Monday, January 5, 2009

French Provincialism?

Is the study of history in France particularly nationalistic or "provincial"? Caroline Douki and Philippe Minard make the case in a special issue of Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, reviewed. here:

The image that Caroline Douki and Philippe Minard paint of France is much more pessimistic. They use their introduction to fairly virulently criticise French university institutions, questioning the “provincialism of French universities, the fundamental conservativism of an institution stubbornly resistant to international openings in comparison to other countries.”


I'm not at all sure that their assessment is correct, even if their frustration is understandable. Perhaps they should attend a meeting of the American Historical Association or Organization of American Historians and weigh the nationalist bias of American history against the French.

To be sure, globalizing histories are fashionable of late and "area studies" are an artifact of the past. The practice of history would be a lifeless thing if it were not perpetually attempting to redefine itself. But "the global" is only the latest of frames that have been proposed to supplant the nation-state. On en a vu d'autres. If the nation persists as a center of historical gravity, it may have something to do with the nature of historiography as practice embedded in a particular cultural universe. The nation-state need not be the most pertinent frame for every historiographic theme, but for some purposes it is, and for better or worse the national/cultural frame remains a key element in history's ability to resist subsumption in the imperial disciplines of economics and sciences humaines. For that alone it deserves perhaps two cheers.

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