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A Strong Defence,
This review is from: In Defence of History (Hardcover)
The dreary trite pseudo-`insights' of post-modernism reappear again; this time with their feeble attempts to turn history into just another `text'. However, as Evans so splendidly puts it in this, his robust defence of history:
"Auschwitz was not a discourse. It trivializes mass murder to see it as a text. The gas chambers were not a piece of rhetoric. Auschwitz was indeed inherently a tragedy and connate be seen as either a comedy or a farce. And if this is true of Auschwitz, then it must be true at least to some degree of other past happenings, events, institutions, people as well."
History as Evans argues has a long established methodology, which is itself constantly under scrutiny - as this book itself demonstrates by its own existence and its long line of antecedents - for establishing the veracity of historical events and the value of historian's attempts at explaining the relationship between those events.
As with all other areas where postmodernism has tried to elbow itself into, there is little - if anything - that postmodernism itself can add to history, or history's self-examination that is not trite, superficial or painstakingly obvious before the weight of postmodernism's own contradictions smother it's pseudo-profundities and irrelevances.
Postmodernism et al, of course, grew out of the failure and collapse of Marxism and all the theories and suppositions which had grown from it. Marx's own idea that history had a purpose (or - at least - discoverable laws) and direction was - of course - destroyed by Popper (among others), and - most tellingly - by the course of history itself.
History does not make the claims that postmodernists accuse it of - of being the absolute truth about past events - and so their destruction of this strawman is not the masterstroke they seem to believe. Historians, and those of us who read their work, know that there is always more to the story than we get from any history book. History is not a science in the strong sense of that word, but it does have a rigorous methodology, enough to make both historians and their readers feel confident that they do get as close to truth as they can within the limitations of history itself. For example, historians are very aware that historical documents are written by fallible human beings, often for a variety of reasons conscious or unconscious and take into account many other factors like the context of the document, the nature of the document and so on. So the postmodernist claim that a document, or `text' as they like to call it, can no longer be regarded as having one fixed meaning which is bestowed upon it by its author at the time of writing. As Evans says, though `it is doubtful whether anyone, in fact, has ever believed that meaning can be fixed in this way.' He also demonstrates the falsehood of po-mo's claim about the arbitrariness of language, demonstrating that language evolves through contact and interaction with reality, rather than just being about itself. In fact, Evens states `...the postmodernist concentration on words diverts attention away from real suffering and oppression and towards the kinds of secondary intellectual issues that matter in the physically comfortable world of academia.'
Of course, a great deal of po-mo - pace Foucault - is rather simplistically obsessed with what they like to see as power relationships between various actors within societies, but, Evans points out, this could be more a case of the po-mo academics themselves trying to claw back some power and influence for themselves. Hence, with postmodernism's disdain for truth and reality:
"The past no longer has the power to confine the researcher within the bounds of facts. Historians and critics are now omnipotent. To underline this, the postmodernists have developed a new level of specialized language and jargon, borrowed largely from literary theory, which has rendered their work opaque to anyone except other postmodernists. The enterprise thus seems not only self-regarding but, ironically in view of its criticism of hierarchy and prioritization, elitist as well. Its narcissism and elitism can both be seen as compensatory mechanisms for the loss of real power, income and status suffered by its academic practitioners over the past ten to fifteen years."
Constantly, throughout this book Evans - like so many other critics of postmodernism in many other areas beyond history - demonstrates that po-mo must always fail because of its inherent contradictions. For example, if all theories are equally valid, then why give any special credence to po-mo, rather than more realist theories? If all knowledge is relative, then why bother believing in po-mo and its practitioners? Why `privilege' postmodernists over anyone else?
Evans, does in the end allow po-mo some limited room in the practice of historical scholarship, but only in terms of the way it makes historians more aware of the limitations of their approach and areas of study, but that is what a good historian should do anyway, it seems.
Anyway, postmodernism is well on the wane now, in areas beyond history. So soon, books like this will become objects of historical curiosity only, like books on or about so many of the ideologies that came promising so much and - in the end - delivered little or nothing of any lasting worth. Just like so many theories, ideologies and other `grand narrative', po-mo became quasi-religious and ended up talking only to itself about itself within constraints that it engendered itself which kept out so much of the awkward reality that cannot be held within those constraints without the whole edifice crumbling to dust.
In Defence of History is a very good, readable, book that ought to be read by more than just historians and those with an interest in how history comes about. It is a strong defence of academic rigour and a warning that, without that rigour -which postmodernism tried so hard to undermine - if the academic, or indeed any, mind is left too open, then anything could crawl in.