A Critical Essay on the Impact of Postmodernism on the Historical Profession




In recent years, postmodernist theories have transcended across the boundaries of the fabricated literary world and into the supposedly objective and scientific discipline of history.  The zealots of postmodernism would state that history as a factual narrative fails because of a flawed system of language that can neither accurately tell history nor drive man’s interpretation of reality. They would, in a few short and ironically understandable words, state that history, like literature, is merely a fabrication, a fictionalized account of events that may or may not have even happened.  There has been considerable debate within the historical profession between those who denounce postmodernism as the potential end of the great reign of the epoch that is history and those who view postmodernism as a proactive philosophical approach and would never resort to the periodization of the historiography of history as having any beginning, middle, or end. Although there are certain ideas to the postmodernist approach that are relevant to historians, there is a definite, definable contradiction between their vision of intellectual anarchy within history and their rejection of intellectual absolutisms that needs to be addressed.

Roland Barthes tackles the idea of intellectual anarchy vs. intellectual absolutism when he says, “even if the facts are presented in an anarchic fashion, they still signify anarchy.”1  Postmodernists reject the social, cultural, and economic structures that previous historians have used to differentiate the various events and interpretations of the past.  In doing so they are attempting to denounce the identifiable characteristics that define history.  The very fact that historians deal with real artifacts and ‘texts’ that reflect past structures is what separates history from literature.   As Elizabeth Ermarth states, there is a difference between realism and representation in that one can only recreate a representative structure of a past reality and can never truly recreate reality itself.2  If there is no common understanding that these structures are representative of a real past and that they can help to understand actual previous events, then a postmodernist anarchical structure can help explain the lack of cohesiveness between this perceived reality and the representation of reality.  Barthes states that even if history is in fact going to follow an anarchic structure, it is still a representation of its own structural and ideological discourse and subsequently bound by the postmodernistically ironical laws of historical anarchy.  If postmodernism prevails and history falls prey to intellectual anarchy, then history will still exist as a definable structure which is inherently restrictive in nature due to the ardent postmodernist belief in not believing anything.    

If one subscribes to postmodernism, then one comes to believe that there is no way a historian in the early 21st century will ever be able to separate one’s own individual experiences in the present from his/her interpretations of the past and be able to completely relate to the experiences of someone who by the virtue of time has become a part of the historical narrative.  In a sense, the historian takes his/her own ideologies into the past.  Because historians live within the confining structures of their society, they will never be able to enter into the mental world of those in the past and truly be able to understand what words and ideas meant then.  The idea of “democracy” means something drastically different today than it did in the American colonial period or even during the time of the ancient Greeks.  Postmodernists would argue that because one cannot truly and objectively understand all the paradigms of the past, the history that has been constructed by these flawed and inept historians has created a disjointed and incomprehensibly subjective history that should be filed away in the card catalog under the heading ‘Fiction.’  Because there is no way to understand the past there is no need for the periodization of history either.  If one cannot truly understand the structures of the 18th century then there is no need to classify this period as the 18th century or as anything else that would divide it from the rest of this great novel that is History.   Lawrence Stone writes, “Perceptions and reality are often very different from, and sometimes just as historically important as, reality itself.”3   Other historians have argued that no reality can possibly “transcend the discourse in which it is expressed.”4 

Most historians would agree that so-called historical absolutes are only absolutes because of the innate human ability to interpret and analyze the information presented before them.  These absolutes are not mandated by a God of history who makes decrees within the pages of the American History Review nor are they absolutes because will forever stand the test of time.  Since it is currently technologically impossible to recreate or revisit the realities of the past, historians try, through artifacts and texts, to construct a perception of the reality of the past that should be considered with careful examination.  Since this process of looking at the past is done in the present and without the hand of a deity, the model within which the historian must work is inherently flawed. 

Should the entire profession of history be discarded because of universal limitations in human understanding?   Is postmodernism really going to be the new model of historical interpretation for the next century?  Keith Windshuttle calls postmodernism the end of empiricist historian and the beginning of a liberal, reactionary, linguistically trained historian who is looking for the “fast track to success.”5  Windshuttle and other historians like Lawrence Stone fear that postmodernist theories will overtake the conventional methods of history, replace the absolutes with vast nothingness, and destroy the past.  There are others, such as F.R. Ankersmit, who see postmodernism as a break from the confining nature of traditional history and draw attention to metaphorical as opposed to literal truth.6  Windshuttle’s fear that the past can be destroyed reflects the postmodernist notion that it is possible to break down history because it exists more as   fiction than fact.  If there is such a thing as a past and it is relevant to human understanding, as most historians would believe, then there should be no cause to fear postmodernism because its claims have nothing to do with anything that can be scientifically proven to be fact or fiction.

Postmodernist theories have proven to be most important in the re-examination of historical interpretation because they have added an extra veneer of skepticism to the discipline and for one to become more objective, it is necessary to be more skeptical of the traditional or modernist theories of history and realize that there are certain methods of examination within the profession that may be flawed due to unavoidable ontological circumstances.  However, postmodernists seem to be the ultimate skeptics.  They are not skeptical of any particular historical interpretation, but rather they deny history in general and want to replace these absolutes that so define the profession with an anarchist model of intellectual apathy toward anything of relevance.  If they succeed they will have replaced one structure with another and in doing so will have contradicted themselves and compromised their belief structure.  Their belief in not believing anything is in itself one of the absolutes that so define postmodernism and causes the greatest conflict because it calls for one model of history to be replaced by a belief that claims to be anarchic in nature when in fact it is just as much a model of history, with its absolutisms and paradigms, as Marxism or other expressions of modernism.  To make their point, postmodernists use the narrative structure and have a faith in one’s understanding of language that reflects the logocentric ideologies that they denounce.  If the concepts of the narrative and language are indeed flawed, then most likely the message the postmodernists are attempting to convey within this defective construct is also flawed and it really does not matter to anyone.  Postmodernism seems to exist in historical context simply because these perceived flaws have created philosophical holes in the methodology and these holes have allowed literary theorists to enter at will and create their own vision of history, or lack thereof, in these big empty voids.       

1 Roland Barthes, “The Discourse of History.” In The Postmodern History Reader. (New York: Routledge,  1997), 120

2Elizabeth Ermarth, The Postmodern History Reader, 56.

  3 Lawrence Stone,  The Postmodern History Reader, 255-256. 

  4 Joyce Appleby, Lynne Hunt, and Margaret Jacob,  Telling the Truth About History. (New York: Norton, 1994), 204.

5 Keith Windshuttle, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering our Past. (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 120. 

  6 F.R. Ankersmit, The Postmodern History Reader, 290-298. 

reprinted from MU Online Historical Journal, Marshall University