Drawing on ethnographical observations made in the Naturalization Office of a prefecture of the Paris region, and on interviews carried out with bureaucrats and French citizens who have been naturalized, this article examines both the institutional process of granting citizenship as well as its impact on subjectivities. It investigates the assumptions and broad judgments that underlie the granting of French citizenship to see how norms and values linked to this procedure circulate between bureaucrats and applicants. It focuses on the idea of “deservingness,” linked to the act of being granted French citizenship, to determine how bureaucrats from the Naturalization Office and French naturalized citizens differently appropriate this notion. By addressing the articulated difference between bureaucratic practice and lived experience, this article aims to highlight the political, moral, and ethical dimensions at stake in the procedure of making foreigners into French citizens.
Bureaucratic Practices and the Lived Experience in the French Naturalization Process
Aro Velmet and Rachel Kantrowitz
A Family Story
This article melds family history with History, tracing the lives of my daughter’s grandparents, Marcelle Libraty and Pinhas Cohen. Products of the social mobility and integration offered by the Alliance israélite universelle, they became schoolteachers in Morocco and opted for France after independence. Currently in their eighties, Marcelle and Pinhas’s lives are connected to sweeping events in history: French colonialism, Vichy anti-Semitism, Moroccan independence, Jewish emigration. Inspired by Ivan Jablonka’s L’Histoire des grandparents que je n’ai pas eus, I experiment as both narrator of the past and participant in the family story, and demonstrate new ways of writing history. This auto-historiographical project shows how a family succeeds in preserving identities of origin and maintaining relationships despite socio-political upheaval and global mobility.
Translator : Nathan Bracher
Amid the current crisis in the humanities and the human sciences, researchers should take up the challenge of writing more effectively. Rather than clinging to forms inherited from the nineteenth century, they should invent new ways to captivate readers, while also providing better demonstrations of their research. Defining problems, drawing on a multitude of sources, carrying out investigations, taking journeys in time and space: these methods of inquiry are as much literary opportunities as cognitive tools. They invite experimentation in writing across disciplines, trying out different lines of reasoning, shuttling back and forth between past and present, describing the process of discovery, and using the narrative “I.” We can address the public creatively, decompartmentalize disciplines, and encourage encounters between history and literature, sociology and cinema, anthropology and graphic novels—all without compromising intellectual rigor. Now more than ever, the human sciences need to assert their place in the polis.
Writing History and the Social Sciences with Ivan Jablonka
This introduction outlines Ivan Jablonka’s theory and practice of writing the social sciences as foregrounded in three of his most noted, recent books, A History of the Grandparents I Never Had, History is a Contemorary Literature, and Laëtitia. As he outlines in his own contribution here, Jablonka advances rigorous, methodical research that nevertheless details the subjective investment of the researcher while at the same time utilizing creative “literary” techniques to engage a wide spectrum of readers well beyond the habitual circles of academic specialists. The essays contributed by Julie Fette, Sarah Fishman, Melanie Hawthorne, Don Reid, and Nathan Bracher explore various facets of Jablonka’s approach, including, respectively: writing history with family stories, resisting the erosion of factual reasoning in the Trump years, pursuing biographies of supposedly non-descript lives, appreciating the importance of Communist cultural networks in postwar France, and revisiting the role of the subject in the social sciences.
Le cas de Laëtitia ou la fin des hommes
With its compelling portrait of a young woman who was savagely murdered after having endured various forms of male violence throughout her life, Ivan Jablonka’s Laëtitia ou la fin des hommes also provides a stark depiction of French society and politics in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In deconstructing the sensationalism of the conventional crime story, the researcher-narrator seeks to draw as near as possible to the vivacious, yet fragile young woman while at the same time viewing her life in relation to various sociological and historical contexts defining its parameters. Jablonka’s own singular investment in the investigation and narration of Laëtitia thus poses the question of subjectivity in the social sciences. Recalling the landmark stances of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Emmanuel Lévinas, this article argues that Jablonka’s insistence on the explicit intervention of the researcher-narrator offers an epistemological gain and more precise knowledge.
Literature and the Search for Truth
Although published in 2014, Jablonka’s History is a Contemporary Literature provides important insights into the Trump phenomenon. Why does a significant portion of the American population overlook Trump’s litany of lies and falsehoods? Journalist Adam Kirsch argued after the election that popular culture, Reality TV for example, blurred the line between fiction and truth, creating a “post-truth” atmosphere that paved the way for Trump. Kirsch echoes Jablonka, who advocates that historians use literary techniques in the interest of truth. Jablonka insists that history as contemporary literature must rest on historical research and methodology, using good historical story-telling to reach broader audiences, increase knowledge and deepen understanding. Jablonka’s manifesto defines writing history as a form of public service and presciently warns of the potentially catastrophic results of relinquishing the quest for historical truth.
Narrating the History of “Empire” in France, 1885–1900
In the 1880s and 1890s, a wave of histories of colonial empire appeared in France. But even though they were produced by members of similar republican colonial advocacy groups, these accounts narrated the history of empire in contradictory ways. Some positioned “colonial empire” as an enterprise with ancient roots, while others treated modern colonization as distinct. Some argued that French colonial empire was a unique enterprise in line with republican ideals, but others insisted that it was a European-wide project that transcended domestic political questions. By tracing the differences between these accounts, this article highlights the flexibility that characterized late nineteenth-century republican understandings of empire. It also points to the ways republican advocates for colonial expansion during this period looked both historically and comparatively to legitimize their visions for empire’s future in France.
Ivan Jablonka and the Life of a Nobody
This article assesses the work of best-selling French historian Ivan Jablonka by setting his work in the context of biographies of ordinary people and by evaluating the success of his stated goal of reconciling lifewriting with social sciences. The article attempts to explicate his methodology of “searching for what is already found,” and considers the relevance of the critique of historicism in general articulated by some branches of the social sciences. It concludes that there is more to restorative biography than merely an explanation of causality.
The Projects of Christophe Boltanski and Ivan Jablonka
This essay examines how two French individuals in the third generation of Holocaust victims/survivors, Christophe Boltanski and Ivan Jablonka, research and present their grandparents and how they challenge contemporary memory culture. Their works differ in their ambitions and the strategies used to achieve them, but both Boltanski and Jablonka take the most disrespected of historical genres, the history of the author’s family, and reveal its potential in an arena where the duty to remember what was done to Jews as a group can obscure the complex individuals who were victims. These forgotten selves and what they reveal about the societies in which they lived are the subject of Boltanski’s and Jablonka’s work. Particular attention is devoted to the Communist parties in Poland and France and the relations of their grandparents to them.