by Jeremy Young | 11/10/2007 12:45:00 PM
Among the non-US historical communities, France has one of the most active online groups, chiefly through the forums at Clioweb. I've been trying to bolster my passable knowledge of French by maintaining membership on a very active French-language H-Net list, and the comments are uniformly enlightening and intelligent. But when you see things like this on Le Monde's website, it makes you wonder whether some folks in France even know how good their history blogosphere really is.

Here's the gist of Pierre Assouline's argument, whose title translates loosely as "Everyone a Historian? Grievous Demagoguery" -- courtesy of my limited translation skills and some help from Babelfish [Update: thanks to strandsofpearl for the revised translation]:

It is the spirit of our times which says and repeats ad nauseam: we are all journalists, photographers, actors, directors, politicians, encyclopedists... One can see there an echo of the more tangible aspects of the democracy of opinion. My opinion is worth as much as yours, both are worth as much as those of the experts and, after all, aren't there as many errors and untruths in their articles and their books as in our websites and our blogs? One can no longer be demagogic, so one must drape oneself for this circumstance in the mantle of citizen participation. And is everyone a historian, too? Certainly. ...

If the authorities grant the wish of the historian Sonia Combe, even the most recent and most sensitive political files will be opened to all who request them "without distinction of titles", i.e. to run-of-the-mill Frenchmen, so that the Public records become "a place to be appropriated by all those who wish to know the past of France" and where people will go "as one goes to a public library". And all this in the name of transparency!

One could not imagine a better way to strictly speaking disqualify a profession already thrown into a panic by the threats weighing on its orientation and dig a little more of its tomb. If anyone at all is able to manipulate archives, that is to say to examine them, to decipher them of it, to make internal and external criticism, to interpret them, to confront them and to make good use of them, what good in the end are historians? ...

Then let us point it out and hammer it again and again: history is not memory, "historian" is a trade, which calls upon professionals trained for the purpose, who, in addition to having a certain stock of general knowledge and tools of analysis, have integrated into it principles that have become reflexes, among which are distance [objectivity], critical thinking, professional ethics, self-possession, relativism and others, for the single aim not to tell a story but to state the truth. ... There is urgency [to this quest] in a society increasingly dedicated to the cult of the amateur.

There's more, but you get the general drift -- yet another individual using a blog to criticize, well, blogging. More dissection of Assouline's ludicrous statements over the flip.

First off, I hate to rely on Wikipedia for stuff like this, but as far as I can tell Assouline has no historical training at all (he's a journalist for Le Monde), yet he's written numerous biographies and over twenty books. How exactly is it any less "amateur" for a journalist to write a work of history than it is for a blogger to write a work of history? And how exactly is Assouline in a position to insist that "'historian' is a trade, which calls for professionals trained for the purpose" when he himself has been operating as a historian without the least bit of professional training?

Secondly, since Assouline so strongly opposes non-historians writing history, we should ask him what he thinks of the following authors: Michel Foucault; Edward Said; Benedict Anderson; Clifford Geertz; Jean-Jules Jusserand (the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History and the only Frenchman ever to serve as President of the American Historical Association). All these men were non-historians, and some (like Jusserand) had only limited academic training, yet their impact on the historical field has been enormous. Does Assouline truly believe that the historical profession would be better off if these "amateurs" had left history to the "professionals" and refrained from writing their masterworks? If not, why are bloggers any different from the non-historians of earlier ages?

Assouline's argument is further complicated when we realize that non-historians, like Assouline himself, frequently publish historical works through traditional academic presses. ProgressiveHistorians' own Gordon Taylor is an excellent example: despite his lack of academic training, his book Fever & Thirst was published by Academy Chicago Publishers, which also publishes volumes by the likes of Paul Johnson and Lacey Baldwin Smith. Is Taylor's scholarship any less significant than that of these men because he is an "amateur?" Academy Chicago didn't think so, and I don't either. Blogs are no different from publishing houses in their ability to discriminate between talented and untalented amateurs; hits, site traffic, and comments effectively peer-review all but the least-read (and least-influential) blogs.

As for Assouline's incredible insinuation that opening archives to "anyone at all" is somehow a detriment to the historical profession, I can only state that many of us on this side of the Atlantic would love to have access to records like those he so gleefully seeks to barricade behind official sanction. I don't believe I have ever heard a historian argue against freedom of historical information before, and I'm not entirely certain what Assouline thinks he's going to gain by making that argument now. If amateurs get their hands on official government documents, they may use them properly or they may not, just as professionals may or may not know how best to interpret such sources; but I've never been in a situation where more pairs of eyes looking at the same data resulted in a worse reading than if some of the less-trained members had been excluded. Bring on the amateurs, I say!

For all his puffery, Assouline does get one thing right: trained historians, on average, are going to produce more accurate, more useful historical works than are "amateurs," particularly those in the blogosphere. I don't pretend that history bloggers are going to produce work that is always equal in value to what the professionals are doing, just that we often write things that are very good, and occasionally things that are slightly brilliant. And what, exactly, is wrong with that spread? It's what the popular press has been selling for generations. And it has produced excellent results for them: popular historians like Barbara Tuchman, a two-time Pulitzer Prizewinner, would have been lost to us forever if not for the opportunities popular presses gave them to bring their historical analyses to a wider audience. The blogosphere does the same thing: it enables a few supremely talented amateurs (the "wheat") to rise above the rest of us "chaff" and bring their truly extraordinary talents to wide notice. Seriously, what's so wrong about that?

What do people like Assouline have against ordinary people taking history into their own hands? We in the profession spend so much time lamenting the widespread public apathy about history, only to watch folks like Assouline whine about "the cult of the amateur" when people actually do use new media like blogs and websites to come to grips with history in their own way. Assouline himself is an exemplar of a different cult, the "cult of the academy" -- where history is viewed as a straightforward detective business to which only trained professionals need apply. If Assouline weren't such an amateur himself, he'd know what even us graduate students learned in our earliest classes: that history is complex and essentially relative, that it is created through the application of a series of lenses to events, and that its value lies more in the analysis of texts than in a quest to "state the truth." The "truth" is not a given as Assouline suggests, but a contested terrain, subject to argument by all; we should welcome all comers to this debate, whether or not they possess historical training, because history is their history as much as it is ours, and because they just might have something meaningful to add to our often stilted academic dialogues.



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Blogger Ahistoricality on 11/10/2007 11:56 PM:

Sing it, brother!


Blogger Jeremy Young on 11/11/2007 12:12 AM:

How uncharacteristically terse of you. :)