Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression


PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (STARRED REVIEW)


“[An] enthralling and important trans-historical study . . . Palmer’s canvas is huge—it ranges from an analysis of early modern witch culture (which he connects to the later development of Puritanism) to the emergence of 19th-century semisecret fraternal orders such as the Oddfellows, the vibrant 20th-century gay male cultures of drag and sadomasochism, and the emergence of a U.S. jazz and blues culture—yet he manages to bring these diverse topics together in a cohesive and astute analysis. Integrating unusual details and artful nuances (from the specifics of 18th-century pirate executions to the links between the Rosenberg trial and the novels of Micky Spillane), Palmer creates a multilayered but seamless portrait of four centuries of Western culture. The underlying theme here is not simply that “night” offers the occasional transgressive respite from the orderly civilization of “day,” but that these alternative social, political and artistic spaces are often where the impetus for social change begins. Palmer’s bold theme is sustained by his ability to communicate his in-depth, far-ranging scholarship with a broad political vision . . . and by his accessible and highly entertaining writing style.”

 

“An unusual work of historical scholarship, a highly readable yet deeply learned history. . .” — CHOICE

 

“A truly breathtaking book, whose richness of interpretation as well as documentation is nothing short of remarkable.”
— LEO PANITCH, AGAINST THE CURRENT

 

“A rare achievement, a triumph of engaged left scholarship, truly a book of our times …”
— LEFT HISTORY

 

Peasants, religious heretics, witches, pirates, runaway slaves, prostitutes and pornographers, frequenters of taverns and fraternal society lodge rooms, revolutionaries, blues and jazz musicians, beats, and contemporary youth gangs—those who defied authority, choosing to live dangerously outside the defining cultural dominions of early insurgent and, later, dominant capitalism are what Bryan D. Palmer calls people of the night.

 

Constructing a rich tapestry of example and experience spanning eight centuries, Palmer’s fascinating account details lives of exclusion and challenge, as the “night travels” of the transgressors clash repeatedly with the powerful conventions of their times. Nights of liberation and exhilarating desire are at the heart of this study but so, too, are the dangers cloaked in darkness. Palmer reveals those hidden spaces where darkness concealed acts of brutalizing terror or alternately provided refuge, solace, or freedom. Using the night as metaphor and unifying theme Palmer takes an unflinching look at those dissident or oppositional cultures and movements and shows how they were fueled and shaped by the rise and transformation of capitalism.

 

The night is different, its opposition to day marked by darkness and danger. But its fears are balanced by its freedoms. Night offers escape from the drudgeries of the day, the routines that define humanity in specific duties, obligations, and tasks . . . . The dark cultures of the night are thus not unified in any categorical history of sameness. Rather, they are presented here as moments excluded from histories of the day, a counterpoint within the time, space, and place governed and regulated by the logic and commerce of economic rationality and the structures of political rule. Night can be understood as lowering curtains on these domains of dominance, introducing theaters of ambiguity and transgression that can lead toward enactments of liberation. But night has also been a locale where estrangement and marginality found themselves a home. This domicile could be one of comfort and escape or, on occasion, a nursery of revolt. — From Chapter One

 

Table of Contents

 

Part I — An Overview
1. A WALK ON THE DARK SIDE The Metaphorical Night

 

Part II — Class and Gender in the Dissolution of the Ancien Régime
2. BLOOD, BREAD, AND BLASPHEMY Peasant Nights
3. WITCHES Europe and America

 

Part III — Marginality in the Age of Revolution
4. LIBERTINES, LICENTIOUSNESS, AND LIBERTY
The Underworld of Pornography’s Political Beginnings
5. CONSPIRACIES OF THE NIGHTAnglo-French
Radicalism, Jacobinism, and the Age of Revolution
6. MONSTERS OF THE NIGHT Historicizing Fantasy

 

Part IV — Exchange Relations, Empire’s Underside,
and Early Capitalism
7. PRODUCTIONS OF THE NIGHT Dark and Dangerous Labors
8. DARK CONTINENTS Empire and Race
9. IN THE SHADOW OF EMPIRE Pirates and Maroons

 

Part V — The Transforming Power of Capital
10. SOCIABILITIES OF THE NIGHT Fraternalism and the Tavern
11. NIGHTS OF THE BOMB THROWERS The Dangerous
Classes Become Dangerous
12. WORKING FOR THE DEVIL Dark Dimensions of Exploitation

 

Part VI — Eroticism and Revolutions:
The Pleasures and Dangers of Difference
13. NIGHTS OF LEATHER AND LACE Transgressive Sexualities
14. FESTIVALS OF REVOLUTION Light Out of Dark
15. DECADE OF DARKNESS The Fascist Night

 

Part VII — Making Cultures in the Heart of Capitalist Commodification
16. BLUES, JAZZ, AND JOOKIN’ Nights of Soul and Swing
17. A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE Bohemia and the Beats
18. NOIR The Cultural Politics of Darkness

 

Part VIII — Race and Capitalist Crisis
19. NIGHTS OF ACCUMULATION Banditry, Mafias,
and the Contemporary Spirit of Capitalism
20. THE IMPLOSION OF THE CITY Nights of Race,
Rage, and Riot

 

Part IX — Conclusion
21. DARK CULTURES AND THE POLITICS
OF TRANSGRESSION/TRANFORMATION

 

Notes
Index

 


 

About the Author
BRYAN D. PALMER is editor of the Canadian journal Labour/Le Travail and teaches working-class and social history. He is the author of several books including Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (1990), E.P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions(1994), and Goodyear Invades the Backcountry: The Corporate Takeover of a Rural Town(1994).

 

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