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What We Should Want with History: A Meditation on Cultural Studies, Methodology, and Politics

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Abstract

This essay evaluates two of the central problems for Cultural Studies as a field: how to generate methodologically rigorous scholarship that is also politically useful; and how to productively use models and theory in the practice of history. Beginning with conversations about the place of (disciplinary) history in Cultural Studies, this essay explores one of the legendary debates in the field: between E. P. Thompson, Perry Anderson, and (at least in theory) Louis Althusser. Though the debate centered on the degree to which the English Civil War could be termed a “bourgeois revolution,” Thompson's fundamental critique concerned Anderson's use of abstract models in history. However, the distinctions Thompson makes are not nearly as clear-cut in practice – particularly when we look at Ellen Meiksins Wood's attempt to intervene on Thompson's side in her 1991 book The Pristine Culture of Capitlism. Wood's understanding of capitalism relies on an abstract conceptualization of that mode of produciton that is ironically similar to that of Althusser and Anderson. Arguing this as an illustratration of the importance of explicit models and methods, the essay develops Richard Johnson's account of Marx's use of abstraction and theory in his own historical scholarship. Marx's framework is then deployed to reconsider the English Civil War in realation to a key contemporary concern: the origins of copyright and intellectual property. It ends by advocating for what I term anarchic abstraction: a conscious, rigorous, politically-committed, and dialectical attention to the order and determinations of history with no strict hierarchy given in advance.

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