Postmodernism and History

“Historians are left forever chasing shadows, painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their documentation. We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.” – Simon Schama, Professor of History at Columbia.



It seems that there are not one but two quite separate types of postmodernist. I want to illustrate this by contrasting them with some classical thinkers.

1. Classical Historian One asserts that when Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC he uttered the immortal phrase ‘the die has been cast.’ His indecision faded the moment he saw the river.

2. Classical Historian Two asserts that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, probably not uttering the attributed words. He is likely to have settled upon his revolutionary course of action long in advance.

3. Weak Form Postmodernist asserts that due to the lack of concrete source material we should attribute only a moderately high probability to the common belief that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC. His famous phrase is probably a later addition to add colour to the narrative, but may have been actual. His intentions at that point in time are probably lost to the gradual erosion of time.

4. Strong Form Postmodernist denies the exist of Julius Caesar, Ancient History, Modern History, and perhaps on some days even reality itself. History, he tells his students, is whatever you can convince the marker of.

A Room of Events

Or you could think about it this way.

Imagine an empty room, an apartment perhaps, with closed blinds and no furniture.

Now let us say that furniture stands for events. Each event of history – The dropping of a bomb on Nagasaki, the launch of Apollo Thirteen, the murder of John F. Kennedy – is a piece of furniture. A big portion of the role of the historian is to tell us which items of furniture are in the room. They are tasked with filling the room with furniture: with painting the blank walls of history with events. There might be some divergent views about some items of furniture – the existence of Jesus Christ would be beyond reasonable debate, whereas the existence of Caeser is more questionable – but the overall level of disagreement would be quite low. The vast majority of historians agree about the vast majority of the pieces of furniture in the room.

The second role of a historian is to weave the grand narrative, to tell us the story. They have populated the room with objects, now they tell us how the objects interrelate, which events led to which other events, how, and why? The storyteller takes the props and builds a narrative. Now, this, right here, is much more debatable. Here the level of disagreement is much higher. There are many discussions at this level, many revisions and reinterpretations. But, and this is the key point, all participants in these debates agree roughly about what bits of furniture are in the room. A participant in this discussion who is a bit cautious about weaving stories, who is a bit skeptical about grand historical claims, is still in the room, sitting on a sofa. If he is a postmodernist, he is the weak kind, the half shot. He is a very welcome voice, the anti-Marx, the one person in the room preaching the doctrine of uncertainty, chaos theory, limited information. Good on her! Simply put, she has common sense. In a room full of overconfident classical types, she just wants people to recognize the fog of time.

But there is a more insidious foe lurking in the corridor. He stands, he does not sit, for he does not believe in chairs. He denies anything and everything that is asserted. No events are beyond doubt – total doubt that leaves one blindfolded in an endless darkness. He doesn’t believe in up and he doesn’t believe in down, and he would accuse anyone saying otherwise of making a power play. He is a proper postmodernist, and he has not exercised common sense in a good long time. Or maybe he doubts its existence.

She gets confused for him a lot. Sometimes she gets his emails accidentally. Heck, sometimes she even confuses herself about it all. But at the end of the day, when he’s off levitating around in the corridor talking about linguistic theory (but if all arguments are just power plays why aren’t his?), yes when he’s off levitating, she’s enjoying her leather coach which, unless you were a professor, you would say quite certainly, actually does, kind of just, exist.


Now that I’ve defined my terms as accurately as I can, I want to say just this about the strong form types –

The most dangerous ideologue in the world is the one who denies the existence of an objective foundation upon which our subjective interpretations wrestle.

There is a thing called truth, and it is at times an infuriating dot on the horizon. But if you work for a university, especially in a history department, I hope you wake up every morning and go looking for it.


This post inspired by conversations with Matt Miller.


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