For the historian, as for the philosopher, the quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns is being superseded by a quarrel between the Moderns and the Postmoderns. If the great subversive principle of modernity is historicism—a form of relativism that locates the meaning of ideas and events so firmly in their historical context that history, rather than philosophy and nature, becomes the arbiter of truth—postmodernism is now confronting us with a far more subversive form of relativism, a relativism so radical, so absolute, as to be antithetical to both history and truth. For postmodernism denies not only suprahistorical truths but historical truths, truths relative to particular times and places. And that denial involves a repudiation of the historical enterprise as it has been understood and practiced until very recently.
Postmodernism—or poststructuralism, the terms are by now used interchangeably—is most familiar as a school of literary theory (and, in a more specialized sense, of architecture), but it has become prominent in such other disciplines as philosophy, anthropology, law, theology, and history. Deriving from Nietzsche, Heidegger, and others, its more immediate progenitors and most frequently cited authorities are Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Derrida is generally associated with such “deconstructionist” ideas as the “aporia” of discourse, the indeterminacy and contrariness of language, the “fictive” and “duplicitous” nature of signs and symbols, the dissociation of words from any presumed reality. Foucault is more directly responsible for the emphasis on the “power structure” immanent in language, not only in the particular signs and ideas that “privilege” the “hegemonic” groups in society, but in the very nature of rational, logical, coherent thought—”logocentric,” “totalizing,” “authoritarian” discourse, as it is characterized.
In literature, postmodernism amounts to a denial of the fixity of any “text,” of the authority of the author over the interpreter, of any “canon” that privileges great books over comic books. In law, it is a denial of the fixity of the Constitution, of the authority of the founders of the Constitution, and of the legitimacy of law itself, which is regarded as nothing more than an instrument of the ruling class. In philosophy, it is a denial of the fixity of language, of any correspondence between language and reality, indeed of any “essential” reality and thus of any proximate truth about reality. In history, it is a denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth about the past. Postmodernist history, one might say, recognizes no reality principle, only the pleasure principle—history at the pleasure of the historian.
Postmodernist history can be understood only in relation to what might be called “modernist” history. Modernist history too, as it emerged in the nineteenth century, is relativistic, but with a difference, for its relativism is firmly rooted in reality. It is skeptical of any fixed or total truth about the past, but not of partial, contingent, incremental truths. More important, it does not deny the reality of the past itself. Like the political philosopher who makes it a principle to read the texts of the Ancients in the spirit of the Ancients, so the modernist historian reads and writes history in the same spirit, with a scrupulous regard for the historicity, the integrity, the actuality of the past. He makes a strenuous effort to enter into the minds and experiences of people in the past, to try to understand them as they understood themselves, to rely upon contemporary evidence as much as possible, to intrude his own views and assumptions as little as possible, to reconstruct to the best of his ability the past as it “actually was””in Ranke’s famous and now much-derided phrase.
Modernist history, like modernist literature and art, is an exacting discipline, requiring a great exercise of discipline, self-restraint, even self-sacrifice. The greatest of modernist poets, T. S. Eliot, once said, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” And so it is with the historian, who strives constantly to transcend his own present in order to recapture the past, to suppress his own personality in order to give life to generations long since dead. This self-sacrifice is all the greater because the historian is well aware that his effort will never entirely succeed, that the past will always, to some degree, elude him.
Historians, ancient and modern, have always known what postmodernism professes to have just discovered—that any work of history is vulnerable on three counts: the fallibility and deficiency of the historical record; the fallibility and selectivity of the historical process; and the fallibility and subjectivity of the historian. As long as historians have reflected upon their craft, they have known that the past cannot be recaptured in its totality, if only because the remains of the past are sparse and are themselves part of the present, so that the past itself is, in this sense, irredeemably present. They have also known that the writing of history necessarily entails selection and interpretation, that there is inevitable distortion in the very attempt to present a coherent account of an often inchoate past, that, therefore, every historical work is necessarily incomplete, imperfect, tentative.
Historians have also known—they would have to be extraordinarily obtuse not to know this—that they themselves live and act and think in their own present, that some of the assumptions they bring to history derive from their own culture, that others reflect their particular race, gender, and class, and that still others (although this is made much less of today) emanate from ideas and beliefs that are unique to themselves as individuals. It did not take Carl Becker, in 1931, to discover that “everyman [is] his own historian”; or Charles Beard, in 1934, to reveal that “each historian who writes history is the product of his age.” Beard himself said that these propositions had been familiar “for a century or more”—thus antedating even Marx. Forty years before Beard delivered his famous presidential address to the American Historical Association, William Sloane, the echt establishment professor of history at Columbia University, inaugurated the first issue of the American Historical Review with a lead article announcing: “History will not stay written. Every age demands a history written from its own standpoint—with reference to its own social conditions, its thought, its beliefs, and its acquisitions—and thus comprehensible to the men who live in it.”
It is useful for historians to be reminded of what they have always known—the frailty, fallibility, and relativity of the historical enterprise—if only to realize that these familiar truths are not the great discoveries of postmodernism. They are, indeed, very different from the tidings brought by postmodernism. For the presumption of postmodernism is that all of history is fatally flawed, that because there is no absolute, total, final truth, there are no relative, partial, contingent truths. More important still is the presumption that because it is impossible to attain such truths, it is not only futile but positively baneful to aspire to them.
In a sense, modernism anticipated and tried to forestall the absolutistic relativism of postmodernism by creating a “discipline” of history. Conscious of the deficiencies both of the historian and of the historical record, acutely aware of the ambiguous relationship between past and present, the profession created a discipline of checks and controls designed to compensate for those deficiencies. This was the meaning of the historical revolution that drew upon such diverse sources as Enlightenment rationalism, Germanic scholarship, and academic professionalism, all of which converged to produce what was once called “critical history.” (This is not to be confused with Nietzsche’s “critical history,” a history in the “service of life” in contrast to “monumental” and “antiquarian” history; or the neo-Marxist usage of “critical,” as in “critical legal theory.”)
Critical history put a premium on archival research and primary sources, on the authenticity of documents and the reliability of witnesses, on the need for substantiating and countervailing evidence, on the accuracy of quotations and citations, on prescribed forms of documentation in footnotes and bibliography, and on all the rest of the “methodology” that went into the “canon of evidence.” The purpose of this methodology was twofold: to bring to the surface the infrastructure, as it were, of the historical work, thus making it accessible to the reader and subject to criticism; and to encourage the historian to a maximum exertion of objectivity in spite of all the incitements and temptations to the contrary. Postmodernists deride this as the antiquated vestige of nineteenth-century positivism. But it was the norm of the profession until recently. “No one,” John Higham wrote, “including the ‘literary’ historians, rejected the ideal of objectivity in the ordinary sense of unbiased truth; no one gave up the effort to attain it; and no one thought it wholly unapproachable.” This was in 1965, well after Becker and Beard had “relativized” history but before Foucault and Derrida had “postmodernized” it.
This is the crucial distinction between modernists and postmodernists, between old-fashioned relativistic relativists, one might say, and the new absolutistic relativists. Where modernists tolerate relativism, postmodernists celebrate it. Where modernists, aware of the obstacles in the way of objectivity, take this as a challenge and make a strenuous effort to attain as much objectivity and unbiased truth as possible, postmodernists take the rejection of absolute truth as a deliverance from all truth, a release from the obligation to maintain any degree of objectivity or aspire to any kind of truth.
Critical or modernist history was once the antithesis of traditional history—premodern, mythical, honorific, heroic history—what Nietzsche called “monumental” history. For the postmodernist, however, critical history is only another form of traditional history, concealing its ideological structure behind a scholarly facade of footnotes and facts (“facts,” in the lexicon of postmodernism). This facade, the pretense of factuality and objectivity, compounds the deceit by fostering the illusion of truth. To “demythologize” or “demystify” traditional history, postmodernism has to expose not only its ideology—the ideology that serves the interest of the hegemonic, privileged, patriarchal groups in society—but also its methodology, the scholarly apparatus that gives it a specious credibility. This is the twofold agenda of postmodernism: to free history from the shackles of an authoritarian ideology and from the constraints of a delusive methodology. The ultimate aim is even more ambitious: to liberate us all from the coercive ideas of reality and truth.
Theodore Zeldin was one of the first historians (as distinct from philosophers of history) to rebel against what he called the “tyrannies” of history: causality, chronology, and collectivity (nationality and class). Instead of the traditional narrative history based upon these categories, he proposed to create a history, in the manner of a pointilliste painting, composed entirely of unconnected dots. This would have the double advantage of liberating the historian from the tyrannies of the discipline, and liberating the reader from the tyranny of the historian, since the reader would be free to make “what lines he thinks fit for himself.” More recently, Zeldin has gone so far by way of liberation as to liberate himself from the tyranny of history itself. Truth, he now says, can be found only in “free history,” otherwise known as fiction—in testimony to which he proceeded to write a novel with the apt title Happiness.
Not all postmodernists go so far as Zeldin in seeking that ultimate liberation from history, but all do share his aversion to the conventions and categories of traditional history. This is not the familiar kind of revisionism that involves the revision of a particular historical account, analysis, or interpretation of an event or period. It is not revisionism at all, but rather a repudiation of all of traditional history—a profound skepticism about the assumptions, intentions, methods, and conclusions of earlier works of history, and a relativism tantamount to nihilism about the very enterprise of history.
To the traditional historian, the postmodernist philosophy of history appears to be more philosophical than historical and more literary than philosophical. Hayden White, the most systematic exponent of this genre, opens his most influential work, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe, with a chapter entitled “The Poetics of History,” explaining that each of the subjects dealt with, from Hegel to Croce, represents a particular aspect of the “historical imagination”: metaphor, metonymy, irony, romance, comedy, tragedy, satire. (Another of his essays is aptly titled “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.”)
For the postmodernist, there is no distinction between history and philosophy or between history and literature. All of history, in this view, is esthetic and philosophic, its only meaning or “reality” being that which the historian chooses to give it in accord with his own sensibility and disposition. What the traditional historian sees as an event that actually occurred in the past, the postmodernist sees as a “text” that exists only in the present. And like any text, the historical event has to be parsed, glossed, construed, interpreted by the historian, much as a poem or novel is by the critic.
The resemblance between postmodernist history and postmodernist literary criticism extends to the fact that in both disciplines theory has become a calling in itself. Just as there are professors of literature who never engage in the actual interpretation of literary works—who even disdain interpretation as an inferior vocation—so there are professors of history who have never (at least to judge by their published work) done research in or written about an actual historical event or period. Their professional careers are devoted to theoretical speculation about the nature of history in general and to the promotion of some particular methodology or ideology of history.
A traditional historian, who still believes in the distinction between the philosophy of history and the practice of history (and who suspects that most philosophers of history know more about philosophy than about history), is not surprised to find postmodernism dominating the pages of History and Theory. But when it appears in the American Historical Review, and not on the part of philosophers of history but of actual historians, even the most placid historian, unmoved by the winds of doctrine, can hardly fail to take notice. Thus an essay in a recent issue of the Review casually observes that “contemporary historians seldom believe anymore that they can or should try to capture ‘the truth’,” but that this does not absolve them from passing judgment on their subjects. The author, Michael Kazin, concludes by citing the authority of an earlier president of the American Historical Association, Gordon Wright, who had given it as his credo that “our search for truth ought to be quite consciously suffused by a commitment to some deeply held humane values.” The quotation actually speaks against Kazin, for it makes the closest connection between truth and humane values. But that was 1975, when it was still possible to speak respectfully of the “search for truth,” and, indeed, to speak of truth without the ironic use of quotation marks.
The philosopher Richard Rorty recently reported, with unconcealed glee, that it is getting more and more difficult to find “a real live metaphysical prig” who believes in such outmoded ideas as “reality” and “truth.” One can still find a good number of historians—“real live historical prigs”—who persist in believing in those ideas. But one can also find more and more historians today, and not only philosophers of history, who share Rorty’s scorn for such priggish ideas.
The disdain for truth, not as an ultimate philosophical principle but as a practical, guiding rule of historical scholarship, was dramatically illustrated a few years ago by a controversy that erupted in the profession and was widely reported in the press. A book on the Weimar Republic by a young Princeton historian, David Abraham, was criticized by several eminent historians for being full of errors—misquotations, faulty citations, unwarranted deductions from the sources; whereupon an equally eminent group of historians rallied to the defense of the author in a symposium in the Radical History Review. The first line of defense was to impugn the political and personal motives of the critics: political, on the ground that the real objection to the book is not scholarly but ideological (the thesis of the book being Marxist or neo-Marxist); and personal, the older “establishment” historians resenting the novice who presumes to infringe on their turf. The second line of defense was to belittle both the seriousness of the errors and the standards of scholarship that make so much of them. The mistakes are said to be innocent faults of transcription such as occur in any archival research. (It is not explained how it happens that most of them tend to support the contentious thesis.) Besides, the truth or falsity of specific quotations and assertions is of little moment; what matters is the plausibility of the thesis itself. An article by Thomas Bender, entitled “‘Facts’ and History,” defines the “historical imagination” as a process of “imaginative creation,” and warns young historians not to become “fact fetishists” like some of their benighted elders.
A truly creative exercise of the historical imagination is a recent book by the distinguished historian Simon Schama. Entitled, with conscious irony, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations), the book consists of two essays tenuously related to each other, each reinterpreting an episode in American history. The first, on General Wolfe, the commander of the British forces in North America in the Seven Years’ War who died in the battle of Quebec, is meant to demythologize the conventional heroic account of his death and thus the “patriotic martyrology” traditionally associated with the “pieties of imperial history.” The essay opens and closes with a memoir by a soldier present on that occasion, related in the first person and in the colloquial speech of the time, which presents a picture of Wolfe at his death that is less romantic and decidedly less heroic than the familiar one.
Only at the very end, in an “Afterword,” is the reader told that the memoir and the soldier himself are entirely fictional. The essays, Schama then explains, are “historical novellas,” rather than history proper, “works of the imagination, not scholarship,” containing characters, scenes, and passages that are “pure inventions”—although based, he adds, on what the documents “suggest.” Since this book, like Schama’s earlier one on the French Revolution, is not burdened with footnotes, we have no way of knowing where the documents end and the inventions start. Indeed, it is not until this point, two hundred and fifty pages after the conclusion of the essay on Wolfe, that we discover that some of the most dramatic parts of the narrative, which carry the weight of his thesis and which have all the earmarks of authenticity, are completely fictional. (When this essay was published earlier in the English journal Granta, it was without the afterword and thus without any intimation that it was anything but conventional history.)
A similar caveat, this time in the introduction rather than afterword, appears in the much admired book Black Odyssey, by another eminent Harvard professor, Nathan Huggins. The reader is forewarned that the style is “evocative and impressionistic” rather than “descriptive and analytical,” and that the approach to the subject risks “some distortion.” Instead of a conventional historical account of the African background, Huggins explains that he presents “a model, something of an archetype,” not an actual village but an “ideal African social context.” The reality, he admits, is far more diverse and complicated, the actual “African experience” covering two centuries and hundreds of peoples with widely differing political, social, economic, even sexual characteristics. That disclaimer, however, is soon forgotten as the reader is immersed in the dramatic (and surely idealized) portrait of a natural, stable, harmonious community that was to be violently destroyed by the slave trade. In the absence of footnotes (or such mundane facts as dates, statistics, or documents), and in the “evocative and impressionistic” style that Huggins aptly describes, the reader is apt to accept his claim that this “model” has an “essential validity,” a psychological “truth,” which transcends the historical reality. Even the professional historian, knowing that the “archetype” does not, in fact, correspond to the reality, is moved by that portrait. “There are more erudite illustrations of the slave trade than Huggins’s,” one reviewer observes, “but few which make the individual’s predicament so palpable.”
These examples have deliberately been chosen from highly respected historians who are not thought of, and do not think of themselves, as postmodernists. (Schama has explicitly dissociated himself from this school.) But they share a view of the historical enterprise that effectively deconstructs or “problematizes” history by obscuring the distinction between fact and fiction, thus creating what the postmodernist regards as a higher form of history, “historiographic metafiction.”
Many historians who shy away from any suggestion of fictional or even “metafictional” history welcome the invitation to be “inventive,” “imaginative,” “creative”—words bandied about so frequently in the profession today that one almost does not notice them or consider their implication. Instead of “recreating” the past, historians are now told to “create” it; instead of “reconstructing” the past, to “construct” it. Where once we were exhorted to be accurate and rigorous, we are now urged to be imaginative and inventive. Where relativism was once taken to mean that we could only hope to attain probable, not absolute, truth, today it is taken as license for any possible or plausible interpretation. Formerly, when historians invoked the idea of imagination, they meant the exercise of imagination required to transcend the present and immerse oneself in the past. This was, as J. H. Plumb noted, the genius of the great nineteenth-century historians: “Empathy, imagination, the attempt to place oneself in an historic situation and into an historic character without pre-judgment.” For the postmodernist it means exactly the opposite: the imagination to create a past in the image of the present and in accord with the judgment of the historian.
Schama cites Macaulay’s view of historical imagination to support his own excursions into fictional history. History, Macaulay writes, is a “debatable land” governed by two hostile powers: “Instead of being equally shared between its two rulers, the Reason and the Imagination, it falls alternately under the sole and absolute dominion of each. It is sometimes fiction. It is sometimes theory.” But Schama does not quote the rest of this passage, in which Macaulay places significant limitations on the dominion of the imagination.
A perfect historian must possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his narrative affecting and picturesque. Yet he must control it so absolutely as to content himself with the materials which he finds, and to refrain from supplying deficiencies by additions of his own. He must be a profound and ingenious reasoner. Yet he must possess sufficient self-command to abstain from casting his facts in the mould of his hypothesis.
Nor does Schama quote another passage in the same essay describing the “art of historical narration” as the ability to affect the reader’s imagination “without indulging in the license of invention”; nor, later still, Macaulay’s comparison of the historian to the dramatist, “with one obvious distinction”: “The dramatist creates: the historian only disposes.”
It may be said that postmodernist history is of little importance in the profession at large, that it is confined to a self-described “vanguard” which has few disciples in theory and fewer still in practice. In sheer numbers, this may be the case, although it is difficult to make such a quantitative calculation. But the question of influence is not determined by numbers, as anyone who has followed the fortunes of Marxism in the academy and in the culture at large is acutely aware; Marxism in the thirties was far more influential than the number of avowed Marxists would suggest. And so it is with any intellectual or cultural movement. The word “vanguard” itself is deceptive. In its original military meaning, it referred to the advance troops of an army, and the efficacy of the vanguard was assumed to depend on the size and strength of the troops behind it. In its present sense, a vanguard may exist and thrive, and profoundly affect the culture, without any army—with “fellow-travelers” in place of troops. It is a long time since anyone has been foolish enough to ask, “How many divisions has the Pope?”
Postmodernism is far less prevalent among historians than among literary critics, although even in history it exercises a disproportionate influence because it tends to attract a disproportionate number of the best and the brightest in the profession, especially in the younger generation. How can bright, ambitious young historians resist the new, especially when it has the sanction of some of their most prestigious elders and is already so well ensconced in the profession? And how can they resist the new when it carries with it not only the promise of advancement but the allure of creativity, imagination, inventiveness? And not only creativity but liberation from the tedium and rigor of the old “discipline” of history?
This last is a matter of more than passing importance, both in explaining the attraction of postmodernist history and its influence. In the old benighted days, an aspirant in the profession was required to go through the mandatory initiation rite known as “Historical Methodology.” That course, once the centerpiece of the graduate program, is now obsolete because the idea of any “methodology,” let alone a uniform, obligatory one, is regarded as arbitrary and oppressive. The absence of such a course, the lack of any training in what used to be confidently called the “canon of evidence”—even more, the disrespect for any such canon-is itself a fact of considerable importance in the training (or non-training) of young historians. It has even affected some older historians, including some traditional ones, who now feel sufficiently liberated to dispense with such impediments to creativity as footnotes. This methodological liberation has done more to transform the profession, making it less of a “discipline” and more of an impressionistic “art,” than any conscious conversion to postmodernism. It may, indeed, prove to be the decisive victory of postmodernism.
Finally, there are the politically liberating aspects of postmodernism that make it so seductive. Some Marxists, neo-Marxists, and old-fashioned radicals are suspicious of postmodernism as apolitical, passive, and thus essentially conservative. Jürgen Habermas is not alone in characterizing Foucault as “neoconservative” because his “theoretical gestures” offer no positive alternative to capitalism. “Since it commits you to affirming nothing,” Terry Eagleton says of postmodernism, “it is as injurious as blank ammunition.” But he goes on to exempt some leading postmodernists from that stricture, including Derrida himself. “Derrida is clearly out to do more than develop new techniques of reading: deconstruction is for him an ultimately political practice, an attempt to dismantle the logic by which a particular system of thought, and behind that a whole system of political structures and social institutions, maintains its force.” Similarly, Foucault, in spite of his own criticisms of Marxism, is said by one of his admirers to be “continuing the work of the Western Marxists by other means.” Other commentators see postmodernism as peculiarly congenial to the newer forms of radicalism. Peter Stearns, editor of the Journal of Social History, notes the connection between postmodernism and the “currently fashionable protest ideologies of the academic world”—anti-racism, anti-sexism, environmentalism. “Postmodernists,” he observes, “are clearly spurred by a desire to find new intellectual bases for radicalism, given the troubles of liberalism and socialism.”
The radicalism of postmodernism is, in fact, far more radical than either Marxism or the new modish ideologies, both of which share a commitment to Enlightenment principles and discourse, appealing to reason, truth, justice, morality, reality. Postmodernism repudiates both the values and the rhetoric of the Enlightenment—that is, of modernity. In rejecting the “discipline” of knowledge and rationality, postmodernism also rejects the “discipline” of society and authority. And in denying any reality apart from language, it subverts the structure of society together with the structure of language. The principle of indeterminacy is an invitation to creation ex nihilo. It presents the historian with a tabula rasa on which he may inscribe whatever he chooses, including the most deterministic of theories. This is why the indeterminacy of postmodernism lends itself to the determinacy of the race/class/gender trinity. By deconstructing the “text” of the past, new histories can be created in accord with the race/class/gender dispositions of their creators.
The political potential of postmodernism has been seized most enthusiastically and imaginatively by feminist historians, who find the old Marxism and even some forms of the new radicalism unresponsive to their concerns. It is no accident that some of the leading postmodernists in America today are feminists, and that postmodernism figures so prominently in feminist literature. Joan Wallach Scott explains the political relationship between the two:
A more radical feminist politics (and a more radical feminist history) seems to me to require a more radical epistemology. Precisely because it addresses questions of epistemology, relativizes the status of all knowledge, links knowledge and power, and theorizes these in terms of the operations of difference, I think poststructuralism (or at least some of the approaches generally associated with Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida) can offer feminism a powerful analytic perspective.
Feminist history is profoundly subversive not only of traditional history but of earlier varieties of women’s history. It belittles the kind of women’s history that focuses on the experiences of women in particular events or periods. It even repudiates the “mainstreaming” of women’s history into general history—the “add-women-and-stir” recipe, as it is now scornfully called. The new feminist history, unlike the old women’s history, demands that all of history be rewritten from a “consciously feminist stance,” a “feminist perspective”—the perspective of the feminist historian rather than of the women who are the ostensible subjects of history. It is because of this ambitious goal that feminist history requires, as Scott says, a “radical epistemology” that defines all of history as essentially, irredeemably political. If conventional history is an instrument of patriarchal power, feminist history, by the same token, must be an instrument for feminist power.
Some feminists have been remarkably candid in describing their intentions and practices. “We are all engaged in writing a kind of propaganda,” Ellen Somekawa and Elizabeth A. Smith explain in a recent essay. “Our stories are inspired by what could be called a worldview, but what we would call politics.” Since there is no objective basis for one story rather than another, the only grounds for judging one better than another are “its persuasiveness, its political utility, and its political sincerity.” This presents feminists with something of a dilemma, for political expediency might be best served by concealing or denying the theory upon which their history is based. Any history that “problematize[s] the past, reality, and the truth” makes for difficult reading and therefore reduces its effectiveness; moreover, it might be more compelling if it assumes the “mantle of objectivity” and “mythologizes” its own story by presenting it as true. Somekawa and Smith sympathize with those who resort to this stratagem, but they themselves resist it. A truly radical history, they insist, requires nothing less than a totally demythologized history.
Thus it is that the “poetics” of history becomes the “politics” of history. Postmodernism, even more overtly than Marxism, makes of history—the writing of history—an instrument in the struggle for power. If nothing is true and everything is rhetorical, and rhetoric itself reflects the structure of power, then the historian, like the proletariat of old, is the permanent bearer of the “class” war.
What is sauce for the goose. . . . If the feminist historian can and should write history from her perspective and for her political purpose, why should the black historian not do the same—even if such a history might “marginalize” women? And why not the working class historian, who might marginalize both women and blacks? (Feminist historians have criticized E. P. Thompson and other social historians on just this ground.) And why not the homosexual historian, who might marginalize heterosexuals? For that matter, why not the traditional dead-white-male (or even live-white-male) historian, who might marginalize (who has been accused of marginalizing) all other species?
If “Everyman his own historian” must now be rendered “Everyman/woman his/her own historian”—or, as some feminists would have it, “Everywomyn her own herstorian”—why not “Every Black/White/Hispanic/Asian/Native American . . . ”? Or “Every Christian/Jew/Catholic/Protestant/Muslim/Hindu/secularist/atheist . . . ”? Or “Every heterosexual/homosexual/bisexual/androgynous/polymorphous/misogamous/misogynous . . . ”? And so on, through all the ethnic, racial, religious, sexual, national, ideological, and other characteristics that distinguish people? This sounds like a reductio ad absurdum, but it is little more than is already being affirmed in the name of “multiculturalism.”
Multiculturalism has the obvious effect of politicizing history. But its more pernicious effect is to demean and dehumanize the subjects of history. To deny the generic “man” is to deny the common humanity of both sexes—and, by implication, the common humanity of all racial, social, religious, and ethnic groups. It is also to deny the common history they were once presumed to share. Traditional historians, even many radical historians, are troubled by the prospect of a history so pluralized and fragmented that it lacks all coherence and focus, all sense of continuity, indeed, all meaning.
From a postmodernist perspective, this is all to the good, for it destroys the “totalizing,” “universalizing,” “logocentric,” “phallocentric” history that is said to be the great evil of modernity. Postmodernism proposes instead to privilege “aporia”—difference, discontinuity, disparity, contradiction, discord, indeterminacy, ambiguity, irony, paradox, perversity, opacity, obscurity, chaos. “We require a history,” Hayden White explains, “that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot.” The modernist accuses the postmodernist of bringing us to the abyss of nihilism. The postmodernist proudly, happily accepts that charge. Paul de Man has been described by his admirers as “the only man who ever looked into the abyss and came away smiling.” In view of the recent revelations about de Man’s early Nazi and anti-Semitic writings, this is a chilling tribute.
What is the future of postmodernism? Is it just another of those intellectual fashions that periodically seize the imagination of a bored and fickle academia? Whatever happened to existentialism? In France, the source of most of these fashions, deconstruction is already passea. Can it much longer survive here? Given the volatility of intellectual and academic life, it is hard not to anticipate a post-postmodernism. The question is, what form will that take?
In history, as in literature and philosophy, there may well be—there almost certainly will be—a disaffection with postmodernism, if only because the appeal of novelty will wear off. The “herd of independent minds,” in Harold Rosenberg’s brilliant phrase, will find some other brave, new cause to rally around. Out of boredom, careerism (the search for ways to distinguish and thus advance oneself in the profession), and sheer bloody-mindedness (the desire to eapater one’s elders), the young will rebel, and the vanguard of today will find itself an aging rearguard—much as the “new history” of an earlier generation (social history) has been displaced by this newer history. What is not at all clear, however, is the nature of the rebellion—whether it will be a counterrevolution leading to a restoration (or partial restoration) of an older mode of history, or whether it will usher in a still newer mode, the configuration of which we cannot begin to imagine.
One might think that a counterrevolution is already under way in the form of the “New Historicism,” the latest version of Marxism. But while some of the members of this school (Frederic Jameson and Terry Eagleton, most notably) criticize postmodernism for being insufficiently revolutionary and overly esthetic, they are also attracted to those aspects of it that are truly subversive. Thus Eagleton praises feminist postmodernism not only for insisting that women have equal power and status with men, but for questioning the legitimacy of all power and status. “It is not that the world will be better off with more female participation in it; it is that without the ‘feminization’ of human history, the world is unlikely to survive.” In the common cause of radicalism, structuralists and poststructuralists, new historicists and feminists, have been able to overlook whatever logical incompatibilities there may be in their theories. (This presents no great problem for deconstructionists, who have an infinite tolerance for contradiction and a great contempt for “linear” logic.) Like the communists and socialists of an earlier generation, they have formed a “popular front,” marching separately to a common goal. Thus the new historicism, so far from presenting a clear, unambiguous alternative to postmodernism, has become an ally of it, if a somewhat uneasy one.
It is a cliché that no counterrevolution is ever quite that, that the status quo ante is never fully restored. In the case of history, what will stand in the way of a full restoration of traditional history is not, as one might think, ideology; one can foresee a desire to return to a more objective and integrated, less divisive and self-interested history. What will be more difficult to restore is the methodology that is at the heart of that history. A generation of historians (by now, several generations as these are reckoned in academia) lack any training in that methodology. They may even lack the discipline—moral as well as professional—required for it. Eagleton speaks of the “laid-back” style of postmodernism. It is “laid-back,” however, not in the sense of being casual, colloquial, commonsensical—on the contrary, it is contrived, abstruse, recondite—but in the sense of ignoring, even deliberately violating, the conventions of logic, consistency, evidence, and documentation. The postmodernist argument is that these are the “totalizing” practices of a totalitarian discipline. But they are also the hard practices of a difficult discipline. Gresham’s law governs history as surely as economics: bad habits drive out good, easy methods drive out hard ones. And there is no doubt that the old history, traditional history, is hard.
Hard—but exciting precisely because it is hard. And that excitement may inspire a new generation of historians. It is more exciting to write true history (or as true as we can make it) than fictional history, else historians would choose to be novelists rather than historians; more exciting to try to rise above our interests and prejudices than to indulge them; more exciting to try to enter the imagination of those remote from us in time and place than to impose our imagination upon them; more exciting to write a coherent narrative while respecting the complexity of historical events than to fragmentize history into disconnected units; more exciting to try to get the facts (without benefit of quotation marks) as right as we can than to deny the very idea of facts; even more exciting to get the footnotes right, if only to show others the visible proof of our labors.
The political theorist William Dunning said that one of the happiest days of his life was when he discovered, by a comparison of handwriting, that Andrew Jackson’s first message to Congress was actually drafted by George Bancroft. “I don’t believe,” he wrote to his wife, “you can form any idea of the pleasure it gives me to have discovered this little historical fact.” Every historian has had this experience—the pleasure of discovering a fact that may appear in the published work in a subordinate clause or footnote, but that, however trivial in itself, validates the entire enterprise, because it is not only new but also true. The postmodernist historian can never have that satisfaction.
Postmodernism entices us with the siren call of liberation and creativity, but it may be an invitation to intellectual and moral suicide. Foucault has hailed the “death of humanist man,” and friends and critics agree that postmodernism is anti-humanistic. By the same token, it is profoundly antihistorical. Hayden White commends the great historians who “interpreted the burden of the historian as a moral charge to free men from the burden of history.” One may think it bizarre to include, as he does, Tocqueville in that company, but one cannot doubt that that is indeed the aim of postmodernism. To free men from the “burden” of history is to free them from the burden of humanity. Liberationist history, like liberationist theology, is not a new and higher form of the discipline; it is the negation of the discipline.
If we have survived the “death of God” and the “death of man,” we will surely survive the “death of history”—and of truth, reason, morality, society, reality, and all the other verities we used to take for granted and that have now been “problematized.” We will even survive the death of postmodernism.
Gertrude Himmelfarb, a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of First Things, is author most recently of Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians. This essay was originally presented at a conference sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life.