History, that mythological beast

I know what I want to address in this blog post, but I’m having a very hard time articulating it. So bear with me and I will work through my initial thought processes and try to come up with a tidy conclusion in a few hundred words…

My topic this week is Postmodernism. Brushing aside the shadow of modernity that this term inevitably casts (*shudder*) I will skip ahead to our reading in Tosh’s Pursuit of History, Chapter Seven: “The Limits of Historical Knowledge.” Already that sounds like an ominous title. Of course as historians (and grad students) we are continually seeking knowledge. Unfortunately, the past is never completely knowable. Whether there are too few records or too many, sources availability and reliability of sources is an inevitable limit, and one that I think should elicit a sigh of resignation rather than panic.

So far, okay. Sources can be unreliable. But Tosh doesn’t stop there; he continues with a discussion of the “intellectual shifts” that have occurred in recent decades. The rise of Postmodernism has “rejected historicism as the basis for history” (195). As Tosh describes in his first chapter, historicism seeks to know the past on its own terms, taking into account the changes that have necessarily occurred between the time we study and today. Historical events can only be understood in context, but also lay the foundation for events in our own time. Postmodernism seems to say the opposite: we can never really know, let alone interpret, the human world, including human history.

Sources are unreliable. Now historians are also unreliable, it seems. Which brings us to the part of the reading that inspired me for this post. On page 198, Tosh says, “In place of historical explanation, Postmodernist history can only offer intertextuality, which deals in discursive relations between texts, not causal relations between events; historical explanation is dismissed as no more than a chimera to comfort those who cannot face a world without meaning…history no longer has a big story to tell” (198).

Eek! My first thought was to reject this notion completely. Of course history has a big story to tell—in fact it’s the only story, really. But then I started to think about the ways in which this view, usually in a more diluted form, has influenced how historians—myself included—think about the past. I’ll freely admit to having shared the opinion in classes that all history is relative—at least to a degree. We’ve danced around this issue in Historical Methods class many times. Like some of my colleagues, I do think there is an objective truth to history (as well as the rest of life). But I can see the limitations of our knowledge in searching for that truth. No one who does not live through an event can really ever know what really happened. I don’t think, however, that that means we shouldn’t be trying our best not only to figure out what did happen, to the best of our ability, but also to learn from it as we move into the future.

On page 203 Tosh comforts us with the compromise: “Many welcome a greater sophistication in interpreting texts and a heightened awareness of the cultural significance of historical writing. But few are prepared to join in a rejection of the truth claims of history as usually practised” (203). Basically, postmodernism sounds good on paper, but it doesn’t have all the answers. Nor should it; if we’re to take anything from this theory, it is that absolute truth in history (or its methods) is not something so easily grasped, if it’s possible to grasp it all. I’m fine with that…for now!



 File:Chimera Apulia Louvre K362.jpg

I’m surprised Tosh didn’t define “chimera” in the margins…

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