Historians and the ‘future’: remarks on the direction of French history

Will Pooley (Bristol) thinks about the future of French History in light of Brexit and Trump, but also Macron and Corbynmania.

At the event in January, I broke the cardinal rule of the historian: I talked about the future. What was I thinking? I suppose the idea of ‘New Directions’ did seem to imply some reflection on where we are going…

So, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to have been utterly and completely wrong.

In January, I talked of the possibility that both scholarship and politics were going through the throes of coming to terms with the period that Franco “Bifo” Berardi has called ‘after the future’, in a book of the same name. What Berardi was suggesting was not that history has ended, but that the potency of the future has been largely emptied by the failure of left-wing politics. In January this seemed a potent argument. In the context of Brexit, and of Trump, the connections Bifo draws between social media, alienation, and depoliticization made sense.

After Macron’s election victory and after Corbynmania, I wonder if something a bit more interesting is going on: are we (re)living a period of heightened novelty fatigue, a remixing of the same issues in novel forms? Of course, the history of the future is itself an exciting field of study, represented at the worskhop by Alex Paulin-Booth’s paper on political radicals and utopian and dystopian fiction.

But it’s as if historians cannot let go of the future of the past, but remain stuck in the same debates with the kinds of twentieth-century thinkers who Bifo argues still believed in the future. Perhaps this helps to explain the enduring influence of Foucault, which Dan Callwood discussed in his paper on the recent history of the gay liberation movement.

Perhaps it also helps to explain a resurgence in interest in class. I had grown so used to a public discourse that essentially claimed we lived in a post-class society, that I find it fascinating to see the return of class, with a vengeance. As if this were all they had been waiting for, historians can raise their voices to point out we still think about a class, as in Will Clement’s paper on nineteenth-century ‘working-class’ housing, and what middle-class do-gooders think is best for the workers.

And perhaps it also helps explain the eternal question of national histories. More than ever before, it is clear that French history is much more than France. More, even, than the French Empire and colonialism. The event featured talks from Ellen Crabtree on French, American and UK academics mobilising support for Vietnamese researchers during the Vietnamese War, from Jasmine Calvert on French activists in the USSR, as well as Rachel Chin’s paper in the well-established tradition of Anglo-French comparative studies.

There is an intellectual and political rationale behind the demise of national studies, but it is also increasingly an institutionalized logic. It is increasingly rare to see job titles including the phrase ‘French History’, as France takes its place in the ‘European’ or the ‘Francophone’. I won’t make any more laughable predictions about the future, but we do have to wonder is if the decline of national studies is a case of academia moving in the opposite direction to public discussions politics? The resurgence of nationalism and protectionism have already seen renewed interest in national historical traditions, and national history writing, in the form of the ‘Historians for Britain’.

I know that I am not alone among French historians in hoping that the future is not a return to those kinds of history. Let’s hope I’m right.


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