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Society for French Historical Studies

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Author(s): Joan W. Scott
Source: French Historical Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Summer, 1998), pp. 383-397
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A Crisis in History? On Gerard Noiriel's
Sur la "crise" de 1 histoire
Border Patrol
Joan W Scott
Gerard Noiriel is perhaps best known for his important study of im-
migration, Le Creuset francais: Histoire de l'immigration, XlXe-XXe sieles,
which was published in English as The French Melting Pot: Immigration,
Citizenship, and National Identity.' In that book, Noiriel sought to ac-
count for and correct the "denial of memory" that led generations of
French historians to overlook or repress the fact that at least from the
end of the nineteenth century on, immigration has been an important
factor in the political, economic, and social history of France. Histori-
cal amnesia about immigration served the myth of a cohesive French
nation rooted not only in the land but in the "postulated filiation" of
an enduring and continuous population, a family whose "genetic trace
we carry within us" (in the words of historian Pierre Chaunu).2 In fact,
Noiriel shows clearly, various practical measures, from identity cards
to passports to union membership to the educational system, either
promoted the assimilation of foreign-born residents to French national
culture or cordoned them off as strangers. In both cases the process
effectively obscured the fact that immigration was long a significant
factor in France's history and not, as certain politicians have suggested
in the past year, an entirely new phenomenon. But if state bureaucrats
had reason to represent France as a unified culture and to establish
institutions to realize that representation, why were historians so will-
ing to go along with them? How can we account, Noiriel asks, for their
failure to make immigration the object of historical inquiry?
The answers he offers are varied and complex. A primary one has
Joan W. Scott is professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study. She is au-
thor, most recently, of Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (1996). She
would like to thank Paul Friedland for his helpful suggestions.
1 Gerard Noiriel, Le Creusetfranfais: Histoire de l'immigration, XJXe-XXe sicles (Paris, 1988);
idem, The French Melting Pot: Immigration, Citizenship, and National Identity, trans. Geoffroy de
Lafourcade (Minneapolis, Minn., 1996).
Pierre Chaunu, LaFrance (Paris, 1982), quoted in Noiriel, French Melting Pot, 41.
French Historical Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3 (summer 1998)
Copyright ( 1998 by the Society for French Historical Studies
to do with the influence of the Annales school, which has until recently
dominated the field of history and whose preeminence is roughly con-
temporary with the beginnings of sustained immigrations. Fernand
Braudel represents the strengths and the limits of the Annales school
for Noiriel. Indeed, Noiriel's introduction at once pays tribute to the
master and repudiates him: "The painful thing about this book ... is
that. . . I had to gradually renounce the Braudelian enchantments of
my student years and criticize the very foundations of the theoretical
edifice he left, because the direction in which it took me was, I real-
ized, misleading."3 Although Braudel pointed, correctly in Noiriel's
view, to the need to reconcile sociological analysis with history, his pre-
occupation with the longue durge tended to obliterate discontinuity as
a factor in history and to deprive historians of a (genuinely sociologi-
cal) methodology by which they could study the specificities of social
interactions. The tenacity with which the Annales historians held to
the idea of the longue durge, with its exaggerated insistence on history
as continuity, resulted, Noiriel suggests, less from deep philosophical
commitment than from the strategic need to counter the "expansionist
designs" of sociology. This interest in maintaining disciplinary bound-
aries blocked the kinds of investigations that might have illuminated
the complexities of France's national history (among them the his-
tory of immigration). That sociologists such as Emile Durkheim and
Maurice Halbwachs were suggesting new approaches to these com-
plexities only demonstrates the debilitating effects of disciplinary rival-
ries. For it was "competitive games" between the disciplines of history
and sociology that finally deprived the Annales historians of the tools
that would have made possible a genuine "sociohistory" of national as-
similation of the kind Noiriel now sought to write.4
The arguments set forth in The French Melting Pot- that theoreti-
cal commitments can be inimical to history, that sociology provides a
suitable methodology, and that antagonisms between history and soci-
ology are unfortunate and unnecessary- are again evident in Sur la
"crise" de l'histoire. While these themes were in a sense incidental to the
major purpose of The French Melting Pot (the point there is the empiri-
cal demonstration that immigration was a fact of French history), they
are at the very heart of the new book. Here Noiriel seeks to stage the
reconciliation that Braudel suggested but did not realize between soci-
ology and history, a reconciliation that is a way of both analyzing and
solving what has been deemed the "crisis" of history.
3 Noiriel, French Melting Pot, xxix.
4 Ibid., 41, 265-78.
"Crisis," Noiriel tells us, is a recurrent theme in the history of
the historical profession. Ironically, it has been invoked this time at
a moment when the public status of history has never been better.
Although others have referred to a crisis of belief in the very status
of historical knowledge (an epistemological crisis), Noiriel attributes
the sense of disarray to structural factors internal and external to the
discipline. (In this he seeks to demonstrate the value of sociologi-
cal analyses for understanding the behavior of groups.) Discussions of
philosophy, he suggests, are displacements of the real anxieties histo-
rians feel about demographic and economic pressures that have exac-
erbated tensions between established and aspiring generations of pro-
fessional historians. In addition, there has been a change in the status
of the university: A steadily increasing influx of students has shifted
the emphasis from research to teaching. Many university-based schol-
ars in France see the requirements of pedagogy as diminishing their
status as research scientists, especially when they compare their situa-
tions with those of colleagues at institutions such as the CNRS and the
Ecole des hautes etudes.5 Then there is the impact of an ill-defined
interdisciplinarity that can be pursued in the elite research centers
but not in university teaching programs. Finally, the lucrative market
for popularization has deformed the activities, rewards, and motiva-
tions of historians; some pursue a certain crass individualism as media
stars, while others resent their own obscurity. The demands of popu-
larization have, moreover, compromised scholarly and scientific stan-
dards in the name of journalism and partisan politics. The sense of
community that was characteristic of earlier generations is thus threat-
ened: "Dans un univers oui triomphe l'individualisme caracteristique
du champ litteraire, qui valorise des auteurs et non des chercheurs,
pourquoi les uns accepteraient-ils les taches, souvent ingrates et ecra-
santes, d'animation d'une equipe, d'un centre de recherche ou meme
d'un projet collectif, au detriment de leurs propres travaux, alors que
les autres mobilisent toute leur energie dans des strategies de promo-
tion personnelle, cumulant frequemment les profits associes 'a la posi-
tion d'auteur, de savant, de journaliste et d'expert?"
Despite this rift, Noiriel thinks history can be preserved as an
autonomous discipline, as a distinctive branch of knowledge in the
human sciences. But the effort will require identifying its characteris-
tic features, extracting some essential "history" from the history of this
5 Noiriel's book focuses on France, although it includes material on the United States and
especially on the so-called linguistic turn and its implications for social history.
Gerard Noiriel, Sur la "crise" de l'histoire (Paris, 1996), 46.
field. As he chronicles the formative years of the profession in several
fascinating chapters, Noiriel emphasizes that disciplinary coherence
resulted above all from commitment to a shared practice. It is method,
not theory or philosophy, that achieves for history its scientific status;
"truth" is the certification by the community of practitioners that cor-
rect procedures of research have been followed. For Noiriel, Marc
Bloch offers the consummate expression of this ideal when he refers to
history as a metier. Historically, Noiriel says, it is a shared commitment
to practice (to the activities of "savoir, memoire, pouvoir") that has
enabled historians to recognize one another as members of the same
artisanal community, even when sharp differences of interpretation
set them apart on substantive questions or when the vagaries of eco-
nomics and demography introduced serious structural strains. What is
different-and dangerous-in the current situation is that all the talk
of epistemological crisis undermines community coherence, thereby
producing the very effects it pretends to address. (Noiriel's language
is apocalyptic: "Deadly quarrels" engender "fragmentation," "atomiza-
tion," and "devalorization.") "En introduisant ces querelles sans fin
dans la reflexion interne a la discipline, les historiens-epistemologues
n'ont fait qu'aggraver les problemes qu'ils voulaient resoudre, en acce-
lerant le processus d'atomisation de l'histoire. Mais ils ont grandement
favorise aussi le processus qui a conduit beaucoup d'historiens a re-
prendre 'a leur compte l'image devalorisee de leur discipline forgee
par les philosophes."
(This figure of the historian abjected by philoso-
phy does not accord with my experience of the field, which is both
more open to and less intimidated by philosophical conversation than
Noiriel implies.)
One of the invidious effects of the preoccupation with episte-
mology, says Noiriel, is a deformation of the simple language that has
served at once to unify historians and to link them to the larger public
they must serve. "Dans le cas des sciences de l'homme, c'est le lan-
gage lui-meme qui constitue la mediation entre le monde des savants
et le monde profane. C'est pourquoi l'historien qui se preoccupe de la
fonction social de sa discipline doit parler, 'a la fois, aux specialistes et
au grand public."8 The need to remain faithful to ordinary language
(referred to as "natural" and "normal") is one of the themes insisted
on by Noiriel. By ordinary language he means to invoke transparency,
a direct connection between words and the things they are taken to
represent. It is not so much arcane usage that he rejects; hard words
7 Ibid., 113. My translation.
8 Ibid., 87.
are not the issue. Rather, it is the conceptual vocabulary associated
with philosophy that Noiriel has in mind. Although he refers gener-
ally to "philosophy," he most often means the philosophy that radically
problematizes the relationship between words and things. It is this phi-
losophy that Noiriel thinks poses the greatest danger to the health and
survival of the discipline of history. (And no wonder, since the logic
is circular. When history is defined as a methodology that rests on the
self-evident meaning of language, it follows that any interrogation of
this idea of language is a mortal attack on history.)
The repudiation of philosophy was, Noiriel argues, a key to the
emergence of history as an organized and autonomous science dur-
ing the nineteenth century. Hence maintaining the boundary between
philosophy and history is a guarantee of history's future. Noiriel not
only advocates such boundary maintenance, he practices it, refusing
to engage the terms of philosophical critiques of history even when
they are advanced by historians. Bernard Lepetit (who can hardly be
called an extremist for his views) is thus faulted for distancing himself
from "historiens normaux," because he uses philosophical references
that are outside the "linguistic norms" of the community.9 Noiriel also
does not take seriously the claims of some historians (including my-
self) that the community norms and practices he equates with "his-
tory" might have to be criticized as "epistemologies" if we are to make
something like gender a legitimate object of historical investigation.
Instead, he attributes the turn to philosophy (the "linguistic turn" in
the United States and the "tournant critique" in France) to motives of
self-interest: a preference for individual notoriety over community soli-
darity, the desire for avant-garde status and, perhaps, the commercial
gain that accompanies it, and the attempt by intellectual historians to
wrest hegemony from social historians. He even refuses to use words
he deems philosophical without clearly indicating his distance from
them. Thus terms such as "paradigm," "epistemology," "objectivity,"
and "truth" are cordoned off by quotation marks. ("Tout au long de ce
livre, j'ai mis entre guillemets les termes empruntes au vocabulaire de
la philosophie.")
Philosophy introduces abstract, abstruse language (foreign, that
is, extradisciplinary, concepts) into the plainspoken practices of histo-
rians, demanding competence beyond that which "the community" is
used to. (There is something incredibly condescending about Noiriel's
insistence on "normal" language. He implies that historians are not
Ibid., 158.
Ibid., 5.
capable of entertaining or understanding abstract ideas, when this is
clearly not the case.) Of my work on gender he writes, "Proposer une
theorie du gender fondee sur la philosophie 'post-structuraliste' quand
on est historien(ne) c'est choisir deliberement de se placer en dehors
des competences 'normales' de sa communaute professionnelle."
if the disciplinary community protects itself from the kind of criticism
I want to offer it by refusing to examine its own presuppositions -in
this case about the transparency of language that establishes sexual
difference as a natural rather than a social phenomenon-what am I
to do? For Noiriel, the choice is to accept the terms by which the com-
munity has imposed coherence on its members or leave. Fundamental
criticism cannot be tolerated: Assimilate or emigrate.
The choice is odd, to say the least, coming from the historian
who drew our attention to the "repression" of immigration in the writ-
ings of French historians and explained it as a function of the desire
to maintain France as an integral, unified nation. In this book Noiriel
has taken a contradictory position, becoming the advocate of the ex-
clusion of philosophy in the name of the integrity (the wholeness and
oneness) of the community of historians. Like the French nation, "his-
tory must be maintained as a coherent cultural entity; in both cases
language is a unifying mechanism, and the community is defined in
opposition to those whose practices are deemed fundamentally differ-
ent. But whereas in The French Melting Pot Noiriel sought to expose
the ways in which a mission of national unity distorted the realities of
French history (and, as a consequence, has inspired ugly political at-
tacks on immigrants since the 1980s), in Sur la 'Crise" de l'histoire he is an
ardent proponent of disciplinary unity. Has he changed his mind? Do
the differences between states and disciplines account for the contra-
dictory positions he takes in relation to the bonds of community? Why
is the historian allowed to criticize the nation (using history against
politics to effect change) and not the foundations of his own practice?
But perhaps these are the wrong questions. Following Noiriel's socio-
logical emphasis on the play of interests as a motive, maybe we should
ask how his stake in being a professional historian differs from his stake
in being a French citizen. Do the reward structures differ? What are the
costs and benefits of taking critical positions in each realm? What ad-
vantages accrue to someone who joins the ascending backlash against
"theory" in the name of the conservation of disciplinary integrity?
In fact that is a line of questioning I'm not interested in pursuing.
Ibid., 148.
It is far more important, I think, to use Noiriel's insights about how the
myth of a singular French nation was constructed - and at what costs
to assess his vision of "history." Noiriel's insistence on history as an en-
during professional community of shared competency (or method or
practice) is remarkably static, more Braudelian in conception than he
would perhaps like to admit. His reading of major historiographical
debates emphasizes their commonality, not their differences; conflict
is made secondary to a foundational methodological continuity. The
result is that "history" acquires a certain timeless existence (at least
since the emergence of the discipline in the late nineteenth century);
that conceptual change (change in the very notions of history, "savoir,
memoire, pouvoir") is eliminated from our line of vision (whether
we look backward or forward); and that some of the most innovative
writers in the field of history (Michel Foucault, Paul Veyne, Michel de
Certeau) are dismissed as passing fads whose work "n'est pas parvenue
a exercer une influence durable et etendue sur la discipline."'12 The
contributions of Jacques Ranciere and the Rivoltes logiques collective,
which I will return to later, are not mentioned at all. Noiriel's work of
boundary maintenance -extirpating all influence of philosophy from
history -so preoccupies him that he neglects to employ either the soci-
ologist's analyses of power (how did hegemonic forces within the disci-
pline conserve their influence against the pressure of the radicals?)
or the traditional historian's reading of events in their larger contexts
(how did the ideas and practices of history change in relation to the
end of imperialism, the emergence of new diplomatic constellations,
the end of the cold war, and the declared "end of history"?).
Sur la 'crise" de l'histoire is not so much a work of history (although
it has many interesting historical moments) as of moral advocacy: His-
torians are enjoined to avoid controversy and to pursue Noiriel's "prag-
matic" agenda (which, though it has much in common with the "prac-
tical realism" advanced
by Joyce Appleby
and her coauthors in
the Truth about History, is far more totalizing in its definition of "his-
tory" than they are).'3 The idea is to refrain from anything that inhibits
easy communication among historians, whether that means avoiding
jargon borrowed from another discipline or refraining from making
too much of admittedly difficult issues. Are interpretations relative to
the standpoint of the historian? Is it fair to criticize a work from a van-
tage different from the one the author intended? Are one's presuppo-
12 Ibid., 111.
13Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New
York, 1994).
sitions relevant to the empirical work produced? These are questions
that must be acknowledged, he says, and then left aside. "Si nous vou-
lons mener a bien une recherche empirique, nous devons necessaire-
ment mettre entre parentheses une multitude de questions."'14 These
questions will be resolved, if at all, not by individual historians writing
about them directly but by the "collective action" of the community. If
they are allowed to become the focus of controversy and debate, they
will only further the crisis of history.
This seems a profoundly undemocratic notion of community prac-
tice and in fact misrepresents the way the community of historians
operates. Noiriel's prescription, it seems to me, seeks to eliminate the
most interesting and admittedly difficult aspects of any discipline: its
internal tensions and divisions, the tenuous but necessary balance be-
tween orthodoxy and innovation, stability and revision, conservatism
and change. Change comes, as Noiriel has so effectively taught us in
regard to the history of the nation, not by maintaining the purity of
the original bloodlines of the ancestors but by accepting an influx
of external influences. Denying their existence, the complicated pro-
cesses of their assimilation, and their salutary impact not only distorts
the record of the past, it promotes a politics (disciplinary as well as
national) associated with xenophobia and ethnic cleansing. To offer
that kind of test for membership in the historical profession would
produce a crisis far worse than the one some scholars think we are
facing now.
Noiriel's diagnosis of the "crisis" of history refers it to a set of economic
and institutional developments; these are factors internal and external
to the discipline that nevertheless impinge directly on its practition-
ers. The method of "sociohistory" that he promotes provides a way of
accounting for ideas in terms of solid, material causes, deeper reali-
ties that lie behind or beneath or before, and so determine, the ideas
themselves. If history consists of "savoir, memoire, pouvoir," these
categories must be understood in terms of their institutional embodi-
ments. Thus the second half of Noiriel's book tracks the developments
that enabled history to become a recognized branch of knowledge (the
founding of the sixth section of the Ecole pratique des hautes etudes,
the elaboration of techniques of research in textbooks, the training
specialized archivists, the publication of bibliographies and archival
inventories, the launching of journals and the development of history
14 Noiriel, Sur la "crise" de l'histoire, 195.
lists and series by major publishers) and an autonomous discipline (the
emergence of history faculties, the training of graduate students, the
.public soutenance de these, etc.). These chapters are far less polemical
than the first half of the book. They provide a great deal of useful infor-
mation about the structure of the discipline, its internal contradictions
and transformations: the difficulties of separating subjective from ob-
jective determinations of quality, of insisting on measures of excellence
while following bureaucratic procedures, of enforcing scholarly norms
free of political influences and personal rivalries, and so on. They allow
Noiriel to specify in great detail some of the developments that in his
estimation have led to perceptions of "crisis" by historians. In this way
they confirm his argument for a marriage of sociology and history as
a union of complementary practices in which sociology provides ana-
lytic concepts and history, temporally situated empirical details.'5
But these chapters
indeed, the book as a whole
also demon-
strate what is lost by such an approach. Following the procedures of
sociology allows Noiriel to focus on institutions, plays of power, and
''practices" of all kinds but also to bypass language as evidence in itself.
Words are, rather, indicators of the actual social processes that ought
to be the sole object of the historian's inquiry. Noiriel's rejection of
the linguistic turn (that is, of theories that not only address the insta-
bility and complexity of language but also make it the primary focus
of analysis), his injunction to historians to communicate by employing
accessible, familiar language, and his endorsement of a sociohistory
that analyzes not words but things are all of a piece. They assume that
language is expressive of a preexisting reality, that it reflects the world,
and that it can be explained as a function of something else. This
means that the "crisis of history" is everything but what it says it is.
It is a matter of occupational succession, of communication, of disci-
plinary standards and norms and values and practices, of struggles for
power between subgroups or individuals competing for "hegemonic"
status-all more or less tangible phenomena subject to categoriza-
tion, rationalization, intervention -hence not really a crisis at all. The
word "crisis," Noiriel tells us, is merely rhetorical, a polemical weapon
that does not designate anything real. In this way the urgency of the
word "crisis" is effectively dispelled, made to be a function of institu-
tional factors that can be named and so controlled. The problem with
Noiriel's sociohistory is that it deflects us from contemplating the fact
of a crisis in its own terms.
15 Ibid., 169-71.
But what if we took the words at their word? What if there is a
crisis of history, a crisis in the sense of a turning point of uncertain out-
come (the point, in an illness, when the patient may begin to recover
or die)? What is the social value of the stories historians tell? Is it pos-
sible any longer to offer history as a singular account of a nation's or a
people's history? Can history continue to be a reliable guide either to
the past or to the future? What is the relationship between historical
narrative and perceptions of (national, cultural, individual) identity?
There is abundant evidence that people (ordinary citizens and techni-
cal scholars) no longer believe in the narrative of progress that united
the founding generations of professional historians and their academic
and popular audiences. Faith in a better future, in futurity itself, has
been shaken. The obsession we have about owning and revisiting the
past, like the commercialization of history in books and at touristic
sites, suggests not so much a vital belief in history as deep concern
about its loss.16 Political theorist Wendy Brown puts it this way: "We
know ourselves to be saturated by history, we feel the extraordinary
force of its determinations; we are also steeped in a discourse of its in-
significance, and, above all, we know that history will no longer (always
already did not) act as our redeemer." 17
What if the crisis of history is a symptom of the "end of history"?
Wouldn't it be reasonable, in the face of such a major questioning of
our raison d'etre, for those whose job it is to make sense of history
to declare a crisis? And wouldn't we expect that historians might look
for ways of assessing blame within their ranks, accusing one another of
fomenting a situation none of us has produced? I submit that the word
"crisis" is symptomatic of a deeply problematic condition of our time
(indeed, the very meaning of time -as teleology, linear development,
chronology, progress-is what is at stake). If the historical profession
is in crisis, it is because it works with presuppositions about the di-
rection and meaning of history that no longer seem to hold. Survival
as a profession requires rethinking, not simply reasserting, those pre-
If the crisis is, moreover, a crisis of belief, then we need ways to ana-
lyze belief, in its expressed manifestations and as a cognitive structure.
Here is the relevance of linguistic theory and of "epistemology." By
turning attention to the belief structures of history, historians are not
I have written about this in 'After History?" Common Knowledge 5 (winter 1996): 9-26.
17 Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, NJ., 1995),
(as Pierre Bourdieu, summarized by Noiriel, has suggested) justifying
"leurs pretentions hegemoniques sur la discipline" or attempting to
cover up "le fait qu'ils ont abandonn' toute activit' de recherche em-
pirique."' 8 Rather, they are seeking a way out of the impasse that his-
tory seems to have reached in the final years of the twentieth century.
It is an impasse that cannot be avoided either by turning out more em-
pirical studies based on assumptions that were appropriate to another
age (that of nascent capitalism, the consolidation of Western nation-
states, and Darwinian science) or by imposing (and thus reifying) the
categories of the present on the past in the name of history.'9
Most historians recognize the need for change, whether or not
they have taken the linguistic turn. And there is surely a place for criti-
cism of the excesses that such a turn can bring: neglect of the realities
of existence (as if discourse had nothing to do with reality), leveling of
all objects of historical inquiry for the purposes of "cultural" analysis,
and the evacuation of power from studies of politics. Noiriel may be
right to point out that there are problems with this approach, but he
fails to distinguish between good work and bad. Instead he joins those
who want to turn back the clock and uphold an outmoded disciplinary
orthodoxy to prevent innovation and punish transgressors. In fact,
the historical profession these days offers an encouraging example of
a discipline in transition. To be sure, in the profession that identi-
fies and chronicles change, change does not come easily; it is more
often refused than welcomed, resisted rather than accommodated. But
Noiriel's impoverished notion of power (as conflicts of interest be-
tween coherent and definable groups) is able neither to throw light
on these changes, and on the operations of disciplinary power, nor to
assess the impact of crisis on them.
Instead, his book exemplifies an attempt to exercise disciplinary
power in the name of an imagined consensus of the past. It repudiates
crisis in the name of history (defined as a shared methodology that
overrides substantive and interpretive differences among practition-
ers). It consolidates disparate, dissident voices into coherent, homo-
geneous groups. The table entitled "L'Expression linguistique du 'lin-
guistic turn' en histoire" is the most graphic instance of this. Having
disparaged those who produce the appearance of agreement by affix-
18 Noiriel, Sur la "crise" de l'histoire, 165.
It is to move out of the impasse that I and others have sought to historicize gender, in-
sisting that the Foucauldian genealogical project be applied even to categories such as "women"
and "men" that seem self-evidently natural. The point is to distinguish between current efforts to
consolidate "woman" as a political subject and the history of "women."
ing categorical labels to very different kinds of work, Noiriel claims
to have found a better approach.
cherche a regrouper unique-
ment les etudes reprenant l'expression 'linguistic turn' dans leur titre;
ce qui m'est apparu comme le signe incontestable d'une affiliation
revendiquee."20 Unfortunately, "the sign" is more complicated than
that. Noiriel's table mixes critics and advocates of the linguistic turn
together in the same group, one that he associates with intellectual
history's attempt to "dethrone" social history, even though some of
the people listed are neither intellectual historians nor opponents of
social history. The analysis has the advantage of drastically simplifying
a much more complicated picture and of creating "empirical" sup-
port for Noiriel's contention that competition between intellectual and
social historians is all that is really at stake. In place of crisis he offers
us careerism.
The analysis also has the effect of doubly shoring up the status
quo, first, by assuming the existence of the discipline to be fixed and
static (because imagined as an entity whose adherents compete as
members of subgroups to control it) and, second, by turning what is in
fact a cacophony of opinions into a single theme. Whereas cacophony
might be symptomatic of the confused, searching, conflicting sound
that accompanies crisis, the single theme suggests clarity of intention
and purpose, the antithesis of crisis. Of course, if we can nail down
the motives and intentions of the speakers, we need not listen to the
troubling words they speak, and we need not share their anxiety and
confusion. Sociohistory is Noiriel's nostrum: an antidote to crisis and a
prescription (pragmatic, commonsensical, conservative) for the future.
I submit that instead of curing the illness, Noiriel's solution simply
masks the symptoms. This approach may reassure disciplinary conser-
vatives in the short term, but its consequences for the long run are less
salubrious. It leaves historians ill equipped for the task at hand: fash-
ioning a critical practice relevant to the institutional practices of the
twenty-first century (global capitalism, the precarious status of nation-
states, postcommunism, postcoloniality) and coming to terms with the
anxiety about the future that is expressed as a crisis of history.
One of Noiriel's suggestions is that "epistemological
historians" have
done a lot of abstract arguing and no "real" history; at least that is
the implication of the assertion that the value of their theoretical ex-
20 Noiriel, Sur la "crise" de l'histoire, 126; table on 127.
cursions can be judged only by the concrete studies these authors
produce.21 Another of Noiriel's suggestions is that philosophers are
incapable of doing history. Yet, sociohistorian that he claims to be,
Noiriel offers no empirical verification of his claim. Absent is any dis-
cussion of the historical work of Foucault (the Foucault of Madness and
Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, Discipline and Punish, and the three
volumes of The History of Sexuality). Nor do we hear anything about
the substantive contributions of Bernard Lepetit or Roger Chartier.
It is as if these historians wrote only about the philosophy of history,
when in fact they have produced important empirical work, extremely
compelling examples, it seems to me, of theorized history at its best.
Foucault's studies offer a powerful model and rationale for the prac-
tice of a history that redefines conventional notions such as "the event"
and historicizes the very terms and categories historians have taken
for granted (madness, sexuality, statistical tables). Noiriel never tells
us why this work is not "history," only that some historians who once
found it attractive have lost their enthusiasm for it.22
If Noiriel neglects the abundant empirical work of "epistemo-
logical historians," he also fails to mention the undeniably historical
contributions of philosophers. In the field of social or labor history,
the work of Jacques Ranciere is exemplary. As a founding member
in 1974 of the Centre de recherches sur les ideologies de la revolte,
Ranciere sought to create a space between the abstract concerns of
philosophy and the concrete realities of history. It was a space meant
to bridge the boundaries of both fields. Ranciere's articles in the jour-
nal Les Rtvoltes logiques (published from 1975 to 1981) explore different
manifestations of the thought of workers in different periods, ranging
from critiques of utopian socialist emphases on productivity in the
1830s and 1840s to protests against the employment of women during
the Second Empire to idealizations of traditions of worker militants
by syndicalists during the Vichy regime. Although Ranciere was surely
committed (as a matter of politics and philosophy) to a reinterpreta-
tion of labor history as it was practiced during the 1970s, his methods
were undeniably those of the historian. He dug in the archives, reread
printed sources, and assembled collections of documents to advance
his project. La Nuit des proletaires, a study of "the workers' dream in
nineteenth-century France" (the book's subtitle), presents itself as a
history based on exhaustive readings of worker writings of all kinds:
21 Ibid., 143.
22 Ibid., 110-11.
pamphlets, autobiographies, schemes for the reorganization of society,
reports to government commissions, volumes of poetry and fiction.23
In the book Ranciere argues that the representation of the early-
nineteenth-century worker as an artisan who found fulfillment through
his work is the nostalgic creation of later generations of union leaders
and, more recently, labor historians. Ranciere shows instead that there
were many workers who aspired to engage in an intellectual labor that
had nothing to do with the production of goods. Their resistance to
capitalism did not take the form either of militant trade unionism or
socialist politics but of poetry.
Ranciere calls into question the vision of a homogeneous working-
class experience, politics, and culture that was promoted by politi-
cal leaders of the day. His deconstruction of the category of class is
accomplished empirically, although it is informed by theories of dis-
course and ideology. (But all history is informed, explicitly or not,
self-consciously or not, by some kind of theory; the idea that words
represent real things, after all, is based in a realist or naturalist philoso-
phy. Perhaps it is the fact that Ranciere explicitly offers an alternative
to this naturalist philosophy that disqualifies him from consideration
in Noiriel's book.) Still, the quality of Ranciere's work and the conclu-
sions he draws from his study of worker-poets merit the attention of
historians, sociohistorians above all, since it is precisely the questions
of social location and the reality of social categories that are addressed.
In an article elaborating the terms of his project, Ranciere puts it this
way: 'A worker who had never learned how to write and yet tried to
compose verses to suit the taste of his times was perhaps more of a dan-
ger to the prevailing ideological order than a worker who performed
revolutionary songs.... Perhaps the truly dangerous classes are not so
much the uncivilised ones thought to undermine society from below,
but rather the migrants who move at the borders between classes, indi-
viduals and groups who develop capabilities within themselves which
are useless for the improvement of their material lives and which in
fact are liable to make them despise material concerns." 24
There is nothing abstruse in this formulation, nothing in its lan-
guage that a "normal" historian couldn't understand. Indeed, it has
much in common with certain kinds of sociological generalization
23Jacques Ranciere, La Nuit des proMtaires: Archives du reve ouvrier (Paris, 1981).
24Jacques Ranciere, "Good Times or Pleasures at the Barriers," in Voices of the People, ed.
Adrian Rifkin and Roger Thomas (London, 1988), 50. For a useful discussion of the work of Ran-
ciere, see Donald Reid, introduction to The Nights of Labor: The Workers'Dream in Nineteenth-Century
France, trans. John Drury (Philadelphia, 1989).
(namely, those informed by social theory of the type Noiriel endorses).
Ranciere's book, it seems to me, contradicts Noiriel's notion that phi-
losophy can only contaminate the practice of history. On the contrary,
it makes a compelling case for the accused. Maybe Noiriel chose to
ignore this evidence because it was so compelling. Maybe he excluded
Ranciere because his training is in philosophy (he doesn't hold a dis-
ciplinary membership card in history) and because not all his writing
is historical (some of it is philosophical, some in the area of political
theory). Maybe Noiriel wasn't really interested in empirical proof but
only in advancing a polemic against migrants.
Migrants who move at the borders between disciplines are per-
ceived by the orthodox as dangerous to the stability they imagine must
be protected at all costs. By siding with the orthodox, Noiriel obscures
the richly creative studies of the past that disciplinary "migrants" have
produced. He also ignores his own analysis of the complex dynamics of
disciplinary "pouvoir," choosing instead to ally with orthodoxy by join-
ing a border patrol. (Of course, Noiriel encourages limited exchanges
with sociology, because the methods and presuppositions of that disci-
pline are, he thinks, akin to those of history. The assimilation can be
accomplished with no trace of difference, no visible mitissage. It is the
radically different impact of philosophy that he wants to block, for he
cannot accept the possibility of its producing an unfamiliar-looking
I submit that it is in fact "the migrants who move at the borders"
who are our best hope for the renewal of history in its time of crisis,
just as the migrants Noiriel wrote about in The French Melting Pot were
a source of enrichment for the economy and culture of France. Disci-
plines are a lot like nations; they are complex, conflicted, divided com-
munities that, these days, must learn to negotiate differences among
members rather than continue to legislate sameness. Successful nego-
tiation involves debate and disagreement, not the silencing of dissident
voices. Critical ferment ought to be encouraged, not stopped; it will
not dissolve the community; it will, rather, keep it intact.