Is itpossible to be a postmodern historian? The terms ‘historiography’and ‘postmodernism’ being used together in the same discipline is a very recentprogression. When looking into postmodernisms prominence in the arts as well asliterature, it is no surprise that postmodernism has started to concern itselfwith history. Most historians do not approve of the idea of a postmodernisthistorian, seeing the two being incompatible together. Zagorin puts forward;”History…has shown itself to be considerably more resistant topostmodernist trends than literature.
This, at any rate, is the strongimpression I have derived from the postmodernist debate among historians aswell as from my reading of historical books and articles in diverse fields andfrom the statements of well-known academic historians.”1Very few historians identify has postmodernists and they have been refined to asmall group due to the overall rejection of this type of historiography. Postmodernismsuggests that it is impossible to be objective when looking at the past becausethe scholar enters the research with a predetermined opinion of not only whatis important but what actually happened. However, the range of primary sources,are what give the historian the tools needed to create an appropriate analysis ofthe past, their own opinions are debatable but there are ‘absolute facts’ whichcannot be denied, which contrasts with the postmodernists viewpoint.
Forexample, the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066, there is no denying that thatis a fact, however the significance of the battle is what historians can forman opinion on, but do so with through the evidence at hand, not throughpredetermined/fabricated opinions. To be a historian, you have to work alongsidethe evidence and sources available to make your work as accurate as possible,the philosophies of ‘postmodern historians’ is in direct conflict with this. Postmodernism within societyfollowed modernism as a new thought process and way to analyse literature andthe arts. Modernism, the school of thought from the late 19thcentury to the early 20th century, involved the reform of music,art, literature and the applied arts. Modernism, unlike postmodernism, is basedon logic, scientific process and rational thinking. A modernist historian hasthe aim of attempting to create a rational view of the past, and through arelationship with the past that society can advance and grow. The past is seenas a tool that can be used to benefit the present.
A postmodernistsrepresentation of the past makes no distinct differentiation between fact andfiction, instead acts as a narrative rather than an analytical work.Postmodernists’ history lacks the essential want for an authentic review of historythrough evidence which is why it is not possible to practically apply postmodernismto historiography. It must be recognised thatat this period in time, the world had just been plunged into a new time of worldcapitalism. Not only this, but the advancements in technology were vast and speedilychanging society.
The western world has now become post-industrial and the timefor electronic advancements had been reached. Postmodernity had a heavyinfluence in the way arts and literature changed, but the study of historyshould not be categorised with these. Ankersmit’s argument suggests thathistorical origin is not important, which is in complete defiance tohistoriography.2 Ankersmit completely rejects, along withJameson, the methods in which history had been being practiced as an academicsubject. Not only does postmodernity pose a new school of thought to thedebate, it suggests that historiography needed to be completely revaluated. There are critics of thispoint of view. For example, Munslow, a post-structuralist, argues ‘Thepast is not discovered or found.
It is created and represented by the historianas a text.3′ Hesuggests that all historians are simply creating a narrative of history alikethe postmodernist. This dismisses the idea that the primary sources provide thefacts as to what occurred, but it is the historian that creates the ‘truth’ tosuit their own ideology as to what they think should have happened. Thissuggests that we never truly know what occurred in the past, instead, all weknow is what historians choose to write about, that the history itself is lostand all we are left with is the historiography. In opposition to this view,primary sources offer us the history, without influence or opinion fromhistorians. If a historian chooses not to use a specific source, it does notmean what this source reveals didn’t happen, it remains history still.
It istrue that historians are selective in the evidence they use, but it isessential to be selective when working as a historian. The selectivity of theevidence does not make the history that is being written about false, it just allowsa historian to put forward his own opinion of why said thing occurred and theimplications of said thing also.Itshould be recognised that the historian can never know the whole truth aboutanything in the past, does not mean that there are not truths in what is knownabout the past.
Whenlooking at primary sources, for example a written document, there are only somany ways that the evidence can be interpreted. From this, a variant ofopinions can be made from the source. A postmodernist would put forward theidea that there are an unlimited amount of opinions and interpretations to betaken from the source. However, the possibilities are not unlimited, historianscan only defer so many possibilities, and from these some will be stronger thanothers, to narrow down perceptions further. Postmodernists such as Jenkins andAnkersmit have attempted to respond to the idea of historical facts bycontending that there is a large difference between historical fact andinterpretation. That, facts are easy to obtain, but it is the interpretationthat poses an issue. Jenkins puts forward the idea that there was no ‘cognitiveelement in history‚ at the level of the individual statement, only thatcertainty and objectivity were impossible at the level of interpretation(narrative discourse).’ Postmodernists go further, to put forward the idea thatevery time a document is looked at it is seen differently and re-interpretedtherefore making the worth of the document less.
Postmodernists suggest thatsources, such as documents, cannot offer basic historical facts because thereis no fixed meaning, this ideology further proves that to be both a historianand a postmodernist is not practical. Basic historical facts are the truths thatunderline all historiography and to deny these poses the question ‘why studyhistory at all?’. Thebiggest issue that postmodernism puts forward is the rejection of the ‘real’.Postmodernist historian Joyce labels this “the ideology of the real”4.Historians whole work is based on that fact that things and events happened inthe past and their work is based on analysing some of these. Postmodernismposes the question as to whether these things actually happened or not. If itdoes so, it is rejecting all historical knowledge.
Historian Lorenz states that”history is a discipline not a form of art”5,suggesting that history should be based on facts and evidence from the past.Lorenz goes on to say that the historian interprets the evidence, but does notfabricate to suit their own needs which differentiates them from other writers suchas novelists. It is because history is based on evidence that allows otherhistorians to analyse the same sources and offer different interpretations andto change one another’s opinions, creating historiography on a given period ofhistory. The reconstruction of history is done through this process, of debateand comparison to try and achieve and agree on the most valid interpretation ofhistory.
Historians cannot choose to ignore a pieceof evidence because it does not suit their opinion as to what they thoughthappened in the past “or make of it whatever they please”6 White would argue that there is sucha thing as a postmodern historian, as there is no set way of ‘doing history’,and therefore there is no special training needed or a specific way of doingthings. However, most historians would disagree with this. Evidence naturallyguides a historian and allows them to logically put together accounts of thepast. To disregard evidence from the past would be to disregard what it is tobe a historian. Furthermore, to disregard them due to the different interpretationsthat can be taken from the sources would be to take away the base of historiansworks. Lorenz argues that “White’s narrativism is built ontwo distinctions that do not show up in the practice o f history: first, adistinction between literal and figurative language, and second, the exclusiveuse of literal language during the phase of research and the use of figurative language-readmetaphor-during the phase of composition or writing. The same distinctions andpresuppositions are, as we observed, crucial for Ankersmit’s narrativism.”7 Eleyand Nield appose Lorenz and argue that historians reject postmodernism due tonot being like to be told what to do.
8This notion hold no weight in the discussion as to whether postmodernists arehistorians or not. The postmodernist rejects too much of what it is to studyhistory to make the study worth while, it is not just down to historiansfeeling postmodernists are saying “Historians must do this, they cannotignore that, they had better get their general act together”.9Postmodernists way of ‘doing’ history does not offer an accurate account ofwhat happened in the past so can not go forth to interpret or analyse what theyassume to have happened. Zagorin rightly points out that “most professional historians are unwilling the acceptpostmodernism’s view of history because they find it so contrary to their ownpersonal understanding and experience of historical inquiry”10 (9-10)Historiansare trained to study history so that they are able to analyse the past in a waythat is useful and productive for the present. Postmodernism does not offerthis luxury but instead would offer a study of history with no use and littleaccuracy. It is true that as long as future historians are trained by theprevious, then this technique in studying history will continue. Bauman in thisquote rightly points out the cycle that the way history is studied willcontinue “Inthe vast realm of the academy there is ample room for all sorts of specializedpursuits, and the way such pursuits have been historically institutionalizedrenders them virtually immune to pressures untranslatable into the variables oftheir own inner systems; such pursuits have their own momentum; their dynamicssubject to internal logic only, they produce what they are capable of producing,rather than what is required or asked of them; showing their own, internallyadministered measures of success as their legitimation, they may go onreproducing themselves indefinitely.”11 Ifwe were to take Bauman’s words at face value then it would be true that it isnot possible to be a postmodernist historian, but also there will not be apossibility to become a postmodernist historian in mainstream historiography.
Postmodernists’ approach to history is too different to the way history isstudied, following the idea that evidence and fact is essential to the study.Education systems operate on teaching facts and knowledge; students are taughtin disciplines rather than in a postmodern style. They are taught withinschools through textbooks containing facts that they are to accept andinterpret, as the historian does primary sources. Furtheron from this, postmodernism rejects the idea that historians can find patternsin the past, or attempt to reconstruct it in anyway. The postmodernist concernsthemselves in smaller topics, ‘scraps’,12 of history.
Manyhistorians look unfavorably upon this. Historical inquiry of a period, allows ahistorian to specialize and form patterns within their area of history, to geta wider perspective on the given period. For example, when looking at King John’sreign, it spans nearly four decades. The reign of John holds historicalsignificance, such as the Magna Carta, which can even back date from his reignthat holds significance in looking at the rights of the people within Britaintoday. To dismiss the study of a period such as this would be deprivinghistorians the opportunity to learn from the past to apply it to the present.
Which is again another reason why, in the way we study history, a postmodernhistorian is not possible.Somehistorians do not completely reject postmodernism, however, reject the ideathat their way is the only way to study history. Nield puts forward thathistorians “have been giving postmodernist issues some thought” in the morerecent times.13These historians put forth the idea that there may be some positive effectsfrom postmodernism, if selective parts of the ideology are taken and appliedinto the study of history. Neild puts forward that just like any otherdiscipline, postmodernism does not have to be taken and applied as a whole, butcould be used to form a relationship with historiography.14 Robertsadvocates the idea that within the relationship, should it be formed, a “nuanceand differentiation” is needed to go forwards.15 Postmodernism,although some historians think that it can be incorporated withinhistoriography, would need to sacrifice some of its key element to work in thisfield. Going forward, if it were to do so, there would still not be apostmodern historian, because postmodernism wouldn’t be recognised if it madeitself compatible with historiography.
Historiography, again, is based onevidence and truths which cannot be achieved with a postmodern look on thepast. The opaque look on the past that postmodernists hold removes all optionsfor interpretation of evidence which is crucial to what we call and know ashistoriography. Without the interpretation and analysis, historiography becomessimply storytelling.
Thestudy of history offers different interpretations of events, based on the vastamounts of evidence and sources available to the historian. It would be wrongto say that it is possible to be a postmodern historian, a historian that hasthe belief system that evidence is unimportant because it can be interpreted indifferent ways. Interpretation of evidence allows historians to engage indebate and to try and reach the truths behind the past. Primary resources offerus facts and the basis for research into history. For example, the Battle ofHastings.
The battle was fought in 1066, this is a fact that is known. TheBayeux Tapestry outlines the events of the battle, from the victor’sperspective, but offers the historian a bundle of evidence into the thoughts ofthe people from this period. The depiction of certain people and events allowshistorians to conclude, not only the events but the thoughts of the people. Postmodernistshistorians view these opinions as predetermined and fabricated by historiansand therefore evidence such as the tapestry should be discarded.
This thoughtprocess is what rules out postmodernists from being historians and gettinginvolved in historiography. Postmodernists,as pointed out by Zagorin, would like to think of history as a literaryproduct, rather than works of non-fiction.16 Zagoringoes as far to claim that this is the postmodernists’ goal, to blur and distortthe lines between literature and other disciplines.17History needs to be separated from literature as it is not just a discipline ofwriting, but also one of reflection and analysis, which is what thepostmodernist would not recognise. Ankersmit goes as far to dismisshistoriography and label it a mistake, saying it is just part of culture.
18Historiography plays an important role in western society as a way of keepingin touch with the past as well as learning from it. If Ankersmit’s view is tobe taken as to being that of postmodernists, how can it be possible to have apostmodern historian? Thequestion ‘is it possible to be a postmodern historian?’, as shown through thisessay, the answer is no. Postmodernists views on the study of history and theirthoughts on how it should be conducted morphs history into a part ofliterature, which it should be kept separate from.19Postmodernists such as Joyce believe that their input into the study of historywould be beneficial to the discipline, but the pros are yet to be seen.
Theacademic study of history is still young and has progressed in a way that thereis no room for postmodernity. Historians such as Roberts, who believe thatthere is room for postmodern historians in historiography argue that only bitsof the philosophy should be taken and applied. I would argue that by doing sothe person practicing and applying these is no long a postmodern historian.
Postmodernity, to fit into historiography would need to removed its thoughts oninterpretations and the want to turn the subject into a literary field. Bydoing so postmodernity would morph into something else. Bauman identifies thecycle in which the way we study history hardly changes because we are nottaught as historians with views such as the postmodernist. I believe this to betrue, but I also believe it to be correct in preserving the discipline. I wouldfurther argue that the concept of postmodernity is useless to a historian.Postmodernity removes the purpose of studying history, and removes any use thatcan comes from its findings for the present day. Raatikka pushes forth the pointthat she hopes to see more postmodern history work, as she believes that itwill be useful to other areas other than history.20 Thismay be true, but the person creating these works should not be described as ahistorian, but rather someone who is working in the discipline of literature.
EvenRaatikka, a supporter of postmodernity within the discipline of history agreesthat they will not have much of a future together.211 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (Wiley: 1990) pp.
263-274.? 2 Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of LateCapitalism,” New Left Re-?view, no. 146(1984), 53-92. The literature on postmodernism is by now considerable; forfurther?discussion of what it stands for and its relationshipto deconstructionism, see Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Minneapolis, 1983),and the essays in Postmodernism, ed. Lisa Appignanesi (London, 1986). P 145-1463 http://sas-space.
sas.ac.uk/4397/1/Deconstructing_History_by_Alun_Munslow___Institute_of_Historical_Research.pdf4 Joyce, Patrick. “The End of Social History?” Social History20.1 (1995): 785 Lorenz, Chris.
“Can Histories Be True? Narrativism, Positivism, andthe ‘Metaphorical Turn.”‘ History and Theory 37.3(1998):3146 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.
4 (1990): 2727 Lorenz, Chris. “Can Histories Be True? Narrativism, Positivism, andthe ‘Metaphorical 327-88 Eley, Geoff and Keith Nield. “Starting Over: The Present, thePost-modem and the Moment 355of Social History.” Social History 20.
3(1995): 355-364. 9 Eley, Geoff and Keith Nield. “Starting Over: The Present, thePost-modem and the Moment 35510 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.
4 (1990): 9-1011 Joyce, Patrick. “The End of Social History?” Social History20.1 (1995): 8012 Zagorin, Perez.
“Historiography and Postmodernism:Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990): 27313 Eley, Geoff and Keith Nield. “Starting Over: The Present, thePost-modem and the Moment 35614 Eley, Geoff and Keith Nield.
“Starting Over: The Present, thePost-modem and the Moment 35815 Eley, Geoff and Keith Nield. “Starting Over: The Present, thePost-modem and the Moment 39116 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.
4 (1990): 27017 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990): 27118 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography andPostmodernism: Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990): 273 19 Zagorin, Perez.
“Historiography and Postmodernism:Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990)20 Raatikka, Holly A., “Acts of the imagination: postmodern thoughtand the writing of history” (2001). Retrospective eses and Dissertations.9621 Zagorin, Perez.
“Historiography and Postmodernism:Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990) p96