Cultural History and New Cultural History

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Christopher E. Forth

There is little sense in searching for the concrete origins of cultural history, as every apparent intellectual inspiration may be shown to have been in turn inspired by some earlier development. As Peter Burke notes, in some cases the result is a "regress that leads us back to Aristotle, who discussed the internal development of literary genres such as tragedy in his Poetics, while his teleological views might entitle him to be called the first recorded Whig historian." (Varieties, p. 21). This essay poses for itself a much more modest task, and situates classical and new cultural history within the context of intellectual developments in the western world since the eighteenth century. In light of its relevance in the twenty-first century, new cultural history is taken as the primary focus of the following discussion and attempts are made to articulate its theoretical and methodological ingredients in light of its relationships with cognate approaches and the critical debates that it has inspired.

One of the most obvious differences between these two approaches to the history of culture concerns the rather dramatic expansion of the term itself. As Raymond Williams has shown, the history of this complex idea reveals the interplay of several overlapping meanings, and since the eighteenth century "culture" has denoted: 1) a general process of intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual development; 2) a specific way of life, be it of a group, a period, or humanity in general; and 3) the works and practices of intellectual and artistic activity. In English the first and third understandings of the term refer to and reinforce one another, thus fueling the assumption that culture is something that certain societies (or at least their social elites) possess while others do not. Matthew Arnold's 1869 definition of culture is often considered exemplary of this view: "a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world" (Culture and Anarchy, p. 4). Culture was a moral and exclusivist concept that sketched tacit distinctions between social and ethnic groups by indicating culturally orthodox works of art and literature as well as the development of a sensibility capable of appreciating them. As we will see below, new cultural historians take as their point of departure the second definition of the word, and by developing it they seek to avoid the elitist and ethnocentric presumptions that inform the other two. This point of departure also brings them into the social historian's field of reference.

The relationship between social and cultural history has been and remains somewhat complex, even with the more anthropological approach to culture. Many social historians were initially impatient with cultural evidence, preferring topics that could be quantified (for example, family structure rather than family values) or looking to non-cultural causes, as in the dominant trends in the history of protest. We will see below that the marxist approach to social history raised some particular issues, though there could be overlap with culture. But a larger shift to cultural issues occurred from the late 1970s onward, often called the cultural "turn," though it to some extent built upon earlier social history traditions. Many social historians turned to cultural factors because they could not otherwise explain change: shifts in birthrates, for example, could be quantified, but their causes were more elusive. Interest in new topics such as gender, where cultural factors loom large, also played a role in the cultural turn. Strong interest in cultural topics and explanations persists in social history, though some social historians worry that quantitative methodologies and more "objective" issues like class structures or power relationships are being unduly downplayed in the process. Whether social history and the "new" cultural history are one and the same, or whether they continue to express different if overlapping orbits, is not yet fully resolved. The "new" cultural history reflects autonomous developments within the cultural field as well as a rebalancing within social history itself.


Instances of what could be called cultural history have existed throughout the modern era, but most of these have tended to be rather journalistic accounts of day-to-day curiosities that struck the fancy of various amateur historians. There are also many examples of histories of cultural developments like music, art, literature, and ideas, that could be counted as cultural history defined broadly. For instance, Jacob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) is often considered a founding work of modern art history. Yet, in its treatment of trends rather than events, this careful study of the art and literature of the sixteenth century also sought to access a broader shift in the European mind during a period of dramatic change. Johan Huizinga's The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919) is another famous example of classical cultural history. Yet such concerns were clearly peripheral to the reigning historiographical orthodoxy of the nineteenth century, an ethos traceable to the German historian Leopold von Ranke, who insisted on the careful consideration of documentary evidence with a focus on political leaders and nation states. As academic historical practice became more completely professionalized in the late nineteenth century, with many history departments modeling themselves after German examples, cultural history came to be generally considered the domain of "amateurs" with more of a literary than a "scientific" bent.

Nevertheless, such orthodoxies were increasingly challenged by the end of the nineteenth century by historians in Germany, France, and the United States, with many arguing that the scientific conception of history should meet the demands of modern society. In America, Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis" directed attention to the role of geography in the creation of national identity, while proponents of the "New History," such as James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard, called for a shift toward a comparative social and cultural history capable of analyzing broader social processes rather than the agency of prominent individuals. In France, sociologist Émile Durkheim and historian Henri Berr launched a similar critique of conventional historiography, and thus paved the way for the 1929 founding of the journal Annales: économies, sociétés, civilisations, a periodical that insisted on a cross-fertilization among the social sciences and that self-consciously refuted the primacy of individuals in history. German historians proved far more resistant to such innovations, however, and responded angrily to Karl Lamprecht's search for laws of social and political development in his multivolume German History (1891).

This transitional period suggests that it would be a mistake to draw a sharp break between classical cultural history and late-twentieth-century conceptions of this approach, largely because certain key practitioners of the former were also experimenting with broader definitions of culture. Huizinga himself represented a bridge between old and new cultural history by becoming interested in psychological factors in his later years. In addition, members of the so-called Annales school incorporated methodologies from a range of human sciences, from economics and demography to sociology and anthropology. One must also cite the example of Aby Warburg who, in Germany during the 1920s, pioneered a form of interdisciplinary cultural studies called Kulturwissenschaft that challenged earlier conceptions of a monolithic cultural tradition with the aid of anthropological models.


Not only does the so-called new cultural history represent a more thoroughgoing application of anthropological understandings of cultural life, but it does so in a reflexive manner that problematizes the writing of history itself. Indeed, it calls into question at once the subject and the object of knowledge by asserting how deeply mediated all human life is by signifying systems that vary both from society to society and differ even within societies. For instance, where classical cultural historians like Burckhardt focused on elite culture and emphasized the autonomy of artistic and literary works, today one is likely to encounter treatments of culture that emphasize how such works are invested with significance by critics and audiences whose modes of perception and appreciation are shaped by broader social and cultural developments. Moreover, the broader conception of culture that is employed by new cultural historians often means less of an emphasis on elite culture than on collective structures of perception, emotion, and belief—in short, a consideration into the mental conditions that rendered such things as events and leaders possible.

This section outlines a number of theoretical and methodological precursors to new cultural history. In order to impose some coherence over a body of scholarship that is really quite heterogeneous, it treats new cultural history in terms of one of his most characteristic methodological features: its consideration of the objects of historical study in terms of their place in a wider cultural environment that not only frames them, but that in many respects allows them to exist in a certain way. Sometimes referred to as social or cultural constructionism, for the sake of continuity it refers to this tendency as a new form of "historicism."

Historicism. It is interesting to note that the topical and theoretical innovations of new cultural history were implicit in the same historiographical orthodoxy that marginalized classical cultural history. Traditional or "old" historicism developed in eighteenth-century Germany as a reaction against British and French social contract theories that emphasized the formative role of rational individuals in social life. Utilizing the heuristic fiction of an originary state of nature (wherein men rationally consented to become a society for the mutual protection of life and property), these liberal theories assumed an atomistic view of society in which isolated individuals pursued their own self-interest without the mediation of anything beyond their own minds. Placing a premium on this presocial capacity to reason meant that theorists like John Locke also denigrated the role of "mere custom" as an obstacle to rational thought, and thus in some respects discouraged scholars from taking cultural and social factors seriously.

Many eighteenth-century German thinkers rejected this notion that society was reducible to the sum of its parts, and emphasized instead the emotional nature of the social bond as opposed to the rational calculation of individuals. Johann Gottfried Herder, for instance, emphasized the feelings and traditions that bind a people or Volk together, including common customs, common experiences, and most importantly common language. This Volk was viewed as a living totality greater than the sum of its parts, thus initiating a rival strand of European social thinking that emphasized organicism and custom. Arguing against "metaphysical" appeals to universal moral standards or assertions of the constancy of human nature over time, Herder proposed that all phenomena be judged only in relation to their historical contexts, and rather than lend his support to widespread assertions of the inherent superiority of western culture, he insisted on the specific and variable nature of cultures across the world and according to various economic and social groups within a single nation. This general historicist standpoint informed Ranke's celebrated claim that historians should not judge the past in moral terms, but should rather "show what really happened," an assertion that has been misunderstood in Anglo-American circles as an affirmation of a simple empirical view of the past. Maurice Mandelbaum's succinct definition of the historicist project is worth quoting: "Historicism is the belief that an adequate understanding of the nature of any phenomenon and an adequate assessment of its value are to be gained through considering it in terms of the place which it occupied and the role which it played within a process of development" (History, Man, and Reason, p. 42).

Although German historicists theoretically validated the study of culture as being worthy of historical interest, in actual practice they narrowed their focus to the study of politics and nation states, thereby restricting themselves to topics supported by voluminous documentary evidence. Informed by more recent theoretical developments in scholarly fields like anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, and feminist theory, new cultural historians have tried to preserve the analytically useful aspects of "old" historicism while jettisoning what they consider its more questionable assumptions. Indeed, in addition to their recognition of the emotional nature of communal bonds and the need to consider all phenomena as the result of historical change, German historicists often glorified the state, insisted on the inherent unity of individual cultures, and envisioned the historical process as being powered by principles that were immanent to that process (and thus not subject to the contingencies of historical flow). While Karl Marx took issue with the idealist tenets of the historicist tradition (chiefly exemplified in the works of G. W. F. Hegel), he nevertheless reproduced many of its metaphysical tendencies in his theory of historical materialism. Looking back on a century that witnessed two world wars, the systematic extermination of millions in Nazi concentration camps, and Stalinist totalitarianism in the Soviet Union, many westerners are understandably skeptical of such overarching historical frameworks and, in the often quoted observation of French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, often manifest incredulity toward such grand narratives.

Marxism. Among nineteenth-century historicists, Marx was one of the few to observe that economic conditions and social hierarchies contribute to the predominance of certain ideas and institutions, and thus paved the way for many future historiographical innovations. Marxist-oriented social history therefore provided a fertile source for new cultural history, though the relations between these approaches have not always been amicable. Unlike their Soviet counterparts, western marxist social theorists have done much to develop this cultural dimension of Marx's ideas, often by complementing them with insights from Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Max Weber. Through his influential concept of "cultural hegemony," for instance, the Italian marxist Antonio Gramsci prompted a rethinking of the power that ideas can exercise over the minds of people, allowing social elites to rule more effectively by securing the consent of the governed. Other notable theorists, especially Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and others associated with the so-called Frankfurt School, have proposed viewing mass entertainment as a veritable "culture industry" that neutralizes the potential for dissent in western societies and thus dominates populations through consent. In the hands of many marxist theorists, then, culture is a veritable handmaiden of class domination, and remains firmly tethered to the mode of production.

In addition to these developments in critical social theory, cultural historians have been inspired by the work of British marxist social historians like Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé, and especially Edward Thompson, who pioneered the notion of a "history from below" partly as a means of restoring to the largely forgotten members of the proletariat a sense of having taken an active role in their own formation. In his epic work The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson emphasized the interplay between individual agency and social structure in the case of the proletariat, and thus attempted to reconcile two apparently contradictory aspects of traditional marxist theory. Class consciousness was not something that proletarians blindly attained, but actively cultivated: "the working class was present at its own making." The call to explore "history from below" forms but one part of Thompson's legacy to cultural historians, many of whom have also been inspired by his innovative forays into the world of workers' beliefs and communal values that called into question longstanding understandings of crowd violence as mere irrational outbursts. Taking as his example the so-called "bread riots" of the early modern period, Thompson persuasively argued for the existence of a persistent "moral economy," where grain and other staples were seized during times of hardship in order to be sold at a price considered reasonable to members of the community. In such instances collective outrage at hoarders and speculators were refracted through the cultural traditions already in place.

Despite the undeniable contributions that marxist social history has made to new cultural history, there is significant disagreement on a number of key theoretical points. One point of tension pertains to the status that traditional marxist theory has accorded culture in everyday life. In their treatment of the ideas and institutions that characterize any given society, marxists have generally grounded all such "ideological" phenomena in the dominant mode of production, thus maintaining that the determining role of the economic "base" determines the context of its cultural "superstructure." Marxism therefore usually views culture as an expression of underlying forces. Indeed, for all of his attempts to problematize a simple correspondence between consciousness and material life, Thompson too contended that "class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born—or enter involuntarily" (p. 9). A second point of disagreement concerns the knowledge claims implicit in the marxist practice of ideology critique. As an offshoot of nineteenth-century historicism, marxism too acknowledges that phenomena should be judged in relation to their historical conditions of development. Moreover, in its recognition of the formative role of economic and social conditioning over the world of ideas, marxism comes close to admitting that knowledge is itself contingent and shaped by historical factors. Yet despite these historicist tendencies marxism still tends to view itself as a science that can dispel cultural illusions or "ideology" to reveal the "truth" about economic domination. Whereas all other social actors are supposedly trapped in the web of ideological distortion, the marxist critic implicitly remains capable of perceiving reality in a more or less transparent manner. Finally, both marxism and social theory have often been less concerned with factors of gender and race, and frequently assume that instances of sexual and racial discrimination are ultimately reducible to an economic foundation.

None of this is to suggest that contemporary cultural historians exclude from their analyses a consideration of socioeconomic factors or that they fail to recognize instances of class domination. Rather, they contest the determinist claim that all forms of social control must necessarily be reflections of a material base. Indeed, sexual and racial discrimination have histories that do not rely solely on the means of production for their particular historical manifestations, and thus encourage us to question the marxist insistence on the predominance of economics in all forms of domination. One must also acknowledge that late-twentieth-century marxist theory proved receptive to critiques of the base/superstructure model, and one is now more likely to see more sophisticated analyses of the relationship among economics, culture, gender, and race. The British tradition of "cultural materialism" represents one example of this openness in literary criticism, while the "post-marxist" theories of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and others also betray an engagement with theoretical developments. In fact, marxist social historians were among the first to apply new linguistic models of culture to the study of the past, though one may wonder to what extent one can do so while remaining marxist.

The Annales school. New cultural historians have also been inspired by the "history of mentalities" as practiced by French historians linked to the well-known scholarly journal Annales. Opposed to the conventional historical preoccupation with events and seeking to establish productive relationships with other disciplines, founding members Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch drew upon recent psychological and sociological insights in order to access a hitherto ignored dimension of historical experience. Marc Bloch's classic study The Royal Touch demonstrated how popular beliefs in the king's ability to heal scrofula represented a durable mental system that did not die simply because the much sought cure did not always occur. The Annalistes nevertheless failed to provide a rigorous theorization of the relationship between mentalités and other environmental factors, and some like Pierre Chaunu concluded that it represented a "third level" of historical inquiry more or less determined by developments taking place on the putatively more primary level of social and economic life. Hence, the Annalistes contended that culture was at heart an expression of underlying structures, and shared the marxist reluctance to accord it an autonomous status. Fourth-generation Annalistes such as Roger Chartier and Jacques Revel proved much more receptive to theoretical developments and conceived of culture as operating independently of social and economic determinants.

Semiotics. Most importantly, new cultural historians generally recognize the centrality of language to the production of cultural forms and human consciousness. By "language" these scholars do not mean individual words or phrases, but language as described by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure early in the twentieth century: a signifying system in which individual words acquire meaning through their differential relationships with other words. Concepts such as "white" or "male," for instance, are only arbitrarily connected to their referents in reality, and their meaning is constructed through their difference from all other words in the system. Nor is the individual speaker the source of language and the guarantor of its meaning, for shared systems of signification may be shown to precede and mold individual consciousness. Partly inspired by Durkheim's notion of "collective representations," Saussure suggested that our views of the world are always shaped and constrained by the signifying system in which we have been socialized. Contrary to conventional thinking, language does not express a pregiven and independent reality, but constructs or constitutes it for members of specific linguistic communities.

Saussurean linguistics represented an essential component of the method of semiotic analysis known as structuralism, a manner of systematically studying a wide variety of "signs," from conventional linguistic ones to cultural signs like wrestling matches, cuisine, kinship systems, and bird calls. French structuralists like the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that myths are one example of the sort of "deep structures" of human existence that obey a common "grammar" possessed by all peoples. Such cognitive structures are, for Lévi-Strauss, collective and not reducible to individual consciousness, and illustrate the centrality of binary oppositions for the ordering and categorization of the world. In their extension of Saussurean linguistics into other areas, structuralists performed a double movement that had profound implications for later scholarship: they questioned at once the subject and the object of knowledge—the knower and the known—by showing the extent to which human experience is mediated by cultural or "discursive" structures.

Whereas structuralism focused closely on binary opposites that were considered to be stable and universal characteristics of cultural life, the next generation of French thinkers (dubbed "poststructuralists" by the Anglo-American world) undermined the putative stability of such structures to emphasize the fluidity and "play" that attend all instances of signification. What the philosopher Jacques Derrida termed "deconstruction" is a method of critical reading that demonstrates how all apparent oppositions are not really oppositions at all. Rather, in every instance of an "either/or" opposition, each side of the copula not only depends on the other for its very coherence, but the relationship is always implicitly hierarchical, with one side usually achieving predominance over the other. Some examples of this opposition/hierarchy include "white" and "black," "male" and "female," "center" and "periphery," "healthy" and "diseased," all of which can be deconstructed to reveal the implication of one in the other. The cognitive stability that collective mental structures seemed to ensure was now undermined by the tendency of cultural categories to slide into one another.

One result of this critical attention to language and the double bracketing of the subject and object of knowledge was an increased reflexivity on the part of many historians: if we are able to decipher the internal contradictions and hidden biases of our historical subjects, what then of our own attempts to make the past appear coherent? Although deconstruction is useful for thinking about the ways in which binary oppositions are put together, one is more likely to encounter the deconstructive method in the works of intellectual historians who critically reread classic historical works and theorize the narrative nature of all historical writing. Hayden White is the undisputed pioneer in this field, and was one of the first historians to incorporate the insights of literary criticism in his well-known work Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973), which investigates how well-known historians have "emplotted" their works in one of four dominant western narrative styles. Today there are a number of prominent intellectual historians who study the "poetics" of historical writing, including Dominick LaCapra, Hans Keller, F. R. Ankersmit, Allan Megill, and Robert Berkhofer.

Anthropology. While more theoretically inclined and self-reflexive cultural historians have been informed by such insights into language, most seem to have followed the lead of social scientists who have applied such semiotic theories to the study of culture itself. Anthropology has proven an especially influential field for the elaboration of new theories of culture, and many historians have been inspired by Clifford Geertz, who in his approach to culture submitted that "Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of a law but an interpretive one in search of meaning" (The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 5). Unraveling the many layers of significance that inform cultural formations is a hermeneutical operation akin to the interpretation of a literary text, and thus gives rise to what Geertz calls "thick description."

Much new cultural history betrays the influence of semiotic and anthropological theories of culture. British social historians like Gareth Stedman Jones were among the first to experiment with such conceptions, but in so doing they ended up challenging earlier marxist reductions of social consciousness to material reality. Stedman Jones's strong claim that we "cannot therefore decode political language to reach a primal and material expression of interest since it is the discursive structure of political language which conceives and defines interest in the first place" represents a definite departure from conventional marxist theory. Natalie Zemon Davis, an American social historian and former marxist, was also receptive to anthropological models of communal life, and likewise criticized a crude base/superstructure model in her work on peasant customs and rituals in early modern France.

Michel Foucault and historicism. A number of other theorists played a part in the elaboration of new cultural history, including Pierre Bourdieu, Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan, to name but a few. Without a doubt, however, the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault exercised the most significant and durable impact on this historiographical approach. Inspired by the example of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Foucault's "genealogical" method historicizes that which has been considered "natural" or otherwise outside of the reach of historical influences. Where Nietzsche sought the subtle and forgotten beginnings of morality in violence and coercion (rather than in some absolute sense of the good), Foucault turns his attention to topics like sexuality, insanity, criminality, and illness to suggest not only that one can write histories of such phenomena (thus opening up new topics for historical study), but that such phenomena are themselves the effect of historical developments and cannot simply be considered "natural." By refusing to search for the inherent meaning of things in their putatively stable essence or "origin," Foucault insists that such things "must be made to appear as events on the stage of historical process" ("Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," 1977, p. 152).

Foucault advocates a strong version of historicism that questions the pregiven reality of a range of human experiences, from madness and sexuality to criminality and the body. One effect of this historicism is a radical questioning of the metaphysical concept of "Man" that has undergirded the western intellectual tradition. As Foucault asserts in a memorable passage: "Nothing in man—not even his body—is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men" (1977, p. 153). By challenging the "natural" aspects of human life, Foucault does not recommend that we deny the materiality of the body but, as he explains toward the end of The History of Sexuality, Volume One, that we "make it visible through an analysis in which the biological and the historical are not consecutive to one another . . . but are bound together in an increasingly complex fashion." Hence, unlike an Annaliste history of mentalities that might consider only how the body has been perceived, Foucault calls for a " 'history of bodies' and the manner in which what is most material and most vital in them has been invested" (pp. 151–152).

Questioning the conventionally understood relationship between knowledge and power was central to Foucault's brand of historicism, and proved especially fruitful for many styles of new cultural history. Traditionally seen as committed only to truth and remaining "disinterested" in the pursuit of social status or professional accolades, knowledge has been often seen not only as distinct from power, but as its veritable antithesis. Eighteenth-century intellectuals set the tone for such an understanding, suggesting that knowledge, reason, and public discussion could be used to unmask the mental domination of religious dogma and to critique the status quo. Although marxist social theory proved instrumental in situating the production of knowledge in its socioeconomic contexts (particularly by showing how accepted ideas frequently mirror the interests of the dominant class), Foucault rejects the marxist assumption that a more judicious use of critical reason may remain free of such constraints. In his thoroughgoing historicism, Foucault contends that knowledge must always been seen as inextricably embedded in its social and institutional context, and therefore denies the possibility that knowledge could ever sever its ties to various forms of power.

Rather in works like Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues for a much closer relationship between knowledge and power by asking us to reconsider what power means and how it operates. Though acknowledging the conventional understanding of power as a negative force that represses or prohibits (what he calls "juridical" power), Foucault suggests that power also operates in a more productive and subtle manner insofar as it is connected with knowledge. Following Nietzsche, Foucault claims that the will to know is a desire to order the world into categories and hierarchies that seek to effect control as well as create order. Here Foucault breaks with the common assumption that knowledge is the "other" of power. Homosexuality, he argues, shifted in the western imagination from a "sinful" deed that one performed (and for which one could atone) to the expression of one's innermost person, thus chaining an individual to his or her sexual identity. Advances in knowledge about sexuality thus served to create new understandings of the "normal" and the "pathological" by casting nonreproductive desire as deviant and potentially dangerous, thereby classifying those who indulged in it as "sick" and in need of treatment. Foucault argues that the nineteenth-century scientific campaign against sexual vice was at base not so much an attempt to eliminate it altogether (an instance of power as prohibition) as it was a process through which ever-more complex categories of "perversity" were concocted to make it proliferate as the "other" of heterosexual coupling. Knowledge thus discursively constructed "the homosexual" and "the heterosexual" as specific types of persons, thereby defining "normal" desire through the elaboration of a multitude of opposites. In this sense knowledge and power are not opposed to one another but work together creatively.

The interdisciplinary and unconventional style of Foucault's writings have proven to be obstacles to his acceptance among many historians who take exception to his eclectic combination of philosophical reflection, social theory, and historical research. Indeed, Foucault's apt description of his works as "philosophical fragments in historical workshops" has done little to endear them to more conventional historians. Although one must admit the rather incomplete incorporation of his ideas to new cultural history—indeed, much of his radical philosophical agenda has failed to make it into these works—nevertheless Foucault's primary contribution has been to suggest new topics for historical scrutiny along with a method (some say an "antimethod") for analyzing them.


Some of the earliest and best-known practitioners of new cultural history distinguished themselves through their enthusiastic embrace of anthropological models of culture. A substantial number of such works focus on early modern Europe, thus to some extent extending the preoccupation of the Annales tradition with this period. Key early works in this vein include David Sabean's study of the duchy of Württemberg in Germany, Power in the Blood, and Carlo Ginzburg's reconstruction of the cosmology of a sixteenth-century Italian miller in The Cheese and the Worms. In such matters interpretive history is perhaps best suited, largely because many of the traditional text sources are often not available for, say, everyday life in a peasant village during the Middle Ages. Robert Darnton's The Great Cat Massacre is one of the classic examples of this type of scholarship insofar as it applies Geertz's "thick description" to a number of topics, from early modern fairy tales to the tale about the trial and execution of cats told by printers.

Nowadays cultural historians are usually careful to emphasize the performative rather than expressive role of culture. A "performative" statement is one that at once describes and brings about (performs) the very thing it denotes, as in the claim "I now pronounce you husband and wife." Many cultural historians agree with the linguist J. A. Austin's claim that all language is in some sense performative in that it produces an effect as it signifies. In the form of official discourses of, for instance, medicine or criminology, culture plays a mediating role that creates and sustains social practices rather than simply mirroring or expressing them. Roger Chartier has described how this notion of culture must be distinguished from the idea of mentalité as a third level of historical experience. Cultural representations are not dependent upon a pregiven material reality for their existence; rather, Chartier claims that "representations of the social world themselves are the constituents of social reality."

This emphasis on the performative role of culture has encouraged new interpretations of key political events, notably the French Revolution. The contributions of cultural historians like Lynn Hunt, Roger Chartier, Mona Ozouf, and Antoine de Baecque often suggest that a fundamental shift in mind-set had occurred among the French during the eighteenth century that provided the conditions of possibility for radical change. As Chartier has argued in The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution, the Revolution became possible because enough changes had taken place in the wider culture to make such a dramatic upheaval conceivable. Moreover, in Festivals and the French Revolution Mona Ozouf argues that the highly planned Festival of the Federation (held on 14 July 1790 to commemorate the unity of the nation in the revolutionary moment) was an opportunity to create a sense of national unity where anxieties about division were widespread. That is, such festivals were not so much expressions of a preexisting national unity as they were attempts to create such unity through festivity itself, thus "performing" the very unity whose existence they proclaimed.

The influence of Foucault is palpable in many areas of new cultural history, particularly in works that inquire into the relationship between systems of knowledge, and power relationships in various national contexts. The social history of medicine received a significant boost from the injection of Foucauldian thought, and has encouraged a close examination of the relationships between medical categories of pathology and broader sociopolitical processes whereby a culture constructs a definition of normality through the identification of a range of "others" such as women, criminals, perverts, non-westerners, proletarians, and the insane. Such investigations have also dovetailed with other areas that have been marked by the influence of Foucault, including the history of sexuality and the cultural history of the body, and frequently demonstrate a dialogue among these fields and developments in feminist theory and gender studies. Robert Nye's Crime, Madness, and Politics in Modern France, for instance, explores the interconnection between medical discourses on insanity and criminality in the context of a pervasive concern with the decay of the French body politic at the end of the nineteenth century. Although they incorporate a more psychoanalytic framework, works such as Sander Gilman's Difference and Pathology and The Jew's Body have done much to expand our understanding about how German-speaking cultures produced concepts of "health" and "normality" through medicalized conceptions of pathological otherness.

Few works in this vein have been as widely cited as Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, a book that explores the gender politics behind a rather stunning reorientation in European medical thinking about male and female reproductive physiology. Laqueur argues that for much of the western tradition male and female bodies were viewed as essentially the same, except that the female was seen as an inversion of the male. That is, when doctors examined the womb and ovaries they saw an inverted penis and testicles, and even maintained that both sexes secreted semen. While this "one-sex" medical model hardly guaranteed equality among the sexes, it remained firmly in place until two sexes were discovered in the late eighteenth century. What is most fascinating about this "discovery" is that it was not grounded in new empirical evidence. Rather, the shift to the now prevailing medical belief in sexual dimorphism functioned partly as a means of grounding an emerging ideology of "separate spheres" in the bedrock of incommensurable biological difference. Far from standing apart from the world of interests, the language of science emerges in Laqueur's work as being infused with the rhetoric of gender that marked other discursive fields.

New cultural history and its relations to neighboring fields. Given the impact of contemporary linguistic theories on most of the humanities and social science disciplines—and the fact that disciplinary boundaries were increasingly and productively blurred in the late twentieth century—it is difficult to argue that new cultural history has simply exercised an "influence" over neighboring fields. It is nevertheless possible to cite certain important intersections between new cultural history and developments in cognate disciplines. Edward Said's influential Orientalism, generally considered the founding text of postcolonial studies, reveals many of the same Foucauldian concerns with power, knowledge, and history evident in works of new cultural history. Using a combination of Foucauldian discourse analysis and a Gramscian critique of cultural hegemony, Said powerfully shows how "the Orient" and "Orientals" were constructed as the "other" of the west by French and British intellectuals during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A similar use of contemporary cultural thinking is made by Benedict Anderson, who argues that national identity depends upon a collective imagining. This idea of the nation as an "imagined community" is central to postcolonial studies and also resonated in the Subaltern Studies movement, which in its reconsideration of Indian history combined many of these insights with a more traditional marxist focus on the agency of subaltern groups.

Similar developments may be discerned in feminist scholarship, where a methodologically traditional women's history found itself complemented or challenged (depending upon one's viewpoint) by a new focus on gender as "a useful category of historical analysis," to use Joan Wallach Scott's phrase. Unlike women's history, which generally contributed to the recovery and insertion of women into the historical record without interrogating the bases of their exclusion in the first place, historians such as Scott have shifted the focus from agency to identity to show how gender identities, or one's identification with certain gender roles, are effects of broader cultural schema and practices. Invoking Foucault while pointing out the gender blindness in his work, gender historians contribute to a rethinking of selfhood by revealing the historical nature of a crucial dimension of personal identity. Finally, labor history too has felt the impact of these new ideas, with prominent practitioners like William H. Sewell Jr. and Donald Reid adopting linguistic models of social consciousness that avoid the reductionist tendencies of conventional social history.

These productive interchanges among such new areas of scholarship attest to the difficulty of separating new cultural history from its neighboring fields, and thus in a sense enacts in miniature the broader collapse of disciplinary boundaries in the humanities and social sciences. One may now expect to encounter works of history that are in fact hybridizations of social, cultural, feminist, and postcolonial methodologies, as in the case of Daniel Pick's Faces of Degeneration, which revises Edward Said's insights on Orientalism to suggest the simultaneous construction of a sort of "Orient" within European society during the nineteenth century that paralleled the constitution of an external "other" abroad. Pick shows how the conflict between Occident and Orient was not a tension between polar opposites; rather, medicalized discourses of hereditary degeneration and their elaborations in works of fiction and social policy suggest the troubling presence of "atavistic" traits at the heart of the very "civilization" whose achievements were so often counterposed to the "degeneracy" and "effeminacy" of Muslim, Asian, and African cultures. The direction of Pick's argument was modified somewhat by Ann Laura Stoler who, in her study of the unpublished fourth volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality, suggests that theoretical and methodological tools for thinking about Europe's inner "others" were first developed for and applied to colonial peoples, thereby suggesting that "external colonialism provided a template for conceptualizing social inequities in Europe and not solely the other way around" (p. 75). Wherever one situates oneself on this intriguing issue, historicist arguments have contended that discourses of gender, class, and race are in fact "interarticulated"—one cannot construct a discourse of one without employing the terms and metaphors that are present in the others.

The same could be said for the relationship of new cultural history with its fellow-travelers in neighboring fields: insofar as these various approaches are informed by similar theoretical (especially semiotic) frameworks, each articulates its own project with tools that are already present in the other, albeit with different foci and more specific points of application. While it would indeed be an exaggeration to claim that new cultural history has exercised an influence over its neighbors, one must admit the current prominence of "the historical" as a widely held contention in the human sciences that one must situate the objects of study within historical frameworks of culture and discourse. In literary studies the so-called New Historicism amply demonstrates a shift away from purely textual analyses to contextual considerations in a manner that parallels the sort of thing many historians have done, while the fields of cultural studies and queer theory have also been marked by this historicizing turn.


Most innovative historical approaches generate some degree of controversy, often stemming as much from professional anxieties, political concerns, and generational tensions as from bona fide intellectual differences. Debates that have arisen around new cultural history have nevertheless been particularly frequent and often rather polemical. Some of the more vitriolic rejections of this approach lump it together with postcolonial studies, feminist theory, multiculturalism, and even marxism as part of a vaguely defined, yet nevertheless menacing, "postmodernism" that threatens to undermine professional historical standards or even basic morality. Some critics have gone so far as to describe proponents of such methodologies as "tenured radicals" who have continued the 1960s assault on western civilization by becoming university professors. Gertrude Himmelfarb, for instance, a high-profile critic of marxist-inspired social history, inveighed against the expansion of "postmodern" ideas in historical circles. Others challenge this approach from a traditional marxist perspective and, in keeping with the old orthodoxy of the base/superstructure model, accuse its proponents of ignoring the "materiality of the sign" in their focus on culture. Such controversies tend to generate more heat than light, however, and rarely betray much of an engagement with the theories that inform the approaches being condemned.

More careful critics are attentive to the disagreements among those who already profess and employ this approach, and are therefore able to enter into more sophisticated dialogues on key issues. If cultural historians disagree among themselves about the concept of historicism, it is less in regard to the general validity of the method than to the limits of its application. The issue of the physical body has proven a highly charged one for questioning the limits of historicism, and has generated some productive scholarly exchanges. Some historians seem to agree with Bryan Turner, a pioneer in the sociology of the body, that historicist arguments must not be permitted to thoroughly overrun the body's basic materiality. Cultural historian Lyndal Roper echoes this point of view, albeit from a psychoanalytic perspective, and criticizes the overzealous historicism that allows one to make the "real" body disappear behind its various discursive formulations. Roper calls instead for a moderate historicism that facilitates a dialogical relationship between nature and culture without collapsing the former into the latter: "Bodies have materiality, and this too must have its place in history. The capacity of the body to suffer pain, illness, the process of giving birth, the effects on the body of certain kinds of exercise such as hunting or riding—all these are bodily experiences which belong to the history of the body and are more than discourse.... Bodies are not merely creations of discourse" (Oedipus and the Devil, p. 21).

This question about the limits of historicism also generated political debates about the status of human agency within the cultural networks described by some historians. A brief debate in the journal Signs (1990) between two prominent feminist historians, Linda Gordon and Joan Wallach Scott, placed in relief some of the issues that divide practitioners of social and women's history from those who subscribe to arguments drawn from linguistic theories. Scott criticizes Gordon's work about women and welfare agencies, Heroes of Their Own Lives (1988), for attributing to its female subjects personal autonomy that did not reflect the complexity of being situated within cultural and discursive networks. In a manner familiar to cultural historians, Scott challenges the idea that one can conceive of agency as existing outside of such frameworks, and recommends viewing it instead as "a discursive effect" in which the ways in which social workers represented the experiences of their clients helped shape the range of options open to women. Far from denying women the capacity for action in their struggle against domestic violence, Scott claims, such a view recognizes "a complex process that constructs possibilities for and puts limits on specific actions undertaken by individuals and groups." Gordon's response and her subsequent critique of Scott's Gender and the Politics of History exemplify the types of criticisms that women's historians have leveled at the poststructuralist theory that informs much new cultural history. She argues that too much of a focus on "discourse" threatens to override agency and personal experience, and undermines women's capacity for concrete political action.

Similar tensions attended the reception of new cultural history among labor historians. Prominent scholars like William H. Sewell Jr., Donald Reid, and Patrick Joyce embraced contemporary theory to challenge a number of tenets of labor history. Contesting the idea that economic factors are inherently "material," for instance, Sewell argues for a "post-materialist labor history" that would consider the symbolic function of money and advertising as well as the intellectual origins of factory construction and the role of worker morale and expertise in production. Social consciousness is not viewed as springing from socioeconomic relationships, but emerges from discourses of social identity and interest that prefigure consciousness. While some labor historians welcomed the new insights such methodologies could bring, they questioned whether the study of culture should eclipse more conventional inquiries into mass movements and political structures. Others contended that discourses of class cannot be thoroughly severed from their extralinguistic referents, and insisted on the primacy of social relationships when it comes to thinking about consciousness.


As with any scholarly approach that boasts of being "new" when it bursts onto the scene, new cultural history was fairly well established as one among many ways of thinking about history by the twenty-first century. This is not to say that new cultural historians enjoyed the unanimous esteem of their more traditional colleagues, for the field still managed to draw the fire of critics from the left and the right who believed that after twenty years this approach still represented a mere "trend." One could agree with Peter Novick that this attests to the fragmentation of the historical profession into a plethora of specializations that no longer cohered around shared principles and whose denizens had little common ground for discussion. Yet much has changed in cultural history since its heyday in the 1980s. When new cultural history was actually "new" it provided innovations both in terms of the topics considered worthy of historical attention and in terms of the ways of theorizing such topics within their respective contexts. It is nevertheless apparent that a good portion of what was marketed in 2000 as "cultural history" reflected more of the topical rather than theoretical innovations entailed by this approach. In fact, some of these works even read more like conventional social histories with a few obligatory nods to one of many privileged theorists.

To some extent this state of affairs reflects the success of this approach in the academy and the willingness of historians to combine methodologies in a creative and eclectic manner. On the other hand, though, one might argue that cultural history lost much of its edge by becoming subsumed into a more or less nonreflective historical establishment. Some historians see less fragmentation than the cooptation of erstwhile radical approaches back into a surprisingly resilient mainstream. "Whatever possibilities become evident," notes Patrick Joyce, "something is needed to shake the hold of a history which continually reproduces itself, in the process sucking the erstwhile heterodox into its consensus, in much the way that 'cultural history' is slowly but surely becoming routinized as more methodology, yet one more subdiscipline in the house of history." Joyce's observation is astute, yet one wonders whether a historical approach that could successfully resist such cooptation is possible and, even if it were, whether it would still merit the name "history." It seems evident that what makes history "history" has little to do with methodologies and innovations that are unique to it, and perhaps a more thoroughgoing interdisciplinarity would discourage the domestication of future innovations into mere additions to the mansion of conventional history.

See also other articles in this section.


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