The Historiographic Perversion

November 26, 2009

While the mass killings of the Armenians in 1915, which claimed more than 1 million lives, have been recognised as a genocide by many historians and more than 20 governments around the world, there is still a great deal of controversy surrounding the nature of the event, the terminology that should be used to discuss it, and issues of guilt and responsibility. Turkey's refusal to recognise and acknowledge the Ottoman Empire's genocidal will and the fact that the term "genocide" implies not only victims but clearly defined perpetrators, means that debates on the event have been influenced by a variety of national and global political interests.

Marc Nichanian's The Historiographic Perversion is not a straightforward polemic about the nature of The Catastrophe, as the Armenian genocide is often referred to. Instead, the book looks at the tragedy in the context of more fundamental issues about the use and significance of historical evidence as well as raising questions about what constitutes historical reality and what is a historical, or indeed any other, fact.

Nichanian takes the widely publicised controversy in France about the Armenian genocide as his starting point. In 1994, Bernard Lewis, a renowned American historian, appeared before a French civil court accused of denying the genocide. Nichanian writes: "In short, a state court was asking a historian to give an account of his conception of truth in history. What a scandal!" The second event that Nichanian considers in conjunction with the trial is the case of another historian, Gilles Veinstein, whose election to the College de France was marred by accusations of negationism in relation to the articles he had written in Lewis' defence.

Nichanian's analysis of the trial, the controversy and their impact on the public and intellectual circles is, however, only a part of a much wider inquiry. The premise of The Historiographic Perversion revolves around the aforementioned question of what constitutes a historical fact and who should have the final say in determining its veracity; a historian or a court of law, or perhaps neither? Nichanian writes that the cases of Lewis and Veinstein "made it possible for me to understand that an event could fail to be a fact and that new categories were necessary in order to think (of) the 'genocides' of the 20th century together with the unsettling events that have accompanied and followed them".

Those accompanying and following events are of special interest in The Historiographic Perversion. Reaching beyond issues of negationism or responsibility, Nichanian provides a perceptive and complex exploration of the significance of the archive, especially the destruction of the archive as an integral part of the genocidal will, and the role and place of testimony in the legal, historical and cultural evidential framework that defines an event, historical and otherwise.

The Historiographic Perversion is impressively well informed and engaged theoretically. Translated by Gil Anidjar, it is an extremely competent, eloquent and beautifully written work. Sometimes the theoretical complexity of the argument becomes confusing, but it never prevents the author's message from getting through. A powerful and personal book, it displays, through its evocative brilliance and discipline of logic, Nichanian's long-lasting engagement with the significance and context of the Armenian genocide.

The Historiographic Perversion

By Marc Nichanian. Translated by Gil Anidjar. Columbia University Press. 216pp, £20.50 ISBN 9780231149082 Published 20 October 2009

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