Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Geographical Turn -- Part II

The Annales emerged at a time in which human geography became popular in the universities. Carl Sauer and Paul Vidal de la Blanche attacked the determinism of Friedrich Ratzel that prevailed at the end of the nineteenth century. Instead of topology and environment dictating the ways of life, they established opportunities for humans to shape the landscape through their traditions and labors, creating their own culture in the process. Instead of determinism, there was ‘possibilism’.

[This is part II of a three-part series. To read Part I, click here.]

Febvre himself was a student of Vidal de la Blanche (JSTOR required) and Henri Bergson (whose phenomonology encouraged reconsideration of the relationship of self to physical environment). Bloch was intimately aware of Vidal de la Blanche, but less influenced by him.

At Strasbourg Bloch and Febvre were determined to challenge established barriers, both within the academy and within space. Febvre, more than Bloch, promoted geography in the Annales. His work showed that spatial concepts had become more sophisticated and, correspondingly, more belligerent.
Frontières of a different type appeared when larger and more complicated states were created and found themselves to be in contact with populations that refused the order, peace and material or moral civilization which the larger states stood for.

In modern Europe, following the major crisis caused by the French Revolution, the various countries are tending to unite within limits that are increasingly strictly defined; the old system of ‘enclaves' and ‘exclaves' is disappearing and giving way to the continuous demarcation line, the linear ‘frontière' which can be accurately identified, and all it is is the projection on the ground of the external outlines of a nation fully conscious of itself, making it a point of honor, devoting all its might and power to ensuring the protection of a natural homogeneous territory, and in practice, forbidding any foreign power ‘le viol de sa frontière'.

Bloch was less committed to geography. He used old maps to study the agrarian regimes of France, but he was not as informed by geography as he was by sociology. He wanted historians to take more interest in geographical factors. On the one hand, this meant enriching studies with rich descriptions of the landscape, enriching the reality within the study.

On the other hand, he wanted historians to define the space (as well as the time) of their studies according to the problem they explored. No study should be confined to an arbitrary region:
Why should scholars all stop at precisely the same frontiers?
He bemoaned the state of regional studies, trapped inside narrow boundaries. Instead, historians should explore ‘broad horizons’, even of local studies.

[To read part III, click here.]

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