Thursday, August 23, 2007

American Culture and History

Richard Pells has an interesting article on the academic study of American culture in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review entitled, History Descending a Staircase American Historians and American Culture. It is unfortunately not online. I'll give you the gist of it.

Pells begins by asking a number of questions about American art and culture. For example:

''Why was Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises so influential for modern fiction and journalism?'' The questions would likely be of interest to an average college student. But he tells us that these questions aren't even posed in the average undergraduate or graduate course on American history of the 20th century. In fact:

''The vast majority of American historians no longer regard American culture- whether high culture or mainstream popular culture- as an essential area of study. The much-vaunted cultural turn in the humanities has run its course in one of the first disciplines it influenced.'' Instead, Pells claims that American historians have turned to ''the intricacies of social history'' in order to explain American identity and development.

A bit of explanation here about historiography. This is a vast oversimplification, but the history of history goes something like this:

1. Academic history starts with the study of great men and the acts of great states. It tended to focus on General so-and-so, and the battle of such-and-such. Think Napoleon. Also a lot of things about raison d'état and balances of power.

2. In the twentieth-century, historians started asking more specific questions about average people and how they lived. ''History from below'' as it's called. Think of the farmers and laborers who lived under Napoleon. This is generally called 'social history', although social history also studies long-term economic trends. So, how much did grain yields increase during the 1800s? If done well, it can be very interesting, but yes, it can also be as dry as it sounds. The bad stuff reads like a State Department report.

3. The ''cultural turn'' refers to the new found fascination with culture among historians, and humanities people more generally, starting in the late 70s and early 80s. This allowed historians to look at all sorts of things that had previously been thought of as insignificant (such as 50s comic books) and to draw from other disciplines such as anthropology and lit crit.

One way of explaining the cultural turn is to see it as a generational shift- the social historians of the 1950s and 1960s, especially the Marxists, saw culture as relatively insignificant epiphenomena; the cultural superstructure that is wholly determined by a material base. The next generation was not only interested in culture; they were often ex-Marxists or had never been sympathetic to Marxism. So an older generation of French historians, for example, followed Albert Soboul in seeing the French Revolution as the triumph of the bourgeois class over the aristocracy and the coming of capitalism. More recent historians have often followed François Furet in seeing the Revolution as the development of a new political culture in the vacuum left by the collapse of monarchical culture.

Of course, the problem with the materialist/economic and the cultural/linguistic explanation of historical events is that neither one entirely satisfies; historical events are usually multi-causal, not mono-causal. I think many of us in European history are a bit sick of cultural history, which can be sort of fuzzy and vague (using 17th century bee-keeping manuals to determine English gender roles, for example). Also, after about thirty years, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a cultural history that was truly a masterpiece. Many of us are wondering what will be next.

In American History- always a foreign country- it sounds like they're returning to number-crunching and concrete stuff. Pells suggests that American historians are trying to ''give a voice to the voiceless''- probably the worst reason to write history is to do social work for dead people- by focusing on what are called ''subaltern groups'' and their day-to-day experiences. Pells writes, ''So for specialists in American history, what matters in the courses they teach and the books they write are the struggles and hard-won accomplishments of women, workers, immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans in a country inhospitable to the poor and the powerless.'' I suppose that culture can seem less important than social justice. Not to me particularly, but to others.

Pells explains that American historians turned away from High Culture, which they came to see as ''elitist'', and Pop Culture, which they came to see as ''insufferably commercial''. Instead, they have focused on the anthropological sort of culture, which is basically everything people do that isn't creative. The result is that undergraduates are still culturally illiterate and their professors don't stoop to discussing culture in class. So nobody can answer that question about Hemingway- not even English lit majors who will likely deflect the question by complaining that Hemingway was a misogynist.

This is all news to me. American culture has been extremely influential in the last century across the world, so there are plenty of works of European history that deal with American culture, such as Jazz, Rock, and Rebels by Uta Poiger. As I've said, European history people are still smitten with culture. For the record, I'm working on an intellectual history, so I don't have a dog in this fight.

Pells sees hope though because most students don't listen to their professors anyway. I'm not so sure- what I have noticed at our little corner of academia is a sort of general allergy to culture. Longtime readers will remember my epic-kvetch when our students reacted negatively at being exposed to Laocoon and his sons. There's a pretty deeply-ingrained aversion to High Culture particularly, and Pop Culture which is particularly ''retro''. The stereotype of the High Culture snob (who always seems to have a New England/Cambridge accent) is still used to sell all sorts of products. ''Dude, you're not some pretentious dick! Eat a Whopper!''

But the most important thing to remember about culture is that it can't be predicted. The possibility that the next generation will decide that they want to know what the big deal was about Hemingway, or Proust, or James Joyce is completely open. In fact, I think that Pells is wrong about there being little possibility of an insurgency movement of culture vultures in the humanities. We are here and we have the energy, and some of us aren't particularly concerned about keeping up with the Joneses of theory. And our love of art and literature is a spiritual buoy in ways that professionalism can never be.

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