Rescuing history from the onslaught of postmodernism

Greater Kashmir

The word Postmodernism should not be understood in the context of any time period, meaning one will understand it as a time period which came after modern. But postmodernism emerged as a philosophical movement in late 60’s of twentieth century hence sometimes also called “Swinging Sixties”. This movement marked its impact initially on style and concept in the arts, architecture, and criticism, which represents a departure from modernism and is characterized by the self-conscious use of earlier styles and conventions. In other words it can be said that it is mixing of different artistic styles and media, and a general distrust of theories. In its endeavor this movement is actually an assault on modernism and modernistic etiquettes like reason, logic and observation. In very simple words one can say Postmodernism is a way of thinking which says reason is not all responsible for progress.

Postmodernism was initially confined to few aspect of human life, but gradually it expanded its influence over other areas of human society as well, consequently the discipline of history not remained uninfluenced from the postmodernism. Postmodernism offers a fundamental critique of the conventional mode of history-writing. Sometimes the critique becomes so radical that it almost becomes anti-history. The main ingredient of history-writing, such as facts, sources,  documents, archival records, etc., all come under severe scrutiny scanner of postmodernism. (1)Postmodernism rejects the objectivity in history writing, trend started by Leopard Von Ranke (leading figure of positivist school) which strove to recover the past ‘as it actually was’ by simple method of collection and representation of facts. (2) Postmodernism challenges the proclaimed objectivity and neutrality of the historians by referring historian as biased towards ideology, social-cultural upbringing, and writing through a particular trope which suits interests of power. (3) Postmodernism questions the very basis of conventional historiography by locating its origins in the modern Europe’s encounter with the other. It began with the European Renaissance which prompted the Europeans to ‘discover’ other lands and people. In this quest the ‘history’ served as a tool for posing the modern western self in opposition to the other whose history was supposed to be just beginning as a result of its encounter with Europe. Thus the practice of history was employed not just to study the past but to fashion it in terms of the criteria set by modern Europe. History, therefore, evolved a western quest for power over the colonized territories and its desire to appropriate their pasts. (4) Postmodernism refers history nothing but a Grandnarratives or metanarratives which means a history dominated by power and written with a purpose to justify end. While expressing dissent towards these metanarratives Loytard ( most illustrious exponent of French postmodernism) defines postmodernism as incredulity towards metanarratives.(5) In postmodernist view, the history can be accepted as genuine knowledge only if it sheds its claims to truth and hence to power, and accepts its fragmentary character. The only history possible is microhistory. (6) As mentioned already that postmodernism was an assault on reason, rationality, and logic. In history writing they related rationality with generalisation. Postmodernists see all breadth of generalisation as a rationalistic imposition and an oppressive search for totality. Thus they totally negated the very primacy of interpretation. (7) The biggest bolt to history given by postmodermism is the bolt of fiction. Hayden White a leading postmodernistic thinker says one is past and another is story of past. According to him past is dead and cannot be brought back and the past is story less but it is historian who gives story to dead past and injects plot and characters in it. (8) Postmodernism doesn’t believe in an individual and says  man in not universal category (same everywhere).They say man in not undivided rather there are many individuals within one man, which means man often shifts from one perspective to another just because  human nature is unstable . So when man is not undivided so one cannot think “of and have” undivided account of past.

The biggest critique to the postmodernism on behalf of people, who have history as their craft (Historians), is that postmodernism put everything into the fire. Once I was in Jawaharlal Nehru University and was enough lucky to listen Professor Romila Thapar. She started her lecture by saying I quote “I have severe disagreement with the postmodernism”. This is because of the fact that postmodernistic thinkers provided us a good material for the deconstruction of history but failed to provide us an alternative model for its reconstruction. Even Irfan Habib a leading historian from the Alighar school writes in one of his article about postmodernism “i am not negating the insights which can be taken from the postmodernism but I myself cannot be part of it because the terminology and theology of postmodernism doesn’t attracts me”. In defence of history the historians didn’t took the sword against postmodernistic thinkers for challenging the very credibility of history rather they responded their challenges with scholarly approach as they had already done it at the time of “Cartesian challenge” to the history posed by Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes. Million Dollar thanks to our beloved Vico, for putting water of logical arguments to the Cartesian fire which badly caught our history at that time. The challenges posed by postmodernists to history were responded by historians this way. (1) While talking of objectivity of history E. H. Carr says history cannot be completely objective because its man writing history of man so biases are there. But it is wrong to say that history is completely subjective. Because history is written on the basis of facts and facts are not created through imagination rather they have independent existence. (2) While talking of neutrality of historian, historians do agree on the point that historian writes through a particular ideological spectrum as Carr says “Whenever you will study a history work always listen out for buzzing if you detect none; that means either your history is dead or your historian is dell dog” these words of Carr makes it clear that one should come to know the ideology, purpose of writer who authored a work, that’s why he also suggests us that read the historian before reading his history. But the way for coming out from the partiality of writers is also suggested by our peers of history and that way is to consult multiple sources for a particular event. While reading or writing about any event one should consult multiple sources written by different people. After consulting, reading one should cross check multiple sources by which one can get a good narrative of an event. (3) No doubt in the centuries like 18th, 19th and 20th histories were written for the purpose of gaining political and material benefits. The fine example is the histories written by colonialist scholars in 18th century. Whatever they wrote, they wrote with a purpose to justify their colonialism in colonies. But this is very wrong to say that the history doesn’t exist before the renaissance. But how would postmodernists respond the question about the histories written by people like Herodotus, Thucydides, Ibn- Khaldoon. Al Balazuri. Which were surely not written atleast in modern times. (4) No doubt many historical works were written under the influence of power but it is not cannot be applied widely to every historical work. Kalhana’s Rajatarangni, Shams Siraj Afif’s Tarikh-i Ferozshahi and many other were written outside the shadow of power. All of them were written outside the patronage of kings, and rulers. (5) While giving credibility to microhistory the postmodernists forgets the issue that for doing microhistory historians will follow the same methodology as followed for other history writings, so how it will be authentic then. (6) While talking about the denial of aspect of interpretation by postmodernists, Constructionist Historians like E.H Carr, R.G. Collingwood, and Benedetto Croce highlights the importance of interpretation of facts for writing a good history. E.H Carr while highlighting the importance of interpretation writes i quote “Facts are like an empty sacks unless you will not put something in them they cannot stand by their own”. This quote of Carr make us clear that without interpreting the fact one cannot think of good history.(7) History and Story are not and cannot be same ever. Both are poles apart in their endeavour and nature. Though in both narratives are important but the former (History) has a different approach in perceiving, and writing and giving place to a narrative in historical work. In history the narrative is not directly incorporated into historical work rather it has to go through the scanner of historical methodology. In history Narrative is not being taken from its face-value rather historian fully investigates the authenticity of an event in which preference is to be given to eyewitness, primary source, and their subsequent cross checking with other sources as well. (8) The diversity of perspectives in history is the beauty of the subject. History is not dependent on perspectives rather it is dependent on facts. There is no bondage for a historian to follow a particular perspective rather he/she can change perspective with the advent of new facts or sources and that act is considered act of scholarly honesty in history. For example Romila Thapar a leading historian of ancient history changed her stance many times with the advent of new facts and source, For example while expressing her view on the nature of Mauryan Empire. Initially she supported the centralised character of Mauryan state but after the research of Gurrad fussmen, she changed her view from centralised to what is called “not much centralised”. One more interesting thing regarding the same historian (Romila Thapar) is that she recently made shift from Marxist ideological spectrum to Annal School of History Writing. This is reflected in her new work entitled “Historian and Her Craft”.

Our historians are not negating the whole existence of postmodernism. Even one cannot deny the insights taken from it in doing good history. But the whole philosophy of postmodernism in still incomplete the reason is already mentioned that they provided us a good material for the deconstruction of history but failed to provide us an alternative model for the reconstruction of new one. While analysing the nature, purpose and endeavour of postmodernism, many scholars referred it as an intellectual barbarism.

Haroon Rasheed is Junior Research Fellow at Department of history, university of Kashmir