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Is it
possible to be a postmodern historian?



The terms ‘historiography’
and ‘postmodernism’ being used together in the same discipline is a very recent
progression. When looking into postmodernisms prominence in the arts as well as
literature, it is no surprise that postmodernism has started to concern itself
with history. Most historians do not approve of the idea of a postmodernist
historian, seeing the two being incompatible together. Zagorin puts forward;
“History…has shown itself to be considerably more resistant to
postmodernist trends than literature. This, at any rate, is the strong
impression I have derived from the postmodernist debate among historians as
well as from my reading of historical books and articles in diverse fields and
from the statements of well-known academic historians.”1
Very few historians identify has postmodernists and they have been refined to a
small group due to the overall rejection of this type of historiography. Postmodernism
suggests that it is impossible to be objective when looking at the past because
the scholar enters the research with a predetermined opinion of not only what
is important but what actually happened. However, the range of primary sources,
are what give the historian the tools needed to create an appropriate analysis of
the past, their own opinions are debatable but there are ‘absolute facts’ which
cannot be denied, which contrasts with the postmodernists viewpoint. For
example, the Battle of Hastings occurred in 1066, there is no denying that that
is a fact, however the significance of the battle is what historians can form
an opinion on, but do so with through the evidence at hand, not through
predetermined/fabricated opinions. To be a historian, you have to work alongside
the evidence and sources available to make your work as accurate as possible,
the philosophies of ‘postmodern historians’ is in direct conflict with this.

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Postmodernism within society
followed modernism as a new thought process and way to analyse literature and
the arts. Modernism, the school of thought from the late 19th
century to the early 20th century, involved the reform of music,
art, literature and the applied arts. Modernism, unlike postmodernism, is based
on logic, scientific process and rational thinking. A modernist historian has
the aim of attempting to create a rational view of the past, and through a
relationship with the past that society can advance and grow. The past is seen
as a tool that can be used to benefit the present. A postmodernists
representation of the past makes no distinct differentiation between fact and
fiction, instead acts as a narrative rather than an analytical work.
Postmodernists’ history lacks the essential want for an authentic review of history
through evidence which is why it is not possible to practically apply postmodernism
to historiography.


It must be recognised that
at this period in time, the world had just been plunged into a new time of world
capitalism. Not only this, but the advancements in technology were vast and speedily
changing society. The western world has now become post-industrial and the time
for electronic advancements had been reached. Postmodernity had a heavy
influence in the way arts and literature changed, but the study of history
should not be categorised with these. Ankersmit’s argument suggests that
historical origin is not important, which is in complete defiance to
 Ankersmit completely rejects, along with
Jameson, the methods in which history had been being practiced as an academic
subject. Not only does postmodernity pose a new school of thought to the
debate, it suggests that historiography needed to be completely revaluated.


There are critics of this
point of view. For example, Munslow, a post-structuralist, argues ‘The
past is not discovered or found. It is created and represented by the historian
as a text.3’ He
suggests that all historians are simply creating a narrative of history alike
the postmodernist. This dismisses the idea that the primary sources provide the
facts as to what occurred, but it is the historian that creates the ‘truth’ to
suit their own ideology as to what they think should have happened. This
suggests that we never truly know what occurred in the past, instead, all we
know is what historians choose to write about, that the history itself is lost
and all we are left with is the historiography. In opposition to this view,
primary sources offer us the history, without influence or opinion from
historians. If a historian chooses not to use a specific source, it does not
mean what this source reveals didn’t happen, it remains history still. It is
true that historians are selective in the evidence they use, but it is
essential to be selective when working as a historian. The selectivity of the
evidence does not make the history that is being written about false, it just allows
a historian to put forward his own opinion of why said thing occurred and the
implications of said thing also.

should be recognised that the historian can never know the whole truth about
anything in the past, does not mean that there are not truths in what is known
about the past.


looking at primary sources, for example a written document, there are only so
many ways that the evidence can be interpreted. From this, a variant of
opinions can be made from the source. A postmodernist would put forward the
idea that there are an unlimited amount of opinions and interpretations to be
taken from the source. However, the possibilities are not unlimited, historians
can only defer so many possibilities, and from these some will be stronger than
others, to narrow down perceptions further. Postmodernists such as Jenkins and
Ankersmit have attempted to respond to the idea of historical facts by
contending that there is a large difference between historical fact and
interpretation. That, facts are easy to obtain, but it is the interpretation
that poses an issue. Jenkins puts forward the idea that there was no ‘cognitive
element in history‚ at the level of the individual statement, only that
certainty and objectivity were impossible at the level of interpretation
(narrative discourse).’ Postmodernists go further, to put forward the idea that
every time a document is looked at it is seen differently and re-interpreted
therefore making the worth of the document less. Postmodernists suggest that
sources, such as documents, cannot offer basic historical facts because there
is no fixed meaning, this ideology further proves that to be both a historian
and a postmodernist is not practical. Basic historical facts are the truths that
underline all historiography and to deny these poses the question ‘why study
history at all?’.


biggest issue that postmodernism puts forward is the rejection of the ‘real’.
Postmodernist historian Joyce labels this “the ideology of the real”4.
Historians whole work is based on that fact that things and events happened in
the past and their work is based on analysing some of these. Postmodernism
poses the question as to whether these things actually happened or not. If it
does so, it is rejecting all historical knowledge. Historian Lorenz states that
“history is a discipline not a form of art”5,
suggesting that history should be based on facts and evidence from the past.
Lorenz goes on to say that the historian interprets the evidence, but does not
fabricate to suit their own needs which differentiates them from other writers such
as novelists. It is because history is based on evidence that allows other
historians to analyse the same sources and offer different interpretations and
to change one another’s opinions, creating historiography on a given period of
history. The reconstruction of history is done through this process, of debate
and comparison to try and achieve and agree on the most valid interpretation of
history.  Historians cannot choose to ignore a piece
of evidence because it does not suit their opinion as to what they thought
happened in the past “or make of it whatever they please”6


White would argue that there is such
a thing as a postmodern historian, as there is no set way of ‘doing history’,
and therefore there is no special training needed or a specific way of doing
things. However, most historians would disagree with this. Evidence naturally
guides a historian and allows them to logically put together accounts of the
past. To disregard evidence from the past would be to disregard what it is to
be a historian. Furthermore, to disregard them due to the different interpretations
that can be taken from the sources would be to take away the base of historians
works. Lorenz argues that “White’s narrativism is built on
two distinctions that do not show up in the practice o f history: first, a
distinction between literal and figurative language, and second, the exclusive
use of literal language during the phase of research and the use of figurative language-read
metaphor-during the phase of composition or writing. The same distinctions and
presuppositions are, as we observed, crucial for Ankersmit’s narrativism.”7 Eley
and Nield appose Lorenz and argue that historians reject postmodernism due to
not being like to be told what to do.8
This notion hold no weight in the discussion as to whether postmodernists are
historians or not. The postmodernist rejects too much of what it is to study
history to make the study worth while, it is not just down to historians
feeling postmodernists are saying “Historians must do this, they cannot
ignore that, they had better get their general act together”.9
Postmodernists way of ‘doing’ history does not offer an accurate account of
what happened in the past so can not go forth to interpret or analyse what they
assume to have happened. Zagorin rightly points out that “most professional historians are unwilling the accept
postmodernism’s view of history because they find it so contrary to their own
personal understanding and experience of historical inquiry”10 (9-10)

are trained to study history so that they are able to analyse the past in a way
that is useful and productive for the present. Postmodernism does not offer
this luxury but instead would offer a study of history with no use and little
accuracy. It is true that as long as future historians are trained by the
previous, then this technique in studying history will continue. Bauman in this
quote rightly points out the cycle that the way history is studied will
continue “In
the vast realm of the academy there is ample room for all sorts of specialized
pursuits, and the way such pursuits have been historically institutionalized
renders them virtually immune to pressures untranslatable into the variables of
their own inner systems; such pursuits have their own momentum; their dynamics
subject to internal logic only, they produce what they are capable of producing,
rather than what is required or asked of them; showing their own, internally
administered measures of success as their legitimation, they may go on
reproducing themselves indefinitely.”11

we were to take Bauman’s words at face value then it would be true that it is
not possible to be a postmodernist historian, but also there will not be a
possibility to become a postmodernist historian in mainstream historiography.
Postmodernists’ approach to history is too different to the way history is
studied, following the idea that evidence and fact is essential to the study.
Education systems operate on teaching facts and knowledge; students are taught
in disciplines rather than in a postmodern style. They are taught within
schools through textbooks containing facts that they are to accept and
interpret, as the historian does primary sources.

on from this, postmodernism rejects the idea that historians can find patterns
in the past, or attempt to reconstruct it in anyway. The postmodernist concerns
themselves in smaller topics, ‘scraps’,12 of history. Many
historians look unfavorably upon this. Historical inquiry of a period, allows a
historian to specialize and form patterns within their area of history, to get
a wider perspective on the given period. For example, when looking at King John’s
reign, it spans nearly four decades. The reign of John holds historical
significance, such as the Magna Carta, which can even back date from his reign
that holds significance in looking at the rights of the people within Britain
today. To dismiss the study of a period such as this would be depriving
historians the opportunity to learn from the past to apply it to the present.
Which is again another reason why, in the way we study history, a postmodern
historian is not possible.

historians do not completely reject postmodernism, however, reject the idea
that their way is the only way to study history. Nield puts forward that
historians “have been giving postmodernist issues some thought” in the more
recent times.13
These historians put forth the idea that there may be some positive effects
from postmodernism, if selective parts of the ideology are taken and applied
into the study of history. Neild puts forward that just like any other
discipline, postmodernism does not have to be taken and applied as a whole, but
could be used to form a relationship with historiography.14 Roberts
advocates the idea that within the relationship, should it be formed, a “nuance
and differentiation” is needed to go forwards.15 Postmodernism,
although some historians think that it can be incorporated within
historiography, would need to sacrifice some of its key element to work in this
field. Going forward, if it were to do so, there would still not be a
postmodern historian, because postmodernism wouldn’t be recognised if it made
itself compatible with historiography. Historiography, again, is based on
evidence and truths which cannot be achieved with a postmodern look on the
past. The opaque look on the past that postmodernists hold removes all options
for interpretation of evidence which is crucial to what we call and know as
historiography. Without the interpretation and analysis, historiography becomes
simply storytelling.


study of history offers different interpretations of events, based on the vast
amounts of evidence and sources available to the historian. It would be wrong
to say that it is possible to be a postmodern historian, a historian that has
the belief system that evidence is unimportant because it can be interpreted in
different ways. Interpretation of evidence allows historians to engage in
debate and to try and reach the truths behind the past. Primary resources offer
us facts and the basis for research into history. For example, the Battle of
Hastings. The battle was fought in 1066, this is a fact that is known. The
Bayeux Tapestry outlines the events of the battle, from the victor’s
perspective, but offers the historian a bundle of evidence into the thoughts of
the people from this period. The depiction of certain people and events allows
historians to conclude, not only the events but the thoughts of the people. Postmodernists
historians view these opinions as predetermined and fabricated by historians
and therefore evidence such as the tapestry should be discarded. This thought
process is what rules out postmodernists from being historians and getting
involved in historiography.


as pointed out by Zagorin, would like to think of history as a literary
product, rather than works of non-fiction.16 Zagorin
goes as far to claim that this is the postmodernists’ goal, to blur and distort
the lines between literature and other disciplines.17
History needs to be separated from literature as it is not just a discipline of
writing, but also one of reflection and analysis, which is what the
postmodernist would not recognise. Ankersmit goes as far to dismiss
historiography and label it a mistake, saying it is just part of culture.18
Historiography plays an important role in western society as a way of keeping
in touch with the past as well as learning from it. If Ankersmit’s view is to
be taken as to being that of postmodernists, how can it be possible to have a
postmodern historian?


question ‘is it possible to be a postmodern historian?’, as shown through this
essay, the answer is no. Postmodernists views on the study of history and their
thoughts on how it should be conducted morphs history into a part of
literature, which it should be kept separate from.19
Postmodernists such as Joyce believe that their input into the study of history
would be beneficial to the discipline, but the pros are yet to be seen. The
academic study of history is still young and has progressed in a way that there
is no room for postmodernity. Historians such as Roberts, who believe that
there is room for postmodern historians in historiography argue that only bits
of the philosophy should be taken and applied. I would argue that by doing so
the person practicing and applying these is no long a postmodern historian.
Postmodernity, to fit into historiography would need to removed its thoughts on
interpretations and the want to turn the subject into a literary field. By
doing so postmodernity would morph into something else. Bauman identifies the
cycle in which the way we study history hardly changes because we are not
taught as historians with views such as the postmodernist. I believe this to be
true, but I also believe it to be correct in preserving the discipline. I would
further argue that the concept of postmodernity is useless to a historian.
Postmodernity removes the purpose of studying history, and removes any use that
can comes from its findings for the present day. Raatikka pushes forth the point
that she hopes to see more postmodern history work, as she believes that it
will be useful to other areas other than history.20 This
may be true, but the person creating these works should not be described as a
historian, but rather someone who is working in the discipline of literature. Even
Raatikka, a supporter of postmodernity within the discipline of history agrees
that they will not have much of a future together.21

1 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:
Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (Wiley: 1990) pp. 263-274.?


2 Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism,” New Left Re-?view, no. 146
(1984), 53-92. The literature on postmodernism is by now considerable; for
further?discussion of what it stands for and its relationship
to deconstructionism, see Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory (Minneapolis, 1983),
and the essays in Postmodernism, ed. Lisa Appignanesi (London, 1986). P 145-146


4 Joyce, Patrick. “The End of Social History?” Social History
20.1 (1995): 78

5 Lorenz, Chris. “Can Histories Be True? Narrativism, Positivism, and
the ‘Metaphorical

Turn.”‘ History and Theory 37.3

6 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:
Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990): 272

7 Lorenz, Chris. “Can Histories Be True? Narrativism, Positivism, and
the ‘Metaphorical 327-8

8 Eley, Geoff and Keith Nield. “Starting Over: The Present, the
Post-modem and the Moment 355

of Social History.” Social History 20.3
(1995): 355-364.


9 Eley, Geoff and Keith Nield. “Starting Over: The Present, the
Post-modem and the Moment 355

10 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:
Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990): 9-10

11 Joyce, Patrick. “The End of Social History?” Social History
20.1 (1995): 80

12 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:
Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990): 273

13 Eley, Geoff and Keith Nield. “Starting Over: The Present, the
Post-modem and the Moment 356

14 Eley, Geoff and Keith Nield. “Starting Over: The Present, the
Post-modem and the Moment 358

15 Eley, Geoff and Keith Nield. “Starting Over: The Present, the
Post-modem and the Moment 391

16 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:
Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990): 270

17 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:
Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990): 271

18 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and
Postmodernism: Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990): 273


19 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:
Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990)

20 Raatikka, Holly A., “Acts of the imagination: postmodern thought
and the writing of history” (2001). Retrospective eses and Dissertations.

21 Zagorin, Perez. “Historiography and Postmodernism:
Reconsiderations.” History and Theory 29.4 (1990) p96

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