Truths and facts in history

September 19, 1997

Richard Evans is to be congratulated on raising the tone of the history and theory debate ("Truth lost in vain views", Perspective, THES, September 12). However, as an historian who "does" both history (digging around in the documentary coal-face) and theory (engaging with ideas on power, language and textuality), I have some doubts about the validity of his critique.

Three points must be made. First, the postmodernist conception of truth (crudely to conflate a number of different positions) is not that "there is a multiplicity of equally valid truths". Rather, it is that truth (as a claim to one dominant and essential position) is untenable, and operates as a mask covering particular operations of power; all truth (with a small "t") is situational, political and engaged. To claim that something is true is to attempt to place it beyond discussion, to effect a hegemonic control of the argument. Postmodernism challenges that hegemony.

Second, although Evans makes some salient points about the way in which history has opened up to subaltern groups (such as women, the working class, or blacks), much of this is precisely because of the political debates engendered by critical theory. Women, blacks, gays and other subaltern groups are still massively under represented in the historical profession. How many female professors of history are there at Cambridge?

Third, and perhaps most important, Evans misunderstands the notions of "text" and "discourse'. In the analyses propounded by Michel Foucault and others, discourse is not presented as a false image of reality, an alternative to "what is really there", or, in short, a con. Discourse - the competing creations and recreations of experience, identity and meaning through language - "is" reality, or at the very least, as close to reality as we are ever going to get. The gas chambers were a physical expression and outcome of a particular discourse that presented a "reality" wherein Jews, homosexuals, communists and others were subhuman. Nothing is "just" discourse, in the sense of being "merely" language.

The point of critical theory is to point out that language (and how it shapes our understanding of the world) is never "mere" but desperately important. The point of postmodernist theory is to escape from such binary notions of true and false, real and fake. It provides a powerful tool for engaging with right-wing views of history, the many different "pasts" which are present to us through documentary evidence, and, indeed, the Holocaust.

John Arnold

School of history University of East Anglia.

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