The Postmodern Sense of History
think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very
cultivated woman and knows he cannot say to her, “I love you
madly,” because he knows that she knows (and that she knows
that he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara
Cartland. Still, there is a solution. He can say, “As Barbara
Cartland would put it, I love you madly.”
(Umberto Eco, Postscript to
The Name of the Rose)
There are very few other cultural phenomena that have been so profusely
and often abusively provided with labels, definitions, descriptions,
boisterous acclaim as well as vicious attacks as Postmodernism.
Eco’s reflection on the postmodern attitude as one of acceptance
of the “already said” and of a painful, crippling awareness
that originality is no longer possible, that everything has been
exhausted, manages to capture the very essence of that indefinable
frame of mind which seizes anyone who sets out to write about Postmodernism.
The awareness that any attempt at a coherent, rigorous synthesis
of such an impressive array of theories would lamentably fail has
revealed the possibility of making a highly subjective selection,
based on no other criteria than personal affinity for certain opinions
and, of course, their bearing on the chosen topic. It was not subjectivity,
however, that has directed our attention, first and foremost, to
a theorist whose name has now become a sine qua non of all academic
endeavours to sift through this cornucopia of theoretical discourses.
Jean-Francois Lyotard’s pronouncement – “…I
define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives”1 –
is, as many would agree, an appropriate starting-point for such
an enquiry, and condenses “a range of concepts from which
it appears possible to see what is currently going on both in general
terms and in just one of the areas being affected, namely history,”
as Keith Jenkins explains in his study, Rethinking History (1991).
Jenkins goes on to interpret Lyotard’s statement in the following
terms: “…incredulity towards metanarratives means that
those great structuring (metaphysical) stories which have given
meaning(s) to western developments have been drained of vitality.
After the 19th century announcements of the death of God (the theological
metanarrative), the death of similar surrogates has occurred.”2
One of the prevalent symptoms of Postmodernism is indeed, as many
theorists have noted, an acute “sense of the end” –
which Fredric Jameson regards as typical of an “inverted millenniarism”3
that the world witnessed in the last decades of the twentieth century
– prophesying the death of many previous certainties: the
death of God, the death of the subject itself, the end of ideology,
of social class, and – in a now famous and much disputed phrase
– the “end of history.” “The twentieth century
has,” indeed, “made all of us into deep historical pessimists,”4
as Francis Fukuyama confidently argues in his controversial study
The End of History and the Last Man (1992). However, the theory
he develops around some central notions of Hegelian philosophy (particularly
the idea that history is a progress of ideas rather than a record
of events) has had much more detractors than supporters. To maintain
that history has ended, because there is not going to be any further
evolution in human thought, to proclaim liberal democracy to be
the ultimate ideology of humankind may be regarded as either provocatively
bold or terribly short-sighted. Both views have had their adherents
and their supporting arguments, but what is probably most relevant,
and also disconcerting, is Fukuyama’s own recent thesis –
laid down in his newest work, Our Posthuman Future (2002) –
that the end of history must be abandoned, relinquishing his previous
convictions in favour of a new, but equally pessimistic, vision
of a further stage in history, “posthumanity.”
Since Fukuyama himself has reconsidered his previous theory, we
may now confidently assert that “we are nowhere near the end
of history,”5 but we have not shaken off the pessimistic attitude
towards it yet. Rather than being the “end of history,”
Postmodernism displays, in Fredric Jameson’s view, a “weakening
of our sense of history,” a “historical deafness,”
which he regards as the most “privileged symptom” of
the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” “It is
safest to grasp the concept of the postmodern as an attempt to think
the present historically in an age that has forgotten to think historically
in the first place.”6 In the consumer society of late capitalism,
according to Jameson, reality is turned into images and history
is reduced to a “patchwork of scenes.” The “waning
of historicity, of our lived possibility of experiencing history
in some active way,”7 is actually the effect of a greater
shift – a real change of dominant: from the high modernist
paradigm of temporality to postmodern spatiality, from the diachronic
to the synchronic. “Our daily life, our psychic experience,
our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space
rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding high modernism.”8
To view history “spatially” means to actually experience
“a series of pure and unrelated presents in time,”9
to “see all the screens at once, in their radical and random
difference,”10 which is exactly what a schizophrenic is reduced
to, according to Lacan’s definition, after the “breakdown
in the signifying chain.”11 Thus, in Jameson’s view,
our sense of history has turned into something very similar to the
psychic experience of the schizophrenic.
“The age of cultural schizophrenia” has been one of
the catchiest labels attributed to Postmodernism by its theorists,
both disparagingly and enthusiastically. Schizophrenia, as Jameson
has noted, is eulogized as the incredible ability of coming to terms
with the “coexistence of multiple and alternate worlds,”
to accommodate to the “emergence of the multiple in new and
unexpected ways,” to apprehend the “unrelated strings
of events, types of discourse, modes of classification and compartments
of reality.” This is the necessary condition of the human
psyche facing “this absolute and absolutely random pluralism”12;
and pluralism, as Brian McHale sensibly argues, “is precisely
the postmodernist condition: an anarchic landscape of worlds in
the plural.”13 Thus, we have come full circle to finally understanding
the more important implication of Lyotard’s pronouncement
of the postmodern distrust of metanarratives: if there is no metalanguage
capable of legitimating other languages and itself, “new languages
are added to the old ones [and]…nobody speaks all of these
languages.”14 The discrediting of all “long-range authoritative
histories” brings along the “awareness of all local
histories that have been silenced in the name of such universal
accounts.”15 What Lyotard announces is then not the “demise
of historical telos,”16 as Jameson has suggested, but the
proliferation of petit recits, of distinct but equally legitimate
is what the postmodern world is all about. Most people have lost
the nostalgia for the lost narrative. It in no way follows that
they are reduced to barbarity. What saves them from it is their
knowledge that legitimation can only spring from their own linguistic
practice and communicational interaction.17
Being a “fundamentally contradictory enterprise,”18
as Linda Hutcheon argues throughout her seminal study A Poetics
of Postmodernism (1988), Postmodernism displays – in spite
of its suspicion of history or its disbelief in history’s
legitimating power – a vigorous outburst of interest in the
discipline itself and especially in recovering the past. Andreas
Huyssen speaks of our “memorial culture,” obsessed with
remembering (and forgetting) and marked by a “relentless museumania.”19
Pierre Nora argues that today we are witnessing a “world-wide
upsurge in memory” under various forms – recovery of
areas of history previously repressed, all kinds of commemorative
events, new museums, a growing attachment to “heritage,”
a renewed sensitivity to the holding and opening of archives –
all signs of an “age of ardent, embattled, almost fetishistic
memorialism.”20 Yet, Nora does not depart too much from Jameson
in his view that such memory, however rampant in its current manifestation,
is no longer authentic, but a mere “reconstruction”
prompted by a constant “will to remember,” that we “no
longer inhabit the past, we only commune with it through vestiges”
and therefore the real and true “living memory which has been
with us for millennia” is now replaced by “artificial,
deliberately fabricated” sites of memory (lieux des memoire).21
What was called “history” in the past is now regarded
as a “form of reconstruction,” which does not mean,
however, denial of or disaffection with history. We haven’t
lost, as Jameson would like us to admit, our “sense of history,”
nor have we forgotten “how to think historically.” What
is radically changed in our relationship with history is our attitude:
far from being passive towards it, we are now constantly questioning,
challenging, arguing with history, always demanding answers and
never settling for partial solutions. This whole new attitude seems
to be a little more than mere “incredulity” and would
probably be better defined as restless suspicion. Postmodernism
is overwhelmingly the “age of suspicion,”22 an era of
epistemological (and, according to McHale, ontological) doubt. History,
as the only way of knowing the past is questioned mainly on epistemological
grounds: what kind of knowledge is historical knowledge? How accurate?
Does it offer us any certainty about things past? Postmodernism
problematizes history as a mode of knowing and reconsiders both
its status among other forms of cognition and our relationship with
it. Therefore, Linda Hutcheon’s response to Jameson –
who “appears to mistake a challenge to the ‘master’
status of narrative history for a denial of history itself”23
– comes promptly and uncompromisingly: “Despite its
detractors, the postmodern is not ahistorical or dehistoricized,
though it does question our (perhaps unacknowledged) assumptions
about what constitutes historical knowledge. Neither is it nostalgic
or antiquarian in its critical revisiting of history.”24
Postmodern Theories of History
postmodern reply to the modern consists of recognizing that the
past, since it cannot really be destroyed, because its destruction
leads to silence, must be revisited; but with irony, not innocently.
(Umberto Eco, Postscript to
The Name of the Rose)
notion of a “unique”, “total history” and
the general confidence in the truthfulness of historical facts has
been for centuries supported by the traditional practice of contrasting
history and fiction, the first being always associated with categories
of verity and the latter being regarded as an invention, placed
within the vaster sphere of possibility or verisimilitude.
it is conventionally claimed, deals with things as they were; fiction
with things as they might, or even should, have been. History, Michel
de Certeau has suggested, sees itself as having a special relationship
with the real, because it maintains itself as the opposite of the
falseness of fiction… The appropriate question to ask of an
historical narrative is assumed therefore to be, “is it true?”;
the corresponding question to ask of a fictional narrative being
“is it good?”25
theories of both fiction and history have concentrated on rethinking
and retracing the border that used to separate the two and have
taken it to task to problematize and complicate this simple (and
As it is rethought and redefined by postmodern theorists, history
acquires many of the characteristics previously attributed exclusively
to fiction (and only accepted as fictional attributes). Another
boundary hitherto solid and ineradicable has been “blurred,”
forced to allow free access to interpenetrations, contaminations,
and eventual merging of the two areas previously regarded as mutually
exclusive. History, traditionally conceived of as the pure, untainted
domain of truths, of faithful representations of past reality, has
now turned into a cultural hybrid: a mixture of fact and fiction,
of truth and falsehood, of reality and myth. The American professor
William McNeill prefers to call it “mythistory,” arguing
that “myth and history are close kin inasmuch as both explain
how things got to be the way they are by telling some sort of story.”
our common parlance reckons myth to be false while history is, or
aspires to be, true. Accordingly, a historian who rejects someone
else’s conclusions calls them mythical, while claiming that
his own views are true. But what seems true to a historian will
seem false to another, so one historian’s truth becomes another’s
myth, even at the moment of utterance.26
the postmodern mind, “external and universal Truth”
about the past (and about anything else, for that matter) is “an
unattainable goal, however delectable as an ideal.”27 History,
its previously secure habitation, has turned into a “maelstrom
of conflicting opinions,” a labyrinth with many entrances
and passages leading to no centre. “Choice is everywhere;
dissent turns into confusion, my truth dissolves into your myth
even before I can put words on paper.”28
The earlier optimism that promised imminent recovery of the truth
of the past has been replaced by the belief that no accumulation
of facts constitutes history as an intelligible structure, that
no record of past events, however scrupulously and methodically
put together can ever guarantee a full and clear understanding of
what really happened at any time in the past, that history is essentially
incompletable. Postmodern reconsiderations of history have gone
so far as to compare it with prophecy: “knowledge of the past
is exactly on the same footing as knowledge of the future,”
R.F. Atkinson suggests. “In both cases,” he explains,
“there is inference on the basis of generalizations: in history,
backwards; in prophecy, futurology or whatever else we may call
it, forwards.”29 Thus reconceived, history appears to be the
“sphere of probability” rather than truth, of “reasonable
opinion” rather than knowledge.
The word “history” itself has been rethought and redefined,
the ambiguity generated by the two main uses of the term –
which may stand both for what happened or was done in the past and
for the study of it – has been lifted. However similar they
might have seemed before, these two meanings of the word have been
readily and irrevocably set apart by postmodern revisionists. Linda
Hutcheon applauds the postmodern tendency to “underline the
separation between ‘history’ as what Murray Krieger
calls ‘the unimpeded sequence of raw empirical realities’
and ‘history’ as either method or writing. The process
of critically examining and analysing the records and survivals
of the past is ‘historical method.’ The imaginative
reconstruction of that process is called ‘historiography.’”30
“Historiography” has increasingly (and conveniently)
replaced “history” in its second sense in much recent
theoretical work, as the difference between historical fact and
past event has become clear and incontestable. “An event,”
Hayden White argues, “is something that happened, but a fact
is something constructed by the historian or existing in the remains
of the past, in documents.”31 This distinction has been generally
accepted by historians: Carl Becker suggests that “the facts
of history do not exist for any historian until he creates them”32;
the American historian Nancy Partner explains that “historical
facts become constructed artifacts no different in cognitive origin
than any made thing or fiction.”33 Postmodern revisions do
not deny or question the existence of the past (as some of the more
traditionally-minded contemporary historians have wrongly construed,
outraged by such a radical attitude), the main concern of these
theories being rather how we get to know that past and what we can
know of it. As the past is only accessible to us today through its
remains, “the epistemological question of how we know the
past joins the ontological one of the status of the traces of that
past.”34 Where can we place historical traces in Richard Rorty’s
binary model of lumps and texts, of “things found” and
“things made”? Postmodernism urges us to acknowledge
that there are no longer lumps, that all traces of the past are
now texts, or, as Linda Hutcheon has put it, that “there were
lumps, but we know them only as texts today.”35
The famous Derridean contention that “there is nothing outside
the text” (il n’y a pas de hors-texte) has had its reverberations
in the field of history, too. Following some guidelines –
his notion that there has never been anything but “dangerous
supplements” and his view of mimesis or representation as
a “problematic textual manoeuvre rather than textual translation”36
– postmodern revisionists have promptly set out to rethink
history in terms of its textuality, as a human construct. And in
so doing, they do not “relegate history to the dustbin of
an obsolete episteme,”37 as Andreas Huyssen has complained,
but necessarily redefine it in keeping with the theoretical advances
of the age. “In arguing that history does not exist except
as a text,” Linda Hutcheon replies in defence of Postmodernism,
“it does not stupidly and ‘gleefully’ deny that
the past existed, but only that its accessibility to us now is entirely
conditioned by textuality. We cannot know the past except through
its texts – its documents, its evidence, even its eye-witness
accounts are texts.”38
If we read the past as a text, our readings will inevitably be multifarious
and none of them pre-eminently accurate. Therefore, our knowledge
of the past cannot be but tentative, even more so as ours is not
a first-hand reading of this text but always mediated by those whose
job is to make use of a range of techniques and practices as well
as of their own personal skills, concepts, perspectives, and vocabularies,
in order to reconstruct the past out of its textual remains. As
Keith Jenkins has argued, “when we study history we are not
studying the past, but what historians have constructed about the
past.”39 He dwells on this distinction, regarding it as instrumental
to our understanding of the fact that our object of inquiry is neither
the past (which has gone forever) nor really history (which is “what
historians make of the past when they go to work”) but rather
historiography (which is an “intertextual, linguistic construct”40).
Thus, history – defined as the “labour of historians”
– necessarily implies a methodology: ways of working with
sources, “concepts, routines and procedures” that have
been developed and practiced by historians with a view to attaining
objectivity. Postmodern theorists cannot help wondering if these
methods, however rigorous or universal, can effectively and totally
subdue the historians’ personal values and assumptions, their
inclinations and ideological affinities.
From the very beginning, the historians’ work is restricted
by the fundamental incompleteness, fragmentariness, and unreliability
of the materials they operate with. “The traces left by the
past,” as La Capra has noted, “do not provide an even
coverage of it. Archives are the product of the chance survival
of some documents and the corresponding chance loss or deliberate
destruction of others.”41 Statements about the past are necessarily
established on the basis of documents, memory, testimony, and evidence.
Direct observation, the most reliable means of reconstructing reality,
is unavailable to historians. Even the staunchest supporters of
historical objectivity have acknowledged the unfavourable consequences
of the removal in time: Richard Evans, a tireless defender of history
against postmodern scepticism, cannot deny that “statements
about the here and now are the ideal situation,” that “statements
about the has been and the will be are inevitably worse off,”
and that the difference between the last two is that “some
of the latter will improve with keeping, whilst all of the former
can only deteriorate.”42
We have learned from La Capra that documents are “texts that
re-work” rather than “mirror reality,” but he
was certainly not the first to doubt their accuracy. Even earlier
historians must have known that “documents were written by
fallible human beings who made mistakes, asserted false claims,
and had their own ideological agenda which guided their compilation.”43
Moreover, they are liable to a variety of equally valid readings,
which derive primarily from the historian’s present-day concerns.
And since no document necessarily entails one and only one reading,
since “there is no fundamentally correct text of which other
interpretations are just variations,”44 we may safely conclude
that documents, however substantial or consistent with one another,
offer no guarantee of historical objectivity.
Memory is as much involved in the establishment of statements about
the past as documents are: “without memory,” Evans believes,
“we should be locked in an infinitesimal present, speechless
and without thought.”45 Nevertheless, it is generally regarded
as fallible, fading in the course of time, and unquestionably partial:
“memory…has the disadvantage of having the greater part
of the historical past outside its range”46 and of being undercut
by our own doubts, which constantly urge us to check our memories
against the existing evidence or testimony. Testimony, despite its
status as “a poor but indispensable third,” remains
an essential instrument on which history is “vulnerably dependant.”47
Evidence should not be equated with trace, as Keith Jenkins has
suggested, denying the very existence “out there” of
any evidence of the past: “evidence, as opposed to traces,
is always the product of the historian’s discourse simply
because, prior to that discourse being articulated, evidence (history)
doesn’t exist; only traces do (only the past did).”48
The same theorist reminds us that an earlier historian, E. H. Carr,
did not fail to realize that “the trace only becomes evidence
when it is used to support an argument prior to which, although
it exists, it remains just an unused piece of stuff from the past.”49
Therefore, a “trace” of the past is in itself a “mute
source”50 that “needs to be quite literally articulated
by the historian”51 and used to back up an argument in order
to become “evidence.”
What we have tried to describe so far, intertextually, is the postmodern
notion of “epistemological fragility.”52 History, however,
apart from the epistemological aspect, has an unmistakably methodological
component as well – all the concepts, routines, and procedures
scrupulously observed by historians while going about their work
of reconstructing the past. Their first task is to select their
materials from among a multitude of sometimes disconnected or downright
contradictory sources. As Richard Evans has pointed out, “doing
historical research is like doing a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces
are scattered all over the house in several boxes, some of which
have been destroyed and where once it is put together a significant
number of the pieces are still missing.”53 While selection
is undoubtedly a necessary step in the historical process, “there
are no principles of selection clearly dictated by the nature of
history itself…there is nothing about history that determines
what is important,”54 there are no objective rules of sorting
out the relevant from irrelevant matters, and there is no authoritative
way of deciding what “relevant” means. Therefore, selection
is an inherently arbitrary and subjective activity, consciously
or unconsciously subordinated to the historians’ purposes
and inevitably bearing the mark of their “personal and class
prejudices, their moral, political or religious attitudes.”55
Doing history is not only a matter of validating past events, of
finding out “what happened” and then selecting the proper
materials to prove their occurrence, but also a matter of investing
these past events with meaning, of discovering “how and why
and what they meant and mean.” Hence, the interpretive dimension
of the historical endeavour: “historians transform the events
of the past into patterns of meaning,” which inevitably undermines
objectivity, as “there is no method of establishing incorrigible
meanings,”56 and therefore historians are at liberty to read
the texts of the past in the light of their present concerns and
preconceptions. As Frank Lentricchia cogently points out, “a
perfectly objective interpretation is possible only if the interpreter
is a transcendental being – that is, if he is not human.”57
Indeed, no historian can ever avoid taking with him/her (into the
process of historical reconstruction) his/her own values, positions,
ideological perspectives and everything else that identify him/her
as a “situated human consciousness that has spatio-temporal
location, idiosyncratic colorations, and socio-political prejudices.”58
This kind of convergence of past and present within the historical
process is not a postmodern revelation; it was long since perceived
by historians themselves, and by the more insightful thinkers of
earlier ages. In one of his first critical essays, T. S. Eliot explains
how “the historical sense involves a perception not only of
the pastness of the past, but of its presence,”59 how “past
and present inform each other, each implies the other and each co-exists
with the other,” because “neither past nor present has
a complete meaning alone.”60 In the same vein, our contemporary,
Frank Lentricchia, commenting on some Foucauldian theories, defines
history-writing as “ fundamentally an interchange between
the past and the ineradicable presentness of a consciousness.”61
Having selected the appropriate historical materials, having given
meaning to events so as to turn them into facts, having interpreted
these facts in order to explain how and why they happened, the historian
must find a proper way to arrange them into a coherent, orderly
account, in keeping with the rules of chronology and continuity,
and an adequate mode of translating them into written expression;
in short, he/she must make that accumulation of facts into a narrative.
The major voice working to disclose the ways in which historians
make use of the same representational tropes, figural language,
and forms of emplotment as literary prose, has been Hayden White,
who significantly describes history-writing as a “poetic process”62
and argues that historical narratives are “verbal fictions,
the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms
of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature
than they have with those in the sciences.”63 Today, the notion
that “history is a narrative” has been embraced by most
historians, as the old opposition – “narrative”
versus “analytical” history – hardly stands a
chance of surviving the postmodern flood of boundary-blurring tendencies.
It has been agreed that “the very distinctiveness of history,
its capacity to explain, to afford insight of a unique sort, is
bound up with the narrative form,”64 that “narrative
– recounting what happened – is explanatory in itself”65
and therefore the distinction no longer holds: explanation and narration
are inextricably bound together, coalescent. It is unlikely that
a historian can write history without writing a narrative, without
using one or another form of emplotment, which shapes and gives
direction and meaning to otherwise disparate, even random events.
As Hayden White explains, the way “a given historical situation
is to be configured depends on the historian’s subtlety in
matching a specific plot-structure with the set of historical events
that he wishes to endow with a meaning of a particular kind. This,”
he concludes, “is essentially literary, that is to say a fiction-making
aspiration.”66 In this view, “the historian becomes
an author like any other fabulist…the boundaries between history
and fiction dissolve,”67 historical writing becomes indistinct
from any other type of writing that uses conventional literary structures.
Hayden White’s thesis inevitably raises the question of narrative
voice, which has far-ranging implications regarding the issue of
objectivity: if history is just a story among the infinite number
of narratives about the world, does the theory of the historian’s
neutral, detached voice still hold? Historical narratives do have
the appearance of neutrality, of “events narrating themselves”;
historical utterances do not assume a speaker with an explicit intention
of influencing the reader in some way. However, the fact that the
presence of the speaker is deliberately obscured by means of specific
literary devices and that no intention on his/her part is ever acknowledged
does not mean that they do not exist. Obviously, as Patricia Waugh
has pointed out, “a ‘story’ cannot exist without
a teller. The apparent impersonality of histoire is always finally
personal, finally discours.”68 Despite the common tendency
to regard it as a postmodern fetish, the preoccupation with what
we currently call “discourse” is as old as the ancient
Greeks, in whose times it was “the special concern of traditional
rhetoric,” as Roland Barthes reminds us in “The Discourse
of History” (1967), an essay by which he attempts to provide
an answer to the troubling question of whether or not historical
narration “really differs, in some specific trait…from
imaginary narration as we find it in the epic, the novel, and the
drama.”69 In his view, what has traditionally been considered
a distinctive feature of history, setting it apart from other discourses
– namely, the absence of “signs of the utterer and of
the receiver,” that is, of the historian and of the reader
of history – is actually an illusion, which is not even exclusive
to historical discourse. In both historical and literary discourse,
he argues, “signs of the receiver are usually absent,”
but “in reality the entire structure of such discourses implies
a reading subject,” whereas “signs of the utterer,”
much more frequent in literary discourse, are usually obliterated
from the “type of historical discourse labelled ‘objective.’”70
Actually, Barthes explains, the utterer does not really “absent
himself from his discourse,” but rather “nullifies his
emotional persona, and substitutes for it another persona, the ‘objective’
persona. The subject persists in his plenitude, but as an ‘objective
subject.’”71 Barthes calls this kind of impersonation,
performed by the historian while writing his narrative, “the
referential illusion, since the historian is claiming to allow the
referent to speak all on its own,”72 an illusion which can
no longer keep us under its spell today, when we know that “the
choice of an apersonal pronoun is no more than a rhetorical alibi”
and that “absences of signs are also in themselves significant.”73
The postmodern rethinking of history as “discourse,”
and the ensuing separation between discursive history and the phenomenal
past to which it claims to refer was probably most significantly
inspired by the so-called “linguistic turn.” Historical
discourse is, after all, as Hayden White has suggested, “primarily…a
special kind of language use which, like metaphoric speech, symbolic
language, and allegorical representation, always means more than
it really says, says something other than what it seems to mean,
and reveals something about the world only at the cost of concealing
something else.”74 Linguistic theories, from Saussure’s
seminal thesis on the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign onwards,
have been questioning the traditional belief that language is transparent,
that words refer directly and naturally to things “out there.”
The notion of the sign is central to Saussurian structuralism, which
defines it as an acoustical-psychological entity that “unites
not a thing and a name but a concept (signified) and a sound image
(signifier).”75 As the referent is not included in this bipartite
structure, the relationship between language and reality is disturbed,
disclosed as arbitrary. “Arbitrary” does not mean, however,
that “the choice of the signifier is left entirely to the
speaker” – “the individual,” as Emile Benveniste
explains, “does not have the power to change a sign in any
way once it has become established in the linguistic community”
– but only that “it is unmotivated…that it actually
has no natural connection with the signified.”76
In other words, the relationship of language to the phenomenal world
is not entailed by the nature of things “out there,”
but is regulated by convention. Therefore, language does not “mirror”
reality, but rather generates its own meanings, derived from differences
between elements within the linguistic system. According to Saussure,
“language is a system of interdependent terms in which the
value of each term results solely from the simultaneous presence
of the others.”77 “If words stood for pre-existing concepts,”
he explains, “they would all have exact equivalents in meaning
from one language to the next; but this is not true” –
so, “instead of pre-existing ideas…we find…values
emanating from the system.”78
Such theories – which have punctured the notion of reference,
of a “transcendental signified,” beyond retrieve –
have necessarily reverberated throughout the recent elaborations
on the nature of historical discourse. The “realistic effect”
governing the development of historical narrative, which “offers
itself quite simply as historia rerum gestarum, claiming that its
referent is “detached from the discourse…external to
it,” is described by Roland Barthes as the result of a “confusion
of referent and signified” by which the discourse, “solely
charged with expressing the real, believes itself authorized to
dispense with the fundamental term in imaginary structures”
(the signified) and allows the referent to “enter into a direct
relation to the signifier.”79 In other words, what purports
to be the “real” in history is “never more than
an unformulated signified, sheltering behind the apparently all-powerful
referent.”80 Therefore, Barthes concludes, “historical
discourse does nor follow the real, it can do no more than signify
the real, constantly repeating that it happened, without this assertion
amounting to anything but the signified ‘other side’
of the whole process of historical narration.”81 Linguistic
theories, and their counterparts in contemporary philosophy of history
do not, however, deny the existence of a referent of history –
the past is presumed to have existed – but urge us to acknowledge
our (and any historian’s) impossibility of ever knowing the
past otherwise than through language, that is, as a linguistic construct.
There is still another important aspect of Saussure’s thesis,
which leads us to the last and, according to Keith Jenkins, most
important component of history, namely ideology. Language, the Swiss
linguist maintains, “is a social contract”; it logically
follows that “everything that is presented and thus received
through language is already loaded with meaning inherent in the
conceptual patterns of the speaker’s culture.”82 We
always use language in identifiable spatio-temporal, social, cultural,
and political conditions; by using it we reveal our particular position
in relation to those circumstances. Therefore, language can never
be value-neutral, but – as Catherine Belsey has pointed out
– “in so far as it is a way of articulating experience,
it necessarily participates in ideology… Ideology is inscribed
in signifying practices – in discourses, myths, presentations,
and re-presentations of the way ‘things’ are –
and to this extent it is inscribed in language.”83
Ideology is a very complex and relatively new concept, which has
been widely (and often excessively) discussed and debated by postmodern
theorists and philosophers of history. Its modern (and postmodern)
developments originated in the works of Karl Marx, who invested
the term with a somewhat pejorative meaning, defining ideologies
as false systems of political, social, and moral concepts invented
and preserved by the ruling classes out of self-interest. One of
his poststructuralist followers, Louis Althusser, elaborates on
these theories, setting out to explain how ideologies work to interpellate
subjects, and what mechanisms they use to get people to believe
in them. In his view, of the two categories of “state apparatuses”
– the so-called “repressive,” which enforce obedience
to authoritative rule through various forms of physical restraint
or punishment, and the “ideological” ones, which generate
systems of ideas and values that we, as individuals, internalise
and act in accordance with – the latter are by far the more
effective. All ideology, according to Althusser, has the function
of constituting concrete individual subjects, of enlisting them
in any belief system. Ideology is inescapable, as it pervades all
individual or collective behaviour, action, and especially discourse,
being inherent in all the social practices in which we are born,
in the process of attribution of meaning.
Another poststructuralist thinker, Michel Foucault, focuses on how
ideology (or discourse, in his particular version) creates relationships
of “power/knowledge” (these two terms are to him inseparable)
that make up the framework within which human thought and action
are possible. In his view, ideology is the “general politics
of truth” at work in any society, created and sustained by
systems of power: “truth isn’t outside power…it
is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint.”84
By “truth,” Foucault explains, he does not mean “the
ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted,”
but rather “the ensemble of rules according to which the true
and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached
to the true.”85 Foucault’s argument, as Keith Jenkins
has remarked, is “readily applicable” to historical
truth as well, since we have already acknowledged history to be
“a discourse, a language game, within [which] ‘truth’
and similar expressions are devices to open, regulate, and shut
down interpretations.” Historical truths, like all truths,
are really “useful fictions, that are in discourse by virtue
of power…and power uses the term ‘truth’ to exercise
control: regimes of truth.”86
In an age in which any bit of knowledge we might acquire about the
past is always already imbedded in language and language is always
configured as discourse, therefore necessarily contaminated by ideology,
how can we still confidently and realistically answer the question
“what is history”? Postmodernism, whose “new ideology”
seems to be indeed that “everything is ideological,”87
suggests that maybe the best way to deal with it is “to substitute
the word ‘who’ for ‘what’ and add ‘for’
to the end of the phrase; thus, the question becomes not ‘what
is history’ but ‘who is history for?’”88
What was previously accepted as History, was actually a version
of the past written for (and usually by) the dominant Western-European
white heterosexual males, while so many other groups, which had
undoubtedly lived in that past, were “hidden from history,”
excluded from most historians’ accounts. A universal, definitive
History is only possible if “dominant voices can silence others
either by overt power or covert incorporation,”89 as Keith
Jenkins has pointed out. Postmodernism, pre-eminently the age of
withdrawal from any kind of consensus, witnesses a constant and
multifarious “reworking” and “reordering”
of history, because today “the dominated as well as the dominant
also have their versions of the past to legitimate their practices.”90
History, in the postmodern world, is marked by what Richard Rorty
calls the re-descriptive turn – a brand-new way of looking
at the past and a liberating awareness that it “can be infinitely
It can and has supported countless plausible and, vis-à-vis
their own methodological lights, equally legitimate histories; it
has unfailingly given whatever historians (and their impersonators)
have wanted and want: various births, origins, legitimating antecedents,
explanations and lines of descent…useful for them as they
try to be in control, so that they can make the past their past
and so say, along with Nietzsche, “So I willed it.”
Postmodernism has not, as many are still complaining, jeopardized
any attempt at doing history through its declared scepticism towards
the possibility of historical objectivity and its questioning of
the status of historical sources, of historians’ ability to
keep themselves (their personal values, assumptions, inclinations
and preferences) out of the historical process, of the transparency
and neutrality of language, in which history is always imbedded.
It has, nevertheless, considerably altered our way of understanding
history and, more importantly, it has awakened a new awareness among
historians, who are thereby forced to go about their work more seriously,
with more responsibility, to interrogate their own methods and procedures,
to be self-critical. Postmodernism has, above all, confronted historians
with a new challenge, which requires them to acknowledge their own
subjectivity and in so doing to “make an explicit choice of
position,”92 developing a self-reflexive method by which the
readers should constantly be reminded that what they are reading
is not History, but a history, one of the numberless accounts of
1. Jean-Francois Lyotard, “The Postmodern Condition,”
in Julie Rivikin and Michael Ryan (eds.), Literary Theory: An Anthology
(Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 509.
2. Keith Jenkins, Rethinking History (London: Routledge, 1994),
3. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 1.
4. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York:
The Free Press. A Division of Macmillan, Inc., 1992), 3.
5. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,
Inc., 1993), 331.
6. Fredric Jameson, ix.
7. Ibid., 21.
8. Ibid., 16.
9. Ibid., 26.
10. Ibid., 31.
11. Ibid., 26.
12. Ibid., 372.
13. Brian Mc Hale, Postmodernist Fiction (London: Routledge, 1991),
14. Jean-Francois Lyotard, 512.
15. Steven Connor, The English Novel in History. 1950-1995 (London:
Routledge, 2001), 133.
16. Fredric Jameson, xii.
17. Jean-Francois Lyotard, 512.
18. Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory,
Fiction (London: Routledge, 1988), 3, 4, 23, 42, 47, etc.
19. Andreas Huyssen, qtd. in Linda Hutcheon, “Irony, Nostalgia,
and the Postmodern” (1998) <http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/criticism>
20. Pierre Nora, “The Reasons for the Current Upsurge in Memory”
21. “The Future of the Past – Remembering and Forgetting
on the Threshold of the New Millennium. Pierre Nora: Memory and
Collective Identity; Sites of Memory” <https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca>
22. “The Age of Suspicion” – title of Nathalie
Sarraute’s collection of critical essays, L’ere du soupcon
23. Linda Hutcheon, 56.
24. Ibid., xii.
25. Steven Connor, 130
26. William Mc Neill, Mythistory and Other Essays (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1986), 3.
27. Ibid., 19.
28. Ibid., 8, 9.
29. R.F. Atkinson, Knowledge and Explanation in History. An Introduction
to the Philosophy of History (New York: Cornell University Press,
30. Linda Hutcheon, 92.
31. Hayden White, qtd. in Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History
(London: Granta Books, 1997), 78.
32. Carl Becker, qtd. in Linda Hutcheon, 122.
33. Nancy Partner, qtd. in Richard J. Evans, 78.
34. Linda Hutcheon, 22.
35. Ibid., 145.
36. Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1980), 171.
37. Andreas Huyssen, qtd. in Linda Hutcheon, 16.
38. Linda Hutcheon, 16.
39. Keith Jenkins, qtd. in Richard J. Evans, 97.
40. Keith Jenkins, 6, 7.
41. Dominick La Capra, qtd. in Richard J. Evans, 87.
42. Richard J. Evans, 46.
43. Ibid., 81.
44. Keith Jenkins, 11.
45. Richard J. Evans, 47.
46. Ibid., 43.
47. Ibid., 50.
48. Keith Jenkins, 49.
50. Keith Jenkins, 38: “…sources are mute. It is historians
who articulate whatever the ‘sources say,’ for do not
many historians all going (honestly and scrupulously in their own
ways) to the same sources, still come away with different accounts;
do not historians all have their own many narratives to tell?”
51. Ibid., 48.
52. Ibid., 11.
53. Richard J. Evans, 89.
54. R.F. Atkinson, 18.
55. Richard Evans, 73.
56. Keith Jenkins, 33.
57. Frank Lentricchia, 207.
59. T.S. Eliot, qtd. in Edward Said, 4.
60. Edward Said, 4.
61. Frank Lentricchia, 207.
62. Hayden White, qtd. in Alison Lee, Realism and Power –
Postmodern British Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 1990),
63. Ibid., 35.
64. Richard J. Evans, 131.
65. Richard J. Evans, 128.
66. Hayden White, qtd. in Alison Lee, 35.
67. Richard J. Evans, 101-102.
68. Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 27.
69. Roland Barthes, “The Discourse of History” (1967),
translated by Stephen Bann, <http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/pcraddoc/barthes.htm>
70. Ibid., 2.
71. Ibid., 4.
73. Ibid., 5.
74. Hayden White, qtd. in Johann W.N. Tempelhoff, “Exploring
the Semblance of Realism in Historical Thought” <http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf>
75. Ferdinand de Saussure, qtd.in Frank Lentricchia, 118.
76. Emile Benveniste, qtd. in Frank Lentricchia, 119.
77. Ferdinand de Saussure, qtd. in Alison Lee, 25.
78. Ferdinand de Saussure, qtd. in Frank Lentricchia, 122.
79. Roland Barthes, 10.
82. Linda Hutcheon, 25.
83. Catherine Belsey, qtd. in Alison Lee, 57.
84. Michel Foucault, qtd. in Keith Jenkins, 31.
85. Ibid., 32.
86. Keith Jenkins, 32.
87. Linda Hutcheon, 200.
88. Keith Jenkins, 18.
89. Ibid., 19.
90. Ibid., 17.
91. Ibid., 65.
92. Ibid., 69.