Getting Cultured

The readings for this week have been especially useful to me by defining (or, giving a variety of definitions) for culture and cultural history. I say this because I am pretty sure after finishing the readings that I never really had a specific idea of what cultural history actually was. I have been lumping this particular subdiscipline of history with social history—culture can be found in society, and in fact is often the concept upon which society is built, right? So when I thought of film or literature or art, I thought these pieces of history were reflections of society. And in a way that remains true, however, it is not enough to just acknowledge these things as a part of society, they have to be examined in their own right. Roger Chartier recounts Robert Darnton’s citicism of French cultural history in his article, ”Texts, Symbols, and Frenchness”, stating, “Culture cannot be considered as a ‘level’ of some social entity resembling a three-story house because all interpersonal relationships are of cultural nature, even those we qualify as ‘economic’ or ‘social’” (683). Once I reoriented my thoughts about cultural history, I was able to better understand the role of the cultural historian and the angle they took when approaching the studies of history and culture.

The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong…To regard such forms as ‘saying something of something,’ and saying it to somebody, is at least to open up the possibility of an analysis which attends to their substance rather than to reductive formulas professing to account for them (Geertz, 452-53).

The above quote from Clifford Geertz’s chapter on Balinese Cockfights in The Interpretation of Cultures is concise enough for me to grasp the overall concept of the role of an anthropologist without diluting the complexity and difficulty of the role. Cultural anthropologists take part in what Geertz coined, “thick description”, which goes beyond an assessment of human behavior to study the context within and around which this behavior develops and occurs. This study assesses both the tangible material culture that Tosh outlines in Chapter 9 of The Pursuit of History, and the often-intangible symbols and rituals that are significant to certain individuals or groups. This is the point at which cultural and social history divide; those focused on “social” study subjects that fit into a broader, dynamic social narrative, while those focused on “culture” are more interested in “contextualizing”, and not as much attention is paid to change over time (Tosh, 270). The merits of both groups seem obvious, and taken together could provide a much broader and “thicker” understanding of historical events and people.

From a historian’s standpoint, I can see the benefits of cultural history, but I can also see what appears to be a glaring detriment—the lack of primary sources. For instance, Robert Darnton makes great use of thick description by discussing the cultural underpinnings of “The Great Cat Massacre” and how symbols and rituals were very much at the center of the story. However, much of Chartier’s critique of this work was that it made use of ONE source, and makes connections to symbols or rituals that might not be entirely valid or realistic (Chartier, 690). More than anything, the lack of sources is most bothersome to me, and creates a substantial obstacle for historians of any sort to overcome.

Despite its shortcomings, cultural anthropology is imperative to a greater understanding of history. Cultural historians offer a glimpse at the events and individuals of the past from the inside, which is invaluable. Tosh states, “It serves as a strong reminder that history is not just about trends and structures that can be observed from the outside, but also demands an informed respect for the culture of people in the past and a readiness to see the world through their eyes” (267). I appreciate this reminder, as my perspective has always been from the outside, and I am eager to see the extent to which cultural history can hone and expand the discipline (now that I am able to distinguish it from other subdisciplines). 

2 thoughts on “Getting Cultured”

  1. My first thought upon reading “The Great Cat Massacre” was – was it true, and we only have one source available. Like you this seemed troublesome to me, and I agree that it is an obstacle for historians to overcome. I like the quote from Tosh you used about seeing history through the eyes of people who lived the event under inspection. This shows how a historians perspective can hurt their interpretation if they do not attempt to view events with an open mind. It does give you a deeper understanding of history if you can successfully do this as you interpret past events. The challenge is to lose the modern perspective. Disturbing stories can make this task even more difficult, but I think Darnton demonstrates what can be accomplished if we look past the cat killings and dig for the deeper meaning. Thanks Carmen!

  2. I had the same revelation, Carmen–I didn’t realize the nuances involved with cultural history! After doing our readings, I had to take a look back through some old notes to get a better feel for what I’ve experienced that can be classified as cultural history in order to orient myself. I also agree that cultural anthropology can be troublesome, but is a necessary perspective that should be added to the historical conversation. “Thick description,” as Geertz calls it, reminded me of thorough analysis of a historical record…perhaps history and anthropology aren’t so different after all!

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