Inverting the Pyramid: Notes on the Renaissance Society of America Meeting (26-28 March, Berlin)

by guest contributor Brooke S. Palmieri

To begin with, of the 903 total events held at the Renaissance Society of America meeting in Berlin, I was able to attend 10. But the historian has ways of interpreting such a huge pyramid of information that seems to miraculously balance on a single, tiny point: let’s call it microhistory.

There has already been excellent consideration about whether such a large, daunting conference is useful: “To my mind, the basic question with RSA 2015 is whether it has become so large that is has lost its identity as a conference” (David Rundle; @DrDavidRundle, 5 April 2015).

Yet the sheer size of the RSA generates a unique gravitational pull attracting senior academics and graduate students alike. Even browsing the hefty conference programme becomes an exercise of intellect. As much a map of the wider field of scholarship as the bibliomancer’s companion, one traces past and augurs future directions and deviations in Renaissance scholarship. Negotiating the RSA itself requires more decision-making, broad thinking, and unclogging the pores otherwise connecting various disciplines concerned with the same people, places, and things. If the History of Ideas has always been fit to run among diverse disciplines (anthropology, art history, literary theory) and sub-disciplines  (political, economic, religious history, history of the book), the RSA unites an ideal variety of scholarship and methodologies to move through in real time. It also allows us to turn some of our methodologies for looking at the past back upon themselves.

Many freedoms can be exercised here. Sometimes it’s worth attending panels outside of your direct line of research (“Queer Protestantism”) and eavesdropping on the Portuguese paleography expert sitting next to you. Sometimes social media is a useful tool to record and expand upon the format of the conference (via @onslies). Sometimes it is appropriate to speak up at the conference itself, as a group of early career researchers did to address the lack of gender diversity in the plenary line up (RSA’s response). More frequently, it’s just a matter of going to panels and watching scholarly lines bend and extend exponentially into patterns and shapes. And sometimes, you just have to return to the programme over a cup of coffee. What remains best about all of these strategies at the RSA is necessarily adopting the same identity at least once: that of a student.

That said, here are three lessons from a small corner of the RSA conference:

  1. Birthday parties are important

There were at least two important birthdays celebrated at the conference this year: Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre turned 30, and Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine’s “Studied for Action: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy” turned 25.

In its birthday panel, Davis’s exemplar of failed self-fashioning complemented the analysis of literary texts. This suited Davis’s reflection on her own work, as she elaborated: “If I have a theme, it’s double vision.” That is, Martin Guerre recreates a world in which “body-switching is totally reasonable, a fantasy people enjoy imagining” while still insisting that the touch and body of a man can be totally “unmistakable” to his loved ones and, by virtue of their recognition, unique. The court relied upon both while prosecuting Arnaud du Tilh for his impersonation of Guerre. The uses of fantasy and reality within the testimonies leading to du Tilh’s execution grant Davis’s work importance for literary studies (as regards the body-switching tales of the Heptameron, for instance) and literary genre (blending comedy and tragedy in its publication).

But literary studies also enrich the world of Martin Guerre: one in which literature and popular fictions contribute in real terms to the overall spectrum of belief first yielding such a double vision.. Not only is Davis’s work a model that invites collaboration between the disciplines of history and literary studies, but it also proves that anything less than a combined effort does not do justice to the stories buried in juridical archives. Identity, however constructed, remains as elusive as ever. Only collaborative or combinatory approaches can begin to pin it down.

The call to action, and collaboration, also marked Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton’s return to Gabriel Harvey’s heavily annotated copy of Livy.

Livy, Romanae historiae principis, decades tres, cum dimidia [. . .] Basel: Johannes Herwagen, 1555 Princeton University, Rare Books (EX) PA6452.A2
Livy, Romanae historiae principis, decades tres, cum dimidia [. . .] (Basel: Johannes Herwagen, 1555); Princeton University, Rare Books (EX) PA6452.A2
Yet here they discouraged the audience from maintaining Harvey as a model, or simply writing essays of “How X read Y.” Can one science or system ever really be derived from reading or from marginalia? Probably not. Yet it doesn’t matter as “you cannot recover history from the margins of books” to start: as per Jardine, “you need much more than that.” To take “Gabriel Harvey” forward requires instead a further step back, a basic rethinking about the way scholars approach sources.

How would Grafton and Jardine write that essay today? Twenty-five years ago, it required months of travelling to libraries to get a sense of Harvey’s surviving library. Grafton noted that a scholar in California who had only seen a small portion of Harvey’s books accused him of forgery, so different was his use of Livy from other volumes in his library. Today, the digital reassembly of libraries solves this exact problem. The concept of the fragmentary—which has much more theoretical weight on the shape of our scholarship than we tend to notice—is not quite as fragmented as it once was. And so twenty-five years later, Gabriel Harvey forms the bedrock of the Archaeology of Reading, a joint endeavour of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at UCL, Johns Hopkins University, and Princeton University. The overall aim of the project is to allow historians to interact with materials on a larger scale than before across participating special collections libraries, as well as to encourage us to think rigorously about the standards and descriptive practices by which we catalogue, digitize, and preserve printed books with manuscript additions.

  1. Processes shape content in all kinds of ways

The work of early career researchers complemented Grafton and Jardine’s roundtable discussion: not so much by writing treatments of “How X read Y”, but by generally working to link the process by which their contemporaries compiled our sources with the ways in which they are used over time. As Jennifer Bishop said in the standing-room only panel on Recordkeeping, “There is no strictly documentary source,” something also true for the feats of compilation described by her co-panelists. My own presentation and co-presenters worked in this vein to emphasize the passionate agendas behind documentary sources, as well as the high degree of knowledge and knowledge-sharing implicit in converting a book from leather, paper and wood to a published work. Before writing document-driven history from documents, it is worth considering their own history, which in turn requires respecting the complexity of those that worked to compile and preserve them. We must question everything that survives.

  1. Boundaries are as necessary as they are necessary to question

Such interrogations should finally extend to our own ways of categorizing history. For example: the RSA itself is changing in terms of the category of ‘Renaissance’. The RSA website identifies itself as a learned society concerned with the period of 1300-1600. The conference programme extends the end time to 1650. My own presentation did not stray before 1653, and there was not a single presentation I saw that did not include at least some 17th century content, especially Restoration, while some strayed in hushed tones into the 18th. Where does Renaissance end? Is permanent rebirthing the new permanent revolution? What does it mean that our boundaries of silently expanding? Perhaps the best way of thinking about the elasticity of time came from a literary scholar commenting on 17th century eschatology. In Margreta de Grazia’s presentation, revisiting Frank Kermode’s gorgeous Sense of an Ending reveals an impulse in Shakespeare’s dramas (as in John Foxe’s apocalyptic comedy Christus Triumphans) to constantly postpone and push the ending further and further into the future—even offstage into the future. De Grazia drew from a broadsheet that might be familiar to readers of Grafton and Rosenberg’s Cartographies of Time: the colossus of Universal History informed by the Book of Daniel:

Lorenz Faust, Anatomia Statuæ Danielis. Kurtze und eigentliche erklerung der grossen Bildnis des Propheten Danielis, darin ein historischer ausszug der vier Monarchien (Lepizig: Johann Steinman, 1586
Lorenz Faust, Anatomia Statuæ Danielis. Kurtze und eigentliche erklerung der grossen Bildnis des Propheten Danielis, darin ein historischer ausszug der vier Monarchien (Leipzig: Johann Steinman, 1586)

De Grazia observed that when the work was printed in 1585, contemporary Europe inscribed itself on the toes of the giant, leaving only a toenail’s width from the end of time. Understanding early modern attitudes toward past, present, and future offer a challenge to the way we circumscribe the boundaries of our own research: they are the ultimate actor’s categories for the historian. But they also throw into question the ways in which our own perception of time is subject to change. It’s clearly begun to shift at the RSA, in my limited experience. So since the RSA already excels at bringing together such a diverse range of scholars, the next big leap may be seriously discussing its own sense of an ending.

Brooke S. Palmieri is a PhD student in history at the Centre for Lives and Letters (CELL), where her research and teaching is dedicated to unearthing the radical potential of  print and manuscript cultures. Her dissertation focuses on the reading, writing, archiving and publishing habits of Quaker communities in London, and their expansion across the Atlantic in the second half of the 17th century. You can find her on Twitter at @bspalmieri.

Think Piece

The Women of Négritude

by guest contributor Sarah Dunstan

With the publication of his famous Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (English trans.) in 1937, Aimé Césaire introduced the word Négritude into the French lexicon. In so doing, he named the black literary and cultural movement that he, along with the Senegalese politician and poet Léopold Senghor and Guinian poet Léon Damas would employ to critique colonial practice and construct a powerful new black identity. As T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting argues, the origins of the neologism Négritude may be easily traced to Césaire but its role in the history of black intellectual thought remains controversial, not least because it straddles the boundaries of a linguistic divide and rests upon a decidedly masculine etymology.

Study of the so-called trois pères of Négritude—Senghor, Césaire and Damas—has long framed histories of the movement, with their personal relationships and political trajectories offering insight into the content of their thinking. Particular emphasis has been placed upon their use of the French language and their French education. More recently, scholars have pushed back the temporal and linguistic boundaries of the movement’s periodization, rooting its origins in the early 1920s and recognising the Anglophone influence of the work of African American writers. This is due partly to acknowledgements by Césaire and Senghor of their engagement with the work of the Harlem Renaissance. Writers such as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen were introduced to francophone audiences as early as 1924 in the short-lived journal Les Continents. Post-World War 1 dialogue between African American and Francophone black thinkers, however, went back to the 1919 Pan-African Congress organised by Du Bois wherein men such as the Senegalese politician Blaise Diagne and Guadeloupian politician Gratien Candace conceptualised black political and cultural identity upon firmly national lines.

The issue of Négritude’s intellectual debts and legacy is not purely linguistic and national, however, but entangled with questions of gender. As scholars such as Sharpley-Whiting, Brent Hayes Edwards and Jennifer Anne Boittin have noted (and gone far to rectify), the role played by black women in crafting and catalysing the movement has long been under-studied. Antillean sisters Paulette and Jane Nardal, for example, exercised a strong influence both in intellectual and practical terms, holding salon-style meetings in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s. These meetings brought together luminaries from both the Anglophone and Francophone black diaspora to discuss the questions of identity that underpinned many of the works associated with Négritude. The Nardal’s salons are famed for producing La Revue du monde noir, a bilingual journal that ran for six editions and had a distinctly internationalist bent. Most scholars of the black francophonie would now acknowledge the Nardals and the Revue as crucial influences upon the intellectual development of les trois pères. The initial elision of the women from narratives about the movement is one, however, that also bears true of intellectual histories of African diasporan exchange during this period.

The availability of sources is part of the problem as scant archival material exists outside their published work. Correspondence like that so crucial to tracing the exchange between African American thinkers such as Alain Locke and René Maran is largely missing from the historical archive where these black women are concerned. A 1956 fire destroyed Paulette Nardal’s papers, for example, making her role in the origins of the Négritude movement and as a generator of diasporan intellectual exchange even more difficult to map. What is left are the articles she published in La Dépêche africaine and La Revue du Monde Noir and a patchwork of police surveillance records in the ‘Service de liaison avec les originaires des territoires français ďoutre-mer’ series held in the overseas archives in Aix-en-Provence.

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961)
Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961)

On the American side, women such as Jessie Fauset and Ida Gibbs Hunt have no archives to their name. Nevertheless, their correspondence shows up in the papers of their friends and acquaintances – men such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gratien Candace and Rayford Logan. This affords tantalising glimpses of the crucial, if mostly unacknowledged, parts they played in facilitating intellectual exchange across the language divide. Ida Gibbs Hunt, for example, was part of the first Pan-African Association executive committee formed in 1919 at the Pan-African Congress in Paris. Du Bois never mentioned her in his write-up of the Congress in the Crisis, nor does she appear in any media reports. Yet a personal letter that Du Bois sent to Hunt and her husband (the American consul to Saint-Étienne at the time) suggests that she was, in fact, heavily involved in its organisation. In addition, correspondence appearing in the Du Bois Papers held at the University of Massachussets-Amherst suggests that Hunt, alongside Rayford W. Logan, played a mediating role in maintaining fragile diasporan relations when Du Bois consistently infuriated and circumvented the francophone portion of the organising committee.

Historian Glenda Sluga, in a roundtable at the History Workshop, noted similar archival silences in regard to the presence of female actors in internationalist movements. It prompted her to ask if their inclusion should be “a matter of choice, or a matter of fact?” I think the answer lies in innovation, in being open to intellectual genealogies that go beyond the traditional or, in the case of les trois pères, the acknowledged narrative. In a brilliant article, on the Nardal sisters in interwar Paris, Jennifer Anne Boittin illustrated one way in which such miscellaneous sources can be patched together to form a broader picture. Amongst other findings, Boittin’s work illustrated the ways that women like the Nardals often formed intellectual coalitions upon gendered lines, sharing space in journals such as La Dépêche africaine with white feminist thinkers such as Marguerite Martin. Choosing to interrogate the gaps and silences often left in intellectual genealogies by female actors can allow us to see these connections and thus view cultural and political movements like Négritude and Du Bois’ Pan-Africanism in a new light, fleshing out their spheres of influence beyond the expected.

Sarah Dunstan is a PhD Candidate on an Australian Postgraduate Award at the University of Sydney. For the 2014-2015 academic year, she is based at Columbia University, New York, on a Fulbright Postgraduate Fellowship. Her research focuses on francophone and African American intellectual collaborations over ideas of rights and citizenship.

Think Piece

The Sounds of History

by John Raimo

So far as writing history goes, the British historian G.M. Young wrote, “The secret is to treat every document as the record of a conversation, and go on reading till you hear the people speaking.” This characterization remains striking, and it cuts to a certain number of timeless historiographical issues. A first one seems clear enough. Many of the great texts which intellectual historians look to easily enough afford monolithic interpretations, that is, as worlds unto themselves. (Lest the point seem simple enough vis-à-vis intertextuality, &c., one can look to any number of recent studies delightfully lost in the tangle of Hobbes.) Recapturing the dialogues and polemical dimensions of such texts poses a different challenge—not least in reading demolished, perhaps boring, and justly or not forgotten arguments and thinkers. Few are likely to end up on most syllabi. Then archival work also enters the equation. What kinds of scaffolding fell away in correspondences, marginalia, pamphlets, and newspapers? Moreover, what sort of actual spoken conversations leave only the slightest traces in written documents or other forms of evidence?

At this point ‘hearing the people speaking’ begins to suggest a deeper level of comprehension. It cuts toward style. Appreciating this in full entails something more than teasing out allusions, references, and even the connotations of central terms. It means understanding something like the context, backgrounds, and circumstances of syntax, diction (not least regionalisms), rhythm, color, and the pitch of an author’s language. Style naturally enough implies an audience, or at least betrays expectations and anxieties floating behind the text. The hermeneutic demands were already daunting enough: now literary sensitivity, a lifetime’s worth of broad reading, and something like native fluency in a language all become necessary. So far as methodology goes, there’s nothing left but to “go on reading” until those voices begin to sound—and hopefully not the crazier ones.

Historians of the intellectual history of the twentieth century may have an easier job of this. Namely, television and radio all furnish not only a different source of evidence, but also evidence of a new order: the aural record as such. Here rich resources await anyone with patience, YouTube, and access to interlibrary loan programs. Before, during, and after the Second World War, public intellectuals of all kinds began making conscious use of all the media at their disposal. One fascinating earlier instance comes to mind in Thomas Mann’s BBC broadcasts to Nazi Germany (which were indeed later published), though Mann’s first broadcast actually happened more than ten years earlier. And so it’s little wonder that, another ten years after the war, the great intellectual Hans Magnus Enzensberger would begin his career in part as a Hörfunkredakteur of “Radio Essays” under Alfred Andersch at the Süddeutscher Rundfunk.

The floodgates open in postwar Europe with everything from the BBC’s renowned Reith Lectures to Günter Gaus’s famous interviews, André Malraux’s grand public speeches, and the Nobel Prize banquet speeches. This was hardly unusual: media groups such as the ARD in West Germany, Radio France (with quite an interesting chronology), and the BBC among others all made eager use of novelists, philosophers, and other public figures to both reach and create new audiences beyond print. Some scholars such as Tamara Chaplin have written sensitively about this as a phenomenon in its own right, and indeed it continues in many places until the present day.

Yet there is also a dearth of twentieth century studies connecting audio, visual, and print sources in terms of intellectual history. Here I mean how form modified the content, often through successive rounds or versions. This includes lectures recorded in the classroom, round-tables, interviews, and talks given before academic audiences, say Raymond Aron at the Sorbonne in 1963 for instance. These figures tailored and tried out formulations before committing themselves to print (and then often revising the texts afterwards). One particularly interesting case here might be Theodor Adorno, a wonderful public speaker who tested his 1964 attack on Heidegger in lecture form (an uncut form can be purchased here). The text is slightly different and, perhaps more importantly, his listener can’t escape the heavy irony laden in Adorno’s voice. And he’s quite funny to boot (an idea which likely has yet to take in studies of the great thinker). Or similarly, one hears not only Berlin but a Berlin of another time and place in Gershom Scholem’s autobiographical recollections.

Does listening to old recordings automatically make historians better readers? Of course not. Nor do historians hear things the way they were once heard, with all the hermeneutic baggage that texts pose alongside additional ones drawing on what can only be called our aural formations (i.e. our native languages, academic experiences, tempo of daily speech, and so on). Nothing threatens to pull written texts down from their pedestal unless we specifically turn to film, music, art, and other materials. On the other hand, nothing precludes a movement between sound and word for historians so fortunate as to have this great legacy at hand. So it may still make for better readers among intellectual historians and—just as importantly—it also humanizes the endeavor. One hears the tired, young, provincial, sick, laughing, charismatic, high-pitched (e.g. Otto von Bismarck) and even occasionally boring people behind, in, and sometimes escaping beyond the text.

*There are several resources to recommend here. Ubuweb, the Institut national de l’audiovisuel (INA) the Bibliothèque national de France (where I recently stumbled onto a recording of Émile Durkheim), the British Library, and the ubiquitous YouTube are wonderful Internet resources. Many archives also have scattered holdings, albeit ones which must be visited in person. There are also lines of recordings, however, which can purchased from INA, the British Library, Hörverlag, Gallimard, Fremeaux et Associés, and Quartino among other publishers, including more boutique companies like Brigade Commerz and Supposé. A few others spring to my mind, but I’d like to hear comments and suggestions from other audiophiles among the intellectual history community.

Think Piece

Would you like your history slanderous or boring?

by guest contributor Caio Ferreira

“A journal, sir, is no more a history than materials are a house.” Voltaire wrote this to the historian Jöran Andersson Nordberg, chaplain of king Charles XII of Sweden, in 1744. They respond assertively to a series of criticisms Voltaire received from Nordberg two years prior concerning his Histoire de Charles XII. In his own account of Charles XII’s reign (Konung Carl XII:s historia, 1740), Nordberg dedicated an entire introduction to correcting the liberties that previous historians had taken with the source material. One of his main targets had been none other than Voltaire himself.

Charles XII NordbergWhat remains interesting is the debate that sprang from Nordberg’s criticism. If, on the one hand, the chapelain admitted that Voltaire’s “beauty and vivacity of style” was commendable, his final verdict was nevertheless severe: Histoire de Charles XII, with its alarming lack of reliable sources, disseminated a number of imprecisions about the reign of the Swedish king. Quoting from La Voltairomanie (a critical essay on Voltaire published by Pierre-François Guyot Desfontaines in 1740), Nordberg suggested that Voltaire’s book was not historiography at all but a “historical novel.” As such, it was unworthy of being read.

Voltaire concedes to all those criticisms. In his response, he does not try to defend his sources or his research methods. Instead, Voltaire shifted the conversation entirely. To him, the sloppiness of the work was excusable to the degree that it affected “insignificant truths” (e.g. the location of the chapel in Charles XII’s castle and the precise minutia of his regalia). What Voltaire “got wrong” were mere trivialities bearing little or no importance to his larger narrative. As a historian, Voltaire was surely committed to telling the truth, but the truth he aimed for proved more specific in his mind. Such a history was not meant to be all-encompassing, but rather to preserve what as “worthy of being transmitted to posterity.”

Histoire Charles XII Voltaire

At the same time, Voltaire also had a distinct yet equally important goal: presenting an engaging narrative. It was important to produce a history in the mold of Tacitus and Livy, one that avoided “particularizing petty facts” and “preparing colors” in order to focus on “painting the picture.” To illustrate this, the philosophe punctuated his letter with an infamous quip: “A historian has many duties. Allow me to remind you here of two which are of some importance. The first is not to slander; the second is not to bore. I can excuse you for neglecting the first because few will read your work; I cannot, however, forgive you for neglecting the second, for I was forced to read you.” To this end, Voltaire accepted a certain “sloppiness.”

Reading this exchange now gives rise to conflicting emotions. On the one hand, it’s not difficult to side with Voltaire—not only because of his piercing rhetoric, but because no scholar wants to go unread. On the other hand, Nordberg’s complaints sound eerily contemporary. Despite his overzealousness, Nordberg represents current academic concerns and scholarly paradigms. His professional ethos seems alive and well: the first duty of the historian is to be as precise as possible, with entertainment being a welcome but unnecessary addition.

What remains curious is that history’s potential to delight and entertain long appeared to be its defining characteristic. The origins of this perspective presumably travel as far back to Cicero. He established that the historian was tasked not only with revealing the truth, but with revealing it in its entirety. However, Cicero also assumed that the intrinsic connection between history and oratory went much deeper than the mere recording of facts in chronological order. A good way to visualize this is to consider Cicero’s differentiation between annals and historiography: the former remains a simple registry, while the latter transforms into a registry “given distinction” through rules of speech. If truth was a concern, so was the ability of the historian to elevate certain facts above others, to give them emotional weight through the use of linguistic and narrative techniques.

The very notion of exemplarity (or even the larger idea of a Historia magistra vitae) carries within it the germ of this concern. Even before Cicero, Roman rhetoricians already supposed that the vividness of examples had a positive impact on moral education. Such authors as Polybius seemed to understand that virtue might be better taught through narrative presentation than through demanding metaphysical inquiry. The life of Alexander the Great demonstrated “courage” better than any conceptual investigation. Early modern humanism certainly proved keen on this idea. Even Sir Philip Sidney—who otherwise thought of historiography as an inferior pedagogical tool compared to poetry—necessarily contended that its narrative aspect had a profound value. In all of these cases, an implicit agreement emerges so far as a valid historical account proves one that, while truthful, is also capable of embracing its ludic aspects. Pleasure was a constitutive and not simply a contingent part of historiography.

It seems, however, that when we reach Voltaire the tension between truth and pleasure has grown to be almost irreconcilable: the epistemological status of historical writing can no longer support the two principles. As early as 1566, Jean Bodin wrote that “I have made up my mind that it is practically an impossibility for the man who writes to give pleasure, to impart the truth of the matter also.” As such, we cannot say that Nordberg perspective was idiosyncratic, nor can we claim it did not count many adherents. Many nineteenth-century historians from Ranke to Langlois and Seignobos reaffirmed the commitment to truth as the only real interest of history.

Ultimately, I believe this debate is worth recuperating. It not only poses interesting questions—in particular, what were the epistemological shifts that facilitated this change?—but also serves as a locus point for history and literature considered together. Here, the questions of how historians view themselves, of how they define their own practices, goals, and the necessary compromises will continue to engage us all.

Caio Ferreira is a first-year doctoral student in the Department of French and Romance Philology at Columbia University. He works on historiography and the intellectual history of early modern Europe.

Think Piece

Curing Vichy Syndrome

by John Raimo

Historiography can sometimes seem like a zero-sum game. New facts come to light and old politics set different lines of battle. One school of thought supersedes another, or at least vociferously claims to do so turning and turning in widening gyres. An outstanding instance of this can be found in the historiography attending Vichy France. The groundbreaking work of Henry Rousso, Robert Paxton, and others shifted the equation between les années noires and collaboration of varying shades during WWII. These years were indeed dark and full of suffering under the German occupation, as testimonies like Jean Guéhenno’s will always remind us. Collaboration of both the active and passive sort is a much trickier phenomenon to discuss and, as Rousso’s great Le Syndrome de Vichy de 1944 à nos jours (English translation) demonstrated years ago, the unique qualities of the episode necessarily carry repercussions through to the present day. As one political impasse falls away and collective memory distorts or corrects itself (in stages as Rousso famously argued), attention among historians has shifted decisively towards studying the active collaboration of the Vichy regime. Yet surely passive, contingent, and the most banal sort collaboration deserves further attention as a clear point of contact between the two schools of historiography which do not, finally, exclude one other. How many frames of reference can we keep without sacrificing clarity?

Entrance to the exhibit (John Raimo)
Entrance to the exhibit (John Raimo)

The current exhibit on Vichy collaboration at the Archives nationales in Paris (with the participation of INA and the Mémorial de la Shoah) strives wonderfully to keep this balance. Upon entering, one immediately encounters an overarching distinction between “collaboration” and “collaborationnisme,” namely active collaboration as a matter of state policy and ideological choice. The former haunts the exhibit throughout, however, and complicates what might have otherwise proven a simpler—if still dark enough—chronicle. One sees a celebratory photograph of Marshal Pétain mounted in the display window of a marked Jewish shop, anti-Semitic tracts published by Gallimard and other French publishers of note, advertising efforts for the Vichy welfare state, letters of denunciation, and posters advertising worker exchanges to free POWs in German camps, to say nothing of murkier instances like Joseph Joinovici’s accommodation of the Vichy regime. This does not amount to a social history of life in Vichy France, of course, but it shows that “collaborationnisme” proves a more complicated matter than one might first think in terms of ideology as well as popular support.

Responsibility is another matter. The Archives nationales exhibit also includes state directives and communiqués aimed at persecuting French Jews, documents which detail the economic cooperation (“la collaboration constructive”) between the Vichy and Nazi regimes, photos of interment camps at Drancy and elswhere, displays dedicated to Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Lucien Rebatet, and the personal effects, decorations, and photos of members of Milice française as well as of La Légion des volontaires français contre le bolchevisme [LVF] fighting alongside the German Wehrmacht. All told, the exhibit does not shirk any point of controversy of which I know—albeit with the exception of the British attack on Mers-el-Kébir. Otherwise, the presence of German soldiers, diplomats, and texts strike a running counterpoint through the exhibit, but the detailed chronologies offered by the exhibit track both when and how much direct responsibility fell to the Vichy government, not least in the matter of direct police collaboration.

(John Raimo)

The exhibit succeeds through sheer thoroughness and embrace of complexity. What struck me again is the relatively high proportion of text to objects, to say nothing of the sheer number of documents also presented as items of interest in their own right. (I’m led to believe there might be a higher tolerance for wordier exhibits in France, but then again we should also consider the venue, curatorial aims, and academic involvement in planning the show.) There were occasional ‘object’ misfires of the sort I discussed in my last post: visitors stumble upon Pétain’s working desk much as he left it when in power, Jacques Doriot’s LVF service trunk, and so on. Yet what proved most impressive was the relatively open historiography. The années noires peeked out from photographs as much as the names of victims on police registers. Passive collaboration flowed into active collaboration and vice-versa. And while some subjects escaped greater attention—say gender or education—the exhibit offered an encompassing take on its primary subject, namely collaborationnisme.

Why is this important today? To return to Rousso, I think it marks another stage of the changing historiography around Vichy France—one reaching beyond professional consensus to something like politics and the public. The exhibit naturally received state funding and the support of various government departments. It follows upon François Hollande’s dedication [PDF of text] of the Mémorial de la Shoah at Drancy in 2012. And there has not been much controversy attending the Paris show. Here I would argue that museums achieve or consolidate a state of history that books and arguments alone cannot quite accomplish: not a reconciliation of historiographical schools so much as an open balance preserving the sheer complexity of wartime France, one floating between facts, objects, and texts as much as residing within them.

The guestbook at the exhibit (John Raimo)
The guestbook at the exhibit (John Raimo)

Two final notes: the exhibition catalog did not strike me as particularly well-assembled, but no doubt there’s material to be had within that would prove difficult to obtain otherwise. I am also well aware of the difficulties inherent in discussing Vichy France and here invite experts to chime in and correct or add to my post (especially any fortunate enough to have seen the exhibition).

Think Piece

Making German history safe

by John Raimo

Can a museum exhibition curate itself? So far as concerns history, the answer would seem to be not quite. Here I am referring to Neil MacGregor’s work at the British Museum, namely Germany: Memories of a Nation—A 600-year history in objects (2014-2015). The show builds on the earlier project A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), a popular radio-series and an accompanying book which draw upon the museum’s holdings. Plaques tied the latter series in to the permanent collection; the former, while also furnishing broadcasts and a book (if not quite an exhibition catalog), came into being as a proper show. The wide response to these projects hint that a trend might be afoot (at least so far as one-upping one hundred objects goes). Objects drawn from a nation or wider field might furnish their own sort of accessible—that is, quite literally concrete—stories of the most open-ended sort.

‘Narrative’ does not quite fit to describe this most basic, traditional tension in museum work. We can leave aside questions of selection, omission, contextualization, and even marketing for a moment. Where does a history told via objects exactly lead us—or what does it lead us past? A linear chronological arrangement or curation would prove hard-pressed to escape a simple progressive history of technology or, perhaps, a most interesting history of global exchanges. It would not give its viewers a material history per say of a country. The most heterogeneous collection drawing from the most disparate sources, regions, and times might also lend the illusion of encompassing inclusion. Yet this too would not quite amount to a social, economic, intellectual, cultural, gender, or even political history in the stricter terms used by historians. Rather, object-driven history allows its curators a neat side-stepping of these issues on the basis of its rhetoric. Cue rather more poetic language: there is a proliferation, constellation, converging, parallelizing, overlaying, implication, and so on of narratives. Far be it from curators to conspicuously impose a historical narrative themselves. (I hope our readers can chime in on the direction of museum studies today on just this note.)

This is a particular problem with German history. MacGregor and his team can be commended for the range of items they have selected for the exhibit. (Who ever knew about Goethite before?) The attention paid to the Trümmerfrauen seemed particularly deft in gauging their iconographic importance both in West and East Germany (see MacGregor’s broadcast here). I also grant a good deal of credit to any curators willing to display several maps and to dedicate cases to numismatics within exhibitions intended to be blockbusters. But the approach they chose only further complicates the history at hand. How easily can past historiography be dismissed when presenting German history to a general public?

The exhibit organizes itself upon the thesis that German history is “inherently fragmented.” Hence the (today de rigueur) ambiguity of the exhibition title: these are different memories of an “unstable” nation in geographical, historical, and political terms. For the exhibition’s curators, continuities and discontinuities frustrate strict chronological accounts. Accordingly, the chosen items readily fall under themes such as “Germans no more,” documenting German-communities in both the former East Prussia and Czechoslovakia for instance.

History as told by the objects, all the objects, and nothing but the objects obscures more than it reveals. In the absence of any chronology whatsoever, the thematic approach coupled with the impartiality promised by the items more often than not fails to invoke much history at all for those coming to it for the first time. For example, a cart used by East Prussian refugees in the wake of the Second World War strikes a touching note—but how well can we understand its importance without reference to the war and the present-day controversies surrounding the German Vertriebene (refugees or expelled persons—this problem of translation alone hints at the politics involved)? Or to broach an overwhelmingly large topic in as concise a manner as possible, just where does one place the Third Reich and the Holocaust in German history? A small exhibit dedicated to the gates of a concentration camp fails rather more than it even should. To my mind, the show ultimately amounts to a single history of Germany—albeit one defanged of difficulty or the need for much interpretation at all.

This is not a call for a museum rehearsal of professional historiographical debates or for a full-throated embrace of historical politics. We don’t need to refight the Sonderweg controversy. And indeed, I would here guess that the British Museum exhibit has been conceived as an implicit rejoinder to the overwhelmingly crass and politicized exhibit at the Louvre ostensibly dedicated to German art. Happily enough, however, some ready counterexamples come forward. The wonderful Time, Conflict, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern (with an excellent accompanying catalog) forgoes a strict chronology without leaving aside politics or more tightly-focused questions of national memory. (The exhibit’s focus on catastrophes and its ranging across several national histories affords another discussion, however.) More broadly-speaking, French museums such as those at Peronne or Caen prove models of involving such historians as Jay Winter (at the former) as curators themselves. The museum-going public rises to any perceived challenge that a more academic-driven historical exhibit might pose.

I look forward to writing here soon about another exhibit, La Collaboration 1940-1945 (about Vichy France), put on by the Archives Nationales. The questions there should prove just as substantial. But to return to the British museum and that ambiguous title once again, one stuck with me: just whose memories of which nation were to be seen there? I can’t help thinking that I and crowds of other people encountered a lot of objects, fewer memories—intact, accessible, or otherwise—and even less history in any graspable sense.