Truth lost in vain views

September 12, 1997

Postmodernist historians demean the dead with their narcissistic views. Richard Evans urges his colleagues to rise up against the theoreticians

History degrees used to focus overwhelmingly on the study of the past. The most they would offer in addition to their core syllabus would be a course in the history of political theory, a few seminars on great historians like Gibbon and Macaulay, or training in ancillary skills such as Latin or palaeography. Now all that has changed. Everywhere, universities have been setting up courses which require students to reflect on the nature and purpose of the discipline they are studying.

In itself, this is no bad thing. Yet if you are organising such a course, you quickly become aware of a paradox. For the theory of history has in recent years become a more or less independent sub-discipline with its own particular way of doing things, its own concepts and language, written about mostly by people who have no experience of historical research themselves. Despite this shortcoming, however, the theoreticians have been producing books directly critical of the way most historians go about their work, indeed openly hostile to the discipline of history itself.

Books which aspire to the status of basic student texts, such as Keith Jenkins's Re-thinking History, Beverley Southgate's History: What and Why?, or Alan Munslow's Deconstructing History, all mount strong attacks on history as it is conventionally conceived and taught. For Jenkins, "history is theory and theory is ideological and ideology just is material interests". Professional historians are bourgeois intellectuals who want to defend their middle-class interests by diverting attention from the need to improve things in the future through dwelling on the past. Instead of engaging in this exercise, history courses should focus on studying historians rather than the past: the past is unknowable because it is no longer with us, and the language through which we apprehend it is the historian's language, which puts into it any interpretation he or she desires. For Southgate, the notion of history as the pursuit of the truth about the past means that students are taught "not so much to question as to conform to existing dogma". "Non-conformists, doubters, and non-believers", he complains, "have been treated as heretics fit only for the stake".

Books such as these offer a popularisation - a better word might be vulgarisation - of postmodernist theories developed by writers such as the American historiographer Hayden White, the Dutch philosopher Frank Ankersmit and the French thinker Michel Foucault. These in turn have their origin in semiotic theories which argue that language is an arbitrarily constructed system of verbal signifiers which bears no necessary relation to the things they signify. Applied to the discipline of history, this means that historians' writings bear no necessary relation to the past, which in any case is known to us only indirectly, through the (mostly textual) remains it has left behind. Just as the act of reading involves the re-interpretation of a text, irrespective of the views of its author, every time the text is read, so history involves the reinvention of the past every time it is written.

So historians do not provide a true representation of the past; instead, they invent it, they invest it with meaning according to their own moral, political or aesthetic preferences. Just as one novel does not invalidate another if it is written about the same subject, so one historical interpretation does not invalidate another even if it is directly opposed to it. No given set of events is inherently tragic or comic, or whatever, events can only be constructed as such by the historian. Of course, historians have rules of evidence, but these are only conventions designed to produce, in the words of Roland Barthes, a "reality-effect". Historians, the philosopher Hans Kellner has complained, are merely demonstrating their adherence to "naive realism" when they "behave as though their researches were into the past, as though their writings were 'about' it".

Truth is thus not universal, but particular. Every group has its own "truth", purveyed by means of an agreed set of evidential conventions. In the postmodernist view, the dominant "truth" of history has been that of middle-class, white, heterosexual males. Their interpretations have held the field because they have occupied dominant positions in the institutional power structures through which historical knowledge is purveyed. The realisation that it is all a matter of perspective allows oppressed groups to develop their own vision, and to achieve empowerment by articulating a working-class, African-American, feminist or gay "truth" instead. The only criteria for deciding which perspective, which interpretation is best, are moral, political or aesthetic. Anyone who thinks the validity of a historical interpretation can be decided by recourse to the evidence is living a realist illusion.

For the late Sir Geoffrey Elton, formerly regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, these ideas were "the intellectual equivalent of crack". For Arthur Marwick, professor of history at the Open University, they are a "menace to serious historical study". Such language does not get us very far. Surely it is possible to construct a defence of the enterprise of doing history by reasoned argument. Not only possible, but in view of the current situation of the discipline, necessary.

One could start, for example, by pointing out some of the political implications of postmodernist hyper-relativism. Most postmodernists seem to consider themselves on the left, but in fact there is nothing necessarily leftwing about the consequences of their doctrines. For if every perspective on the past is as valid as every other, then a fascist or a racist perspective is valid too. Indeed, according to Deborah Lipstadt, author of a recent survey of Holocaust denial literature in the United States, there is some evidence that postmodernist relativism has encouraged the toleration of extreme rightwing groups seeking a hearing on US campuses for their view that Auschwitz was a myth. Similarly, the view that each ethnic group has its own truth would seem to imply that white heterosexual males' truth is as true as any other; that when a conservative historian like John Vincent, professor of history at Bristol University and unrivalled champion of political incorrectness, declares that "history is deeply male I history is about the rich and famous, not the poor", there is no way of proving him wrong. Moreover, the insistence that all history is discourse diverts attention from the real lives and sufferings of people in the past. Auschwitz is not a text. The gas chambers were not a discourse. It trivialises mass murder to see it as a text. Auschwitz was indeed, as Hayden White has recently conceded, inherently a tragedy and cannot be seen as a comedy or a farce. If this is true of Auschwitz, then it must be true at least to some degree of other past events as well. The past does indeed impose its extra-textual reality on historians' interpretations of it, limiting and confining them within a web of facts. We can read into it a variety of meanings, but the possibilities of doing so are not infinite, and some interpretations, whatever their ideological provenance, can be shown to be demonstrably false through an appeal to the historical evidence, which we are not at liberty to falsify or invent.

The real weakness of the postmodernists however is their refusal to recognise that their own arguments can be applied to themselves. For if we can read anything we like into a text, then we can read anything we like into the texts of the postmodernists, including the argument that history is true and objective. The absurdity of such a position is obvious. Moreover, if there is no single "truth" but only a multiplicity of equally valid "truths", then presumably postmodernists have to concede that the view that there is only one truth is just as valid as the view that there are many. But they cannot afford to do this, since they must believe that their view is correct, otherwise why would they be bothering to put it forward? In the end, therefore, they all implicitly appeal to a more universal standard of truth which contradicts their own arguments and reinstates the views they are trying to defeat.

The idea that historical interpretations prevail because of the institutional power of their advocates rather than because of their intellectual persuasiveness, does not stand up. Sir Geoffrey Elton's institutional power was considerable, but his interpretation of Tudor administration never became an orthodoxy; on the other hand, E. P. Thompson's approach to labour and social history has proved enormously influential despite the fact that he held no university post, apart from a spell at Warwick which ended disastrously when he led a student occupation of the university administration and published an excoriating attack on it as the lackey of industrial capitalism.

One of Thompson's most famous phrases was his argument that historians needed to rescue the poor and the oppressed in history from "the enormous condescension of posterity". It points to the fact that at the heart of history has always been the ability to imagine yourself into the situation of someone different from you in the past; thus there have always been democratic white male historians whose work has been devoted to the sympathetic recovery of the history of the poor, the oppressed and the disadvantaged, however comfortable their own particular situation may be. When Southgate says it is time for a "rediscovery of history's losers", one wonders what planet he has been living on.

The idea that professional historians are all writing about the past in order to shore up their own position as salaried university employees, or that universities are simply institutions designed to maintain the existing power structures of society, and treat anyone who questions historical orthodoxy as a heretic, must strike anyone who has taught in a university history department as grotesque. The main emphasis of most history teaching in universities has long been on encouraging students to question orthodoxies, including those of their teachers. It should not be necessary to point out that universities in practice are spaces where many varieties of thought flourish, including of course postmodernism in its many guises. Some of the forms in which postmodernist theory expresses itself are potentially useful to historians: its insistence on taking culture and ideas seriously, for instance, its emphasis on the historians' need to acknowledge their own subjectivity, its encouragement of a return to literary style after two decades or more of domination by social-science jargon, above all, perhaps, its demand that historians interrogate their own methods. But at its most extreme and reductionist, it is narcissistic, inflating the importance of the historians and demeaning the dead who are the subject of our investigations. It is self-contradictory. And it is a challenge to which it is time historians issued a reasoned response.

Richard J. Evans is professor-elect of modern history at Cambridge University. In Defence of History is published by Granta Books, September 23, Pounds 15.99.

A Time to Kill, page 20

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