Can culture really explain politics?: "interdisciplinary" historiography, enlightenment and revolution

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Exploring studies of late eighteenth-century France, this article notes that the real tensions of historical interdisciplinarity have not arisen with the human sciences, but rather with the other humanities, and particularly with the study of literature and other 'high-cultural' forms of production. At least some of the criticism levelled at historians such as Lynn Hunt for trespassing into the field of high culture seems to come from a sense that the special qualities of literature are defamed when it is dragged in as mere empirical evidence for wider change. These tensions, apart from being mere 'turf wars', reflect on a broader issue emergent from the rise, and indeed prevalence, of the 'new cultural history'. This is the tendency for the most successful of these histories to be best when their analyses are synchronic, and for even the more diachronic of them to shy away from seeking explanation through narrative, and particularly from the narrative of political events. Reviewing some major works of the past three decades, the shift away from narrative explanation is notable, even to the extent that major works of 'political culture' imply that analysis is complete when the cultural preconditions of events have been laid out. But at the same time, a countervailing tendency is promoting the reunification of human science methods, high-cultural materials, and narrative historical explanation. Studies of the social and political agendas pursued by late-Enlightenment authors and playwrights, alongside work on the implications of theatre as a site of concrete interactions between audiences, writers and authorities, suggest a movement towards ground-breaking synthesis. With the recent work of William Reddy on the historicity of emotional response, the groundwork is in place for a re-evaluation of the interplay of high-cultural production, 'ethnographic' analysis, and the contingent progress of events that forms the narrative of politics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)260-269
Number of pages10
JournalStudies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2005


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