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Carlo Ginzburg and the trails of microhistory

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Ana Prieto's interview with historian Carlo Ginzburg first appeared in the Argentinian daily Clarin. Translated by David Broder. 



He does not like to pontificate. He does not like to generalize or make simple comparisons. And when he passes judgement on a question without having dissected it to its core, he fears that his response will seem trivial. The Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg — who came to Buenos Aires in order to participate in the conference on ‘The crossroads of historical knowledge’ organised by the Universidad Nacional de San Martín in homage to his colleague José E. Burucúa — is author of the famous The Cheese and the Worms and one of the founding fathers of "microhistory." This micro-scale analytical approach recovers marginalised figures and phenomena from the past not, as the common misinterpretation has it, in order to redeem them or to build up a cult of excluded voices, but rather to generate further questions, perhaps also better generalisations, and, in the last analysis, to test the validity of the great explanatory paradigms. It is here that Ginzburg’s favourite historical figures appear, from millers to witches and shamans.

Ginzburg is unable to speak without giving context or indeed without being as specific as possible: a strange virtue in a world brimming with uninformed "opinion" pieces and superficial, quick-fire analyses. This interview, where the roles of the distinguished historian criss-cross with those of the clear-eyed analyst of the immediate, itself ranges from the surface level to the profound.

After Donald Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote it has become fashionable to speak of "post-truth" politics — an expression used to explain a type of political method that appeals to the emotions at the expense of truth and facts. What do you think of this term?

On principle I am sceptical of fashionable words that begin with "post-." The expression itself is problematic, but the phenomenon it wants to highlight is of course even more troubling. I think that we as historians should focus on what is happening and use our analytical categories, but also take into account the new phenomena appearing. And I would say that in general in doing this work we come up against both continuities and discontinuities. I always say that I seek the truth, without inverted commas. And if that is our role, then the idea of a "post-truth" has no meaning.

But what about the phenomenon that the term "post-truth" highlights?

I do not think that arrogant indifference to the facts is anything new. The phenomena gathered under this misleading label, like the appeal to the emotions, are hardly novel. If we look at the history of the twentieth century, we see that this was a prominent characteristic of many historical developments. I should mention that last year when I was giving classes at the University of Chicago I heard some of Trump’s speeches. And for the first time I was temped to use a word that I never use outside of its specific historical context: fascism. To clarify: to say as an insult that Trump is a fascist is very far from my attitude as a historian. The idea of comparing fascism with the current phenomenon would be only the beginning of a tentative historical analysis; only the beginning of the investigation. Many years ago I said that fascism was the future, something that is obviously something painful to say, for me as for many people. I was not thinking of fascism as something that necessarily has an anti-semitic ingredient — and that only emerged late on in Italy, through its relationship with Nazi Germany. Rather, I was thinking about the idea of a regime with deep roots in Italian society and which appealed to the emotions. In a sense it also evoked a comment made to me by Italo Calvino, who was a very perceptive man as well as a brilliant writer. After he visited Argentina, he told me that having seen the highly complex phenomenon that is Peronism he thought that Italian fascism should be included in a wider category. Of course, I am well aware that there is a right-wing Peronism, another left-wing one, etc. But the way in which this phenomenon established a relationship with the masses is something that must be explored — as I said some time ago — as a future potentiality. The idea of manipulating the masses’ emotions, and of making use of technology in order to do so, is a phenomenon that has a certain past. And perhaps it is not far in the future, either.  

How would you continue this tentative analysis of Trump’s victory

If I were to engage in such an analysis I would make recourse to the study of fascism conducted by Palmiro Togliatti, general secretary of the Italian Communist Party. In his study he analysed the roots of consent in Italian society, describing fascism as a mass reactionary regime, distinct from traditional authoritarian regimes in which the masses’ support was not really important. He wrote on this theme from exile in Moscow [in the 1930s], and in the 1970s I found out that they were reading it in Poland in order to study the socialist regime. Not because the regimes were identical. Togliatti was able to look upon the Italian fascist regime from a distance, as he sought to re-elaborate his experience of Soviet society and its way of reaching consensus. It was an experiment. So instead of just rejecting Italian fascism ideologically, he coolly dissected it. And the Polish readers studied Togliatti, looking back to the conditions from which his analysis emerged. I thought that this was an interesting case, insofar as we can see in what sense an analysis emerges from a specific perspective, and how its results can be re-elaborated when we revisit the conditions in which it was produced. So if were to study Trump I would start from there, and then ask myself what phenomenon — defying all the predictions and analysis — allowed for his victory. Of all the complex set of factors that played a role in his victory, which ones really did make a difference? That is not a matter of intuition. We can begin by invoking the outside enemy, or the enemy within, or the emotions. It is no chance thing that the history of the emotions is in vogue. It is not that this did not exist before, but perhaps the new technologies allow the emotions to be manipulated on a scale that was unknown in the past. And if there is a poison, then we as historians have to work with antidotes.

By "poison" do you mean the emotions?

Inevitably, our reaction to this type of event is emotionally charged. And we have to learn how to control our emotions in order to be able to understand reality, which always contradicts our intuitions and does not accord to our desires. That is not easy. Historians have to learn to get to grips with unpleasant realities, and what we tend to do is protect ourselves from them. But all this I’m saying here is a little trivial. I mean, you have to do a real analysis if you want to understand the Trump situation. Even comparing it to Brexit is problematic, I think. It is said that this marks a tendency toward isolationism, a reaction against globalisation, but I think that these explanations are rather vague.

They are the dominant explanations…

And that leaves me perplexed. I do not think that this comparison goes very far. Perhaps what you can compare in both cases is the observers’ own lack of analysis. There is a breach between what we are used to predicting and what ultimately happens.

Does it have something to do with the fact that we are currently becoming addicted to secondary sources?

There is an important distinction between primary and secondary sources. The tendency is to do things quickly, at full speed, and immediately get to the secondary evidence, avoiding any direct confrontation with the primary sources. This temptation was also possible in the past, of course. But the current speed of technology is something very attractive. And I see both advantages and dangers in that. I am strongly in favour of slow reading. I often cite the definition that Nietzsche gave of philology, when he was still a philologist: “Philology is the art of slow reading”. That is to say, the art of reading and re-reading in search of details and their relation with the text as a whole. Again on this point, I am interested in the Austrian philologist Leo Spitzer, who described this technique as a “click”: meaning, the moment that a reader suddenly grasps the meaning of a text she has read many times over. I think that it is possible to educate students in slow reading, teaching them the pleasure that there is in this, as a manner of countering the quick reading which — I must say — I also like. I try to use both speeds; to obtain a lot of information in a few seconds, and then begin to think in detail.

In your essay "Conversing with Orion" you wrote that "It is the slow accumulation of experience that makes the instantaneous reaction to chance possible" — that this is what makes this "click" possible. But what does the word "chance" presuppose?

It presupposes a kind of openness to unexpected encounters. If we want to be able to react to new evidence in an online catalogue or on Google or whatever else, then it is indispensable that we have already slowly accumulated knowledge. Teaching yourself through Google seems impossible, unless it is some very simple technique. But at a deeper level I think that it is difficult to learn from Google how to use Google. You need human mediations in order to be able to react to the unknown.

What would a deeper use of Google entail?

Using Google not only in the hope of finding answers to our questions, but in order to find new questions, unsuspected questions, the unexpected. Google is an idiot savant, but it also has something very interesting and promising: the possibility of posing it questions that are not filtered by other people’s questions. Of course, that does not work with just any search. If you put "Christopher Columbus" you will go straight to Wikipedia. But if you ask, for example, about something regarding a particular word, then there is the possibility that you will obtain a kind of result that has not been affected by any prior question. A lot of people try to avoid the noise and get an answer. I am looking for the noise. And if you want to search for it you have to be able to count on knowledge-resources. In this sense Google’s "motto" is the same as Jesus’s politically incorrect saying that "Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them."

Even if we have the social privilege that is knowledge, the unexpected can also go unnoticed…

If we are talking about historical inquiry, then as a professor I teach the importance of developing this study in a non-boring way and thus the importance of preparing for the unexpected. And that is not easy. There are many ways of resisting the unexpected. We often deal with extremely painful experiences. So the technique we use is not an end in itself, but an instrument to capture something that might be painful. This also implies a certain emotional attitude — and that does not mean empathy, a word that I think we have to avoid, because it assumes that we even could identify emotionally with people from the past, and it also supposes a transparency that does not exist. This emotional engagement may sometimes be a prior condition but it is certainly not an an end in itself. So instead of empathy I would once again place stress on philology: an attitude that supposes getting to grips with opaque writing that we need to decipher even when it is written in our mother tongue. That distance is precisely what we have to learn.

Historians seem to take increasingly little time to reach their conclusions and publish their studies. What do you think of this tendency?

It is happening everywhere, and perhaps I am not the best example of this. I spent 15 years working on one book, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. When I finished it and had it published, I felt a real mental exhaustion. I thought that I would never be able to spend so many years on a project again, not to mention the feeling of uncertainty that I had on account of the complexities of this topic. After that I dedicated myself to writing essays, a form that fascinates me and also gives me great freedom. I also have a growing fondness for creating opportunities where I can learn something starting from scratch. I think this euphoria in ignorance is a by-product of old age, in which I am in a sense repeating an earlier experience. Yet learning something at my age is very different to learning something completely new aged 20. So yes, as misfortune would have it, I too am part of this tendency: I am expanding the range of themes I work on, and writing short essays. As the Latin saying tells us, motus in fine velocior: at the end everything moves quicker.