I have long nursed a soft spot for ethnographies, which has led me to the false belief that I enjoy anthropology. As an undergrad, I took an introductory anthropology course. From what I recall, there was a lot of talk about early man and Lucy and cranium measurements, and that’s about it. I also remember learning a lot about how to flirt with the guy sitting next to you in class, and that somehow George Bush was responsible for all of the ills caused to mankind since homo sapiens sapiens started walking upright. Actually, I’m not even sure that homo sapiens sapiens were the first ones to start walking upright. That’s what I mean—anthropology sounded great in my head, but in practice was just an excuse to share coffee with cute dudes. What saved that class for me was that loved the ethnographies we read. Elizabeth Warnock Fernea’s Guests of the Sheik and Savages by Joe Kane read like novels and were the only books I didn’t gleefully sell-back from that class. Yet somehow I have maintained my delusion that I enjoy anthropology. I suppose it’s the same delusion that makes me believe I enjoy astronomy, when in reality I think the world would exist just fine without physics.
Knowing this, I happily set about our readings for this week. “Cultural anthropology,” I thought, “what fun! I love this stuff! The interdisciplinarity of history is what makes it so wonderful!” While I still believe that interdisciplinarity is one of the main aspects of the discipline that makes its study enjoyable, I don’t think cultural anthropology is for me. As I read through the first chapter of Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures, I found myself entirely caught up with how similar the study of cultural anthropology is to the study of history. Both have a similar fundamental foundation, as seen when Geertz explains Clyde Kluckhohn’s twelve-parted definition of culture, as well as an interpretive view of its own disciplinary past. The two disciplines seemed complimentary, and I assumed that aspects of each could be easily used in either field. It was with this belief in mind that I set about reading Robert Darnton’s article about his book, The Great Cat Massacre.
I would be lying if I claimed that Darnton’s accounts of animal violence didn’t disturb me. They did. However, I appreciated the fact that many things can seem foreign in a culture that is not your own, and I anticipated his explanation and analysis of the “funniest thing that ever happened in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent.” Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Perhaps it was because this article was just a brief summary of his larger work, but I felt that it was incomplete and failed to explain important points. In fact, I would have found his piece more satisfying had he not approached it from an anthropological standpoint. His explanation of the events surrounding the 1730s killing was clear, and he provided a strong context for the events that transpired. It was when he began making broad claims about the significance of these events to their participants, and the meaning of their actions, though, that I began to scrawl unhappy notes in the margin. He labors to explain that violence towards cats was common throughout Europe during this period, yet later uses the same acts of violence as a vehicle to explain how and why the journeymen printers behaved as they did. Wouldn’t this, then, make the meaning of their behavior common to all the rest of Europe as well? In establishing the historical credibility of their actions, doesn’t he rob himself of the ability to establish this as a culturally significant and singular act?
Darnton continued on to explain that “the text made the theme of sorcery explicit from the beginning,” and explored the implications that this theme had on the story. He claims that the master printer viewed the situation seriously, while the journeymen saw it all as one big joke; the journeymen purposely and symbolically exerted their power over their master through their acts. Yet, again I found myself asking how much meaning Darnton, as an analyst, had imposed on these actions, how much agency he gave to the journeymen and how much naivete he had imposed on the master. The only account of this story was composed years after the massacre. Darnton himself says that “He [Nicholas Contat, the author] selected details, ordered events, and framed the story in such a way as to bring out what was meaningful for him. But he derived his notions of meaning from his culture just as naturally as he drew in air from the atmosphere around him.” From a historical standpoint, Contat’s narrative is an unreliable source. While any written account does necessarily include the author’s bias, Contat had liberal time to absorb the events, reflect upon them, gauge the society in which he was living and writing, and compose the events into a series that created whatever meaning he thought best. What if all of Darnton’s symbols and meaning were constructed years later by Contat?
Roger Chartier’s criticism of the piece much more thoroughly and eloquently explored the potential weaknesses of Darnton’s piece than I have been able to do. Although I do balk at claiming that Darnton’s restrictions are, in fact, weaknesses. Darnton clearly approaches a topic in history from the position of cultural anthropology, and does so very well. I suppose my concerns come from the fact that I support a more solidly historical approach to analysis. As Chartier says, “…it is indisputable that the most pressing question inherent in cultural history today…is that of the different ways in which groups or individuals make use of, interpret, and appropriate the intellectual motifs or cultural forms they share with others.” Darnton boldly stepped outside the realm of traditional historical analysis to attempt to impose culturally-based meaning on the journeymen’s actions. However, I believe it would have been more appropriate to take Contat’s narrative and explore the meaning of his choices. By dissecting Contat’s story, we can learn much more about his mores and world view than we can of pseudo-fictional journeymen printers from the 1730s. If Darnton had endeavored to “…take the text as a text and to try to determine its intentions, its strategies, and the effects produced by his discourse,” I believe he would have produced a more meaningful piece. It seems tenuous to claim symbolic meaning of a third-party act, yet that is what Darnton does.
In the end, though, the world does not work without physics—and I recognize that. I try to wrap my mind around the formulas and laws, and it sometimes works. Such is also my relationship with anthropology. I understand its utility, and I support its use by historians. Yet there is a part of it that I don’t quite completely understand. That’s the part of me that would have preferred Darnton to analyze Contat’s narrative as a text in and of itself, rather than using it as a vehicle to analyze the subjects represented therein. That’s the part of me that still believes that something of Darnton’s work itself employed “cat lore,” which, in the language of symbolism that I have created to surround my evening, is defined as a fickle, tenuous symbolism subject to intense interpretation. It makes me wonder how my readers, if anyone has gotten this far, will interpret my interpretation of these readings and ideas.
 Robert Darnton, “The Great Cat Massacre,” History Today, (August 1994): 7.
 Ibid., 14.
 Roger Chartier, “Text, Symbols, and Frenchness,” The Journal of Modern History, 57, no.4 (De., 1985): 688.
 Ibid., 194.