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Fernand Braudel: An Historian’s Ambition and Anxiety

The French Historian’s Legacy: The Need for a New Social Syntax

Translated Sunday 19 September 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Frenand Braudel: Ambition et inquiétude d’un historien, by Yves Lemoine, Michel de Maule publisher, 2010.

Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), a leading researcher of the school of Les Annales, has been considered one of the greatest of the modern historians who have emphasized the role of large-scale socio-economic factors in the making and writing of history.

Yves Lemoine is the author of a short intellectual biography of the master of Les Annales published in 2005 by Punctum, an outstanding, now unfortunately defunct publisher. In his latest work Yves Lemoine invites us to rediscover the social sciences. These his study both brings together and dissociates. Indeed Yves Lemoine brings their various branches together in order to confront them to one another ...

Yves Lemoine comes to a disquieting, rather gloomy conclusion, pointing out the inadequacy of the instrument social sciences offer to read a world that tends to baffle our traditional modes of thinking.

In this he confirms the findings of the Marxist law historian Aldo Schiavone [1], as well as those of the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa [2]. The former, in his essay entitled History and Destiny, shows that the world that lies ahead of us demands that we learn “a new social syntax”. That is precisely what Yves Lemoine is after; and he does quote Schiavone in the conclusion to his “essay”. His work is indeed rather a quest for both a possible synthesis of the social sciences and their almost original divorce.

The debate between Fernand Braudel and Claude Levi-Strauss sheds light on what was at stake in the confrontation that took place no later than in the early 1930s. The destiny of narrative (made luminously clear in the eulogy of the blind man on the North African market) that has become the science of time and space brings home to us the trail that Hartmut Rosa blasted in his study entitled Acceleration [3] in which he maintained that individuals and national states have become too slow for a society in which speed leads us to devise a new syntax.

Yves Lemoine would rather speak of an alternative “Grammar”, which is an insistent reminder of Marx’s contribution to the definition of the civilization that, according to Schiavone, Rosa, and Lemoine, already lies behind us. Postmodern civilization offers no sufficient space for the mastery of the social sphere (thus spelling the end of politics), and is bound to defeat any attempt at understanding it (Science/reason) and any narrative ambition.

Yves Lemoine has followed the right track. Sixty years before Rosa, Braudel wrote that “historical time is lastingly distorted”, while Rosa himself wrote “What is taking place is a reversal of time whereby time itself (biographical and historical) undergoes a qualitative change.”

Lemoine brings the circle to completion. His research leads him, like Schiavone, to voice the hope that a “new humanism” will appear. The interest of his latest work therefore lies no longer in the exploration of an historian of outstanding importance, nor even in the field of exploration of which Braudel said that he would give up the whole of it in order to “rescue” the social sciences, but in the quest for that new “social syntax” for a new enterprise. This book, in addition to its out-standing scientific scholarship and its perfect, enjoyable style is one of those books that make us hope we can survive as thinking creatures.

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