Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Analysis of Culture Revisited: Pure Texts, Applied Texts, Literary Historicisms, Cultural Histories

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Analysis of Culture Revisited: Pure Texts, Applied Texts, Literary Historicisms, Cultural Histories

Article excerpt


What is the relationship between study of canonical texts and broader social and cultural history? This question lies behind the contemporary academic issue of historicism and the public "culture wars" that broke out in the late 1980s, but it was asked by Raymond Williams in the late 1950s and by German and French intellectuals of the 1930s. For the purposes of the present argument I shall distinguish between three broad phases in the responses of those who have taken the inquiry up most actively. Each phase began with what were perceived as crises or turning-points in the humanities corresponding to watersheds in wider history. The first and most profound began after the global crisis of 1929-33 and continued through the global wars that followed. A second began in the mid-1950s after McCarthyism, the consolidation of the Cold War and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. A third phase began in the mid-1970s, after the events of 1968 brought on the extended period of social unrest which found one important epicenter in the universities themselves and which broke out again in the more civilized form of the culture wars already mentioned.

Most discussions of historicism do not engage directly with the practice of history. The second half of the paper will therefore ask what the theoretical account offered in the first half means for historical research that starts from past texts, and will include as one of its practical examples a case-study in the modern intellectual history offered in outline below.

Literary Histories of Ideas

After the First World War an intellectual revolt took place against the isolation of aesthetic experience in the European tradition. It was led in England and America by teachers who wanted to establish that the general critical intelligence acquired in English literary studies could be applied in extra-literary fields from anthropology to social psychology. In England, English literature as a single discipline was to be the "liaison field of study"; in America it fell to pre-professional literary education in general.1 The common project was to use refined literary experience of texts as the base from which to conduct valueladen, historically informed analysis of the contemporary problems of interwar European and American society, of western culture and civilization.2 As consolidated in English intellectual culture between the pre-war and immediate post-war period this has been dubbed the moment of Scrutiny, the influential literary periodical headed by F. R. Leavis. In American intellectual culture it might well be dubbed the moment of Partisan Review, an equally influential periodical whose leading literary critic was Lionel Trilling.3

Leavis's at once dissident and elitist literary criticism concealed a sociology designed to salvage the humane culture of an earlier England from amidst the decay of mass civilization.4 Trilling used European culture to critique what he perceived to be the superficiality of modern American civilization and literature. His criticism became the Ellis Island of intellectual life, the product of an immigrant culture desirous of assimilation by means of high culture to an American society whose better values were formed by the European canon.5 For both, then, distinctive histories of society and social change, culture and cultural change were central to the enterprise of criticism.6 Culture in their hands was a value-laden English or European way of life that shaped and was shaped by the highest artistic consciousness. As such, it carried a new awareness of alienation and repression in the midst of modern society or civilization. The aesthetic critical sense of a Leavis or a Trilling was now a sense of past and present cultural and social life. It competed successfully with claims to the same ground made by what were seen as cruder sociological theories of history, especially those of Marxist of progressive-liberal inspiration. This was the only form of cultural criticism widely on offer in literary studies in England and America before the late 1950s. …

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