Saving the Planet with Postmodernist History

There have been periods in the past when history and the philosophy of history were taken quite seriously—even in Australia. Such a period was the 1960s, as the intellectual ferment of the time reached its zenith, before it all declined into the peculiar combination of tendentiousness, relativism, irrationalism, anti-Westernism and sectarianism that has come to characterise the radical Left ever since. There appeared at the time various books and essays that seized the imagination of academics and their students, and generated many discussions and debates. These encounters were often intense, but there was also, for a time, a degree of intellectual honesty and openness to opposing viewpoints, which may now seem surprising, given the way in which the discipline subsequently developed and operates at the present time.

There was an especial interest in such areas as social history, the history of everyday life, popular cultures of the past, marginality, methodologies, neo-Marxism, Wittgenstein and the linguistic turn in philosophy, structuralism and historiography. Representative texts included Peter Winch’s The Idea of a Social Science (1958); Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels (1959) and “From Social History to the History of Society” (1970); E.H. Carr’s What is History? (1961); J.H. Hexter’s Reappraisals in History (1961); Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962); E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism” (1967) and “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” (1971); Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology (1963), and The Savage Mind (1966); Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (1965), The Order of Things (1966), and The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969); G.R. Elton’s The Practice of History (1967); Noam Chomsky’s “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship” (1969); Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form (1971); Robin Blackburn’s Ideology and Social Science (1972); Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures (1973); and Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973). There was also interest in American social science, especially symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology. This material varied greatly in approach, accessibility and ultimate intellectual value, but it provoked a great deal of discussion, many critiques, and enthusiastic attempts to apply its insights to history, with varying success.

Cutting across this fertile period of intellectual inquiry were two massive ideological onslaughts. The first was feminism, exemplified by Sheila Rowbotham’s Women, Resistance and Revolution (1972), Miriam Dixson’s Real Matilda (1975), Anne Summers’s Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975) and innumerable other texts. The second was the neo-Marxist promotion to canonical status of structuralist Marxism, exemplified by the extreme theoreticism of Louis Althusser’s For Marx (1969), Reading Capital (1970) and Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (1971), which, combined with concepts derived from Foucault and others, produced a complex new vocabulary that aspiring historians were expected to master. (And this was the case irrespective of whether they actually produced historical works—indeed it was 1980 before there finally appeared the long-anticipated (and rather disappointing) book-length analysis, Class Structure in Australian History, by Terry Irving and Bob (now Raewyn) Connell.) This theoreticism quickly became an intellectual straitjacket that led to a reductio ad absurdum, as E.P. Thompson observed in his devastating critique, The Poverty of Theory (1978), with neo-Marxist historians declaring that “history is condemned by the nature of its object to empiricism”, which has been revealed to be a mystifying manifestation of bourgeois ideology because “the real object of history is inaccessible to knowledge”, and therefore “the study of history is not only scientifically but also politically valueless”. The study of history in Australia has never completely escaped from this methodological nihilism.

Almost overnight, this ideological tsunami transformed the prevailing situation of comparative tolerance into an endless series of ideological confrontations that were played as zero-sum games. This quickly became a rout, with victory going to post-structuralism (that is, degenerate structuralism), postmodernism and feminism, which converged around a group of fashionable Parisian theorists, to whom was assimilated Edward Said and Orientalism (1978), which promoted additional master concepts like “the Other” and “the subaltern”. Such writers were deliberately chosen over their Anglophone rivals because of the obscurity of their “thought”, an alleged mastery of which constituted what Pierre Bourdieu (himself one of the most notorious of these theorists) called “cultural capital”. It was upon such theoreticist cultural capital that many subsequent academic careers were built, with truly adroit practitioners finding positions in overseas universities.

It also opened the way for the full-scale colonisation of historical studies by theory and philosophy; the collapse of the original project described above into unthinking subjectivism and relativism; history’s absorption into cultural studies, feminism, postcolonialism, queer theory, and similar explicitly politically committed new disciplines; the adoption of an esoteric vocabulary cobbled together from various theorists; an acceptance of the claim that historians are trapped within a universe of “discourses” and denied access to “things as they really are”; the promotion of the view that scholarly objectivity is not only impossible but is in fact an evasion of the responsibility of historians to commit all their efforts to progressive political causes; and to the propagation of the view that history is simply just another form of narrative, indistinguishable from fiction, and only exists to promote political causes.

The best systematic discussions of the intellectual dimensions of this pivotal period in the “history of history” and its aftermath are French Philosophy of the Sixties by Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut (1990); In Defence of History by Richard J. Evans (2000); Historiography in the 20th Century by Georg G. Iggers (1997); A History of Histories by John Burrow (2007); and, most comprehensively, The Killing of History by Keith Windschuttle (1994), which provides not only clear expositions of the various theories but also offers an Australian as well as an international perspective on “how a discipline is being murdered by literary critics and social theorists”.

It would be good if Is History Fiction? by Ann Curthoys and John Docker, now published in a second edition, could be added to this list. It discusses whether history is a science or an art and whether it has any meaning; the linguistic turn and the feminist challenge, and their impact on the study of history; postmodernism and poststructuralism, and the reaction against them; and the history wars. All of these it places in the context of a view of historical study based on an interpretation of the contrasting approaches of Herodotus and Thucydides amongst the ancients, and Leopold von Ranke and Walter Scott in the nineteenth century. The authors’ aim is to provide a rationale for the acceptance as “history” of a wide range of literary forms and subject matter. It should be noted that the authors have not updated the basic argument of their book, leaving the new edition identical to the first, except for a new final chapter “Is a History of Humanity Possible?”, which drifts away from the original impulse of the book and which I will discuss below.

Unfortunately Is History Fiction? is more of a symptom of the postmodern malady described above than a useful or even reliable analysis. For example, the authors insist oxymoronically that “a self-conscious recognition of the fictive elements in historical writing … strengthens—not weakens—the search for truth”; and they are delighted to find that such a view “is not a discovery of contemporary ‘postmodern’ literary theory, but is [sic] present at the very birth of Western historical writing itself, in the protean figure of Herodotus: a postmodern historian … avant la lettre”. The bizarre implication here needs to be emphasised: the authors are claiming that the contemporary turn to postmodernism does not represent the decadence of Western academic history, but is rather a welcome return to its “postmodern” roots that lie 2500 years in the past, before they were obscured by the futile quest to establish a scientific and disciplined basis for historical research. Postmodernism is allegedly the seminal “spirit” of historical inquiry that has been forced to live a subterranean existence for 2500 years until it re-emerged triumphantly in the 1970s. Many would find this epochal discovery about the nature and fate of historical scholarship by two Australian intellectuals very gratifying … or quite preposterous.

Indeed, the entire book is a bit of a con. While its title contrives to be provocative (like the other recent UNSW book, What’s Wrong with Anzac?), and suggests it’s going to wrestle with some BIG questions—including those mentioned above—it actually skates over, evades and ignores them, when it isn’t just agonising about the authors’ own obsessions, such as how the contribution of women to every field of study has allegedly been systematically suppressed by white men throughout history; and how European civilisation is allegedly genocidal in every aspect, and how its expansion overseas and its present global influence have been catastrophic, especially for indigenous peoples, who have been brutally robbed of the sylvan, eco-friendly, Arcadian “life-worlds” in which they supposedly once lived.

The chapter on Leopold von Ranke and Walter Scott is a good example of these ideological obsessions. The juxtaposition of the founder of scientific history with the original and unexcelled proponent of the historical novel suggests that something interesting is going to emerge from a comparative discussion. In fact, what is provided is half a chapter on each author, linked only by mention of Ranke’s explicit rejection of Scott’s approach to historical fiction. This is used as a pretext for a reading (apparently inspired by Richard J. Evans’s In Defence of History) of one of Scott’s minor novels, that contrives to indict Ranke for his optimism (expressed in 1885, at the zenith of European civilisation) about the future of Europe. Inevitably, neither discussion adds much of significance to our understanding of either writer. Instead, as far as Scott is concerned, they go to great pains to emphasise that he was not the “father” of historical fiction, as is usually claimed; was completely beholden to Maria Edgeworth and other obscure women writers for his ideas; and was in fact “formatively influenced and shaped by women’s historical fiction of the preceding centuries”. They then go on to list some thirty areas that encompass virtually everything of interest to contemporary historians that were all allegedly (and unsurprisingly) pioneered by “women’s writing” in the centuries prior to Scott.

The discussion of Ranke is also quite superficial and tendentious, being based largely on secondary sources and a small amount of Ranke’s own work, principally derived from sections of his History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations and an edited selection of his writings. However, this doesn’t stop them from declaring anachronistically (but entirely in accordance with contemporary obsessions) that Ranke writes in a “genocidal spirit”, and that his “narrative of history as progress encompasses examples of genocide”. They consequently detect many connections between Ranke’s view of history and the alleged depredations of the Crusades, European colonisation, internal migrations across Eurasia, and the development of towns. And here the authors place an emphasis on the wickedness of urban civilisation that is reminiscent of the ideology of the Khmer Rouge when it conducted its own genocide against city-dwellers in its drive to create a purely agrarian communist society. Also, for some reason probably to do with sexism, the authors have a problem with the concept of chivalry, which they associate with Ranke.

Also fundamental to their tendentious presentation of Ranke is their incapacity to comprehend the meaning of his insistence that historians should seek to “show what actually happened”. Instead, they follow many on the Left by assuming that this focus makes Ranke a “positivist”, used pejoratively, and understood as someone who believes that historical facts exist, are accessible to historians, and can be arranged in a coherent narrative explanation of the past. Ranke’s position does entail such reasonable claims about the nature of historical inquiry, but so did many others before him (especially in the historical-critical field of biblical studies). Ranke however had a much more profound idea about the task of history, because he believed that historians should seek not only to simply collect and arrange historical facts, he also believed they should seek out the “inner being of the past”, as Evans puts it—that is, the essential dynamism within history that carries it forward in accordance with a logic (which Ranke believed reflected the divine will) that must be carefully uncovered and explicated by historians capable of immersing themselves in the vast quantity of evidence that is open to dedicated and scrupulous inquiry.

Curthoys and Docker don’t fully understand the implications of this, or even concede its possibility, simply because their postmodernism leaves no room for any “inner being”—of history or anything else. For them, as for Foucault, Derrida, and the rest of the postmodern pantheon, who always emphasise their “anti-essentialism”, there is only language, text and discourse, and beyond that there is nothing, or nothing that can be accessed by human beings. Instead, there exist only the preconceptions that historians allegedly bring to their work and inevitably find mirrored there, constantly confirming their politicised view of the past, as Curthoys and Docker themselves unselfconsciously demonstrate. Consequently, they can’t even begin to comprehend what Ranke is talking about in his historiography.

This applies especially to the central area of historical inquiry with which Ranke is most closely associated—the development and application of the various techniques of source-criticism that sought to bind historical research and writing indissolubly to an underlying realm of reliable primary source materials—as opposed to the projections, fantasies and political commitments that Curthoys and Docker believe constitute the basis of history. Regrettably, the latter follow many Australian historians in regarding such fidelity to primary sources as outdated and politically reactionary, especially in those fields where history has prostituted itself for political purposes. An excellent example of this is the deplorable response by academic historians to Windschuttle’s revelations about the fabrication of Aboriginal history, based as it was on a relentless investigation of the relevant records that showed that there was no factual basis to the extreme claims that have been made.

As noted, the sole addition to this new edition is the final chapter. This asks, “Is a History of Humanity Possible?” and proceeds rather like a résumé of a summer’s reading, jumping from one book to another, apparently chosen because they are concerned with an eclectic range of “global issues”. This leaves the question of “Is History Fiction?” entirely problematic, as it appears that Curthoys and Docker now believe that some form of “scientific” or factually grounded history has a role to play in saving the world, apparently by showing how salvation lies in a return to prehistoric times. Consequently, we are warned at the outset that the world may soon “expire in a slow stew caused by global warming, pollution, habitat destruction, more mouths to feed”, while we are assured that “differences between hunting and gathering, and agriculture are at the heart of history”.

Once again the authors’ ideological obsessions and the postmodern contempt for truth and scientific procedure are emphasised. For example, considerable space is dedicated to the American sociologist Janet Abu-Lughod, and her book Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250–1350 (1989). This attempts to show how European economic growth was parasitic upon “a vibrant trading world that stretched from Moorish Spain in the west to China in the east”, exploiting “international networks of trade and exchange that were already long established in the Islamic world”, and then reshaping them “to its own ends, creating the conditions for its own domination”, from which the world has suffered ever since. Curthoys and Docker also describe Abu-Lughod’s reliance on theoretically and methodologically incompatible secondary sources, and how, as a postmodernist, “she disputes the relevance … of scientific ideals, objectivity, value free enquiry, and the notion of a reproducible finding”, valuing instead “the kind of personal vision, inspired by eccentricity, ideology, and idiosyncrasy, that leads to the finding of a particular pattern in history”—predictably an anti-Western one.

Curthoys and Docker also share the extreme level of naivety exhibited by Australian intellectuals about the history and nature of Islam, extolling idealised Muslim lands of the past that were “characterized by cultural mixing, relative freedom of travel and multilingualism”, and “a cosmopolitan world of mobility, diversity, translatability and fluidity”, while claiming that medieval Muslim Spain “was constructed on the pluralistic Islamic principle of the dhimmi—of different religious and ethnic communities living together in a complex culture of tolerance”. This assertion is bizarre, as the central principle of Islam is not pluralism but unity—of Allah, of His message, and of all the peoples of the earth under His law. Consequently, as Bat Ye’or shows in Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide (2003), and Mark Durie has discussed in The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom (2010), the condition of dhimmitude requires Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims to live as dhimmis, occupying a position of utter subservience to Muslims. This reflects the fundamental Islamic principle—rooted in the Koran and the earliest history of Islam—that non-Muslims have three choices in a Sharia-dominated world: embrace Islam, be killed or enslaved, or live as subservient and tax-paying dhimmis. The authors’ vision of a postmodern, multicultural Islamic paradise is quite delusional.

The rest of the chapter is concerned haphazardly with various topics, vaguely linked through the authors’ apparent conviction that we are facing a global apocalypse, caused by humanity’s refusal to stop evolving at the hunter-gatherer stage of development. They support Jared Diamond’s indictment of civilisation and his exaltation of hunter-gathering societies before they were destroyed by evil agrarian societies, noting that “agriculture may threaten the existence and well-being of humanity”. Similarly, they endorse Hugh Brody’s excitement in The Other Side of Eden (2000), about what “hunter-gatherers can teach us [about] human history”, and about the lessons they have to offer that “go to the core of who we are as human beings”, as well as his claim that agricultural-pastoral societies are “a major force for genocide, violence, destruction and cultural loss in world history”.

This leads into various short discussions of some more of the authors’ favourite books before concluding with an endorsement of the Integrated History and future Of People on Earth project (which has apparently been granted the acronym IHOPE, rather than the more accurate IHAFOPOE or IHFPE). This multinational, well-funded project is concerned with alleged human-induced climate change and has set out “to map biophysical and human system change over the last 100,000 years”, in a task that is “morally necessary” for historians to support in order to save the planet. All the postmodern strictures about the limitations of scientific inquiry have been swept aside, with little or no acknowledgment.

Ultimately, this new edition of Is History Fiction? is likely to be a major disappointment for those who are searching for a useful and reliable discussion of the many challenges that the discipline of history has faced over the past forty years.

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