Principal Postmodernism and History

Postmodernism and History

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Postmodernism and History

Theory and History
Series Editor: Donald MacRaild
Published
Empiricism and History

Stephen Davies

Marxism and History

Matt Perry

Postmodernism and History

Willie Thompson

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Postmodernism
and History

Willie Thompson

© Willie Thompson 2004
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Thompson, Willie.
Postmodernism and history / Willie Thompson.
p. cm. — (Theory and history)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-333-96339-5 — ISBN 978-0-333-96338-8 (pbk.)
1. Postmodernism—Historiography. 2. History—Philosophy.
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Contents

Preface and Acknowledgements

ix

Introduction

1

1

What this book is about

1

Plan of the book

3

What is ‘Postmodernism’?

6

The basic ideas

6

Modernism and structuralism

7

From structuralism to poststructuralism

9

Freud

9

Deconstruction

2

10

Jacques Derrida

10

Poststructuralism and postmodernism combine

14

Postmodernism in history

16

Postmodernism and history

19

Examples

23

The Status of Historical Evidence

27

Developments in historical evidence

27

The unbearable lightness of historical evidence

29

Dealing with documents

32

Postmodern interpretations

34

Evidence and artistry

35

Shifting orientations

37

Conclusion

39
v

vi Contents

3

4

5

6

Problems of Representation

41

Concepts and categorisation

42

Feminist historiography

45

Social versus cultural history

49

Language

51

Conclusion

55

Representation, Narrative and Emplotment

56

Deconstructing narrative

57

Hayden White

58

Emplotment in action

62

Trotsky and Deutscher

63

Other emplotments

65

Dilemmas

69

Conclusion

72

Michel Foucault – Representation and
Power

74

Words and things

77

Epistemes

79

The iron cage

79

Knowledge and power

82

Sexuality and its discontents

85

Applications

88

Conclusion

89

Representation and Relativism, Cognitive
and Moral

91

Jones, Joyce and Vernon

94

The polemics

97

Constructions of reality

99

Ethical relativism

100

Postcolonialism

102

Conclusion

105

Contents vii

7

Representation, Metanarratives and
Microhistories

107

Metanarrative

107

Marxism

111

Explanation

117

Conclusion

122

Conclusion

123

Glossary

129

Notes

136

Further Reading

154

Index

158

Preface and
Acknowledgements

‘Postmodernism’ is a very flexible term and a very diffuse one; it can incorporate
a variety of standpoints, even contradictory ones, and as understood nowadays
amalgamates trends and outlooks that spring from different sources which were
initially quite distinct. It is also very controversial, generating both passionate
attachment and implacable hostility. The reasons for the latter attitude are more
than understandable. Those who sail under its flag frequently express themselves in
an impenetrable jargon and occasionally display a certain arrogance. These points
apply no less in history than in the other forms of knowledge which have been
influenced by postmodernism.
Readers will, of course, wish to know my own view, and though this will become
easily apparent in the course of reading, I will briefly preview it here. I certainly do
not accept postmodernism as a wholly meritorious development, and am generally
very sceptical of its basis and its claims. Nevertheless I also argue that there is some
intellectual nourishment to be had from biting into this very sour apple. I argue that
although its historian adherents when they have written good history have mostly
done so in spite of their intellectual commitment, at times they have done so because
of it. Postmodernism for historians is therefore not by any means a nullity. These
considerations will form the theme of what follows. Writings on history and postmodernism are by now very extensive and it is quite impossible to deal with them in
any complete fashion in a relatively brief text such as this. My apologies therefore to
postmodernist historians or historical theorists whom I have omitted to discuss.
This book would not have been possible without the numberless discussions I
have carried on with colleagues and students around this theme. I am also indebted
to the University of Northumbria at Newcastle for providing me with an academic
base from which to pursue the project; and particularly to Don MacRaild, the editor
of the series, who was responsible for the opportunity and has encouraged and
supported me throughout; and to Douglas Chalmers, who provided invaluable
technological assistance; as well as to my endlessly patient editors, Terka Acton and
Sonya Barker.
W.T.

ix

Introduction

䉴

What this book is about

In his very useful volume, published as far back as 1987, Peter Dews began
Over the past two decades the style of thought known as post-structuralism has exercised an extraordinary influence over intellectual life in the English-speaking world.
Post-structuralist strategies and forms of analysis, orientated towards the dismantling
of stable conceptions of meaning, subjectivity and identity, have become central to
the theoretical armoury, and in some cases have brought about the transformation, of
a wide variety of disciplines in the humanities and social studies. . . . In the domain of
social theory and the history of thought, the writings of Michel Foucault have been a
major stimulus.1

This volume aims to consider the impact upon historiography of this complex
of ideas and climate of intellectual thought. Historiography means the writing of
history – a term I prefer in that context to ‘history’, so as to emphasise the distinction
between the events of the past, which are the object of historical research, and the
public presentation of the historian’s conclusions – mainly in the form of the written
word, though it can also apply to other media. However, the title of this volume is
not inapt, for if, as postmodern thinkers insist, the past is essentially nothing other
than what historians write, then the distinction becomes meaningless. That is not
the least of the reasons why it remains necessary to examine the claims of this theoretical standpoint in an accessible fashion which at the same time tries to avoid
oversimplification. It can scarcely any longer be termed a new development, yet it
continues to generate heated dispute, as the pages of academic and intellectual periodicals such as the Times Higher Education Supplement, the London Review of Books or
the New York Review of Books will testify.
Postmodern approaches have certainly influenced historiography in the last
20-odd years, though, it would be fair to say, to a much lesser extent than in many
other disciplines. Most historical journals ignore them,2 much to the indignation of
certain postmodernist historians, and the majority of historians continue along their
incorrigibly empirical pathways, leaving convinced postmodernist historians in
somewhat isolated separation.3 However, this does not necessarily mean that because
1

2 Postmodernism and History

the former are hostile or indifferent to the philosophical tenets of postmodern
thought that they are also unaware of or indifferent to some of the fields of enquiry
which postmodernists have put upon the historiographical agenda.
There is indeed another position between eager embrace of the postmodern ethos
or the uncompromising rejection which does remain the stance of some historians,
such as Arthur Marwick or Gertrude Himmelfarb – but is certainly not that even of
severe critics of historiographical postmodernism such as Richard Evans4 or the late
Lawrence Stone,5 who have recognised valuable insights generated by this form of
thought. Regrettably that recognition has not saved them (or even more sympathetic commentators) from denunciation by rigorous postmodernist partisans for
refusing to accept the basic theoretical propositions of postmodernism.6 Such
insights – it has to be said that they come mainly from Michel Foucault but other
leading theorists have made contributions – have been put to work, as we shall see,
by historians who are far from sharing their theoretical presumptions: Roy Porter or
Andrew Scull can be mentioned in this regard, as can historians of the British labour
movement, and historians of the French Revolution. Beyond that, some of the concepts identified with postmodernism have exercised a more pervasive influence on
historical practice by making historians more aware of what it is that they are doing
or purporting to do.
To put in concise form the essence of the postmodernist enterprise and to summarise the arguments opposed to that essence, postmodernism’s central and abiding
concern is with language. Postmodern writers (in the main) do not dispute the actual
existence of whatever it is that language is about, but they would contend that
objects, events, processes can only exist for humans once they come under the linguistic sign; they are meaningless until they are conceptualised. Therefore language
and the related concept of discourse has in some sense an ontological reality
anterior to what we think of as the material world – in other words it cannot even be
the material world (a conceptual abstraction) until it has been grasped by language.7
That might be contested. If somebody sticks a knife in your guts or you’re hit by a
vehicle moving at 60 m.p.h. you certainly do have a direct access to reality (at least
momentarily) unmediated by language, though the point could be made that the
meaning of these events can only be understood by you (or your survivors) linguistically.
It is certainly the case that for humans language enters into reality at every turn,8
and that is postmodernism’s strongest point. But it is a logical jump – its critics
would say an unjustified one – in fact an arbitrary act of faith, to go on to assert that
language constitutes reality. That logical jump also neglects the circumstance that
there are non-human consciousnesses in the world which do not require the use of
language to enable their organism to function. The larger-brained non-human
mammals (at least) possess a consciousness of sorts that is entirely non-linguistic
and certainly non-discursive – to argue they have none would be very primitively

Introduction 3

Cartesian. The theorists of linguistic deconstruction tend to give the impression
they imagine that human beings dropped fully formed out of the sky, ignoring or
dismissing the fact that language evolved – no one can yet say how – in an environment which enabled its possessors the better to survive and flourish.
It makes a lot more sense, and is in line with observation, to postulate an interpenetration, a dialectic, between language and what it refers to (if it is to communicate it must refer to something) but that the referents are logically and
ontologically anterior to the discourse of which they are the object. In the end, reality
will always have its way – all the deconstruction in the world will not stop you dying
of AIDS or the world drowning in the pollution and other environmentally catastrophic actions which industrial Homo sapiens generate. As Frederic Jameson very
succinctly put it, history is ‘what hurts’. The same point could be made about reality
in general. A useful and homely illustration of the point is to be found in the calendar. Over the ages of literate society a great many different calendars have been
devised. Much about them is arbitrary, made up of purely human constructs. The
week, for example, is such a case; it derives from Babylonian fascination with the
number seven and has no basis in extra-discursive reality apart from the rather tenuous fact that it is roughly a quarter of the time of the moon’s orbit. However, all
these calendars, so varied in time and space, have years that are always somewhere
between 360 and 365 days, because that is the time, wholly apart from human discourse, that the earth takes to orbit the sun, and that was the reality which has,
through the ages, forced regular rectifications of all calendars by the insertion and
subtraction of extra days from time to time, because the solar year is not an exact
number of days. In other words, the calendar is an outcome of the dialectic between
human discourse and action on the one hand and a thoroughly extra-discursive
reality on the other.

䉴

Plan of the book

In summary, the first chapter of the book attempts to explain what postmodernism
is – with references, where appropriate, to historical writing or other forms of production. Some explanatory and critical commentary is needed initially regarding the
basic presuppositions shared by individuals who would recognise themselves as
belonging to the postmodern school of thought, which will lead on in subsequent
chapters to the discussion of how these concepts bear on the practice of historiography. This initial examination includes some limited consideration of individuals who would not claim to be historians in any sense, and includes also an
explanation of the distinction between the concepts of poststructuralism and
postmodernism which were initially distinct but have become subsequently very
blurred and virtual synonyms. There does remain some slight degree of separation:

4 Postmodernism and History

all poststructuralists, who wield the technique of deconstruction, would be identified as postmodernists, but the reverse would not apply in every instance. Now, however, it is of little importance. The second part of this chapter leads on from the
theoretical underpinning to situate the development of these ideas in their historical
context in the later part of and especially the final third of the twentieth century,
with an initial assessment of their importance for our subject. Subsequent chapters
aim to explore the implications of these ideas in various dimensions of historiography and discuss some of the historians and theorists who have been in the forefront of this trend. Chapter 2 opens with a section dealing with the character of
historical practice, the form of the evidence which historians use and their manner
of processing it into a finished historical narrative, description or argument; to
repeat, usually textual in the normally understood sense of that term, but at times of
a visual nature. This chapter will focus upon the problems and ambiguities involved
in that process, which, apart from the related but not identical problems and ambiguities involved in language and perception themselves, have provided the pressure
points for the postmodern critique of historiography as conventionally practised.
Starting from this point most of the following chapters go on to examine the
question of representation in its various modes as the central issue affecting
the epistemological value of the historian’s enterprise – this revolving around the
issue of how far it is possible, in principle, to provide an accurate portrayal or interpretation (or possibly a limited number of interpretations) of past events that must
be valid in essence for anyone who honestly inspects the evidence available. In this
discussion the name of Hayden White features prominently, for though not a poststructuralist in the usual sense, and coming from an American rather than a French
context, he has been absorbed into the postmodernist pantheon so far as history is
concerned.9 Responsible for the idea of emplotment so far as it could be said to
apply to historiography, White’s concept is assessed here as a useful tool for theoretical analysis, and significant examples are discussed, but the particular way in which
White uses it is strongly criticised.
These various dimensions are then brought together in the discussion of a
theoretician of exceptionally broad scope, whose work embodies all the issues discussed above, namely Michel Foucault. It will be necessary to explore not only his
ideas, and their usefulness or otherwise, but the reasons for the pervasive influence
they have exercised in all sorts of contexts.
Chapter 6 discusses further dimensions of representation and passes from largely
theoretical issues of ontology and epistemology to the more concrete and even
more contentious ones of relativism. Two forms are distinguished, cognitive relativism, which would assert that different understandings of the material world – e.g.
astrology versus rationalism – are incommensurable and that there is no valid
ground for preferring one over the other; and moral relativism, which would apply a
similar principle to culturally determined forms of behaviour, such as foot-binding

Introduction 5

or widow-burning. Arising from this, the outgrowth of postmodernism referred to as
postcolonialism is briefly given attention.
Chapter 7 then expands consideration to take up the implication of postmodernist
thinking for the understanding of very broad historical trends, sometimes affecting
centuries and continents. Here the concept at the centre of the argument is that of
metanarrative or ‘grand narrative’, invented by Jean-François Lyotard, who also,
though he did not devise the term ‘postmodernism’, gave it its current sense.
The Conclusion to this volume attempts to evaluate the impact and significance
of postmodernist thought for the practice of historical writing and understanding. If
I were asked to provide a soundbite estimate of its value, the short answer would
have to be that it was a Bad Thing, inimical to rational thought and to the future of
historical study. However, that would not do for any considered assessment, for the
concept is so diffuse and ambiguous that any snap judgement is certain to be in
error. There are elements of it which are nonsensical, some which are true but trite,
though dressed up in inflated language, and others which have provided insights
that are of permanent value to historians and have opened up new and previously
unrecognised fields of investigation. It is to be hoped that this volume will give due
and fair recognition to these aspects. It tries so far as possible to avoid polemic,
though doubtless not always successfully. Finally, it endeavours to connect the
character of the discussion at the time of writing with the social and political contexts in which it is taking place – in brief, the state that we’re in.

1 What is
‘Postmodernism’?

䉴

The basic ideas

What is postmodernism – and how does it relate to historical study and practice?
Matt Perry’s Marxism and History1 contains a well-argued and fairly extensive section
on the concept, and it is a reasonable bet that other volumes in this series will give it
more than a passing reference. The initial point to note is that the term ‘postmodernism’ means several, or indeed many, different things – the concept is what
would once have been referred to as a ‘portmanteau word’. In this opening chapter
we will first of all try to disentangle the most important of these meanings, establish
the historical context in which the concept has evolved and establish, if possible,
how the different meanings connect to one another. The following chapters will
then attempt to assess how postmodernism has influenced historiographical practice.
Since the concern of this volume is with history, it will be appropriate to approach
the concept historically. Perry Anderson has done so in The Origins of Postmodernity,2
which forms a most useful introduction. The early appearances of the word (at first
written with a hyphen) go back a surprisingly long way. According to Anderson it
‘first surfaced’ in 1934 in the work of a Spanish writer, Frederico de Onís, who used it
specifically to describe a reaction to the artistic movement of the early twentieth
century known as modernism, and contrasted postmoderinismo not only with artistic
modernism but also with what he defined as ‘ultramodernism’.3 Twenty years later
Arnold Toynbee, in the eighth volume of his monumental A Study of History (begun
in 1934), used the coinage ‘post-modern age’ – but this ‘age’ had entirely social and
political overtones and was supposed to have commenced in 1870; however, slightly
earlier than Toynbee in 1951 and 1952 the poet Charles Olson, again with literary
connotations in mind, had made use of the term.4
Further occasional usages followed during the 1950s and 1960s, until in 1972 an
American periodical appeared which incorporated the word in its subtitle: boundary 2:
a Journal of Post-modern Literature and Culture. Again, as the title makes clear, the
concern was a literary one, searching for a definition of the presumed literary style
succeeding the modernist era.5 However it was in 1977 that the concept of postmodernism really became part of the public discourse, though still in a limited
6

What is ‘Postmodernism’? 7

sphere, with the publication of the text by Charles Jencks, Language of Post-modern
Architecture, and it was with reference to architecture that it was in the first place
extensively employed. Once more it was style that was in question as replacement
was sought for the modern style that had become since 1945 the universal architectural language. Anderson quotes a phrase which sums it up well: ‘ “Modernism
suffers from elitism. Post-Modernism is trying to get over that elitism”, by reaching
out “towards the vernacular, towards tradition and the commercial slang of the
street” ’.6 Jencks was bold enough to speculate upon the emergence out of a postmodern aesthetic of ‘a shared symbolic order of the kind that religion provided’7 –
ambitious hopes for sure!

䉴

Modernism and structuralism

It has to be acknowledged that within the context of artistic developments and
the succession of styles, the idea of post modernism made some degree of sense,
especially for forms such as painting, sculpture, poetry, music – or architecture. Cultural modernism had been born around the transition point between the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, influenced too by developments in the sciences which
destroyed commonsense conceptions of the way the physical world functioned. The
prevalent feature of artistic modernism was rejection of the dominant realist/
naturalist conventions (and other conventions as well) which had become accepted
as the proper manner in which to represent natural and human reality. Painters,
sculptors, architects pushed new conceptions of space and form into the public
domain, poets new techniques in handling language. Novelists, though initially
slower, were to catch up soon enough. These were stylistic innovations. In the scientific domain relativity theory and quantum mechanics, quite apart from their
scientific importance, traumatised educated consciousness. Previous scientific
advances, though only properly comprehensible in the language of mathematics,
could nevertheless be apprehended through everyday images – the new ones
could not be, and quantum theory especially was impervious to commonsense or
non-mathematical interpretation. Moreover psychoanalysis purported to have
revolutionised the understanding of the human psyche.
If this broad tradition could from around 1970 be regarded as exhausted and
dying, how should its successor (which would, of course, not be a simple reversion to
previous styles but incorporate elements of modernism) be classified – what after all
can be more modern than the modern? In the absence of anything better, no doubt
‘post modern’ would do well enough. Pop art, the images of Andy Warhol or Roy
Lichtenstein, would figure as postmodernist icons in the sphere of high culture; the
punk rock of the 1970s could well be regarded as the first concrete manifestation of
postmodernism at the popular level.

8 Postmodernism and History

However, postmodernism as it is understood in the twenty-first century is something considerably more than an artistic tradition – indeed its artistic provenance
has been quite obscured by a range of other meanings. To understand that it is
necessary to look at a range of other sources which ultimately united into the postmodern current. By far the most significant of these is the philosophical/literary
tendency known as poststructuralism. This has to be understood in relation to
the predecessor which gave it its name, i.e. structuralism, an approach to the
human sciences which emerged in the 1960s from the milieu of certain French
writers,8 though it had recognisable predecessors in the American literary critic
Northrop Frye,9 and found its ultimate source of origin in the Swiss linguist/
semiotician Ferdinand Saussure.
Semiotics is the science of signs. Saussure’s insight was that language is a system of
signs with the meaning of words (signifiers) depending on their relationship to
other words as much as to the concepts (signifieds) to which they relate. Saussure
unfortunately never wrote any text expounding his ideas; the volume which goes
under his name was compiled by his students from lecture notes. However, it is
clear that he never suggested that language, signifiers and signifieds were not about
something – namely extra-linguistic reality, referents – though many purported
followers have forgotten or ignored that aspect and been ready to assert that reality is
in essence linguistic.
The basic claim of the structuralist theorists was that a very wide range (perhaps
all) of human activity, from economic interaction to literature, could be understood
as being coded like language, bound by rules analogous to grammar and syntax. The
first to make an impact was Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose field was the mythology,
ritual practices and kinship networks of ‘primitive’ societies, which he interpreted in
this manner. Louis Althusser endeavoured to treat philosophy, history and Marxism
in a similar fashion.10 The earlier writings of Roland Barthes can also be regarded as
falling into this category. Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst with philosophic pretensions, attempted to do for the individual what the others had done for collectives.
Like Barthes he was also to be important for the poststructuralism which followed.
In the 1970s structuralism enjoyed a vogue in Britain and America, where a lot of
attention was paid to Nicos Poulantzas, a communist Greek thinker exiled in Paris,
who applied its concepts to political theory. Lesser names tried to extend the
approach to literature. A marked characteristic of the structuralist approach was its
contempt for empirical evidence, which was stigmatised as ‘empiricism’. (Poulantzas
was the least afflicted by this prejudice and consequently was the better theorist.)
In their initial enthusiasm structuralism’s proponents claimed that at last a definitively scientific approach to the human sciences had been developed. There existed,
however, a structural flaw at the heart of structuralism – namely the difficulty it had
in accounting for change. Its major weakness was its inability to provide any satisfactory theoretical account of historical or other development, which, however

What is ‘Postmodernism’? 9

much part of the despised empirical universe, could not altogether be ignored. Consequently its intellectual standing was soon challenged by a much more theoretically powerful successor. Structuralism did not enjoy a lengthy existence and was
effectively dead within a decade.

䉴

From structuralism to poststructuralism

Its successor, poststructuralism, also drew its inspiration from French theorists
of the 1960s and early 1970s (some of whom, like Roland Barthes, were evolved
structuralists, though not the most important, Jacques Derrida). The ‘post’ in poststructuralism indicated both a break and a continuity with the preceding philosophy, the break above all a repudiation of any pretensions to scientificity. Science as
a concept indeed became regarded with extreme suspicion so far as it claimed to
produce unambiguous forms of knowledge.11 The poststructuralists nonetheless
addressed themselves to carrying forward what were regarded as the valid structuralist insights, especially the centrality given to linguistic considerations and fondness
for the term ‘discourse’ (the taste for congested and near-unintelligible jargon was
another). It was claimed of Jacques Lacan, who was a central figure in the shift from
the structuralist to poststructuralist mode, that whenever he had written anything,
he would go over it in detail to remove any trace of intelligibility. It is also reported
that in his later years – when he suffered from recurrent mini-strokes – he would
behave, write and speak more and more outrageously just in order to test how far he
could go in persuading his acolytes to treat this as evidence of his genius.

䉴

Freud

It is as well here to consider some of the problems with Freud, since not only Lacan
but nearly all postmodern writers acknowledge a substantial debt to him. Without
any question his impact upon Western culture has been enormous, and the number
of his terms and phrases that have been naturalised into the English language as
identifiers for recognisable mental states – inferiority complex, in denial, etc. – is
evidence enough of that. Clearly his ideas appeared to be responding to very widely
felt needs of the twentieth century. In addition, so far as we are concerned, they fit in
very well with postmodernist stances which aim to discredit the idea of the sovereign
individual subject, since Freud taught that this subject was composed of warring,
contradictory impulses and motivations over which its ego maintained only very
limited control or was even incapable of recognising. There are, however, numerous
problems with the Freudian metaphysic, which would take us too far from our
subject; but principally it is fundamentally anti-scientific due to the fact that it is

10 Postmodernism and History

self-confirming and impregnable against refutation – objections to its claims are
taken as evidence that the objector is doing so only because he or she doesn’t want
to recognise the truths Freud revealed. In other words, it is on the same level as
theology. The metaphysic, which postmodern thought has largely adopted, is an
extremely useful instrument, for it enables all objections to be dismissed automatically as being in bad faith and saves the trouble of rational examination. To be
fair, Freud was far from inventing this technique – it was a standby of religious
authority: ‘If you disagree you are clearly subject to demonic possession’, and was
copied subsequently by political movements – in Bolshevism’s internal disputes
oppositionists were accused of being tainted with bourgeois ideology.

䉴

Deconstruction

The poststructuralist writers concerned themselves above all with the deconstruction of texts. Deconstruction is a form of hermeneutics (the Greek root of which
translates as ‘hidden’) and means the procedure of extracting meaning, meaning
that the producer of the text (usually but not necessarily literary ones)12 may have
been wholly unaware of. Under the deconstructive regime of the poststructuralists,
however, this practice was pushed to quite novel and unprecedented lengths, even
so far as to make a text say the reverse of its ostensible meaning. The author’s presumed intentions were regarded as wholly irrelevant – hence the phrase ‘death of
the author’. The meaning of ‘text’ in this context also deserves consideration.
Normally it would mean a written document, but might be a representation of
any kind, or even rituals whether of a formal or informal sort, such as a traditional
children’s game. The writings of Jacques Derrida constitute the most significant
corpus of deconstructive art. Derrida is normally classed as a philosopher, and the
philosophical basis from which he writes asserts, in its barest essence, that words are
all that can be known but also have no fixed meaning whatsoever: ‘a chaotic field of
signifiers’ in the words of Hans Kellner, 13 or ‘The paradigm of language is not speaking but writing, with its absent author, its unknown audience, its unruly text spewing out its manifold significations, connotations and implications’.14

䉴

Jacques Derrida

Reading Derrida is a bit like trying to read Finnegan’s Wake – frequently it is only possible to guess at what is intended (though at least he refrains, unlike many of the
postmodern eminences, from abusing scientific terminology without understanding
any of its meaning).15 As Richard Rorty, himself no stranger to postmodernist thinking, put it, Derrida’s style is replete with ‘multilingual puns, joke etymologies,

What is ‘Postmodernism’? 11

allusions from anywhere, and phonic typographical gimmicks’.16 A sample of
Derrida’s style is instructive:
Not that the letter never arrives at its destination, but it belongs to its structure that it
is always possible for it not to arrive there. . . . A letter does not always arrive at its
destination and since that belongs to its structure, it can be said that it never arrives
there truly, that when it arrives the fact that it is capable of not arriving afflicts it with
the torment of an internal misdirection.17

Actually these sentences are relatively intelligible by Derridian standards; more
typical is:
the supplementary menace of writing is older than what some think to exalt by the
name of ‘speech’.
From then on metaphysics consists of excluding non-presence by determining the
supplement as simple exteriority, pure addition or pure absence. The work of exclusion operates within the structure of supplementarity. The paradox is that one annuls
addition by considering it a pure addition. What is added is nothing because it is
added to a full presence to which it is exterior. Speech comes to be added to intuitive
presence (of the entity, of essence, of the eidos, of ousia and so forth): writing comes to
be added to living self-present speech; masturbation comes to be added to so-called
normal sexual experience, culture to nature, evil to innocence, history to origin, and
so on.18

The language is, to put it no more strongly, disempowering for nearly all readers, the
nearest thing imaginable to a solipsistic discourse. One of his interpreters, who is
evidently fascinated by Derrida’s style, comments, under the heading ‘Who is
Jacques Derrida?’: ‘Derrida’s signature is improbable, that is to say unproveable or
inauthenticable, because of the iterability of indication. It is stigmatised in the
manner of the first person singular pronoun whose singularly plural indexicality was
discussed in [an earlier chapter].’19 Someone once remarked sourly that it would be
interesting to know if Derrida would be willing to entrust his eminent person to an
airline whose pilots were encouraged to treat their flight manuals on deconstructionist principles.
However, if Peter Dews’s interpretation is correct, Derrida is wrestling with a problem which has haunted Western philosophy since the time of Descartes in the seventeenth century (Derrida thinks since Plato, though that is contestable). In a very
simplified form it goes as follows.
The problem is the one of the subject, i.e. the possessor of consciousness, the
receiver of inputs through the senses, the essential ‘me’ who knits together memory,
sensation, cognition, intention etc. The tendency of poststructuralists is to deny that
any such entity exists or to assert that at most it is a very fragile and evanescent
construction (even the colloquial phrase ‘the real me’ suggests that there might be

12 Postmodernism and History

unreal ones). The structuralists held similar views on this topic (arguing for example
that individuals were spoken by language rather than speaking it) and the poststructuralists followed them. They were not the first. The branch of psychology
known as behaviourism repudiated even the concept of consciousness, and before
them Freud held that the subject, the ego, formed only a part of a tripartite psyche.
What then is this ‘me’? I am awake and receiving sensory inputs, I am conscious of
my surroundings, and that seems straightforward enough. But is it? I can also perceive myself perceiving, think about myself thinking – is there therefore another
‘me’ which stands behind the one in the forefront? – and I can also think about
myself thinking about myself thinking . . . and so on into an infinite regress. Evidently this is unsatisfactory, but what then is the solution, and what is it that guarantees ontologically the existence of the subject and epistemologically the
reliability of the inputs that it receives?
It is not our purpose here to engage in that debate, which has beset philosophers
ever since Descartes, but to note how it relates to Derrida’s fundamental project and
to consider what implications – if any – it might have for historical thinking. In
centuries prior to modernity, if the issue occurred to any philosopher there was no
problem – the ‘transcendental’ subject was guaranteed by the divinity, who guaranteed everything else along with it. Descartes’s famous answer was that the fact that
he thought about his own existence meant that he could be certain of it, the
only thing he could be certain of, on which every other kind of knowledge had to be
built – which is why his philosophy was regarded with grave suspicion although he
remained a punctilious Catholic. Derrida’s answer is radical, though perhaps not as
radical as he believes; very crudely, he holds not only that the transcendental subject
is a fiction, but that here is no foundational guarantee or certainty of any sort about
anything, there is only the play of the exotic concept of différance in language,
specifically in ‘writing’ (also an exotic concept, for it does not mean what the readers
of this volume would mean by ‘writing’):
For Derrida to admit that empirical facts could have any status other than that of
examples for the procedure of imaginary variation ‘contradicts the very premiss of
phenomenonology’ which is that ‘essential insight de jure precedes every material
historical investigation, and has no need of facts as such to reveal to the historian the
a priori sense of his activity and objects’.20

Dews continues – a point very pertinent to our considerations –
Derrida’s work has been centrally – and highly influentially – concerned with the
repudiation of all notions of ground and origin. For Derrida, to seek for such an
origin, is to seek an impossible escape from the differential movement of language,
towards the ‘transcendental signified’. In the more popular appropriations of Derrida,
this argument has been understood as providing licence for more or less facile versions of relativism, of the kind which . . . Derrida himself always set his face against.21

What is ‘Postmodernism’? 13

Before one rejoices, however, that Derrida has refused to embrace relativism, one
has to understand that he does so because he would regard relativism itself as a kind of
absolute. Différance is not the originatory point of meaning; if taken seriously the
implication of his position is that there is no fixity of meaning (possibly no meaning) and différance is a concept which cannot be conceptualised. It is the mark – or
‘trace’ as Derrida prefers to say – of a permanent absence.
Is this, however, quite as radical as it seems and does Derrida solve the problem of
constantly repeated unsatisfactory attempts to establish a philosophical transcendental ground for meaning? Put crudely, the answer is ‘no’, for the absence itself
becomes a kind of substitute grounding, for non-meaning if not for meaning, a kind
of pseudo-absolute. Peter Dews outlines the extent to which Derrida is following on
from the speculations of the German idealist philosophers, particularly Fichte and
Schelling. Looked at historically rather than conceptually it is possible to conclude
that the search, since Descartes onwards, has been in reality one to find the replacement for god, the ultimate guarantor of thought prior to Descartes. Derrida, it might
be suggested, ‘identifies’ a presence which reveals itself only through its absence,
comparable to the deus abscondus, the hidden god of the mystics – a point which
Dews suggests and other writers have also noted.22
How far does this digression have any relevance to historians? On the face of
things not a great deal, but it would be a mistake to draw such a conclusion. Derrida
is a philosopher, and so far as he discusses areas outside philosophy (apart from
political interventions) the discipline he appeals to is imaginative literature. Deconstruction has made a big impact on literature, and whether or not one regrets that,
such literature does not advance truth claims in the same sense as history, sociology
or the human sciences. Therefore if deconstructionists wish to gambol in the fields of
the literary tradition it may not be too important.23 However there is, as we shall see,
a postmodernist position which would assimilate historiography to imaginative
literature and if that were to become a widely supported outlook then Derrida’s arguments would clearly have considerable significance. Moreover there are historians –
reputable ones – who claim to find in Derrida something useful to their work as
historians (Sally Alexander and Joan Scott for example) and their attachment has to
be taken seriously, however mistaken or redundant it might be thought to be.
Perhaps, in conclusion, it might be the case that Derrida’s work does have some
value, even if it is entirely beside the point in any positive sense. The extremity of his
postulates, their embodiment in his own writing and their utter dislocation from
any of the concerns that concern human beings most of the time could all be held to
demonstrate finally and at last that the search he has inherited from his philosophical predecessors is indeed an impossible one and no more capable of solution than
the paradox of the Cretan liar who said that he lied. It simply cannot be solved philosophically or abstractly – and Derrida’s effort to do so merely reproduces a different
version of the traditional attempts – but only historically, as Marx was arguing 160

14 Postmodernism and History

years ago. Its address by Jürgen Habermas in fact moves towards a similar historical
position. He argues that,
The idea of theory since Plato . . . and the idea of truth implied a [metaphysically
certain] element of fundamentalism. Yet these notions have been in decomposition –
as Marx said – since Hegel. . . . But for some the farewell to philosophical systems was
and is still so painful that they have to dramatize the whole question. This . . .
remains true of Derrida. They made a drama of something which should be trivial by
now: a [falsifiable] conception of truth and knowledge. . . . History itself, of course is
also amenable to a systematic approach as well as a hermeneutic one.24

It could be claimed that Michel Foucault was also proceeding along similar lines, but
there are other problems with his metaphysic.

䉴

Poststructuralism and postmodernism combine

Towards the end of the 1970s the uncertainty, ambiguity and linguistic emphasis
that was intrinsic to the poststructuralist stance was extended from texts to history
and public affairs, and in this development the name of Jean-François Lyotard is
central, and his intellectual trajectory is emblematic. During the 1950s and 1960s he
was a member of the Socialisme ou Barbarie group of Trotskyist provenance, eventually to be associated with one of its splinters, Pouvoir Ouvrier. This he abandoned
from conviction that the working class was incapable of revolutionary action; he was
active in the 1968 events, and was duly disillusioned, along with many others.
In 1971 he published Discours, Figure (an unstructured volume, which was actually
written between 1966 and the May events). In its opening chapters it was critical of
Derrida and Lacan, and actually has some sensible things to say about the relation
of reality to representation, but then becomes lost in a Freudian (and Lacanianinfluenced) maze, asserting that ‘the entry into language is a genuinely traumatic
event, a “primal repression” which establishes an irrecoverable phantasy in the
unconscious.’

25

This was the beginning of a wholly psychoanalytic reading of con-

temporary reality, demonstrated with force in his next book, Economie Libidinale,
which signals a complete break with Marxism or of a political project of any sort and
moves towards a Nietzschean aesthetic.
We need not trouble ourselves with Lyotard’s metaphysic, the nature of which is
illustrated in the following passage:
Theatricality and representation far from having the status of a libidinal – and a
fortiori – metaphysical given, result from a certain labour carried out on the moebian
and labyrinthian band, a labour which imprints these special creases and folds whose
effect is a box closed in on itself, filtering impulses, and only allowing to appear on
the stage those which, arriving will now be called the exterior, satisfy the conditions
of interiority. The representative chamber is an energetic system.26

What is ‘Postmodernism’? 15

Suffice to say that his philosophic attention became fixed upon the intensity and
ecstasy of the moment and immediate experience, and hence to regard any attempt
to suggest a wider understanding of what was going on in history or the nature of
society, ‘totalisation’, as not merely futile but inherently vicious, and in some
sense ‘totalitarian’. ‘This [standpoint] – which can justly be described as one of the
leitmotifs of post-structuralism – is grounded in the conviction that the standpoint
of totalization is inherently oppressive.’27 ‘Desire’, désir, understood in the above
sense, became the focus of Lyotard’s theorising. Even consciousness becomes suspect
in his emphasis upon the liberation of libido. Moreover, since the existing consumer
society is all that currently exists, it should be embraced joyfully:
It can readily be seen that Lyotard’s position, at the period of Economie Libidinale,
simply gives a positive valorization to this collapse of the distinction between the
individual and the social: indeed, Lyotard explicitly states that ‘the dissolution of
forms and individuals in the so-called “consumer society” should be affirmed’.28

Such was the theoretical position Lyotard had reached prior to the composition of
his famous text, which emerged out of an official commission to ‘report on knowledge in the most highly developed societies’ for the Conseil des Universités of the
government of Quebec, where Quebecois nationalists had recently come to power.
Although Lyotard could not be said to be a historian in any sense, nor to have otherwise written on historical theory, he associated both postmodernism, which term he
put into general circulation, and what it was supposedly replacing explicitly with the
question of historical consciousness. Appropriately his is the first extract to appear in
Keith Jenkins’s Postmodern History Reader.29 It was in this same text that he invented
the term metanarrative or grand narrative (grands récits) to attack the presumption of historical progress, or indeed of historical development:
For if society was best conceived . . . as a web of linguistic communications, language
itself – ‘the whole social bond’ – was composed of a multiplicity of different games,
whose rules were incommensurable, and inter-relations agonistic. In these relations
science became just one language game among others, it could no longer claim the
imperial privilege over other forms of knowledge to which it had pretended in modern times . . . its title to superiority rested on two forms of grand narrative . . . The first
of these, derived from the French Revolution, told a tale of humanity as the heroic
agent of its own liberation through the advance of knowledge; the second descended
from German Idealism, a tale of spirit as the progressive unfolding of truth . . .30

The title of the volume in which Lyotard expressed these views was The Postmodern
Condition (La Condition Postmoderne), published in 1979; Anderson suggests that ‘it
remains to this day perhaps the most widely cited work on the subject’.31 Later, in
1987, Lyotard was to say of it, ‘I made up stories, I referred to a quantity of books I
had never read, apparently it impressed people, it’s all a bit of a parody . . . It’s simply

16 Postmodernism and History

the worst of my books, they’re almost all bad but that one’s the worst’32 – an
exemplary postmodern procedure.
And so was made the juncture between poststructuralism and postmodernism, for
‘The defining trait of the postmodern condition . . . is the loss of credibility of these
metanarratives’33 – they have been killed, supposedly, by the analyses of the post1968 French theoreticians, not least Lyotard himself, so from now in this and subsequent chapters we will treat postmodernism as incorporating poststructuralism.
We are now upon the field of history, if in a very general sort of way, and have to
note the figure who, of all those acclaimed as foundational postmodernists, and
unlike Derrida, Lacan or Lyotard, is most closely associated with the historiographical
enterprise – Michel Foucault. Foucault has been described (admittedly on a publisher’s blurb) as the most influential thinker of the second half of the twentieth
century – certainly he was for a time the most cited. Foucault always denied that he
was a poststructuralist or postmodernist, and though that is usually assumed to have
been tongue in cheek, there is in fact some warrant for it – apart from anything else,
the greater part of his writing had been published before Lyotard put the latter term
into general circulation. He is referred to only in passing in Anderson’s volume,
though his writing is aptly described there as an ‘unassignable oeuvre’.34 Foucault,
because of his importance to any discussion of History and Postmodernism, deserves
a separate discussion, which is attempted in Chapter 5. In the meantime, having
traced the ‘genealogy’ of postmodern ideas we now turn to view them in their own
historical context, which will be an essential preliminary to the understanding of
their impact on the historiographical enterprise during the last two decades.

䉴

Postmodernism in history

The preceding introduction focused upon the intellectual descent – or ‘genealogy’,
to use a term favoured in postmodernist discourse – of postmodern thinking up to its
conflation with poststructuralist philosophy around 1980. These developments
were not taking place, it goes without saying, in a social and political vacuum.
This section will attempt to situate them in the context of the twentieth-century
historical process before addressing the question of their relation to historiography.
The roots go back a long way – it is suggested here as far perhaps as classical
Greece – but more concretely to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche are important figures; another thinker of
a wholly different approach but certain similarity of perspective to Nietzsche’s was
Max Weber, usually thought of as the founding father of modern sociology. Both
of them were, for better or worse, historical pessimists, in that they regarded modernity as a degeneration from a more authentic state of being. Nietzsche identified
the culprits as being Christianity in first place and in the second what he viewed as

What is ‘Postmodernism’? 17

its associated ideologies and doctrines: liberalism, socialism, feminism, all indicative
of a slave morality designed for use by the weak to induce guilt in the strong. Weber,
unlike Nietzsche, was a rationalist, but sustained very ambiguous feelings about
instrumental reason and science; he saw them as becoming increasingly manipulative and locking human existence into an ‘iron cage’ – his own words – of control
and bureaucracy. Freud had somewhat similar ideas about civilisation – he regarded
socialisation as a necessary but unpleasant and limiting process. In a manner of
speaking all three were romantics, which would not in itself, of course, invalidate
their perceptions.
It was no accident that their writings coincided with, indeed influenced, the
emergence of modernism in the arts. Anderson suggests that this emergence was
conditioned not only by the inherent evolution of artistic styles or the bizarre revelations of contemporary science, but by the political and social character of Europe
during that period – a looming threat of international war expressed in the several
diplomatic crises that punctuated the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth
century, and also of social revolution by the labour movement – looked to with
either dread or hope depending on social class and political standpoint.35
In the interwar years a further group of social and cultural theorists, now with the
experience of war and revolution (the Russian and the many failed ones in Central
Europe) behind them, addressed similar themes. These were the Frankfurt School
of Critical Theory, Hegelian Marxists,36 who flourished in 1920s Weimar Germany,
and emigrated to the USA on Hitler’s assumption of power. They interpreted the
development of nineteenth- and twentieth-century history, not in the usual fashion
of the Marxists of the time as the unstoppable progress of the proletariat towards
emancipating world revolution and the classless society, but in terms derived ultimately from Weber as the increasing subjection of humanity to instrumental reason,
alienation and the loss of individuality in the machine world. Moreover, they saw
this as accompanied and intertwined with a process of cultural decline, represented
above all by the contemporary mass media, which in essence taught the masses to be
reconciled to their situation rather than struggle against it, and diverted them with
meretricious entertainment and fables. They were indeed extreme cultural pessimists, especially their most able thinker, Theodor Adorno, and could see nothing
ahead but decline and despair. The hope which Marxism originally inspired in its
adherents (and for most Marxists at the time in question continued to do so) had
entirely vanished from their conceptions. One of their number, Herbert Marcuse,
became something of a guru for the student revolutionaries of the 1960s in the
United States and his writings, though often obscure and difficult, were published
extensively – One Dimensional Man (which was written clearly enough and its theme
summarised in its title) being the most popular.
The argument being presented here is that the hopes aroused by the student
insurrection of 1968 – which excited the most wild and profligate expectations – and

18 Postmodernism and History

their subsequent bitter disillusion conspired to make individuals like Derrida,
Barthes, Lyotard, and above all Foucault, intellectual megastars, though they were
on the intellectual scene well before the évenements. They fitted an era of major intellectual shift; a period when the ‘grand narratives’ which had hitherto sustained the
intellectual left came under growing critical scrutiny. The atrocious history and in
some cases still continuing behaviour of professedly ‘socialist’ regimes was increasingly publicised. It was no accident that it was in the mid-1970s that Lyotard began
his assault on Marxism – and at the end of the 1970s coined the portentous term
‘metanarrative’ and pronounced the death of the concept to which the term referred.
The disillusionment on the left was comprehensive. Poulantzas, hopelessly
depressed by the political situation and the rise of the intellectual ‘new right’,
committed suicide in 1979, and Alain Touraine, a well-known socialist intellectual,
pronounced Poulantzas’s death the ‘symbolic death of Marxism’.37 Most former
adherents of the French far left did not make such a drastic statement. Some moved
over to the right, others joined the mainstream, but many continued to pursue their
revolutionary project by other means. Of the intellectuals who popularised postmodernism in France during the 1970s (including the most important of them
all, Michel Foucault), the majority had a Maoist or other ultra-left background or
sympathetic links to the militants of 1968; the same was true for the species of postmodernism termed ‘postcolonialism’, being initiated by Indian ex-Maoists. A
similar filiation can be traced in American academe. This is the setting in which postmodernism has flourished most mightily (above all in literary studies) and here too,
in the student milieu of the late 1960s, revolutionary romanticism of that sort had a
strong appeal.38 The students of then are the professors of today.
Structural resemblances are even more striking. Both ultra-leftism and postmodern
thinking are characterised by an extreme voluntarism, in the one political, in the
other intellectual (despite the latter’s abolition of the philosophic subject). Reality
can be made into whatever one wants it to be, deconstructive readings can make
texts say the opposite of what they ostensibly mean or indeed anything whatsoever,
and Einstein’s theories can be proven to be a coded justification of social power
relationships.39 Postmodern thinking displays a particular animus against the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the scientific method and
forms of rationality which derive from it. Moreover, postmodernism, as we have
seen Lyotard define it, in a manner which no postmodernist has rejected – and marking a very sharp distinction from the leftism of the 1960s – is the explicit rejection of
metanarratives, i.e. the presupposition that human history is following any particular course of development, whether in religious, liberal (particularly identified with
the Enlightenment) or Marxist guises. History can be interpreted in any manner that
suits the interpreter, but is best not interpreted at all.
It has been suggested, however,40 that for all its fury against the Enlightenment,
postmodernism, like Marxism or liberalism, is nevertheless its descendant in that it

What is ‘Postmodernism’? 19

makes emancipatory claims. Postmodernist writers overwhelmingly claim to be on
the left, either explicitly or by implication of what they say they want to do – because
they constantly denounce oppressive relationships even while, like Foucault, arguing that little can be done about them; and accuse the Enlightenment of instituting a
social agenda certain to result in the multiplication of oppression. When, as has happened on occasion (usually in the postcolonialist version of postmodernism), highly
oppressive traditions are defended against outside interference, this too is presented
as liberatory on the basis that specific communal practices which give identity and
meaning to a culture are being upheld against oppressive universalist, colonialist
(sometimes masculinist) agendas and the victims (usually women) voluntarily
embrace what they undergo – genital mutilation, stoning to death or burning alive.
As emphasised at the beginning of this volume, however, it would certainly be a mistake to present postmodernism as an undifferentiated whole; in reality it contains
many diverse positions, and the outline above is no more than a summary of certain
major attributes which have impacted on the postmodern style.

䉴

Postmodernism and history

So much for the development of postmodernism in its historical context. Where,
however, does historical science, historiography, fit into all of this? Postmodern
thinking lays claim to reinterpret all of the human sciences (conceiving science in
the broadest possible sense, including fields such as literary criticism) and some
writers, as noted above, have purported to extend it to the physical ones as well.41 Its
greatest impact has been in the areas of fictive representation, textual or visual. Since
historiography has some relationships to these it has also been affected, although
indeed to a rather lesser extent. This lesser impact, as we shall discover, has to do
with the nature of historical practice (rather than with the alleged stubborn traditionalism of most historians). Historians in the main work with texts, generally
written sources, and the products of their labours are again (usually) written texts.
What is the status of texts in relation to the realities about which they purport to
convey information? The issues of truth and representation which postmodernist
thinking have introduced into historiographical practice are not by any means new,
for the question has been asked for centuries of how far and with what accuracy written texts can represent the course of near or distant events, and how satisfactorily
the latter can be comprehended or explained.
As far back as the third century BCE the Greek sceptics, known as pyrrhonists from
their founder Pyrro of Elea, had argued for a position of radical epistemological
doubt and said that no reliable knowledge was possible (consistent pyrrhonists were
said to doubt even that they doubted). They did not take history into account, but

20 Postmodernism and History

their followers in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe did so, and in 1769,
Voltaire, no stranger to scepticism himself, wrote against the extremity of their position.42 The historians of the time, however, ignored their doctrine; even David
Hume, the philosophical arch-sceptic, when he came to write history.
For a considerable period following the Rankean revolution (see Chapter 2)
few if any historians raised questions about the foundations of historical knowledge.
The ‘scientific history’ so ably propagated by Ranke and his successors was taken to
have made the question redundant. The serene confidence expressed by Lord Acton
in the possibility, given adequate documentation, of reaching definite and unchallengeable answers to all historical questions was typical of the historical profession at
the close of the nineteenth century, most of all, according to report, in the United
States.43 Empiricist certainty, however, was already coming under powerful challenge from Germany, where in the 1880s, Wilhelm Dilthey argued that no proper
historical understanding was possible without the exercise of what he termed
Verstehen, a difficult word to translate, but usually rendered as ‘empathy’ – the
requirement for historians to get inside the consciousness of the historical subjects
under study in order to better understand the individuals being discussed, on the
one hand, and the cultural framework of their existence, on the other.
It is not surprising that the horrific experience of the First World War generated
severe doubts not only about the ‘march of civilisation’ presumptions which had on
the whole prevailed up to 1914, but the capacity of historiography to provide definitive understandings of the path of historical development. Numerous historians in
the USA recoiled with disgust at the manner in which they had been recruited as
propagandists in the Allied service following the US entry into the conflict.44 During
the 1920s and 1930s the two most renowned (and controversial) names in the
profession there, Charles Beard and Carl Becker, argued energetically that although
documentary research might establish conclusively the factual foundations for
historical developments, the real business of historical science, the interpretation
and meaning of such developments, was indefinitely flexible, and indeed that every
age and every community would evolve understandings which suited its own times
and agendas. Choice among such conflicting interpretations might not be arbitrary,
but neither could it be established through the records alone. They did not deny the
charge of being ‘relativists’.45
At the same time on the other side of the Atlantic R. G. Collingwood was reflecting
upon the study and writing of history, with Dilthey as his inspiration. His approach
was ‘idealist’ in the philosophical sense, namely that since every action and artefact
embodied the thought of past individuals, such thought was the fabric of the historical universe and therefore the proper and indeed only legitimate concern of
historians.46 (The French historical school of the Annalistes also gave much attention
to collective mentalities, but they were concerned with many other things as well.)
A selection of Collingwood’s writings, under the title of The Idea of History, was

What is ‘Postmodernism’? 21

published posthumously after the Second World War. A few academics received it
with enthusiasm, but in general it made little immediate impact.47
A very different story was the case with the short book What is History?, published
in 1961, which E. H. Carr compiled from his Trevelyan lectures. Effectively argued
and engagingly written, this volume very quickly became a bestseller and the standard introductory text to both historical theory and historiography in British higher
education institutions. The book, in spite of its brevity, is wide-ranging and includes
discussions on moral judgement and the idea of progress; but its principal importance is the effective demonstration it gives of the uncertain character and ‘constructedness’ of the ‘historical facts’ which are treated unproblematically in
historical texts. These chapters abound in striking aphoristic reversals, such as that
history consists of a hard core of judgements surrounded by a soft pulp of facts, or
that historical facts are like a sack (or sock) – they don’t stand up until the historian
puts something into them.
The understanding of the nature of historians’ engagement with their sources –
the unavoidable gaps and deficiencies in the record, the inevitability of being selective, the inescapability of interpretation and ‘situatedness’ – was transformed by this
text for a new generation of historians. Carr’s reflections (though his methods were
perfectly traditionalist in his magnum opus, a multi-volume history of the first 15
years of the USSR) do appear to anticipate some of the themes most identified with
the postmodern turn. He has in fact been claimed as a proto-postmodernist by at
least one author, though scornfully denounced by others of this provenance.48
It is not surprising that Carr’s text became a classic and in Britain has dominated
introductory courses in historiography to this day. Its opening chapters have the
quality that once its propositions are formulated they appear self-evident, and since
its publication it has become impossible to regard the epistemology of historical
research in the former unreflective manner. In drawing attention to the constructedness of the historical fact49 it supplied a possible starting point for arguments
premised on the denial that historical texts could have a fixed relationship to the
events which they purported to represent.
In addition, an unstated implication follows from Carr’s demonstration of how
fragmentary and subject to variant interpretation historical sources can be. This is
that sources can be read between the lines and reveal information of which their
creators were unaware – more, that sources can exist which are overlooked because
the documentation which embodies them has been regarded as of little interest, but
which are capable of revealing unsuspected depths of information. It is a question
of exercising some lateral thinking and knowing where to look. Even as Carr was
writing, E. P. Thompson was applying such an approach to reconstructing the
emergence of the English working class in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries. Subsequently the histories of any number of disregarded and marginalised
groups and populations50 have been resurrected by similar methods once the political

22 Postmodernism and History

and intellectual climate became favourable to such enterprises. The potentiality for
the interpretation of the evidence proved to be far wider than historians had previously imagined.51
Thompson’s magnum opus, The Making of the English Working Class (it was published in 1963), is frequently regarded as the starting point of the new social history
which made an enormous impact on the historiographical field of the late 1960s,52
and is also an important contributory stream to the current of postmodernist historiography in general. It was not that histories of the English or British working class
were a novel phenomenon; there had been any number published over the years,
and these were generally of a narrative or institutional sort and viewed the history of
the movement as one of triumphant advance in the face of internal and external
obstacles. The significance of Thompson’s text, apart from its scale and scope, was
his effort to grasp the consciousness – which he insisted was intrinsic to their class
identity – of the individuals and collectives under discussion and especially to give a
voice to the ‘losers’ in the process of working-class formation, the backward-looking
nostalgics as well as the deluded utopians; in his renowned phrase, to rescue them
from ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’.
This kind of social history was soon taken up and applied to the travails of all sorts
of suppressed, disregarded, despised groups, individuals and collectives – it brought a
new perspective to the history of women and was the wellspring of feminist historiography (though that in its turn was to criticise Thompson for his handling of
women’s place in The Making of the English Working Class). It is acclaimed as one of
the cardinal virtues of the postmodernist approach that it enables the previously
unrepresented to find a historical voice, that it revalues the sort of historiography
which has been practised up to now in established institutions and moves the historical spotlight away from ‘dead white males’. Now if this is what is meant by postmodernism in history there could be no possible reason to object to it, quite the
contrary, and many practitioners in this form of historiography have indeed
adopted the postmodern identification, particularly feminist ones. However, there is
much more, and this relates to considerations at the very basis of historiography,
about the possibility of knowing, about whether traditional historians’ practice has
any validity, about whether anything trustworthy can be said about the past. When
the new social history conjoined with structuralism and poststructuralism, an
entirely new intellectual climate was generated.
If a date can be suggested for this, the early 1980s are probably most appropriate,
when, partly owing to the spreading influence of Michel Foucault, the attractions
of the linguistic turn and the nausea of the 1968 hangover began to be felt in
historiography as well as literary studies – at least in the anglophone world. Among
continental historians, with a few exceptions, they seem to have had very little
impact. In 1976 was published an intervention from a structuralist source (though it
has since been seamlessly incorporated into postmodernist discussion), Hayden

What is ‘Postmodernism’? 23

White’s Metahistory. The purpose of this work (and of White’s later writings), which
we will examine at greater length later on, was to assimilate texts of history and
historical theory to literary productions, by demonstrating that they were always
structured within a few rigid frameworks, e.g. tragedy, comedy, irony, provided by
literary models, with these in turn being based upon deep linguistic structures. It is
significant that White’s volume made no great impression when it was first published and no less significant that it attained renown a few years later when the
climate became more favourable.
Foucault, though, was of much greater importance. From the early 1960s onwards
he had been publishing the series of volumes which established his reputation,
focusing on institutions which aimed to create particular uniform sorts of individuals – prisons, mental institutions, medicine, sexuality – and from the 1970s combining a critique of the exercise of power through discourse with the suggestion that
the present was little improvement, if any, over the past. Although Foucault was
engaging with concrete matters in a manner not imitated by the other key postmodernists, he too was in love with the linguistic turn and assigned a primary reality
to words – or rather discourse – over what would for most historians be regarded as
material reality; he could say towards the end of his life that ‘I am aware that I have
written nothing but fictions’.
If Foucault was not, as he insisted, a poststructuralist, he was certainly a deconstructionist, his objective being to deconstruct the accepted discourses of medicine,
penology, sexuality, etc. It was a way of attacking institutions which seemed otherwise impervious to political or social campaigns. Around the turn of the 1980s, with
the quickening of anglophone historians’ interest in postmodernism, it was not only
Foucault but the semantic deconstructors such as Barthes and Derrida who attracted
their attention. Especially to the fore here were several feminist historians, Joan
Wallach Scott being the most outstanding. Most were based in the United States, but
Sally Alexander was a representative from a background of History Workshop, a
radical collective established in Ruskin College53 in the late 1960s under the inspiration of the late Raphael Samuel. Scott was to insist that she had found the poststructuralist deconstructionists very helpful in working out a feminist historical
perspective and had embodied their insights into her own historical work – she is a
very able historian – though as I will suggest later, this claim is somewhat disputable.

䉴

Examples

There now exists at least one journal devoted to promoting historical and historiographical theory in a postmodern mode, Rethinking History, subtitled The Journal of
Theory and Practice; and a very large range of books and articles. Debates have raged
in radical and specialised historical journals, and in mainstream ones such as the

24 Postmodernism and History

American History Review, Central European History (published in the United States),
Past & Present, Social History and the Journal of Contemporary History. Easily the most
energetic partisan of postmodern historical theory is Keith Jenkins, who has produced, as noted, The Postmodern History Reader (a very useful compilation), a fair
number of books propounding his theses, innumerable articles, and whose name
tends to appear everywhere this subject is under discussion. As more than one postmodernist has grumbled, however, the historical profession as a whole appears in
the main to be resistant to the trend and insists on continuing its practice in a generally traditional manner, apart from those historians who have attacked it explicitly
from more or less hostile – though very different – standpoints. Among these are
Bryan Palmer, who wrote the first of these attacks, published in 1990, Gertrude
Himmelfarb, Joyce Appelby, Richard Evans, Neville Kirk, Lawrence Stone, Raphael
Samuel (both of the latter now deceased). There are also texts where it has been
defended or attacked as part of a wider discussion (for example by Richard Price; and
in Marxism and History by Matt Perry).
The point has been made several times already that postmodernism does not have
a single and determinate meaning, and it is now necessary, in relation to historiography, to try to distinguish some of these meanings. Hayden White once observed,
rather perceptively, since he was writing as far back as 197354 and was referring to
structuralism, that a broad distinction could be observed between ‘positivists’, who
aimed by new approaches to expand the field of knowledge and understanding
(among whom he would undoubtedly have included himself), and the ‘perversely
obscurantist’, ‘eschatological’ school who ‘take seriously Mallarmé’s conviction that
things exist in order to live in books. For them the whole of human life is to be
treated as a “text” the meaning of which is nothing but what it is’ – in essence a
modernist/postmodernist poem. ‘Language becomes music.’55
A similar consideration is applicable to postmodernism in history. Although it is a
disputed area, it is perfectly plausible to argue that historical understanding can be
strengthened and improved by applying some of the insights of the postmodern
thinkers. These include paying attention not only to what is said in the record, but
the manner and form in which it is said and also the silences – the rhetoric and discourse of a speaker, writer, or any user of representation (one could talk about a
pictorial discourse in relation to painters). There are a number of other aspects as
well: the excavation of previously unheard voices, thereby giving a voice to the
hitherto ignored; the identification of instances of previously unrecognised permeation of social consciousness by discriminatory and exclusionary practices; identification of the exercise of coercive power in what has been assumed to be benign
relationships – in general terms, the conceptual broadening of historians’ vocabulary. Historians in the past two decades or so declaring an allegiance to postmodern
concepts have been doing these things and adding significantly to the range of
historical understanding. Some will be considered in detail below. Such techniques

What is ‘Postmodernism’? 25

have of course also been used to produce a great deal of garbage, especially when
employed by individuals addicted to the jargon of postmodern high theory, and
decidedly imperialistic ambitions have been displayed, even by able historians of
this school, in assertions that this is the only valid sort of history that can be undertaken.
Claims of that kind are related to disputes over what the historical imagination can
encompass, a debate which takes us back to Lyotard’s denunciation of ‘metanarrative’
and the rejection of historical teleology, now something which is generally
accepted. ‘Totalisation’ is a dirty word in the postmodernist discourse, and has
been extravagantly linked with ‘totalitarianism’ (after all, they sound a bit similar).
The question is whether long-term developments in space and time (if there are any)
or far-reaching categorisations of particular specific but broad historical situations
(such as, for example the mid-seventeenth century European crisis) can be understood historically according to any specific principles (such as the class struggle or the
power of market forces). Postmodern theorists do not necessarily deny that such longor medium-term patterns exist – but maintain that if they do they are beyond human
grasp or comprehension, and therefore irrelevant to the historians’ work. Such a position has been seriously argued,56 and if the position is accepted the only legitimate
form of historiographical enterprise is ‘micro-history’, as practised by Carlo Ginsburg
or Natalie Zemon Davis (‘a historian able to use the insights of anthropology and
ethnography – one moreover not afraid to speculate when “proof” was unavailable’),57 an intense focus on very specific, restricted episodes in the past.
The ultimate expression of the postmodern sensibility in historiography is to deny
its possibility. Combining Saussurian linguistics (or what are believed to be
Saussurian linguistics)58 with the assimilation of historical writing to literary models
in the style of White, Derridan deconstructionism, and the presumed impossibility
of truthful representation, results in the future for historical writing being proclaimed to be a form of poetics which can reveal nothing about the past and can
have nothing but imaginative force.
Derrida had little to say about history, but he has not been altogether silent. Here,
with reference to women’s history:
A history of paradoxical laws and non-dialectical discontinuities, a history of absolutely heterogeneous pockets, irreducible particularities, of unheard and incalculable
sexual differences; a history of women who have – centuries ago – ‘gone further’ by
stepping back with their lone dance, or who are today inventing sexual idioms at a
distance from the main forum of feminist activity . . .

Whatever that might mean.59
We therefore return to the starting point of the discussion in this chapter – that postmodernism in history and historiography has no fixed meaning. (Perhaps, given the

26 Postmodernism and History

nature of the postmodern concept, that is as it should be.) The historical work that
has been done since the early 1970s in recovering the pasts of all manner of persecuted, excluded and adversely treated individuals, groups and cultures, and the
forms of practice used to advance this project have no necessary connection with the
poststructuralist strand in the postmodern discourse, despite some claims to the contrary which we will examine in subsequent chapters and which could have been
developed independently of the Saussurian heritage and probably would have been,
out of the new social history tradition.
By contrast, the project of undermining the conceptual foundations of historiography has nothing to offer historians – though it might be a reason for alarming
them if its proponents had advanced any reasons why it should be taken seriously.
However, they have not. Their enterprise retains the status of a theology with no
foundation beyond the indisputable gospels of Saussure, Derrida, White, Lyotard
and certain minor prophets.
There are also intermediate instances, of whom Foucault is by far the most important. These are writers who, in spite of their embrace of the linguistic turn and its
associated concepts have nevertheless produced interesting work. In Foucault’s case,
regardless of the obscurity of much of his prose, his insufferably self-assured rhetoric
and a weird theory spun out of his own consciousness, he nevertheless has things to
say which are worth attending to.
The following chapters of this volume will examine all three of these divisions, to
give due credit to and demonstrate the value of approaches which have fertilised the
field of historical studies but which have been covered hitherto with the postmodernist label, while distinguishing them sharply from the dead ends with which
they have too often been confused.

2 The Status of Historical
Evidence

䉴

Developments in historical evidence

In examining the impact on historical writing (and other forms of production such
as broadcasting) of postmodern ideas and the intellectual sensibility associated with
them, the most appropriate starting point may well be to inquire into the character
of historical evidence – the raw material for any form of historical (more strictly,
historiographical) production.
The forms of evidence utilised by historians are commonly referred to as sources,
and any basic textbook of historiographical method will list the enormous scope and
variety of the kinds of sources available to historians.1 Rather than simply reproducing a list of this sort, however, we will treat historical evidence itself in a historical
fashion and consider the manner in which over time the accredited sorts of evidence
acceptable for historical research have developed and expanded.
The modern style of historiography2 emerged in the early nineteenth century for a
mixture of intellectual, cultural and political reasons, and is particularly associated
with the name of Leopold von Ranke.3 The central tenet of the ‘Berlin School’,
which he founded and whose influence was incalculable, was the absolute imperative of relying on original sources for the production of any legitimate historiography. Original sources consisted of what may be loosely termed ‘witness statements’
– accounts or other records produced by the persons involved and preferably very
near in time to the events with which they were connected.
This conception remains the bedrock of the historical profession as practised
today; although certain postmodernists4 have challenged it no historian can hope
to achieve any significant credibility unless this method is employed. Not, of course,
that any historian would suggest that the original character of a source guarantees its
completeness or accuracy (it might even be intended to deceive), but they would
most certainly maintain, almost unanimously, that these are the absolutely necessary starting points, they represent the primary sources or evidence.
It is for this continuing dominant insight that all (or nearly all) historians are
still von Ranke’s disciples, but the notion of an original source in his time bears only
an ancestral relationship to its concept at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
For Ranke and his contemporaries history proper was the history of European or
27

28 Postmodernism and History

American war, diplomacy, high politics, law and culture. As the nineteenth century
advanced, and under the pressure of the masses (mostly male) engaging in political
agitation, demanding political and social justice (or even transformation), the subject matter of historiography expanded and so did the range of sources with which
historians concerned themselves. The histories of local government, public administration, economic affairs, necessitated and brought into the view of historians, now
established as an academic discipline, new ranges of sources pertinent to these
objects of study; they were able to use documentation that their predecessors would
have disdained. History of ‘the people’, the concern particularly of French writers in
the mid-century reinterpreting the events of the Revolution was followed, as labour
movements began to emerge and consolidate, by class histories in an institutional
mode, focusing on trade union organisations or political parties.
In the succeeding century the range of source materials with which historians
learnt to concern themselves expanded exponentially. A most important development is associated with the Annales school of historians,5 established in France from
the late 1920s onward by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, who deliberately set out
to create a new kind of historical outlook, based upon forms of evidence and ways
of handling it previously unexplored. The themes with which the Annalistes were
concerned were those which persisted over the long term and altered only with
glacial slowness. For them historiography based upon the self-evident succession
of events – histoire évenémentelle – was regarded with near disdain. Their concentration was upon such issues as demography, the environmental dimension of productive activities (especially agricultural ones), diet, kinship patterns, structures of
family or workplace life. In particular, they concerned themselves with analysing
mentalités – structures of thinking operating at group or society (rather than individual) levels.6
In furtherance of their project the Annalistes pursued new sources and forms of evidence. To be sure the greater part of these were textual, but not all – ‘the landscape’,
Febvre, for example, liked to say, ‘is a document’. More traditional sources were
treated in a different manner from that in which they had been previously
handled. Legal documents and medical texts were particularly rich fields, when read
in relation not to their immediate and ostensible purposes but for clues to the nature
of the society which had generated them.7
This kind of approach has gone on to be modified, extended and developed by the
social historians of the second half of the twentieth century. Sources have been
sought out which reveal the life conditions, the activities and the aspirations of the
marginal, the despised and rejected, the overlooked who have been regarded as
beneath the notice of traditional historiography or taken notice of only as anonymous masses.8 Documentation relevant to such purposes, from police reports to the
records of bizarre religious or political sects9 to unpublished working-class autobiographies, has consequently come into its own. The scientific technologies of the

The Status of Historical Evidence 29

twentieth century have further expanded the range of source materials available to
historians’ scrutiny. To note only two examples: the cassette tape recorder has given
birth to an entire new sub-discipline in the shape of oral history (to be discussed
below); radio-carbon analysis and pollen grains (their analysis assisted by the computer) have become cardinal resources for dating in circumstances where documentary evidence is not available. Micro-history, a technique developed by historians
such as Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginsburg, has used intensive study of the
life histories of particular individuals to draw conclusions about wider social and
cultural relationships.

䉴

The unbearable lightness of historical evidence

It will be easily appreciated that this enormous extension of the sources of historical
evidence brings with it problems as well as benefits, even if one is entirely traditionalist in historiographical outlook, maintaining what Arthur Marwick has termed a
‘straight-line professional’ approach. There is simply so much to be taken into
account. Of course no historian works by accumulating, without preconceptions,
a heap of evidence relating to some historical issue or other and then seeing
what conclusions might emerge from it. Such a hit-and-miss manner of working
would produce very muddled and probably unreadable history. What historians
do rather is to pose questions and then seek for the evidence which might be capable
of answering them, drawing on the various available sources according to requirement.
In principle it appears straightforward enough, but that apparently simple procedure is riddled with concealed assumptions and unexamined logical joints. In the
first place, historians face the paradox that simultaneously there is always not enough
evidence and yet too much of it. Reality is inexhaustible, and human interaction,
that especially complex segment of reality with which history is concerned, is the
most inexhaustible of all. No more than the tiniest fragment of the multifarious
human actions taking place in the past and in any of its locations, can ever be
recorded. Where records do exist they are for the most part of actions, intentions or
the consequences of actions, but motivations, when these are relevant to the matter
under investigation, generally have to be inferred, and that in turn gives rise to all
sorts of questions and presumptions. Therefore, even with what would be considered
very full documentation, there must inevitably be enormous gaps and omissions in
the picture. Indeed, what any historian does is to construct a more or less convincing
account and/or analysis out of fragmentary (and possibly misleading) pieces of
evidence, and in a sense that is what they are trained to do from their schooldays
onwards. It will be easily seen that this procedure raises all manner of questions
regarding the relationship of the historians’ consciousness to the evidence which

30 Postmodernism and History

they handle, both in respect of the single items of evidence (a letter, memorandum,
census return or whatever) and the methods whereby these are knitted together to
produce the finished account. It goes without saying that any documentation from a
past era that a historian handles can only be properly comprehended on the basis of
a thorough pre-understanding by the historian of the character and events of the era
in question. He or she is not beginning anew but adding to or modifying an already
existing tradition. This is inescapable.
The malleability of evidence, especially when only limited documentation has
survived, and the need for that to be considered in the context of the historian’s time
as well as that of its originators, is illustrated admirably by a recent discussion in the
journal Past and Present,10 where James Davidson examines the shifting interpretations since the nineteenth century of the meaning of homosexual relations in
classical Athens.
In an era such as the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when physical
relations of that sort were perceived by the dominant culture as a foul perversion,
commentators on the admired classical civilisation of ancient Greece preferred to
interpret the evidence as pointing to essentially spiritual relationships, and Oscar
Wilde used this presumption to underpin his defence at his notorious trial in 1895.
From the 1960s, with homosexuality decriminalised and increasingly accepted, however grudgingly, there was no longer pressure to obscure the physical character of its
Greek manifestation, and accordingly Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (1978)
explored it in a manner and with a frankness never previously encountered. However, a different presupposition had become established orthodoxy, namely that
the relationship was, as Davidson puts it, a ‘zero-sum game’, and constituted an
assertion of power, control and superiority by the active partner over the passive
one. This view fitted well with the Foucauldian metaphysic which insisted that all
human relationships whatever were constituted by power. What Davidson’s article
demonstrates is that, whatever the realities might have been, there is no justification
in the surviving evidence – texts and pottery decoration – for the Dover/Foucault
interpretation; that the evidence in this case has been forced into a particular
framework of assumption whereas it can much more convincingly be read otherwise.11
The other half of the paradox lies in the circumstance that, with scarcely any
exception, whatever theme the historian addresses will have generated a superfluity
of evidence. The existing record for any theme of any consequence – say the French
or Russian revolutions – or even a more limited one (for instance the fall of Berlin in
1945, recently examined in an acclaimed volume by Anthony Beevor12) is prodigious, far more than any single person could accommodate in a meaningful timespan. For something very particular and obscure – perhaps a court case being
examined for its typicality rather than its intrinsic importance – the primary records
may be limited and manageable, but putting it in its historical context brings the

The Status of Historical Evidence 31

problem back again. Then, wider documentation has to be taken into consideration.
Historians may of course work in teams (for example, the Cambridge Population
Group), and many large-scale projects are in fact undertaken in this fashion, but
even so the work has to be co-ordinated and selection made from the evidence. The
apparent solidity, comprehensiveness and comprehensibility of any historical text
therefore – we might cite Ian Kershaw’s acclaimed two-volume Hitler as a good
example13 – is to some degree an illusion which depends on how skilfully a necessarily limited selection of evidence is turned into the finalised construct. For mainstream historians this represents simply an unavoidable limitation which leaves
intact the continuing validity of their project, but the postmodern critique takes
note of the implications of this for any claims historiography might have to arrive at
a distinctive truth about the past.
Nor do the problems and ambiguities end there. The historians’ evidence (most
commonly written texts but not necessarily so) takes many forms, but historians,
though they may grumble about archives which are closed to them, normally take
for granted the evidence which is available. However, the manner in which it
becomes available has to be, as the postmodernists like to say, interrogated. A great
deal of it is generated by officialdom of one sort or another, whether state governments, local government, legal institutions, corporate bodies (commercial or otherwise). To be within the reach of historians these have to be assembled in archives
and this raises questions as to how decisions were taken about preservation and
transmission into the archive. It can be a very hit-and-miss process. In the case of
state bodies there are usually established procedures, but of course these vary widely
between states (and even departments), as does accessibility. Non-public organisations are under no obligation to preserve their archives, and many do not. Redundant commercial records occupy space (which costs money) and often are thrown
away. Important non-official archives may also be closed as a matter of policy if the
organisation in question regards past history as sensitive to its current concerns. It
was not only Soviet archives that were closed during the Cold War, but those of
Western communist parties, which were out of bounds to historians during most
of the twentieth century (some still are). A few individuals may preserve their papers
as an archive. Such people, it may be pointed out, are a most unrepresentative
minority. Most of us keep only legal/financial documents and personal memorabilia.
An archive is useless unless and until it is organised and classified. A miscellaneous
and disordered collection of documentation, however large, would be of very little
value (the same applies in lesser degree to artefacts). Documents, however, do not
arrange themselves. Their classification is a matter of conscious decision, one made
by the archivists, who act according to their training and judgement. When historians arrive at an archive the first thing they have to do is to consult the catalogue – to
establish not only what it contains but what the categories are.

32 Postmodernism and History

䉴

Dealing with documents

It is a cardinal rule of historical practice that documentary sources are never taken at
their word, or, more accurately, that their authors are never treated in that manner,
but that they are critically interrogated. This relates not only to narrative or
descriptive texts; even account books or statistical surveys may, consciously or
unthinkingly, be putting a specific slant or spin on what they purport to be recording, not so much by means of the figures but rather through the categories, devised
by the statistician, to which the figures are applied. The great surveys of poverty in
English cities in the 1890s by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree are subject to
this qualification, for instance, and Joan Scott has a written piece, to be discussed
more fully later on, which is a critique of the statistical survey on Parisian occupations at the end of the 1840s. Other forms of text have to be treated with equal
caution whether it is a diary, a letter, a legal document, a memorandum, a set of
minutes or, above all, a printed text containing an explicit argument intended to
convince its readers of the merits of a particular case.
For recent centuries newspapers are a particularly valuable historical source and
also a particularly dangerous one; this for a number of reasons.14 Newspaper proprietors, whether a multinational corporation, a political party or a single individual,
have their own agendas and these will be reflected in the editorial matter, both news
reports and otherwise. There is also a more technical reason. The news reports which
appear are the result of editing, the text before its appearance having been through
the hands of editors and sub-editors – it is not therefore a witness statement in the
strict sense, though the reporters’ notebooks, if they had survived, would be. That
would not necessarily make them more reliable. Paradoxically, it can be argued
convincingly that secondary sources, books, articles and so forth, the product of the
historian’s cogitation and skill, though regarded as inferior research tools, are in the
cultural sense far more important, for historians conduct their labours in order to
produce them.
Historians are also obliged to beware of the mutability of language and the fact
that the same word takes on different meanings at different times. In English the
change in the meaning of the word ‘gay’ is an obvious contemporary example; some
from previous centuries are also instructive. In the sixteenth century John Knox
referred to ‘the monstrous regiment of women’ – a phrase often quoted in presentday gender polemics. However, although Knox was certainly being misogynistic, it
does not mean what it appears to mean to modern ears – the meaning is in fact: ‘the
unnatural exercise of power by women’. He was referring to the fact that England