Is There a "Crisis" of History in France?
Christophe Prochasson, May 1998
A recently published book raised the question of a coming crisis of history in France. But the notion was already so controversial that the author made a point of putting quotation marks around the word "crisis" in the title of his work.1 But at bottom the "reality" of the crisis matters little. The material issue is that the perception of a problem by many historians signifies the presence of dysfunctions and transformations that still need to be assessed. While we await a more rounded inquiry, a few indications will have to suffice.
An Overview and a Proposal
In the past five years, many works have been published that attempt to establish an intellectual inventory of the profession.2 All of these works signal the changes that have recently occurred. The end of great explanatory systems (derived first from Marxism and then from structuralism) and the exhaustion of the hegemony of the "new history" have encouraged some historians (especially historians of recent French politics) to launch various vengeful attacks on the Annales "school." On the other hand, the heirs of the "school" have turned toward surveying the history of the 20th century and putting into practice various new ways of doing history in which pluralism is made the primary virtue: for example, the so-called tournant critique and a new alliance between history and the social sciences proposed by Annales in 1989 or, more recently, the importation of micro history.3
These new tendencies, it would behoove us to admit, have not yet spawned new empirical practices. We await the results. The mere proclamation of new theoretical or programmatic vocabularies at times obscures the weakness of these projects or maintains traditions believed dead and buried. The so-called renewal of political history exemplifies how, even a decade after its programmatic announcement in 1988, results can be hard to assess.4 This research often seems to take place in the wake of the classic studies of political organizations or biography, focusing on little-discussed chronological breaks. Meanwhile, the theoretical and conceptual disarray of the current demand for the development of cultural history points to French tardiness about addressing questions raised years ago in Germany or the United States. 5 In this area also one has a hard time imagining what "renewal" will mean.
At the same time that works on the epistemology of history proliferate, a strong resistance to this theoretical inclination seems to be forcing its way through. Many historians retain their sense of relevance by reference to an ethic that makes history a civic discipline, which is by necessity accessible to everyone. The undeniable complexity of certain texts condemns them, therefore, in the eyes of the great number of French historians who consider historians an autonomous community. In their view, history is not a social science and could just as well do without the theoretical quibbling that reveals only the rhetorical strategies of those responding to obscure professional codes. This mistrust of theory helps reduce history to a technique for the establishment and certification of facts, as indicated by the way history is used today by the French media. History is thus gradually losing the prestige it acquired, for good or ill, in the course of the 1970s, thanks to the phenomenon of the "new history." French historiography no longer retains its former splendor.
The Role of the Media
History still occupies an important social position in France. Even if there is an increasing rivalry with philosophers, who seem more responsive to contemporary demand, historians retain an enviable position in the media. The philosophical attack against history speaks to a certain inability of social science as a whole to explain the world. History, alas, is not the only victim.
On the other hand, historians themselves have fallen into a trap by undermining the specificity of their claims, resulting in a general insipidity. This in turn has led to the questioning of their necessity. If historians merely say things that anyone can know, then why recognize the originality of their craft? It is not clear that reducing the social role of the historian to a guarantor of factual accuracy (above all of contemporary facts) is the best way to sustain interest in the field.
The media has reduced French historians to administrators of tests, doubling as judges or jurors, ensuring expertise rather than interpretation. The venerable tendency of French historiography to naturalize phenomena, categories, and disciplines is thereby reinforced at the expense of all hermeneutic effort.
Many recent examples support this point. Consider the drift that for various reasons (symbolic or financial profit, a naive conception of the role of the historian, technical arrogance, and so on) has led French historians to start answering media questionnaires. By not formulating their own questions, historians lose their autonomy. They accept the questions constructed outside the laboratory and conform to a game that is not their own and to which they are not well adapted. On this terrain, journalists or simple amateurs can forcibly challenge professional historians. Archival access rather than the elaboration of the historical text is what today determines historical authority. Henceforth historians will be "historical bureaucrats."
The histories of World War II and Vichy are the two sectors most grievously affected by this loss of autonomy. Two events demonstrate this clearly. To begin with, the "Aubrac Affair" illustrates this perfectly. Resistance fighter Raymond Aubrac and his wife were accused in a book of having helped in the arrest of Resistance leader Jean Moulin. The Parisian newspaper Liberation convened roundtables of historians (whether or not they were specialists about the Resistance) ostensibly to arrive at the "truth." The proceedings were published in their entirety over several days, created a big scandal, and provoked many reactions from French historians. The Liberation journalists were, in this case, imposing their own logic on historians. By adopting the roundtable—a practice common among social scientists—and setting it among the readers of the daily, the journalists managed to turn an encounter between historians and a couple of old resisters suspected of treason into a spectacle akin to a lynching. It is possible that the researchers who accepted their part in this business hoped to be able to turn this scene to their advantage, though perhaps there were other motives involved as well.
The same goes for the Papon trial.6 The congruence of the period in question is less of historiographical than political import. Historians were placed in an impossible position in the trial—legally neither witnesses nor experts—creating an enormous confusion between professional researchers and ideologues. The Papon trial will not improve the quality of French historiography.
The sensationalist view of history in which the media delights severely damages the relationship between history and reality, and encourages the most regressive historiographical practices in which poorly understood events are rarely reinserted into wider perspectives or placed within larger intellectual contexts. One need only cite the belated rediscovery of the "crimes of Communism" thanks to a rare historical bestseller or the commemorative mania that usually guides media interest in history.7 The recent commemoration of the Dreyfus Affair in France bears witness to the gaps that exist between the liveliest and most inventive research and that which the media uses for its own purposes. Years ago the history of the Dreyfus Affair transcended the mere narration of the event and the legitimate indignation that it aroused, and arrived at a more profound understanding of the episode.8 The media, however, called on the most conformist historiographies, limiting themselves most often to a lyrical evocation of Zola's "J'accuse!" and the engagement of the intellectuels.
There's the rub. Nothing could be more normal than for the fruits of research to be distributed by a small circle of specialists. However, the growing interest in contemporary history promotes this mediatization. France for a long time has profited from an advantageous situation that closely linked research and diffusion: the authors were the disseminators of their own research. However, many recent signs indicate that this good tradition is at an end. In the press or on a radio chain like France-Culture, but also on television (a Histoire channel is being created on cable), the diffusion of research is becoming the domain of communications specialists to the detriment of the historians themselves.
The New Deal in Higher Education
One observes a similar evolution in higher education, whose recent transformations have placed heavy demands on the historian. In France, the linking of research and teaching remained for a long time an intangible dogma. The great French historians were also the great professors. The growth of higher education has encouraged the decoupling of this pair. Absorbed by administrative tasks or teaching, university professors today have a harder and harder time fulfilling their function as researchers.
One cannot avoid connecting evolution of the intellectual crisis to the state of historical research. It is striking to observe research developing today in certain privileged establishments (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, École des hautes études en sciences sociales, College de France, Institute universitaire de France, among others) or in some informal groups of young historians outside the professoriate. But the university, by privileging teaching, assures fewer and fewer of its members the conditions necessary for research work. It thus communicates less and less of the historiographic innovations and it does not encourage intellectual adventurousness in its students.
The rise of the popular primer in French publishing is one manifestation of this evolution. Twenty years ago these syntheses were the works of experienced authors who had produced several works of original research and who were still providing more to the academic community. But for years now, the authors of these primers have been getting younger. Young professors, freshly minted, respond to the extremely numerous solicitations of specialist publishers or nonuniversity presses. The preparation for the big competitions of recruitment for secondary teaching (CAPES and the agregation), which are obligatory rites of passage in the career of a French historian, gives birth to an important market, encouraging young professors to publish the courses they give to their students. Thus their publications after their thesis defense often amount to distilled study guides in which knowledge, presented as reassuringly definitive and established, replaces the spirit of research. After all, it would not do for a student preparing for an exam to doubt the certainties of Knowledge.
The growing importance of exams contributes to the sterilization of research. The primers do not constitute the only index of this aridity. To address their own financial difficulties, academic journals are also trying to meet this demand for examination prep guides. Even if they used to bring to the exam programs the contemporary state of research (albeit with some delay), now the reverse is happening: the academic journals solicit articles in reference to the exams and increase the number of issues specializing in subjects that are "on the exam." This tendency encourages those who argue that history is a discipline made up of the accumulation of objective knowledge to the detriment of a more intellectual conception of the field that does not dissociate facts from their expression.
The Crisis of the Book
The extremely serious difficulties of social scientific publishing houses do not have their origin solely in the Gulf War, even though the crisis only began to be perceived in 1991. In 1994 history books made up 2.3 percent of publications as a whole. And the trend is discouraging; since 1988 this proportion has continually declined. Moreover, revenue from history books fell from 450 million francs to 320 million francs. The number of new titles has declined from 671 in 1991 to 540 in 1994, although the average sales per title increased. These days a history book is considered a success if it can sell five or six thousand copies. But again, one has to look at what kinds of works are being published.
Three old genres seem today to be surviving in the current history market: the dictionary, the biography, and the great thematic or national history. These publishing niches may not be the best or the most convenient for reflecting the vitality of contemporary history in France. These three genres share the will to present simple historical flavors to a finicky public. In doing so, however, they contradict the current tendencies in advanced historiographical circles to place doubt and complexity at the center of the historian's reflections. A dictionary includes everything (at least so one hopes), and a biography has a natural beginning and end. This passion for the history of individuals, which very often opens up into the history of the time in question, tends to align the taste for knowledge with the pleasure of distraction, that old dream of the honest man. It is not clear that research always alleviates this connection.
In France works of history and social science have for a long time benefited from a privileged position in publishing which today is being called into question. In contrast to Anglo-Saxon publishing conventions, French editors traditionally did not compartmentalize genres. This meant that a book edited by professors, a dissertation, or even an expanded essay all had the possibility of reaching a wider public than the closed circle of academic savants. The tendencies described above, to which could be added the proliferation of university presses, put an end to this French exceptionalism. Thus a gulf emerges. On one side we will have important but more or less unreadable works, published by small-circulation or minor university presses; on the other side, we will have quickly published essays of dubious merit. Contributing to the crisis is the publication of numerous monographs by a few specialized publishing houses. Often these are too quickly published dissertations, unimproved by the editorial assistance they would need to reach a public larger than a few dozen specialists.
This grim conclusion tends to lend credence to the controversial idea that there is a crisis of history in France. I willingly believe this, even if it remains invisible to those who for various reasons cannot or will not see it. Two caveats should be made, however. First, one would be mistaken to subscribe to the idea of some golden age from which history has declined. The transformations taking place are without doubt new, but French historiography has not always been brilliant! Second, it should be underlined that there exists today a subterranean historiographic vitality among young historians, often off the beaten academic path and unsustained by a job in a university, who, if they succeed in bending certain overly rigid structures, may in the coming years see their research talents sparkle.
—Christophe Prochasson specializes in French social and intellectual history at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris. His most recent books include Au nom de la Patrie: les intellectuels et la premiére guerre mondiale, 1910–1919 (Paris, 1996) and Les intellectuels et le socialisme: XIXe—XXe siècle (Paris, 1997). The article was translated from the French by Nils Gilman, a graduate student of history at the University of California at Berkeley, who is currently a volunteer-associate with the AHA.
1. Gérard Noiriel, Sur la “crise” de l’histoire (Paris: Belin, 1996).
2. François Béderida ed., L’histoire et le métier d’histoirien en France, 1945–1995 (Paris: Editions de la maison des sciences de l’homme, 1995); Jean Boutier and Dominique Julia, eds., Passé recomposés: Champs et chantiers de l’histoire (Paris: Autrement, 1995).
3. Jacques Revel, ed., Jeux d’echelle: La micro-analyse à l’experiénce (Paris: Gallimard/Le Seuil, 1996).
4. René Rémond, ed., Pour une histoire politique (Paris: Seuil, 1988).
5. Jean-Pierre Rioux and Jean-François Sirinelli eds., Pour une histoire culturelle (Paris: Seuil, 1997).
6. The trial of former Vichy official, Maurice Papon, who rose to prominence in postwar administrations in France, was based on years of historical research and involved testimony by historians. For a recent report, see Amy E. Schwartz, “The Trial of Maurice Papon,” Washington Post (March 3, 1998): A 17. See also the autobiographical history by Isaac Lewendel, Un hiver en Provence (Paris: Les editions de l’aube, 1996).
7. Stephane Courtois et al., Le livre noir du communisme (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1997).
8. See, for example, Vincent Duclert, L’affaire Dreyfus (Paris: La Découverte, 1994).