by Carl D. Weiner, Carleton History Professor emeritus

(from 1972-73)

What follows is an extended outline, with some explanatory “asides,” of some of the major components of what might be termed the Braudelian system, particularly the concepts of duration that informed his great work on the Mediterranean. Though I use the word system, one should be careful not to put upon the back of Braudel a kind of didactic insistence that his was the only way to “explain” history or perhaps more importantly, that he wanted to create abstract categories of analysis applicable to all times and all places. As we shall see, the major thrust of his system, if such it can be called, was operational if not simply organizational; it was a response to, a solution to two problems: 1) how to organize the vast amounts of material his global focus on The Mediterranean had engendered and 2) how to organize, perhaps furnish is a better word, the universe of historical fact with a conceptual framework about change over time that would allow for the most fruitful interaction of a diversity of social sciences. In other words, he was trying to prepare a place where all the sciences humaines could work together and be relatively sure that they were talking about the same things.

First, as a sort of coda, let me outline the themes–aspirations that can in a general way be derived from the various writings of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, (the summation is that of Jacques Revel, a current editor of Annales). History as problem, the search for models, the long term in duration, the convergence of the social sciences, the encouragement of collective cross disciplinary work that could tackle very large research projects. Nothing, in principle, distinguishes the practice of the historian from his sociologist, economist and geographer colleagues. Yet history was assigned the role of an empirical testing ground for theories taken from any of the social sciences since the temporal dimension gave to these disciplines an experimental possibility otherwise denied them in a universe where facts were (for most significant problems) non-reproducible. Thus, history has a dual role: it is one among many social sciences, and it is the experimental social science par excellence. Think about this second role; what a mighty and audacious claim, and how different its tone from the mumbo-jumbo about “history as art” from Braudel’s American and English homologues in the inter-war period and even after.

Durational time: Essentially how can one work within the parameters of a “static” time which emphasizes continuity and still insist on a historical universe in which change is always occurring though at varying rates of speed, “perpetual change” in Bloch’s words. Both in The Mediterranean and in the 1958 article on the “Longue Durée” Braudel defines a hierarchy of forces, currents and movements which take on a recognizable shape, a form–the constellation d’ensemble within which the historian may distinguish long movements, slow patterns of change over time and much shorter “brief thrusts” of movement, action and event. Both the book and the article focus on three sorts of time-movement.

Nota Bene: The hierarchical idea comes in because it is fairly clear in Braudel that the three types of time-movement do not produce equally significant amounts of change.

Time I–evenemential time, brief thrusts which we usually identify with a specific event. Long the bugaboo of Bloch and Febvre who, it must be remembered, rebelled against the idea that this was really what history was about, the recounting in a kind of serial narrative of one thing after another–the diplomatic correspondence between the Dukes of Mantua and the court of his most Christian Majesty of France between 1623 and 1632 or whatever. Now, a great deal of past political history deals precisely with the event. That is, it assumes that the political event, the actions of “great” men or elites, are supremely important and matter a great deal. Similarly, riots and rebellions were dealt with as events. Braudel’s point is that the time frame of the event (not only true for historians but also, say, for sociologists) does not permit one to support an assertion of importance. Just because the political sphere deals with the manipulation of power, however defined, does not guarantee that by a narrow focus on political events, we understand very much that is significant about a particular epoch. Two points here: 1) Remember that the historian “is what he eats,” i.e. his area, his specialization. This demotion of politics may have a great deal of relevance to pre-industrial societies where necessity reigns: powerful men did not do very much about changing the basic determinant of a five-fold cereal’s yield in early Modern Europe–from which assertion there hangs quite a tale (conjunctures and structures) in early modern history. 2) However, Braudel never asserted that historians should ignore the political, just that it had to be seen within a context of much longer, larger and more global phenomena: thus, though he himself never pulled it all together in The Mediterranean, the idea of the State as a movement–(action-reaction) in conjunctural time or as an impending-evolving force in the composition of structures emerging over long durations was something he readily appreciated and enthusiastically supported when other historians (Immanuel Wallerstein and “development theorists”) undertook such investigations.

Certainly J.H. Hexter is correct in pointing out a major weakness in the third part of The Mediterranean. Initially Febvre had urged Braudel to abandon or change his emphasis on the politics of Phillip II by asserting in a letter that (paraphrase), The Mediterranean was a far more valuable context, “more important,” than Phillip. Lo and Behold! The moral or conclusion to Braudel’s third part: the king lost, The Mediterranean won. Self-validating analytic frameworks? Cooked evidence? Disinterest and exhaustion–even global history is limited by what one historian can do? A modified yes to the first, a resounding no to the second and a flat yes to the third. However one desires “tightly constructed history” it is only the vast inquiries of the first two parts, whatever the occasional lapses, that could scoop up the weight of evidence needed to demonstrate effectively the real limitations on Phillip’s options. Still what is missing from the third part is just that considered meditation on the State as a conjunctural and long durational factor that history as problem should have targeted as a major problem of explanation.

Time II–Conjunctures. What Hexter calls the moyen durée. Remember, it has an “s” on it; it is plural. There is a problem of translation for the French word has almost a diametrically opposed meaning to the English term. Let us take Revel’s definition: “(the) repeated intervention of cyclical phenomena, the complex interaction of which constitute a model.” Conjunctures in “Annalese” means cyclical, it carries no connotation of a possible uniqueness as in English. Moreover (this it shares with our own term) it connotes confluence–a coming together of separate strands of cyclical movement: two, three, four and so forth. Example: the reciprocal movements of demographic and cereal price curves coupled with curves (movements) of industrial production, land rents, custom duties at seaports, a major (or minor) war and the incidence of urban bread riots–there’s a fine conjunctures for you. As you can see, compartmentalization disappears–political events integrate into a series of multiple phenomena; 2) the emphasis, I say again, is on repeated regularities, recurrent phenomena; 3) the accent is frequently on the quantifiable–conjunctures as a “time” are only perceived when we can measure them, counting is the name of the game. “Il faut savoir compter” says Georges Lefebvre, the great historian of the French Revolution (not an Annales historian, but frequently mistaken for one).

How long is a conjuncture? It depends. As you may have guessed, the term was taken over from the economists; cyclical movements in the economy have been their meat and potatoes. François Simiand, the great French economist (whose 1903 article in the Revue de Synthèse inspired the early annalists) was famous for erecting the famous schema of a Phase “A”–demographic, price and production rising curves, and a Phase “B”–declining curves of demography etc. which informs the concept of a “long sixteenth century” (1450-1630-50) so dear to the hearts of annalists and almost all early modernists. In other words, conjunctural time can stretch across centuries. But it can also be as short as twenty-five years, perhaps even shorter–whatever length of time it takes to measure discernible patterns, depending on the things you are measuring and how many confluent factors you wish or think you have to take into account. There are long cycles of general decline and rise; there are interstitial cycles that define the parameters and direction of more general movements; and there are cycles of variable duration depending upon the nature of the phenomenon: counting the incidence of bread riots over two hundred and fifty years may not tell you very much. Frequently the shorter the span, the more likely the significant confluence with other variables, themselves divided up into shorter intercycles. What is of absolute and prime importance is not how long each cycle is, how short or long the conjunctures but their ability to pattern the formless, seamless flow of duration-time. “Pattern-making variables” sociologists call them and they can be found with fascinating regularity in that exuberant, over-abundant and kaleidoscopic universe of historical fact.

Now, one major facet of this conjunctural movement must be highlighted: it is itself, of prime functional importance to the development of long durational time. A ridiculous metaphor, plucked from my misspent urban youth trundling back and forth on the Brooklyn-Manhattan BMT in avid search of culture and girls. The roto-rooter ads: nice-looking man hovering over stuffed-up pipe, twisting some apparatus right straight through the pipe–retain the image describing the movement of the roto-rooter: double, triple spirals laterally advancing upon all that muck. Conjunctures are the roto-rooters of durational time, save that there is no pipe, only parameters of the possible, the shape of the long-term structures which constitute the longue durée, the things that don’t change very much, which form the outer integument of a model–a space and direction that is both encompassing and integrated, i.e. related one to another.

Time III–Long Duration. A barrier, a ceiling and bottom line, the integration of whose elements, defined and charted by conjunctural time, yield structures. Braudel’s long “Pacific wave,” diachronically moving so slowly as to be imperceptible to contemporaries; synchronically the opposite of change viewed as a single event in a moment of time. Semi-immobility is the term Braudel frequently applies to the longue durée, revealed by the movement of conjunctures. It is the area in which models can be constructed, de-constructed and re-made again. These semi-immobile long durations are abstractions but they are open to constant revision. As Braudel remarked: “Continuous research is needed that leads from the social reality back to the model and then from a revised model back to current research in the historical reality” (paraphrase). How long is a longue durée. As functional limits to alternative possibilities no doubt it is quite elastic. Geographical, physical and biological regularities constitute one form of the longue durée (but they too, do change). Meteorological, topographical, cultural-institutional elements have a time-change motion that can also be measured, charted out, in terms of century and multi-century units of measure. Again, as with conjunctural time, long durations burst through disciplinary barriers: modes of thought and perception are frequently more immobile than physical limitations. But it is difficult to obtain from reading Braudel any precise cut-off point separating long duration from conjunctural or any prescribed length to the longue durée. Again, one major distinction seems to be operational. Though Braudel acknowledges the existence of millennial durations (myths for instance or the basic building blocks of structural anthropology–Levy-Strauss’ gustemes for instance) he cannot include them, he cannot make use of them precisely because they are conceived as almost impervious to time, to change–they are posited to be as near to motionless as possible. Again, Braudel’s concern to create a common language of investigation for the social sciences seems to dominate the schema, this time resulting paradoxically, in the exile of structuralism, to some conceptual limbo outside the universe of historically defined discourse. In answer to the initial question: a long duration is as long as observation permits you to discern some evidence of minimal change–some abrasion from conjunctural movements. But how short may a long duration be? Braudel does not seem to have an answer.

REPRISE: Braudel later claimed that his tripartite division of time was (simply? or on one level?) developed for the sake of organizational convenience, a way to make sense out of the myriads of data he had collected. But by the 1958 article, it can be interpreted as something more: a classificatory and analytic system based upon the variable capacity of phenomena to constrain, in extreme cases render nearly inconsequential, human activity. Geographical, biological and cultural forces placed severe limits on the ability of humans to change basic material, institutional and cultural parameters significantly. Within these parameters, there is an immensely rich and variegated set of patterned movement over time which, when painstakingly researched, rivals the existence of vaster, more obdurate structures. Durational classification and analysis gives to all the social sciences the possibility of a common language, it allows history, the most “open” of all the human sciences, to borrow methods and concepts from other disciplines; it is part of history’s long march to inclusive relevance as the laboratory of these same human sciences.

But on the way to this imperial apotheosis, a funny thing happened–change, not just the event, but change itself receded more and more within the Annales perspective. Revel again: the identification of stable systems is at the heart of the undertaking.” “In no way,” says Revel, “is Annales concerned with a theory of social change or with the shift from one historical model to its successor.” Recall the curious fact that this French “school” of history did not, until a very late date, explore the enduring national epic of the French Revolution. In other words Annales stayed away from the one great “event” that (myth, fact or some likely combination of the two) was and still is considered the very source of modern French nationhood. Is it precisely because of the Revolution’s celebrated capacity to shatter structures, build new worlds, chart new paths, etc., etc.? Annales was born in 1929, an event, a date of some significance. Hexter has not been the first to point out the congruence between the essentially passive, static flavor of annalists’ preoccupation with semi-immobile structures and a kind of pessimism endemic in the France of the inter-war period. What he might have added is that the popularity of the Annales approach beyond the frontiers of France, particularly in America and England from the sixties on might be due to a similar fateful congruence–a pessimism about society’s ability to change significantly the terms of our material existence for the better. In the case of England, Hobsbawm maintains that the interest in the Annales approach began in the fifties when English historians, much exercised over the question of the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism (a Marxist debate soon joined in by a number of Non-Marxists) found the annalistes engaged in asking and answering very many of the same questions about the character of pre-industrial societies. And it must be added that Revel’s flat denial of any intention to provide a theory of change has to be somewhat nuanced. Reading between the lines, Wallerstein maintains that one can find many intimations in Braudel’s Mediterranean of an overall theory of change. Certainly, the later work of Braudel shows a clear intention to tackle the problem of the great transformation to capitalism. Ernest Labrousse, the annaliste economic historian responsible for charting out the price and production conjunctures for early modern France, wrote a work analyzing the economic crisis of 1776-1791 as the “ramp” (Braudel’s term) which facilitated the revolutionary take-off. Some Marxists have always worked well within the Annales approach specifically tying a global approach, an analysis of structures to an investigation forthrightly asserting the primacy of change in their explanatory mode (Vilar’s work on Catalonia). Again, many American and English historians initially and mistakenly believed that Georges Lefebvre, the father of modern French revolutionary historiography, and more than a little marxisant was an annaliste (what better example of mentalité than his Great Fear). BraudeI always claimed to have a great deal of respect for Marx, the first fabricator of “real social models” which when submitted to durational analysis, demonstrate a continued solidity however “nuanced they must be by other structures defined by other models.”

In 1968, another fatal date, Braudel resigned the directorship of the Annales enterprise. In France, it has made the long voyage from rebellion to school to venerable institution. The sixth section of the École Practique has been translated to the higher plane of a separate and magnificently subsidized research institution: L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. With it has come what people call the “splintering” of the Annales approach–a retreat from globalism if you will–a transferral of energies from the analysis of material structures of long duration to an emphasis on mentality as long durational phenomenon. Whereas the favored collaborators of the annalists of the Febrian and Braudelian epoch were economists and geographers, Annales these days is full of the language of structural, symbolic and ethnographical anthropology. Michel Foucault’s archaeological deconstruction of the social sciences has triumphed in Annales, as it has among many of the French literati. Curiously enough, it has resulted in a revival of the “history as problem” theme espoused by Febvre and somewhat neglected by Braudel and his students in their thirst for a total history. Smaller problems which invite collaboration across disciplinary lines, which concentrate on a comparison and congruence of methods and techniques among the human sciences have become popular. A series of symposia–confrontations opening up new territories for investigation have been some of the most valuable of annalist contributions to contemporary historical investigations–witness the development of a new history of Food and Nutrition that Annales spear-headed. We may be well on our way to developing Febvre’s vision of a history of joy, love, cruelty and death.

But there does seem to be a bi-furcation in the Annales trajectory; the school never really developed a theory of social change. The point or points at which conjunctures not only defined the parameters of abiding structures but broke through the structural integument and began the process of creating new structures was never adequately received by Braudel either in theory or in demonstration. There is a limbo between duration-as-structure and conjunctures-as-change–an unexplained middle. A discernible parting of the ways has occurred. The “old” annaliste tradition of Braudel gravitates either towards the various “Marxisms” of development theory for explanations of social change, for a logic inherent in a focus on history as problem, or towards a neo-Malthusian emphasis on stable “eco-systems” as a “negative” explanation for why change was delayed or did not occur (LeRoy-Ladurie’s “Immobile History”). Another group, heavily influenced by the new anthropologies and American practitioners of retrospective ethnology such as N. Z. Davis (Clifford Geertz is respectfully envoked these days), looks to “bits” (miettes) of history as the preferred quarry of historical carnivares. Total history is somewhat unfashionable. At any rate, one part of the original vision of Bloch and Febvre has certainly not been lost–the desire to create a “living” history full of diversity, intensely curious about all sorts of untoward things, mental processes “at the junction between language and thought,” (Duby) a pots-and-pans history as some denigrate it, but one which, in Lucien Febvre’s words, is “an effective sort of history and one which takes an active role in the consciousness of all.”