Saturday, October 1, 2011

Writing (Popular) History

I am currently taking a class in early modern European history titled, "Is a history of popular culture/religion possible?" We were asked this week to write a short personal statement identifying what consider the central problem of writing popular history and gesturing towards some possible solutions. Mine, as you'll see, ended up being a little more generalized. Oddly enough (considering my undergraduate thesis), I'm not big on theory.


I believe the center of all historical study should be the human person, meaning, as de Certeau suggests in today's reading, not the atomized individual but rather the relational person. When I get a whiff of real human beings in a reading, I get interested. When I sense faceless masses or impersonal forces, my eyes glaze, my reading slows, and perhaps a little drool drops from my gaping, bored mouth.

This might sound like I'm about to advocate only the most micro of micro-histories, but I don't think that's a solution because you don't get a person without the context of their community, and you don't that community without the context of some larger community, and so forth. For me, the major problem comes down to the relationships between the personal level and the larger culture you're ostensibly studying. You have to find a way to bring out the faces of human persons while preserving their foreignness, and without removing them from their culture and community.

I don't know that the solution can be found in theory, abstract schemes, or definitions. I'm not sure there actually is a solution. As nice as it would be to solutionatize what we've problematized, I think we're stuck with contingency and relationship. This means employing flexibility in our studies. I also think that since even our most minute and limited conclusions are tenuous, we might as well make big claims and gesture towards sweeping conclusions too. Basically, we have to recognize that our statements are strongly relative yet make them anyway. We realize that every generality is sweeping, but we still generalize. We'll fashion a history of popular culture the way we tend to form a concept of anything: not by agreeing on what it is, but by bickering over what it isn't.