U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thrift Shop Historiography

I highly recommend James W. Cook’s outstanding essay in the June 2012 AHR, “The Kids are All Right: On the ‘Turning’ of Cultural History.”

Cook’s essay was part of the AHR’s forum on historiographic “turns” — cultural turn, linguistic turn, transnational turn, imperial turn, etc., etc.  As is clear from his title, Cook framed his account in “generational” terms, drawing a distinction between historians whose careers were underway before “the turning,” and those who entered graduate school after the contested value of culturalism was reasonably established.

“If one cohort’s turns found their expression in mid-career conversion experiences, ” Cook writes, “what about those for whom many of the very same ideas, texts, and debates were methodological starting points, the more mundane stuff of first-year graduate syllabi?” (763)

Cook’s answer, as indicated by his title, is that “the kids” — the graduate students of those mid-career converts to culturalist approaches — are “all right,” and that dire warnings — or at least dire worries — that we must get “beyond” the cultural turn underestimate the sense and sophistication of post-turn scholarly work undertaken by this generation of students, who are now themselves in mid-career.

Cook questions the urgency of the need to get “beyond” the turn. “We might wonder again:  beyond what, exactly? Beyond the early struggles to establish language, imagery, and perception as the very stuff of historical analysis? Absolutely. Beyond the older ‘antinomies’ that pitted cultural against social, micro against macro, subjectivity against structure? One can only hope. Beyond a ‘radically’ or ‘purely’ discursive mode of questioning now said to dominate ‘current practice’? Well, maybe not so fast” (763).

Cook then adduces the work of  some of “the kids” — including Kathy Peiss, Amy Dru Stanley, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, Lizabeth Cohen, Sarah Igo, Bethany Moreton — to demonstrate how unneeded is the call for or expectation of supersession, especially for supersession of a mode that doesn’t hold sway in the first place. A look at cultural history today shows that it is far from purely discursive.  Cultural history is not worn out; cultural history is grown up: “Wouldn’t we expect cultural history to change over time?  Why, then, cast it retrospectively as a singular bag of tricks: a fixed and finished turn somehow frozen in the Reagan era?” (770)

It’s a confident, optimistic essay, a reminder to not be too hasty to get beyond some expected bend in the road ahead, but instead to recognize that the next new thing is right now.

At the same time, there’s something almost wistful in this essay’s plea for understanding.  Cook hopes that historiography can move beyond the paradigm of the “generational we”(770). But in the very act of doing so he calls forth the parental figures of the pioneering culturalist cohort in all their magisterial authority, so that the kids might at last have their blessing — except that the kids are grown up now and have kids of their own.

It’s as if Cook is writing on behalf of a “sandwich generation” of scholars.  He is asking the fathers and mothers of the cultural turn not to engage in handwringing about the direction of the discipline.  At the same time, though, I think he has his eye on the next generation of historians — generation now, the future of the discipline — who, amid all this talk of “beyond,” and the hunt for the next new thing, might underestimate the value of what lies to hand.

But there’s no other way to distinguish between generations than by looking for a new look.  For it is not by age, or by year, that one generation differs from another, but by style.  In his fine essay “Death in the Wilderness,” Harold Rosenberg put it like this:

Generations are a matter of costume. Their existence is established by a Look. Part of this Look is the rhetorical make-up, the blend of ideas and phrases, by which each generation creates the illusion of its intellectual character.

It is customary to define a generation quantitatively: persons between this birthday and that. But a generation has another dimension besides this linear measure of time. To achieve its Look it may have had to reach back past its chronological birthday to an older image of which it is an imitation or a revival.

Or, as Macklemore puts it in “Thrift Shop“:

I’ma take your grandpa’s style,

I’ma take your grandpa’s style,

No for real – ask your grandpa –

can I have his hand-me-downs? (Thank you)

Cook is saying, I think, that cultural history is not yet ready for consignment to the thrift-shop bin.  Or maybe he’s saying that if it’s not already there, then it’s not going to last. If we’re not rummaging through the work that has been done, looking for what fits, then we’re stuck paying fifty dollars for a T-shirt just so we can have something new, while the good work that has been done is consigned to the fate of the outmoded.

“To ourselves,” Jacques Barzun wrote, “we have no style — we just are — but posterity will smile just the same.”

So while we’re smiling, we might as well pop some tags.

One Thought on this Post

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  1. There were a couple of spots in this post where it seemed to me that I didn’t make my meaning plain enough, so I added a few phrases, which I have put in italics.

    I also added a link to Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” — it’s a YouTube video that will open in a new window — for those who wonder what in the world I’m talking about. This is the studio version, explicit lyrics and all.

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