This text is the translation made by Sarah Fredj of “Être historienne après janvier 2010“.
In the space of one year, even if a revolutionary breeze has swept away a lot of things in Tunisia, the work of a researcher, a slow task that takes place in the background, cannot undergo such a sudden, direct turnabout. Of course, this does not stop researchers, like everyone else, from being moved by what is happening every day, which affects people and institutions, and also alters the concrete and moral conditions of the way they exercise their profession. It is impossible for researchers to be indifferent to their surroundings or avoid the emotion marking this exceptional period in Tunisia,even if the profession itself encourages distance and is based on the capacity to observe the complexity of the questions asked and the number of points of view linked to the facts themselves, if not coldly, then at least by taking into account the many sides to a situation, as best as possible. Between the fever that comes from the swiftness and magnitude of the facts and the intellectual demands of the researcher’s profession, there is a wide scope of possible reactions.
I will speak only of my reaction, since I have been asked to talk about my experience as a researcher in Tunisia since January 2011, to illustrate one of the ways the historian’s profession is concerned by the revolutionary potential, which was triggered off at the very beginning of last year.
In Tunisia, as elsewhere, the word ‘history’ has several meanings. It refers to a culture, sometimes appeals to knowledge and, less frequently, refers to a condition, a profession. The love of the past is very widespread in public opinion; the penchant for history is part of contemporary Tunisian culture, just as it lies deeply in the roots of our intellectual heritage. History also calls for awareness of the passing of time and the study of the way it rules human relationships, in such and such a society, at a given period. Lastly, history is also a modern profession, along with close social sciences and more distant hard sciences, which evolves in an intrinsic way with intermingled aspects to it; In addition to the history of contents and forms that this expression of the individual or group’s past can have, that each person or community carries in them, there is also the history of the men and institutions that make it up. For me, the year 2011 was a lesson on each of the three levels.
A lesson of culture
Experiencing an uprising that breaks out after a man has set fire to himself and entails consequences on the scale we see today is, to say the least, eye-opening as far as public opinion is concerned, and also in the way it can affect reality. The man’s desperate act which is neither the first of its kind, nor unfortunately the last, is one of the founding myths of the Tunisian Revolution. Creating the myth obviously summons its reverse, as shown with the battle surrounding the commemoration dates (December 17? January 14?), the efforts to blend the ‘people’ into the figure of the ‘martyr’ and the rivalry to win an impossible ‘leadership’. Public opinion which is common to both journalism and social science and is choice material for politicians has become a vivid source of inspiration. Observing the galvanizing words spoken and the media, I have been able to check the magic of a phenomenon, forever evading any forecasts and manipulations, even if one never gives up reifying it afterwards and even if politicians never give up the temptation of goading it on and sounding it out, since they fear it so much.
Does a vote equal an opinion? Is culture a sum of opinions? Are the media alone when face to face with public opinion? All these questions find a sequence of incomprehensible alchemy in the Tunisian situation, if you merely keep to the tip of current events and speeches. Studying public opinion is doubtless rendered more complex still by the technicality of social networks, that accelerate facts and reactions, but to me, understanding the present situation also suffers from a lack of historical, sociological, psychological and journalistic studies on the cultural features and the evolution of people’s mentalities. The tensions exploding in the face of the Tunisians, of their political classes and of the whole world reveal among other things a lack of knowledge of our society. If you consider the rising of politics and given that the social and economic problems make up the volcano lava (as well as interiorized anger), the unexpected detonator of this Revolution, history can help to establish useful connexions to understand society today better.
A lesson of history
I am used to contemporary history which is approached mainly from written archives, even if it has begun to open up to testimony and I have appraised ‘live’ the methodological importance of the basic questions that are taught in the discipline. What is a source? What is information? Who is the author of a document? How does information circulate? From the slap that was said to have caused Bouazizi’s suicide to the flow of rumours that robbed a buzz of its originality and invented ’false information’, the historian drifts amidst a multitude of events, the multiplication of the number of means of expression, the freedom of tone and even dissolute language. In time, I began to notice the sometimes surprising way that data is organised, depending on unsuspected actors, how events that were benign to begin with become important and how news is made.
The physics of events and the more or less successful ‘mayonnaise’of a power that is made day by day is a living compost for a researcher to reflect on the birth of a political culture that may be changing. I was used to the language mechanisms of dictatorship and have turned my attention to a post-revolutionary vocabulary which has managed to become acceptable too. The word ‘Revolution’ which has been used a lot for convenience’s sake, out of laziness or pride, calls for reflection on the efficiency of words in today’s game and then on their repercussion in the writing of history.
Before going more deeply into the analysis of the speeches that orchestrate political life today and the arguments exchanged in all the medias, even the private ones, I watch more television, read more newspapers, listen to more radios and surf on the Web. A society is displayed there, revealing the birth of stifled possibilitites, that have been denied or are merely unknown, the rebellious young, both full of energy and desperate, women everywhere in public view and new expressions.
While the results of the elections of the National Constituent Assembly are being interpreted as the figures representing the people, these images of Tunisian society seem to me, scientifically to begin with, to pinpoint an ignorance of the diversity of a Tunisia that is under- analysed and the multiple forces across the country. In comparison, the political practices of the party in power seem rigidified with time, too old for the urgent needs of the country and too poor in view of its complexity. The fact that there are more men politicians than women and the average age of our politicians is an obvious sign of the gap between society and power. There are other gaps too.
A civic lesson
In a country where scientific research lacks revues and space for debates and traditions, politics mesmerizes the intellectual professions, subjugates them, in the sense that they are established as the only legitimate source, as the ultimate aim of any success. The conditions and practice of the researcher’s profession are no worse than anything else, though one must add that they represent a totalitarian conception of mind-deadening knowledge which is a depreciating conception of the professions of knowledge, in the long run. One year is not enough to act on the hypertrophy of the ideology of University degrees, supervising ideas, mechanisms that paralyze creative forces, in other words all the seeds that have planted a feeling of disenchantment for the intellectuals and erected partisan cleavages in universities. I know I am part of sectors that are undermined by lack of political freedom and denial, the cult of technicality putting a final touch to humanities in Tunisia. Politicians and scientists have a lot of work ahead to make things better and to give knowledge its humanistic function back and the place it deserves in global wealth.As a researcher, during this past year, I have felt more conscious of the importance of the discipline of history, when faced with the rising emotions, the expression of individual claims and the affirmation of the religious and memory phenomenon. As with all important referential – and this Revolution is certainly that- , history must remain alert, in the way the meteorologist still watches the nice weather, in case it becomes bad. Thinking ahead, thinking of future knowledge and the reasonable organisation of the present that is unrolling as I write this seems to me to be a healthy reaction in view of the governance of events today and hasty political answers. After the journalists, whose job it is to record the immediate news, following the lawyers, sociologists, geographers, economists and other social science experts who are interested in the short term, historians must wait patiently in the background, watching the multi-shaped society and its contradictory impacts, not forgetting the virtual and concrete archives that are being created nor the effects of people’s memory that are becoming part of reality, under our very eyes, as we bring witness, though not always clairvoyantly.
Text published in La lettre de l’IRMC, N°8, January-April 2012, page 8