Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00


This conception of historiography, which has produced many fascinating works, however it has  the limitation of not being able to take care of the present and consequently not very able to be aware of the conditions that make it possible: if a historian is able to complete and publish a great work on a long term process, which is the result of a work that has taken him ten years, it is because there are existing situations that regard national, economic, social, academic, editorial, journalistic and cultural that support it. These conditions are not at all obvious nor stable, on the contrary, are quite exceptional: as said in the seventeenth century by a Spanish Baltasar Gracián, men are at the mercy of time and that also goes for historians! There is something ironic in the fact that historians, who have diminished the importance of the action in favor of a long term process, and have been contradicted by the advent of communication, which proceeds through events that are together miraculous and traumatic! In an era founded on action, which have created the conditions for the possibility of historiography of a long-term, was followed by an era which is centered on events that do not have the character of the action, but the miracle and trauma!
        After nineteen Sixty-eight the  historians and philosophers of history have therefore felt the need to introduce new research methodologies and disciplinary approaches. Hayden White`s great work, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century of Europe (1973) reminds  that the story always remains as a discourse which involves the adoption of a rhetoric of different formal and narrative choices, which are not at all innocent and neutral, but involve theoretical and political assumptions, undergoing not a few publishing and communication constraints. The chall11e that his methodological approach to today`s historians can be condensed into one question: who can describe present history  with the philosophical acuteness and capacity of explanation of which they have clearly given proof of during the nineteenth century in completely different ways  Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville and Burchhardt? Now the question is all the more provocative as it insinuates the suspicion that it is impossible to write the story that way. Not differently, Hugh Silverman, commenting Heidegger`s thought about  history (Geschichte) intended as a destination (Geschick), considers the historian`s activity as a textual activity with a practical nature.
      The moment in which it is stated that temporary history must be the guiding discipline of the humanity studies, it appears, as to the words of Shakespeare`s Macbeth, ”a Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing” (<<story Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing>>) This seems like a beautiful definition of communication, but is certainly does not go in the direction of history considered as science, or  as art. And it would be a shame that the generations born after the II World War should be destined to live and die without understanding anything about the time in which they lived.
      Marc Bloch, who writes in 1941 the  Apology for the history, observes that historical knowledge has constantly the need to combine the study of the dead and of the living . During the Eighties and Nineties in the magazine <<Annales>> a critical turning point occurs that calls into question the theory of long duration, criticizing that the analysis of social change was disregarded. Pierre Nora rightly observes that the return of attention towards the single event is combined to the awareness of its media character, which makes it deeply different from the  traditional-politic history events. According to Peter Burke, the historiography that came after the year Sixty-eight is marked by a fragmentation of methods, objects of research and theoretical perspectives. The New Historicism and the orientation of historiography known as micro history positions themselves on the opposite ends of the  contemporary historiography map.
          The most important representative of the first one is the historian Stephen Greenblatt. The New Historicism drops the ambition of a great history and paurses his attention precisely on anecdotes, small stories, considering them not as <<documents>> that attest an objective historical truth, but as literary phenomena so to say beyond truth and false, enigmatic areas that can be subject to a work of deconstruction. Now, not by chance, in the volume that has dedicated the movement and which is entitled The New Historicism, one of the most interesting contributions refer to the epistemological status of the anecdotal: it is Joel Fineman`s essay, entitled The History of Anecdote: Fiction and Fiction, in which Thucydides is considered together with the first writer of anecdotal and as the prototypical example of a methodology neo-historicist  ante literam. Since Thucydides` work  is generally considered as the first manifestation of a scientific historiography, free from the fabulous and legendary aspects that are present in Herodotus, Fineman`s thesis is undoubtedly original and provocative. Without going into a discussion about its reliability, it seems important to observe that a theoretical approach is very innovative as the implicit one in the New Historicism it is determined with reference to classical antiquity from a perspective that is both postmodern and neo-antique.
             In absolute contrast to the New Historicism is the position of Carlo Ginzburg, Giovanni Levi and those who recognize themselves in their theoretical project, which refuse the combination of history and rhetoric, underlining the dangers of a skeptical drift, that end up to  prescind from the real facts and relies only on the interpretation and deconstruction of texts. The micro history places in the centre of its methodology the notions of spy and traces, proposing itself to reach an incontrovertible truth, through a work similar to the whom carries out an investigation. Its specificity consists in an explicit and militant assertion of the cognitive character and not just literary of history. The main attention is however focused on individuals and small groups.
          What unites these two extreme positions is the renunciation of  the macro-history of the present time, which now seems inaccessible to the historical narrative of large-scale, more or less plausible, and abandoned to machinations, to misinformation and to distortions of communication and political struggle. This reserve in speaking out respect to the present, can be justified by the impossibility of having a reliable documentation on what happens in the immediate time; however it is unacceptable if it regards more than half a century! In other words, it appears that since 1945 onwards nothing else that seemed important has occurred: the big story ends up with the discovery of the Nazis extermination camps and with the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, depending on the communication policy of the moment, if it  tended towards neo-warmongering or neo-pacifism. But the two terms are confused by the concept of preventive war.
            Beyond the New Historicism and microstories, many other historiographical guidelines were born and developed in the second half of the twentieth century, among which the Cultural Studies, the virtual history and cultural memory seem more significant. The first have had the merit to have enormously expanded the field of objects of study extending it to all human activities and discursive practices.
          The str11th of Cultural Studies is firstly in the fact that taking away the rigid separation between the major areas of humanities (history, philosophy and human sciences), they aim to bridge the gap existing between the humanistic  knowledge and contemporary society. What characterizes it is the meeting and mixing of codes belonging to different fields. It develops through a continuous interplay of signs and ceaseless shifting of meanings. To be inadequate respect to solicitation of modern society are not so much the traditional knowledges, as much as the structures that govern their articulation: it is the closure of oneself  of such knowledge that makes them look as obsolete. Young people are orientated towards new professional profiles of entertainment, communication, tourism, journalism, publishing, organization of leisure time, public relations, associations, voluntary… they certainly need to know the political and social history, literary and artistic philosophy and the humanities, but these particular knowledges are  fruitful  only if they contain within themselves the possibility of being related to the scope of an epistemological horizon characterized by flexibility. After all, at the base of  the methodology of Cultural Studies is the baroque principle of ingenuity which consists in getting near to things that at first sight seem far and getting distant things that are at first sight very near. Such principle is even more important if applied to research, which is generally much more original and innovative as it explores the more marginal areas and the boundaries of canonical knowledge.
           The second important characteristic of Cultural Studies is the attention to the relationship between knowledge and power. The fact that the articulation of the humanities does not meet at all the needs of knowledge, but the power structures of academia, that usually aims only to reproduce itself, it constitutes already by itself a sufficient reason to explain the ostracism in which cultural studies are held in continental Europe. Much more serious is, however, the scandal of knowledge without power and power without knowledge, which is closely linked to the decline of the scientific and professional system of the eighth-twentieth century, in which science and profession formed a structure whose parts were inseparable one from another. Science was the knowledge of a reality that was already rational and scientific and therefore its possession ensured the possibility to work within such reality; and vice versa the profession was a doing that could show, at any moment to know what he is doing, and for such reason produced affects in the measure with which it was founded on knowledge. This wonderful mutual communality between science and profession, on which the modern university was held, is now in pieces. However, the need remains alive, that it tried to satisfy. Cultural Studies  try to give a different answer from the one given by the Nineteenth-century, regardless from any organic and all-encompassing relationship between science and profession. Obviously, this does not involve a consideration of the conceptual categories in their abstraction and pure ideal, but on the contrary seeks to consider them as cultural practices and power devices.
     Thirdly, Cultural Studies should emancipate the new players of knowledge - the women, the young, the intellectuals non-Westerners – from the traps of naïvety and ideology. Feminism, the youthful, multiculturalism have played an important role in focusing the relationship between knowledge and sex, generations and cultures, but often remain mired in assertion of identity rather than allowing the experiences of differences. In other words, they have been more manifestations of a <<resentment>> rather than an alternative <<feeling>. The Western humanistic knowledge has reached such a degree of speculative finesses that any direct effort to go beyond does not have to fall back  into an a vitality that confuses everything with everything.
            This historiographical orientation began in Great Britain with the school in Birmingham in the sixties and flourished in the United States in the Eighties. It had the merit to have greatly expanded the horizons of historical research, but today it suffers of bulimia and of a lack of discernment and in a selection in the choice of its objects of study which has made it all  inadequate to discover the intelligibility of what happened. It has not even supplied a small interpretive key that permits to distinguish the important and the significant  from the ephemeral and trivial. The moment in which the communication strategies are decisively towards the establishment of hierarchical categories, implicit in the adoption of classifications, of ranking and evaluations not merely quantitative, Cultural Studies end up being displaced from their relationship of press direct with  criticism of the news from which they drew their str11th. In the communication strategies the notions of reputation appear, the pertinence, the authority, the rank and similar; you start from inside a battle of the digital society on the determination of evaluation criteria. This perspective is, however, unfamiliar to the mentality of Cultural Studies, which are anti-hierarchical and tend to give equal dignity and respect to any manifestation of human activity. If everything can be a subject of historical research, it means that nothing deserves to be passed on to future generations, everything is considered as destined to exhaust in an event without effectiveness. Those who appreciate everything, do not really appreciate anything. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the story was conceived as the victory of the human spirit on obscurantism; historiographical practice of cultural studies runs the risk of leading to a new form of obscurantism, which consists in the impossibility to distinguish what it is worth to tell from what can be thrown away without remorse dans la poubelle d`histoire. Starting from a project of radical criticism against contemporary society, they  have finished with being victims of a great naivety: to confuse the history of social and political defeat of the vanquished with the history of the manifestations of their subordination to capitalism. So often the Cultural Studies forget that to criticize means to choose and distribute a heap of froth, and nonsense for expressions of creativity. The  criteria which is merely quantitative cancels all the other parameters of evaluation. In this way, the cultural studies finish up being sympathetic to the phenomenon of dumbing down (brutalization, stupidity and muting) of society as a whole, from its refusal it started. Such phenomenon involves the daily life, media, culture, administration, schools, universities, and not as last, the politics for which the neologism dumbocracy has been created (a term that has nothing to do with Dumbo, the famous  Walt Disney`s animated cartoon, but it comes from the adjective dumb that means <<dumb/unable to speak>>  and by extension <<stupid>>.
       A further step towards the dissolution of the historical narrative of philosophical commitment a large breath was taken involuntarily from the so-called virtual history. The starting point of this approach, which has been theorized by Niall Ferguson, is a critique of nineteenth-century historiographical determinism. In the thinkers of the effectual reality (Hegel, Marx...) there is something which is too reductive, but in fact also what could be and  did not occur has its historical status, real. As Lec says, <<in history also the facts that have not occurred have their importance>>.In a general basis, it was the Nineteenth-century novel that filled this horizon, telling not only the private affairs of individuals, but also their hopes and expectations, and underlining the importance of the intervention of chance and of contingency in the course of events . Such intervention has also been relevantly important in public history. The ancient historians, pagans as well as Christians, were well aware of  it. In modern times, the italian philosopher Nicolò Machiavelli, that writes during the Sixteenth-century, he attributes to luck an essential role in  the determination  of the effectual truth of things, whilst the French bishop Jacques Benign Bossuet in the seventeenth century explains many unforeseeable events with the intervention of divine providence. Before the advent of  the history so-called scientific, the search for the meaning of events leaves something to the unexpected and to freedom of action of individuals, attributing in this way to counterfactual elements an essential historical value. In other words, there are no historical laws that are similar to those of the physical and natural sciences. Not always victory and defeat contain inside themselves an intrinsic rationality for the simple fact that they have occurred. It is not said that who has won has been predestined to win as to some kind of hard and fast logic of evolutionary or economic character. The eruption of events << impossible, but true >> from the year Sixty-eight onwards has lost faith in progress and has brought the attention back to the counterfactual aspects:  However, questions like << and if Khomeini had been killed by a killer of the Shah`s secret service before taking the plane that would have taken him back to Iran, what would happen ?>> or <<if  some of the hijackers of the planes of September 11th would have betrayed a few days before what would have happened ?>> this would do nothing more than enormously extend the scope of the historiographical investigation, making the elaboration and construction of the coherent historical discourse matter completely impossible. Virtual history, is however a very significant indication of the dissolution not only of the rationality of the story, but also its credibility: the fact dissolves in the news, the event becomes a simulacrum beyond true and false, the action liquefies in communication. It does  not only take away the possibility to anyone to interpret and narrate the past in an authoritative way, destroying what is important from what is trivial, but it thins the distance between what really happened and what could have happen. The virtual history on one side shows the contingent nature of events, moving in the opposite direction not only to the nineteenth-century determinism, but also the story that emphasizes the phenomena of long duration, on the other side it affects the real truth of the event. As long as the past becomes the subject of different interpretations from those so far accepted, as it occurs of the  so-called historical revisionism, nothing really serious happens.
         Historical revisionism is nothing new: every era has re-handled and even reversed, often on the basis of  new research and documentations, the opinion on the ages that preceded it. Things change radically when something is in doubt, not the interpretation, but the real existence of the fact, as in the so-called historical denial, which is a form of pathological pursuit of  suspect, when it is not clearly a form of functional imposture to politics battles. However, it is difficult to deny that denial – even if itself is an aberrant manifestation of the age of communication, which tends to discredit the knowledge by reducing it to mere opinion:  corroborating the principle that an opinion is worth the same as another one, communication cancels completely the power and authority of whom is a depository of  a knowledge. Moreover, a message today is much more communicative than the more it is controversial. Imperialism of advertising has worn at a certain point the prestige of knowledge to make obsolete a one-way message and imperative: no one believes it anymore! The only way to bring attention to it is therefore to present the idea or the product that you want to sell as something that is controversial: dialogue becomes ideology of propaganda, but the comparison that it puts on scene is a pseudo dialogue, functional the media coverage, in which there is a contrast between   a knowledge with another knowledge, but many times a knowledge with ignorance, and even more often an ignorance with another ignorance. This is not yet the worst! The denial begins when the subject of the dispute is not an opinion about a fact, but the real existence of the fact. The reasoning behind the denial is the other side of the medal of communication: at << impossible, yet real>> the denial opposes a <<impossible, so, impossible!>> The real draws back in an inaccessible place to communication! Thus, the denial becomes the opposite of the virtual history: not to widen the scope of historical reality, but cancel what has actually happened!
The theory of cultural memory is un another historiographical trend that has raised the problem of how to deal with the problem of current history. This constitutes a  reaction to the climate of miracle and of trauma that characterizes the irruption of the unexpected and unpredictable. Rightly, Pierre Nora observes that it is functional to the creation of a unique identity, ethnic, national or of group and it is manifested in a commemorative mania, which nearly always betrays the true meaning of what it evokes. The result is a kind of mummification, monumental or fetishization of the past; The proliferation of museums, the passion for genealogies, the allocation of an exaggerated importance towards the testimonies of the survivors, the prevailing of the patrimony against the story, the obsession to preserve everything, are as many aspects of renunciation in respect of the possibility to write history intended as an unitary story full of meaning of which the author takes all the responsibility for. According to the example set by Pierre Nora, the fact to commemorate the French Revolution becomes much more important than the commemorated event. The militancy of memory ends up with the exploitation of the past, confusing the historical opinion with the political and judicial one.
          Whilst the communication emphasizes and exasperates the exceptionality of the event, demanding to attribute the epochal meaning to things and secondary and irrelevant  characters,  the memory blocks the field of  the past precluding  any horizon of expectation. At the end one is complementary to the other: diffusing the recalling as an event with a self-communicative value prevented from understanding that the past had been present for those who had lived it. The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur observes that people in the past had a future in front of them: if you want to understand the meaning of their choices and their actions, it is necessary that something of the chall11e, of doubt and uncertainty on the outcome of their decisions is present in the commemoration. The memory ends with the embalming what it takes for its subject matter: if, as Malraux wrote, << the future lasts long>> it is not because the past is set in a motionless and eternal temporality, but because it remains in the game through the new stories which continues to be subject.  Althusser realized this in his autobiography published posthumously, who took the title from Malraux`s phrase. You always write starting from the present.
         There is another aspect that shows not only the complementarity, but the connivance between memory and communication. Memory, differently from reminding, is not selective and its place is not consciousness, but the unconscious, which Freud teaches – does not miss anything. This is formed by indelible traces of memory, inaccessible to consciousness, which remain in their original form completely unknown. The system preconscious-conscious does not at all have its past and cannot bear the learning; it is mainly removed, and can become conscious only in memories, as to say in memories characterized by a particular clearness together with the insignificance of their contents. Such covering memories are formations of compromises between unconscious and consciousness: the compromise consists in the fact that what is presented is not the exact memory of the image, but another one respect to the previous one is moved  for about in a ring in the association. Those who have compared the mechanisms with which communication to the honored works described by Freud was not wrong. From the moment the communication has taken the place of action, we live in a dream, which sometimes is a wonder, and sometime a nightmare.
           The past of the historical narrative on the contrary it is path dependent: the facts are irreversible, but the investigation on the path through which you have reached them has no end. In private life, as in public life, the question of why you reached the point where you are,  does never find absolute and final replies. But these relatively provisional replies have to be there, because only through them  a new horizon of expectation opens.
              François Hartog is among today`s critics that has reflected with greater acumen on these issues, elaborating the concept of regime of historicity. Not all societies think the relationship between past, present and future, in the same way. In the West, within three centuries various historical regimes have been outlined according to the weight assigned to different time dimensions. Until 1789 the hegemonic regime of historicity was of the backward-looking kind, in the sense that the intelligibility of present and of the future depended on the knowledge of the past. Thereafter, until the Sixties of the Twentieth century, a futuristic regime prevailed in the sense that the intelligibility of the past and present depended on future, which it is assumed to be better than whatever came before. This future can have different contents: it may be the nation, the people, the proletariat, the universal peace, the technology, it is assumed that it will be better than what preceded it, because this is the law of historical evolution. In this context, the past is no longer a role to be imitated (as in the traditionalism), but his study is still a factor of primary importance because it permits the knowledge of the progressive dynamics that have permitted us to reach up to this present age. Since the Sixties we enter in another regime of historicity characterized by the hegemony of the present against the future. Hartog introduces the neologism << presentism>> in order to characterize this regime in which the immediacy and simultaneity understood  in a global dimension takes a leading role, also because of the media economy. This phenomenon, whose appearance was achieved in the late seventies by the French sociologist Michel Maffesoli as well as the author that is writing, is accompanied by the irruption of the pseudo-intellectual in the public debate, to the confusion between beliefs and knowledge, and many other socio-cultural phenomena that have dissolved the legitimacy of scientific discourse in general and in particular the historical one. This book is based on the assumption that you can tell about the open period of the sixties: it provides an outline of what should be a much more extensive and detailed discussion. As in a tailor`s, the essential is to cut at the right point and supply a fair and reasonable  periodization. It will  be the reader to rectify, correct and expand it.
Translation by Giulia Borghese

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