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History, Cinema's Auxiliary

Author(s): Michèle Lagny and Dianah Jackson

Source: SubStance, Vol. 15, No. 3, Issue 51: Recent Film Theory in Europe (1986), pp. 8-19
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3684711
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History, Cinema's Auxiliary


To speak as a historian speaks about the history of the cinema is t

take, paradoxically, an unusual step. Indeed, for more than twe
years, the cinema has become one of the "new objects" used "to do H
tory," and yet it is considered only as a trace, a documentary series,
false or truthful witness. It serves to construct beyond itself that inac
sible past of societies at which historians take aim. To ask the question
the cinema's history is to open up quite another perspective: to m
cinema no longer the auxiliary but the object of the quest. And why n
Long ago, Thucydides felt the need to organize the chaos of the Pelopo
nesian wars; closer to us, positivist and scientific historians felt justified in
dissecting [d6coupage]* the world of the nineteenth century in the a
count they gave of national histories, in which they evaluated event
ordered the past, and legimitized its specificity and its functions.


The first question to be asked is, Why do we need to

scientific and an academic level, "new approaches" to the h
cinema? The cinema appeared very early on as worthy o
tuted as an object of knowledge-as early as May 1897, the f
the new invention appeared. But the writing of this history
a long time outside of the discourses of the institutional st
have authority. With a few brilliant exceptions, the work w
recently by "volunteers" who initiated archiving of films
"stories" without rigor or problematics, and whose org

*Trans. Note: a play on the technical meaning

ting up of a script into scenes and sequence

Sub-Stance N' 51, 1986 8

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History, Cinema's Auxiliary 9

often based on unquestioned classifications and periodizat

ema's entrance within the places of institutionalized k
about via the established disciplines of aesthetics and,
munications. Thus the breakthrough in the university, w
marginal, occurred because of theoretical consideratio
the functioning and the perception of the text. To re
tioning of a historical nature can be viewed, therefore, as
the result of a double demand for order and for legit
necessitates our examination.

I will propose three initial responses founded upon hypotheses t

although different, are not contradictory. First of all, the cinema is
moted from among its own ranks: from the "divertissement d'ilot
that it once was, the cinema has attained the level of art and culture
avoiding the quotation marks that tempt me). As such, in Franc
cinema entered schools (in October of 1984) almost at the same tim
did the Academy of Fine Arts (with its own section created in July
1985). Without a doubt, this legitimized its new status. Second, and
more punctual manner (unless there is a strict but unmentionable
tionship with the preceding phenomenon) the cinema presently
itself in a state of economic and aesthetic crisis. The constitution and
questioning of its past, by legitimizing it as a cultural object, could the
fore not only keep it safe from the proliferating competition of comm
place audio-visual products, but enable as well an explanation for
current difficulties. Finally, one can expect that the development
theoretical studies, that have remained limited due to methodolog
necessity, tends to provoke the disintegration of an object initially c
sidered specific and homogeneous; support from the established trad
tional disciplines could authorize its reconstruction. Among these, wh
not philosophy (with the help of Bergson via Deleuze)3 or histo
thereby itself becoming the auxiliary, the handmaiden, of the cinem
The appeal of its methods, considered rigorous and scientific, wo
assure its maturation, through a crisis of identification, from an art still i
its infancy to one capable of becoming the object of a parallel histor
second only to "big" history, just as in the case of the histories of art
of literature. At the very least, there remains for the cinema only t
realm of the dead.4
The first two hypotheses presuppose that the cinema is an object
whose value must be established and which has not been called into
question. Its history could have an explicit basis in works by analyz
them within their contexts, along a chronological axis and with
aesthetic hierarchy; it would be at once linear, normative, and tele
ical. To constitute this history, one would return to an anterior mom
in relation to which each novelty and each transformation is measu
and one would start the race towards origins that is the permanent t
tation of historians. It seems to me that in this manner the curren
increasing appeal of primitive cinema is symptomatic;5 whatever int

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10 Michele Lagny

and quite obvious interest this attracts,

"irreplaceable freshness" in the cinema
ture from the themes, forms, and ch
considered "classic" (and which co
twentieth century). In the same ma
would be evaluated, as were the "Peric
Augustus or of Louis XIV, through st
tures which assured an abundant and
sketched the outline by which one me
the cinema can be analyzed by the dis
ruptures that have been imposed by
subject of important and fruitful stu
Establishing its documents with ri
periods and its areas with precision, t
basis of the consecutive-consequential
logical order that are at the core of t
science, still largely intact. But this a
less, as seen in the recent criticism
ography of the French Revolution.6 B
for the French Revolution in the contr
and the Enlightenment, historians hav
a conjunctural event into a simple nece
the risk of reducing their object to a
another in a linear, one-to-one fashio
It remains to establish the legitimac
constitute itself as an object of knowl
much as its own identity is so uncert
the cinema has been questioned for a
ample, has pointed out the difference
matic,7 and as Michel de Certeau note
exists a dichotomy in the cinema that
for methods"8-The object is studied
economic history. Thus the very field
located, its disseminated object to be (r
history presupposes this field, it is
restoration. Yet in this division betwee
possible to recognize the major concer
the cinema. With this aim, one can
economic imperatives with a cultural s
to have an aesthetic and/or ideologica
product for mass consumption. This p
structure necessitating box-office suc
Correlatively, cinema is an effective m
system of society's dominant class; in
of the ideological functioning of this
of its potential use as a propaganda too

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History, Cinema's Auxiliary 11

this hypothesis that historians have worked the past few ye

the cinema as reflecting ideology and seeking to evaluate th
or those conscious (or unconscious) representations yield
society of which it is itself the product. In France, in addit
Ferro and Pierre Sorlin, one can take the recent example
Garcon,'2 who established a relationship between official di
of the National Revolution, and the implicit discourse of fi
1936 and 1944. He observed an apparently paradoxical dis
tween Blum's Pre-P6tain France and Vichy France that w
refractive within the imposed ideology, thus showing the com
"time of mentalities" that Ferdinand Braudel qualified as "t
ment of long durations"-the differential evolutions of
Questions of this type could not have been brought up in
sector nor about any other product than the film. Seeming
clude Carlo Ginzburg's examination of the socio-economi
tions of a painting by Piero della Francesca,'3 and Georges D
of the economic and ideological displacements that misr
builders of cathedrals.'4 But the cinema seems to be a privile
examining the conceivable relationships between the econom
cultural and the principles that govern the modes of a soci
sion of itself. This prerogative could be linked to the relative
status of the cinema, associating some of the apparently stea
(at a technological, economic, and indeed formal level) with
ity of some of its functions. (What is the purpose of a film
profit? Pleasure? Power?) To approach the already old "new
construct its regularities, divide it into unities, and evaluat
would enable it to advance its proposals. Considering itself
sive practice produced in the present, it elaborates upon
function of the problematic that it holds for itself and the o
constitutes for itself at different rates along the chronolog
Limiting myself to the French school, I will exemplify this b
in pell mell fashion to Michel de Certeau, Georges Duby, Fr
Ferdinand Braudel (all of whom I have already quoted)
Michel Vovelle, Paul Veyne, or Jacques Le Goff. Putting asid
pressed or stated contradictions and oppositions, I will
what is similar in their approaches, as did Michel Foucault
introduction to L'Archdologie du savoir, where he analyzed t
history's epistemological mutations on the construction of


This proposition leads to calling into question all glob

tions. As Pinel has pointed out,'6 whatever worth this may
longer a question of plunging oneself into the general his

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12 Michele Lagny

cinema, not only because of the expan

treated and the impossible polyvale
searchers, but, even more, because
tendency to readdress distances and d
far have been questioned. Several re
more narrow pathways that allow for
and for envisioning some new perspec

An Archeology

The first perspectives to be consider

tution of traces: no matter what proc
only able to study vestiges. History mu
order to have grounds for writing its
necessary to admit that something has
Even if one thinks that the past is to
asked, this remains a fundamental aim
horizon of expectation indefinitely cal
without it we have no history, only st
ments that one may eventually transf
Archeology therefore remains indis
defined status of the cinema and its l
have limited its archives. Whether a m
cinema remained partially in shadow
cause it is the messenger of desire an
able to constitute the shortcomings of it
counting for its effectiveness.
Establishing a network of vestiges is
plexity of the observational field: Wh
conserved, inventoried, itemized? With
is at once imperative and impossible,
appears to be important according to
Certain precedents can guide the rese
in order to study the structures of pr
tory of the press; or sociology in ord
Filmic texts would become the prec
standpoint, the old positivist scholarsh
positivists remains irreplaceable if it i
and filmographers find themselves con
(at least until recently): while the rest
the massive reediting some have unde
establishing of correct versions, so mu
tute the "traces of traces." Historians h
archive is always a constructed one an
ture the material on which they work,
the imprint of the past will be marked

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History, Cinema's Auxiliary 13

the same way that early movies were rewritten as organ

Andre Gaudreault and Tom Gunning,20 scholars are lim
from one signifier to another and must transpose those pr
that they discover into written texts (in two languages) an
computer printouts; that is, to the extent that the trace d
system of construction, the signifier is itself determined
options of the author (therefore by the current state of th
the cinema) and by the hic et nunc of technological possibi
thing one is capable of avoiding in trying to restore "
content" of the text (as Langlois and Seignobos wanted to d
Evans against Chosso, reconstructing, on the basis of curre
tions, films as imaginative as the palace of Minos on the islan
is therefore necessary to have respect for the condition of
discover in film libraries.
All the same, for indexing one has to convince oneself that all study
(as neutral and as objective as it appears) cannot go beyond the formula
tion of the criteria that presided at the founding of cataloguing: one see
this clearly in the utilization of the invaluable catalogues Raymond
Chirat has built up for the French cinema."1 The publishing in book form
of credit titles, for example, should be accompanied by some mention of
the method of their reconstitution; insofar as the order of names in
Chirat's volumes is obviously not that of the films' credits themselves, it
must be justified: is it according to the order of the appearance of the
characters on the screen, that corresponding to the importance of the
roles, or that which is imposed by the supposed celebrity of the actor? It
would also be necessary to know how Chirat's written summaries were
established: after the screening of the film? (Which copy of the film? And
where was it stored?) Concerning lost films, was it a matter of recovering
reviews from the press of the time or of recomposing summaries by way
of these reviews? As many indispensable elements as possible must be
employed in order to elaborate, from this basic material, the paths of
research. At the level of the constitution of "sources," the history of the
cinema cannot abstain from describing the mode of elaboration of its
object: it is the condition sine qua non of its scientific competency to ex-
hibit "its instituting action and its transformational techniques.""22

Cuts: Texts, Series, Intersections

Fundamentally different from archeology or from textual analysis,

history cannot be content with analyzing its own monuments in and of
themselves: it must, at some time or another, create documents out of
them in order to construct objects for itself. It is here that two inextric-
ably connected problems present themselves: first of all (and inevitably
so), within historical practice the plurality of sources is implied, whether
it be a matter of diachronic series of homogeneous units or the syn-
chronic intersections of heterogeneous elements. In the first case, one

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14 Michble Lagny

examines a single level across a temporal d

priori. (For instance, What do films from 1
or mentalities? How can a series of charter
tween the civil and the ecclesiastic powe
during the tenth and eleventh centuries?)
sects at a precise moment different docum
demographic and economic statistics, ide
deciphered, for example, in order to estab
the events of 1789, with which one can im
levels of social functionings. At the same t
sources, one organizes the cuts, the seri
exchange: while some consider that it is nec
sources at one's disposal, and others deem
first be elaborated,23 it seems to me that t
neous and indissociable. It is equally necess
to treat the texts that are constituted, ser
one immediately interrogate them from an
make witnesses out of them? Or should one
by making them undergo, whatever the
formalized by Michel Foucault: "to take
to isolate, to group, to make pertinent, to
ensembles"24-and to which one gives an int
able to formulate its discursive regularities
ities justify? Dislocation/restructuring occu
ductive in different ways.
A first step, the one most often used, dea
replacing them in their circuit of commun
ship with other documentary series, permit
game of constant come and go. The metho
toriography, which, contrary to what it is
claim to "the document as a point of depart
of arrival." Treating texts stripped of co
objectivity by an "external criticism" with t
positivism makes its hypotheses underg
rors").25 Revised and corrected, these pr
simply speaking, the new history has mult
sons and has opened up the field of questio
ple, Duby interprets the Bouvines not on
expressions of royal power in the feudal p
soming of critical reflection" and "the pro
the battle provoked, uses them as a means
anthropology of feudal war" as well.26
From this perspective, history has also
take one example, Aldgate drew from t
Spanish Civil War a study of the "manipul
ined of a homogeneous series of texts as

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History, Cinema's Auxiliary 15

other areas of knowledge, giving him the authority to jud

scope and the reasons for subsequent events. All the same
tion of the split brought to light by the cinema between o
sion and implicit opinion, Francois Garcon selects and q
from the positions forged by the National Revolution. Her
that one must measure: films are revelatory of "reactions
authorize the formulation of a discourse that would be pr
To take just one example, the interrogation of La Vie est i
ing "the disarmed proletariat" permits us to see clearly th
of the film as release mechanism for strikes, but it leaves o
aims that the communist party held, voluntarily or not, f
tem of values.28
One may object that it is not a matter of film history but of seeing the
cinema as a "historical object." It seems to me, however, that the issue is
unchanged in that the traditional, positivist way of cutting up the cin-
ema's history operates according to external criteria as, for example, is
the case in the layout adopted by the most recent catalogue of the French
cinematographic press, Cinima pleine page.29 Thus, the markers of chron-
ological segmentation are more times than not those from other levels of
history, on the geo-political or socio-economic order. One talks about the
cinema of Mussolini, of Vichy, or of Weimar Germany; one questions the
films of the 1930s concerning the era, and one is surprised to find in
them only a faint trace, just as the period of the 1940s is centered on a
war that distinctly erases itself from the films as best it can. In each of
these cases, even though ajustification is possible from the economic and
institutional pressures on the cinema, one imposes limits on the cinema
that do not pertain to it. This is perhaps best illustrated by Jean-Pierre
Jeancolas's study of cinema in the '30s, which he had to call, "Fifteen
years of the '30s," insofar as he recognized economic and institutional
ruptures that were not pertinent to his object.3 One is able to make the
same observation regarding the geographical slicing that makes of films
the expression of a national culture (the usual absence of which one
laments) or regroupings according to genre (Film-noir, Neorealism, etc.)
the border-lines of which every slightly astute investigation erases. Criti-
cism of this type is elsewhere underway, particularly in the issue of IRIS,
Pour une theorie de l'histoire du cinema, in which Philip Rosen problematizes
the notion of "national cinemas" in the work of Kracauer and of Burch,
and in which Jean-Louis Leutrat calls into question the principle of
genre classification by fixing a "near-sighted gaze" on the denotations of
the "film western."3'
Leaving behind these doubts, provoked by the dawn of precise and
rigorous study, one can imagine making of cinema, not an object whose
contours remain difficult to discern, but an open field of historical invest-
igations. It suffices to take from the "new history" the methods that it
itself has often borrowed from other sectors (economics, the social
sciences, the sciences of language). Furet, drawing from models in eco-

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16 Michele Lagny

nomic history, proposes the considerat

basis of the intellectual tools provided
well known heterogeneous periods the
tually elaborated questions."" One w
emphasizing the reflection produced b
nologies, to question the importance a
technical innovations-not in order to
of the cinema, but to construct a histo
ventions, whether assumed or not,
figures. Without searching in the imag
heritage of photography, without res
opposition of the two periods of the "
could place in a series the potential or
(and their relationships with the syst
cinematographic expression) avoiding
one-to-one and causal nature.34
The most significant borrowing here comes from the highly original
points of departures and methods of hypothetico-deductive reasoning:
it is not only the internal structuring of the documentary series upon
which both the formulation of the problematic and the distinctive natur
of the segmentation will depend. It is on the basis of an internal analysis
of texts that the rules of the construction of the series and the historical
object to be questioned will be seen to emerge. On the heels of work
within the history of ideas and of ideology, limping along in the footsteps
of Michel Foucault or of Michel de Certeau (who were thus inspired),
one must make use of the "discursive events" that are serialized accord-
ing to their emergence or of their dispersion in order to localize ther
regularities and gaps, whether via the order in which they successiv
appear or via the correlations that permit the establishment of t
simultaneity. From this, neither a discovery or a referent will be dra
nor a simple description of the signifier, but rather the possibility of
structing the objects that discourse talks about."3 Such discursive un
apply to films as much as to texts, whether they be institutional, crit
theoretical, or historiographical. Once examined-using the knowle
acquired through discursive analysis, more precisely, through fil
analysis-these units would open up the paths, not only to the repres
tations that a society has of itself, but, as noted by Edgar Morin, to
specifics of a mode of expression that has produced from a techn
(the cinematographic) a production (the cinema)."6
Despite all the difficulties expressed on many occassions,37 Pie
Sorlin, by emphasizing the internal structuring of a film, has shown
possibilities a single film has in commenting on other texts, and how
can be put in relation to its conditions of reception and of production
From a slightly different perspective-applying several method
structural analysis to a more or less arbitrarily selected sampling (th
function of a specific time period and geo-political area, the French

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History, Cinema's Auxiliary 17

ema of the 1930s)-a collective work is in its final stages th

into relief the objects and the practices produced by the c
include the tautological expression of values considered as
nation), the erasure of the Other (in this instance, whateve
a colony) by its feminization, the occultation of the collect
vate, etc."9 In all of these cases, the current tendency to d
cinema-object, as I have emphasized from the beginning, s
tensified, at the same time that one opens up pathways tow
lishment of a relational system by which it could be specifi
historical knowledge about the cinema, the tracing of fron
phering of ways of access, the fixing of crossroads wi
through setting up a series of vestiges; from ancillary area
sales and movie house attendance, production studio a
chambers of commerce); and from "classified film monum
fied by various sources). The status of this series will be m
ing to whether one interrogates them in and of themselv
ments") or whether, by transforming them into documen
use of them to question other sources.
This history will be neither exhaustive, global, nor
rather, it will be at once descriptive, hypothetico-deductiv
ative-no longer "a story of origins and a memorial of gra
ing to the cinema,40 but the questioning of the identity, th
the type of relations that the cinema brings to light within
types of relations might, for example, concern that existin
nomic determinations and the forms of the imaginary or
cultures of "the mass" and of "the elite" (to limit oneself t
two types of access points). Explaining its procedures at e
this history would authorize freedom and imagination in
the itineraries that would lead us from the films to the so
duces and consumes them. The cinema, to return to the id
history" that I elaborated at the start of the game, will n
new object,"41 neither an auxiliary to nor an object of his
providing a new approach, a "new territory" for the hist

Translated by Dianah Jackso


1. See Vincent Pinel, "Les Histoires du cinema: du singulier au pluriel

pleine page (Paris: L'Herminier, 1985), pp. 19-26.
2. This expression is from Marc Ferro's "Le Film: contre-analyse de la soc
Annales (1973).
3. Gilles Deleuze, L'image-mouvement (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983)
Stance, no. 44/45 (1984).
4. Michel de Certeau, L'dcriture de l'Histoire (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), p
5. See the various documents of IRIS, in particular Archive, document, fictio

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18 Mich le Lagny

avant 1907, 2, no. 1, (1984). Witness too the vari

"Le Cinema des premiers temps," organized in No
matheque, or cultural expressions such as the Fe
6. Frangois Furet, Penser la Revolution (Paris:
7. Christian Metz, Langage et Cinema (Paris:
8. de Certeau, L'ecriture de l'histoire, p. 36.
9. George Bruno, "Towards a Theorization of F
de l'histoire du cinima, 2, no. 2 (1984).
10. These themes among others were largely de
and in Cinethique during the 1970s.
11. Andre Marwick, "Le film est la realit," in H
1983), pp. 34-39.
12. Franrois Gargon, De Blum a& Petain (Paris:
13. Carlo Ginzburg, Enquite sur Piero della Fran
14. Georges Duby, Le Temps des cathidrales (Pa
15. Michel Foucault, L'Archdologie du savoir (Pa
16. Pinel, "Les Histoires du cinema."
17. Michel Foucault, L'Ordre du discours (Paris:
18. Based on chapter 5 of Henri Langlois and Ch
historiques, (Paris, 1898), see J. Fremeaux and Ber
Marketing, 1980), p. 29: "First of all one observe
was produced? Has it deteriorated? One tries to f
to restore it due to the need for its original term
from. This first group of preliminary research,
forms, and sources etc., will constitute the part
or scholarly criticism."
19. Georges Duby and Guy Lardreau, Dialogue
is aware that each generation of historians oper
and certain excavations of others to which no o
attention. As a consequence, already the focus g
on a particular questioning, a particular problem
20. See, for example, the document proposed
Michaux and Andre Lacasse, "Ambitions et lim
21. See, the series of Catalogues des films fran
Chirat, for each century.
22. de Certeau, L'9criture de l'Histoire, p. 87.
23. Francois Furet, L'Atelier de l'Histoire (Paris
24. Foucault, L'Archdologie du savoir, p. 15.
25. Again relying on Langlois and Seignobois,
l'Histoire, pp. 30-31: "Next, the INTERNAL C
means of reasoning by analogies, the most impor
ogy.... One asks oneself the questions: 1) What
author believably established what s/he thought
brought back to ... observation; it is no longe
objective science."
26. Duby, Le Temps des cathidrales, pp. 63-64.
27. A. Aldgate, Cinema and History: British N
28. Concerning this, see two analyses that are in part contradictory: Francois Garcon,
pp. 139-140, and Michdle Lagny and Pierre Sorlin, "Deux historiens apr6s le film: per-
plexes," in HORS CADRE I, Analectures (Paris: PUF, 1983), pp. 51-58.
29. Cinema pleine page (see note 1) proposes, in its "Repertoire thematique," a sub-
chapter, "History of the Cinema," that is itself divided into three parts: general history,
history of national cinemas, and history of genre and themes. Along these last two axes, the

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History, Cinema's Auxiliary 19

necessity of a periodization is felt even more concerning with respect to

(European and American).
30. Jean-Pierre Jeancolas, 15 ans d'annees trente. Le cinema des Frangais,
Stock Cinema, 1983).
31. Philip Rosen, "History, textuality, nation; Kracauer, Burch and so
the study of national cinema," pp. 69-84; and Jean-Louis Leutrat, "L'Histo
fraction d'une identite," pp. 57-67, both in IRIS, 2, no. 2 (1984).
32. Furet, L'Atelier de l'Histoire, p. 29.
33. Gerard Betton, Histoire du cinema (Paris, PUF, 1984).
34. See the proposals initiated by Pierre Sorlin in Sociologie du cinem
Montaigne, 1977), pp. 247-248, and developed by Rick Altman in "Represe
nologies and the History of Cinema," IRIS 2, no. 2 (1984), 111-126, and
ogy of the Voice," IRIS 3, no. 1 (1985), 3-20.
35. Foucault, L'Archeologie du savoir.
36. Edgar Morin, Le cinema ou l'Homme imaginaire (Paris: Editions de M
37. See Pierre Sorlin, "Promenade dans Rome" IRIS, 2, no. 2 (1984), 5
and Sorlin, "Deux Historiens apres le film: perplexes."
38. Sorlin, Sociologie du cindma and "Promenade dans Rome."
39. The studies, in their final stages, done by the multidisciplinary te
under the direction of Marie-Claire Ropars and Pierre Sorlin.
40. Frangois Furet, L'Atelier de l'Histoire, p. 75.
41. See Marc Ferro, "Le Film; contre-analyse de la socidte," in Jacque
Pierre Nora, Faire de l'Histoire, vol. 3, Nouveaux objets (Paris: Gallimard,

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