Popular culture has been mishandled by historians. It was ignored from most centuries, yet today the study of popular culture is seen as essential for well-rounded study. By tracing how certain key historians presented popular culture, and how those men got to be in positions were their thoughts were considered consequential, how the study of popular culture changed over time becomes obvious. Assuming that the individuals chosen are representative of their time, examining John White, William Herder, Karl Marx, and Carlo Ginsburg can show the full spectrum of approaches the study of popular history can be traced.
While at first popular culture was considered inferior and inconsequential, it has evolved into a respected part of history. This evolution occurred largely in part because more qualified individuals were able to study historical popular culture, and a wider variety of ideas on the study of popular culture became considered valid. How the English gathered and judged information of the common people and, in this case, particularly the “other”, reflected their social structure and political ambitions. John White was not a historian, nor was he sociologist.
Yet White was commissioned by the British government to make illustrations and to study the Algonkian people, and his findings were distributed with zeal in England. White would later go on to be the governor of Roanoke. White’s appointment shows a lack of respect for the Algonkian people. Sending an artist with no qualifications to thoroughly and effectively study the Algonkian people meant that qualitied people were not common and well know at the time, or that British government simply did not care about the Algonquian people as a people, and only as a means, they did not bother to find a qualified individual.
Likely it was the latter, however the former was also probably true. At this point in history, the study of other cultures in Britain did not frequently exist outside of racist rants and political ambition. Since White was an employee of the Crown as well as a loyal Englishman, he viewed the Algonquian people through the lens of the English government, a lens filled with dreams of conquest and superiority. This lens corrupted secondary sources until “popular culture” become synonymous with inferiority.
Because English society allowed unqualified but well connected men to be judge and jury on cultures they did not even attempt to understand, they viewed popular culture as irrelevant and crude, and useless in both history and life. This air of superiority continued in the era of Herder, but here only those deemed qualified could discuss such an intellectual matter, shifting the range of people who were involved in the study of popular culture. Herder came from a well off family, and was able to attend university.
From then on he became a prominent intellectual in several humanities related fields, and devoted part of his study to that of other cultures. In Reflections on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, Herder describes the different races, and what he believes each race is naturally inclined to do. Here, he pities his poor European race for being too restless, too burdened with intellectualism. One of the many ironies here is that that intellectualism was vital for Herder to be able to publish such a paper at all.
By the 1800s, in order to have ones thought taken seriously, an individual would have had to be highly educated and passed the rampant intellectual gate keeping. This concept is best illustrated with a story by Erasmus, in which in rings around a house represented what level of intellectual depth Erasmus deemed appropriate for people of varying genders and sociopolitical statues. Herder would have been permitted into the inner most circle, and because of this, he could express his thoughts and be taken seriously by his contemporaries.
Intellectual gate keeping led to a very narrow range of people able to express their thoughts on popular culture, or any other intellectual topic. These man would have enjoyed the feeling of intellectual superiority, and the feeling that their intellect somehow earned them the right to pass judgment. This is similar to White’s era, except now these men thought themselves qualifies, and were not employees of the government. They still had no desire to respect or understand any of the cultures they were writing about, so they feel into the same dehumanizing pitfalls as previous eras.
Because they were independent scholars, they were motivated less by politics and economics and more by personal beliefs of race and worldview, so more musing on race and philosophy became present when discussing the “other”, as opposed to political schemes. In turn, popular culture was then viewed as beneath an educated man, as something to be pitied and helped rather than as a life that real humans lived. Karl Marx did not experience the same pitfalls as previous generations. His ideas and experience are completely different than his predecessors.
Marx strongly believed that history was just class struggle between the proletariat and bourgeois, even that history would end when the proletariat rises up and takes control of the means of production. Marx identified with the proletariat and their popular culture, leading to the first sympathetic view point of popular culture. However, there is strange paradox, because while Marx believes he is championing the proletariat, he also erases culture as he simplifies it to just one intersection.
Everything that might have been thought of as culture, from folk stories to food, is eradicated. The individuals from history that Marx claims to be championing might very well take offense to this dismissal. Nevertheless, Karl Marx represents a leap forward in the study of popular culture. Marx’s ideas were revolutionary, and how widespread they became illustrates how perception of popular culture and commoners were shifted. Marx distributed pamphlets, such as the Communist Manifesto, aimed not at the intellectual elite, but at common people.
In truth, his true goal was to spread Marxism, and not to change how people study popular culture. Regardless, by addressing his ideas to the public directly, he is saying that he respects the public’s ability to understand his message. Marx’s innate respect for his contempories extends to those same people of the past, and a respect and empathy that is considered vital in today’s study of history. Carlo Ginsburg takes this respect to any entirely new level. Ginsburg specialized in the field of microhistory, the intense study of a particular person or incident.
Microhistory requires a historian to delve deeply into the subject matter, and since more topics studied focus on more obscure individuals, their very nature requires a respect and empathy with popular culture. Microhistory is the inverse of how history had been approached by scholars such as Herder. It furthers the importance of popular culture in the study of history. It gives popular culture the spotlight, and while the microhistory itself is an incompletely flash of history, it gives the depth and empathy the study of popular culture had lacked before.
By the time Ginsburg had become a micro historian, the study of popular culture had completely evolved. It allowed for multipliable methods for studying popular culture. Perhaps this is because a wider variety of people had access to education, including people who identified popular culture. Perhaps it was because the sociopolitical structure now put an emphasis on merit and the ability of people to make something of themselves in so many places that naturally historians began to have reexamine popular culture.
Whatever the reason, popular culture been given its rightful place on the mantel of history. The study of popular culture could seem inconsequential at first glance. The people who were part of it are not individually influential enough to be in any textbooks, but they are us. They are the majority, the people we, as a part of current popular culture, should relate to the most. When past historians ignored the study of popular culture, they were not only ignoring that part of the past, but their present day equivalent.
As time progressed, and more people could study and publish their thoughts on history, the study of popular culture came into the forefront, recognized as the half of history that had been missing for so long. Ultimately, all history is an act of empathy, but for the study of popular culture, this is especially true. In order to understand it fully, we must recognize that we are the same as they were, and even though our environment and circumstance might be different, they are what we would have been.