If last week I felt pleasantly enlightened about historical history, this week I simply feel confused. While doing the reading I initialy thought the cultural approach was obvious and was how I looked at history. I definitely believe in the inclusion of other disciplines in historical study and the importance of analysis based on the context of the timeperiod being studied. However, I couldn’t get a firm grasp on the success of cultural history. Several of the readings touted the benefits but equally criticized the approach. I look forward to class discussion so I can, in the words of my great uncle, “Get my head right.”
I found Chartier’s analysis of Darnton’s work very interesting. After reading the excerpt of The Great Cat Massacre, I was a bit confused. I was convinced that there was something at play larger than the ritualistic killing of cats, but that was the extent of my understanding. I thought Chartier did a particularly good job of explaining Darnton’s approach, and I bought in to it. This idea of “text” and “context” being central to a complete understanding of history made a lot of sense. By looking at the “text” of the cat massacre, one could appreciate the context of pre-revolutionary France, and by looking at the context, the “text” made more sense. This inteplay as a part of the “symbolic forms” really took me by suprise and showed me the importance of Darnton’s work. Tosh also had me convinced that cultural history was a viable approach with his explanation of other academic fields’ contribution. Nearly all of them, anthropology, psychology, art history, ect., stressed the need to analyze history in the context of the time the particular event happened. I was ready to embrace and commmit to an indoctrination of the cultural approach.
However, both Tosh and Chartier ended their respctive chapter and review in ways that left me undecided. Chartier criticized Darnton for his unquestioning use of one written source to make claims about the broader French society and questioned the use of such symbols to explain culture. I seemed to agree with this criticism. Without looking at larger entities, like the nation-state, political climate, or economic condition, Darnton did seem to miss a lot in his analysis, even though I think he would argue that the culture of this time is much more important and encompasses these other approaches of analysis. Similarly, Tosh ended his chapter on a down note. For example, I thought one of his best points against a cultural approach was that “Cultural historians are for the most part thrown back on oblique and ambiguous evidence of what went on in the minds of ordinary people, and it is appropriate to recognize these limitations before wholeheartedly embracing the interpretative procedures of cultural anthropology or textual theory” (267). Reading this, I began to agree that it is quite a stretch, and possibly somewhat arrogant, to assume that one knows the thoughts and emotions of a historical actor from the past. Even with numerous writings and other sources, we will never definitively know the mind of another person.
I hope I was not the only one confused and torn on the approach of cultural history. I really do look forward to class, so we can talk these things out. In the meantime, is there anyone who can enlighten me on this subject? Any other secondary sources I should look at before Tuesday’s class?