Past lives of the pomos, proto-pomos and pomophobics

Postmodernism in History
August 27, 2004

The search for precursors of, and parallels with, postmodernism is the most interesting aspect of this wide-ranging work, which is less convincing as a defence of postmodernism.

Beverley Southgate, emeritus reader in the history of ideas at Hertfordshire University, presents a dichotomy between postmodernism ("pomo"), which he claims impacts on practical issues of everyday life as experienced by fellow travellers on the Clapham omnibus, and "pomophobia".

This fear of postmodernism is seen as stemming from the loss of personal and public certainties, and a parallel is drawn with the transition to modernism.

In an ambitious essay on intellectual history, Southgate offers new readings of much of early-modern European intellectual life, including the scientific revolution, in terms of this dichotomy. Opponents of mechanist thought are seen as "the equivalent of contemporary pomophobes".

Romantics are seen as proto-postmodernists in that they denied the absolute validity of any order, while Carlyle is presented as eroding the disciplinary boundary between history and literature and blurring the supposed distinction between historical fact and novelistic fiction.

Southgate ranges back as far as Homer, recruiting writers as true proto-postmodernists on the basis of claims such as the following:

"Scepticism is the philosophy with which postmodernism is most closely associated, and we can at least concede that the length of scepticism's history gives an indication of the depth of postmodernism's roots."

Thus, to give a flavour of the book's style, he refers to Dio Chrysostom in the 1st century AD: "By then we can claim that proto-postmodernity has traces of Foucault, in as much as history is already recognised as a source of power, with historical narratives adaptable, and adapted, for ideologically motivated purposes."

Southgate claims that postmodernism is responsible for the displacement of Eurocentricity that arises from its "incessant questioning" of the validity of the notion of a perspective from which any reliable reconstruction of what happened in the past can be offered.

It is interesting to compare Southgate's book with Jonathan Clark's critique of postmodern views of identity, Our Shadowed Present , but it is more useful to observe that Southgate centralises what is really a somewhat marginal debate.

Far from being postmodernists or pomophobes, most historians get on with research, which they generally approach in an accretional fashion, and treat debates about pomo as self-referential, if not self-regarding, and of little relevance to the practitioner.

In that sense, the issues discussed by Southgate are classic armchair history: why bother going to the archives if you can speculate? Most students find these debates opaque at best and, more commonly, meaningless as well as tedious; indeed, historical method as currently taught is a good way to lose students.

An obsession with what passes for theory accentuates the divide between the academic pursuit of the subject - history as questions - and the public interest in history as answers. It does not reflect well on the former.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, Exeter University.

Postmodernism in History: Fear or Freedom?

Author - Beverley Southgate
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 222
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 415 30538 1 and 30539 X

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