When Dacre spells danger

On the Future of History - Our Shadowed Present

January 23, 2004

John Arnold sits back to watch the postmodern intellectual fireworks.

Late last year I saw a production of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance . It reminded this medieval historian that "modernity" was once a living discourse: something spoken and discussed. Wilde's characters repeatedly describe this or that person or thing as "modern", in tones of arch significance. They worry away at what "the modern" might encompass and could mean. The modernity of which they spoke was febrile and heroic - a promise of change.

To live in a state of "postmodernity" could thus mean simply that we no longer talk like this. "Modern" has lost its purchase on our collective sense of self, its ability to frame our dreams of where we're going. For who now talks excitedly of something being "modern"? Only fashion designers and new Labour apparatchiks. Jean-François Lyotard defined postmodernism as an "incredulity toward metanarratives": in simpler terms, this inability to believe in modernity and its promises.

What Ernst Breisach identifies in On the Future of History , is that postmodernism implies an attitude towards history - not simply as what academic historians do, but history in the broader sense of the relationships between past, present and future. Modernity and postmodernity are seen as epochs, marked by something akin to a Zeitgeist in their differing relationship towards time. Breisach suggests that there are two strands of postmodernism. The first he labels a "structuralist postmodernism", associated particularly with the two decades after the second world war. The impact of the Holocaust and disillusionment with the grand claims of political ideology, ushered in for certain European thinkers a final break from the previous vicissitudes of history and progress. For them "history" was henceforth all continuity and no change.

For opposite reasons, but in a parallel direction, the postwar eminence of the US fostered a wave of boundless optimism (think of Francis Fukuyama) and asserted the endless continuity of western capitalist democracy.

In contrast, for what Breisach calls "poststructuralist postmodernism" (thinking here of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard), history had become all change and no continuity. These postmodernists denied the autonomy of reason, and argued that the promises of progress and stability made by modernity were undesirable controls on the flux of human possibility. The assertion of that flux - that the world and the people in it had no "inherent meaning or order" - identified these postmodernists' attitude toward time. Thus the attempts by historians to write about "the past", to place it within the reassuring teleology of narrative, were seen as hopelessly naive. Such histories were as much invented as found (as Hayden White put it), and were simply one among a number of competing truth claims about the past. No truth claim could be stabilised by reference to a "real" past, because all means of access to the past were governed by language; and all language was an unstable shifting chain of signifiers.

On the Future of History is an intelligent and extremely interesting book.

Breisach's previous work - most notably Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern (1983) - has dealt with an incredible swath of intellectual history, and that background serves him well here. His new book places postmodernism usefully in an intellectual context, drawing out antecedents, and resonances and contrasts between different writers' works. He writes as a historian, interested therefore in how these ideas relate to the practice of academic history. Indeed, one of the most fascinating sections of the book discusses the ways in which the Annales school, microhistory, the "new cultural history", and "new historicism" have adapted, rejected, ignored or embraced facets of the postmodern challenge.

Breisach recognises that what the poststructuralists sought to challenge was not history in the academic sense; and that the rejection of academic history's truth claims are but one battle in a larger epistemological war.

When postmodernists discuss "history", they infrequently have archival empiricism in mind; more often they mean the claims of Marxism or of psychoanalysis, or the more Zeitgeist -like sense of "History" through which modernism made its claims about the future. Academic historians tend not to trouble themselves consciously about these more profound claims on time.

Thus resentful confusion arises when they think they have been accused of believing in progress.

Nonetheless, steeped as he is in the historical intersections between intellectual endeavour and political praxis, Breisach shows that these wider thoughts about the past and the future have a key bearing on the present. And although he is careful to demonstrate how academic history has adapted to the postmodern challenge - and how historians have long carried a quieter task of providing humanity with a means of reflecting on itself - Breisach tacitly encourages historians to "raise our game": to think harder about the implications of what we do, in response to the intellectual fireworks that Foucault and Derrida, among others, have thrown in our midst.

On the Future of History is written clearly and often elegantly. It is extraordinarily concise, a virtue that is sometimes extended too far, confusing the apparent chronology of intellectual events. For those who have done some reading in the area, it provides a magnificently lucid guide to the currents of thought. Admirably, there is absolutely no sound of grinding axes nor of the ill-informed pontificating adopted by other historians who have attempted to defend history from its apparent foes. One is treated to a diligent reading of the works discussed, placed in a wider intellectual landscape. It is a demanding read, but for the right reason.

Perhaps the most frequent use of "postmodern" now is as a label for some new thing that a writer neither likes nor understands. In Wilde's time, modern was similarly applied. In Our Shadowed Present Jonathan Clark takes no chances and uses both terms, fairly indiscriminately, for his particular bugbears. These are various and include Eric Hobsbawm, Linda Colley, the Annales school, Europe, the secularisation of modern society and the loss of "national identity". The book is tacked together from a mixture of seminar papers and previously published chapters, individually topped and tailed with ruminations upon modernity, "facile postmodernism" and Marxism.

The introductory chapter appears to launch an attack on "postmodernism" - or is it "modernism"? - but a postmodernism that Breisach would have great difficulty in recognising. Clark's sense of his enemy seems drawn entirely from reading spittle-flecked American polemics written against leftist cultural relativism. And when Clark draws forth an example of a dangerous postmodern book, his bete noire turns out to be The Invention of Tradition (1983), edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.

This collection of essays was written by dangerous philosophical radicals such as David Cannadine (ex-director of the Institute of Historical Research) and Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre). The collection showed that certain traditions thought of as ancient - such as Scottish tartanry - were fairly modern inventions. Such iconoclasm is apparently utterly beyond the pale, and may be (it is darkly hinted) Communist propaganda.

So what is the threat of this postmodernism? It is that we believe ourselves "emancipated" from the past. This is, apparently, the first time in "two millennia" that Europeans have thought this way. "Ordinarily, people have pictured each generation as part of a procession, emerging out of the past and winding into the future; and this image has been regarded as a source of strength". This could be the most concise précis of Conservative sentiment ever written. Note that "ordinarily": one has to admire the vistas of authorial ignorance and patronising generalisation thus neatly glossed over.

What swiftly emerges is Clark's real target: the threat of European integration, facilitated as he sees it by the trend to question the antique heritage of modern national identity. To defend the nation against this hideous menace, Clark waves his hand vaguely in the direction of postmodernism, evokes the time-worn image of history being to society as memory is to personal identity (so, nobody ever forgets or invents anything about themselves?), and, extraordinarily, turns to Anglo-Saxon England.

Here, through a majestically de-contextualised reading of the works of Patrick Wormald and John Gillingham, Clark is able to assert the foundation of English identity; and, perhaps even more surprisingly, the nation state.

Skipping quickly from here to the 17th century (and thus eluding any reflection on inconvenient Europeanists such as Henry III), England - and then Britain, a united kingdom that pleases everybody save the IRA - is happily treading its ordained historical path until rudely interrupted by modernity. Or possibly postmodernity.

It is particularly amusing to spot elements of what Clark denounces as postmodernism creeping into his own analysis. Thus he tells us that Americans use British history (and vice versa) as their mirrors "to show us what we are by contrast with what we might have been and what we are not".

Some might label this "Otherness", but Clark calls it "counterfactual", so that's all right then.

If neither modernity nor postmodernity will do, we would appear to be left with feudalism. One notes therefore, with some interest, that Clark's preface signs off from "Callaly Castle, Northumberland". Looking up from his writing desk, can the author perhaps see demesne land being tilled by stout Anglo-Saxon yeomen? If so, perhaps someone should inform them about recent European employment legislation.

John H. Arnold is lecturer in medieval history, Birkbeck College, London.

On the Future of History: The Postmodernist Challenge and its Aftermath

Author - Ernst Breisach
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 243
Price - £29.00 and £11.50
ISBN - 0 226 079 7 and 07280 0

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