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Cultural History: Where It Has Been and Where It Is Going

  • Celia Applegate (a1) and Pamela Potter (a2)

The very meaning of “culture” has gone through so many transformations over the last sixty years that it is necessary to take stock of developments in this field of cultural history before suggesting—with an eye to the promises and perils of earlier practices—what new possibilities might exist for the future of the field. The post-1945 period witnessed a powerful impulse to understand culture as something more pervasive than just literature and the arts—and as something more socially and politically reverberant than the shibboleth of “art for art's sake.” In 1957, at the very beginning of the modern practice of cultural history, Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy found the high and low hierarchies embedded in it. It focused on working-class culture (e.g., glossy magazines, films, “penny dreadfuls”), and on how reading was changing under the impact of mass media. By 1976, Raymond Williams needed to draw attention to the complexity of the word culture, so extended had its purview become over the previous two decades. Linda Nochlin asked why they were no great women artists, and T. J. Clark, using a Marxist framework, sought to understand aesthetic modernism by interrogating the historic circumstances that had led to the breakdown of the academic system. The New Cultural History, edited by Lynn Hunt, came out in 1989. Its “models” for cultural history were the work of Michel Foucault, Clifford Geertz, Natalie Zemon Davis, E. P. Thompson, Hayden White, and Dominick LaCapra, and its “new approaches” came from Mary Ryan, Roger Chartier, Thomas Laqueur, and Randolph Starn. These scholars were legislators of discourse and narrative, of popular and working-class culture, of gender, epistemes, and thick description. With many other tendencies, often defined by their focus on theoretical explication and elaboration, these approaches had the effect of deterring scholars from reengaging with the traditional interests—even the raison d'etre—of cultural history, namely, art, architecture, theater, dance, music, and literature. This turning-away also affected the very composition of humanities and interpretive social science departments, which added many new subjects of study but, inevitably perhaps, let others wither away.

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1 At the 2017 meeting of the German Studies Association in Atlanta, GA, the authors participated in a roundtable discussion about the future of cultural history. The other participants were Marion Deshmukh, Suzanne Marchand, and Frank Trommler, with James Brophy moderating. These reflections incorporate the comments of all the participants. We have tried to indicate who said what throughout, but without using quotation marks.

2 Hoggart, Richard, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working-Class Life, with Special Reference to Publications and Entertainments (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957).

3 William, Raymond, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1983); Clark, T. J., The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

4 Hunt, Lynn, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1989).

5 Joanna Scott, “The Virtues of Difficult Fiction,” The Nation, July 30, 2015 (

6 See Deshmukh, Marion, “Max Liebermann: Observations on Painting and Politics in Imperial Germany,” German Studies Review 3, no. 2 (1980): 171206; idem, German Impressionist Painters and World War I,” Art History 4 , no. 1 (1981): 6679.

7 Gay, Peter, Art and Act: On Causes in History—Manet, Gropius, Mondrian (New York: Harper & Row, 1976).

8 Geertz, Clifford, “Art as a Cultural System,” in Aesthetics, ed. Feagin, S. and Maynard, P. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

9 Jarausch, Konrad H. and Geyer, Michael, Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 15.

10 Confino, Alon, “A World Without Jews: Interpreting the Holocaust,” in The Holocaust and Historical Methodology, ed. Stone, Dan (New York: Berghahn, 2012), 3435.

11 Dan Stone, “Holocaust Historiography and Cultural History,” in Stone, Holocaust and Historical Methodology, 45–46.

12 Amos Goldberg, “The History of the Jews in the Ghettos: A Cultural Perspective,” in Stone, Holocaust and Historical Methodology, 86.

13 See note 1.

14 Mommsen, Wolfgang, “Culture and Politics in the German Empire,” in Imperial Germany, 1867–1918: Politics, Culture, and Society in an Authoritarian State, trans. Deveson, Richard (New York: Bloomsbury, 1995), 119–40.

15 Two possible models for such cultural history are Watkins, Glenn, Proof through the Night: Music and the Great War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Sweeney, Regina, Singing Our Way to Victory: French Cultural Politics and Music During the Great War (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001).

16 See Betts, Paul, The Authority of Everyday Objects: A Cultural History of West German Industrial Design (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

17 See note 1.

18 All these examples come from Porter, Bernard, Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 150–53.

19 A notable example of how this might be done is Ciarlo, David, Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). Work on popular music has been more extensive. See, e.g., Poiger, Uta, Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided German (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Sneeringer, Julia, A Social History of Early Rock ‘n’ Roll in Germany: Hamburg from Burlesque to The Beatles, 1956–69 (London: Bloomsbury, 2018). By contrast, work on entertainment music in the nineteenth century lags far behind.

20 On the music profession and the impact of the military music establishment, see Rempe, Martin, Kunst, Spiel, Arbeit: Musikerleben in Deutschland, 1850–1960 (Habilitationsschrift, University of Constance, Germany, 2017); Applegate, Celia, “Men with Trombones,” in The Necessity of Music (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017), 211–37.

21 The study of reading and of the book in particular has already made distinguished contributions to cultural history, starting with Eisenstein, Elizabeth, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, 2 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), and continuing through studies of German literacy and reading; see, e.g., Schenda, Rudolf, Volk ohne Buch: Studien zur Geschichte der populären Lesestoffe, 1770–1910 (Frankfurt/Main: V. Klostermann, 1970), as well as the many influential publications by Roger Chartier, including, most recently, The Author's Hand and the Printer's Mind: Transformations of the Written Word in Early Modern Europe, trans. Cochrane, Lydia G. (Cambridge: Polity, 2013). Most groundbreaking work in the history of the book and reading focuses on the early modern period.

22 Brophy, James M., “The Second Wave: Franco-German Translation and the Transfer of Political Knowledge, 1815–1850,” Archiv für Geschichte des Buchwesens 71 (2016): 83116; idem, Grautöne: Verleger und Zensurregime im Mitteleuropa 1800–1850,” Historische Zeitschrift 301, no. 2 (2015): 297346.

23 In a lively memoir about her father's career, Hermann Wolff's daughter shed light on this nearly invisible (at least in existing historiography) aspect of musical culture; see Stargardt-Wolff, Edith, Wegbereiter großer Musiker (Berlin: Bote & Bock, 1954).

24 Pine, Lisa, Hitler's “National Community”: Society and Culture in Nazi Germany (London: Hodder Arnold, 2007) (Bloomsbury Press published a new edition in 2017); Hermand, Jost, Kultur in finsteren Zeiten: Nazifaschismus, Innere Emigration, Exil (Cologne: Böhlau, 2010) (the latter has also appeared as Culture in Dark Times: Nazi Fascism, Inner Emigration, and Exile, trans. Hill, Victoria W. [New York: Berghahn, 2013]).

25 Steinweis, Alan, Art, Ideology, and Economics in Nazi Germany: The Reich Chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

26 See, e.g., Burke, Peter, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, 3rd edition (New York: Routledge, 2009); idem, What is Cultural History, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Polity, 2008).

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Central European History
  • ISSN: 0008-9389
  • EISSN: 1569-1616
  • URL: /core/journals/central-european-history
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