Reviewed by Cynthia Kros (Department of History, University of the Witwatersrand)
Published on H-SAfrica (June, 2005)
What Do We Owe Postmodernism?
This is a dense and astonishingly well-informed book for its mere 128 pages. The author plunges into the deep end, asking what postmodernism is, recognizing that it is both diffuse and flexible, and then settling on it as a descriptive term for theories concerned with language and the related concept of discourse, holding at the extreme end of the spectrum that language constitutes reality.
Thompson usefully discusses theorists associated with postmodernism including Hayden White, Foucault, and Derrida as well as historians who have productively incorporated post-structuralist or postmodernist insights into their work, notably Joan Wallach Scott, but also Roy Porter, Patrick Joyce, and James Vernon. His patience often appears to wear thin but Thompson seems most irritated by Keith Jenkins and his putative campaign through his books and journal articles to destroy the discipline of History.
I imagine that the text of Postmodernism and History would be quite difficult for the student level at which it is targeted, but I would be at a loss to suggest any easier way of rendering the tremendously complex works and ideas which it attempts to explicate in a more accessible form. However, Thompson does provide a good glossary of terms to support the reader who may find it hard to retain the meanings of words such as "epistemology" or "ontology."
The real and engaging theme of the book revolves around Thompson's considerations of how to give postmodernism its due while suspecting that it will one day be revealed as a "bizarre curiosity of intellectual history" (p. 128). Most practicing historians will feel considerable sympathy with Thompson's views, and in particular his insistence that there is such a thing as "accredited evidence," which distinguishes good history from propaganda or fantasy. Thompson asks throughout, "What does postmodernism add to the discipline of history?"-- remembering that some of the insights now claimed by postmodernists were uttered long ago by E. H. Carr in his famous lecture series of the early sixties under the simple rubric What is History? As Thompson remarks, Carr often had a far pithier and wittier way of making the same points now belabored by postmodernists. Generally, it seems that Thompson wavers between dismissing the postmodernists altogether and fearing that he may appear mean-spirited or to have been left behind by intellectual developments. However, the conclusion to his chapter on Foucault, who he ultimately judges to have been a vastly overrated celebrity intellectual, is decidedly harsh and would undoubtedly give the latter a linguistic turn in his grave.
On balance, Thompson decides that he is prepared to concede that the postmodernists have taught us to pay closer attention to the use of language in historical documents, offered ways of listening to voices that have been suppressed, and made us even more conscious than Carr did of the relationship of the historian to her/his sources. They have also--but perhaps the excesses of Marxist historians played their part here too--made us realize the importance of dispensing with teleologies in our still indispensable metanarratives.
Nevertheless, Thompson is very concerned to remind us that historians are fundamentally constrained by the evidence (pp. 35-36). For historians, this is an extremely reassuring principle, but unfortunately the evidence is not always as clear as the "tramlines" of the analogy Thompson creates to explain how evidence keeps us on track. Evidence does not have the ultimate authority that Thompson implies it does. Though he does not give the impression that he thinks of historians as mere reporters on the past, sometimes (for example on p. 39) he comes perilously close to that view. For example, I cannot agree that "emplotment" (after Hayden White) is ever "a very workaday affair" (p. 62). Who would be a historian if emplotment gave her no pleasure--no sense of creative exhilaration? Nevertheless, emplotment is not, as Thompson suggests, merely the equivalent of "memorable prose" (p. 62). Elsewhere he shows much more sensitivity to the real thrust of Hayden White's theory, and I have the feeling that if Thompson were less irritated by the limited choices Hayden White appears to provide in his catalogue of emplotments, and engaged in a more sustained way with it, he would find himself in a more profitable area of debate in which the moral choices that historians make come under the spotlight.
Thompson's book is at its least pleasing when it makes the craft aspect of history writing seem like an optional extra, freezing out the passion that is an undeniable incentive for researching and writing history. He objects to Hayden White's characterization of the "poetic act" the historian commits in emplotting the evidence. One hears again the gruff masculinist voice that as young women academics we used to dread, when he describes Joan Scott as a "very able historian" despite, instead of because of, the debt she says she owes to "post-structuralist deconstructionists" in helping her formulate a feminist perspective (p. 23). His judgment of Scott simply comes across as patronizing, suggesting that she is a competent historian but misguided when it comes to divining the true nature of her intellectual parentage.
At the outset of this review, I intimated that most practicing historians want universal standards to govern our methodologies, but it is easy to underestimate how hard it can be to apply such standards. Thompson argues that it is by evaluating different histories of the same event that we reach an "enhanced understanding" (p. 44), which suggests either that the accounts are complementary or that one or more of the texts show up the weaknesses and distortions in the others. At present I am wrestling with two fairly recent accounts of Afrikaner nationalism in twentieth-century South Africa that are consciously diametrically opposed to one another. It seems to me, in this case, having read reviews of both works that even some of the most esteemed historians are making judgments that are based on their feelings about Afrikaner nationalism and whether or not they accept a particular configuration of this nationalism with apartheid rather than on some set of detached criteria. Both authors have used sources thoroughly and with verifiable integrity. Both are driven by an emotional commitment, in one case to deriving the meaning of the political struggle against apartheid, in the other to portraying Afrikaners as the victims of imperialism and scapegoats for the guilty conscience of the imperialists. My own choice of which text more accurately explains the period under review is primarily dictated by the school of historiography in which I was trained and by my abhorrence of Afrikaner nationalism because of its indissoluble association in my mind with apartheid. It is impossible to pretend simply that I am choosing the author who makes the more convincing use of evidence.
Thompson's Postmodernism and History, as I hope to have demonstrated, does jar in places, and the author might do well to reflect on why many people experience dominant forms of historiography as oppressive. But it also opens the way to extensive, if difficult, debate. It is this latter quality that I imagine would recommend it to tertiary teachers--it is certainly much more than the simple summary of postmodernist theory it might be mistaken for at first glance.
. Hermann Giliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003); Dan O'Meara, Forty Lost Years: The Apartheid State and the Politics of the National Party, 1948-1994 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1996).
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Cynthia Kros. Review of Thompson, Willie, Postmodernism and History.
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