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In my first reply to Mike's comments I said I would outline my basic position with regard to postmodernism. To avoid confusion with the discussion on Thucydides I have not made any reference to the earlier messages. However, it seems to be postmodernism (rather than my quite uncontroversial views about Thucydides) that has prompted the greater part of responses to my original message. [Remember, what follows is my opinion of postmodernism. There may be people on the list who do not think my views should be placed under that label.] Important Threads in Postmodernism Most people accept what historians write as narrative but they think the narrative is constrained to what the sources tell us. Postmodernists argue that the evidence a writer enplots to create a text or narrative (the two terms are really interchangable) is itself a text. This is obviously true of a primary document or an archaeologist's report. However, it is also true of the witness' account and the archaeologist who unearths the evidence. Archaeologists do not excavate kilns; they excavate ash, bricks and broken pottery. To make sense that evidence must be placed in a series of relationships. A story must be told, a narrative constructed in the archaeologists mind. Without this narrative the excavated material is meaningless. This is the point at which it is enplotted to form a narrative. That the archaeologist chooses to enplot this as a kiln rather than a kitchen area has nothing to do with the evidence. It is the result of theories and methods which are themselves texts. At no point does any human being have access to anything that is not a text. [You can take this or leave it, as you please. What I hope to make clear is what I mean by 'all interpretations are narrative', 'there are many valid narratives' or 'it is texts all the way down'.] A second issue for postmodernists is the binary definition of 'true' and 'false'. Postmodernists blur this boundary, if they even believe it exists. Rather than being opposites of a universal nature they become historical concepts subject to change. What is 'true' depends on whether the speaker is a feminist, marxist, fascist etc. The only arbitration possible is to refer the matter to the audience. So if audience and speaker change new 'truths' and 'falsehoods' are negotiated and new boundaries constructed. This is not a position that postmodernists think we ought to adopt, it is a situation they think has always existed. [Again, take this or leave it, this is an outline of my position not a proof. I want it to be understood what I mean when I say 'what is true to one person is not true to another' or 'many things, all incompatible, can be true'.] This covers two threads which I think are important (and which another postmodernist might think are trivial). However, the most important aspect of postmodernism is its use as a banner for all those who think there is something wrong with the modern. That brings us to the postmodern critique of history. Postmodernism and History Postmodernists have criticised a lot of different things in the 'modern synthesis'. [I use the term to indicate the majority position, history as it is practised in most universities. A term is needed to avoid lengthy repetitions of 'the majority historiographical position which informs most practising historians in modern universities'. The term 'own sakism' has been suggested elsewhere but I consider it innapropriate if you wish to discuss the matter rather than simply insult people. The need to invent a term is the result of the refusal of members of the 'modern synthesis' to name themselves. This is part of a narrative they try to construct in which the 'modern synthesis' is synonomous with history and that those who don't agree to the basic rules aren't really doing history at all] However, I think all postmodern attacks boil down to a criticism of one thing, 'historical knowledge'. 'Historical knowledge' is the product and object of a historians work: the empirical, non-theoretical, objective reconstruction of the past as it was. In other words, what happened and why, with the emphasis in the 'modern synthesis' firmly on the why. Postmodernists think this is a futile exercise. The problems of exclusion, selection, context, narrative and truth all make the reconstruction of the past 'as it was' impossible. Though the postmodern attack is often guilty of charicature the basic point is sound: historians can never know what happened; 'historical knowledge' is always a reflection of the present not the past; worse, every generation overturns the work of the last in a merry-go-round of reinterpretation. Inside the 'modern synthesis' this forms part of a narrative of gradual refinement and progress. From the postmodernists position it becomes a pointless chasing of tails. Even if it were possible (which it isn't) the postmodern critique has a further question, why? what point is there in 'historical knowledge'? what value? what purpose? It is no answer to say that people do history because they enjoy it; of course they do. So do mathematicians, biologist, maybe even accountants, but the reason these three subjects are a feature of most academic institutions (and paper & pencil cryptography, juggling and chess are not) is that they can give a better answer than 'because it is fun'. What then for postmodernism? As most people will know postmodernism has had no effect at all on history. The reason is that the critique is just that. A purely negative assault on the foundations of history, often with no practical alternative at all. Some postmodernists go as far as to suggest that history should be relegated to the level of juggling or chess; a hobby for the enthusiast. Obviously people whose livelyhoods depend on history will never accept this. So a positive postmodernism is needed. And this is where all postmodernists part company. While there is some consensus on important threads, and the critique of history, so far no consensus exists on how to reform history or what to replace it with. So what follows is my own opinion (to a greater degree than everything above). [What follows is therefore less competent to exactly the degree to which it is less derivative. It is, however important as it informs what has preceded it. What I wish to see neccessarily guides what I have chosen to see.] What a postmodern history should be is a natural extension of defending postmodernism agaisnt two charges. First, that it is a total relativism. Second, that it signals the death of the discipline for all who embrace it. Postmodernity has been described as offering the intellectual equivelant of crack. A quick fix to the problems of weak minds by suggesting everyone's opinion is equal. This is not the case. 'There are many equally valid narratives' is not the same as 'all narratives have the same value'. One narrative can be better than another in a given context. If I wish to convince you that Lincoln was shot by an assasin I am more likely to succeed with 'I know Lincoln was shot because there is extensive documentary evidence' than 'I know Lincoln was shot because the archangel Gabriel told me so'. But that depends on my objective and your assumptions. If my objective is to win a convert and you are a religious individual I might be better of with the second. In postmodernism not all narratives are equal but which are better of worse changes; 'truth' is dependent on context. Postmodernity has also been accused of being the end of history. This position has been taken by both defenders of the 'modern synthesis' and postmodernists. It is best answered with a story (in fact as a postmodernist I believe it can only be answered by a story): Once upon a time, there was a small village, with thatched cottages, old wood fires and other picturesque details. In this village lived several families of blacksmiths. Not on their own of course, there were other people who were not blacksmiths. For generations the blacksmiths had made intricate plastics toys, rather like those in Kinder Surprise Eggs. Or rather they had tried to make intricate plastic toys. Some of the villagers had concerns but the blacksmiths always had a good answer, and always a new bit of progress. One day a stranger came to the town. Someone who didn't quite belong and wasn't really a blacksmith. He stood in the town square, next to the old fountain, and told all the poeple that the blacksmiths were wasting their time. A detailed case was soon developed that making small plastic toys with hammer and tongs simply wasn't possible. The blacksmiths were furious and shouted that if people believed this man it was, 'the end of smithing'. Soon the whole village was ready to drive the stranger out, or lynch him, whichever was more convenient. But like all stories that begin 'once upon a time' this one has a happy ending. A little girl in the crowd came to the strangers defence and said, 'this isn't the end of smithing, it is just the end of little plastic toys. And is that so bad because we never really had any toys in the first place'. Soon the whole village realised she was right and the stranger wasn't lynched, and the blacksmiths went on to make horseshoes and pans, and everyone forgot all about intricate plastic toys. Conclusion Postmodernism is not the end of history, it is not even really the end of the 'modern synthesis', it is just the end of 'historical knowledge' and that is fine because 'historical knowlege' was always unachievable. Postmodernism liberates history and the history it liberates is a stronger one. It is one that recognises the value of historical skills but frees the historian to use them as they please. Rather than studiying history 'for its own sake' historians can do what everyone else has always done, they can use history for their own purposes. In practice this makes very little difference to how historians work or the material they produce. Oh sure, I can admit that I have distorted and suppressed evidence to suit ends my own ends, but I still have to operated inside the narrative rules of the 'modern synthesis' and a lot of the time there is no reason for me to step outside those rules. The rules of evidence and sources can be useful tools and taken in the way the 'modern synthesis' takes them they can provide intellectual amusement in the same way a crossword or tsunami puzzle does. However, postmodernism does make a difference to how I think history should be taught (at the undergraduate level). Courses must become increasingly narrow (almost micro-histories), wiping away the pointless and redundant knowledge base that infects so much university history. Students must be taught to become more reflexive, more theory oriented so they can better understand their own abilities. Most of all teaching must focus increasingly on rhetoric, on narrative and on 'using' rather than 'studying' the past. In essence history must become a tool for students but they must be left free to use that tool how they wish. [And that is where I will end this posting. It is, I think, a reasonable outline of my position, the main threads of postmodernism, its relevance to history, a defence against the main countercharges and an outline of what I think if means in practice. Since a number of people have sought to criticise my position without knowing it, I hope this will arm them in such a way that their attacks can be constructive.]