Post-Modernist Historiography

Historiography is meta-history, that is, the historical study of historical studies in the past. It is useful and valuable to historical research as ongoing quality control and provides a kind of user’s manuals for those who wish to use old literature in new studies of the past. Also, it can often help explain political ideas, movements and propaganda in the past, as that field in society often attempts to use and manipulate history. I am, however, of the firm opinion that if you are interested in, say, the High Middle Ages, you have no reason to delve into Victorian ideas about that period. You need to hit the Medieval sources. Meta-studies should always be an adjunct to the real thing. If a subject is abstruse, then its meta-subject is of even less interest to humanity at large.

Chinese history and historiography are the themes of the current issue of Kinarapport (2010:4), the quarterly of the Swedish-Chinese Association. Reading it left me annoyed, because some of the historiography here is of the post-modernist kind marked by knowledge relativism. A relativist historiographer will not criticise the historians of yesteryear on points of fact and suggest more well-supported interpretations of the sources. Instead he will pick apart the arguments of earlier generations and simply leave them disassembled, saying more or less explicitly that any attempt to establish objectively true knowledge about the past is futile.

There’s a fatal inconsistency built into relativist historiography. A relativist present-day writer will not allow for a Victorian writer to have found out any objective knowledge about the High Middle Ages. But he will himself unproblematically claim objective knowledge about the Victorian writer’s views and surrounding world. And so he must, because if he were a consistent knowledge relativist he would have no basis for imposing his own views on a reader and expect to be taken seriously. He would on first principles be unable to say “Victorian scholar so-and-so believed this-and-that about the High Middle Ages”.

Perry Johansson’s contribution to Kinarapport titled “A war over sources, interpretations and territory” is an example of this inconsistent attitude. Already in the third paragraph we run into a couple of revealing scare quotes (and I translate):

Wars are fought over territory, wealth and legitimacy. A central issue in establishing legitimacy is the control over culture and memory. That is why we find among the casualties of war historical remains, symbols, archives, libraries art and also “the truth”.

And he goes on, having name-dropped Edward Said, in a fine 90s “post-colonial” tradition:

The importance of sources to historians is usually described only in heuristic terms with source criticism as the mainstay of scientific objectivist historical research. But since the modern Western humanities arise at the same time as imperialism, it is difficult not to seek a connection to it. What role did racist imperialism play in the establishment of a modern Chinese historical discipline?

Actually, for someone who is primarily interested in pre-Opium War Chinese history, like me, it is not difficult at all to avoid seeking the academic connections with later Western imperialism that interest Johansson. And looking at those earlier millennia, I’m interested in history wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. Let’s find out what actually happened, in China just as everywhere else. That’s the job of an historian. “Scientific objectivist” history is the only kind I recognise as legitimate scholarship. And the funny thing is that Johansson shares this attitude – but only in regard to the birth of modern research into Chinese history. He makes truth claims about events in the early 20th century. The fact that some of the claims are historiographical in content does not place them outside the relativist loop.

Here are a few confident factual statements of Perry Johansson’s from the second page of the article.

“In the inter-war years, Western sinologists and orientalists searched China for source materials and new discoveries.”

“This article presents some concrete facts regarding the development of an historical praxis among a small number of Chinese historians. … [They] fully understood the link between history and the nation, and they saw how Westerners and Japanese began to investigate China’s history and origins, and noted their desire for Chinese antiquities to bring home to their museums.”

“In China, Western archaeology and collecting reached new heights after the fall of the empire and the subsequent three decades of civil and anti-imperialist war.”

Here, Perry Johansson happily tells us about things that happened decades before he was born and at the other end of the continent we inhabit. But he is not willing to grant scholars of that era the same ability to find out objectively about the past. And truth is a word he places in scare quotes.

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Comments

  1. #1 Greg Laden
    January 3, 2011

    There’s a fatal inconsistency built into relativist historiography. A relativist present-day writer will not allow for a Victorian writer to have found out any objective knowledge about the High Middle Ages. But he will himself unproblematically claim objective knowledge about the Victorian writer’s views and surrounding world. And so he must, because if he were a consistent knowledge relativist he would have no basis for imposing his own views on a reader and expect to be taken seriously. He would on first principles be unable to say “Victorian scholar so-and-so believed this-and-that about the High Middle Ages”.

    Thus, the ultimate “post modern” “study” of a Victorian text would either focus on punctuation, or perhaps consist of a photocopy of the front of the original book on a piece of paper made into an origami representation of a fictional contemporary flying machine. Or something.

  2. #2 Jim Harrison
    January 3, 2011

    The implication that postmodernism is characterized by some radical relativism or, indeed, that postmodernism is a single coherent intellectual movement is actually quite problematic. I’m sure you can find exceptions, but most of the authors that I’ve read who are called postmodernists (usually by others) aren’t really skeptics about objective facts. Facts, narrowly defined anyhow, just aren’t the issue for them; and their indifference, especially in the context of historiography, is not all that radical since it has long been obvious to everybody who thinks seriously about history that what is generally at issue is the validity of interpretations, not the truth or falsity of particular statements. A historical work, after all, has at least two components: the facts or purported facts and the principle of selection that drastically winnows them down and arranges the handful of surviving item in comprehensible narratives. I don’t know if it makes me a postmodernist or not, but it seems to me that the selection/interpretation part is generally more important or at least more interesting than the fact part.

    The funny thing is, I’m a relentless reader of old books, including old histories. I can value them as serious accounts of the past precisely because their purely factual content is not necessarily the crucial element. If I were some sort of Rankian postivist, after all, I’d have to stick with the most recent works since the newer stuff inevitably references a greater body of sheer information.

  3. #3 Rickard
    January 3, 2011

    Now, I understand the background to why I get so disappointed visiting the historical museums in Stockholm. The guides focus is all about what “we dont know”. It is exhibitions of …eh I dont know…Nothing? Well explained, thanks:

    “A relativist historiographer will not criticise the historians of yesteryear on points of fact and suggest more well-supported interpretations of the sources. Instead he will pick apart the arguments of earlier generations and simply leave them disassembled, saying more or less explicitly that any attempt to establish objectively true knowledge about the past is futile.”

  4. #4 Martin R
    January 3, 2011

    I can value an old work of history for its writing or its entertainment value. But if I want to check what most likely actually happened, I try to find out what the consensus view among current historians is. Science/Wissenschaft advances, and that includes the humanities.

    My main complaints about post-modernism is the knowledge relativism and the verbiage. It is quite possible to identify post-modernist influences in the work of writers who suffer from neither of those failings. And with them, I have no problem. Though they tend to work with meta-issues that I’m not interested in. To each their own, within the boundaries of rational inquiry.

  5. #5 Martin R
    January 3, 2011

    Rickard, thanks! Each visitor is free to choose his own interpretation…

  6. #6 Roger Pearse
    January 3, 2011

    ” I am, however, of the firm opinion that if you are interested in, say, the High Middle Ages, you have no reason to delve into Victorian ideas about that period. You need to hit the Medieval sources.”

    I couldn’t agree more. Data first; deductions, inferences, theories of every type is secondary.

    As for relativism, it’s nothing more than an intellectual disease. People come to history to learn. Those who say “we cannot know anything” tend not to apply that principle to their own affairs, or their own research, and indeed can do no work of any kind on anything without violating their own claim. But in the process of playing this game, they damage the reputation of the whole discipline. A more wholesome age would simply put them out of the room, whatever grand names they give themselves, as obscurantists.

  7. #7 frog
    January 4, 2011

    Ah, humbug. Oversimplistic drivel. Of course the choice isn’t whether we can “know nothing” or are constantly approaching perfect knowledge.

    There are limits to knowledge — and certain limits can not be progressed beyond. They are inherent to our point of view. That folks find such trivialities to be shocking or radical — or worse, some sort of “intellectual disease” — show that they haven’t intellectually progressed beyond modernist claptrap.

    Of course — it’s hard. In some areas, we haven’t reached the limits of our “best approximation”. It’s hard to know when we have — and find that out also has uncertainty and dependence on historical contingency. Anyone who dismisses any objective knowledge and declares it’s “all text” is a fool — but anyone who claims, particularly in soft sciences, that there are unambiguous external facts and measurements that are completely disjoint from our theoretical bases and that can be approximated to an arbitrary degree of precision are fools just as well.

    On top of that — you want to apply the principles of a meta field to the meta field itself? What, is it 1920 before we recognized that there didn’t exist one ring to rule them all? Goedel ring a bell?

    The only thing worse than a naive postmodernist is a naive modernist. 1980′s boring is just not as bad as 1930′s boring.

  8. #8 Steve Blowney
    January 4, 2011

    I once jokingly described historiography as “A vast arid dessert with the rusting hulks of old ideas and populated by rust-picking scavengers and huge, lumbering monsters.” Relavtism, post-modernism, & post-processionalism are the current monsters. They will pass.

    Still knowing the history of a discipline has its uses; it allows me to ferret-out the speculation from the fact of any author. Reading Victorian era and 20th century historians not only helps avoid mistakes, but teaches humility. The ideas and interpretations of todays scholars will be replaced–we should not be so arrogant as to think our interpretations have any permanency.

    As for the historians of the period that interests you– of course they should be read! What would you call yourself if didn’t? Certainly not a historian.

  9. #9 Martin R
    January 4, 2011

    Me? I’m an archaeologist. We can barely read at all.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    January 4, 2011

    Me? I’m an archaeologist. We can barely read at all.

    But we can identify almost any broken item or piece of yeck you pull out of the ground, and no one else can do that.

    Material Culture FTW!

  11. #11 Martin R
    January 4, 2011

    Frog, did you seriously mean to suggest that Gödel’s incompleteness theorems would make it impossible to write a history of historiography?

  12. #12 Phil Hand
    January 10, 2011

    Hah! Stirring stuff. But in the case of Chinese history, I have to say that the historical and historiographical processes must go on concurrently. There just aren’t good enough sets of concepts to work with when you’re trying to understand the Chinese past. Han/Mongol/Manchu? Religious/social factors in the Buddhist/Daoist ping pong of the Tang? Going back a lot further, Yangshao/Liangzhu/Longshan? All of these concepts are used and abused on a daily basis, and talking about the usage helps to pin them down and make them more useful and communicative.

  13. #13 Martin R
    January 11, 2011

    Sure, as I said above, historiography “is useful and valuable to historical research as ongoing quality control and provides a kind of user’s manuals for those who wish to use old literature in new studies of the past.”

    As for Yangshao, Liangzhu and Longshan, no historian needs bother with them since they’re prehistoric.

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