Monday, 2 April 2018

Tarde’s 'Fragment d’histoire future' and the modal coordination of history and fiction – Reflections on 'Imagining the History of the Future'

Last week, I had the great fortune of attending the Imagining the History of the Future conference, part of the Unsettling Scientific Stories project (based at the universities of York, Newcastle and Aberystwyth). It was a really fantastic three days that introduced me to some fascinating people and has left me with a lot to think about.

For my part, I presented a paper – an exerpt from my thesis – on 'Gabriel Tarde’s Fragment d’histoire future and the milieu-fantôme.' This title is slightly modified from what I originally proposed (and from what appears in the programme). However, the original abstract still gets the gist of it:
Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904) was a magistrate, criminologist, sociologist and philosopher. Around the turn of the century, he engaged in a series of polemical exchanges with Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) concerning the remit and purpose of sociology. He also wrote a science fiction novel: Fragment d’histoire future (1896), published in English as Underground Man (1905) with a preface by H.G. Wells. The setting is apocalyptic: The sun has gone out and humanity – or rather a lone inventive pocket of it – has burrowed into the earth’s crust, chasing its enduring inner heat. All other life is extinguished. Written from the perspective of a future historian, Tarde uses this subterranean scenario to conduct a thought experiment that tests out his sociological theories concerning imitation, creativity and 'great men.' Although war and strife are suffered early on, this new civilisation comes to enjoy a golden age, free from the hardships of its surface-dwelling ancestors. Diseases are few; air is “the purest that man has ever breathed”; food is plentifully acquired from the frozen oceans above; the new troglodytes wear “coats of asbestos spangled with mica.” The Malthusian tendencies of population are the only serious problem, held in check by strict controls on marriage. Read in relation to Tarde’s other works, particularly Monadologie et sociologie (1893), Fragment d’histoire future provides an alternative means of approaching the development of the social sciences, their relation to race, class and gender, as well as the not so much ecological as sociological futurology of an eccentric but important fin de siècle thinker.
More precisely, I am interested this book for several reasons: First, in explaining the premises of the story, the narrator describes a "social milieu" entirely separated from the "natural milieu" that was destroyed with the cataclysm. It is this "purification," as he calls it, that constitutes Tarde's thought experiment; that is, he asks what would happen to social relations when all other conditions of life are removed.

Second, this sociological system – or, rather, ontology – involved an open criticism of Durkheim's rather more superorganismic conception. Whereas Tarde understood sociology along the lines of networks of creative imitations, Durkheim thought of society as a totality of collective representations impinging upon and transcending individual agents. Third, just two years later, this led Tarde to ridicule Durkheim et al.'s use of the concept of "milieu" as a kind of explanatory panacea for all phenomena. Durkheim's "milieu-fantôme," as Tarde called it, was therefore to be repudiated, although Tarde continued to use a somewhat different conception of milieu. 

Fourth, Tarde's book can be taken as a kind of witness to its situation – that is, to the time and place to which it accommodated itself. As well as the apocalyptic science-fiction premise, Tarde's technological anticipations give us a strong sense of the common sense of his time, as does his apparent endorsement (however eccentric) of a kind of artistic eugenics (where only the most creative are permitted to reproduce). Moreover, Tarde's development of a social ontology based on ideas of epidemic contagion (he was by no means the only to propound such an ontology but was unusual as regards the extent of his defence of it) creates interesting parallels not only with other sociologists and criminologists but also with post-Pasteurian transformations in bacteriology.

Tarde, then, links together a great many things. Indeed, a rather wide-ranging world can be reconstructed in terms of the networks and milieus that relate to his choices and dispositions – an elite, metropolitan world but nevertheless a significant one for my purposes.

The presentation was, I think, well-received and there were a number of great questions that tested my thinking and gave me ideas as to how to take this further. However, one question in particular, from Hanna-Riikka Roine, has stayed with me (I paraphrase): What was Tarde trying to do with this shift from legal and academic to fictional-speculative writing? What was the purpose or motivation of this segue of genres?

This is not something that I've looked into in detail yet; however, my immediate response was that Tarde was, at this time, involved in a polemical relationship with his intellectual competitors and wished to propagate his ideas to a wider audience. I am quite sure that this is the case; however, it is also a rather unsatisfactory answer and I hope to develop a better one.

The conference closed with a roundtable where participants were invited to submit questions ahead of time. I asked:

In the discussion itself, in response to a comment by Sarah Dillon on the subject of evidence in relation to historiography, I expanded on these questions a little. In my thesis work I've found a comment from Michael Oakeshott's 1933 book Experience and its Modes to be particularly useful – specifically, that a historian is someone who is obliged to interpret the past in terms of the evidence of that past. In other words, an historian qua historian bears an obligation to evidence.

This leads to a criterion of distinction (or a differentia as Oakeshott calls it in more formal philosophical terms) that differentiates historical from other modes of experience. A fictionist qua fictionist may or may not incorporate historical fact into her text; however, a fiction qua fiction cannot be faulted for its choices in this regard. Rather, the obligations incumbent upon a fiction are to the immersive or transformative effects it may have on its audience – a quite different condition of relevance.

(My thinking on this point is related to both Étienne Souriau and, more recently, Bruno Latour who have described fiction as a 'mode of existence,' as well as to Isabelle Stengers' philosophy of science; however, I will leave their particular propositions for another day.)

To cut a long histoire short, it is in relation to this distinction between history and fiction that my thinking as regards historiography (and, indeed, my practice thereof) is being developed. However, while history and fiction are therefore understood as fundamentally distinct in modal or categorical terms, they are also practically and technically highly interrelated. In the abstract, they share a great many textual and rhetorical techniques and, in the concrete, it may be difficult in certain liminal cases to tell them apart.

So, the basic point that I was (and am) trying to make is that historians, even if they do not write fiction, already venture onto at least some of the same terrain. Likewise, fictionists often have more interesting things to say about the writing of history (or just writing in general) than do professional historiographers (I think this is no coincidence). And so what is needed, I believe, is a more precise understanding of the modal differentiae that both distinguish these practices and, at the same time, allow them to be intellectually and, perhaps, politically coordinated.

I am making this argument here in perhaps more cohesive terms than I managed 'off the cuff.' Indeed, articulating these ideas was quite a challenge, given the diversity of the audience. During the three days, I talked to at least one non-academic sci-fi author, a curator, and academics from half a dozen recognised disciplines and many more subfields and disciplinary interstices.

In response to my mini-monologue, Maxine Gee (a screenwriter and PhD candidate at York) made the completely fair point that many academics are already authors of fiction (sci-fi and otherwise). Amanda Rees added that writing fiction is not at all easy. Mat Paskins commented that while the exploration of the intricate overlaps between history and fiction is all well and good, historians must recognise a fundamental moral obligation to relating the past as it happened, both for the sake of the victims of historical events (such as, to take only the most obvious and oft-cited example, victims of the Holocaust) and also for present-day survivors (such as those gay men for whom the very possibility of a collective future was, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, very much in doubt). Then, towards the end of the session, Kanta Dihal commented that there are many more voices producing (science-)fiction than are usually taken notice of in academic discourse – a lack of diversity being something for which this conference itself could, indeed, be faulted. And, so, rather than writing more fiction, perhaps academics should instead undertake to read more widely.

I would not substantively disagree with any of the above remarks (as I have remembered and reconstructed them). Indeed, they really expand on, in different ways, what I was trying to articulate.

However, I would just add that I think there remain unexplored possibilities at the modal and practical meeting point of fiction and history that I want to explore further. I do not mean to suggest that academics (as a homogenous group) can or should all start writing fiction. Some already do; many would not want to; most would not be much good at it. Nevertheless, I think it is notable that the likes of Tarde's Fragment can still, today, be understood as being a rather eccentric and exceptional expressive and discursive choice.

Writing fiction well is indeed a formidable task, as is any other kind of artistic creation. However, while counterfactuals are a common enough pedagogical (and, to a lesser extent, historiographical) tool, the active coordination of historical and fictional modes of experience (or of existence) remains at the margins. This is not, moreover, to deny the vibrancy of the margins; however, it is to call attention to what may be lost by accepting marginalisation as a given.

As to why the practices of historical and fictional writing are thus, for the most part, estranged, the reasons are fairly obvious: In more or less all of the social sciences (where I am located) and perhaps most of the humanities, scholarship is institutionally rewarded in a manner not only strictly demarcated from the artistic but is, to some extent, defined in opposition to it. This arrangement is tied to political expectations as to what constitutes useful knowledge and how funding regimes, accordingly, are to be distributed. For most academics, writing fiction could only be a pastime; it could not be a serious part of that for which they are employed.

None of this is either surprising or insightful but it remains, I think, relevant.

My thesis asks: What is the history of the concept of environment? I am interested in how this expression, along with its precursors such as milieu and climate, came to be a part of the everyday conceptual landscape. However, I am also interested in answering a second question: What does this history mean for the problems of the present?

Fictions, such as that of Tarde, are a crucial resource for reconstructing this history – that is, for answering the first question. However, could they not also be a starting point for approaching the second?

To be sure, I would not like to align myself with Tarde in any substantive sense. And yet at least some of his problems remain problems that concern us today. Thus, I take his work as presenting a problem of inheritance: What worlds will we make from the always conflicted and often deeply corrupted traces and evidences that we have, with great degrees of preservational prejudice, inherited?

My paper and this post only tease out the outer fringes of this question. However, this conference has given me many more routes to now explore.


  1. Claude Bernard is the source of 'milieu' in the generic sense of 'environment', whereby the inside of your body can be just as much a 'milieu' as what lies outside of your body. All that matters is that the milieu -- whatever its boundaries -- enables some prescribed activity to occur, and hence the milieu provides a source of equilibrium. Paul Hirst's first book -- Durkheim, Bernard and Epistemology (1975) -- is very good on this, notwithstanding the Althusserian genuflections that were fashionable at the time:

    1. Thanks Steve.

      Yes, Bernard is an interesting figure in this development. I just finished writing a chapter on him in relation to Taine, Balzac and Zola (the latter of whom cites Bernard as the epistemological authority for writing the properly naturalist novel).

      I looked at Hirst's book a couple of years ago and liked it but I should go back and take another look. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. this " Whereas Tarde understood sociology along the lines of networks of creative imitations, Durkheim thought of society as a totality of collective representations impinging upon and transcending individual agents" would be a welcome correction to much of what is rotten in social sciences, what does it do to your own project(ion) of An Idea that has A history?
    " In The Social Theory of Practices as well as in other writings Turner argues against collective concepts like culture: what we call culture (and similar concepts), he argues, needs to be understood in terms of the means of its transmission. There is no collective server by which it is simply downloaded and "shared". What we take as "collective" is really produced through experiences of interaction which are different and produce different results for different individuals but which also produce a rough uniformity through mechanisms of feedback rather than "sharing".

    1. Thanks! I looked a little at Turner's work before but will take a look again.