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Critical Studies

The historian and his time

New book by José Jobson de Andrade Arruda reconciles theory and practice in a discussion of historiography

ALEXANDRE CAMANHOIn the historian’s studio, history is a painstaking art. It demands techniques, instruments, and tools applied with scientific rigor and literary refinement—plus a generous dollop of theoretical knowledge. It is not for nothing that reconciling theory and practice is considered a major challenge. This reconciliation is what historian José Jobson de Andrade Arruda aims to achieve in his book Historiografia: teoria e prática (Historiography: theory and practice) (published by Alameda, 2014), where the famous phrase by Goethe appears on its early pages: “Dear friend, all theory is gray, and green the golden tree of life.” With these words, Jobson is advising against holding up theoretical principles as “absolute truths,” since this may cause theory to slip into ideology. In the historian’s view, there must be a balance between empirical precision and theorization: “It is neither the exercise of theoretical rhetoric in a void, nor the plethora of practical experiments bereft of the theoretical underpinnings that shed light on them, but rather the interpenetration of theory and practice that leads to logos, that is, to comprehensive reason.”

Jobson sees historiography as encompassing the critical analysis of historical works and of historians and their times. “History and historiography are not synonymous. On the one hand, there is history—and historians try to capture fragments of time from this history. On the other, there is historiography, which endeavors to produce knowledge about history, within its circumstances,” he observes. The author devotes the early chapters of his new book to theory, but he illustrates practice in the chapters focused on analyzing the works of such intellectuals as Alice Canabrava (1911-2003), Fernando Novais, and José da Silva Lisboa, Viscount of Cairu (1756-1835). In addition to these Brazilians, he includes two foreign historians: Stuart Schwartz and Christopher Hill (1912-2003). He ends the text by applying the proposed historiographic method to two topics, related to the subject of the Iberian empires in modernity. “Based on this diversity of authors from yesterday and today, I sought to highlight the potential for applying the historiographic method to different eras and to different interpreters of reality. My goal was to reposition methodological questions and show the empirical works that ground theory,” Jobson says.

It was a long road back “home.” Jobson, who in 1973 received his PhD in Modern History from the School of Philosophy, Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), formerly divided his time between Brasília and São Paulo. While serving on the faculty at Curso Objetivo, a preparatory course for the college entrance exam, he was director of Applied Human and Social Sciences at the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and head of the History Department and the Institute of Prehistory at USP; he was also behind the merger of the museums that currently form the university’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. During his vacation time, he wrote textbooks, like the series História moderna e contemporânea (Modern and contemporary history) and História antiga e medieval (Ancient and medieval history). He later made his life between Bauru, Campinas, and São Paulo; it was then that he became vice-president of FAPESP (1995-1997), professor at the Institute of Economics of the University of Campinas (Unicamp), and editor of the publishing house Editora da Universidade do Sagrado Coração (Edusc).

Although he never officially left USP, Jobson, now 72, is back. Today he is senior professor with the Graduate Program in Economic History at USP and leader of the Jaime Cortesão Center’s Ibero-American Historiography Study Group, alongside historian Laura de Mello e Souza. As a researcher, he is at present putting the final touches on a dozen papers and three books. Historiografia, the first of this new crop, is fruit of the class taught by Jobson entitled “Historiography: Theory and Practice,” which marked his 2012 return to the classroom at the main USP campus in São Paulo. “I’d been away from USP since 1998,” he says. “When I went back, I found brilliant students there, like Eduardo Peruzzo, Leandro Villarino, and Roberto Pereira Silva, and Prof. Alberto Luiz Schneider, who all encouraged the idea of turning the class into a book, which is designed to contribute to training young historians.”

Jobson gathered together old, unpublished articles and completely reformulated them for the course. His rationale for deciding to publish them in book form was that, after 50 years of steady academic dedication and constant research, he still had something new to say, especially to the youngest generations.

ALEXANDRE CAMANHOFor young historians
Jobson presents a fresh idea that constitutes a synthesis and an invitation at one and the same time. “History is perpetually renewing itself. After a certain length of time, knowledge solidifies and takes a leap forward; it advances. Following the 1950s, when Fernand Braudel published The Mediterranean, a certain method held sway, one that emphasized the economic and social dimensions,” he explains. “Later, in the late 1970s, when Le Roy Ladurie released Montaillou, another advance marked a new paradigm in the interpretation of history: a ‘new’ history rooted in culture.” In Jobson’s view, however, these histories are not mutually exclusive: “To the contrary, they engage in dialogue with each other.”

As a student and teacher, Jobson experienced the intellectual excitement of those times empirically. On the one hand, he saw economic history, grounded in Marxism, enjoy a certain hegemony in the 1960s and 1970s. On the other, he witnessed the dominance of cultural history from the 1970s through 2000. “It’s a matter of emphasis. In one case, ideology prevails; in the other, the imagination. But one has to pay attention to the arguments of both approaches, which, in my opinion, are not exclusive. Dialogue is possible. This synthesis is yet another leap forward; it is what I had in mind when I proposed something new in the book. And what do I have to say? Well, history is alive. Now it is inviting us to a dialogue between culture and economics,” the author states.

If economic history began with a wide-angle view (macro-history), and cultural history with a very specific focus (micro-history), Jobson proposes that young historians pay closer attention to both concerns. “The historian is left with a complex endeavor, an endless task: not to overlook the details, the minutiae, but also not to forget to frame them within the broad web of macro-history,” he recommends.

Jobson, who also wrote Uma colônia entre dois impérios: A abertura dos portos brasileiros, 1800-1808 (A colony between two empires: the opening of Brazilian ports, 1800-1808) (Alameda, 2008), has worked to heighten such dialogue. Among his many experiences, perhaps one in particular helped lead to this synthesis. While at the Unicamp Institute of Economics, the historian took part in the thematic project “Dimensions of the Portuguese Empire” from 2005 to 2010, with the support of FAPESP. Coordinated by Laura de Mello e Souza and counting as well on the participation of historians Leila Mezan Algranti and Vera Lucia Amaral Ferlini, the project brought together researchers with different affinities and fostered an exchange of ideas at periodic meetings. It is with the idea of continuing this dialogue between culture and economics, especially among the youngest generations, that Jobson will teach a graduate course entitled “Economic History and Cultural History: Theory and Practice,” from March to June 2015, partnering with sociologist Maria Arminda do Nascimento Arruda, currently dean of Culture and University Extension at USP.

Arruda, Jobson’s wife, has long been his chief intellectual sounding board. Jobson has also engaged in a defining exchange of intellectual ideas with USP professor emeritus and historian Fernando Novais, to whom he dedicated one chapter of his latest book. “Novais loves to joke. He always says, and with due cause, ‘I’m a Pascalian Marxist’. My idea in this chapter was to leave this foundation clear,” the researcher explains. Novais—author of Aproximações: Estudos de história e historiografia (Forging ties: studies of history and historiography) (published by Cosac Naify, 2011) and the classic Portugal e Brasil na crise do antigo sistema colonial, 1777-1808 (Portugal and Brazil in the crisis of the former colonial system, 1777-1808) (published by Hucitec, 1979)—has this to say: “Inarguably, Jobson’s book is very important. I also write about historiography but from a different slant. It is not a question of opposing views but of different approaches.”

Entwined temporalities
Thinking historiographically means thinking about temporality—better put, about “transtemporality.” According to Jobson, astronomical time keeps track of passing history, of the succession of minutes that turn into hours, which turn into days. But there is also the time of the historian, embedded between past and present, between entwined temporalities. “The historian looks at the past, captures fragments of it, and makes them comprehensible to the present. But the historian is a real person, caught up in his time and his context; he has an intellectual background, a family, an ideology, a religion, a reality—in short, a life,” says Jobson. So in order to understand a work of history, one has to understand its author and his or her influences, references, and roots. “There are no dead bones in history. These bones contain DNA. They have a lot to say.”

Perhaps in contrast with what is commonly believed, historians do not concern themselves only with combing through the dust of the past, amidst parchments and ruins. On the contrary, these intellectuals contemplate the past while rooted in the present and looking toward a future horizon. “The historian has a future in mind, sometimes more immediate, sometimes farther off. Take the economic transformation of Brazil, for example. Did a historian like Caio Prado Júnior, who studied the economic formation of Brazil, look only to the past? No. He had a present—and mainly a future—in mind,” he observes. “Celso Furtado, Gilberto Freyre, Florestan Fernandes, and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda—scholars who painted portraits, the great interpreters of Brazil—looked toward the future. At heart, they wanted to transform the country. These are the dialogics of transtemporality, which a historian has in his mind. They are historiography itself,” he concludes.