals, or marital infidelity presented?

The answer, of course, is no: they are not there because they do not need to be there. But they are “aspects of man” too. As well, Shakespeare does not present all the aspects of man simultaneously; even among the aspects he does present, he gives greater emphasis to say, treachery, than he does to lust or remorse.

Thus, it would seem that in “Macbeth”, Shakespeare does not come close to presenting “man simultaneously in all his aspects.” The play, and the statement at the top of this essay, are clearly not in agreement. What do we make of this? There are two choices: either “Macbeth” is not a very great play because it does not have enough aspects in it, or it is the criticism that is not very good, because it does not adequately describe “Macbeth”, one of Shakespeare’s greatest dramas.

None of the characters in “Macbeth” comes close to representing the full human experience, nor are they fully realised human beings. Even taken as a whole, some aspects of man are missing. But of course, some people live long lives and never become fully realised human beings, or display every aspect of man; to expect a playwright to do it in a few hours on stage is an impossible request, however brilliant that playwright is. 

Work cited:

  • William Shakespeare, The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: Macbeth (London: Methuen, 1953) 

The Meaning – or Meaninglessnes of Style

The Meaning – or Meaninglessnes of Style – In Youth Subcultures 


This essay investigates the concept and meaning – or meaninglessness – of style in youth subcultures. It does so in the context of the sociology of youth, particularly with reference to themes such as control, resistance and identity. The study builds on Dick Hebdige’s ideas on the post-war, music-related youth movements, which he saw as a form of resistance, if not revolution, in the young population’s repudiation of adult culture. The essay examines ‘style’ in the sense of popular culture, and namely fashion. Teens in the USA alone constitute a formidable group. In 1999, the spent $153 billion, and viewed shopping as a social necessity (Grant 2000: pp.08B). What meaning, if indeed any, youth subculture gives to ‘style’ is the main focus of this paper. It analyzes the capriciousness of the teen market – what is ‘in’ tends to show no rhyme or reason, and is dependent instead on the unpredictability of peer pressure. But fashion and style are analyzed here in the context of what they have to say about ideas of resistance and identity in youth culture. It is the claim of this paper that ‘style’, capricious and rapidlychanging as it is, reflects the issues of control and resistance in the shaping of youth subcultures and identities. To capture this up-to-dateness of the fickle meaning of style, this essay has relied on contemporary newspapers from various countries to assess these issues.


This essay investigates the meaning – or meaninglessness – of style in youth subcultures. It does so on the basis of Dick Hebdige’s ideas on style and youth subculture, as fleshed out in his seminal study, Subcultures: the meaning of style (1979). Hebdige’s main thrust was based on the post-war, music-related youth movements, which he saw as a form of resistance, if not revolution, in the young British population’s repudiation of adult culture. This essay will explore these ideas not in the context of music, but in another relevant realm concerning ‘style’ in modern youth subculture: fashion. It explores the nature of style, insofar as it is possible to define an already slippery concept. But in the context of its meaning in youth subculture, not to mention the role that it plays in developing a sense of identity (consistently changing as it may be), style will be fleshed out as a significant concept in youth cultures. This paper will argue that style has meaning within this youth culture in the sense that it is integral in shaping identities, and in expressing issues such as resistance. But I will also argue that style has an in-built meaninglessness. By this I mean that ‘style’ is not easily defined, nor is it stable and lasting. In fact it is quite the opposite, changing on whim, seemingly without reason. What is ‘hip’ one day, can be passe the next. The point is that the concept of style is significant, and therefore, has meaning. Take it literally, however, and the core of what constitutes style turns out to be hollow. It is fickle, and far more related to expressions of identity and resistance. Those who attempt to research, serve and understand this market find themselves challenged at best, and at worst completely frustrated. As one journalist has said, teenagers are ‘fringe shoppers who defy demographics and neat marketing plans’ (Bond 1999: pp. E04). Youth style is at once fleeting and superficial.

‘Style’ and youth culture

We begin by investigating the concept of style as it is understood in the context of this paper. Style can be defined in a host of ways. It can refer to a genre of music or dress, a lifestyle or image. The Webster’s Dictionary describes style as ‘the current fashionable way of dressing, speaking, acting, etc.’ The way that this applies to a specific group, youth, will be part of youth subculture. As such, an investigation of ‘style’ will help us to explore the way in which teens or youth dress, speak and act, and will suggest what these attitudes and behaviors have to say about ideas of resistance, control and identity as part of teen subculture. Due to space constraints, this essay will focus on fashion as a tangible aspect of ‘style’. Others could be used, though broad themes can be drawn out on this basis.

What exactly that ‘youth subculture’ is, is, of course, another matter. We do know that teen subculture is very different than it was 20 years ago. As one writer has argued, today’s youth culture emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when young people lost interest in changing their parents’ world, and began to construct their own (Sharkey 1997: p.10). New fashions emerged, as did music, electronic consumer products, technologies, media and even new drugs, which inspired a vision of a world in pursuit of endless pleasure and self-knowledge (Sharkey 1997: pp.10-11). Sharkey’s idea is worth fleshing out at greater length. She argues that the concept of ‘mode’, in the French sense, is more applicable to today’s youth subculture that the English term ‘fashion’. The difference, she argues, is that there has been a rupture between ‘style’ in the conventional understanding of the fashion’s meaning, and what is currently happening in youth subculture. ‘Mode’ carries a sense of the transitory, implying a mode of being which one can enter into – as well as out of. It also implies a lifestyle that can be changed at whim by altering one’s image. Change one’s hair, clothing, jewelry and makeup, and you change the ‘mode’ or the way of being (Sharkey 1997: pp. 11-12).

The point here is that for Generation X, definitions of identity were rooted in class structure, gender and community. Therefore, one was born into a ‘style’, a youth subculture that gave it meaning and substance, not to mention identity. This no longer holds. Familial and community life has become far more disrupted. New media has created more lifestyle choices for Generation Y (generally defined as children born from 1980 to 2000, numbering some 31 million in the USA alone), and has made these images far more accessible (Sharkey 1997: pp. 11-12; Keating 2000: p.1; Bond 1999: pp.E04).

Generation Y

The journalist, Lauren Keating, has pointed out that each wave of teenagers defines itself by adopting new styles in fashion and music (Keating 2000: p.1). Clothes, makeup and accessories are the means by which teenagers take their first steps towards asserting their independence (Keating 2000: p.1). But before exploring this theme in greater detail, it is worth looking more precisely at the group that constitutes youth subculture and applies meaning to style. In the United States, there are more teenagers than ever before. The current surge in the population will not level off until 2010, says the Census Bureau (Bond 1999: pp.E04). According to Teenage Research Unlimited in the USA, teenagers currently comprise about 11% of the population (Keating 2000: p. 1). Aside from the size of this group, it is also significant that Generation Y is growing up in the most prosperous economic boom that the US has ever witnessed. Teens have money to burn (Keating 2000: pp.1-2). 88% of girls aged 13 to 17 said that they loved to shop, according to a 1997 Annual Consumer Survey by the retail consulting firm, Kurt Salmon Associates (Beck 1997: pp.4B; see also Bond 1999: pp.E04). It shows. In 1996, teens spent an estimated $103 billion in the United States, says Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm (Beck 1997: pp.4B). Parents are feeling the crunch. In Australia, children aged 11 to 13 place the biggest strain on the family purse, costing up to $261 a week to feed, clothe, transport and entertain (Patty & Baskett 2000: pp.007). A study has determined that Australian pre-teen demands for brand labeled clothes and the latest fads made them even more expensive to keep than babies and teenagers (Patty & Baskett 2000: pp.007).

Meaning or meaninglessness of style in youth subculture


The journalist, Alix Sharkey, has argued that ‘style [is] a kind of cultural currency, a means of establishing and maintaining one’s  status in a rapidly changing landscape’ (Sharkey 1997: p.11). She goes onto say that style was the engine of change for early 1980s British youth culture (Sharkey 1997: p.11). In this sense, style is of paramount importance in youth subculture. If ‘style’ can be viewed as a kind of cultural currency, how does it serve to establish and maintain one’s status in a fast-moving landscape? Style offers some purchase on ideas of control, resistance and identity. Baggy jeans, power beads and slip dresses – to name but a few – are means of assertion, a ‘currency’ to shape an image, often out of step with that perceived as acceptable by authority figures such as teachers and parents. As such, ‘style’ is one of the first means by which teens assert their independence and individuality. ‘Cookie-cutter clothes are no longer what teens want to wear,’ says the journalist, Becky Homan (Homan 2000: p.32). One American 18 year old says that ‘style’ is an extension of her individual personality at this critical stage of her life: ‘I’m not a mall person. I prefer to shop in a small shop rather than a department store because you can find unique things…I have a “unique” complex, I guess’ (Bond 1999: pp.E04). For more information go to

Style, as a ‘currency’ of meaning, is both reflective of and integral to the shaping of identity. Style, as it manifests itself through fashion, is not merely a reflection of an existing youth subculture, but an active and formative part of its creation. As such, the ‘style’ of one’s fashion sends critical messages about his or her image – or the image he or she is trying to portray. This takes place both on the individual level, and on the youth subculture level as a whole. Some individuals will attempt to go against the grain of the predominant trends in youth subculture ‘style’ as an expression of their own individuality 6 (like our teenager quoted above). Hebdige might have perceived this as a kind of stylerelated youth movement, which had a sense of resistance if not revolution embedded into it. The concept of resistance operates on a number of levels in this context. Style might be resistance against authority figures, such as parents or teachers. It might also be a form of resistance to the predominant ‘style’ of the youth subculture itself, further stressing the individual’s desire to be unique. Style, as Hebdige argues, reveals a subculture’s forbidden identity, formed – as it so often is – as a movement of resistance, or a repudiation of adult culture (Hebdige 1979: p.14).

Ironically, however, in youth subculture, this ‘image’ or identity that is sought is quite often to do with appearing adult. What is fashionable for teens often closely resembles what adults wear, which reflects the adolescent’s desire to seem grown up (Corey 1998: pp.B27). The ‘meaning’ that emerges from that ‘style’ can be dangerous, according to Dr. Paramjit Joshi, director of clinical services for child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center:

Children are still children. They want to grow up quickly and there is this notion that if you dress in this fashion, you’re grown up…It’s this pseudo-maturity, so they externally come across as 18 even though they are only 12 or 13. They don’t look beyond the immediate effect. They don’t have the capacity to understand what that means…But it’s not in sync with their emotional level. When they get unwanted attention, they don’t know what to do with it. They get taken advantage of, or they get pigeonholed as loose or without morals (Corey 1998: pp.B27).

It has also become patently clear that children are becoming fashion-conscious at a much younger age. This part of youth subculture is known as the ‘tween’ group, which dips down to the age of 7, which is keen on big designer names in small sizes (Bond 1999: pp.E04).


How, then, can we explain this apparent paradox of youth subculture trying to repudiate adult culture, while trying to imitate it at the same time? Hebdige argues that youth style is at once fleeting and superficial (Hebdige 1979: p.72). He goes onto suggest that specific ideologies and interests prevailing at the time – such as resistance to authority – will be represented in ‘style’ by specific groups and classes (Hebdige 1979: p. 14). ‘Style’, therefore, be that in music, fashion, or some other medium, will constitute a form of resistance and identity. It may have aspects of imitation, but it does so on its own terms, seeing itself as distinct from the previous generation and the status quo. Some have argued that this defiance of authority through style and the creation of a separate, yet similar, identity, is a kind of rite of passage in the developmental process. Trendy clothes and makeup that might make parents grimace, can be viewed as those first tentative steps towards asserting one’s independence (Keating 2000: p.1).

Following Hebdige’s argument, this paper explores the argument that ‘style’ has an inherent meaninglessness, as well as inherent meaning. On the one hand, ‘meaning’, as we have seen, stems from the use of style as a political tool. It is both taken up and created by youth subcultures in their everyday discourse, defined here as ‘style’, and more specifically for the purposes of this paper, as fashion. Meaning is ascribed to a fleeting and evanescent set of looks or brand labels. The point is that this meaning has no lasting power. Just as quickly as a set of looks and brand labels acquire meaning for youth subculture, they change again without apparent reason. Then again, this constantly changing nature of style in youth subculture appears to be its very essence. It is, therefore, the broader issue of forming resistance, of trying to assert control and identity via style this is of primary concern. Style, in whatever form, is merely a kind of vehicle for this process, which thereby encapsulates both meaning and non-meaning.


This paper has investigated one, and only one, aspect of style in relation to the meaning ascribed to it by youth subculture. It has used Dick Hebdige’s concept of style and youth movements as demonstrating a form of resistance in the young population’s repudiation of adult culture. But it has not focused on the post-war music-related youth movements, as Hebdige has already done. Instead, I have tried to use the framework to investigate another modern aspect of ‘style’ in contemporary youth subculture: that of fashion. I have tried to demonstrate that style – as it relates to fashion in youth subculture – is a significant manifestation of resistance and a means of defining identity. I have also tried to show that Generation Y, as it is called, is a force to be reckoned with. For generations, teenagers have seen themselves as distinct from their parents, but Generation Y really is unique. They number in the tens of millions in the US alone, and have more of their own money than ever before to shape and demonstrate their ‘style’ as a subculture than ever before. More work needs to be done on this field to determine how Generation Y will use this difference, and what its impact will be on society.

My claim has been that ‘style’, as seen through fashion or indeed any other medium, has both meaning and meaninglessness. For the former, style is both reflected and ascribed by youth subcultures. Its ‘meaning’ is related to ideas of forming and demonstrating a sense of self and identity, of resistance and control. On the other hand, there is an in-built sense of meaninglessness in the concept of style, as it is fleeting and superficial, not to mention unpredictable. The conclusion is, therefore, that style is a medium, no more, no less, for reflecting and representing the interests of a specific group (here, that being youth subculture), which prevails at that given moment.

Works Cited

  • Beck, Rachel. (12.11.1997). ‘Teenagers on a wild shopping spree,’ Denver Rocky Mountain News, pp. 4B.
  • Bond, Patti. (02.15.1999). ‘MALLWATCH: Fickle teenagers elude best marketing plans: Retailers continually scrambling to keep their share of a pie that expanded 16% last year,’ The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, pp. E04.
  • Corey, Mary. (09.03.1998). ‘Style File: Fashion Friction – the annual fracas known as back-to-school shopping is even more contentious this year, as parents struggle over where to draw the line,’ Newsday, pp. B27.
  • Grant, Lorrie. (07.05.2000). ‘Like, be hip or be gone: teen clothes market stores go from trendy to totally uncool overnight,’ USA Today, pp.08B.
  • Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subcultures: The Meaning of Style. Routledge: London.
  • Homan, Becky. (08.12.2000). ‘Young Style on the march back-to-school fashions will be a medley of bold color, shine, denim, plaid and faux leather,’ St. Louis Post Dispatch, p.32.
  • Keating, Lauren. (05.01.2000). ‘The In-Crowd: Retail Rushes to Keep Pace with Generation Y,’ Shopping Center World.
  • Patty, Anna and Sasha Baskett (04.25.2000). ‘Brands add to family costs,’ The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, Australia).
  • Sharkey, Alix. (05.10.1997). ‘The Culture of Clubs,’ Independent (London, England), pp.10-12.
  • Tsitas, Evelyn. (01.10.2000). ‘Get Pierced with Tongue in Cheek,’ Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia). 

Examining the Popularity of Cultural Theory

Examining the Popularity of Cultural Theory: An Examination of the Literature


The study of cultural theory, or the investigation and the application of techniques designed to analyze various aspects in society, is a fairly recent addition to modern anthropology. The introduction of the cultural theory allowed anthropologists, sociologists, and other students of the human condition the luxury of a new tool to be used in examining the relationships that are exhibited in human behavior. At its most basic level, the implication of cultural theory has provided those involved in the fields of anthropology, gender studies, sociology, history, and even psychiatry to better investigate the current and past conditions of the human culture.

Recently, however, a great deal of cultural theory appears to stem from the works of the noted French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. As a modern philosopher and sociologist, Bourdieu has placed a great deal of emphasis on the concept that the structure of society is figuratively “robbing” the lives of all participants through various methods. The presentation of these theories, especially in respect to the apparent solace that Bourdieu’s theories offer to a jaded society, have resulted in a virtual rebirth of the study of cultural theory. Several of the theories that stem directly from those presented by Bourdieu demonstrate different aspects of cultural theory in respect to modern life. This paper shall examine and clarify several of these theories in the recent literature.

The pressing theme of the recent efforts in cultural studies is best explored as a justification of traits found within the modern capitalistic lifestyle. Three major writers concerning cultural theory have produced works that emphasize the increasing relationship between human beings and materialism, and humans and the diminishing reality of various aspects of traditionalism. This paper shall examine why the study of cultural theories have become so extremely pressing in this era, where the attempt to explore and justify a rapidly changing culture have driven those who study human theory to validate myriad aspects of human society. The works that shall be investigated are The Long Revolution and Marxism and Literature by Raymond Williams, Television Culture by John Fiske, and Cultural Populism by Jim McGuigan. Other relevant works on the subject of an increasing reliance on cultural theory shall be applied as fit.

A Synopsis of Bourdieu’s Works

This section shall briefly investigate the works of Pierre Bourdieu, with an emphasis on his term, habitus. The habitus is best explored as a "…system of acquired dispositions functioning on the practical level as categories of perception and assessment or as classificatory principles as well as being the organizing principles of action." (Bourdieu: 78 – 79) It is therefore easily seen how Bourdieu’s application of a habitus is found in respect to cultural theory, as Bourdieu places an emphasis on the overall significance of how human beings perceive their environment in addition to how they react to it.

In respect to how the modern expression of cultural theory has gained current significance, the habitus is best explored as the tools used to attempt to place all aspects of a modern society into context. The implications of a habitus is that there needs to be some form of structure that enables the human mind to function, where the human uses the habitus to structure their interactions with the world around them. However, the rapid changes in modern culture have created in the human being a feeling of displacement, where there is no overall comprehension of what culture should be. This means that the habitus that humans have always used as their references for culture need to be updated or restructured to keep up with the changes.

One example of the changing culture is the concept of globalization, which Bourdieu finds lies in direct contrast with the traditional manifestations of society. The process of globalization – where all elements of a traditional society are stripped away and are replaced with a more homogenous manifestation of an “imagined” society – has quickly swept up the world through a combination of the media and the introduction of capitalism. Bourdieu suggests that globalization can be defined through the cultural capital generated by a particular society, where cultural capital are the traits that make that society “legitimate”, or give it characteristics that distinguish that one culture from other cultures. Yet as globalization sweeps the earth, the cultural capital, as well as the habitus that defines it, falls apart and all aspects of different societies therefore become similar.

The modern emphasis on cultural theory, therefore, is to provide a sense of identity for the individual communities of the world. Through addressing the habitus that existed prior to the process of globalization as well as the alteration in that habitus that has since followed, cultural theorists can recreate identities for those who wish to study them.

Williams and “The Long Revolution”

The first work that shall be examined in this paper is that of Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution. This piece describes at length the need for humanity to recreate and function in something that he refers to as a cultural dialect. This cultural dialect, suggests Williams, existed since the time of the Enlightenment and provided human scholars with the tools for progressing in terms of intellectual thought. However, through the creation of a cultural dialect that was founded primarily on the concept of an infallible science, the various world cultures have needed to sacrifice various aspects of the spiritual needs found within human cultures. One excellent example of this type of cultural diminishment is found in the rise in the importance of sciences while religions have lost a great deal of power.

Williams argues that the loss of religions has created serious problems for human culture, where this loss has affected the solace of the human spirit. Williams suggests that spiritual needs are just as crucial to the welfare of humanity as material needs, and in placing the material needs before the spiritual needs, human beings have therefore negatively impacted their ability to meet their spiritual needs. One of the major problems inherent with this concept is that culture as was known before the Enlightenment was utterly demolished by the full acceptance of science and reason. Again, Williams suggests that particular social constructs, like that of Socialism, have collapsed because of the powerful focus directly on rationality and a denial of ethical or religious thought.

Because of this, notes Williams, the structure of the modern world is best perceived as a huge revolution concerning the manner in which human beings perceive themselves and the world around them. Bourdieu would call this a re- examination and a reconstruction of the basic habitus that drives human perceptions. Here, the new importance in cultural theory is to define and provide for a society that enables science and emotion to co- exist. For more information go to

Fiske and “Television Culture”

Perhaps the theories that most closely resembles Pierre Bourdieu in his works is that of John Fiske. Fiske’s theories present an examination of how the prevalence of television has created in society and culture a new “reality”, where the mass saturation of television has completely affected the culture of all who come in contact with the device. Fiske’s theories concerning the development of a “code” through television mimic those of Bourdieu and his theories of globalism and mass culture. In terms of a television code, Fiske writes: "A code is a rule-governed system of signs, whose rules and conventions are shared amongst members of a culture and which is used to generate and circulate meanings in and for that culture" (Fiske: 4) The implications of this code are resoundingly clear, where the new set of identification patters (or the habitus) generated by the popularity of television have created a new version of culture.

This may be difficult to understand, but examine the following: There is currently a great emphasis in modern society to be as physically beautiful as possible. While many would be correct in arguing that this particular behavior pattern is my no means a new concept in society, what is new is the predominant acceptance of specific standards of beauty within society. For example, standards of beauty are found in women who fit specific facial patterns and possess extremely thin bodies – physical types that might otherwise be considered unhealthy. Yet the acceptance of being “thin” has become a definition of beauty, even if the face does not correspond to the patterns. The emphasis on being thin has, Fiske would argue, no doubt been generated almost entirely by manufactured definitions of beauty as found in a television society.

The unconscious acceptance of these television codes has entered into society to such a degree that the average citizen of a developed country is not entirely certain which aspects of society are “real” and which have been fabricated by society. The individual human has had their beliefs so greatly impacted by television that it might very well be impossible to separate the independent cultures from the television cultures: Fiske indeed points out that there might not actually be any cultures in developed countries that are still removed from the television codes. Here, an emphasis on the study of cultural theory might be an attempt to pull the elements of a television society from the “real” society that existed prior to the fabrications of the television codes.

McGuigan and “Cultural Populism”

The term cultural populism is best defined by McGuigan as: “… the intellectual assumption, that the symbolic experiences and practices of ordinary people are more important analytically and politically than Culture with a capital C." (McGuigan: 4) This, suggests McGuigan, means that the entire structure of culture does not need to rely on manifestations of “culture” that are normally considered to represent a society, a tradition, or a people. Here, McGuigan finds that the events that one experiences on a mundane level better demonstrate specific cultural traits than do the fields of art, literature, or the other examples of “Culture”.

McGuigan’s theories are those that do not directly correspond to Bourdieu, as Pierre Bourdieu placed an extremely heavy emphasis on the role of “Culture” as being the among the best ways to examine the stability of a culture. McGuigan strongly disagrees with this concept: Rather than portraying selective elements of a society through works created for that sole purpose, McGuigan finds that the true method of exploring a society or a culture is through the unplanned and more intimate aspects encountered therein.

McGuigan finds that the problems in addressing the study of a culture based on what is publicly identified as “Culture” is counterproductive. For example, imagine walking through a museum and being informed that a particular painting best represents the entire culture of the Italian Renaissance. McGuigan would argue that no matter how beautifully executed or how detailed the painting, that one work would only represent the ideals and the accomplishments of a specific painter and could not possibly serve as a representation of all aspects of the Renaissance culture. To suggest otherwise would be to limit the achievements and the significance of that culture entirely.

It should be noted, however, that in no way is McGuigan suggesting that “Culture” be ignored. Rather, McGuigan finds that the best methods of supplementing what is known about a culture can come from such magnificent works, but that these works only serve to enhance what might already be known about a specific culture. Indeed, suggests McGuigan, the emphasis on “Culture” might be entirely erroneous as it only showcases the most highly intellectual works, and does not take into account the achievements or the lifestyles of those who fall into the categories of the less educated.

It can be seen from this description that McGuigan’s theories do not actively mesh with those of the three writers examined prior to his in this paper. However, McGuigan’s work does point out that the study of cultural theory has long since been actively limited to the study of “Culture”, and that this must cease if the world is to find a true niche concerning cultural identification. Here, the emphasis on culture in respect to changing cultural theory strongly suggests that a new method for examining culture be used.


This paper has examined the theme of why the study of cultural theory has become so pressing in the modern world. Four noted sociologists have been examined in order to best clarify this theme. The unifying theory that can be seen in the works of all four writers is that the actual study of culture is erroneous, either because the existing society is not demonstrative of a “real” culture or that the techniques themselves are inherently flawed.

In the works of Bourdieu, Fiske, and Williams, however, there is a serious emphasis on the belief that culture itself has become inherently altered to the point where it is difficult to identify it. For these three sociologists, the implications of an increased study of cultural theory is that human beings are currently without identification in their lives: In such an environment, there is little sense of tradition and even less sense of personal establishment. Bourdieu would suggest that this occurs because the habitus that sustained these things has been altered past the point of use. In order to change this feeling, the habitus must again be altered in order to provide reference, or that cultural theory coherently depicts culture in a manner so a new habitus is formed. 


  • Bourdieu, P. (1990). In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology (M. Adamson, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Douglas, M. (1989). “Culture and Collective Action”. In M. Freilich (Ed.), The Relevance of Culture. New York: Bergin & Garvey Publishers.
  • Fiske, J., (1987) Television Culture. London: Methuen.
  • Hall, S. (1997) Representation : Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
  • Hall, S. (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. Oxford: Corwin Press.
  • McGuigan, J. (1992) Cultural Populism. London: Routledge.
  • Schusky, E. L., & Culbert, T. P. (1978). Introducing Culture (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Sulkunen, P. (1982). “Society Made Visible–on the Cultural Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu”. Acta Sociologica. 25(2), 103-115.
  • Williams, R. (2001) The Long Revolution. New York: Broadview Press.

Women in China

Contrary to what one might be inclined to think about modern (contemporary) China (which now includes Hong Kong) , concubines still exist and are in fact, a part of the sociocultural fabric. Concubines and secondary wives have existed in China and other places over the past two thousand years. Often, nobles married sisters of their principle wife to avoid the jealousies which might otherwise arise. The goal of these additional marriages was to ensure that a son was produced and to provide a continuation of the lineage to worship the ancestors.

The fact that the practice still exists is a powerful indication of the relatively inferior status of women in China. Men remain in positions of power throughout most Chinese institutions, and this power extends as well to the home. Women are still responsible for the household duties, as well as for working at jobs in the workplace. The fact that a wife would allow or consider a husband’s concubine to “officially” exist indicates her position relative to her husband’s is very inferior indeed.

In fact, the existence of male power at the household level—as the persistence of concubines demonstrates—is reflective of the general superior position assigned to men.

Concubines, even when they produced sons, were not considered as equal with the first wife (Queen and Habenstein 1974:99). They were women used to produce sons, to solve the polyerotic urges of the male and to substitute for the first wife if no affection developed between her and her husband (Queen and Habenstein 1974:99-100).

Even in 1990, the typical wedding ended in a "mutual bow rather than a kiss," and parents were allowed to arrange the marriages to save face. (In the law of Hong Kong until 1967, several wives or concubines were legal. They continue to be accepted as long as a husband can afford both.

Concubinage, as mentioned, had deep historical roots in China. The tradition is as old Confucianism itself. While it is impossible to describe the full historical context of the practice, some notes about the Mooi-Jai which was, essentially, the concubine institution, can be made. As recently as 1921 all young girls whose parents have assigned their rights of guardianship to other families for a monetary consideration, and whose labour is at the free disposal of the new guardian till the age for marriage were officially defined as Mooi-Jai. (Jaschok, 1988: 8).The people who gave up their children were generally the very poor who might otherwise have no better choice.

One author, Lim, who was herself a ”mooi-jai”, suggests that there were worse things to do to the perceived excess of female infants. In Lim's village in China, "it was not at all unusual to find a baby wrapped in a blanket and left on a roadside" (Lim, 1958: 51). In some rare cases a girl was adopted for the traditional pennies left for the person who actually made this sacrifice of raising a girl child.

The infant mortality rate was so high (at 50% in the 1920s and 1930s in parts of China) that any resources spent on a female infant might be considered a waste of scarce family resources for the poor (Jaschok, p. 88).The ”mooi-jai• arrangements were marginally better than the system as practiced of exposing girl infants or strangling them at birth. However, in the nineteenth century, they became more purely economic arrangements than the traditional charity from wealthier families who took the child, used her labour through adolescence and provided her with a husband.

Some conclusions can now be drawn. First of all, the fact that a system of concubinage would exist in some form or other in China (or even just in parts of China, and even if it were only among certain classes), means that women in those circumstances are pretty much automatically lesser in status than men. Women are being utilized for the purposes of either satisfying male sexual desires or for procreating; specifically for reproducing a male for the husband. There is no additional compensation for these women and therefore, they are not even able to claim the status a prostitute in the western world might be able to claim. Their compensation is merely subsistence in many cases (it certainly was at the height of the Mooi-Jai system in this century), or a way of surviving and hoping for additional status at some time in the future. In any case the concubine is lesser than the number one wife and the number one wife already has lower status than the man.

This is remarkable in so-called “modern times” when at least some fairly significant strides have been made in the west in terms of the status of women. It is made all the more astonishing when considered together with the fact that female infanticide exists in China. Some may claim that this is more a matter of official state policy concerning the number of children per couple which is permitted. The extreme limitations which are intended to control population have fuelled the female infanticide but the fact that males are chosen over females in the first place indicates that females have a very low status as far as males are concerned. The solution to these problems of the status of women in China therefore, would have to be something which gets to the deepest roots of gender inequality. Merely outlawing infanticide (it is anyway), and concubinage (also illegal), will not change the minds of the populace. For more information go to


  • Jaschok, Maria. Concubines and Bondservants: The Social History of a Chinese Custom. London: Zed Books, 1988.
  • Lim, Janet. Sold For Silver. Singapore: Oxford University, 1958, 1985.
  • Queen, S. and R. Habenstein. The Family in Various Cultures. 4th Ed. New York: J. B. Lipincott. 1974.

Gender and Modernization

Gender and Modernization: Two Women's Struggle for Justice and Survival in the Face of Global Dependency Structures

Perhaps the most fascinating feature of both the novel, Nectar in a Sieve, and the oral history, Don't be Afraid Gringo, is how very similar the two stories are; although they are separated by decades in time, and thousands of miles in space. To a large degree, this may be attributed to the fact that both works concern cultures experiencing a similar crisis: the social impact of core-periphery economic exploitation upon traditional family existence in 1950s India and 1980s Honduras. However, the major point of similarity between the two texts is that their protagonists – the fictional Rukmani and the real-life Elvia – are women and mothers who perceive their economic exploitation and political oppression from a feminine perspective.

The core-periphery exploitation in the two texts takes different forms – colonial capitalism with the commodification of land as symbolized by the tannery factory in Nectar in a Sieve, and monopoly capitalism as figured in the oppression of field workers who produce fruit staples, mainly bananas, for the core market in Don't Be Afraid, Gringo. This essay will argue that both text's representation of their economic situations – of mercantilist core/staple producing periphery exploitation, semiproletariat relations with the comprador elite, family/church socialization and factory/military oppression – are depicted through the lens of female-male relations and family life in traditional cultures.

For example, it is impossible to separate the function of the factory as a symbol of economic oppression in Nectar in a Sieve without taking into consideration its devastating impact upon the family life of the Indian community in which it is situated. Rukmani's initial description of the tannery is noteworthy, for it carries both political and symbolic significance:

It was a great sprawling growth, this tannery. It grew and flourished and spread. Not a month went by but somebody's land was swallowed up, another building disappeared. . . . A never-ending line of carts brought the raw material in – thousands of skins . . . . It seemed impossible that markets could be found for such quantities . . . . Apart from the white man we had first seen – who owned the tannery and lived by himself – there were some nine or ten Muslims under him. They formed a colony of their own. . . . (Markandaya, 51)

In this passage, the hierarchical (and racist) structure of colonialism is subtly suggested by reference to the Muslims who work "under" the "white" tannery owner, and who together form a "colony" independent of the Indian community. Moreover, the tannery itself is symbolically represented as something alien; an impersonal, cancerous-like "sprawling growth" which "swallowed up" people's land, homes and lives in order to supply the insatiable markets of the core with the "skins" of the periphery.

The care spent in crafting the above passage – a moving depiction of the social "cancer" of core-periphery exploitation – leads a reader to suspect that the tannery will be the antagonist 3 for the novel's protagonist, Rukmani. Unlike the other villagers, who regard the comparatively high wages the tannery brings to the community as a blessing, Rukmani more insightfully perceives the social disruption the tannery brings to their traditional, familyoriented way of life; the noise, the hooligans, the dirty bazaars, and the slow corruption of easy money (Markandaya, 50).

This corruption, the commodification of human life itself by colonial capitalism, is figured in the family tragedies of Rukmani's daughter becoming a prostitute and her son being killed at the tannery. This fact is particularly emphasized when her son's body is brought home, and Rukmani at first does not understand why or how he died: "He had been caught, they said; something about money" (Markandaya, 93). Later, however, when two officials come from the tannery to intimidate Rukmani from seeking any compensation from the tannery for their killing of her son, she becomes aware that in the new economy even human life has a price:

"He should not have struggled. In these circumstances you naturally have no claim on us." "Claim?" I said. "I have made no claim. I do not understand you." Compensation, I though. What compensation is there for death? I felt confused. . . . There was no sense agreeing or disagreeing, the gulf between us was too wide. (Markandaya, 95-96)

The gulf Rukmani perceives here is the gap between the economics of the core and that of the periphery, and the domination of the latter by the former. In this context, the role of the comprador elite in supporting the colonial oppression is integral. It comes as no surprise that the final economic blow to Rukmani family is delivered by the tannery through her unseen landlord. Her husband – "trembling, impotent" – explains the justification of the tannery taking the land they have lived on for thirty years: "there is a profit to be made" (Markandaya, 134). Rukmani reflects that "I had always known the tannery would be our undoing", and now understands how the economic exploitation it represents has destroyed her family and her village (Markandaya, 135).

The comprador elite plays a similar role in Don't Be Afraid, Gringo, in oppressing the rural semiproletariat of Honduras to further the interests of the core. For example, Elvia relates how her friend Carmen's land was legally "stolen" by a rich landowner and politician (Alvarado, 117-118), and how rich landowners' sons attempt to murder and harass campesinos into submission (Alvarado, 73-76). She relates how the comprador elite uses its wealth to dominate the media and so inhibit the campesinos, largely uneducated and often frightened, from getting the story of their oppression out to a wider public (Alvarado, 63-4).

In this the comprador elite is aided by the Honduran military, for a key difference between the situations of Rukmani and Elvia is that the exploitation by the core in Honduras has an overtly political as well as economic dimension. In the place of the tannery corrupting the social fabric of the Indian village in Nectar in a Sieve, in Don't Be Afraid, Gringo we see how the gringo military bases – the American undeclared war against Nicaragua in the 1980s – cause a similar financial and social corruption in Honduras. The Palmerola base, like the tannery, brings a great deal of money into the area, and is similarly welcomed by some for this. For more information go to

Like the tannery, however, it also stimulates the moral corruption (and sexual exploitation) of prostitution. Moreover, much as the tannery was likened to a cancerous "growth", so the American base becomes associated with another disease spreading among the poor of Honduras: AIDs (Alvarado, 110-111).

In this corruption the Americans are aided by the Honduran military who do the "dirty work" necessary to keep the campesinos fearful and compliant. Elvia differs from Rukmani in that she is an activist against social injustice, and her prominence in this role leads her time and time again into conflict with the military who torture and murder innocents with no hesitation (Alvarado, 127-38). The comprador elite and the military are, to some degree, assisted in this by the Catholic Church. The Church's role in Elvia's story is both good and bad. She still thanks the Church for training her and other women as social workers – leading Elvia to leave her husband as she learns she need no longer passively accept his abuse – but when the women question not only their particular situation, the general economic exploitation of the periphery by the core, and the role of the comprador elites and military in this equation, the Church rejects them (Alvarado, 16- 17). By not following Christ's example as a crusader against social injustice, Elvia regards the Church as facilitating the continued exploitation of the poor (Alvarado, 29-38).

In conclusion, the representation of core/periphery exploitation in Nectar in a Sieve and Don't Be Afraid, Gringo in all its aspects – from the factory/military, to the family/church, and semiproletariate/comprador elite – is achieved through the lens of two women's perspectives. Their function as mothers and wives, their struggle against the sexist limitations of their genders(Rukmani's desire for education; Elvia's dealing with sexism and the threat of rape in a "macho" culture), all contribute to their moving stories of how woman, and people in general, in the developing world survive in the face of economic and political exploitation by the core industrial powers.


  • Alvarado, Elvia. Don't Be Afraid, Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart. Trans. and Ed. Medea Benjamin. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989.
  • Markandaya, Kamala. Nectar in a Sieve. Orig. Pub. 1954. New York: Signet, 1998. 

Deviant Physics in Mythological Spaces

Deviant Physics in Mythological Spaces and Other Important Points in Canto IV of Dante's Purgatorio

Dante' Purgatorio is not the most-studied of his works; by far the more famous is the Inferno, as well as more culturally salient. From the Commedia as a whole are derived many of the connotations of old moral and cultural systems, Catholicism no less than Scholasticism, which appears notably in scenes in the Paradiso involving medieval Christian scholar St. Thomas Aquinas. The Purgatorio as a whole is a reflection of the everyday struggle of ordinary persons, symbolized by the literary and historical figures that the narrative contains, rather than the celebrity-studded extremes of the Inferno and Paradiso. In medieval Italian culture, and in European culture generally, reference to the Commedia is a reference to the compendium of pre-Renaissance social and scholarly thought and art. The journey of Dante, Virgil, and the other poets through purgatory is a complex allegory and referential system that requires the utmost attention to detail. Thoughts about love, sin, and other human behaviors are distilled into the action, description, and dialogue of the Commedia. It is the task of the scholar to use the Commedia as a resource to determine the character of medieval thought, as well as to ferret out Dante's own divergent opinions that have propagated themselves through European cultural history. This paper will attempt to show how canto IV reflects the moral structure of Dante's faith and society, in revealing to us the physical structure of purgatory, as well as the cultural significance of Belacqua's pleas. It will also show how the extensive discourse on astronomy points up some features of metaphysical religious ontologies that are thought by some to be universal.

The Purgatorio is central to this issue of cultural reflection in literatre, for it is where Dante's vision of the afterlife diverges most from the mainstream view, and dictates from Rome. Traditionally, Limbo was the place reserved for the souls of unbaptized babies and pious people who died before the salvation of Christ. Dante admits many more to this list than merely those innocents whose deaths were badly timed; his Limbo is full of souls who would, in Rome's book, be firmly on one side or another, not suspended between the two in a state of "partly-good, partly-evil" (Cantor, 141) Dante's inclusion of the great poets of antiquity in the population of purgatory is unexpected, since they do not seem, in their works, to have given those "good sighs" at all, even at the last. Dante's allegorical structuring of purgatory is a reflection of his moral priorities, imposed on him by the continual gradation of punishment that the Church meted out to sinners.

In the Purgatorio, the entry into purgatory proper is preceded by a number of cliffs and ledges that form "ante-Purgatorio," the space between the outer rings of Hell and purgatory. The structure of purgatory itself is evident in passages about its mountainous aspect, especially as observed in cantos i-vi. The geography of the mountain is explained most thoroughly in canto IV, to which we will now turn our attentions. Ante-purgatory is occupied by the Late Repentant; those at the bottom of the mountain are the Excommunicated, and those nearer to the gate of purgatory are merely the Negligent, Indolent, and Unshriven, in that order (Ciardi, 30). Canto IV is an account of the Pilgrim's experience on the ledge of the Indolent, which is entered by a small gap in the rocks between this ledge and the foot of the mountain. The ascent to the first ledge is arduous, and the Pilgrim describes it as requiring not only hands and feet, but also wings (IV, 26-27). These are the sentiments of the lazy, that a struggle requires "inhuman" capabilities and that it is impossible to go onward without them, so one had better rest. Dante, in contrast with the indolent souls of the first ledge, is driven by the "swift wings and feathers of desire," a desire to know God, to ascend through purgatory to heaven, and also to know what happens to the souls in purgatory. Throughout the Commedia, the reader is fascinated by horrors and wonders in much the same way that the news-watcher is fascinated by human-interest stories, disaster, and scandal. The Pilgrim listens intently to the stories of souls he meets along the way because he is naively enthralled with his unearthly surroundings.

The fourth canto opens with a few stanzas of Dante’s philosophy of feelings. The apology that Dante makes for wasting his guide’s time listening to Manfred hinges on the notion that one can become lost in another’s sufferings just as easily as one can become lost in one’s own. This empathy with the incidental characters allows Dante’s narrative to proceed as it does, a device that is useful in character-driven allegories. In the first two stanzas, Dante refers to the Platonic notion that there are separate souls in the human being: one in the liver, one in the heart, and one in the brain (Ciardi, 61). These locations correspond to the impulses of the body, of the emotions, and of the intellect. However, the plurality of souls cannot be reconciled with the Christian doctrine of the unity of the soul. While this simplifies Christian mythology, it complicates the ethics of intentionality which Plato’s proposal was meant to solve. Dante’s reference to Plato’s ‘error’ is an erudite way of rationalizing the character’s habit of delaying the ascent of the group to heaven by listening to the piteous stories of those he encounters.

The canto moves on to a description of the nether-world’s peculiar astronomy, and it is this subject that does most of the work in this canto, and not necessarily the description of the ledge itself. Apparently the world is split into two hemispheres: one is the world of Zion, the promised land, and the other is the location of the mountain of purgatory. As the sun circles this orb at an angle to the disc of the equator, it appears to list to one side of the sky while it hangs over one hemisphere, and to the other side when it moves over the other hemisphere. This strikes Dante as extremely strange, and it is significant that he is so shocked by the appearance of celestial objects that he must ask Virgil about the position of the sun. In Dante’s era, astronomy was the most advanced of the sciences, for many of the same reasons that particle physics is so advanced in the current era. Being intent on ascending into heaven, most of Italy’s population was interested in some part in “what was going on up there?” This inquisitive temperament was absorbed by the Church, which funded approved studies of the heavens contingent upon the findings’ compatibility with established doctrine (Caesar, 109). But the astronomy of the Purgatorio is also in large measure part of Dante’s own personal mythology, which we shall never have the key to. However, by looking at the information contained in canto IV, we can draw inferences from both Dante’s evident ethical priorities and from the common mythology and astronomy of the fourteenth century that make sense of the model of the universe that canto IV describes.

Much of canto IV is also involved in describing the structure of the mountain, as mentioned above, and its allegorical behaviors. As the repentant ascend the mountain of purgatory, their journey starts out harshly. The first few levels of ascent are the most difficult, but as they reach the upper limits of the mountain, their journey becomes far easier, and Dante’s guide compares it to drifting a little boat down a river (IV, 93). If this seems to defy basic mountainclimbing principles, the reader has only to remember that this is a mystical mountain as well as a mythological one, and is subject to an intentional architecture rather than the arbitrary mystery that is the earth. The hardships of those who have a long way to travel are an impediment to their progress, but as the traveler nears the much-anticipated destination, he or she is so overcome by the closeness of the final entry to paradise that the steep mountain seems no obstacle at all.

The poets’ encounter with Belacqua is an informative turn of events. It demonstrates that purgatory can be just as unhappy a place as Limbo, the outer level of Hell. Belacqua is condemned to wait until sufficient time has passed, but he seems to have given up hope, for he is described as a “sorry heap,” (IV, 109- 112) and though the translation may be a bit colloquial, the reader is still given the impression that Belacqua’s fate is unwelcome, and he is close to giving up hope. However, his humorous jibes at the poets reflect his knowledge that he will, eventually, ascend to paradise. He has, after all, got the rest of eternity to wait. This description of punishment, as with those given throughout the poem, reflects a notion of God’s personality as being juvenile and vengeful. Though this may come as no surprise to scholars of Christian texts, it is interesting to note that the punishment meted out to Belacqua sounds remarkably like the technique used by many passive-aggressive types to punish their tardy romantic partners. The idea that God would be emotionally hurt by the unwillingness of His creation to be saved merely because they can be, is a bit of a logical stretch, but it is no less irrational than many of the beliefs that Dante, and indeed that Christianity, ask us to hold.

At the first ledge, Dante has been exposed to the wondrous strangeness of the nether realm’s astronomy. This point could bear more study, and it is here that the text of canto IV will be analyzed with an eye for comparison with the anthropology of religion. The strangeness of the sun’s position is discussed in IV 54-85, and make up the middle third of the canto. This “obscure middle” is often glossed over by scholars in order to get at the more interesting social commentary that the beginning and the end offer the reader. However, the religious ontology and astronomy of Dante’s universe are just as important as the value of eager faith to an understanding of the early Renaissance. The Pilgrim’s wonderment at the path of the sun is an odd remark, and strikes the reader as contrived, since after such a long and strenuous climb, the last thing one would think to check would be the location of such a reliable landmark as the sun. How, one wonders, would Dante be able to tell the sun’s northward-swinging arc independently of the sun’s position itself? It is its angle from the shore that tells Dante what is amiss. This mild strangeness is a common feature of supernatural environments. The reader will note that gravity still applies, and that the sun does rise and set every day, as is common to many mythological locations (Erickson, 11). However, features of purgatory that violate earthly principles are the ‘backwards’ position of the sun, and as mentioned above, the decrease of a climber’s exertion as the angle of ascent increases with the approach of heaven. These features, though not unimaginable, are leaps of faith that the author thinks will make this purgatory a believable deviation from earth. Surely Dante would be happy to concede a few revisions if it was discovered that the lower half of the earth was not the home of souls on probation, but of Australians. His astronomical predictions, however, would bear out, since it is true that the sun’s path in the sky does in fact tilt to the left when one looks eastward in the southern hemisphere.

Recent writing about the anthropology of religion has turned on the Chomskian idea of universality, which seems to be propagating itself through anything that will call itself a science. Western religions have been taboo for many years as a subject of study in this field, though for what reason I know not; the ideal of scientific objectivity has been an uneven guide at best for the social sciences. Cognitive models for religion contain a comprehensive ontology for the nether-world or myth-space, whether it contains Valhalla, il Inferno, or a clamor of angels praising God. Each person has their own vision of this myth-space, but in general it is to be expected that the rules that apply to the physical world also apply to the metaphysical, with notable exceptions. In Dante’s case, these exceptions are almost arbitrary: they follow from moral guiding metaphors and common astronomical wisdom, but they mark purgatory as a strange place, literally un-earthly. Paul Boyer’s study of central African and South American myth systems, as well as other cognitive anthropologies of religion, go a long way in establishing the usefulness of these aberrations in propagating these ideas throughout culture (Boyer, 149). It is probably agreeable to many Dante scholars, as well as measurably true, that the conception of the Christian mythspace that is proposed in the Commedia has become part of the Western cultural tradition, and contains features which are part of many people’s mental model of heaven, hell, and purgatory. Boyer’s findings detail a system of thinking about ghosts. His hypothesis is that the strange features of ghosts – that they are invisible, can move faster than the eye can see, cannot communicate with humans directly – make them “salient,” or memorable and likely to become part of a culture’s mythology. If ghosts’ abilities are too outlandish, however, they will not become part of mainstream culture. We can see this phenomenon in action when considering how little of advanced theology has become part of the mainstream Judeo-Christian concept of God. However much the educated faithful would like to believe that God is invisible, omnipotent, and unknowable, most day-to-day concepts of God still echo the image of a wise bearded man on a huge throne floating in the sky (Banton, 16). Concepts of religion must yield to the limitations of the human imagination, it appears, and even though we may annotate them with references to infinity, they are still beholden to what images we can compose from our experience.

There is a peculiar irony in the position of the indolent being nearly outside the gates of purgatory itself. It is as though the author wishes to suggest that these souls can’t even trouble themselves to climb the short way to the door, but must lie around outside it like vagrants. The story of these souls, according to most scholars, is that they waited until their final moments to convert to Christianity; as Belacqua says: “I delayed the good sighs till the last” (IV 132). This practice of deathbed conversion was in fact common among Medieval pagans, including Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state religion of the Byzantine Empire. The practice was derided by pious Christians, who saw in these latecomers the shallow conversion from fear, not the earnest faith of the true convert. Hasty conversions that were made in the face of one’s own mortality were apparently not enough to put one squarely on the roster of St. Peter, but those in Purgatory retain hope of eternal salvation, and the knowledge that with a little effort they will achieve it. The trials of the indolent attest to the fact that even in Dante’s era, the seeds of Calvinism and the Puritan work ethic were brewing in Christian theology. If indolence is sinful, then the ideal Christian life is obviously the life of faithful hard work in the service of God. This demonstrates the same sort of disdain for the ‘contemplative life’ that Calvin and Luther wrote of; though for 14th-century Catholics, it is possible that the contemplative life was perceived to be a restrained, difficult scholarly endeavor. Christianity is portrayed in the Purgatorio as something difficult to maintain, which upon examining the requirements for being a perfect Christian, one might be led to believe. The most pious souls alone were admitted to paradise, those repentant souls who had committed any sins at all were left below.

The punishment that the indolent receive, that of being made to wait out a term equal to the unsaved (but no longer ignorant) part of their lives, seems like a fitting, but ineffective one. The reader may wonder, why are the indolent being punished by being allowed to remain their usual indolent selves, and not subjected to a trial of exertion or of impatience? The purpose of the Purgatorio, however, is not to decide fitting punishments for the souls of the sinful repentant, but to describe them in a personal context. Like the history plays of Shakespeare, Dante’s Purgatorio draws from old and established stories about what happens to the soul in purgatory (Fergusson, 230). Since Christianity was an enormous part of Italian culture in the 14th century, it is reasonable to assume that much of the popular imagination was captured by ideas of what the afterlife would be like, similarly to the contemporary fascination with what life in outer space is like.  For more information go to

Canto IV of the Purgatorio concerns a minor part of purgatory itself, and even of ante-purgatory. However, apart from the presence and experiences of the indolent souls, this canto concentrates on revealing the astronomy and physics of the theological space that is purgatory. Dante’s description places the poets’ feet squarely on the ground, though the fact that it is no familiar earthly ground is made perfectly clear by aberrations in the behavior of the mountain’s physical laws. Associating purgatory with the unexplored territories of the earth makes the idea all the more real and accessible, while the oddity of the environment makes the story salient and memorable. These features of the Purgatorio, as expressed in canto IV, have helped to make this canonical work an inextricable part of Italian, and of Western culture.


Banton, Michael. Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Tavistock Publications, 1968.

Boyer, Pascal. “Cognitive Constraints on Cultural Beliefs: Natural Kinds and Religious Ontologies,” in Mapping the Mind, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Caesar, Michael, ed. Dante: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge Press, 1989.

Ciardi, John, tr. The Purgatorio of Dante Alighieri. New York: New American Library/Mentor, 1959.

Erickson, Wayne. Mapping the Faerie Queene: Quest structures and the world of the poem. New York: Garland Publishers, 1996.

Fergusson, Francis. Dante’s drama of the mind: a modern reading of the Purgatorio. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956. 

Aristotle on Motion


In his book, Living Time and the Integration of the Life, Maurice Nicoll describes some of Aristotle’s main ideas regarding the concept of motion: “That the existence of all things can be understood as movement from potential to actual existence; that the movement of all things is an unceasing movement, and that the source of movement is the First Mover which draws finite things from potential into actual existence (Nicoll, p125, p161).”

In his book, The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra says, “The scientific knowledge of antiquity was systematized and organized by Aristotle, who created the scheme which was to be the basis of the Western view of the universe for two thousand years (Capra, p8).”

Aristotle was a brilliant philosopher, but many of his scientific beliefs have been proven to be incorrect. One example is the fact that Aristotle believed that the earth was the center of the universe.


Regarding Aristotle’s views on the idea of motion, he was in conflict with another Greek thinker named Zeno who 2 had attempted to analyze the motion of an object as a series of “still frames.”

Aristotle did not believe that motion could not occur this way. Aristotle believed that, “In real life an object moved as a continuous whole (Wolf, p.13),” and he was successful in turning others away from thinking along Zeno’s train of thought. His contemporaries came to agree that motion, at least in principle, was a continuous stream of inseparable still instants. Basically, Aristotle believed in the continuity of movement and not with earlier scientific thoughts which espoused the discontinuity of movement.

It seems that Aristotle’s primary reasoning for believing in the continuity of motion revolved around the idea of the infinity of space and time, or the space and time which an object occupied while in motion, i.e., specifically as it moved form one place to another.

He reasoned that one cannot add up small pieces of space or time into infinity, but that if one took a finite region of space or moment of time, that then one could go on dividing it up into infinity by making smaller and smaller sections (Wolf, p15). This would prove that motion was continuous.

Aristotle used an example of a runner in a race. He pointed out that because the distance of the race is finite, it could be divided into as many small pieces as one wanted… into infinity. He said that the time it would take the runner to run the race was also finite, and so could also be divided up into as many small pieces as one wanted. He concluded that, “continuous motion exists because it doesn’t take an infinite amount of time for the runner to run the race, and that both the time taken and the distance covered are finite, even though they can be infinitely subdivided (Wolf, p.20).”

Aristotle’s view of motion reflected his view of the physical universe and nature: that things operate as a continuous flow, changing by process into something (or somewhere) else. He believed time was infinite, or eternal, and that all things flowed and moved in cycles.


In the book, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking explains that Aristotle believed that matter itself was continuous, and that it too could be divided up into smaller and smaller bits without any limit. A few other Greeks in his time disagreed with him. They believed that matter could be broken down into basic separate components, or building blocks (Hawking, p63). For centuries, scientists searched for these “basic building blocks to life” only to realize that as they divided molecules and atoms into smaller and smaller pieces, they were unable to actually find a “basic building block.” Instead, they began to discover a strange new subatomic, or invisible, world that operated on principles that were not at all as straight forward as philosophers such as Aristotle liked to believe, i.e., they discovered the strange world which came to be known as quantum physics.

To illustrate this idea of continuous and discontinuous motion, one can use the idea of movies or film: putting still pictures together on film and playing them at 24 frames per second certainly gives one the illusion of movement, or more specifically, the movement of action of characters or events for instance. And because the human eye can’t see the separated (subdivided) pictures, it causes the action to appear as smooth and continuous motion. For more information go to

According to newer quantum thinking, however, it’s easy to say motion is continuous and smooth provided we can’t see it (just as when we watch a movie). But if we can see it, by using experiments that allow scientists to observe at the subatomic level, motion then appears to be discontinuous (Wolf, p23).

Newer quantum theory does not agree entirely with Aristotle’s view of motion. It sees truth in Zeno’s theories and in Aristotle’s, saying that sometimes motion is continuous and sometimes it is discontinuous.

Aristotle was more a philosopher than he was a scientist. It may be important to note that he believed time was absolute, but, along with Newton, he did not believe in absolute space (Hawking, p18). This means that he thought the time between two events could be measured exactly, and that it would be the same regardless. He also viewed time as completely separate from space, whereas it is now seen as a dimension that is connected to the three dimensions of space, and is often referred to as space-time (Capra, p154). In other words, Aristotle could see the relativity of space and events occurring in space, but he did not see the relativity of time.

Perhaps if Aristotle would have believed in or conceptualized the theory of relativity, he would have come to different conclusions regarding many of his ideas, theories, and beliefs, and perhaps his concept of motion would have been different. But he believed that, “The questions concerning the human soul and the contemplation of God’s perfection were much more valuable than investigations of the material world (Capra, p8).”


In conclusion, Aristotle was a deep thinker, a philosopher and contemplator, but his concept of motion and time could almost be called more spiritual than scientific.


  • Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. Boston: Shambhlala Publications, 1984.
  • Hawking, Stephen W. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, 1988.
  • Nicoll, Maurice. Living Time and the Integration of the Life. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1985.
  • Wolf, Fred Alan. Taking the Quantum Leap. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.