Dialogue of the deaf

May 30, 1997

ARTHUR MARWICK's criticisms (THES, May 23) of postmodernism might command more respect if the manner in which they were made was less bellicose. Cliche and caricature, such as "the fight engulfing history departments across Britain" (THES, May 16), do not help. If the dialogue of the deaf between postmodernists and traditionalists in history is to be transformed into something more productive it would help if both parties regained a sense of proportion.

The "democratisation of history" is ongoing, traceable back to the last quarter of the 19th century (one thinks of the work of J. R. Green and of Thorold Rodgers). Marwick and Keith Jenkins are being disingenuous in claiming it for their particular ends. The postmodern cluster of ideas does offer, however, the prospect of a more reflective and critically-aware history which fully acknowledges the creative and subjective processes that are integral to pursuing the subject.

Why is this so unsettling? Marwick descends to caricature when he writes of a postmodern wish to consign the study of history to the "dustbin of cultural practices". Human memory, to which he likens society's awareness of history, is not infallible: it is selective, partial and autobiographically centred. It is therefore much more like academic history than Marwick, doubtless, would concede.

The postmodern prospect would not be a world where "no one knew any history", but one where we would be more critically alert as to what historical knowledge actually is. The public understanding of the past is constituted through various means, of which "the product of countless thousands of professional historians" is merely one. Finally, Marwick sets us a task to "list just one substantial and significant contribution to historical know-ledge" informed by a postmodern perspective. Within the history of labour, to take just one example, one can point to the work of many including Richard Biernacki, Patrick Joyce, Jacques Ranciere |and Joan Scott.

Malcolm Chase

School of continuing education, University of Leeds

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