September 26, 2005
I don't believe in isms......
I chose this question because I have avoided philosophy and its theoretical applications for most of my life. The language used to frighten and anger me, but in cutting through its (often unnecessary) obtuseness, I am finding many of these ideas to be very provocative. So, I’ll give this a whirl, even though I am far from confident about my grasp over the tenets of postmodernism and those of the structures it seeks to dismantle. Any comments, criticisms, pitying help would be appreciated (I’m begging here).
Keith Jenkins attempts to lay out the battlefield between traditional and postmodern historians and the respective arguments they make against each other. While Jenkins, as editor of a collection of essays on this subject, asserts that he is writing this introduction because “history students ought to be aware of this situation and ought to take seriously postmodern-type critiques of both upper and lower case histories,” his sympathies seem to be aligned with the postmodernists. He champions their cause and the possibilities postmodern offers in undercutting traditional historical narrative structure.
This would seem to be where he would focus his comments if he were to review William Cronon’s “A Place for Stories.” Cronon nakedly admits the discomfiture postmodernism has caused him, and the wrestling it took to produce his article over the course of five years. In trying to reach a final conclusion, Cronon offers that his “goal throughout has been to acknowledge the immense power of narrative [ie, acknowledge postmodernism contributions with regards to the inherent implications of narratives and metanarratives] while still defending the past (and nature) as real things to which our storytelling must somehow conform lest it cease being history altogether.”(1372) Cronon appreciates some of postmodernisms critiques, but fears to join them he must accept that the past is infinitely malleable, thereby undermining the entire historical project.”(1374)
Jenkins would counter that Cronon’s fears are unfounded, and that postmodernism’s deconstructive qualities present exciting possibilities rather than a devaluation into relative nihilism. He admits that postmodernism deliver son its promise to destroy, in the words of Robert Berkhofer, “the legitimating authority of factuality for history itself according to traditional premises,” and very much allows “historians to tell many equally legitimate stories from various view points, with umpteen voices, emplotments and types of synthesis.”(20) But rather than see this as a destructive force to history making, Jenkins (through Berkhofer) highlights that Cronon is worried because “normal history orders the past for the sake of authority and therefore power.”(20) Ultimately, traditional historical narratives are as constructed as fictions, and only through communal comparison can the relative merits of a historical work be judged.
Cronon would likely agree with this final point, as he himself highlights the importance of peer review. However, he might wonder, what if any, set of values postmodernism might propose to use as a community in assessing historical texts. Moreover, Cronon holds fast in proclaiming “the virtues of narrative as our best and most compelling tool for searching out meaning in a conflicted and contradictory world.” While postmodernisms deconstructions can be alluring, he would likely find them somewhat empty and impotent in presenting a new for
Posted by kalbers at September 26, 2005 05:35 PM