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According to Michel de Certeau, distance is the indispensable prerequisite for historical knowledge and the very characteristic of modern historiography. The historian speaks, in the present, about the absent, the dead, as Certeau labels the past, thus emphasizing the performative dimension of historical writing: “the function of language is to introduce through saying what can no longer be done.” As a consequence, the heterogeneity of two non-communicating temporalities becomes the challenge to be faced: the present of the historian, as a moment du savoir, is radically separated from the past, which exists only as an objet de savoir, the meaning of which can be restored by an operation of distantiation and contextualization. In Evidence de l’histoire: Ce que voient les historiens, François Hartog takes up the question of history writing and what is visible, or more precisely the modalities historians have employed to narrate the past, opening up the way to a reflection on the boundaries between the visible and the invisible: the mechanisms that have contributed to establish these boundaries over time, and the questions that have legitimized the survey of what has been seen or not seen. But, as Mark Phillips points out, it is the very ubiquity of the trope of distance in historical writings that has paradoxically rendered it almost invisible to historians, so that “it has become difficult to distinguish between the concept of historical distance and the idea of history itself.”

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Wilhelm von Humboldt , “On the Historian's Task” (1821), History and Theory, 6/1 (1967), 5771, 58

Mark Salber Phillips , “Distance and Historical Representation,” History Workshop Journal, 57 (2004), 123–41, 125

Phillips , On Historical Distance (New Haven, 2013)

Mark Salber Phillips , “Histories, Micro- and Literary: Problems of Genre and Distance,” New Literary History, 34 (2003), 211–29

John Brewer , “Microhistory and the Histories of Everyday Life,” Cultural and Social History, 7/1 (2010), 87109

Darius A. Spieth , “Giandomenico Tiepolo's ‘Il Mondo Nuovo’: Peep Shows and the ‘Politics of Nostalgia,’” Art Bulletin, 92/3 (2010), 188–210

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Modern Intellectual History
  • ISSN: 1479-2443
  • EISSN: 1479-2451
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-intellectual-history
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