Discourse and the Humanities-A Social History of Cultural History

Timothy W. Luke’s monographic discourse on museum discourses is itself a useful way of analyzing the reception of cultural theory in the humanities. If a prospective historian was going to write a history of say…the spread of Foucault in academia…what framework would provide the most beneficial and useful interpretation? One could utilize a framework very much like that Luke utilizes in Museum Politics. In order to justify his assertion of the importance of museums he argues that they are central nodes in the narrative/discoursive networks used by states and societies to enculturate populations. Museums and exhibitions are discourses that can be “read” by academics to illuminate their intended–but as the culture wars show, often contested–reality shaping meanings and interpretations.

Unfortunately I don’t think cultural theory provides as good an explanation of the rise of a phenomenon such as cultural history as social theory might. I don’t doubt that the discourses of cultural history and cultural historians are tied to power, but I think the diffusion of cultural theory within certain areas of academia can be profitably anallyzes from a a more materialist perspective. One first might ask why cultural theory experienced most of its acceptance and growth in humanities related disciplines. This might first be done by looking at what the humanities produce. This seems to be primarily teaching and books and articles, in other words they mostly produce discourseĀ and texts. This is opposed to the natural sciences/math/engineering that often produce material artifacts/technologies, or discourses and text that can lead to the successful manipulation of the physical world. In order to justify the not insignificant social resources expended on humanities professors there was a need to elevate the importance of our product. Foucault does this by elevating the importance of discourse and its ability to shape reality. Now instead of acknowlegding that the majority of material published by humanities scholars is related to theĀ tenor system of career advancement (which is connected to increasing ones professional status), it can now also be proclaimed that our discourses shape reality (and thus that what humanities academics do is important).

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