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About this book

In this clear, jargon-free guide, Willie Thompson provides a concise introduction to postmodernist theory and its significant impact on the study of history. Although this is a hotly-debated topic, with much of the current literature being both polemical and inaccessible to the beginner, Thompson offers straightforward explanations of complex concepts and shows how the debates are relevant to students' own work.

Postmodernism and History:

- considers the origins of postmodernism in both the ideas of poststructuralist thinkers, particularly Michel Foucault, and the political and cultural developments of the late 20th century
- explores themes such as the treatment of historical evidence, problems of historical representation, feminist history, ethical judgements on past events, and the validity of metanarrative or long-term historical explanation
- discusses critically the work of a number of current and recent practicing historians - including Joan Scott, Roy Porter, Patrick Joyce and James Vernon - who have used postmodernist ideas in their writing
- enquires how far postmodern thought has been absorbed into mainstream historiography

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
In his very useful volume, published as far back as 1987, Peter Dews began
Over the past two decades the style of thought known as post-structuralism has exercised an extraordinary influence over intellectual life in the English-speaking world. Post-structuralist strategies and forms of analysis, orientated towards the dismantling of stable conceptions of meaning, subjectivity and identity, have become central to the theoretical armoury, and in some cases have brought about the transformation, of a wide variety of disciplines in the humanities and social studies. … In the domain of social theory and the history of thought, the writings of Michel Foucault have been a major stimulus.1
This volume aims to consider the impact upon historiography of this complex of ideas and climate of intellectual thought. Historiography means the writing of history — a term I prefer in that context to ‘history’, so as to emphasise the distinction between the events of the past, which are the object of historical research, and the public presentation of the historian’s conclusions — mainly in the form of the written word, though it can also apply to other media. However, the title of this volume is not inapt, for if, as postmodern thinkers insist, the past is essentially nothing other than what historians write, then the distinction becomes meaningless. That is not the least of the reasons why it remains necessary to examine the claims of this theoretical standpoint in an accessible fashion which at the same time tries to avoid oversimplification. It can scarcely any longer be termed a new development, yet it continues to generate heated dispute, as the pages of academic and intellectual periodicals such as the Times Higher Education Supplement, the London Review of Books or the New York Review of Books will testify.
Willie Thompson

1. What is ‘Postmodernism’?

Abstract
What is postmodernism — and how does it relate to historical study and practice? Matt Perry’s Marxism and History1 contains a well-argued and fairly extensive section on the concept, and it is a reasonable bet that other volumes in this series will give it more than a passing reference. The initial point to note is that the term ‘postmodernism’ means several, or indeed many, different things — the concept is what would once have been referred to as a ‘portmanteau word’. In this opening chapter we will first of all try to disentangle the most important of these meanings, establish the historical context in which the concept has evolved and establish, if possible, how the different meanings connect to one another. The following chapters will then attempt to assess how postmodernism has influenced historiographical practice.
Willie Thompson

2. The Status of Historical Evidence

Abstract
In examining the impact on historical writing (and other forms of production such as broadcasting) of postmodern ideas and the intellectual sensibility associated with them, the most appropriate starting point may well be to inquire into the character of historical evidence — the raw material for any form of historical (more strictly, historiographical) production.
Willie Thompson

3. Problems of Representation

Abstract
The concept of representation is at the heart of all postmodern thinking; indeed it could be suggested that is essentially what it is about, and everything that it has to say derives from the application and manipulation of this concept. The notorious phrase by Baudrillard that ‘the [first] Gulf War did not take place’ only makes sense on the presumption that all that could be known about the war was its televisual representations, and these, notoriously, were at the time manipulated to produce the outcome specified by the US alliance. In the past 200 years the representations available through visual images have multiplied exponentially, from the daguerreotype to the internet; nevertheless words, the text, remain the foundation of all representation — not only do they stand on their own as a form of representation, but without them visual images are drained of their meaning.
Willie Thompson

4. Representation, Narrative and Emplotment

Abstract
The considerations which this chapter addresses follow on naturally and sequentially from those of representation, and overlap at a number of points. However the concepts discussed here are a special case of representation, particularly applicable to historiography. One of the advances with which postmodernism thinking can be credited as having contributed to historiographical theory is to ‘problematise’— to employ the horrible neologism — the question of what historians are doing when they use narrative technique. That, although closely related to the issues discussed in the previous chapter, is not quite the same thing, but represents a separate and additional consideration in the matter of what historians’ purposes may be when they write history. Here questions of source availability, source multiplicity, choice of material, can be bracketed off, so to speak, in order to focus upon the question of how the chosen materials are organised into an intelligible account of events and/or circumstances in the past and what the theoretical implications might be.
Willie Thompson

5. Michel Foucault — Representation and Power

Abstract
It is appropriate at this point to consider the work of Michel Foucault, for in any introduction to history and postmodernism, this author (along with the influence he has exercised) deserves a separate discussion. His impact has been, in this sphere, enormous. He was, even by the late 1970s, among the most cited writers in the humanities, and the attention given to him has certainly not decreased since then. He had the advantage over the other founding fathers of postmodernism that his writing is often, though not by any means always, relatively intelligible, and he purports to deal not only with the technicalities of very obscure philosophical discourse, but with broad historical themes, which he tackles in an energetic and provocative fashion.
Willie Thompson

6. Representation and Relativism, Cognitive and Moral

Abstract
This chapter is concerned with the feature of the postmodern approach which has unquestionably occasioned more controversy and outrage than any other and which can be summarised under the notion of relativism. In a trite sense relativism, like solipsism, is evidently valid, for just as when I cease to exist the world will also cease to exist for me, so any judgement, perception or whatever is relative to my own positioning and cannot be otherwise. That is why, to establish anything either in the academic universe or that of human affairs generally, multiple viewpoints are regarded as necessary, and the more viewpoints converging, the better established. The relativism under consideration here however, is much more. It is central to the argument and has attachments to all the other issues at stake — the role of language, representation, gender, culture, multiple voices, and so forth. It amounts to nothing less than the claim that historically and discursively conditioned modes of cognition or ethical systems are incommensurable — that there is no ground on which one can be evaluated against another.
Willie Thompson

7. Representation, Metanarratives and Microhistories

Abstract
As noted in a previous chapter, one of the essential characteristics of postmodernism was that proferred by Jean-François Lyotard, namely ‘incredulity towards meta-narrative’ (grands récits). What is meant by metanarrative is not evident at first sight, but a definition that will serve is ‘narratives that attempt to explain the nature of the human condition’, or ‘why things on a broad scale got to be the way they are’. ‘Over-reaching explanation’ is much the same thing. So far as history is concerned, and history is what metanarrative or ‘master narrative’ is about, it means an explanation of human progress (or in a few cases decline) on the presumption that progress or decline really is the situation which confronts the participants.
Willie Thompson

Conclusion

Abstract
Postmodernistically inspired approaches to historical writing have now been in evidence for well over 20 years, if Foucault’s volumes are included. Foucault, however, never claimed to be a postmodernist and, as we have seen, there is some warrant for this, although in both popular and academic perception he is so closely grouped with the tendency that it would amount to no more than a quibble to exclude him, and presumably not even Stedman Jones would do so. Certainly he has inspired many who do enthusiastically accept the label.
Willie Thompson
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