The judicial archives* brings us inside a world fitful with passions and disorder. Caught in its net, the city, its people and the women among them take on expressions that are exaggerated, even deformed, by the material that has captured them. Once we have explored the coerced nature of the intersection between speech and authority, we face the old question of how to handle the sources that have been fundamentally biased by their interaction with the criminal justice system. Why not choose to take a deliberately provocative position on this, and assert that society’s character manifests itself through its antagonisms and conflicts? It is more important to say this than ever, because today there is a tendency to doubt the centrality of conflict.
With the boom in the history of mentalites, which focused on daily life and the world of the senses, historians have enthusiastically developed previously neglected themes like private life, housing, dress, nutrition, sexuality, and maternity. In the wake of a burgeoning interest in anthropology, these themes flourished all the more because they broke the existing conventions, which had proved too rigid in their systems and ideologies. The singular and the intimate were able to break through where before the quantitative had reigned supreme. Where Marxist readings demanded rigid interpretive grids,. The historian fled to the unexplored territory of cultural habits, of states of being and ways of doing But an inconspicuous slippage began at the same time.. Having become too preoccupied with drawing away from the overloaded shores of Marxism, historians failed to notice that they often left behind the universe of conflicts and tensions, of struggles and relationships of power – the universe which is the backdrop onto which behaviors, practices, and emotions must be projected. It was not that historians ignored social differences, but that they did not choose to make them engines of their arguments. And was it not perhaps the continuing subdivision and separation of the objects of study that, bit by bit, created this widening gap?
When the history of mentalites proved to fragmented to be effective at recapturing the intensity of social relations , it was gradually displaced by a relatively classical event-based history, overlaid with a supposedly history of ideas. The great intellectual debate over popular culture has been replaced by a kind of tacit consensus around the notion of ‘shared cultures.” But few people are now asking how these processes of sharing actually operated, or saying that maybe it is time to return to the question of how this all worked. At the very least we can say such sharing was often quite unequal and rarely motivated by respect for others. In these processes, we can always glimpse one group’s desire for domination over another.
Discord and confrontation lie at the heart of police records. Why not make use of this fact, and create out of rupture and disquiet a grammar with which to read the ways existences were time and again made and unmade? It is not easy to separate the history of men and women from that social relations and antagonisms. Indeed, certain social groups only came into being through the experience of struggle. Similarly, confrontation of groups against groups, sex against sex, the people against elites, created moments that transformed the course of history and which must be analyzed. A history of relationships of power can also take into account sufferings and deceptions, illusions and hopes. History must be able to take charge of these matters, measure the poignant and reflect on the unnamable. Conflict is a space of creation, and what comes after it rarely resembles what came before it. Even when minimal or derisory, perhaps even ritualized, conflict is a rift that illuminates “elsewhere” and creates new “states of being.” The historian must not only narrate a conflict, but use it has the motor of her reflection, the source of her own narrative.
At times, the archive miniaturizes the historical object. While it provides an account of the size and spread of large social movements (strikes, riots, or incidents or begging or criminality), it isolates, like a microscope, the expression of individual passions. In the words recorded in these documents we hear public condemnations, denunciations, hatreds, and jealousies, each playing as much of a role in this theater of reality as love and concern for others. We cannot omit any of this darkness, this taste for destruction and death that inhabits mankind. We cannot push aside this “unsociable sociability of being” where trickery, deception, and the interest of some in the subservience of others are locked in ruthless struggle with the desire for liberty and harmony. As Claude Mettra has written, “Humanity’s tragedy lies in the fundamental discord of beings with their own flesh. To write history is to draw up a report on this discord.” The words in the archival documents pitch between outrage and forgiveness, and through these small lives we can hear the inaudible – sometimes ignoble- sound of humanity, and catch the insistent melody of attempted happiness and hard-won dignity.
The taste for the archive is rooted in these encounters with the silhouettes of the past, be they faltering or sublime. There is an obscure beauty in so many existences barely illuminated by words, in confrontations with each other, imprisoned by their own devices as much as they were undone by their era.
*the 18th century pre-Revolutionary criminal records of the Prefecture of Paris, a court of the first instance and of the police of Paris: Archives Nationales and Archives de la Bastille at the Arsenal and other collections