The Project

This symposium grew out of an April 2014 panel (“New Approaches to the History of Capitalism”) at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Atlanta. The original panel was solicited by the OAH Program Committee and included five of the faculty authors who will be presenting here.

Moving forward, we hope to do two things….

First, we hope to think through some of the prevailing assumptions of the “New History of Capitalism,” a burgeoning field of enquiry that has produced enormous attention both within academia and beyond. In our view, however, this attention has not always translated into rigorous discussion about what, exactly, the NHC is or does as a collective enterprise. Nor has it provoked adequate discussion about how we might differentiate the NHC from other major groundswells such as the “New Cultural History” that generated similar buzz a decade or two earlier. As a recent review essay in The Nation noted (“Apostles of Growth,” Nov. 5, 2014), the NHC currently exists as a loosely aligned series of projects defined “topically” (as opposed to methodologically or conceptually). By calling the question, so to speak, on the NHC’s methodological underpinnings, we hope to foster a more rigorous debate about what this important mode of questioning has actually accomplished. What has been gained or lost in this recent groundswell?

Our second basic goal is to showcase new and emerging work from leading scholars previously trained in cultural history, but now working quite explicitly on various forms of global capitalism. The goal here is to complicate recent assertions that the NHC constituted a “turn beyond” (or “away” from) “cultural” modes of questioning. Our sense is that this portrait of “superseding turns” (cultural into capitalist, etc.) has been central to the NHC’s self-conception. Examples of this pattern pervade recent scholarship. See, for example, the 2011 state-of-the-field essay on the “History of Capitalism” in American History Now (e.g., the references to the “New Cultural History” and its “weak conceptual tool of identity,” pp. 317-19). Much the same narrative can be found in a 2014 “manifesto” posted at the New School for Social Research:

Others joined historians and humanities scholars in the “cultural turn.” They struck out for new worlds of culture, those ever-shifting systems of language and meaning, symbols and signifiers, identity and consciousness that produce and reproduce power. In doing so, however, these academics largely abandoned questions of class and ceded the terrain of economics.

Moving forward, our hope is to do more than simply poke holes in reductionist family trees. While some of us have previously published review essays in these areas, we have not yet had the opportunity to make good on our critiques and suggest concrete directions for future research. Our broader goal for this symposium is to showcase a broad range of current work seeking to bridge the conceptual zero sums: social vs. cultural, material vs. discursive, micro vs. macro, and so forth.

Each panel will include 3 faculty authors, a University of Michigan PhD student chair, and a faculty comment. The authors will submit ~25 pp. essays to a conference website roughly a month in advance to foster maximum feedback and group discussion. During the symposium itself (four weeks later), we will ask each of the authors to introduce/frame their papers for 10-15 minutes, after which there will be a 20 minute comment and 60 minutes of critical discussion with the entire audience.

Please come and join us in the conversations on April 1-2. We look forward to seeing you!