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Special Public Opening Symposium "After Metahistory: Lecture on Postmodernism by Professor Hayden WHITE", Ritsumeikan University
Postmodernism is a term which names, first, a certain epochal self-consciousness, a sense shared by many artists and intellectuals of having to work and create in a situation deprived of the certainties of twentieth century modernism. Indeed, postmodernism arose on the ruins of the search for certainty, objectivity, foundations, and even truth itself that had underwritten the West's belief in "progress" since the time of the Enlightenment. Thus, the term postmodernism can be defined more by what it has denied, rejected, or simply abandoned of the philosophical and social endowment of the Enlightenment than by any positive cognitive content or utopian aspiration of a distinctively modern kind.
On the other hand, however, the term postmodernism also refers to a number of cultural movements arising after the 1950s in architecture, literature, film, art, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the human sciences in general which purport to transcend the limitations, prejudices, and illusions of an artistic modernism of the kind represented by the International style in architecture; T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein in literature; and the historical avant-garde represented by Surrealism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism in art.
The two kinds of postmodernism share a suspicious of every kind of foundationalism: epistemological, ontological, ethical, and esthetic. This rejection of foundationalism includes the ideas-epistemological, ontological, ethical, and aesthetic-which have underwritten and authorized the kind of knowledge produced by historical research since the middle of the 19th century. This does not mean that postmodernists are uninterested in the past, in history, and its interpretation. On the contrary, many postmodernists believe that a specifically postmodernist idea of "history" provides the only basis for the kind of knowledge required by an emerging global society and the new cultural media that have made it possible. However, this postmodernist "history" has little in common with that posited as the basis for modern, scientific historical research. In fact, it is much closer to pre-modern conceptions of history understood as a reserve of exempla to be drawn on for practical (political, pedagogical, ideological) purposes and as a discourse rather than a discipline.
Postmodernists-in architecture, the arts, literature, cinema, and philosophy-tend to view the past as a vast, inchoate, fragmented, decontextualized, and synchronic congeries of forms, media, genres, and ideas which can be treated as objets trouv?s in the manner of Duchamp's "fountain" (the inverted urinal which he signed "R. Mutt," exhibited in an art-space, thereby effecting its transformation into a work of art). For postmodernists the "past"-irredeemably absent and accessible only by way of spoors, fragments, and traces-- is the place of memory, reverie, and fantasy, and therefore of poetic inspiration, rather than a space of past human actions that can be recovered and represented more or less accurately as it really was (as it is for scientifically oriented, modern professional historians). Postmodernists are much more interested in the meanings which, by means more or less artistic, can be produced by reflection on pastness than they are in truth understood as a finite set of true statements about discrete periods of history attested by a documentary record. There are few postmodernist histories because postmodernists reject what professional historians would recognize as scientific historiography.
Indeed, postmodernist treatments of "the past" are to be found predominantly in artistic works: "historical novels" (such as Libra and Underworld by De Lillo; Coetzee's Foe, Bannville's The Untouchable, Roth's American Pastoral and The Plot Against America), epic films (Vigne's Le retour de Martin Guerre, Attenborough's Ghandi, Richardson's Charge of the Light Brigade, or Oliver Stone's JFK) and documentaries (Lanzmann's Shoah, or Resnais's Nuit et brouillard), site constructions (such as Cristo's "wrapping" of the Reichstag), comix (like Spiegelman's "Maus" and "Towers"), the paintings of Anselm Kiefer or installations by Christian Boltanski) and museological revisionisms (such as Libeskind's "Jewish Museum" in Berlin), or witness literature (such as Primo Levi's Se questo ? un uomo) rather than in such attempts to write historiography in a postmodernist mode as Simon Shama's Dead Certainties and Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms.
Much of the postmodernist experimentation in the representation (or rather, the "presentation") of the past derives from dissatisfaction with traditional scientific history's inability or reluctance to deal effectively with the "extreme" events connected with the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. : the Holocaust specifically, but also "industrialized genocide" in general, the use of atomic weaponry (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) and other arms of mass destruction (firebombing, anti-personnel mines, long distance rocketry), world population explosion and migration, new kinds of diseases (Aids), globalization, etc. A universal demand on the part of populations which had hitherto been treated as peripheral to the great events of history, for representation of their experiences of such extreme event spawned new genres of testamentary and martyrological (witness) literature, video, and film. Therewith, the older opposition between history and memory was brought under question and history as the corrector of memory soon came to be thought of as "history the suppressor of the memory of the oppressed."
Walter Benjamin's brief on behalf of the anonymous and the neglected of history received wide recognition as a critique of professional historiography's identification with history's "victors," interest primarily in the actions of great men, and association with centers of power and patronage.
Movements on the margin of professional writing, such as feminism, women's history, post-colonial studies, cultural studies, "history from below," and oppositional historiography, contributed to the general and growing disinterest in professional historical research, demeaned for its specialization, its preference for micro-phenomena, and its search for truth as against the desire for meaning.
The demand for meaning, interest in the oppressed of the past, call for inclusiveness in history's subject-matter, rejection of specialization, fascination with the experience of "witnesses" to the extreme events of history, and, finally, the belief that these extreme events augured the advent of a new kind of historicity : all this promoted attitudes towards the past and the study of it which correlated badly with the principles of "scientific historical research" inherited from the early twentieth century.
Within philosophy of history, which is to say, the philosophical study of the possibility and limits of the kind of knowledge produced by professional historians, such attitudes converged with the outcome of debates that had been going on since the 1930s and 1940s involving idealists (Collingwood, Croce), positivists (Popper), existentialists (Heidegger and Sartre), phenomenologists (Gadamer, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur), and a group whom I wish to call historicists (Aron and Bloch, Isaiah Berlin, and Meinecke) over whether history could ever properly be called a "science" at all. This debate will be or has been dealt with in other sections of this Dictionnaire. More relevant for the moment is the extent to which this debate bore upon certain questions and topics peculiar to its postmodernist aftermath : topics having to do with language, discourse, and narrative, on the one side, and questions having to do with the canonical view on the relation between history and literature, on the other.
Postmodernist treatments of the past and history (not all treatments of the past are "historical") are typically criticized by historians (when they deign referring to them at all) for such beliefs that the past has no reality, that history is (nothing but) a text, that the principal problem of historical representation is that of narrativization, that, when if comes to representing the past, there is no important distinction between fact and fiction, and that, finally, historical phenomena are best made sense of by storytelling rather than by model building and causal analysis of chains of events.
It has to be said that, with a few exceptions (R. Evans, K. Jenkins, and E. Domanska being the most notable), these notions about postmodernism are more lamented than documented and responded to with scientific rigor by professional historians. To sympathetic representations of certain postmodernist ideas (by Ricoeur, Hartog, Derrida, Foucault, White, for example), professional historians tend to respond with warnings of the social dangers of the relativism and skepticism inherent in them. Two ideas especially are subject to the most criticism: the relation between history and literature and the concept of the world as a text.
Discussion on the relationship between history and literature go back to Rankefs famous criticism of Sir Walter Scott for mixing historical fact with fiction. Historical studies were transformed into a science by excluding a number of discourses and practices commonly mixed with historiography prior to Rankefs time: theology, philosophy, rhetoric, and romance. These exclusions were implemented in the interest of commiting historical studies to a truthful by which was meant a factually accurate representation of the past. Had the effect of dividing Western culturefs efforts to comprehend its past between those of professional historians, concerned to establish facts about the past, and a host of others - philosophers, novelists, poets, and, increasingly, social scientists - who were more interested in the meaning of those facts for the understanding of the present as they were in their significance for understanding the past. This issue arose in the post World War II years with respect to the Holocaust or Shoah.
As the Nazi genocide of the Jews receded into the past, becoming in the process a distinctively ghistoricalh event, survivors of it especially became concerned less with the fact of its occurrence than with what it felt like to experience such an event and what it implied about the society (presumed to be enlightened, humanistic, humane, and rational) that had been responsible for this event or, in many instances, had either aided in its execution or simply stood by and let it happen without significant resistance. With the exception of a few manifestly pathological pseudo-historians, scientists, and scholars (known as revisionists), no one could really deny that the event had occurred, but the occurrence of it and the way in which it had been carried out brought under question most of the basic presuppositions of that scientific and humanistic culture on which the West had prided itself since the Renaissance. The growth of a large body of gwitnessh testimony, about the Holocaust but also about other genocides, about the experience of decolonization, about migration, and about the horrors of modern warfare, showed that gartistich writing (such as Primo Levifs Se questo e un uomo) or cinema (such as Landsmannfs Shoah) were infinitely better suited to conveying the gshockh of new, contemporary experiences than were the dry, measured, and antiseptic tones of the conventional historical narrator. Result: the return among postmodernists of a desire for the artistic representation of history as a means of dealing, not only with the past, but also with the present as history.
gThe present as historyh: In Mimesis, his magisterial account of the growth of realism in Western literature, Erich Auerbach argued that the basis of modern literary realism - from Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens and, later, Gogol and Tolstoy, Mann, Proust and Woolf - lay in the treatment of the present as history. This is to say that, whereas in the past, history had been about only the past, in the early nineteenth century gthe presenth was added to ghistoryh which now became, according to Koselleck, a kind of causal force in its own right, such that people could now speak about ghistorical forcesh and ghistorical processesh that changed that stable present from which one had formerly viewed a past gover and done withh into a heaving, moving, violent platform from which one could never confidently view either past or future.
It was in this sense that literary realism of the 19th century had taken as its referent\its ultimate referent, to be sure\historical reality which it proceeded to map out and examine in depth in ways that professional historians, fixated on war, politics, and great men could never have imagined. This was the real legacy of Sir Walter Scott, dismissed by Ranke as a romancier, but actually the inventor of a mode of studying the past in such a way as to show its relevance to the presence as figure to fulfillment. And this interest in history as the ultimate referent of "serious" literature remained alive in literary modernism-in Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Brecht, Stein, Musil, etc. The point was that history had to be endowed, not only with truth, but also with meaning-which meant symbolization.
Now, the important point about literary modernism is that the opposition between factual and fictional discourse gives way to a simple difference among various kinds of writing. The principal distinction is between literary writing and utilitarian writing, wherein the latter is distinguished from the former by the "set" (Einstellung) towards the message which deflects significance from the referent to the code in which the discourse is articulated. On this view of the matter, the distinction between factual and fictional writing has less to do with the reality or unreality of the referent than the degree of "literariness" (the use of literary devices) manifested in the presentation. Thus, there can be literary writing that is factual (a historical work such as Huizinga's Autumn of the Middle Ages would be an example) and literary writing that is fictional (Finnegans Wake, for example).
But if by "factual" writing one means writing that has the "real world" for its referent, then a work such as Mann's Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain or Musil's Man Without Properties are quite as "factual" as anything written by social historians in the modern age. And so too for a work such as De Lillo's Libra, Mailer's Castle in the Forest, Bannville's The Untouchable, or Coetzee's Disgrace. Like Tolstoy's War and Peace, these works seek to grasp the historical substance or the essence of an age, a period, a time. In order to do this, they must, unlike the writer of a report on what has been found in an archive, narrate and emplot the events to which they refer, thereby giving them dramatic weight and symbolic depth.
Narrativity in historiography, increasingly disdained by modern scientific historians as mere rhetorical flourish, ornament, or ideology (Braudel), thus returns in postmodernist historical novels as the paradigm for mediating between being (factuality) and value (meaning). All of which returns us to the distinction between history as a science and history as a discourse and the relation of postmodernist notions of the text and textuality to the conceptualization of "history" (as both an object of study and of representation).
Parerga: Postmodernist historical thought is present-oriented and is primarily interested in the past only insofar as it can be used to serve the present. Thus, Lyotard is only half-right in finding the origin of postmodernism in the rejection of the great schemata ('grands recits') of universal history which purported to disclose history's direction, aim, and meaning. Professional historians and philosophers of history had dismissed these great schemata as myth and ideology long before Lyotard reported their abandonment. But postmodernism goes further and rejects, not only the "grands recits" of providence, progress, the dialectic of the World Spirit (Hegel), Marxism, etc., but also (les petits recits) of professional historians as well; both kinds of historiography are deemed irrelevant to the practical needs of our epoch. Central among these needs is "coming to terms with" a past "that won't go away," especially the past of the Nazi genocide, which belied the myths of progress, enlightenment, and humanism sustained by professional historians in the service of the state and bourgeois society since the time of the French Revolution.
For postmodernists, "the historical past" of the professional historians is an abstraction which never existed except in history books, was never experienced by anyone (except, possibly, certain deluded historians), and is meaningful ultimately only to professional historians themselves. What interests postmodernists is the past that continues to exist in the present, but less as heritage and tradition than as phantasm, memory, the "return of the repressed" ("le retour du refoule, l'apres-coup"), ghost, enigma, threat, or burden. This past must be "perlabore," its burden lifted from the present, so that living men can go into the future without the old delusions.
Here historiology helps the "travail du deuil" which follows upon the dissolution of the great myths of Christianity, humanism, progress, Marxism, substantive rationality, capitalism, metaphysics, the heroic subject, and the bourgeois historiography. Therewith it becomes possible, postmodernists aver, to use as a place of fantasy, pleasure, a play of forms, even of utopian possibility. This formulation of the postmodernist notions of the past and history is framed in vaguely Freudian terms in the interest of highlighting their potential therapeutic function (as against the merely didactic function of traditional, professional historiography). This formulation also allows one to account for what the critics of postmodernism take to be its fallacies, errors, and outright delusions.
First, postmodernists question professional historians' presumption that they alone have the authority to decide what history is, how it must be studied, and what uses can legitimately be made of historical knowledge. Postmodernists, per contra, tend to believe that nobody owns history, that anyone has a right to study it for purposes both theoretical and practical, that the past of history and the past of memory are quite different things, and that finding out what happened in the past is less important than finding out "what it felt like" for the patients as well as the agents of past events. This is why postmodernists favor the genre of the "testimony," use of experimental, even surrealistic literary devices and mythological plots, favor cinematic "special effects" and poetic tropes and figures, and encourage a mixture of documentary with "fictional" techniques for the presentation (Dorstelllung) of a past more indeterminate than clear in outline, more grotesque than heroic in its stature, more malleable than fixed in its form. The major contributions of postmodernism to historical consciousness are to be found in novels such as.c.
Disregard for the proprieties of professional historiography exposes postmodernists to charges of relativism and skepticism, which are often treated more as sins than as possible intellectual positions. Relativism, it is alleged, leads to epistemological and moral anarchy and is therefore to be resisted on ethical as well as cognitive grounds. So, too, skepticism is to be opposed on moral as well as cognitive grounds: it is supposed to lead to Pyrrhonism, nihilism, and chaos. It is as if historical truth were the only kind of truth we had and any attenuation of it would shake the foundations of civilization itself.
To these charges postmodernists reply: it is true that postmodernism is skeptical of professional historians not only because their work is boring or, alternatively, sentimental, but because they seem themselves to be in the pay of special interest groups, the state, wealthy patrons, corporations, the university itself. Moreover, their purpose seems to be to keep non-professionals from poaching on their turf, as if the past were a piece of real estate and access to it consigned to professional scholars alone. Finally, one can distinguish between a metaphysical skepticism which denies the possibility of any kind of knowledge and a skepticism about the kind of knowledge produced by a specific group, such as of a gild of professional scholars whose methods resemble those of lawyers or, in the worst cases, astrologers, while trying to pose as gscientistsh pure and simple.
And so too for the charge of relativism which is typically equated with idea that all points of view are equally valid (or invalid), that there is no possibility of choosing among them on rational grounds, that, therefore, ganything goesh in thought and action, and that, as a consequence, ethical principles are a fraud and morality an illusion.
Finally, postmodernists maintain that all knowledge is not only gknowledge abouth particular things but also gknowledge forh particular social groups and cultural projects. Thus, the validity of any given presentation of the past and history is to be assessed in terms of its utility for the group for which it has been produced.
The criterion is pragmatic or pragmatist and it holds as much for the natural sciences as it does for the human sciences. Historical studies have their own histories, they vary from time to time, place to place, and group to group. Which is why histories formulated on the basis of religious beliefs--such as St. Augustinefs City of God or Froissartfs Chronicon--are not less or indeed less for their failure to conform to the criteria of contemporary professional historiography. And so too for the idea or vision of history to be found in literary, poetic, and other kinds of artistic media. If, as Ricoeur argued, historical consciousness is a product of a particular kind of experience of temporality, then the representation no less than the analysis of this experience requires all the resources that art as well as science can provide. Indeed, the effort to change the subject of history, to imagine a different past from that constructed for dominant groups of the industrial age, and to provide a historical basis for critiquing the immediate past and escaping from the institutional constrictions it has placed upon the present, all this seems to be taken more seriously by literary and cinematic, video and computer artists than by professional historians.
The vision of a future idea of history is to be found in a postmodernist art which is more conceptual than mimetic, more gwriterlyh than greaderly,h more interested in the symbol than in the@algorithm. Postmodernist writing, for example, transcends the conventions of traditional, narrativistic and fabulistic storytelling. This did not mean that postmodernists had any greater faith in the gpetits recitsh of professional historiography. For postmodernism also rejects the version of the past and history produced by professional historians and the discourses of lfhumanisme universitaire. They reject humanistic historyfs naive faith in empiricism and trust in the gdocument,h its belief in a gsubject of historyh as an gaction hero,h conqueror of inferior peoples, and carrier of civilization. For postmodernists, professional historians study the past as a thing in itself, write for other professional historians, derive no lessons of any use to the present, and seek to repress imaginative uses of history in the service of life (Nietzsche).
Like Foucault, postmodernists are less interested in the past as a thing in itself than as a means of comprehending the present. Where history offers no insight into the present, it is condemned as mere antiquarianism. For postmodernists, truth is a semantic rather than an epistemological issue. Statements about the past and about their relevance for comprehending the present have less to do with what is said than with what is meant in what is said. Consequently, the significance of an utterance--whether about the present or about the past--cannot be separated from the context within which it is uttered. This idea of truth opens postmodernism to charges of relativism: cultural, moral, epistemic.
Its suspicion of the possibility of deriving universals from the study of history exposes it to charges of skepticism. It should be noted, however, that skepticism about the possibility of knowledge regarding things no longer perceivable is one thing, skepticism about the very possibility of knowledge of anything, absent or present, is quite another.
Postmodernists do not deny that we can have knowledge of the past. It is, rather, that we must use the imagination along with reason in the construction of that knowledge. And by imagination they mean not merely fantasy, dream, reverie but also poiesis, after the manner of Vico, the Romantics, and Michelet. Only thus can the ethical claims of memory--individual and collective--be reconciled with the epistemological claims of reason.
Academic or university historiography is too "disinterested" to bridge the gap which postmodernists perceive to exist between the truth of past facts and the meaning of this truth for the understanding of modernity.
Like Foucault, postmodernists are interested in the past, not as an end in itself, but for what it can tell us about the present. This means that the establishment of the facts about the past must be followed by the interpretation of them.
Above the level of atomic facts--such as dates and specific occurrences about which there can be no doubt--there arise questions about the past and history for which there can be no factual answers.
When it comes to the meaning of the big events of modern history--the French Revolution, capitalism, industrialism, Nazism, even the Shoah--events so important to our own identities that we cannot not confront them, there can be no definitive answers. But of the making of interpretations, there is no end.
We can only multiply interpretations and thereby undermine any dogmatic claims about the past, history, and human nature thereby. Since the past is by definition no longer open to perception, we can never be certain that any description of it or of any of its elements is adequate to it. In this respect the past differs from the present which, in principle, is observable. But what we mean by the present is as much a construction of thought and imagination, fantasy and hope or fear, as the past. Thus, caught between two abysses, a past that is dead and a future that is still unborn, we must choose to live in ambiguity, ambivalence, and despair.
The world appears to postmodernists in the manner in which Heidegger and Sartre presented it in the 1930s. Neither philosophy nor science can help us. Whence the postmodernist recourse to art, literary writing, and the poetic imagination for dealing with the aporias of historical existence.
1. Since its beginnings, history has aspired to the status of a science according to standards of scientificity currently prevailing in the time and places in which it has been practiced. Since science itself has a history, which means that what it consists of is constantly changing, history's effort to become scientific is constantly changing also. This is why the different ways that historians construe the past and its relationship to the present appear to be incommensurable.
While some historians typically see continuity and regular progress in history's millennial effort to become scientific, others just as typically register its continual failure to do so. None of this matters very much as long as a given society feels itself to be umproblematically connected to its (or the) past. It is when the past is felt to be a burden on the present, a debt rather than a legacy, that history may come to be thought of as a fake or pseudo-science and demands for its supplementation by grealh science, religion, art, or metaphysics called for.
2. Real historians, it is alleged, are interested in the truth and nothing but the truth about the past, without any ideological preconceptions or intentions, and in a spirit of objectivity and neutrality towards their subject-matter. Their principal activity is research, particularly in archives and especially in goriginalh sources or documents. They sift evidence, analyze data, construct arguments and offer proofs about what happened in some domain of the past insofar as the record allows. The facts of the matter pre-exist the historianfs investigation of them; he (or more rarely, she) gfindsh them rather than invents them.
The recent past and present are not proper subjects of history because a certain time must have passed before one can know how certain processes gcame outh eventuated, or concluded. So, too, one should not undertake to investigate any aspect of the past before the relevant archival materials have been made available. When the research is finished, the historians writes up his findings in a sober and severe style. No levity or rhetorical flourish can be allowed; irony is reserved for those amateurs and laity who think that ghistoryh can be written by anybody, that the past is a general human legacy, and that anyone has the right to study it as best they can.
3.When it comes to claims to producing real knowledge (as against information) about the past, history must moot certain potentially disturbing the enigmas of temporality, the aporias of memory, and the paradoxes of desire. (It must get on with the task of finding out gwhat happenedh in the past and presenting it in an appropriately domesticated form so as to feign that death is not terminal and that the fruits of prior human labor are not totally lost to human memory.)
Enigmas: Of temporality, the sense of at once being, having been, yet to be, and ultimately not be.
Of memory: the sense that the past is in me and yet is absent from me, that I can recall this past and, at the same time, lose it, that, in the end, I cannot trust memory but, at the same time, I cannot escape it.
Of desire: the sense that I want what I do not have and have what I do not want, that I want what I cannot have and have what I ought not want, that I do not know what I want and do not want what I know.
4. Proem: In this essay, ghistoryh refers to Western and for the most part modern Western notions about the past, the relation between past and present, and the uses to which historical knowledge can be put.
Although all cultures and societies have an interest in the past, only a few of them have developed a specifically ghistoricalh approach to its study.
Although Western historians have claimed that a specifically historical way of studying the past and its relation to the present has universal validity, it would seem that such a way, mode, or idea presupposes notions about human nature, sociality, production, value, and meaning that are identifiably Western in kind. And indeed Western notions of historicality have spread only to those parts of the world in which other specifically Western beliefs and institutions--such as Newtonian science, humanism, Christianity, capitalism--have already taken root. It should not, however, be thought that "history" in the West designates a single, monolithic orthodoxy regarding what it consists of, how it should be study, and the ends to which it can legitimately be put. Western historical sciences want to be "scientific," but since modern Western historical thought has always fallen short of the ideals of science prevailing at any given time in its development, it has generated a number of different ideas of history conformably to the intellectual and artistic ideologies predominating at any given moment in its evolution.
Times of social, economic, and political crisis provoke debates between representatives of these different ways of viewing history and about programs for the reform of historical thinking and its practices. It can hardly be denied that the West and (because of the dominance of Western institutions and practices worldwide) the rest of the world are currently undergoing transformations so extreme as to bring traditional institutions and values under question everywhere. It is therefore eminently understandable that historical thought and institutions should be subjected to the same criticism that is being launched against the other aspects of the intellectual and artistic endowment of the West.
As a would-be science, historiography neither foresaw the crisis of modernism nor provides any advice about how to overcome it.
Insofar as current calls for the revision of historical thought are based upon a sense of radical change and transition to a new, hitherto unimaginable world-system, these can be termed "postmodernist."
UP:November 12, 2009 REV: