I just finished Le goût de l’archive, a short book by Arlette Farge, a specialist of 18th century French social History. The book is a wonderful methodology lesson on how to treat archives. Farge didn’t write a theory of archives; she gathered a few methodological notes while also drawing little portraits of the Comédie humaine of archive centers, this little fauna with its rituals and archetypes that historians know too well.
The book is concise but very rich, so let’s concentrate on one thing. Farge writes about the “effet de réel” one gets from reading archives, the sensation that one peers into “real” life, with its accidents, miseries and glories. While reading diplomats’ reports or the police interviews Farge used in her PhD, one gets the feeling of reaching out to past realities without intermediaries: the raw thing appears, chaotic and blunt. What to make of it? And should we “make” anything of it: what could be more “real”, more historical than the very traces left by these men and women, preserved in archives? Isn’t it enough to just write these traces down, for the reader to judge?
But this feeling is only a passing exhilaration, made sometimes more intense by a particularly moving or grotesque story, or odd trace. To become History, however, the archive has to be set in the context of a research question, compared to other archives, and then organized into a written narrative. Also, the archive and other sources do not provide its reader with “reality”, but with a reality, seen through a specific vision, and delivered with a specific voice, in a specific context. Historical research is not, thus, the stacking-up of archives, the accumulation of traces into an “objectively true” story: it starts when the researcher replaces the archive in the context of his/her question, and criticizes it.
Farge concludes that historical research, by definition an imperfect, political, endless activity, where the same traces can be seen through different angles in different contexts, cannot happen without consideration for the polyphony of voices we find in archives. For Farge, purporting to find an absolute truth amongst these voices is as problematic a starting point as rejecting truth as an impossibility in a world of discourses, or corseting events into all-encompassing theories. There is a space between these extremes, where Historians have to work, in order to build truthful narrations in the most honest way, in answer to specific research questions and based on archival research.
Finally, Farge’s book does not forget what makes her title: this “taste of the archives”, the pure joy one gets from opening archive boxes and diving into the lives and deeds of fickle human beings set in complex societies. A taste for telling and hearing stories, a sympathy and an omnivorous curiosity for everything human.