One book (on history), two lessons (for cultural studies)

Written by Prof. Jan Baetens

In the introduction to his book Historien public (“Public Historian”, Gallimard, 2010), Pierre Nora, best known for his research on memory (he coined the notion of “places of memory”), defines himself as follows: “I am not what is called a great historian, but I served history”. But there is more to learn in these pages, a self-edited anthology covering more than three decades of intellectual work and commitment, than this admirable mix of modesty and pride.

Let’s take for instance the first and last chapter of this 540 pages volume, the two bookends so to speak that both frame and support Nora’s commitment to publishing (as chief editor of humanities at Gallimard), teaching (as professor at the EHESS, also home to Roland Barthes and many other academics who could not find their way in the traditional university system) and researching (as one of the founding fathers of the post-Annales school of history).

The book opens with a reflection on the place of history in a society as well as a discipline that has radically moved away from the past and that is increasingly dominated by the sole concern of the present. In such a society where the past tends to vanish, the historian looses his or her privilege to address the new forms of historical experience: he or she has to share the public space of debate with other agents such as the witness, the judge, or the journalist –a situation that forces the historian to dramatically rethink the way in which history, which is now a history always in the making, is made in scientific terms.

Similar reflections apply to cultural studies. We are called to be committed and participant observers, but how can we make sure that our work does not coincide with the opinions and beliefs and desires of those we observe or live with? Why are we the ones to ask whether the subaltern can speak or not? And how to share the right to speak with others in ways that go beyond the mere juxtaposition of voices? How to merge the scholarly and non-scholarly voices?

The second lesson comes at the end of the book, in a brief essay on “virtue-ism” (literally: the attempt to do well). Here, Nora reflects on our obsession with good and evil, which has taken since quite some years a particular form, that of permanent indignation and no permanent accusation (which of course may turn into self-accusation) of everything that goes wrong in the world. Nora’s essay is not a critique of the “anti-dead white men” ideology that has now  become completely mainstream (and thus oppressing?), but a meditation on our impossibility to know what we mean by “good” (and of course the notion of “good” also involves that of “beautiful” and “true”). Since we have become unable to understand what is “good”, we try to fill this gap by chasing the “evil” wherever we see it (and evil is everywhere).

Here as well cultural studies has work to do. The discipline has been crucial in disclosing all kinds of evil, and that is a good thing. But it is time to make once again strong claims on what we may mean be good.

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