Against Historiographical Positivism: Some Skeptical Reflections about the Archival Fetishism

– by Giulia Bassi

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This brief reflection is intended as an invitation to reconsider the role of the researcher, specifically the one of the historian, in relation to archival sources.

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Proletari di tutti i paesi unitevi, membership card, 1945.

Courtesy of Istituto Gramsci Toscano

As an historian and assistant archivist (I have worked for several years at the archive of the Florentine Federation of the Italian Communist Party kept at the Istituto Gramsci Toscano of which I am a member), I could not but observe the obsessive, almost fetishistic use we make of the archival source. Such a use of the archive is related to the birth of modern historiography and the emergence of a certain scientific deontology, of the rules, the method, the footnotes: each statement must be strictly (and positivistically) documented, ‘tested’ according to the criteria of the reconstruction of a past which is ‘certain’, ‘static’, ‘given’, ‘immutable’. Hence the historian’s task is to restore the facts or, better, to make the facts spontaneously emerge from the data. This nineteenth-century inspired vision of the sources is, on the one hand, the product of a series of political operations in the broadest sense of the term, on the other, it involves the perpetration through reproduction of a series of preconceptions underlying the ‘scientific’ research.

In the first place, this approach can only start from the researcher’s misconception of a key factor in founding and forming an archive, that is the (initial but constantly renewed) tension between discarding and preserving. The stored materials are necessarily the product of the archivist’s and the institution's choices, that are, by definition, a form of selection; for such a reason, these materials should not be considered as the objective mirror of the supposed reality one would like to preserve. Only some documents, some ‘data’ and therefore some historical ‘events’ are deemed worthy of being kept, and therefore remembered, and ultimately taken into account within a research that claims to be scientific and objective. Secondly, it assumes the conception of the source as ‘artefact’ or ‘data’ (an index and self-evident, irrefutable bearer of truth) and not as a set of ‘facts’ + ‘meaning’. Although theoretical researches did and do not lack, it is on these basis that historiography has started to be defined more by its empirical work than by its exegetical value. Often one ends up (and many have ended up) either looking for something new that archives can tell us about the past or tracking down new details to add up to the well-known facts, so that the resulting historiographic research may be considered historic only because it deals with the past. (1) Thirdly, one tends to forget the always incomplete nature of the sources, and the consequently temporary, provisional and contingent aspect of the historical representations, thus denying the most intimate function of history as narrative and preferring instead an history as faithful chronicle of facts.

It seems to me therefore that the success of a historiographic work is most often connected with the author’s ability or his/her luck in discovering unknown documents or new documental funds, than to its hermeneutic strength, that is to its ability, for instance, of identifying new possible readings in old sources. This use of the archive as a sort of museum for preserving pre-arranged and carefully displayed data (or facts), which are in turn the product of a certain prescriptive epistemological narrative, on one side makes of the archive a device that tends to perpetuate a given epistemic status, on the other side, as an effect, it turns the historiographic work into a mere product of handicraft (2).

Now, my research focuses on the textual analysis of the political lexicon, specifically within the context of the institutional left wing (Partito Comunista Italiano – Italian Communist Party (3) and the non-institutional leftist movements (magazines and other political movements of the seventies in Italy). I am currently conducting a research on the semantic variations of the word ‘popolo’ (‘people’) within the Italian Communist discourse between 1943 and 1989, a word or concept that needs to be understood as ‘declaration of status function’, that is as a linguistic act endowed with the power of creating shared ontologies. (4) This entails a critical observation of the political, or more generally ‘narrative’ use (5) that has been made of such a category in the PCI political communication. I will try to make this clearer. With my work, I do not intend to find or elaborate a more or less ‘correct’, more or less ‘objective’ definition of the term, but rather, by taking into account the historical relativity of such ‘appropriateness’, I aim to highlight precisely the forms of this relativity, and the ways in which certain political agents have used this important appellation from time to time – descriptive, prescriptive or persuasive use, narrative use. (6) For this reason, my aim is to reconstruct historically the ways in which the word ‘popolo’ has been one of the cornerstones of the Communist political rhetoric, meaning a language that tends to stir passions rather than looking for the rational consensus of impersonal agents, (7) and to assess the ways in which this word has been ‘contracted’ and forced into an ambiguous semantics. Indeed, I believe that the ‘political’, ‘linguistic’, ‘cultural’ creation of specific categories of representation of identity should be regarded as coextensive with the ‘historical’ and ‘social’ formation of those same categories.

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Pace Indipendenza Unità Democratica Giustizia Sociale, membership card, 1948. Courtesy of Istituto Gramsci Toscano

The way I approach the texts, both written and iconic, is rigorously interdisciplinary, in-between history and linguistics. More specifically, for the analysis of speeches I use a qualitative and quantitative approach inspired by the work developed by the team-group at the Lancaster University, directed by Paul Baker, Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak (Corpora in Discourse Analysis or CDA), supplemented with elements of semantics, pragmatic and the theories of social and political representation; whereas, for the analysis of images, I complement my historiographic knowledge with semiotic analysis. (8) In my opinion, an interdisciplinary methodological approach of this sort, on the one hand, is able to vouch for the existence of certain discourses at a quantitative level, (9) enabling the detection of linguistic patterns and the uncovering, by examining closely the collocations, concordances and so on, of the ‘hidden’ meanings of the lexical terms. On the other hand, by making possible the simultaneous observation of an extensive corpus, it provides linguistic evidences for the ‘prevalence/majority’ or ‘resistance/minority’ of certain discourses, while showing a wide range of ideological positions not otherwise detectable. (10)

My general aim is, indeed, to investigate and explain the link between representative devices, the militants’ orientation and the rearrangement of language, a link that is strategical as long as the political parties have used it 'to make politics with words’, (11) hoping in this way to mobilize, encourage, stimulate and steer precisely those same ‘followers’ that they had helped to denote and connote (and therefore to ‘come into being’) in the first place. This is because I do believe that a text, any text, is to be understood as a meaningful communication unit, that has neither consistentia sibi nor value sub specie aeternitatis, but that, according to stochastic processes of communication that take place within specific communicative situations,(12) it is rather the result of certain social motivations and practices. (13)


Untitled, Enrico Berlinguer at National ‘Festa de l’Unità’, Florence 1975. Photo: Rodrigo Pais & Cesare (Red) Giorgetti. Courtesy of Istituto Gramsci Toscano

One can already see how this research is far from an empiric historiographical approach. No document can be considered statically in an objective sense: to describe and analyse a text as an actualization of the speech that one wants to investigate within a precise context, means first of all to look at the ecosystem and the logics of the field (14) where it did come to light. For this same reason, I argue that it is essential to refer not only to the intralinguistic content of the text, but and even more so to its extralinguistic context: by giving account for the communicative situation, by clearly defining the speakers and recipients of the message, by challenging the channels and media through which the communication took place, and the political objectives, broadly speaking, of such a communication, and by focusing only at a later stage on the analysis of the content. The joint use that I make of qualitative and quantitative analysis, in a perspective that is always both historic and historiographic, is precisely intended to illuminate the relationships, connections, and the power dynamics between language and social world within the framework of the linguistic community of reference (in my case, the Italian Communist Party).


L’elettronica nell’arte, Local ‘Festa de l’Unità’, promotional poster, Florence undated (probably late 1970s-early 1980s). Courtesy of Istituto Gramsci Toscano

My methodology, therefore, is as much interdisciplinary as multifaceted and ‘problematic’ is my interest in and use of the archival sources. Firstly, the journalistic sources: l’Unità, (15) the newspaper of the party, and the magazines such as Rinascita, Vie Nuove, Noi donne, Nuova Generazione. (16) Secondly, the political speeches: those pronounced at the closure of the electoral campaigns or the interventions at the national congresses, key moments during which the parties talked to their electorate (within electoral campaigns) or to their members (congress); the minutes of the Party Direction meetings; the documents produced by the administrative office and the political office; the materials related to the ‘Festa de l’Unità’ and to the Institute of Communist Studies. (17) Thirdly, the iconographic resources (electoral programs, posters, membership cards, propaganda images), in order to make concepts manifest not only in their discursive resonance, but also, through visual means, in their ‘corporeal’ dimension and ‘emotional’ charge, especially considering that since the 1960s and particularly during the 1970s the use of the image in different forms of communication has taken on more and more importance.

In view of what has just been said, therefore, my research, rather than on events and historical facts, aims at focusing on the narratives, or better, the metanarratives that have been made about those same events and facts, proceeding from a non static use of the archival sources intended as revelation of the not evident meanings conveyed. I am not a ‘black swan’; I am part of a more general research trend that, although considering the archives unavoidable, aims to dignify a historiography that does not sacralise them, but is able to value the researcher’s intuition and interpretation, and that, if anything, looks for new kinds of sources whose heuristic potential has not yet been much explored.

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Untitled, National ‘Festa delle donne l’Unità’, promotional poster, Rome 1980. Courtesy of Istituto Gramsci Toscano

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Guerra termonucleare. Strano gioco, l’unica mossa vincente è non giocare, political poster, 1984. Courtesy of Istituto Gramsci Toscano

Giulia Bassi

Giulia Bassi graduated from the University of Florence with a magisterial thesis supervised by Paul A. Ginsborg entitled Metapolitica. Storia degli esiti politici e semantica del discorso comunista in Italia (1943-1980) [Metapolitics. History and Semantics in the Italian Communist Revolutionary Discourse (1943-1980)]. She is a member of the Executive Board and group ‘Storia’ [History] at the Istituto Gramsci Toscano, where she has worked from 2007 to 2012 in the archives of the Florentine Federation of the PCI. She is currently a PhD student in Storia delle Società, delle Istituzioni e del Pensiero. Dal Medioevo all’Età contemporanea [History of the Society, Institutions and Thought. From the Middle Age to the Contemporary Era] at the University of Trieste in co-supervision with the University of Reading, with the project Parole che mobilitano. Il concetto di ‘popolo’ tra storia politica e semantica storica nel partito comunista italiano [Words that mobilize. The Concept of ‘People’ between Political History and Historical Semantics in the Italian Communist Party], with tutors Paolo Ferrari and Federico Faloppa.

( 1 )

Hayden White, Forme di storia (Roma: Carocci, 2006), 12.

( 2 )

Francesco Benigno, Parole nel tempo. Un lessico per pensare la storia (Roma: Viella, 2013).

( 3 )

The Italian Communist Party, founded in 1921 in Livorno and dissolved in 1991 as a result of an internal restructuring which inaugurated a new course, and of the international events that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, was one of the main protagonists of anti-fascism and Italian Resistance. Since the Republican era (1945), it has been one of the mass-based parties of the Italian political system. Among its most famous leaders are Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti (founders) and Enrico Berlinguer.

( 4 )

John R. Searle, Making the social world: the structure of human civilization (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

( 5 )

Hayden White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

( 6 )

Charles L. Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967).

( 7 )

Maurizio Viroli, Per amore della patria. Patriottismo e nazionalismo nella storia (Roma-Bari: Laterza, 2001)

( 8 )

I presented an example of this kind of ‘hybrid’ approach at the conference ‘Iconic Images in Modern Italy: Politics, Culture and Society’ organized with the support of Asmi in London (22-23 November 2013) in a paper entitled: Partito d’Immagine. Per un’analisi storico-semiotica delle forme di rappresentazione del partito comunista italiano (1945-1980). [The Party of the Image. For a historical-semiotic analysis of the forms of representation of the Italian Communist Party (1945-1980)]. I did a comparative historical-semiotic analysis of a sample of PCI membership cards and posters produced between the Second World War and the 1980s, by confronting their ‘literal’ or descriptive meaning (denotative or iconographic plan) with their symbolic, instrumental and political meaning (connotative or iconological plan).

( 9 )

The use of the concept ‘discourse’ entails a certain number of epistemological problematics due to its large use in different research fields. In my work I use it both in a strictly linguistic sense: the discursive forms and structures of a specific text; and in a more philosophical-conceptual one: discourse as a ‘device’ in a Foucauldian sense, that is as a set of ‘practices which systematically form the objects of which they speak’, Michel Foucault: L’archéologie du savoir (Paris: Gallimard, 1969).

( 10 )

Paul Baker, Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis (London: Continuum, 2006).

( 11 )

Broadly speaking, John L. Austin, How to do things with words (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962).

( 12 )

Mauro La Torre, Le parole che contano. Proposte di analisi testuale automatizzata (Milano: Franco Angeli, 2005).

( 13 )

Pierre Bourdieu, Le sens pratique (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1980); Bourdieu, Raisons pratiques: sur la théorie de l’action (Paris: Seuil, 1994).

( 14 )

Pierre Bourdieu, Les Régles de l’art. Genèse et structure du champ littéraire (Paris: Seuil, 1982).

( 15 )

15L’Unità is the newspaper of the Communist Party, founded by Antonio Gramsci in 1924.

( 16 )

Rinascita was one of the most important magazines of the party. Founded in 1944 as a monthly publication and converted into a weekly magazine in 1962, it was essentially directed to the intellectuals of the party as an instrument for the development and dissemination of its cultural politics, and as an ‘ideologic guide’ to the movement, in the first place, and to the PCI in the second. Other magazines had a more national-popular character, such as: Vie nuove, founded by Longo in 1946 and changed for layout and titling (Giorni-Vie nuove) in 1971; and Noi donne, the magazine of UDI (Unione donne italiane – Union of Italian Women), characterized by a simple, direct and emotionally engaging language, in which large space was reserved to the serial story, fashion, cooking columns and the readers’ letters. The severe tone and layout suited to a well-educated and informed public was typical of Nuova Generazione, the weekly magazine of the Italian Young Communists and, from 1968, the biweekly body of FGCI (Federazione giovanile comunista italiana – Italian Communist Youth Federation).

( 17 )

The ‘Festa de l’Unità’ were local, provincial, national or thematic festivals, organized every year by the Italian Communist Party, initially to finance the newspaper of the party. The Istituto di Studi Comunisti or Scuola delle Frattocchie (Institute for Communist Studies) was the centre for the political and ideological formation of the party leaders at different levels.