It’s time to exhibit another essay of mine!
I’ve yet to get the result back for this one but should be getting it soon. Don’t worry, the deadline for handing it in has already passed and since nobody will be able to help me in editing it I cannot be caught out for collaboration.

“What has been the impact of postmodernism on the historical profession? Answer in general terms or in reference to one area of history.”
Postmodernism is a term that has both multiple meanings and applications across many walks of academia and contemporary culture. As the name implies postmodernism is a concept that flies in the face of established ‘modernism’ and challenges the ways that society views the world and in a historical sense, how it goes about interpreting the past. In the sense that the enlightenment movement of the 17th and 18th centuries encapsulated a series of rational observations into truths postmodernism claims that nothing can be resolved to be true and that modern facts have been established upon cultural bias. Efforts by postmodernists to challenge the beliefs established by modernism have been widespread; featuring in literature such as Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel ‘Heart of Darkness’, which spectacularly turned imperialist ideals on its head, and in contemporary cinema such as 1982’s ‘Blade Runner’ which portrayed a dystopian future embedded with multiculturalism.[1] However, the greatest impact postmodernism has had on the world is arguably in the historical profession itself. The impact has been nothing short of tectonic, introducing entirely new disciplines and generating heated debate amongst scholars.[2]

In order to go about measuring the impact new disciplines and studies have had on the historic profession one needs to establish a proper context. Postmodernism traces the roots of its proliferation to the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Turner, Nietzsche’s legacy was his belief that the reason-based-thinking promoted by the enlightenment was not a liberating force but on the contrary was inhibiting the freedom of speech in history and subsequently painting a tainted image of the past.[3] It would take almost an entire century before the academic community, in the wake of the atrocities committed by the German Nazi regime, considered revising the way that historians approached their discipline. World War II and its ethnic undertones set the precedence for a period which shook the study of history to its very foundations.[4]

New disciplines, fields of study, and revised historical mantras all owe their roots to the postmodern movement but in order to properly understand them one must examine the thought process behind postmodernist history. Postmodernism rejects the notion that anything in history can be resolved to be true. It believes that truths discerned from history are ultimately formed from the mind of the beholder: everything is relative, forever shifting; and anything previously perceived to be fact has been founded on the basis of cultural, political, and personal bias.

Postmodern historian Keith Jenkins highlights a prominent example of how postmodernism has affected the study of history by pointing to the development of ‘Ethnic’ and ‘Racial History’ in the United States of America. Jenkins argues that Americans once accepted one single narrative of national history as their collective heritage but now studies into the persecution of Native Americans during the colonisation of the continent and into African American history can be found throughout American curriculums.[5] Another postmodern historian Gareth Jones praises the contribution these new fields of study have made to the subject of history as a whole claiming that they have helped “liberate historians from parochial horizons”.[6]

Another area of history which has been radically affected by the proliferation of postmodernism is the revised study of imperialism. European historians, especially in the wake of World War II, have taken revised looks at the history of European empires and the apparent suppression of ethnic history. Francis Fukuyama highlights the changes that have gripped the studies of imperialism by pointing to the development of ethnic identity in Britain following the demise of the British Empire. Fukuyama believes that history is “a dialogue between societies” and since Britain is host to an ethnically diverse culture as a direct result of its imperial past the rise of postmodernism amongst British historians was inevitable.[7] A good example of postmodernism taking a foothold in British society comes in the form of a piece of literature which would later become a revered historical document. Literature during the zenith of British imperialism commonly portrayed white Britons as heroes and the ‘ideal man’ whilst degrading and demonizing ‘the other’. Postmodern literature however does not shy away from granting ‘the other’ as much of a say as ‘the ideal man’. It is for this reason that Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ is a text revered by  postmodern historians who believe it shows a turning point in British cultural history.[8]

One last example, which applies on a global scale, is the emergence of ‘women’s history’ or ‘feminist history’ as it is sometimes referred to. Following on from the suffrage movement of the late 19th early 20th centuries feminist movements tapped into the growing influence of postmodernism in the historic community and sought to expand the study of women throughout history. Not only did this movement succeed in establishing the legitimacy of feminist history despite conservative opposition it also re-interrogated several smaller elements of history by examining the role of women in work, religion, poverty, and politics.[9] Feminist history has also taken credit for the establishment of sexual history, the history of health and the body, of consumerism, as well as contributing towards the revision of imperial history.[10]

In addition to establishing new fields of study postmodernism has changed the way that historians interact with each other. Both sides, modernists and postmodernists, have put forward convincing arguments in defence of their beliefs. In his provocative book ‘What is History?’ E. H. Carr states his thesis that history is the study of causality and in order to understand causality one must examine the viewpoints of those that he believed history has a tendency to neglect, he therefore fully endorses the micro-analysing postmodernism promotes.[11] By looking further at Carr’s work one can begin to see where postmodernists such as Jenkins and Fukuyama may well have acquired their beliefs. As well as being a firm believer in causality Carr also promoted the sceptical dissection of all historical facts and even of historians themselves.[12]

Postmodernism is met with immense opposition not only from historical scholars but also from members of other disciplines such as the sciences.[13] The opponents of postmodernism are both vast and influential, consisting of scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Geoffrey Elton in particular who vehemently criticised E. H. Carr during his prominence. Peter Novick points out that when postmodern historians went about employing unfamiliar concepts to historical study they ended up alienating traditional modernists.[14] The scale of attacks against postmodern history has ranged from the moderate to the extreme. On the moderate end of the spectrum sits Noam Chomsky, an American philosopher who questions the validity of what he sees as a new ideology by asking postmodernists if they are not just repeating what modernism has already established.[15] On the other end is Geoffrey Elton who, in comparison to Chomsky’s curious inquisitive approach, came down hard on Carr’s thesis and postmodernism in general by sensationally calling them “The academic equivalent of crack”.[16] Sensationalism aside Elton, as a conservative modern historian, stalwartly defended the established modern regime by putting forward his own belief that objectivity was simply a matter of reading documents without prejudice and using documents to reconstruct the past on its own terms.[17]

Whilst both sides have positive and negative aspects to their beliefs it is ultimately postmodernism that exhibits its problems more openly. Modernists have constantly raised the relevant point that postmodernism contradicts itself before it is even put into practice for if nothing in history can be either true or universally factual how can the ideology itself be considered such? Other criticisms accuse postmodernists of essentially making mountains out of molehills by being overly sceptical and micro-analysing every angle and perspective. Brown addresses the apparent contradiction inherent in postmodernism by claiming that it is not actually an ideology, rather a method of understanding knowledge that enables new ideologies to form.[18] Jenkins on the other hand acknowledges the problems paralytic overbearing scepticism can have on the decision making process.[19]

This is not to say that modernism itself is devoid of problems and inhibitions, issues that postmodernism set out to rectify at arguably too great a cost. Postmodernism has greatly impacted the historical profession by introducing new fields of study which serve to deepen our understanding of history. In a way the study of history is much like fishing, with history being the ocean and fish being the facts historians find. The modern world has no chance of understanding for certain what living in the past would be like so the best we, as historians, can do is find facts which we believe can provide insight into the past. Whereas modernism advocated one universal fishing site postmodernism promotes multiple fishing sites in order to help society widen its understanding of the ocean.

R. F. Barsky, ‘Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent’ (Toronto, 1997)
Ó Tuathaigh. M. A. G., ‘Irish Historical “Revisionism”: State of the Art of Ideological Project?, Interpreting Irish History’ (Dublin, 2006)
R. Evans, ‘In Defence of History’ (London, 1991)
C. Brown, ‘Postmodernism for Historians’ (Harlow, 2005)
K. Jenkins, ‘The Postmodern History Reader’ (London, 1997)
P. Novick, ‘That Noble Dream’ (Cambridge, 1988)
E. Breisach, ‘On the Future of History’ (Chicago, 2003)
E. H. Carr, ‘What is History?’ (London, 2008)
H. Barker & E. Chalus, ‘Women’s History – Britain, 1700-1850’ (London, 2005)
B. McHale, ‘Postmodernist Fiction’ (London, 1987)
F. Fukuyama, ‘The End of History and The Last Man’ (London, 1992)
G. Jones, Ed. A. Ryan, ‘After the End of History’ (London, 1992)
B. S. Turner, ‘Orientalism, Postmodernism & Globalism’ (London, 1994)
C. Degli-Esposti, ‘Postmodernism in the Cinema’ (New York, 1998)

[1] C. Degli-Esposti, Postmodernism in the Cinema (New York, 1998), p.11

[2] C. Brown, Postmodernism for Historians , p.3

[3] B. S. Turner, Orientalism, Postmodernism & Globalism, p.123

[4] K. Jenkins, The Postmodern History Reader, p.211

[5] K. Jenkins, The Postmodern History Reader, p.209

[6] G. Jones, Ed. A. Ryan, After the End of History, p.35

[7] F. Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, p.61

[8] B. McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, p.69

[9] H. Barker & E. Chalus, Women’s History – Britain, 1700-1850, p.5

[10] Ibid.

[11] E. H. Carr, What is History?, p.81

[12] Ibid, p.38

[13] E. Breisach, On the Future of History, p.204

[14] P. Novick, That Noble Dream, p.586

[15] R. F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, p.193

[16] Ó Tuathaigh. M. A., ‘Irish Historical “Revisionism”: State of the Art of Ideological Project?’ in, Brady, Ciaran (ed.), Interpreting Irish History (Dublin, 2006), p. 325.

[17] R. Evans, In Defence of History, p.230

[18] C. Brown, Postmodernism for Historians, pp.8-9

[19] K. Jenkins, The Postmodern History Reader, p.217

One comment

  1. Ahh postmodernism! I had this professor, Dr. Greenhaw, who was the best example of a traditional historian I am likely to ever find. His lectures were politics, war, and economy. Fabulously done and extremely interesting, but those were the three topics. They might be arranged differently, but always those three. My research adviser Dr. Graham was a fabulous postmodernist. She studies minorities, religion, and women… Basically medieval church history with a feminist and rebellious flair. To be honest, it’s hard to pick which discipline is better. Without the two working together, I’d have missed out on so much. Because of all the different aspects have been opened up again for discussion, I lean towards postmodernism. But you can’t do much without war, politics, and economics.

    I think this essay is very good, it seems to me like you hit on all the major points and your conclusion wraps everything up quite nicely. Great sources too. I’m sure that would be an A paper at my university… so here’s hoping you get that grade at yours! Great post. 🙂

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