I. Jablonka: History Is a Contemporary Literature

History Is a Contemporary Literature. Manifesto for the Social Sciences. Translated by Nathan J. Bracher

Jablonka, Ivan
Anzahl Seiten
XIII, 277 S.
$ 39.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Philipp Müller, Forschungsbereich Demokratie und Staatlichkeit, Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung

Historical scholarship and literary fiction share a trajectory of mutual inspiration that reaches back to antiquity and continued beyond the Early Modern period. In the perspective of the ancient rhetorical tradition, historians and writers of fiction were brothers in arms, using stories in order to please, to move and to instruct their readers. Subsequently, literary coherence served as an instrument for gaining historical knowledge and promoting the aesthetic formation of the self. Throughout their relationship, historical and fictional writing were compared to each other, reflecting whether the factual or fictional mode was more successful in fulfilling the tasks set within the rhetorical and post-rhetorical tradition. As a consequence, historians drew on literary strategies to improve their work, adopting the structure of the modern novel at the turn of the nineteenth century. At other times, in the early eighteenth century, authors of fiction relied on forms of historical writing in order to make their stories more convincing, modeling their stories on historical memoirs and chronicles.

Ivan Jablonka’s book makes the important point of bringing this traditional relationship back to mind. He rightly insists that historians should be aware of the common ground they have shared with literary writers and avoid the misconception that reduces literature to fiction. Fictional texts are speech acts that function if a reader understands that the text is meant to describe an imagined reality. Literary forms and strategies by themselves neither produce imagined realities nor can they be understood as prompting readers to treat a text like a work of fiction. The literary dimension has been an important element of modern historical scholarship – acknowledged by the Nobel Prize in Literature for the historian Theodor Mommsen, used by historians like Lucien Febvre in his book on Rabelais and called for by scholars like Paul Ricœur and Carlo Ginzburg. None of this has impaired historians’ claim to truth.

Jablonka’s book was originally published in French[1], and the French academic context helps to explain why the book is addressed not only to historians but to the social sciences in general. In France, the integration of historical scholarship into the social sciences has been particularly effective since 1945 and still marks important parts of academia. Jablonka is dealing with a well-established convention that has pushed historical scholarship into the realm of scholarly rigor associated with the social sciences and allegedly opposed to the world of literature. Brushing this convention against the grain, the first part of the book (“The Great Divide”) presents a summary of the history of historiography that focuses on the development in France and shows that literature was its close ally during the period in the nineteenth century when history established modern instruments for generating knowledge.

As correct as this account is, none of it offers much that is new.[2] Much more important is Jablonka’s point that contemporary historical scholarship is in need of reform. Unfortunately, this is also where things become unclear. Jablonka builds his argument on the contention that historical scholarship was purged of literary traces when transformed into an institutionalized academic discipline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.[3] Following this storyline, one wonders what the current literary reform Jablonka argues for really consists of: If we take the book’s title at its word, history already is a contemporary literature. All that needs to happen would be to increase awareness within the historical community that it is working with literary instruments when producing historical knowledge. But this does not conform to Jablonka’s repeated complaint about the “objective mode” historians still seem to use in their writing and his demand for a replacement “of the realist history of the nineteenth century with a history that is modern on a literary level” (p. 258). In this sense, history should be a contemporary literature – yet, it is not. In this reading, Jablonka argues that the social sciences and history might complete their entry into modernity by catching up on the literary revolution of the novel in the early twentieth century (pp. 230–231). However, in several passages he denies that “combining the nineteenth century’s revolution of history with the twentieth century’s revolution of the novel” would be a solution (p. 236; also p. 184).

The question of what should be reformed is immediately linked to the core of Jablonka’s endeavor. What does he exactly mean when he invokes “the literary”? There is more than one possible answer. One is roughly sketched in his list of five criteria in chapter nine (“From Nonfiction to Literature-as-Truth”). According to Jablonka, literature aims for an aesthetic effect; constructs a narrative; delivers a polysemic message; expresses a unique, authentic voice; and is part of a traditionally institutionalized set of texts called literature (pp. 206–207). Obviously, this set does not reflect the history of literary aesthetics but seeks to make a general statement, even if it is of unclear status. Without further arguments, the list tells us little more than that these criteria underscore the necessities of the author’s reasoning. Furthermore, the fifth criterion has the potential to cause trouble for the overall definition, because it does not refer to an aesthetics of production but rather to the conventional determination of literature by the “art world” (Arthur C. Danto). Jablonka does not delve into these issues, claiming simply that the criteria do not necessarily contradict each other.

Rather than bothering with their historical development or interaction, he treats the integration of the author’s self into the text as essential. Making the researcher’s subjectivity a part of the account is supposed to serve as a safeguard against the traps of the objective mode. Revealing the personal intellectual preconditions of the investigation, Jablonka holds, will disclose the attachments of the researcher to his or her object of study. This is supposed to make the story a more truthful account of the past. It is also supposed to enable an expression of the historian’s self and open ways for the historian to live history. “Researcher, […] write the book of your life, the one that will help you understand who you are. The rest will follow: rigor, honesty, excitation, rhythm.” (p. 235) The concept of an intellectual connection between the historian’s self and the object of study is, of course, a cornerstone of the hermeneutic method enforced in the nineteenth century by historians like Johann Gustav Droysen and Jules Michelet. Jablonka rejects this tradition for his own suggestions but does not explain in what way he differs from very similar statements of his predecessors when declaring that “[h]istory is that by which we link ourselves to others, to our children as well as to our ancestors. It is the question we carry within ourselves […]” (p. 251).

A possible way of marking the boundary between the hermeneutic tradition and the reform of contemporary historiography might consist in the adoption of literary techniques of the twentieth century novel. But, as already noted, Jablonka remains ambivalent about this course and instead presents examples which show successful or unsuccessful forms of contemporary historical writing, according to his assessment. Besides listing his own writing among the successful attempts – the entire book is also meant to further elucidate two of his recent publications –, the way in which he introduces some of his examples is simply irritating. Historiography that does not contain signs of adequate soul searching is presented as being “full of itself“, offering “nothing but its own self-satisfaction” (p. 250). Without further explanation, the objective mode and demand that scholarly standards be upheld are assumed to be an expression of “male domination” and a “deeply gendered division of labor” (pp. 89; 257). The moralizing tone also replaces reasoning when Jablonka mentions the work of other theorists who have paved the way to discussing the current relationship between history and literature. In this sense, Hans Robert Jauss is dismissed because he did not reflect on his former membership in the Waffen-SS, as is Hayden White, who was purportedly influenced by the Italian fascist Giovanni Gentile (pp. 250; 87). One does not get the impression that these passages make an effort to weigh arguments but rather that the author is making value judgments in order to generate solidarity among his readers without presenting arguments. Jablonka himself may believe that he is in need of support, as a pioneer “in the no-man’s-land, on the margins of the misfits” (p. 263). But at some points his way of presenting the case is in danger of crossing the border of self-fashioning. The book is asking important questions, while the answers it offers are hard to grasp.

[1] Ivan Jablonka, L’histoire est une littérature contemporaine. Manifeste pour les sciences sociales, Paris 2014.
[2] See among others Lionel Gossman, Between History and Literature, Cambridge 1990; Jacques Rancière, Les normes de l’histoire. Essai de poétique du savoir, Paris 1992; Daniel Fulda, Wissenschaft aus Kunst. Die Entstehung der modernen deutschen Geschichtsschreibung 1760–1860, Berlin 1996; Christophe Charle, Paris fin de siècle. Culture et politique, Paris 1998.
[3] This point is not easy to understand. If it was this disciplinary context that drove the literary dimension out the door, it is difficult to assume that the other social-science disciplines addressed by Jablonka have fallen victim to the same process. Jablonka implies that the institutionalization of historical writing in academia is somehow responsible for the neglected literary dimension of the social sciences in general but fails to explain why the institutional settings of other disciplines can be ignored.

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