Michel de Cereau’s Historiographical Operation

September 13, 2007


[This is roughly the first half of the document.] 


Michel de Certeau asserts that it is the historian’s job to make connection between ideas and places to arrive at understandings.  Places are systems of thoughts.  He said historical operations are a combination of “social place, scientific practices, and writing.”  He speaks of “the silent laws” that “organize the space produced as text.”  The recording of history does not happen by chance.  De Certeau points out that Michel Foucault “denies all reference” to the author and takes for granted theoretical place, where methods (laws) are formed. 


De Certeau shows the relationship between social places and knowledge.  It is the “depoliticization of intellectuals.”  Within social institutions, spaces are “reclassified.”  Social spaces, such as universities, are not removed but will become more isolated with like minded individuals away from general use, producing scientific places.  From this, further divisions within universities are created—its own schools, scientific language, and disciplines.  


He points out the same organization and division are represented in society and its “ideas,” which may produce an “overlapping” of ideas with different functions.  For example, “In this way a social change can be compared to a biological change in a human body: like the biological change, the social change forms a language which is proportioned to other types of language, such as verbal” (61-62).  Although there is overlapping, there is no cause and effect relationship between the different functions.  “Inversely, an ideological discourse is proportioned to a social order, just as every individual utterance is produced in relation to silent organizations of the body” (62).  Each part works independently of the other, following its own laws for the good of the whole.


“In history every “doctrine” which represses its relation to society must be regarded as abstract.  It denies the very matter with respect to which it is elaborated” (62).


When considering historical discourse, one must take into account the “centralized” and “stratified” institutions, and “the weak influence of Marxist theory” (62).  Jurgen Haberman argued for a “repoliticization” of human sciences and development of “critical theory.”


“What is a “valued work” in history?  It is a work recognized as such by peers, a work that can situated within an operative set, a work that represents some progress in respect to the current status of historical “objects” and methods, and one that, bound to the milieu in which it has been elaborated, in turn makes new research possible.  The historical book or article is together a result and symptom of the group which functions as a laboratory.  Akin to a car produced by a factory, the historical study is bound to the complex of a specific and collective fabrication more than it is the effect merely of a personal philosophy or the resurgence of past “reality.”  It is the product of a place”(64).


“Making History” is a practice (69).  At one time, any thing in connection with history that did not utilize only its spoken form was considered “auxiliary science” such as “epigraphy, papyrology, paleography, dimplomatics, codicology, etc.; today, musicology, “folklorism,” computer science, etc. “History would only being with the “noble speech” of interpretation” (69).  De Ceteau suggests that histories must change and reflect its society.  It should never be a reflection of “an unchanged institution.”


“A strange phenomenon in contemporary historiography must be observed.  The historian is no longer a person who shapes an empire.  He or she no longer envisages the paradise of a global history.  The historian comes to circulate around acquired rationalizations.  He or she works in the margins.  In this respect the historian becomes a prowler.  In a society gifted at generalization, endowed with powerful centralizing strategies, the historian moves in the direction of the frontiers of great regions already exploited.  He  or she “deviates” by going back to sorcery, madness, festival, popular literature, the forgotten world of the peasant, Occitania, etc., all these zones of silence” (79).


“A brief study of historical practice seems to allow three connected aspects to be specified:  the mutation of “meaning” or the “real” in the production of significant deviations; the position of a particular event as a limit of what can be thought; and the composition of a place which establishes with present time the ambivalent figuration of the past and future” (83).