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Introduction to Western Cultural History


Introduction to Western Cultural History

Student Lecture Notes

Transition from Political Economy and Theory to Cultural History

N.B. Here PE = Political Economy / CH = Cultural History / Th = Theory

I - Transition from Political Economy

One substantive difference here in CH has to do with systematic and systemic nature of both PE and Theory

Here going to attempt to be as systematic as possible in terms of exposition

Definite difference in nature of the subject matter, tho, in Cult History that MAY be reflected stylistically

In PE, key thing is to attack those issues at the systemic level ...

Starting with Peloponnesian War, then jumping to modernity and the Renaissance ... then coming up to the present

All that is being done at the systemic level - that is, you are dealing with the most fundamental unit of analysis ...

At that level, you're setting up a comprehensive framework, a context within which everything else can be talked about ...

It's important in PE to do that, because it enables you to "fill in" issues that unfold within that comprehensive framework ...

When we talk about PE in framework of CH, it will be useful for us to refer to the systemic level of analysis on which we operated in PE

For example, we'll be talking about the Industrial Rev a/w/a WWI and WWII Advantage of previous approach is that we'll have an overall framework of analysis that will enable us to deal with some of the more specific PE issues that are relevant to CH

For example, during 1914 - 1945, we didn't talk too much about the rise of Hitler, what the Nazi regime entailed, implications of all that,

because the important thing there was the nature of the Brit Empire, its relationship to Continental politics,

then the development of Germany, the unification of G, implications of that unification, especially for relations with France,

and then the expansion of G from continental land power to challenge Britain on high seas, which caused WWI ...

But we didn't talk too much about the Nazis per se ...

Here, we'll be able to do that much more specifically ...

So here we can understand both more specific PE phenomena, as well as their cultural implications,

in a way we couldn't do otherwise if we HADN'T done the PE in the systemic way we did ...

In this sense, CH is the FUN part of Core Curriculum ...

We'll benefit from having done all the previous work from Theory and PE ... especially given the pre-existing PE framework for the cultural phenomena we're going to encounter and discuss ...

II - Lecture Style and Logistics for CH

Hoping style will be less finished and shorter ... but not sure ... ;-) ...

Hopefully slightly more informal style [ Note to students: didn't work out that way ;-) ]

Logistically, two crucial things:

  1. Do all the reading in order in which it's listed on syllabus and

  2. Always bring your art and poetry books to class ;-) !!!

If possible, do try to get video of first two operas of Wagner's Ring - Das Rheingold and Die Walkurie

III - The Substantive Relationship between Cult Hist and THEORY

Already talked about relationship of Cultural History with PE

As you know from the Theory course, the really cool and useful thing about theory is that it's all inter-connected

Here in CH it's a little bit different

In CH, lots of influences and interactions, but here what's happening is not systemic in way Th and PE courses had to be

A bit more ad hoc here

Makes what we did before all the more valuable, because it means we'll be able to situate all the CH stuff in the framework of what we did before

Now we will reap benefits of all the hard work we did before in Th and PE

With this understood, we can now examine at some length the specific relevance of the insights of the Theory course to what we'll be doing in Cultural History

At one level, it's very easy to sound like Marx, that is, very easy to look at CH stuff and see it as a response to the various PE conditions occurring at any particular time ...

Easy, but not correct ... ;-) ...


In that context, we want to invoke the transition from Marx to Carr

It's in precisely this area where Carr is so superior to Marx that we need to remember and re-invoke Carr when it comes to CH

Always have to remember that consciousness - what people think and feel - is always structurally related, but not reducible, to material conditions

This is crucial for Cult History

Always some connection between CH and PE, but don't know ahead of time what those connections will be,

nor do we know the precise nature of that connection

Indeed, that's what we'll be exploring from period to period - nature of structural connections between PE on the one hand, and cultural expressions on the other

Something else from Carr:

Consciousness / culture always has a dynamic of its own, which is particularly important in trying to understand cultural phenomena

As we go through CH, very important to see BOTH aspects of the relationship between culture / consciousness on the one hand, and PE / material conditions on the other

On one hand, always will be structural relationship between them, although we don't know what the relationship will be ...

At the same time, when dealing with painting, for example, possible to talk about it without any seeming relationship to PE, but instead revolving around the internal dynamic of consciousness

Need to remember BOTH sides of relationship - things happening on both sides at the same time: cult as response to PE, and as a framework for PE conditions

Need to remember this highly dynamic relationship between culture and PE conditions at all times

Key to remember this insight from Carr all the other theorists we read in rel to CH


Dominant myths - crucial in PE, even more so in CH

Whole relationship of artists / thinkers / writers / philosophers to DM of their time, and highly dynamic relationship that exists between creative individuals / cult movements and DM

Cognitive / normative / emotional aspects of myth

What is / good and bad, right and wrong / thus providing emotional security for individuals and groups whose ID defined by DM of their society

Perception / conception / myth

What people see / think / organized into logical wholes by DM

Revolution - in PE sphere, to be sure, but also in CH - how artists and other creative types were able to effect a rev in CULTURAL sphere

How artistic and cult movements were able to serve as rich conceptual soil of fundamental changes in dominant myths

We also need to remember from LS the relationship between DM and politics, political thinking as mythical thinking,

Also how DM crucial in understanding process by which media - which in historical sense was culture -

how the GMS of today is nothing more or less than an incredibly accelerated and intensified version of all of the culture and movements and history that has come before -

how media cannot be understood by people without reference to DMs

When we talked about DM and production of media, can just as easily say DM has crucial role in producing ALL cultural forms and activities,

And just as DM crucial in understanding how public understands media, DM equally crucial in understanding how people respond to any form or art or culture

Deeply dialectical relationship between items in media on one hand and credibility of DM on the other

Certain pieces of art / music / painting have had a significant role in assessing the cognitive credibility of DM of those ages,

And as a result, in legitimating or de-legitimating the existing distribution of wealth and power in those societies

All these concepts from Levi-Strauss crucial for our understanding of culture


Root our analysis in the a profound understanding of where these people - artists / writers / philosophers were coming from

By which we mean their values / ends / means, in which cultural artifacts are seen as means

Understand - not necessarily agreement or identification with - but understanding of v / e / m of the cultural actors whose actions - whose creative activity - we're going to try to analyze objectively


Always need to be aware of the "fundamental question":

what must be the nature of someone's assumptions - about themselves / their society / the world in general - such that what they are doing, especially artistically or philosophically, appears logical to them ...

This question always crucial, but especially so when it comes to CH

Hence always need to be aware of the fundamental dilemma that is always raised when we pose the fundamental question:

Namely, how do we evaluate competing accounts of the same situation ???

Now this is especially important in CH, where you're getting a different take on any specific moment / movement / period from every different source that you look at ...

So evaluating competing accounts of the same situation is extremely significant here in CH

Here we invoke the same three criteria for evaluation that we developed in relation to F's interpretation of dreams:

Comprehensiveness / completeness; consistency / coherence; clarity / simplicity

Really good to re-raise these criteria because there are going to be different interpretations of every subject that we examine

In CH, slightly different from the way we evaluated competing accounts in PE

Will make a strong stand for almost all of the analyses of the concrete historical periods we discussed in PE,

to say that the interpretations we offered do meet the three basic criteria in a more powerful way than other interpretations ...

When it comes to CH, don't think it's possible to make that same kind of claim for phenomena in CH,

But precisely because CH can't be analyzed at the same systemic level as PE, think there's more room here for conflicting interpretations that, acc to these criteria, can claim to have relatively equal legitimacy ...

Subject matter makes it possible to argue that conflicting interpretations have a little more legitimacy than in PE,

where to be perfectly honest, I feel we can take a lot more firm line in favor of a particular analysis of a given situation ...

Kenneth Burke

First thing is Burke's theory of art

What makes art so important to people in B - language /communication being simultaneously a means / end / ultimate value -

In CH, art as an ultimate value comes in

Art / culture represent in most direct and unadulterated form the highest and most complex play of what distinguishes humans from other animals, even highly intelligent ones like elephants or dolphins,

namely, their capacity for potentially unlimited symbolic interaction, what we generally call communication

Now this goes back to B's basic definition of humans as symbol-using animals ...

It's in precisely that definition that we can see why art is and has always been so important to human society,

AND why it is from a subjective point of view that we find ourselves enjoying the subject-matter of this particular course

While we certainly enjoyed the mastery and sense of empowerment from knowing the Theory and PE,

we all agree that, from a purely subjective point of view, it's a lot more fun to do the reading for this course than the other one

The reason goes back to his idea of people as symbol-using animals, and art represents the highest play of that faculty that distinguishes humans from all other animals ...

So when we deal with art / cult / consciousness, it represents to US our greatest potential as symbol-using animals, homo dialecticus ...

What else about Burke is important here ???

Certainly all the stuff about identification, and its relation to politics generally - how politics is about the building of a dynamic set of overlapping identifications including as many groups as possible ...

The importance of ID in political discourse ...

Also all the things B says about the structural dynamics of language,

the powerfully syntactic relationship among positive / relational / and ultimate terminology,

with positive describing things / relational, the relationships among things / and then ultimate, the relations among the relations among things ...

Similar to perception / conception / myth, similar to manifest dream content / free association / latent dream thought

We're very much operating in CH on the level of ultimate terms ...

This means we need to recall when we talked about the structural dynamics of story,

Where characters represent principles of action, what happens to those characters - what we call plot - represent relational terms,

until all these conflicts are resolved by the ending, the moral of the story, what it all adds up to / what it all boils down to, which is the ultimate level of terminology ...

All of this is extremely relevant because everything we'll be dealing with in CH is on the level of ultimate terminology ...

And then, in true Hegelian fashion, that summation of the previous situation in turn serves as the basis and beginning of the next situation ...

That is the way Burke links up with Hegel in a very positive way ...

So remembering all that from the Theory course, we turn now to Cultural History per se

IV - Periodizing Cultural History - Necessary AND Controversial

We begin this by acknowledging from the start the contentious nature of this particular enterprise of periodizing Cultural History ...

Some argue that we shouldn't waste our time with this whole deal - the so-called "Dead White European Males" approach ... ;-) ...

In my view, in this context, we need to distinguish between cognitive and normative ... even if we want to take an oppositionary stance to this whole tradition, we need to know where we come from ... which is, of course, totally in line with Weber, as noted before ...

That aside, the whole business of periodization is controversial, especially among those who DO take this whole Western cultural tradition seriously ...

Why ???

Everyone has their own view of what caused what / who belongs with whom / whether this group should be linked with one period in history or the next ...

And what makes it controversial is that the same sorts of movements within a given field of cultural activity - painting / literature / music - were taking place at different times in different countries ...

Making things even more complex, we find similar styles across different fields of culture that are also taking place at the same - or different - times within countries, a/w/a from country to country ...

For example, talking about the Baroque ...

Baroque painting is happening in some countries at the same time, but in other countries at a different time ...

You can also have Baroque painting and literature occurring at the same time in one country, but happening in different times in another country ... while Baroque literature is happening at yet another time in yet a third country ...

So there's a huge diversity of concrete situations going on, and we want to get a sense of what's going on as a whole by periodizing -

without, however, violating the integrity of what's going on, within a given field, at a given time in history, at a given place ...

For example, in painting in most countries, the Baroque is roughly co-terminous with the struggle between the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, culminating in the 30 Years' War, which ended in 1648 ...

Most painting that we call Baroque begins in the early part of the 1500s, and concludes in the mid-1600s until, say, the 1660s or 70s ...

Yet when we talk about Baroque music, for example, the two most prominent names are Handel and Bach,

and they were both productive and prolific until then deaths in 1759 - Handel - and 1750 - Bach, respectively -

nearly a century AFTER the conclusion of the 30 Years' War ...

The point here is that lots of overlap in this whole area ... that lines can always be drawn somewhat differently,

depending on the nature of the artistic or philosophical endeavor / the country in which it's taking place / and its relation to other cultural forms ...

In this context, the point is not to insist this is the ONLY way to organize this material, because it's not ... and I know that ... ;-) ...

Even with a limited number of sources, you can immediately see fundamental differences in the way they organize different periods ...

There are clearly several ways to organize the field, and there are almost always good arguments to be made for at least some of these aspects ...

So, as I said before, the arguments being made here in CH are a little bit different from the sorts and substance of the arguments we were making in both Theory and PE ...

In PE especially, I would absolutely insist on a both a systemic approach in general, and on the specific nature of the structural dynamics that we outlined in that course ...

Here, in CH, it's more a matter of coming up with a mode of organizing the material in a way that,

on the one hand, takes account of existing approaches, even when disagreeing with some of the overall concepts and specific decisions about who or what goes where,

and, on the other, seeking a mode of organizing the material that is devoted above all to developing an account

that will not only make sense to students in general, but will also, as we noted at the very beginning of this lecture,

take advantage of the historical work we did in PE,

which, in my view, should give us a very strong framework for understanding the nature and dynamics of the world setting in which this fabulously diverse set of cultural phenomena developed ...

The key is to take advantage of all the historical work we did in PE,

a/w/a being very mindful, in a good Buddhist way I hope, of all the insights from the Theory course that we just went over,

while at the same time being aware that the nature of what we're dealing with now is somewhat different from the material that we dealt with in the previous two core courses ...

The material in these lectures are for the private use of anyone who downloads them, and are not to be re-distributed without acknowledgement of the source. Any academic or intellectual use of the concepts contained within must be properly acknowledged and footnoted

All contents of this website copyright David Caploe, Ph.D., 1986, 1995, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2008.

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