The Zamani Reader

On West Africa, Britain, and the West Indies in the Eighteenth Century


Europe & Asia

Review of Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre

ROBERT DARNTON. The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Pp. xix, 320. $17.99. Paperback. ISBN: 0-465-02700-8.

The Great Cat Massacre is the fourth and the most popular scholarly book written by the American cultural historian, academic librarian, and specialist of eighteenth-century France, Robert Darnton (b. 1939). The book is a neat compilation of six, chapter-length case-studies that Darnton calls “Episodes.” Each of these episodes uses a specific primary source as a point of departure for exploring the cultural landscape of Ancien Régime France between 1697 and 1784. The book is considered an example of how scholars can apply an anthropological methodology to existing source material. In this sense, Darnton is most concerned with looking at old documents in new ways—treating them as physical artifacts that serve as windows to foreign cultures, otherwise known as mentalités. As Darnton shows, this task requires a detailed contextual analysis of a given subject, alongside an acute reading of the particular source that has chosen as its representative. In the early 1980s, this process exemplified an emerging historical tradition that was—and indeed still is—known as Cultural History.  For this reason, Cat Massacre (either in whole or just its title chapter) is regularly assigned in both undergraduate and graduate Historiography classes across the country. Over thirty years later, the work is still an exemplar of Cultural History.

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Review of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms

CARLO GINZBURG. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1980. Pp. xiv, 224. $22.95. Paperback. ISBN: 9781421409887. Originally published in Italian under the name Il formaggio e i vermi: Il cosmo di un mugnaio del ‘500 in 1976 by the editor Giulio Einaudi.

Special Note: This blog post is in honor of the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, who is coming to UC Davis on Monday, April 18, 2016, to talk as this year’s guest speaker at the Eugene Lunn Memorial Lecture Series. This is the Twenty-Fourth Annual installment of the series. The theme is “Reading History Against the Grain,” and the talk will take place in the Buehler Alumni Center from 4:10 to 5:30 pm, with a reception to follow. The event is free and open to the public.

In honor of Professor Ginzburg’s visit, I have decided to post a review I wrote of what is perhaps his most famous historical work, The Cheese and the Worms, when I was in my first year of the MA program at Loyola University Chicago. This paper was one of the very first book reviews that I ever wrote in graduate school. I submitted it on October 28, 2013, for a Historiography class taught by Professor John Pincince. I can still remember that I read Ginzburg’s entire book, from the first page to the last. As many of you know, The Cheese and the Worms is not a long book, so perhaps this is not nearly as impressive of a task as I am suggesting. Nonetheless, the point is that the work was captivating, and it had a profound impact on me. Although I was quite critical in my initial review, I look back upon the work with great fondness now. Since reading The Cheese and the Worms, microhistory has become one of my favorite historical fields. I hope that one day, I can achieve anywhere near the same delicate balance between the local and the global—the intimate and the transcendent—that Ginzburg has achieved here. Thanks for reading. Enjoy.

Lunn Lecture Picture

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Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Nine)

The Interconnectedness of Global Capitalism

ANNA LOWENHAUPT TSING. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. 352. $29.95. Hardback. ISBN: 9780691162751.

The reading for this week is about the relationships between human and non-human species in the context of global capitalism. The work under review is Mushroom at the End of the World. It is the third book written by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Mushroom is two things at once—one of them particular and one broad. First, Mushroom is an ethnographic analysis of the matsutake mushroom trade and its global supply chain. Second, it is a meditation on the nature of global capitalism, with a suggestion for a new ethics of capitalism that breaks from what Tsing describes as the lingering assumptions of the Enlightenment era. This new ethics of capitalism is based on a recognition of the interconnectedness of the world’s species. It is based on an acceptance of vulnerability, and a recognition of the “collaborative survival” of various “assemblages” that thrive amidst the “capitalist damage” of the postwar age. Overall, Tsing’s portrayal of our “entangled ways of life” is creative and inspiring, yet it rests on a strawman: an oversimplified depiction of Enlightenment capitalism as Man conquering Nature through “expectations of progress aimed toward collective advancement.”[1]

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Criticisms from the Linguistic Turn: A Review Essay on Readings in Historical Theory

TERRY EAGLETON. Literary Theory: An Introduction – Anniversary Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Pp. 240. $18.50. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8166-5447-5.[1]

ROBERT BURNS, HUGH RAYMONT-PICKARD (eds.). Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Post-Modernity, 274-318. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000. Pp. 380. $69.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-0631-2137-9.

HAYDEN WHITE. “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory.” In History and Theory 23, no. 1 (Feb., 1984): 1-33.

MICHEL FOUCAULT. “What is an Author?” trans. by Robert Hurley et al. In Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, edited by James D. Faubion, 205-222. New York: The New Press, 1998. Pp. 528. $24.05. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-56584-558-9.[2]

ROLAND BARTHES. “The Death of an Author,” trans. by Richard Howard. In ASPEN: The Multimedia Magazine in a Box, no. 5+6, item 3: “Three Essays: Essays with post-modern perspectives” (1967): 1-6. UbuWeb. Web. Accessed November 5, 2015.[3]

The selected readings for this week deal with “New Criticism” in the field of literary theory during the twentieth century. As Eagleton summarizes, during a moment commonly known as the linguistic turn, “the very meaning of ‘literature,’ ‘reading’ and criticism” underwent “deep alteration.” This meant that philosophers began to think more seriously about the hidden functions of language and structure as culturally “self-referential” objects, that is, objects that were defined less by their proposed content than by the “deeper structures of belief” they signified.

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Book Review of Thomas R. Martin’s Herodotus and Sima Qian: The First Great Historians of Greece and China

THOMAS R. MARTIN. Herodotus and Sima Qian: The First Great Historians of Greece and China – A Brief History with Documents. (Bedford Series in History and Culture.) Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. Pp. 153. $19.99. Paperback. ISBN: 9780312416492.

Herodotus and Sima Qian is a brief, comparative, and cross-cultural analysis of the lives and major works of two ancient writers whom author Thomas Martin believes to be “the first great historians” of the Eastern and Western worlds. These two writers are Herodotus of classical Greece (ca. 484 – ca. 414 BCE), known for writing the Histories around 450 BCE, and Sima Qian of early imperial China (ca. 145 – ca. 86), known for writing The Records of the Historian around 109 BCE. Herodotus was a Greek storyteller from the Persian-controlled town of Halicarnassus in southwestern Turkey. He wrote his 30-scroll Histories about the rise of the Persian Empire in the region of modern Iran, and the Greco-Persian Wars that occurred between an alliance of Greek city-states and the Archaemenid dynasty. Herodotus wrote this narrative after his family was exiled to mainland Greece. By contrast, Qian was a privileged son from Xiayang, a village near modern Hancheng in the Shaanxi province of China. He became the Grand Astrologer and then Palace Secretary to Emperor Wu from the Han dynasty of a unified China. He took over writing The Records from his dying father as a private project of filial honor. He suffered castration and disgrace as a result of his dedication to the work.[1]

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