On the Future of History: The Postmodernist Challenge and Its Aftermathby Ernst Breisach
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What does postmodernism mean for the future of history? Can one still write history in postmodernity? To answer questions such as these, Ernst Breisach provides the first comprehensive overview of postmodernism and its complex relationship to history and historiography. Placing postmodern theories in their intellectual and historical contexts, he shows how they are part of broad developments in Western culture.
Breisach sees postmodernism as neither just a fad nor a universal remedy. In clear and concise language, he presents and critically evaluates the major views on history held by influential postmodernists, such as Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, and the new narrativists. Along the way, he introduces to the reader major debates among historians over postmodern theories of evidence, objectivity, meaning and order, truth, and the usefulness of history. He also discusses new types of history that have emerged as a consequence of postmodernism, including cultural history, microhistory, and new historicism.
For anyone concerned with the postmodern challenge to history, both advocates and critics alike, On the Future of History will be a welcome guide.
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Read an ExcerptON THE FUTURE OF HISTORY
THE POSTMODERNIST CHALLENGE AND ITS AFTERMATH
By ERNST BREISACH
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
A LOOK AT TERMS AND ISSUES
Two Turns of Centuries and Two Crises
The parallelism has been striking, perhaps also a bit deceptive. In the decades leading up to the twenty-first century, scholars engaged in a postmodernism discourse that abounded with warnings about a crisis of or challenge to modernity and its views on history. A look backward to the last turn of centuries revealed a debate among scholars also filled with warnings of a crisis in historiography. In either case, the call was for a drastic change.
In the late 1800s, Carl L. Becker and Henri Berr worried about the viability of history in light of what they saw as the more rapid modernization of the social sciences. They would be joined by Frederick Jackson Turner, James Harvey Robinson, and Karl Lamprecht in calling for and pioneering a New History. Their ideas, joined with those of historians who followed the pioneers, would supply the primary matrix for twentieth-century historiography. While these innovators and their successors would set different specific directions in their works, they all wished to change the ways of "doing history" toward what they considered a modern historical understanding. The suggested remedies demanded that preferences be given to (in Turner's words) "deep, anonymous structures and forces" over "surface phenomena" (individuals and events), predictable and measurable patterns over the contingent, the general over the unique, the many over the individual, the masses over the elite, and the broad context of life over the emphasis on politics, diplomacy, and war (now seen as event history). To these features were usually added a strong empiricism and a more or less pronounced progressive view. During the twentieth century the New History-primarily in the form of social history-developed in many variants with strong national accents. Among them were the American Progressive history, the social science-oriented history, the history of the Annales group, Marxist history, and the German Historische Sozial wissenschaft.
Now, the terms crisis and challenge have once more become common coin. For the new reformers, the grand hopes that had accompanied the New History movement had dimmed. Disenchantments with the course of twentieth-century events and the perception of an impasse in proceeding toward the modernist goal of full explanation and truth have provided a climate favorable to a radical criticism of modernity, including the manifestations of what had once been heralded as the New History. The postmodernists who dominated the theoretical discourses of the 1980s and 1990s called for the rejection of modernist ways of "doing history." Their preferences favored the contingent, discontinuous, marginalized, oppressed, unique, perspectival, and ineffable. Rejected were the modernist view of history as progress and the whole modernist complex of truth finding.
The key question suggested itself here: whether any of the variants of postmodernism would play the same role for twenty-first-century historiography that the New History did for its century. At this point, the parallelism between the two turn-of-century changes in historical understanding failed. Both changes did indeed aim at new ways of historical understanding. In the 1880s and 1890s, the projected change was to shape historical thought into its fully modern form, while in the 1980s and 1990s, postmodernists strove to undo the results of that modernization. Yet the postmodernists suggested changes in historical thought and praxis that would negate not only the modernist but much of the longstanding theoretical framework of "doing history." A change so formidable that talk abounded of the "end of history" or the "end of man." Both were indicative of postmodernists reaching for a theory with impact on history not only as a separate scholarly discipline but also as a key endeavor of human life.
The Puzzling Term "Postmodernism"
In light of the postmodernist endeavor's scope it is not surprising that assessing the postmodernist challenge has been hampered by a lack of agreement on what the term "postmodernism" meant. Some scholars have denied that the term referred to a cultural phenomenon with sufficient commonalities. Others found it not only useful but also justified. Gianni Vattimo thought that the ubiquity of the term has evoked the impression that "the idea of 'post-modernity' lies at the center of contemporary intellectual debate in the West." Perhaps so, but that ubiquity has been matched by a corresponding vagueness regarding the term's meaning. The mixture of prominence and haziness even prompted a postmodernist scholar to remark that "in the last two decades the word postmodernism has shifted from awkward neologism to derelict cliché without ever attaining to the dignity of concept."
Postmodernist scholars themselves have created obstacles to a ready understanding of their concerns and ideas. Frequent complaints have cited their use of much off-putting jargon. But more important has been a reluctance-often on principle-to formulate customary theories to which the term post-modernism might be attached. Even prominent postmodernists of the 1980s and 1990s have issued occasional calls for greater precision in postmodernist thought. They have raised objections to the "medley type" or "anything goes" postmodernism with its collages of postmodernist, Marxist, Freudian, and assorted other modernist concepts. Wolfgang Welsch saw too many post-modernists treating the term postmodernism as a "Passepartoutbegriff " (a catch-all concept with many meanings). Umberto Eco spoke harshly of a "postmodern babble" and confessed that it was his "impression that it [the term postmodern] is applied these days to everything the speaker approves of." Adversaries, such as the sociologist Ernest Gellner, were still harsher. "Postmodernism is a contemporary movement. It is strong and fashionable. Over and above it, it is not altogether clear what the devil it is. In fact, clarity is not conspicuous amongst its marked attributes." Others, baffled if not disenchanted, have harbored the suspicion that postmodernism was little more than a brilliant word game, a short-lived fad, a product of a hyperactive intellectual fashion industry, or simply an extended aftermath of the 1960s counter-culture movement rather than a significant phenomenon.
Attempts to remedy the vagueness have encountered the problem that a postmodernism defined "precisely" would draw tight borders around postmodernism and give preference to one meaning of the term over others. For a large segment of postmodernists, that would violate their very injunction against exclusions. As a solution, some scholars have suggested minimally exclusive definitions, such as speaking of postmodernism as the period in which determinacy fades and indeterminacy prevails (IhabHassan). Others saw postmodernism as a new, grand sensibility or climate of sensibility rather than a systematically structured theory. For Susan Sontag the new sensibility reversed centuries of attempts at rational mastery of the world that through the use of its canon created a secondary world. Now, "the heavy burden of 'context'" would be lifted as the new sensibility knew none of the old binary distinctions, including that between high and low cultures. Gianni Vattimo justified his speaking of a postmodern age by citing a new and widespread sensibility, defined as "a widely shared sense that Western ways of seeing, knowing and representing have irreversibly altered in recent times." The loose unity effected by such a shared sensibility would substitute for a tight and systematic theoretical base, which many postmodernists, for their own reasons, had not created and would never create.
Some scholars have found the confrontation with a sheer endless series of complexities, questions, and paradoxes "a massive but also exhilarating confusion that has given important new impulses to and opened new territories for intellectual exploration." More typically, however, the impression of being caught in a maze called forth voices of skepticism and doubt. One scholar saw the term postmodernism referring to "a hydra-headed decentered condition in which we are dragged along from pillar to post across a succession of reflecting surfaces, drawn by the call of the wild signifier." He would rather abandon it for one with a clearer meaning. More realistic has been the statement of resignation that "although the term postmodernism has led to all kinds of misconceptions, it cannot be replaced, at the present time, with a better one."
The term endured because it was useful and justified. In recent decades, ardent and intensive debates on postmodernism have been occurring, first, in the fields of architecture, literary criticism, and philosophy, then, in the arts, music, anthropology, religion, Islamic studies, and others. While they have been marked by a goodly measure of faddishness in style and content, the quantity and vigor of the ongoing debates and publications linked to postmodernism as well as the fundamental issues raised should caution against assuming toward postmodernism the attitude appropriate toward a mere fad: not to study and assess it but simply to wait for the end of its inevitably short stay in the limelight. Postmodernism has not been-as often proposed-a freakish phenomenon. Although postmodernists have presented their views as a sharp rupture with modernism, indeed, an ultimate one with many of Western culture's traditions, such a claim to utter singularity has represented more a statement of hope and intentions than one of reality. Postmodernism did fasten onto some long-standing trends in Western intellectual development.
The Hesitancy of Historians to Respond
Although postmodernists have predicted that life in postmodernity would render traditional historical understanding obsolete, responses by historians came hesitantly. That reluctance of historians to engage postmodernists in debate earned them criticisms for complacency. Keith Windschuttle found historians unaware of what happened to their discipline. Others found that historians, lacking theoretical finesse, "simply fail to register the intellectual history of their own time," and abandon their discipline to the general fate that made "disciplines tend toward sclerotic self-satisfaction." Nancy Partner found the historians' "stiff-upper-lip doggedness ... quite interesting and entirely commendable, although the collective motives and institutional forces that account for it are merely self-interested and self-perpetuating." Some of that criticism was justified. Yet the roots of the historians' reticence reached deeper.
Historians, for plausible reasons, have rarely responded with alacrity to opportunities to engage in theoretical debates. First, they have felt confident about their own complex and sturdy body of epistemological principles and practices (often simply referred to as methodology)-the result of repeated adaptations to and absorptions of rhetorical practices and philosophical propositions over the centuries. Hence, the frequently cited hostility to theory should really be seen as a deliberate caution toward accepting theoretical challenges fully and too readily. Even the innovative scholar Lucien Febvre pronounced against too much attention to theory when he observed that "it is not a good thing for the historian to reflect too much upon history. All the time he does so his work is held up." Febvre pointed here to the reluctance of historians to engage in "pure" theory detached from historical practice.
The second and weightier reason for the historians' reluctance was provided by the long-standing suspicions of those disciplines in which much of the postmodernist thought originated: literary criticism and philosophy. History has always been precariously lodged between the domain of philosophy with its universal abstractions of timeless quality distilled from the complex experience of life, on the one side, and the domain of literature with its imaginative reconstructions of life free of the obligation to reflect the past as it once had been actually lived, on the other side. While philosophical and literary elements have helped shape historical accounts, history has persisted as an autonomous and mediating venture located between the two endeavors. That despite the fact, that from time to time, history had seemed destined to be absorbed into one or the other of these two disciplines and to disappear as a distinctive mode of understanding human life.
The most recent phase in history's struggle for autonomous status came with attempts to rework historical understanding into a science. In that context, history's borders to philosophy and literature were redefined to establish history as a distinct academic discipline and profession. In America, memories of that struggle have remained particularly keen. Here it had taken on the shape of a fierce battle to purge philosophy and literature from history on behalf of the unfettered autonomy of the new historical discipline and profession.
However, autonomy never has meant total separation. Even in the late 1800s, the connection between philosophical concepts and historical theories, methodologies, and interpretations remained firm. The seemingly "natural" prevalence of empiricism, even positivism in the new profession, obscured that connection for a long time. The rise of a new critical historical theory in late-nineteenth-century Germany (Wilhelm Dilthey, Wilhelm Windelband, and Heinrich Rickert) and to a lesser degree in France (Alexandre Xenopol) highlighted anew the ties between the two disciplines. In the United States, part of the young historical profession experienced the impact of William James's pragmatism and John Dewey's instrumentalism, particularly in the case of American Progressive history (James H. Robinson, Charles A. Beard, and, for a few years, Carl L. Becker).
When historians have objected to philosophy they have primarily referred to the so-called philosophies of history, which explained historical events on a grand scale. Already in the early 1800s, Leopold von Ranke had drawn the dividing line when he had opposed Hegel's grand philosophical scheme of history on behalf of a history more closely tied to empirical research. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the American scientific historians had fought against philosophies of history-most often "Fall of Rome" theories-that they saw as short-circuiting proper empirical inquiries via speculative approaches. This procedure seemed to threaten history's scientific standing, which secured history's propermodernity as well as the status of the new historical profession. In the United States, the effect of that struggle would be a particularly strict separation of history from philosophy-a separation more categorical than the one in the increasingly complex and intense German and French discussions about the proper approaches to historical truth finding.
The turn-of-the-century distrust of literature was even wider and deeper. Far from being a new phenomenon, it represented no less than the modern phase in history's long struggle against Aristotle's dictum of the superiority of poetics over history. Yet, for centuries, the Aristotelian dictum had not prevented history and rhetoric from a close although tension-filled symbiosis. That changed with the emergence of the ideal of a scientific history-first in the moderate form of the German Geschichtswissenschaft, which still owed much to philology, and, then, in the less accommodating form of the scientific history in the mold of the natural sciences. Frederick Jackson Turner expressed this sense of triumph over literature when he assured his students that the historical discipline was now free of literature.
Excerpted from ON THE FUTURE OF HISTORY by ERNST BREISACH Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Ernst A. Breisach is a Professor of History Emeritus at Western Michigan University. He is the author of Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, Modern, second edition, and American Progressive History: An Experiment in Modernization, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
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