Cultural Periods and Styles (303)

A number of critical terms were introduced in Tuesday’s class. I listed them on the board, but here they are again:

text and context




adventure fiction

the novel

imperial romance

Recall that– as the course information page says– this course examines the relationship between culture and history. Granted, this focus may seem exceedingly broad, especially given our own contemporary cultural situation, where the past is sampled, referenced, and appropriated as fuel for a perpetually grinding pop culture mill. Oddly enough, this process– a process of “pastiche” according to Fredric Jameson– acts to diminish historical consciousness. (See “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”.)

The bet I’m making here is that the texts that fall within the genre of adventure fiction not only mobilize prior cultural forms such as Romance, but speak– more or less directly– to the social concerns of their moment of production. King Solomon’s Mines, for instance, was published in 1885, on the eve of the Berlin Conference, when European powers met to divide Africa as if it were a giant pie. Haggard’s novel is interesting in this regard because it tells the story of three men in search of a fabulous treasure from antiquity. Because of this acquisitive impulse, a contiguity between the exploits of the early-modern explorers and the nineteenth century’s “New Imperialism” is thereby established.

A similar argument could be made about any text– i.e. that culture is ideologically bound to its moment of production. In a sense, each era possesses a horizon of the possible– a set of ideas or views about what is thinkable or natural or “just common sense.” This is not to say that writers can’t reject or rebuke the ruling ideas of their day. (In any case rejection is a form of relationship.) Instead, it indicates that art– literary or otherwise– picks up the cultural materials at hand in order to make some comment on social reality.

For those who are interested in perusing my notes on Toohey’s “The Cultural Logic of Historical Periodization” you can find them here.