Skip to main content

carlo ginzburg

Yesterday, I saw a fascinating talk with Carlo Ginzburg. The format was that his translator, Martin Rueff, would ask him questions. Actually, Rueff read a small essay on his work, and occasionally intervened to let Ginzburg riff about what he wanted to.

Because this session was connected with the publication of a new book of Ginzburg’s essays, le fil et les traces, the discussion tended to sound some old controversies, including that between Ginzburg and the ‘postmodern’ skeptics, notably Hayden White. Which is how one of the ‘threads” in this conversation was about proofs and the truth. Another thread, though, was about Ginzburg’s relationship with the documents he used to trace his histories – notably, the records of Inquisitorial interrogation. And there Ginzburg brought up the anthropological distinction between etic and emic, which, he modestly said, has really only been utilized by one historian – himself.

These themes fascinated me, and I was tempted to try the temper of the salle with my French as I asked a question that seems obvious from this triangle of themes or obsessions.

I would have liked to ask a question something like this. The idea that there is a rigid separation between the etic view, that of the observer, and the emic view, that of the observed, seems to be to ignore the arrow of desire that brings those two together – in situations such as that of the Inquisition. But it is a good starting place.

But isn’t there a movement, here?
And isn’t the movement, as you have shown in the Night Battles, not towards truth, but towards an agreement as to what the truth should be?

Rhetorical questions – the type a bad questioner asks. So I didn’t ask. But the question of the movement that mobilizes the inquisition is, nevertheless, on my mind. I think that the idea of narrative induction, proposed by an ethnographer, Charlotte Linde, defined “as the process by which people come to take on an existing set of stories as their own story…”

Linde’s field work was done in an insurance company, not a tribe. The idea that there is a process of taking on an existing set of stories seems to work in a number of institutional situations, although the variables of the process – its actual implementation – isn’t fixed in one mode or another. Still, a common mode is just the question and response format. One of the great liberal myths is that the question is always a power for liberation. But this is to elevate a romantic idea of questions over its pragmatics. In fact, one of the remarkable things about the Night Battles is the way that the Benedetti take on an existing story about themselves from the Inquisition. Their story begins, Ginzburg shows, with a story in which they are on the side of God, battling against witches. But this is not the story the Inquisition (an institution that is actually named – at least in popular history - for a grammatical feature of Western languages – as though there could be an institution called the Statement or the Exclamation) the Inquisition could accept. And so, through an intervention that depended on the question and response format, the Benedetti were gradually induced into identifying with another story – the story that they were actually on the side of the devil.

Linde, I think, was thinking of other forms of narrative induction – such as pep talks and inter-office communications that made insurance adjusters identify with a narrative we, that of the insurance company and its ‘point of view’. But a narrative induction does not have to be positive in that sense – it can also be the narrative that a given institutional power wants the people it regulates, or even outlaws, to identify with. I identify myself as mad or neurotic with the psychologist, or as delinquent with the police officer, etc. We are not the stories we tell ourselves – we are a compound of the stories we accept about ourselves.

And this, of course, is the source of the anxiety that gives rise to postmodernism. It is the anxiety proper to the post-colonial epoch. The imperial narrative, which succeeded for hundreds of years, was challenged. Challenged synchronically, it cast into doubt the diachronic narratives that helped establish the places assigned to, among others, the savage, the barbarian, the civilized.

Or at least that is a sympathetic reading of the moment – I find the word postmodern rather repulsive, and think of it as a sort of conceptual dust collector.


Palaverer said…
Ginzburg is fantastic. I recently read Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, of his. I reviewed it here:

Anyway, hope it is of interest. Next up for me is The Cheese and the Worms!