Thursday, April 1, 2021


 VII Postmodernist History 

For the historian, as for the philosopher, the quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns is being superseded by a quarrel between the Moderns and the Postmoderns. If the great subversive principle of modernity is historicism—a form of relativism that locates the meaning of ideas and events so firmly in their historical context that history, rather than philosophy and nature, becomes the arbiter of truth—postmodernism is now confronting us with a far more subversive form of relativism, a relativism so radical, so absolute, as to be antithetical to both history and truth.*For postmodernism denies not only suprahistorical truths but historical truths, truths relative to particular times and places. And that denial involves a repudiation of the historical enterprise as it has been understood and practiced until very recently. 

Postmodernism (or poststructuralism—the terms are by now used interchangeably—or “porno,” as it is familiarly called in academic circles and computer networks) is best known as a school of literary theory. But it is becoming increasingly prominent in such other disciplines as history, philosophy, anthropology, law, and theology (and in architecture, where it has a more specialized meaning). Its forefathers are Nietzsche and Heidegger, its fathers Derrida and Foucault; that the latter have vigorously disputed each other does not diminish the enthusiasm of disciples who find them equally congenial and compatible. From Jacques Derrida postmodernism has borrowed the vocabulary and basic concepts of “deconstruction”: the “aporia” of discourse, the indeterminacy and contrariness of language, the “fictive” and “duplicitous” nature of signs and symbols, the dissociation of words from any presumed reality. From Michel Foucault it has adopted the idea of power: the “power structure” immanent not only in language—the words and ideas that “privilege” the “hegemonic” groups in society—but in the very nature of knowledge, which is itself an instrument and product of power. 

The combined effect of these doctrines is to impugn traditional rational discourse as “logocentric,” “phallocentric,” “totalizing,” “authoritarian.”* In literature, postmodernism amounts to a denial of the fixity of any “text,” of the authority of the author over the interpreter, of any “canon” that privileges great books over lesser ones.

In philosophy, it is a denial of the fixity of language, of any correspondence between language and reality—indeed, of any “essential” reality and thus of any proximate truth about reality. In law (in America, at any rate), it is a denial of the fixity of the Constitution, of the authority of the founders of the Constitution, and of the legitimacy of law itself, which is regarded as nothing more than an instrument of power. In history, it is a denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it, and thus of any objective truth about the past. Postmodernist history, one might say, recognizes no reality principle, only the pleasure principle—history at the pleasure of the historian. To appreciate its full import, one should see it in the perspective of what might be called “modernist” history, now generally known as “traditional” history.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, (2010). On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (Vintage) (Kindle Locations 2188-2215). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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