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    What is ‘postmodernism’ Essay

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    Not only present is the, albeit rather simplistic, thick description method, but thanks to postmodernism, there has been a noted rise in playful techniques, and autobiographical writing. Such diversity has ‘become endorsed through the postmodernist notion of the unknowability of the past’22, forcing reliance upon heavy use of metaphor, especially in the evolving field of social and cultural history. Throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s an area which sparked a massive amount of interest was that of ‘self’, or (a certain element of Marxism is apparent here) whether the individual is a victim of history or an agent of change.

    It appears that postmodernist history gives rise to two opposing views on how far an individual is held historically responsible for change. The first suggests ‘discursivity of culture prescribes… the choice of human actions’23 resulting in the fact that, as all cultures are inevitably composed of discourses, human action is thus limited and socially constructed, restricting what an individual can do to change history. Coupled with the textuality of all knowledge, causing continuous the intertexual lending of ideas, originality is deemed incapable of being attained.

    However, according to many theorists, in a Lancanian sense, ‘each individual has to negotiate through discourse within the context of their body… and material environment’24. Thus the individual empowers themselves through their own agency, deploying their self as an agent in ‘which life… become[s] constructed as the product of personal choice’25. The issue of ‘self’ in history raises key points about the personal position of historians. Origins of suck ideas date back to the 1940’s with Gramsci arguing that it is imperative to ‘know… thyself as a product of historical processes’26.

    Thus historians require acknowledgement in their narrative of (mainly political) issue brought to the text, otherwise known as reflexivity, and evidently shows ideological, cultural, and sexual biases in texts, along with a banishment of neutrality. Somewhat controversially, postmodernism argues that morality is unable to, and therefore shouldn’t be, founded upon empiricist methods. It is as much the public opinion now as it was the academic opinion during the earlier stages of the twentieth century that through history it is possible to understand ethical and moral issues.

    However, following the rule of binary opposites, a sense of morality can only be derived from a sense of the immoral, not (as some empiricists will argue) from citation of historical events. Albeit postmodernists argue a sense of immoral can be gained from history, it is wrong to suggest they are empirical as ‘immoralities are declared, not proven’27. To argue their case, postmodernists gives three main reasons; firstly morality is not a static concept, with changes occurring dramatically through society, geography, and culture, breaking links between any empirical certainty and morality.

    Furthermore, facts (which are representations of historical events) are constantly open to re-evaluation or dispute via new research, and so cannot ‘be allowed to be the decisive factor in… [the] construction of human morality’28. In addition to this, due to the inherent nature of narrative and the different interpretations it gives rise to, humans are thus unable to rely on narrative to constitute reality. It is not surprising that such due controversial issues postmodernism holds, especially for history as a discipline, it has attracted many criticisms.

    Most notably they come from three distinct and different areas; Empiricists, Marxists, and Poststructuralists. The Empiricist attack focuses on postmodernist’s undermining the concept of ‘facts’, with critics arguing against the notion that signs are incapable of providing a true representation of reality, and instead show only one representation of reality. Many empiricist historians agree with Richard Evans, convinced that ‘rules of verification… evidenced in footnotes and bibliographical references, provides the subject with a foundation of…

    reality’29. The Marxist critique however rejects the whole of the founding principles of postmodernism, by developing a tradition of linguistics to oppose the dominant Saussurian approach, a noteworthy example being Volosinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929), which: ‘viewed language primarily as a form of social interaction, as dialogues that could not be separated from the temporal-spatial and socio-economic context in which individuals speak or write. ’30

    Yet, irrespective of these criticisms (which do raise valid points), it is unavoidable to say that postmodernism has not raised significant issues within not only the discipline of history, but in almost all aspects of society and culture itself. In terms of history, its impact has caused a massive change in the methods and role of historical research, making evident the sensitivity of language, the subjectivity of historians, and the inherent problems with the way history is written.

    Moreover, postmodernism can be argued to be the reason behind the increasing new fields in history, ‘popular culture, [and] the study of personal testimony’31 and so on. Postmodernism’s impact is just as controversial as its definition and content, with it splitting apart the discipline’s community. The denial of a possible representation of an accurate and true reality has led to numerous arguments, discussions, and countless articles. After looking at the present and the impact caused, the future of postmodernism should be looked at. It is entirely possible that this era of postmodernity will produce ‘new insights into society and culture.

    Some being incorporated into historiography and… expand[ing] the scope of historical understanding’32. On a concluding note, perhaps Keith Jenkins proposed the future of postmodernism best, saying: ‘In the post-modern world, then, arguably the content and context of history should be a generous series of methodologically reflexive studies of the makings of the histories of post-modernity itself. ’33 Bibliography Barthes, Roland, ‘The Discourse of History’, Comparative Criticism, 3 (1981) Davies, Stephen, Empiricism and History (2003) Evans, Richard, In Defence of History (1997) Foucault, Michael, Archaeology of Knowledge (1969)

    Jenkins, Keith, Re-thinking History (1991) Perry, Matt, Marxism and History (2002) Ponton, Tony, A Critical Essay on the Impact of Postmodernism on the Historical Profession, http://www. kooriweb. org/foley/news/story27. html (visited 01/12/05) Rose, Nikolas, ‘Assembling the modern self’, in Porter, Roy (ed. ), Rewriting the Self-Histories from the Renaissance to the Present (1997) Said, Edward, Orientalism (1978) Thompson, Willie, Postmodernism and History (2004) Word Count: 2843 1 Callum Brown, Postmodernism For Historians (2005), p. 8 2 Ibid. 3 Stephen Davies, Empiricism and History (2003), p.

    138 4 Brown, Postmodernism, p. 7 5 Nietzsche once argued that ‘there are no facts in themselves… [and] it is always necessary to begin by introducing a meaning in order that there can be fact’, a phrase which would come to galvanise postmodern theorists in later years – quoted in Roland Barthes, ‘The Discourse of History’, Comparative Criticism, 3 (1981), p. 7 6 Brown, Postmodernism, p. 76 7 Ibid. p. 33 8 Willie Thompson, Postmodernism and History (2004), p. 8 9 Ibid. p. 133 10 Ibid. p. 14 11 Ibid. p. 16 12 Brown, Postmodernism, p. 37 13 Ibid. 14 Ibid. p. 42 15 Ibid. p. 43 16 Ibid. p. 59

    17 Michael Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), p. 107 18 Brown, Postmodernism, p. 65 19 Ibid. 20 Ibid. p. 66 21 Ibid. p. 67 22 Ibid. p. 113 23 Ibid. p. 135 24 Ibid. 25 Nikolas Rose, ‘Assembling the modern self’, in Roy Porter (ed. ), Rewriting the Self-Histories from the Renaissance to the Present (1997), p. 241 26 Edward Said, Orientalism (1978), p. 25 27 Brown, Postmodernism, p. 145 28 Ibid. 29 Richard Evans, In Defence of History (1997), p. 115 30 Matt Perry, Marxism and History (2002), p. 142 31 Brown, Postmodernism, p. 180 32 Thompson, Postmodernism, p. 128 33 Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History (1991), p. 70

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