- Toward a History of Cultural Economy
Since the late 1990s, a subtle revolution has occurred within the historiography of antebellum America. Without any apparent concert, a number of cultural historians have turned to economic history. It is no exaggeration to call this a revolution, for these historians have begun to practice what any number of commentators have been calling for since the late 1990s: a move toward reconciling cultural history’s interest in the “symbolic, linguistic and representational” with “a sense of social embeddedness” that does not “reduc[e] everything to its social determinants.”1
This shift has momentous implications for both cultural history and economic history, two fields that rarely play well together. Economic history has largely been left to economists, who focus on empirical data and plotable trends. They excel at telling us what happened and perhaps modeling a suggestion of why, rarely showing much interest in what anyone at the time thought or felt or even did as a result. At the same time, cultural history has largely pushed the economy aside, often in the most literal sense. That may seem like a peculiar assertion given the outpouring of work on the market revolution and consumer culture in the 1980s and 1990s. But much of this literature imagined “the economic,” usually synonymous with “capitalism,” as somehow outside of society, as something that works against society, damaging social life.2 The vast literature on the transition to capitalism in early America, for instance, grapples not only with the question of when such a transition occurred but also with what parts of society were destroyed and to what extent.3 Indeed, if we think of the numerous books on the market revolution, and the very term “market revolution,” the implicit separation of economy and society becomes explicit. For within the word “market,” we find the residue of a physical space where people met face to face. The “revolution” then suggests, most stridently in Charles Sellers’s Market Revolution, a displacement of face-to-face relations between people.4 In the 1980s and 1990s, many historians of consumer culture similarly juxtaposed economy and society, suggesting that participation in mass consumption offered ordinary men and women [End Page 564] a distraction from authentic political engagement. At best, consumption was a kind of self-medication against the terrors of industrial life. At worst, it represented the manipulative power of industry and advertising, duping ordinary men and women into accepting and even embracing alienation from each other and themselves.5 In all these works, as Joyce Appleby has pointed out, the economy appears as an “exogenous force, thrust into the lives of unwary folks.”6
But at least since the publication of Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market in 1999, some avowed cultural historians have turned to the economic as an endogenous force, as something inseparable from society.7 In retrospect Johnson’s book is seen to have marked two significant historiographic changes. First, Johnson described the slave trade as both a cultural and an economic phenomenon, rather than as a predominantly economic function. His insistence on understanding economic history as cultural history (and vice versa) has proven influential to historians of capitalism and slavery through the 2000s. Second, Johnson refused to adopt either a tragic or an ironic tone. This is not to deny that he saw human tragedies at every juncture of the slave trade. But he rejected what Hayden White called “irony,” the tendency “to dissolve all belief in the possibility of positive political action.” Ironic narratives, in White’s sense, focus on the “essential folly or absurdity of the human condition” and distance themselves from any effort to “grasp the nature of social reality in either science or art.”8 Instead of the “irony of history,” Johnson focused on “axiom[s] of historical process,” on the possibilities, however limited, that emerged at a particular, peculiar historical moment.9
It is no accident that the historians most enthusiastic about a cultural approach to economic history and the political stance of a non-ironic tone have been almost exclusively historians of the antebellum period. Indeed, none of the historians examined here stray...