In this Newsletter, the spotlight falls upon Catherine Bertho Lavenir. Catherine is Professor of Contemporary History at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris, and was elected to T2M’s Executive Committee in Helmond in 2007. Since then she has also taken on the role of Treasurer, so now she has all of the real power in the Association!
How did you get into academia? And what are you researching at the moment?
That’s a long story – perhaps interesting if one wants to understand how it lead me to the concept of “cultural history of technology” after frequenting a significant number of different theoretical positions in history.
When I was 19 I entered the very selective French Ecole Nationale des Chartes, specializing in Latin, medieval French language and medieval history, in order to become an archivist. My first position was keeper of the Second World War archives of the National Archives in Paris. At the same moment I wrote, on my own time, a PhD on the cultural history of Brittany, something like “Inventing Brittany” (it was before the publication of Hobsbawn’s Invention of Tradition).
Then I was sent to the Ministry of Communication (postal service and communication). I had to take the historical archives from the basement where they had been kept for a hundred years, organize them and open the archives to the historians. I also had to write speeches for the Head Manager of Telecommunications and sometimes for the Ministry. This led me to understand from the inside the management of a “great technical system” and how it is difficult to impose technical choices on a reluctant society (think of the Minitel). At the same time I was teaching a course on “History of Telecommunication” in the French University Paris Dauphine and was in charge of conferences on the “History of Ethnology of France” in the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.
After eleven years in that position I published the book Telegraphes et Téléphones, de Valmy au microprocesseur, which was an history of the French telecommunication service, with a large technical part. I was immediately offered a teaching position in the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers. Professor Jean-Jacques Salomon, in charge of the program “Science, Technology and Society” was looking for a “Maitre de Conference” (assistant professor) able to teach history of telecommunications and my PhD in cultural history (more precisely, “historical anthropology”) allowed me to get a full academic position in this temple of technical history.
A few year later I began to teach history of science and technology in the Ecole Polytechnique. As I was not a specialist, I decided to teach history of science as history of culture, focusing on science as discourse, and using the work of Latour. It worked. The students were satisfied – at the very beginning I was a little bit afraid they should not be, because they were true scientists and engineers.
In the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers I progressively switched from telecommunications toward media because the students were more interested in media. I also had to teach on the history of the internet. The theoretical frame of “ history of innovation” was very useful for that purpose. The book with Frederic Barbier Histoire des médias de Diderot à Internet was written at this moment (precisely during the great transportation strike…). I met Frederic Barbier when I was in the Ecole des Chartes. We have been taught the same classical “german” historical methods, introduced in France after the 1870’s defeat. Excellent methods.
I still was working, and teaching, on the history of ethnology and folklore in Europe. A friend of mine proposed a research program on “writing of the self” organised by the Ethnological Research Program of the Ministry of Culture. I decided to work on the letters sent to the Touring Club de France review before 1914. The book La roue et le stylo resulted from this research. In that book I combined my interest for innovation (technology history) and my interest for the cultural fabric of identity (cultural history). But I am not an historian of tourism! I am an historian of this place laid between technology (the car) and representations (the pen).
Then Professor Salomon retired. We were two “young” women, assistant professors. He said “Girls! Find a position as full professor before I retire or you will suffer! Nobody here is interested in what you do!” So we did. I found a position in the department of history of the University of Clermont-Ferrand. I was asked to teach history of economics. I transformed quickly this into “history of industrialisation,” combining history of innovation and cultural history.
Since then I have been doing the “cultural history of technology,” which is a mix of cultural history and history of technology. I am especially interested in what happens when a new technology is introduced into the social world. I believe that technology changes society – every historian has agreed with this for a long time. But I also am interested in the way society “changes” technology; how social issues force a technology to be shaped in one way or another. I tried to conceptualise this in an article entitled “Histoire culturelle/histoire des techniques: trois points de vue” (with Laurent Martin and Sylvain Venayre (dir), L’Histoire culturelle du contemporain, Nouveau Monde, 2005, pp. 358-383).
You haven’t come to T2M from a ‘traditional’ background – although you are interested in tourism history, you are a cultural historian with a particular interest in the media. What does T2M offer your research, and what can T2M gain from you?
Life was not easy for me as an historian of technology. I understand how a telecom network works but I am definitely not an engineer. So I always was suspected that I would not be a “good enough” historian of “hard” technology. And I am a woman. So when I met Gijs Mom, who introduced me to the T2M network, it was a pleasure to understand that some historians of technology could be so open minded.
I am not versed in theoretical approaches but I think that I am an efficient coach for young researchers. In the field of history of technology I like to consider a technological object as being situated at the centre of concentrically organised “circles.” In the case of the motorcar you can consider the engine (‘first circle”), the car (second “circle”), then the road system, then map representations of the road network, then the hotel guides, then the representations of landscapes … In every “circle” there is a set of relationships between the technical aspects of the reality and the social and cultural characteristics of the society. The definition of the motor has something to do with the quality of steel at one moment and also with the engineer’s culture at the same moment. The profile of the road has something to do with the performance of the engines of the vehicles using the road, but also with the road policy of the country. You can decide to study these relationships systematically. You will not be allowed to forget the influence of technical constraints, nor the economic dimensions of the problem, nor the consequences of regulations, and you will have to consider systematically the sociological and cultural dimensions of all these aspects.
If, at every level, you study the whole set of relationships built around a complex technical object or a complex technical system (a car, a railroad, a bicycle), coming from the more technical aspects to the “less” technical ones, and if you try to understand, at every level, the way technology, culture and society were incorporated into the object, you will obtain results.
Then back to the question: why T2M? I don’t believe that my way is the best one. I only propose to students a way of working which can be successful. I fully understand that other historians write history in another way. In fact every historian has their own path. The reason why I like a group like T2M is that it is a place of respect and curiosity. To be true, I have to say that SHOT is also a pleasant place for defending the cultural history of technology.
What are you currently reading, for work, leisure, or both?
I am reading François Begaudeau’s Antimanuel de littérature (Breal) with great pleasure. François Begaudeau wrote the excellent book Entre les Murs, from which the Cannes Gold Palm film of the same name has been taken. He asks questions nobody dares to ask. For example “When is it literature? ” I am using the book to prepare a course on the history of TV. The questions that will be central to this course will be “Did the American TV serials alter the French national culture? If yes, how did they? If not, who said that they did?” En route, we will also examine what a national culture is, and whether it made any difference when the serials were diffused by “hertzian,” satellite, cable TV network, or through the internet.
At the moment, I am also reading Loriano Macchiavelli and Sandro Toni’s mystery novel Sarti Antonio e l’assassino. It is an Italian “giallo,” excellent for improving my Italian but also a good introduction to understanding the politics of contemporary Italy. The story takes place in the “red” Bologna.
As one of the Deputy Editors of T2M’s Yearbook, what plans do you have for our new publication? How will you make it a distinctive publication?
Something happened in my life this year. I have been elected as Vice-President of my University, especially in charge of the dialogue with the unions. If you know French universities you can understand the problem. Our university has been on strike for seven weeks in the last year. This is why I am not as involved in the Yearbook question as I would like. But I fully trust Gijs Mom to manage the project, and Bruce Pietrykowski and Gordon Pirie as Deputy Editors.
I see four reasons to support the project. The first interest of the project is to give historians a place for publishing. There is a special problem for historians who are not native English speakers. They – and especially the youngest ones – frequently have excellent work to present and encounter many difficulties in doing so because translating their paper costs a lot (time and money). The Yearbook could help.
The T2M Yearbook will also be interesting because it will reflect the recent changes in the academic topography of Europe. The universities of former Eastern and Southern-Eastern Europe are now fully members of the academic choir. In these places there are new researchers, new fields of research. Comparative history can be developed. We need a publication for discovering what we still ignore. The first issue will contain papers allowing the reader to understand what happens in different countries now in the field of mobility history.
More generally speaking, historians from my generation understand that the old frame of “ national” history is naturally disappearing, with the general use of English language (pidgin English, I agree…) and internet. The Yearbook will also reflect this aspect of things and, for example, favour the integration of India, Asia and the Pacific into our mental world, which is sometime narrower than one could expect.
Finally, we are studying transportation technologies, which were almost universal. It is the reason for which we need an “experimental” Yearbook, able to reflect in some way this universality. It is significant that promising young scholars could meet the team in charge of the Yearbook in Ottawa, directly after the conference, and discuss how the younger generation will, in the long run, take over the editorship.
Is there a particularly French take on mobility history? Or anything that dominates attention (for example, the motorcar)?
French is always particular … or believes it is. I suppose that the “particular” take every country has towards mobility history resides not in its peculiar relationship to technology but in its academic topography. In France, for example, François Caron built a strong railroad history. An association exists which controls in some way the connections between the national railroad company, its archives, and the academic world. It gives a special taste to our railroad history, different by example from the English one. Motorcar history has been written differently by people, who always had a strong personality. They frequently began to study one company (Loubet and Peugeot) and controlled in some way the relationship with it and the access to the archives. Most of them were very early in including cultural history in their approach. For example Patrick Friedenson (specialist of Renault) devoted, some years ago, a whole issue of his review Le mouvement social to the cultural history of transportation. Plane transportation historians are also attentive to the cultural aspects of the development of this mean of transportation, especially the links to what we call now the “culture of war.”
I suppose that if one works deep enough, every country has a special “cultural” relationship to its means of transportation. As France was a country of great culture during the whole of the twentieth century, it has perhaps expressed its relationship to car with a special intensity in literature, pictures or arts. But I am working now on the travel of a French Canadian woman in France by automobile in 1908: she came from Chicoutimi, a completely isolated place … and her relationship to “her” car (a magnificent Renault car) was no weaker nor less interesting than the one of a fashionable Parisian ladies.
Finally, how have you found your first year on the EC? What have been the high points and low points?
First year on EC- A pleasure to meet friends who share (I think) my views on how to improve international cooperation in mobility history, and find ways for helping advance students. I have bad consciousness of not having worked more for the Association… But as every historian of culture knows, “bad consciousness” is a speciality of French Jansenist Catholics!