- Cultures in Motion ed. by Daniel T. Rodgers, Bhavani Raman, Helmut Reimitz
This edited volume originates in seminars held at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies at Princeton University between 2008 and 2010. Traversing a broad array of themes, places, and periods, the nine substantive essays are anchored by an introduction and two short afterwords written individually by the editors. As Daniel T. Rodgers states in his introduction, the volume is to serve as a waypost in the search for a new vocabulary that will free the study of culture from its tenacious ties to locale. Rodgers contends that challenges to fixed notions of “place” brought about by the new imperial histories as well as the experience of contemporary globalization have not caused the same critical self-examination among historians that they have generated within the field of anthropology. Nevertheless, these challenges have prompted new types of cultural history that are concerned with encounters, collisions, and unexpected outcomes [End Page 660] rather than the conventional tropes of cultural adaptation or resistance. This “more sophisticated and subtle language, of hybridity, métissage, creole cultures, cultures of the middle ground, or ‘third spaces’” (p. 6) emphasizes not singular points of contact between cultures but rather genealogies of interaction whose outcomes are unruly amalgams. It is in reaction to this shift that the current volume seeks to explore a set of alternative analytical approaches for the study of cultural change “in motion,” beyond the traditional confines of place-based history. The focus of these alternative approaches is not to be on places or people but on how “cultural practices have crossed the boundaries of place that human communities have constructed, unsettling social and cultural relations, keeping even spatially rooted cultures in motion” (p. 3).
The case studies collected in this volume are grouped along three axes of enquiry: the circulation of cultural practices, objects in transit, and translations. The first part, on circulation, contains complex case studies of the reciprocal development of “challenge dancing” among African and Irish communities in antebellum America (by April F. Masten), of the transmission of a German cultural identity by traveling musicians from the seventeenth century onward (by Celia Applegate), and of changes in the social imagination of community, especially in regard to notions of wealth and poverty, in late antiquity Europe (by Peter Brown). The second part’s focus on objects is exemplified by a wide-ranging reflection on the relationship between color and the transmission and reception of knowledge in the early modern world (by Pamela H. Smith), an illuminating economic history of production and consumption in colonial Sri Lanka centered on the Singer sewing machine (by Nira Wickramsinghe), and an innovative study of Caribbean bauxite mining that contrasts the role of aluminum in the making of American modernity while locking Caribbean people, capital, and cultural perceptions into rigid constraints of immobility (by Mimi Sheller). The final part, on translations, comprises a micro-history of intercultural accommodation in the ethno-racial relations between Chinese and white members of a Californian mining community in the late nineteenth century (by Mae M. Ngai), a methodologically rich examination of European responses to East Asian medical ideas (by Harold J. Cook), and a reassessment of the 1975 International Women’s Year gathering in Mexico City that weaves together different narratives to argue that the event created a contact zone that fostered the development of a new language of transnational feminism (by Jocelyn Olcott).
Needless to say, a brief review cannot do justice to the empirical and conceptual intricacies of these individual chapters, though it may succeed [End Page 661] in conveying some sense of their staggering scope. While they are united by their fine scholarship, their connection in terms of the overall theme is less palpable. Only a few of the chapters explicitly engage with the concept of culture; some contributions eschew the term altogether (albeit without elaboration as to why that choice was made), while others attempt to delimit subsets of the term (such as “literary culture,” defined...