Postmodernism and Historiography

I figured I would touch on post-modernism/post-structuralism and my personal opinion of the phenomenon because I am seeing it more and more in contemporary academics.  Let me preface this whole post by saying up-front that I think the whole post-modernist movement is a bunch of hogwash that has little if anything to add to the discipline of history.

I was first introduced to the phenomenon of post-modernism/post-structuralism in my very first Graduate level class, which was Historiography.  you can almost say it was hate at first sight because from the get-go I have been struck with the way post-modernists obfuscate and use odd language to describe their concepts.  it also struck me that in the post-modern view the only absolute is that there are no absolutes, everything else is relative.

The whole notion that everything is relative is bad enough but what really gets me is the post-structuralist idea that language has no meaning except for what the individual gives it.  This means that every individual gets to make up reality as they go along and life, the universe, and everything is different for every person and each person essentially creates their own reality.  In practice, according to the post-structuralists if I say that a rose is red, that statement only has meaning for me and what I think red is.  Another person can say the rose if purple, polka-dotted, or even not in the visible spectrum based on their personal definition of red and their version of reality is just as valid as mine.  In other words, according to the post-structuralists, there is no such thing as objective reality.  To me this idea is distressing to say the least.

The idea that language has no common meaning destroys the idea of history because it means that nothing written in the past can have meaning and therefore we cannot know our past because written accounts only hold meaning for the person that wrote them.  This alone, is the idea that destroys history as a discipline in the eyes of post-modernists.

There are several proponents of post-modernism but the phenomenon itself is generally held to have emerged out of France in the 1960s and ‘70s.  The two people most commonly held as originating the idea are Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.  I challenge anyone to read anything they wrote and tell me what they mean without partaking of some mind-altering substance such as alcohol.  Post-modern thought is nothing if not convoluted and deliberately confusing.

I have a paper I wrote a couple of years ago about post-modernism and history that I will have to dig up and post on the papers page.  There is much more to be said on this topic and it is probably one that I will revisit just about every time I run across a postmodern article or book.  So that I can point ou the flaws in this methodology, if nothing else.  I cannot stress enough how post-modern thought is actually destructive of knowledge versus the usual academic way of increasing man’s understanding and knowledge of both the past and the present.  I almost instinctively recoil from what purports to ba post-modern analysis of anything or event.

There are many books and articles detailing the differing criticisms and defenses of postmodern history.  Two of the best criticisms are The Killing of History by Keith Windschuttle and In Defense of History by Richard Evans.  Some defenses of postmodern history include Postmodernism and History by Willie Thompson and The Postmodern History Reader by Keith Jenkins.

The Institute for Historical Research has a good page with links to some essays about post-modernism and history both pro and con, Postmodernism and History by Richard Evans is a good explanation of what the phenomenon means for historians.  Postmodern History provides a good view of what its defenders think it means.