Intellectual history Interview

The Pronouns of History: An Interview with Enzo Traverso

By Sakiru Adebayo

By Sakiru Adebayo

Cornell University historian Enzo Traverso’s latest book, Singular Pasts: The “I” in Historiography (Columbia University Press, 2022), begins with the observation that today, “history is increasingly written in the first person” (2). While historians such as Ivan Jablonka, Sergio Luzzatto, and Mark Mazower have written in the first person to lay bare their emotional ties to their subjects and to give their writing a literary flavor, literary writers including W. G. Sebald, Patrick Modiano, Javier Cercas, and Daniel Mendelsohn have presented their novels as historical investigations based on archival sources. Traverso suggests that the rise of first-person history writing mirrors our neoliberal era of apolitical individualism, tending to “privatize the past” (145) and fall into the traps of presentism and subjectivism. However, his epilogue argues that the subjective historiography of Saidiya Hartman “transcends the author’s self and results in a collective view of the past,” proving “that it is possible to write in the first person avoiding solipsism and connecting one’s manifold ‘I’ with the ‘we’ that makes history” (159, 163). Sakiru Adebayo interviewed Traverso about his new book


Sakiru Adebayo: Let’s start with the title of your book, Singular Pasts. What does it mean for a past to be singular, and how does this connect to the rise of subjectivist historiography?

Enzo Traverso: This is an old and controversial topic that often reemerges in historiography. All events are undoubtedly singular, but they cannot be understood without inscribing them into a broader historical context, in which their singularities reveal analogies and reiterations. What appears as unique is often the exceptional entanglement of elements that exist in several countries and continents or have already occurred in previous ages. I think that “absolute” singularities – unexpected events that are neither comparable nor repeatable – exclusively belong to the realm of memory, not to the field of historical interpretation. Our lives can be deeply and permanently shaped by happiness, tragedies, or traumas that appear to us as unique and incomparable, but scholars should be aware that such singularities are relative. Comparing them can be a delicate, uncomfortable, and difficult task, but it remains an irreplaceable procedure of historical investigation. The new “subjectivist” history writing I critically analyze in my book tends precisely to blur this boundary between the singularity of personal perceptions, feelings, and emotions, and the intelligibility of history that inevitably transcends individuals by placing them into a larger landscape in which they are not alone but interact with other actors of the past. I certainly don’t recommend ignoring feelings and emotions, which need to be respected and understood, but this “subjectivist” historiography often neglects the polyphony of the past by retreating into the monologue of the one or the few. Its horizon is limited, shrunk to the subjectivity of the few, or even to that of the historian themselves.

SA: Why does the “pronoun of history” matter so much? By this I mean the voice in which history is written – whether in the first or third person, singular or plural, or even in the voice of masculine, feminine, or neutral pronouns. What implications does each of these pronouns have on the writing, circulation, reception, and consumption of historical knowledge?

ET: Describing and interpreting the polyphony of the past means overcoming the limited horizon of one’s own self. This intellectual operation requires certain precautions, one of which is the impersonal style of writing found in most works of historical scholarship. Indeed, since antiquity, history has been written in the third person. Of course, this simple rule is a very precarious guarantee of “objectivity”; it nonetheless affirms a “universalist” perspective which, at least till now, was a premise for producing historical knowledge.

The starting point of my book is the simple fact (observed by other scholars like Jeremy Popkin before me) that, in recent years, historians’ autobiographies have very significantly increased in number. This is the symptom of a new self-reflexive posture that implies the abandonment of old positivist illusions about the objectivity of historical knowledge. Historians are not “neutral” observers; they obviously have a subjectivity made up of a very complex network of national, gender, class, religious, ethnic, race, and political identities, inherited cultures, psychological patterns, and lived experiences that shape their ways of writing the past. They should be aware of this background, of the part of subjectivity that is necessarily involved in their work, but writing history requires the capacity to overcome their own self (even without denying it); it requires a critical distance toward both their objects of investigation and their subjectivity. Their task consists in listening and understanding the voices of the past – you call them the “pronouns of history” – but writing in the third person means precisely not exhibiting their own “pronoun.” Subjectivist historians who write in the first person think that writing history does not mean describing and interpreting the voices of the past, but rather establishing a kind of posthumous dialogue between their own subjectivity and that of certain actors of the past. This creates a “singular past”: much more than discovering and learning history, readers penetrate the subjective universe of author, who writes for themselves. When scholars write a history book, they usually try to answer some conventional questions: when, whom, how, and finally, why. Subjectivist historians seem to answer different questions: Who am I? Why am I interested in this event or actor of the past? Why does this event affect me so deeply? Which emotions do I feel in discovering the past? This way, the past becomes a subjective experience, something that belongs to an individual sphere, not to a shared historical consciousness.

SA: When I first saw your book, I assumed it was one of those books that lament the dearth of objectivity and question the quality of historiographical works that employ the first-person narrative voice. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that your book argues that even though subjectivist historiography has many faults, it is a force that traditional historians need to reckon with and which can no longer be dismissed as “unserious” or “disingenuous.” As you pointed out above, historiography is filtered through the subjectivity of the historian, even when the third person is employed. Therefore, if “scientist historiography’s” claim to neutrality or objectivity is illusory, and subjectivist historiography “is not necessarily the best alternative to the abuses and deadlocks of positivism” (80), what then would the ideal historical methodology be?

ET: You are right in emphasizing that my book was not written with the purpose of defending traditional historiography against the attacks of new innovative scholars. I am not a “guardian of the temple,” and I am not attached to any school. I don’t think there could even be an “ideal” method of history writing; I am rather deeply convinced that historical knowledge requires a multiplicity of approaches, and that this diversity is beneficial to any of them. It is precisely to avoid misunderstandings about the goal of my book that it includes a chapter devoted to dismantling the positivist illusion of an “impartial” (Wertfrei) account of the past. Postwar German historiography is one of the most eloquent examples of the hypocrisy very often carried out by such an illusion: it is in the name of “objectivity” that many former members of the Hitler Youth – namely those who created the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich – accused of “subjectivism” their Jewish colleagues and sketched a very apologetic interpretation of Nazi Germany behind a façade of a supposedly “scientific,” “objective,” and “neutral” reconstitution of the past. It is curious to observe that today many German historians direct similar reproaches to their postcolonial colleagues, whose “political agenda” would hinder and damage their capacity for historical judgment (think of the campaign against Dirk Moses, a reputed scholar of the Holocaust and colonial genocides, about which I have written). As I said, writing in the third person is not a guarantee against subjectivism. Frankly speaking, I much prefer an avowedly subjectivist approach to a highly subjectivist approach hypocritically hidden behind a supposedly “scientific” objectivity and neutrality.

There are many forms of subjectivism. I don’t write in the first person – at least in history books – but I don’t deny its legitimacy, insofar as “subjectivist” historians fulfill some elementary requirements of their discipline (basically, a careful use of their sources and a respect for factual evidence). I simply observe that this approach – as fascinating as it can be – inevitably shrinks the historical landscape. In my book, I stress the contract between this subjectivist methodology and the practice of “microhistory,” which starts from a detail and, by gradually zooming out, enlarges it by opening the window into a broader landscape. As Siegfried Kracauer pertinently emphasized, historical intelligence means a permanent “scale-game,” alternating long shots and close-ups. My impression is that writing history in the first person means looking at the past from a bad perspective, adopting the gaze of a shortsighted observer who is compelled to scrutinize facts, objects, and people exclusively by close-ups. This approach captures emotions and feelings, but unfortunately, it neglects their context.

SA: In the chapter “Discourse on Method,” you highlight the French historian Ivan Jablonka’s iteration of the typologies of “I” (positional “I,” methodological “I,” and emotional/sentimental “I”) that exist in the relatively new modality of ego-historiography. What are the differences between the “I” of positionality, methodology, and sentimentality in auto-historiography?

ET: It is Ivan Jablonka who, theorizing this subjectivist method as a kind of ideal way of writing history, establishes a typology that discomposes the historian “I” in three different categories: the “I” of “position” that locates the author in their context giving them a social, cultural, maybe even a political identity; the “I” of “method” that announces their procedure, their sources, and the process of investigating them; and the “I” of “emotion” which, instead of hiding them, displays the feelings aroused by their inquiry in the historian themself. Through these multiple articulations, the “I” becomes a kind of narrative device. Undoubtedly innovative, the results of this procedure are often remarkable. Subjectivist scholars invent a new relationship with the past that is creative, surprising, and certainly less boring than most linear accounts of conventional historiography. The problem, then, does not lie in the quality of their style but rather in the results of their research, which can be interesting but cannot overcome the limits of a shortsighted gaze. In many cases, their works are as narratively flamboyant as cognitively poor. They powerfully illuminate the mental and emotional universe of their authors, but such brilliance leaves the past that they are supposed to interpret in its shadow. Jablonka’s book on his Polish grandfathers, for example, is deeply moving. But, reading his book, we don’t learn anything new about the Holocaust. Instead, we are treated to a kind of radiographic view of the cultural, mental, and emotional world of a Jewish historian living in Paris at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In the past, scholars tried to hide their subjectivity; today they can display, even exhibit it. This is not only possible but even encouraged when their subjectivity deals with topics – like the Holocaust – that are bound by powerful consensus.

SA: I admire Jablonka’s works, but I also share your criticism of his works. Can history really be thought of as contemporary literature? Is the appeal of subjectivist historiography even that strong in the discipline? On the other hand, does the objection to subjectivist historiography symptomatize a kind of disciplinary fear of a breach in the “moral contract” of every historian?

ET: You are probably right in observing that many objections to subjectivist historiography arise from some kind of “disciplinary fear.” This fear is legitimate, even if I don’t think it would justify a simple stigmatization of first-person or “ego-historiography.” My skepticism does not come from a desire of rejection or condemnation. I don’t share the enthusiasm this new historiography has engendered in recent years, but my warning is not at all an excommunication. If they wish to explore new paths, they are welcome to. I simply observe that, after displaying their multiple “I’s,” Jablonka and similar figures like Artières become the true heroes of their books, thus overwhelming the voices of the past, which they pretend to unbury and to listen to.

SA: There seems to be a longstanding tension between the novelist and the historian. The historian claims to provide historical truths (verifiable facts), while the novelist claims to provide emotional/affective truths (which do not necessarily negate facts but, as some novelists will argue, are often more resilient if not authentic than facts). I wonder if the emergence of the novelistic historiographer does not blur this separation between history and historical fiction. Do the historical novelist and the novelistic historiographer now have similar missions?

ET: My book stresses this paradoxical crossing: whereas historians write in first-person, giving to the past an emotional dimension that was usually treated as the privileged province of literature, novelists have become more and more obsessed with history, renouncing the creation of fictional characters, digging through archives, and telling stories grounded on properly verifiable (and not merely plausible) facts. The boundaries between history and literature, between scholarship and fiction, are indeed now blurred, with the emergence of such unexpected figures as “novelistic historiographers” and “historical novelists.” In my view, this is quite an exciting novelty: blurring the frontiers is fruitful for both literature and historiography. This change, however, is not completely new; it simply makes explicit an old tendency. Mario Vargas Llosa, Jonathan Littell, and Javier Cercas, for example, all conducted large archival investigations before writing many of their novels, but they are not the first novelists to depict or recreate the flavor of a bygone age. Our image of the Napoleonic Wars is inseparable from the heroes of the novels of Tolstoy or Stendhal. Conversely, outstanding historians such as Jules Michelet, Isaac Deutscher or, closer to us, Saul Friedländer, did not need to write in the first person to give a literary dimension to their historical frescos.

This new symbiotic relationship between history and literature is fascinating. No one could reproach historians for improving their literary style and making their books as readable and attractive as fictional works; and equally, it would not make sense to lambaste novelists for grounding their stories on extended and careful archival inquiries, thus making more credible their characters and their plots. However, as close and overlapping as historians and novelists can be, their symbiotic relationship does not erase every distinction. History and fiction are not the same thing, nor are they interchangeable. They can overlap, but they possess their own rules and have their own purposes, neither of which are the same. Great literature does not need to be a critical discourse on the past, and history writing cannot be reduced to painting the human comedy. What we ask of history is to elucidate the social relations, economic interests, cultural patterns, political conflicts, moral and cultural habits, motivations, and mental worlds behind human agency. Literature – as well as film – can better transmit sentiments, which are another dimension of the past, and they can do that by inventing characters or dialogues in a manner forbidden to historians. I am certainly not fixing any hierarchy between literature and history. I simply state that, as close and intertwined as they can be, they are two different things.

SA: In the book, you also argue that “the linguistic turn transformed the relationship between history and literature and favored the emergence of memory – individual and collective – in the public sphere, a phenomenon that has deeply shaken historiography” (139). As a memory scholar, I am curious to hear your thoughts on how memory studies influenced the proliferation of subjectivist historiography.

ET: It is true that many works of subjectivist historians seem to confirm Hayden White’s thesis of a substantial identity between history and literature. There is a significant synchronicity between the emergence of memory studies and the linguistic turn in the early 1980s, with both becoming central in the humanities. The linguistic turn was born in the U.S., whereas memory studies irrupted first in continental Europe, notably in France, but both tendencies significantly changed the intellectual landscape on a global scale. From different perspectives, they gave subjectivity – either the plurality of historical subjects with their languages and identities, or the subjectivity of lived experiences – a new role in interpreting the past. This also corresponded to the awakening of minorities in the public sphere when some categories previously central – think of the category of class – seemed to decline. In the U.S., it was the time of “identity politics,” at the end of two decades shaped by the rise of feminism and Black struggles for civil rights, as well as by the Vietnam War that deeply shook a certain ideal of Americanness. In Europe, it was the Holocaust moment, with the striking emergence of the extermination of the Jews as a central theme of political and cultural debates, from the Historikerstreit in Germany (1986) to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in France (1985), and Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved in Italy (1985). Previously ignored or forgotten by the social sciences, memory returned to center stage, theorized by such scholars as Pierre Nora and Yosef Haym Yerushalmi.

Memory and history are both representations of the past, but they are different. Whereas history supposes a distance, a gap between past and present, memory carries out an emotional link with the past, which tends to erase distance. Memory can be defined as a lived experience – the past deposited in someone’s recollections – or as a representation – a whole of ideas and images with which we visualize or think of the past – but it always supposes an emotional link with history. I don’t follow Pierre Nora, the scholar who forged the concept of “realms of memory,” when he theorizes a kind of ontological difference between memory and history, since they permanently interact, with history usually trying to answer questions and to fulfill a social demand for knowledge that arises from collective memory. Nonetheless, memory differs from history insofar as it means looking at the past through a subjective prism, and this seems to me a necessary premise for the birth of subjectivist historiography. Several decades later, writing history in the first person aims at overcoming the dichotomy between history and memory. Subjectivist scholars usually fulfill all the conventional rules for historical research – notably the use of archival sources. But they narrativize their inquiry through a parallel procedure that simultaneously describes what happened in the past and how they reconstituted these events, without hiding the feelings engendered by this intellectual operation. In this sense, both the linguistic turn and memory studies are crucial steps toward the advent of a new historiography written in the first person.

SA: In the book, you show how presentism favors the retreat of scholars into the sphere of the intimate. You also note that this phenomenon cannot be divorced from the advent of individualism as a major feature of the regime of neoliberalism. In other words, presentism and individualism, two features of neoliberalism, are partly responsible for the rise in subjectivist historiography. However, you caution that a neoliberal regime of historicity does not necessarily produce neoliberal historiography. If subjectivist historiography is, in part, a reflection of the neoliberal age, when or how does it not count as neoliberal historiography?

ET: Neoliberalism is a civilization or a form of life related to a particular stage of capitalism. It should not be confused with a political regime. Does it affect history writing? Yes, insofar as neoliberal policies mean a managerial governance of universities that cuts budgets in the humanities. But neoliberalism does not mean an official view of the past like those seen in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, or the USSR. There is a neoliberal historiography that depicts finance as the hidden impulse of civilization and progress, but it remains very marginal in history departments. Now, most subjectivist historians do not share a neoliberal agenda. On the contrary, many of them belong to the left. I don’t characterize writing history in the first person as neoliberal historiography; I simply point out that it belongs to the age of neoliberalism. It is no great surprise that the age of market society, individualism, entrepreneurship, and competition as universal forms of life produces a historiography written in the first person. Without defending neoliberal values, subjectivist historians look at the past through an individual lens. They do not try to reconstruct collective actions and are quite impermeable to the polyphony of the past. They wish to redeem forgotten figures – often anonymous people or their family’s ancestors – and attune to them by exhibiting their own emotions. Their historiography is neither useless nor insignificant; it can be fascinating and touching, but it is a mirror of an age of individualism, of the anthropological paradigm introduced by neoliberalism in our culture.

SA: I found it quite pleasing that you end the book with an exploration of auto-historiography in Black intellectual traditions because we can learn a lot from Black scholars on how to productively position oneself as the subject of one’s inquiry. I particularly found your delicate analysis of Saidiya Hartman’s works quite satisfying, not only because I am currently re-reading and teaching them (Lose Your Mother and Wayward Lives), but also because you present them as models for doing subjectivist historiography (although one cannot say for a fact that Hartman views her own works that way). You argue that Hartman overcomes the limits ­– and avoids the trap – of most subjectivist history in the way that her writing is not simply a self-indulgent introspection but a way of reaching to the collective through the individual. I guess this is less of a question and more of an affirmation of your argument that subjectivist historiography, despite its pitfalls, is legitimate historiography and that scholars like Hartman have proved that this style of historiography has a place in the discipline of History (with a capital H). Do you agree?

ET: You have perfectly captured the spirit of the epilogue. The works of Hartman are worth so much to me precisely because they find an admirable synthesis between a vast historical landscape (slavery and the slave trade), the subjectivity of its actors (black suffering and black rebellion, respectively), and the author’s identity quest (the search for her ancestors and African roots). Presentism acts in Hartman’s works not as a closed temporality unable to escape from the “now,” but rather as the context in which a haunting legacy becomes attuned to and resonates with the struggles of the present. From this point of view, Hartman seems to me a fruitful alternative to the impasses of Jablonka. Differently from the French historian, whose voice overwhelms those of the heroes of his books, Hartman’s narrative is a lesson in modesty, the apprenticeship of a collective belonging, and the search for a singular place in a choral ensemble. Her voice is more authentic and beautiful the more it dissolves into that of a collective actor, an actor who is powerful precisely because she knows its history. Though she is not really a historian but rather an “anthropologist writer,” she is able to find a universal voice by writing in the first person. This is the opposite of withdrawing historiography into the author’s subjectivity.

Sakiru Adebayo is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. His new book, Continuous Pasts: Frictions of Memory in Postcolonial Africa,is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press in 2023.

Edited by Jonathon Catlin

Featured Image: Umberto Boccioni, Self-Portrait, 1905, oil on canvas, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.