The Good Way to Do History

The Allure of the Archives

by Arlette Farge, translated from the French by Thomas Scott-Railton, with a foreword by Natalie Zemon Davis
Yale University Press, 131 pp., $25.00
© 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Candida Höfer: BNF Paris XXIII 1998; the reading room at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, designed by Henri Labrouste, 1862–1868

Take the title as a provocation: The Allure of the Archives. What, you may ask, could be less alluring in the digital age than an apology for deciphering words scribbled on paper several centuries ago? Even more provocative, Arlette Farge’s book first appeared in French in 1989, two years before the creation of the Web, not to mention all the subsequent technology, from search engines to smartphones, that now might make archival research look outmoded.

Farge, one of France’s finest historians, could not see into the unfathomable future of electronic communication when she wrote her book. She was looking backward into the eighteenth century, and her view was inflected by the debate surrounding the bicentennial of the French Revolution, which was at its height in 1989. Yet her argument for understanding the human condition by studying the traces of it left in archives is now more pertinent than ever. If read from the perspective of twenty-first-century issues, it can be taken as a challenge to some currently accepted wisdom—for example, the following assertions, which appear on talk shows and Op-Ed pages every day:

We live in the information age. Misleading. Every age was an age of information, each in its own way. In The Allure of the Archives, as in several of her other books, Farge shows how information traveled through the media of eighteenth-century Paris. Primarily oral but intermixed with printed material such as chapbooks and popular engravings, the flow of talk and images (also, I would add, songs) shaped a collective consciousness that often erupted in violence. Public opinion, Farge argues, existed among the common people, not only at the level of the literate elite, as Jürgen Habermas and his followers maintain.

But it was not a discourse linked to the Enlightenment. It swept through the streets of Paris in waves of “popular emotions” (“émotions populaires,” or riots) more powerful than anything spread today by Twitter—or rather anything related to the ordinary course of events. Texting and smartphone photography inflamed millions from the moment when the self-immolation of the Tunisian vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, ignited the Arab Spring. July 14, 1789, expressed a similar “logic of the crowd,” as Farge put it in an earlier book. The Allure of the Archives teaches that information has always been flammable, even in societies where it operated by word of mouth.

All information is available online. False. We have digitized only a small portion of the books in our libraries. According to a well-known but unverifiable estimate by one of Google’s engineers, 129,864,880 different books exist, and Google has digitized over 20 million of them.1 Millions more cannot be located or have disappeared, and…

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