The Multifaceted World of Cultural History

Some of the most engaging readings that I’ve explored on my history list so far belong to the genre of cultural history. This is partly because cultural histories tend to encompass unusual subject matter (see my recent post on toilet paper advertising), and over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to read about everything from amusement parks and gas station architecture to television. Beyond exploring the quirky stories behind certain these ideas or things though, cultural histories consider broader social or economic issues through the lens of these specific objects or technologies. Through an intimate consideration of a particular concept or object, in other words, cultural histories offer insight into the culture from which that thing originated. Today then, we’ll take a look at some of these readings and what they have to say about American society at large.

Gustave definitely merits his own cultural history.

An overarching theme connecting a lot of the cultural histories I’ve been looking at has been the adjustment to modernity. In other words, a lot of these historians have explored how the specific objects they study enabled American citizens to adjust to modern life, with its emphasis on speed, instantaneity, mass culture, and a reliance on technology. That is the major theme of the monograph Electric Dreamland, by Lauren Rabinovitz. Focusing on the popularity of electric amusement parks and movies during the early 20th century, she argues that these technologies helped audiences adjust to the unfamiliarity of modern life by taking the sense of danger associated with modern machines and other developments and converting it into entertainment. Concentrating specifically on somatic experience, she posits that roller coasters and other thrill rides encouraged visitors to yield bodily control to machines in order to achieve a sense of excitement. This experience, she posits, played out in other facets of modern society through the growing popularity of the automobile, the increasingly complex infrastructure of cities, and so on. Far from a frivolous pursuit distinct from the more “serious” aspects of modernism, Rabinovitz argues that amusement parks played a crucial role in the shaping of modern life. 

I appreciated this book for a couple of different reasons. Rather than focus exclusively on famous urban sites such as Coney Island in New York, Rabinovitz concentrates on amusement parks in more suburban and western areas to demonstrate that the kind of modernity these places promoted was not limited to major metropolitan areas. I also thought that her somatic grounding of the modern experience was intriguing, as it reminded me of Diana Taylor’s discussion of bodily ways of knowing in The Archive and the Repertoire. I also connected with Rabinovitz’s argument on a personal level because I had the opportunity to experience amusement parks first-hand. Last December, Brandon and I went to visit his family at Universal Studios in Orlando. Consequently, I was able to draw on my own experiences of riding roller coasters and walking around fanciful architecture when reading the book. 

(For the record, I’m a terrible amusement park visitor by somatic standards; the rides either scare me, make me nauseous, or both. Hot butterbeer at Diagon Alley though? I am totally fine with that.) 

Other books take a subject matter regarded as nondescript and emphasize its significance. That is what Gabrielle Esperdy does in the book American Autotopia, which focuses on gas stations and other structures related to the automobile. She argues that these places, far from insignificant, played a key role in the development of modern architecture, not just through style, but rather through space. She posits that the car and its need for wider, paved roads encouraged architects and urban planners to think about cities differently, as they conceptualized spaces adapted to cars. As such, the look of modern architecture, with its emphasis on clean lines and accessible spaces for cars in terms of both driving and parking, is very much informed by the automobile. Consequently, she argues that we should pay as much attention to gas stations and other roadside stops as much as we do the more iconic skyscrapers and other structures.

Still other books highlight new facets of technologies that we thought we understood. Such is what happens in Lynn Spigel’s book TV by Design. While authors such as James L. Baughman have explored television through its relationship with other entertainment mediums such as vaudeville and movies, she focuses on television’s relationship with modern art. She argues that television as it developed in the 1950s and early 1960s maintained an ongoing dialogue with modern art, whether through the abstracted animations of early commercials, the appearance of modern abstract paintings in the backgrounds of television shows, or the hiring of modern artists to design film sets. Through this multi-faceted exploration, she offers new insights into television by aligning it with another medium that often gets analyzed separately from it.

A lot of these readings bear the influence of a specific scholar, Raymond Williams, who introduced a sociological aspect to the study of culture. In early essays like his 1958 “Culture is Ordinary,” Williams advocates for a more anthropological take on culture that considers everyday practices as well as art or theater. He wasn’t the first scholar to argue for scholarly considerations of the ordinary, but the way he synthesized these different ideas has proven quite influential.  He would further explore this idea in his 1977 monograph Marxism and Literature, which argues for taking a Marxist scholarly framework and reconsidering it through the lens of material culture. In other words, the state of our material surroundings says a lot about a society. This idea in particular has influenced a lot of scholars, who have explored capitalism, institutional racism, gender norms, and other big concepts through the lens of specific objects.

These writings have definitely intrigued me in a lot of different ways, and I appreciated the multimedia, interdisciplinary quality of these works. Given my own peculiar taste in art, as my blog post on Seal and Polar Bear suggests, I could see myself doing a cultural history on Victorian business cards and their relationship with nineteenth-century painting, vernacular or otherwise. With regard to my interest in the Community Arts Center project, I could also see myself exploring the kind of art shown through a cultural history lens. So for instance, what kind of subject matter was especially popular among viewers in different regions, and what might those subjects suggest about society at large? How about the history of typewriters and other communicative technologies in museums? What my cultural history readings have underscored is that nothing exists in a vacuum and any topic is fair game so long as you have strong questions that connect your topics back to broader social issues or concerns.

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