DeCerteau’s “The Historiographical Operation”

DeCerteau’s “The Historiographical Operation”  came out of French school in 1920s.


What historians fabricate when they “make history” is the central focus of DeCerteau’s “The Historiographical Operation.”  DeCerteau claims when we envision history as an operation, we understand its relation between a place (institution), analytical procedures (discipline), and the construction of a text (a literature) -57.  Thus the historical operation refers to a social place, “scientific” practices, and writing -57.  What we need to know is that writing history is a function of an institution, which naturally demands both obeyance of rules and an interrogation of those rules -57. 


The institution of knowledge, which marks the beginning of modern science, stemmed from the fear that subjects too readily fill the gaps in history through analysis, which makes writing of history too subjective – 57.  One consequence stemming from the time of Bacon and Descartes is the “depoliticalization” of intellectuals and the rise of specialization.  – 58.  Yet, this does not mean that the scientific process should be alienated from the social “body” -62   In fact, as Habermas has argued,  not only is a “repoliticalization necessary, but historical discourse must be never analyzed as independent from its discipline -63  The historical texts always reveals its ties to the institution.  For the members of a discipline dictate the value of history; they are the laws of the milieu -63.  They accredit and police the historical project and text.  Thus the historical texts is always a product of a discipline and “expresses an operation which is situated within a totality of practices” -64. 


What is the valued historical text?  The one that is recognized by peers, can be situated within an operative set, represents some progress in the contemporary status of historical “objects” and methods, and one that makes new research possible (64).

As such, the historical text is both  “a result and a symptom” of the discipline itself.  “It is the product and the place” – 64  It is both authoritative and produces scientific research – 65


Methods, as Kuhn points out as well, define institutional behavior and the laws of mileu.  Science is not autonomous;  it is a practice connected to and relative to societal structure- 66.   The claim of neutrality is nothing more than a reference to the “metamorphosis of the convictions into ideologies, in a technochractic and antonomously  productivist society that can no longer either designate its choices or keep track of its powers” – 68 (Nietzsche says as much too). 


DeCerteau writes “before knowing what history says of a society, we have to analyze how history functions within it” – 68.   The institution both censors and permits historical research depending on the current social, economic, and political state of affairs.  History is thus “shaped by the system within which it is developed” – 69.  As such, no historical anlaysis should be conducted without a consideration of the connection between history and the institution from which it stems – 69 History without this analysis is ideology, which forbids history from being history – 69.


DeCerteau reminds us that history does not divorce the social from the natural.  In fact, history connects a socialization of nature and a “naturalization” of social relations because historical work “participates in the movement through which a society transforms it relation to nature by changing the “natural” into the utilitarian, or into the esthetic, or by making a social institution shift from one status to another  – 71.  In a sense, historical work “civilizes” nature, or if you will, colonizes and changes it – 72.  [Historians are alchemists – eileeen]


When history changes its own discipline, then it is considered scientific – 72


Doing history begins with setting things aside, or collecting them, and documenting them.   Archives are “gigantic machines” that make possible different histories -74.  Archives became an obsession for scholars who wanted to create a totalizing taxonomy and “create universal instruments proportioned to their passion for comprehensiveness” – 74.  Through this attempt, not only was language constructed, but methods and appropriate objects for historical work were defined -74.  Archives then contribute to history as science because it “produces a redistribution of space and when it consists, first of all, in ascribing a place for itself through the establishment of sources—that is to say , through an institutionalizing action and through transformational techniques” – 75

Archives and libaries play the role of the “erudite machine” that Nietzsche so detested in the 1870s.  As an apparatus of the institution, they monumentalize and organize “the locus where from now on all scientific research circulates” (77).  [Eileen-archives are theatre where history is staged.  Who is setting the stage?]


 In the past, DeCereau explains, making history was achieved by collecting limited evidence from which it “sponged” diversity in attempt to “unify everything into coherent comprehension” -78  Totalization resulted from the scientific need to replace philosophy as the leader in epistemology.  Today, historical research is conducted by uncovering deviations found in the unlikeliest of places (outside the archives).  These deviations, these differences, demythologize and demystify through historical criticism -82


DeCerteau discusses three aspects of the historical practice:


a.)   the mutation of meaning or of the “real” in the production of significant deviations


            in past, history presented as an evolution of successive, coexisting figures of same             meaning—an orientation.  Today, history is measure of deviations, differences.              “in times past, life was not the way it is today…” – 83  Through distancing,             meaning is eliminated while being established.  Meaning is revealed through             forging of pertinent differences  – 84. 

b.)   particular events of historical research limit what can be thought.  Making history means identifying the already explained but also naming that which has previously been explained and identifies it as fact.- 84.  Particularities “signify by referring back to acts, to persons, and to everything that remains outside of both knowledge and discourse” – 85.

c.)   Creation of place that established within present time the ambivalent figuration of the past and future.  “it necessitates clarification of the relation of dominant forms of reasoning to a proper place which, in opposition to a “past,” becomes the present; differentiation of past and present is engendered” yet also, “the figure of the past keeps its primary value of representing what is lacking. “  – 85  thus “history is always ambivalent: the locus that it careves for the past is equally a fashio of making a place for a future” -85   history is representation of difference 86


Writing History:


Writing history can be thought of as a servitude according to Marou because in effect, the foundation of textual space is a series of distoritions in respect to analytical procedure – 86


Discourse has several constraints which lead to distoritions of history:

a.)   prescribes for beginning what is in reality a point of arrival; oldest is taken as beginning.

b.)   Closure of book or article contradicts unending nature of research; text is organized by need to finish the text

c.)   Fills gaps in research, which is contradictory to very principle of research that research is sharpened through lack; substitutes meaining in gaps. – 87


Writing then is inverted image of practice – 87.  Writing history is mirror writing—it traces signs of silence through the inversion of a normative practices and its social coding.  They hide their relations to the political and commercial, but they also set apareft something foreign to current relations—they produce secretes within language -87.  History writing –historiography—teaches lessons.  It is didactic yet at same time it both reveals and hides lack—it confesses a “prescence of death amidst the living like cemeteries in city  – 87 


Discourse is located outside the experience that gives it credibility; discourse which is chronological and puts forth a discursive time betrays research – 88  it manipulates time and thus allows for play. 


Creating this chronological referential time (temporalization) provides three services to history:

a.)   makes oppositions compatible through narrative and thus pretends to provide reasoning and thus preserve possibility of science or philosophy, yet in reality hides their absence; 89-90

b.)   allows classification by history; creates forward movement in time when research actually moves backward; it creates a non-place; myth is transformed into chronological postulate; “in order for narrative to come down present time, it must be authorized by this higher “nothing” –non-place- which has already been constructed through historiography; “ a ghost insinuates itself into historiography and determines its organization; it is the law of the other -91

c.)   by creating imaginary beginning and filling meaning in with narrative, discourse establishes a position for the reader.  Text holds together contradictions of unstable time; it restores ambivalence; it makes room for a labor.  -92  (that labor is to create in present time a place to be filled)




Read 92 – 96 on your own.  don’t have enough grasp to articulate clearly. Here he develops typology of discourse…


DeCerteau essentially claims that historical texts have double quality of combining semantization with a selection, and directing an intelligibility toward a normativity. -92


Historical writing as all discourse is performative -96. 


“The ruse of historiography consists of creating what Barthes describes as a “fake performative discourse in which the apparent declarative element is in fact no more thean the signifier of the speech-act taken to be an act of authority” – 96


history is based on events which permit intelligibility by supporting ordering on chronological axis and making condition of classification 96 


historiography exorcizes what is not understood in order to make of it a means of comprehension  – 96


Comprehension is achieve through semantic choices:   articulation of historical categories—century, social class, nation,etc.—codes which provides narrative with logic.  

And organization, which cements the foundation of textual system-97  As a result, a “reason” of history becomes thinkable: “the facts enunciate this semanticization by accrediting it with a referential language; the event obfuscates its gaps with a proper name what is added to the continous narrative and masks its ruptures -98. 



DeCerteau concludes by explaining role of the dead in history:  on one level, writing plays role of burial rite—it exorcizes death by insterting it into discourse. On the other hand, writing posseses a symbolizing function—it allows a society to situate itself by giving itself a past through language, and thus opens the present a space of its own” – 100


historical narrative uses death to articulate a law of the present.  It teaches by filling in gaps.  Narrativity, the metaphor of performance discourse, is both a discourse of law and a realistic illusion.  it produces history and tells story at same time; objectivity is thus questionable….”historical discourse is the favored representation in Jacques Lacan’s words, of a ‘science of the subject,’ and of the subject ‘taken in a constituent division’ –but with a staging of the relations that a social body keeps with its language” –the end.- 102.




















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