The OF Blog: Peter Burke, Varieties of Cultural History

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Peter Burke, Varieties of Cultural History

Although for the past decade virtually all of my reading have been fictions of one genre or another, there was a time around 15 years ago that the opposite was true.  Several times in passing over the years, either in comments here or on the several forums that I have frequented, I have mentioned that my graduate schools studies concentrated on cultural history, with most of my research being on the interwar (1919-1938) period of German history.  But I have never really reviewed a work of cultural history ever since I matriculated in May 1998 from the University of Tennessee.

When I was a graduate student, one the authors that impressed me the most was Peter Burke and his work on exploring cultural developments in early modern Europe.  Recently, I found myself wanting to refresh my memories of his approaches, so I ordered a copy of his 1997 collection of essays, Varieties of Cultural History.  I found it to be a good, if somewhat limited, introduction to my former field of studies.  I am not going to analyze this book as if I were still active in researching cultural histories, but instead I will broadly explore its contents and try to tailor this short review for those who are not cultural historians or even history majors, but those who might want to learn a bit more about this field called "cultural history."

Burke's book is comprised of twelve essays, eight of which had appeared in various journals and other monograph publications dating back to the 1970s.  These twelve essays can be further subdivided into three parts, introduction to the field, case studies, and exploration of various methodological methods.  In his preface, Burke notes that his intent is "to discuss and illustrate some of the main varieties of cultural history which have emerged since the questioning of what might be called its 'classic' form, exemplied in the work of Jacob Burckhardt and Johan Huizinga.' (p. vii)  Burke posits that cultural history, despite the advances done in the related fields of social and cultural anthropology, really has not changed much since the times of Burckhardt and Huizinga, an argument that I find somewhat puzzling, considering how the rise of the New Social History in the 1970s has had a profound influence on the ways that historians have broadened their methodological approaches to the written and oral histories recorded over the past two centuries.

Burke's introductory essay, "Origins of Cultural History," provides a good, broad overview of the evolution of the term Kultur and its implications for how people, not just historians, have conceived the connections between language, literature, legal relations, religion, the arts and sciences. Although Burke does acknowledge the influence that Hegel had defining some of the epistemological approaches of the Enlightenment period, he tends to favor a broader, more cosmopolitan exchange of ideas to explain how the spread of Kultur, as an area of emphasis, occurred.  This chapter serves its purpose of introducing its readers to the history of cultural history as a concept, but it is incomplete in that there is no immediate followup that explores the various varieties of cultural history that emerged over the past two centuries.  For that, the reader has to wait until the final two essays in the book on mentalité and other approaches to outlining concepts of culture over time, space, and philosophical association.

Burke's second essay, "The Cultural History of Dreams," is perhaps the best essay in this book.  Although I believe it, the chapter on social memory, and the following seven case histories of Italian and Brazilian cultural histories, would have benefited more if the theoretical aspects of this book were concentrated in the first section of the book, there is much in this essay that would appeal to readers.  For example, here is a brief cross-cultural dream study that Burke cites:

One cross-cultural study of 'typical dreams' showed that the relative frequency of different anxiety dreams varied considerably.  Americans, for example, dreamed more often of arriving late for appointments and of being discovered naked, while Japanese dreamed of being attacked.  The contrasts suggest what other evidence confirms, that Americans are more concerned with punctuality and with 'body shame," while Japanese are more anxious about aggression. (p. 27)
Burke also explores how dreams are interpreted from culture to culture and the similarities and differences that each culture has in processing their individual and collective dreams.  It really is a fascinating chapter, easy to follow for the layperson, and it sets the stage for his essays on social memory and how cultures process their shared past and understandings of events mundane and extraordinary, as well as the Italian and Brazilian case studies on gestures, comedies, cross-cultural confusion, differences between the public and private spheres in late Renaissance Genoa, the cultural polarization between learned and popular culture, concepts of chivalry in the New World, and the translation of Carnival from Italy to Brazil.  I will not devote much space to discussing these various essays, in large part because of the self-constraints I'm imposing on this brief review, but I will note that Burke uses clear, concise descriptions to set up his arguments and theoretical approaches to each of these topics.  Doubtless, a reader who is somewhat familiar with the historical periods but who is largely ignorant of the cultural aspects of those times will find these essays to be fascinating, informative reads.

The final section on mentalité and the various methodological approaches to cultural history was largely a disappointment to me, mostly because Burke barely describes several of the schools of thought before moving on to the next topic.  Mentalité in particular gets short-shrifted here, as outside of noting the research that Jacques Le Goff and others of the Annalist School have done, little is done other than to note how the Neo Marxists have developed their own approach toward the study of cultural mindsets in reaction to (and in several cases, opposition to) what Marc Bloch, Le Goff, and others had posited in the immediate post-World War II era.  Perhaps this is due to the introductory nature of this book, but I felt like Burke could have said much more on the topic.  This is also true for his concluding chapters.  There really isn't much said of a substantive nature about the methodological approaches of the various schools, especially that of the E.P. Thompson-influenced Neo/Cultural Marxist school, which happens to be one of the largest and most influential of the various schools of cultural history to develop after 1945.  Much more could have been made of the "new cultural history" school, which has adopted principles of the study of semiotics, or symbolic communications, in crafting its own conceptual school of thought on the study of cultural history.

But despite these shortcomings, much of which are related to the introductory approach to the field of cultural history, Burke's Varieties of Cultural History is well-worth the read.  Although several theoretical concepts are treated in passing, Burke's prose never becomes stilted or weighed down with ponderous explanations.  The case histories are interesting and they serve well to illustrate how the quirks and habits of people of a particular time and place can be of great interest to people living in the here and now.  Hopefully, there will be some readers who do read Burke's work and who may go on to explore those historians cited in his footnotes and bibliography.  Cultural history is to me the most wonderful, exciting, and challenging of the various historical disciplines and Burke's essays capture much of that excitement.  Highly recommended.


Anonymous said...

Minor factual nitpick: You speak of what Bloch, Le Goff and the rest of the Annales school argued right after WWII. Actually this began in the thirties with Bloch and Febvre. Bloch himself was murdered by the Nazis and thus didn't write anything after WWII

Lsrry said...

I know, careless mistake of mine, as I was thinking of those who followed Bloch, who I know died during WWII.

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