It goes without saying that “culture” is a confusing word, this year or any year. Merriam-Webster offers six definitions for it (including the biological one, as in “bacterial culture”). The problem is that “culture” is more than the sum of its definitions.
If anything, its value as a word depends on the tension between them. The critic Raymond Williams, in his souped-up dictionary, “Keywords,” writes that “culture” has three divergent meanings: there’s culture as a process of individual enrichment, as when we say that someone is “cultured” (in 1605, Francis Bacon wrote about “the culture and manurance of minds”); culture as a group’s “particular way of life,” as when we talk about French culture, company culture, or multiculturalism; and culture as an activity, pursued by means of the museums, concerts, books, and movies that might be encouraged by a Ministry of Culture (or covered on a blog like this one). These three senses of culture are actually quite different, and, Williams writes, they compete with one another. Each time we use the word “culture,” we incline toward one or another of its aspects: toward the “culture” that’s imbibed through osmosis or the “culture” that’s learned at museums, toward the “culture” that makes you a better a person or the “culture” that just inducts you into a group.
Joshua Rothman, “The Meaning of Culture”, The New Yorker (December 26, 2014)
Culture is, as the extended quote above makes clear, is a difficult word to get a hold of–it’s like trying to nail jelly to a tree. So imagine how hard it is to define the historical discipline that studies culture.
That’s what Marco Cabrera Geserick and Al Zambone try to do this week on Historically Thinking. Not only do they discuss disciplines, but disciplines of sub-disciplines. Wow. And thanks for listening.
For Further Reading
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (New York, 1990)
Peter Burke, What is Cultural History? (Cambridge, 2004)
Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, MA, 1983)
Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York, 1973)
Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore, 2013)
E. H. Gombrich, In Search of Cultural History (Oxford, 1969)
Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (Chicago, 1997)
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillu: The Promised Land of Error (New York, 2008)
E.P. Thompson, Custom in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New York, 1993)