An inquiry upon perspectives of historical studies (Tommaso Detti)

By SeF Editorial Board

After the responses given by Jurgen Kocka and Sandro Rogari (“Storia e Futuro” n. 33), Tommaso Detti, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Siena, partecipates to the debate.

Questions by Andrea Ragusa, Answers given by Tommaso Detti

1. What is the outlook of historical studies at the start of the 21st century? The status of the field today seems to be marked by a double tracer: On the one hand, a tendency towards ever-greater specialization, while on the other hand there is the push towards grand interpretative summarizing of the centuries (1800s, 1900s) or of entire eras corresponding to traditional historical periodization (typically the contemporary age). Is this the mark of a change of traditional statutes of historical knowledge, weakened and suffering aggression from other social sciences? Is the weight of history consequently also of an ever-decreasing relevance in the organization of knowledge?

I don’t believe that the tendency towards an ever-greater specialization of historical studies is a novel development. This becomes a negative trend when it amounts to excessive thematic specialism, as a disproportionate focus on certain subjects often leads to the corresponding narrowing of one’s frame of reference. The forms of specialization required by the employment of more or less complex analytical methods and tools – which moreover may entail a resort to formalized languages – appear completely natural to me. I take a very favorable view of the construction of large interpretative syntheses. History is knowledge of context; it interrogates the past beginning from the present. If the context is not continually updated, what meaning can be attributed to those studies that almost inevitably lose in scope what they gain in depth? I believe that the long established tendency to not reason by calendar definitions of time and to question traditional Eurocentric periodizations is wholly appropriate. It is essential that interpretative syntheses’ spatial-temporal sphere be expanded; this sphere must be global, as should the scope within which even the most confined study should be grounded. Another positive development is the fact that we no longer view other civilizations’ histories based on how they differ from European – and more broadly speaking Western – history, thus making “bidirectional” comparisons that take other perspectives for granted. Finally, I don’t believe that history’s place within the organization of knowledge can be re-shaped by other social sciences – unless, naturally, historians presume that they can refuse to interact with them.

2. What relationship is being established between history and other social sciences in an organization of knowledge which is increasingly geared towards the present and increasingly unwilling to cultivate the “vice of memory”? In the book The Historian’s Craft Marc Bloch had planned to write a final chapter dedicated to historical forecasting. Must we simply give in to the idea that in this current “presentism”, the past is useless because it’s unable to contribute to forecast the future?

The fact that many social sciences focus on the present world does not mean that the organization of knowledge will gear excessively towards the present, as long as historians know how to effectively perform their role. As far as I’m concerned, predicting the future can only be indirectly included among the duties of our discipline. The historian – wrote Walter Benjamin – is a prophet turned backwards. The task of historians (and not just of contemporary historians) is to comprehend and explain how and why, by way of what paths, the modern world took form; in other words, they must lend diachronic substance to problems. Since you mentioned Bloch, allow me to quote what he wrote in The Historian’s Craft about the regressive method: “even though they [the historians] restore its true direction afterwards, they have often benefited at the outset by reading history […] backwards”.

3. There is also a problem of training of historians and of the publishing market of history. The ever-increasing bureaucratisation of the training of historians, marked by increasingly rigid timelines and deadlines, makes it more and more difficult to carry out historical research which is meditated, conducted with the timing and waiting necessary for the maturation of a full judgment, increasingly crushed by an accelerated productivity. On the other hand, the expansion of the field of academic publishing makes it increasingly difficult to stay on top of the historiographical literature even for a bounded topic.

The way in which recent university reforms have been applied in Italy has left and continues to leave much to be desired, but nonetheless certain deadlines must exist. Previously 60-70% of students abandoned their studies in our university system, and those who finished took seven years to complete their degree instead of four. If anything, the problem is that the level of five-year degrees and even of doctorate theses seems to have dropped. I don’t believe however that this depends as much on the system as it does on the choices made and criteria established by us as teachers. Regarding academic publications, the connection between an increase in quantity and decrease in average quality is not surprising. In Italy, in my opinion, the problem has been heightened by the belated and inadequate use of preventive evaluations such as peer review. One can only hope that the road taken with the active collaboration of historian societies will not be abandoned, and that the procedures currently being tested will be perfected and reinforced.

4. There is also the “performative” issue regarding historical essays, which has emerged with particular criticality in the passage of the linguistic turn. Greatly simplifying the Aristotelian question whether history is more art or more science, one could ask: Is a good historian who is able to identify important issues or rather one who is able to skillfully recount facts? The question is naturally more complex: it follows both the manner to divulge history but also the “democratization” of knowledge. Consequently, it often happens that confusion is made between writing history well in the sense of writing in such a way that everyone may read and understand the account, and the idea that anyone may write about history. Typically, for example, among authors, alongside a professional historian one finds the historical enthusiast or the journalist.

I daresay it’s obvious that any historian worthy of the title cannot merely narrate the events of the past. The historian formulates a problem, develops an interpretative hypothesis and attempts to debate it by relying on sources that are handled with scientific methods and that allow him/her to fulfill an obligation to proof. Of course, history is in any case a form of narration, indeed to such an extent that – as Carlo Ginzburg wrote – the very questions that the historian poses to the sources are asked in a narrative fashion; they are provisory narrations that have a profound influence on all the phases of his work, as well as on the final product. But this does not mean – it’s almost unnecessary to repeat it – that every narration can be equated with a work of history. Regarding our ability to reach a large number of readers, if anything we historians should pay greater attention to the way in which we write. This is even more important in a country like Italy, where there is no tradition of widespread dissemination such as that which for example characterizes British historiography.

5. The issue is accentuated by the tendency to use sources once considered heterodox: film clips, documentaries, oral history, even song, by now considered a source for history and it itself an object of study. What remains of the ancient tradition of archival research, of research from printed sources? And how and how much has been inverted the principal of Croce according to which history is the reconstruction of the past through the judgment that contemporary observers have given about events? We’re not so much referring to the advent of social history, but rather to the evident current tendency to abandon the reconstruction of history as an interpretive vision given by the privileged observation of several categories (class, nation, state) and to search for a kind of “quotidianization” of history in which the individual is protagonist, alone with his choices, alone with his doubts, alone with his dramas?

Although historical research has always relied primarily on written sources, to overlook other traces of the past would be deeply erroneous. It is not news, moreover, that the use of varied sources (iconographic, oral, etc.) has greatly enriched the “state of art” from the perspective of both knowledge and methodology. As Jacques Le Goff wrote, a document is “something” – anything – “that remains.” Printed archival and hard-copy sources will continue to play a central role in studies (except in the case of research on recent decades, in which digital sources have taken on a growing significance), but the only hierarchy that can be established among documents of a varied nature is determined by their relevance to this or that research problem. As for the judgment of contemporary observers, history must take this element into account, but I don’t believe that it should be grounded in it. By definition, the historian’s gaze is ex post, even when observing phenomena from the recent past or the current period. Finally, reshaping the role of certain interpretative categories that have long been privileged, such as class, nation or state, is in my opinion a decidedly positive development. Looking to the past through the lenses of other categories (for example gender, to name just one) will only enrich the state of knowledge. With regard to the last century, in which most historiography interpreted individual identity largely in relationship to membership in large collective entities, there is no doubt that we are witnessing a sort of “individualization”, but I feel that this trend can only be viewed as positive.

6. Is this the mirror of a certain era which has deconstructed the traditional reference points, the broad interpretive framework, the ideologies positively understood as world visions, leaving humanity, paradoxically we could say, “alone against history”?

I share the belief that this is the mirror of an era which deconstructed traditional reference points, but I feel no nostalgia for what has been left to the past. On the contrary, the “individualizing” tendency to which I referred previously is much more suitable, since it corresponds to a significant historical change that has occurred in recent decades. With the end of the bipolar post-war system and the disappearance of the grand ideologies of the 20th century, globalization processes that are central to the contemporary era have taken on increasingly individualistic characteristics. This has occurred in large part because of the Internet boom, which by nature is non-hierarchal, interactive, user-oriented and thus primarily individualistic. This is not to imply however that humanity today is comprised of individuals who are more isolated than they were in the past. More simply, we are in the presence of a new and different kind of social interaction that is largely favored and supported by the web and has also revitalized a “public sphere” that had long been impoverished by unidirectional mass media such as the television.

7. We’ll attempt to conclude with a message of hope: If a certain way of “doing history” is now to be considered outdated, belonging to a history which is finished, we refuse to stop believing that history has scientific and cultural utility. What perspectives does the future hold for historical studies?

I see no reason to believe that future perspectives will be worse than in the past, on one condition: that we historians are able to keep up with the accelerating change that characterizes the course of history and the current world in particular, which will put us in a position to continue looking to the past beginning from the present, and not vice versa. As Bloch has taught us: “the past is, by definition, a datum which nothing in the future will change. But the knowledge of the past is something progressive which is constantly transforming and perfecting itself”.