Postmodernism and History
Postmodernism comes in many guises and many varieties,
and it has had many kinds of positive influences on historical scholarship.
It has encouraged historians to take the irrational in the past more seriously,
to pay more attention to ideas, beliefs and culture as influences in their own
right, to devote more effort to framing our work in literary terms, to put individuals,
often humble individuals, back into history, to emancipate ourselves from what
became in the end a constricting straitjacket of social-science approaches,
quantification and socio-economic determinism.
But this is postmodernism in its more moderate
guise. The literature on postmodernism usefully distinguishes between the moderate
and the radical. What I call radical postmodernism takes its cue from another
post, post-structuralism, roughly speaking the idea that language is arbitrarily
constructed, and represents nothing but itself, so that whenever we read something,
the meaning we put into it is necessarily our own and nobody else’s, except
of course insofar as our own way of reading is part of a wider discourse or
set of beliefs.
It must be obvious that this idea has a corrosive
effect on the discipline of history, which depends on the belief that the sources
the historian reads can enable us to reconstruct past reality. It is just this
idea that many post-structuralists have attacked. Alan Munslow, for example,
proclaims: ‘The past is not discovered or found. It is created and represented
by the historian as a text.’ Keith Jenkins believes that ‘history is just ideology’.’
And Hans Kellner complains that historians‚ ’routinely behave as though their
researches were into the past, as though their writings were about “it”, and
as though “it” were as real as the text which is the object of their labours.’
The past is unknowable; all we can know about is historians’ writings, so history
disappears and we are left with historiography as a species of literary endeavour.
What historians write depends on their own purposes and their own point of view,
and there is no way of deciding whether one representation of the past is true
and another, contradictory one, untrue.
Arguments such as these are extremely self-contradictory,
however. If the statement, commonly made by postmodernists, that truth is always
relative to a particular society or culture or group in society, is true, then
it is true in an absolute sense, not a relative one, since as a statement, it
must hold good for all societies and cultures. Similarly, when postmodernists
claim that nobody has access to the truth, they must believe that this is in
fact a true statement, so the person making it does have access to the truth.
If texts are given meaning by the reader and not the writer, then why
have so many postmodernists complained that when I have criticized them I have
been basing my criticisms on a misrepresentation of what they have written?
Presumably postmodernists believe that the texts they are writing are
not capable of an infinity of interpretations, that they make their meaning
unmistakeably clear so that the reader is left with only one way of interpreting
it. Again, therefore, the postmodernist proposition refutes itself.
All of these points are in the end fairly obvious.
Postmodernism of the Jenkins/Munslow variety shows what one might call a naive
cynicism that is too simple-minded to cope with doubt and imperfection. Let
me illustrate this by looking at the concept of Truth, a term one usually
finds in post-structuralist writings placed inside a cordon sanitaire of
quotation marks, as if it would cause some horrible infection of old-fashioned
empiricism in the writer or reader if it was let out.
Of course it is right to say that we can never
know the whole or absolute truth about anything in the past. But just because
we can never attain the whole or absolute truth, just because we make mistakes
in our search for the truth about the past, just because there will always be
something new to say about any historical subject, it does not follow that there
is no such thing as the truth at all. In a similar way, just because what is
accepted as true isn’t necessarily so, does not mean that the concept of the
truth itself is merely ideological. Truth, as I noted earlier, is not relative
to perspective, though what is accepted as true is; ‘a statement is true
if and only if things are as it represents them to be.’ So there cannot be incompatible
truths; after all, ‘incompatible’ actually means ‘cannot be jointly true’.
So if we claim that there is no such thing as
truth, then either that statement is true, in which case there is such as thing
as truth, or it is not true, which amounts to the same thing. The point is,
of course, that postmodernists passionately want us to believe that what they
are saying is true and objective, even when they say that nothing anybody says
is true and objective.
You’ll notice that I’ve finally introduced the
term ‘objective’ here. This has been the source of a lot of confusion. It does
not mean the same as absolutely, completely and irrefutably true, and postmodernists
who say it does, are setting up a target deliberately manufactured to be able
to knock over without too many problems. Objectivity does not really
have this strong meaning, however; it generally means, fairly obviously, a perspective
or representation deriving from something external to the mind, the object,
rather than from the mind of the person doing the representation, the subject.
We see a car coming towards us as we’re crossing the road, and we recognise
it as an object, so we jump out of its way. The evidence that it’s coming is
provided by our senses, sight and hearing, possibly also smell, though hopefully
it’s not such a close call that we have to involve touching and feeling as well.
When we read a historical document, or look at
an archaeological site, we can’t read into it, or see in it, anything we want
to. We can read it for a variety of purposes and in a variety of ways, but the
possibilities are not unlimited. We bring to our sources all kinds of theories,
ideas, beliefs, questions, and the more conscious we are of them, the better,
but what happens when all of this comes into contact with the sources is a dialogue,
a two-way process, not the simple one-way imposition of our own views on a blank
sheet of paper or an empty piece of ground. We can argue about what the sources
tell us, but it’s not the case that one interpretation is always going to be
as good as another; some are more persuasive than others because they achieve
a better fit with the evidence, and sometimes, some are actually right and others
Postmodernists like Keith Jenkins and Frank Ankersmit
have tried to respond to points like these by insisting that there is a huge
difference between historical fact and historical interpretation. Facts are
easy to establish, it’s interpretation that is the problem. Postmodernists,
Jenkins has recently claimed, have never argued that there was no ‘cognitive
element in history‚ at the level of the individual statement, only that certainty
and objectivity were impossible at the level of interpretation (narrative discourse).’
But enormous amounts of postmodernist ink have been spilled on trying to prove
that documents are so unreliable you can never tell anything from them at all,
that we can never recover the intentions of their authors, and so on. It is
a fundamental premise of postmodernist critiques of history that a document
is re-invented and re-interpreted every time someone looks at it, so that it
can never have any fixed meaning at all. If this claim doesn’t mean that we
can never use documents to find out basic historical facts, then it doesn’t
mean anything at all.
The point here is that it is not really possible
to distinguish so sharply between fact and interpretation in history as this.
There’s an element of interpretation, however small, involved in the establishment
of even the most basic historical facts. It’s not in practice possible to draw
a clear line between fact and meaning in history; rather, it’s a sliding scale,
so that the larger the fact, or ensemble of facts, the historian wants to establish,
the larger the element of interpretation involved. The ultimate test of any
historical statement is the extent to which it fits with the evidence, but just
because no fit is ever perfect, just because no fact can be established as anything
more than an overwhelming probability, doesn’t mean that we can naively and
impatiently discard all historical statements as mere inventions of the historian.
Let’s have a bit of subtlety and sophistication here, qualities that postmodernists
are always urging us to adopt.
Let me make this a bit clearer by giving you an
example. In the David Irving libel trial held two years ago, in which I served
as an expert witness for the High Court in London, Irving was suing Penguin
Books and their author Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier and
a falsifier of history. It was not difficult to show that Irving had claimed
on many occasions that no Jews were killed in gas chambers at the Auschwitz
concentration camp. He argued in the courtroom, however, that his claim was
supported by the historical evidence. The defence therefore brought forward
the world’s leading expert on Auschwitz, Robert Jan Van Pelt, to present the
evidence that showed that hundreds of thousands of Jews were in fact killed
in this way. Van Pelt examined eyewitness testimony from camp officials and
inmates, he looked at photographic evidence of the physical remains of the camp,
and he studied contemporary documents such as plans, blueprints, letters, equipment
orders, architectural designs, reports and so on. Each of these three kinds
of evidence, as the judge concluded, had its flaws and its problems. But all
three converged along the same lines, creating an overwhelming probability that
Irving was wrong.
Just as important as this was the fact that it
was possible to demonstrate that Irving’s historical works deliberately falsified
the documentary evidence in order to lend plausibility to his preconceived arguments,
principally his belief that Hitler was, as he said on one occasion, ‘probably
the best friend the Jews ever had in the Third Reich’. Falsifying documents
involved not just leaving words out from quotes but even putting extra words
in to change the meaning. For example, quoting an order from Himmler that a
‘Jew-transport from Berlin’ to the East should not be annihilated as if it were
a general order that no Jews at all, anywhere, were to be killed, by the simple
expedients of adding an ‘e’ to the German word Transport, making it plural,
and omitting the words ‘from Berlin’, and hoping that other researchers wouldn’t
trouble to check the source, or if they did, wouldn’t be able to read the handwriting
(which is actually very clear and unambiguous). Or by adding the word ‘All’
to the note of a judge at the Nuremberg Trial in 1946 on the testimony of an
Auschwitz survivor which actually said ‘this I do not believe’, after a small
part of her testimony, to make it look as if he did not believe any of it. If
we actually believed that documents could say anything we wanted them to, then
none of this would actually matter, and it would not be possible to expose historical
fraud for what it really is.
This brings me to my final point about the postmodernist
positions I’ve been describing, and that is, postmodernists tend to think of
themselves as left-wing, and their views as liberating and emancipatory, but
in fact they are none of these things at all. Postmodernist hyper-relativism
has no political implications of a positive kind at all. If history really is
nothing more than propaganda, then there’s nothing to say it has to be left-wing
propaganda, it can just as easily be right-wing propaganda, or racist propaganda,
or neo-fascist propaganda, as the High Court in London decided in the end that
David Irving’s writings were. If we don’t believe it’s possible to distinguish
between truth and falsehood, then we have no means of exposing racism, antisemitism,
and neo-fascism as doctrines of hate built on an edifice of lies, indeed we
have no real means of discrediting them at all. We can say of course that we
disapprove of them in moral and political terms, but neo-fascists can just put
forward opposing moral and political arguments of their own in response, and
in the end there are no objective criteria by which we can choose between the
What the Irving trial showed in the end was the
ability of historians to come to reasoned and persuasive conclusions about the
past on the basis of a fair-minded and objective examination of the evidence.
It didn’t show that the evidence in question was totally flawless, but it did
show that attempts to discredit it rested on demonstrable forgery and falsification.
If there is such a thing as historical untruth, there must also be such a thing
as historical truth. And if there is such a thing as a biased, tendentious historian
who tried to support preconceived ideas about the past by a selective use of
the evidence and by doctoring the documents, there must be such a thing as an
objective historian who puts preconceived ideas about the past to the test of
whether or not they are supported by the evidence, and modifies or abandons
them if they are not.
Contribution to the ‘Great Debate on History
and Postmodernism’, University of Sydney, Australia, 27 July 2002