Spatial Historiography and Empire in Michel Butor's Degrés
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Spatial Historiography and Empire in Michel Butor's Degrés

Michel Butor reflects on the idea of "universal history" in his 1960 novel Degrés as well as in his contemporary theoretical essays on the "roman comme recherche." Of particular concern for the former is the place of metropolitan France in the history of globalization, especially the post-World War II period in which European hegemony has given way to a rising American empire. The relationship between history, geography, and empire is not only a theoretical question for Butor, however; it is also formally apparent in his experimentation with literary space and time and his reflexive, shifting use of voice.

Although it is Michel de Montaigne to whom Butor devoted a book,1 it is Immanuel Kant who first propounded the idea of "universal history" in modern European philosophy. While Montaigne derided what he called cosmography as opposed to topography in his famous essay "Des Cannibales," Kant called for a common universal reason to supersede particular accounts of different places.2 In his essay "Idea For a Universal History With Cosmopolitan Purpose" [Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht], Kant defines such universal reason as a historical narrative, determined by nature, which will inevitably lead to a world order of cosmopolitan peace. He also admits at the beginning of his ninth proposition that this progressive ideal may appear to be no more than a strange work of fiction, ultimately comparing the linear, narrative development of history to the writing of a novel:

A philosophical attempt to work out a universal history of the world [allgemeine Weltgeschichte] in accordance with a plan of nature aimed at a perfect civil union of mankind, must be regarded as possible and even as capable of furthering the purpose of nature itself. It is admittedly a strange and at first sight absurd proposition [End Page 51] to write a history [Geschichte] according to an idea of how world events must develop if they are to conform to certain rational ends; it would seem that only a novel [Roman] could result from such premises.3

Butor, in his essay "Recherches sur la technique du roman," refers to "histoire universelle" as one of the implicit meanings of "histoire," but also acknowledges its inaccessibility, its referential impossibility:

Nous savons bien que dans ce qu'on nous raconte, il y a des choses qui ne sont pas vraies, non seulement des erreurs mais des fictions, nous savons bien que le même mot français "histoire" désigne à la fois le mensonge et la vérité, la conscience même que nous avons du monde en mouvement, l'"Histoire universelle". . . .4

He goes on to argue that as much as this concept may exist, it can never remain entirely stable due to a kind of dialectic or "counterpoint" of conflicting temporal orders, on which he further elaborates under the heading "Contrepont temporel":

Un effort rigoureux pour suivre l'ordre chronologique strict, en s'interdisant tout retour en arrière, amène à des constatations surprenantes: toute référence à l'histoire universelle devient impossible, toute référence au passé des personnages rencontrés, à la mémoire, et par conséquent toute intériorité.5

It is along different yet comparable lines that Walter Benjamin questions the projects of universal history and historicism in his 1940 essay "On the Concept of History" [Über den Begriff der Geschichte]. Here, Benjamin critiques the way in which historicism produces a conception of the past in terms of "homogenous, empty time," and instead develops a more open, architectonic idea of history based on what he calls the "now-time" [Jetztzeit]: "History is the subject of a construction whose site is not homogenous, empty time but time filled by the now-time."6 It is in this way that Benjamin opposes the homogenizing universalism of historicism—and its implicit justification of historical oppression as naturally ordained—with the more revolutionary potential of both historical materialism and the "now-time" (related to what he elsewhere calls "messianic time"). This critical counter-history conceives of history not as a fixed and linear narrative of the past, but rather as constructive, experiential, and open...