Postmodern History – Introduction
Michel Foucault gives us a great perspective of Postmodern history: “I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth. One ‘fictions’ history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one ‘fictions’ a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth.”1
The Postmodern approach to history differs dramatically from that of all other worldviews.2 For example, a Christian worldview sees history as the grand unfolding of God’s divine plan to redeem a fallen humanity (see Paul’s speech in Acts 17). In contrast, the more radical Postmodernists see no ultimate purpose in history, advocating instead a nihilist perspective. Less radical Postmodernists advocate the view that history is what we make of it. They believe that historical facts are inaccessible, leaving the historian to his or her imagination and ideological bent to reconstruct what happened in the past.
Postmodernists use the term historicism to describe the view that all questions must be settled within the cultural and social context in which they are raised. Both Lacan and Foucault argue that each historical period has its own knowledge system and individuals are unavoidably entangled within these systems. Answers to life’s questions cannot be found by appealing to some external truth, but only to the norms and forms within each culture that phrase the question.
Postmodern History – History as Fiction
Unlike Postmodern history, the traditional approach to history holds that by sifting through the evidence at hand (texts, artifacts, etc.), we may arrive at a more or less accurate understanding of past events and their significance. This means that not all descriptions of history are equally valid. Some accounts may be more true to the actual events than others. As new information comes to light, any narrative of history could be revised or supplemented.
However, most Postmodernists doubt that an accurate telling of the past is possible because they blur the difference between fact and fiction—some even claim that all historical accounts are fiction.3 Foucault is one of the originators of this Postmodern approach to history, which offers a profound challenge to the norm. Professor John Coffey, in a biography of Foucault, provides insight into how Foucault’s background influenced his views on history:
In 1948 Michel Foucault attempted to commit suicide. He was at the time a student at the elite Parisian university, the Ecole Normale. The resident doctor there had little doubt about the source of the young man’s distress. Foucault appeared to be racked with guilt over his frequent nocturnal visits to the illegal gay bars of the French capital. His father, a strict disciplinarian who had previously sent his son to the most regimented Catholic school he could find, arranged for Michel to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Yet Foucault remained obsessed with death, joked about hanging himself and made further attempts to end his own life. This youthful experience of himself as homosexual, suicidal and mentally disturbed proved decisive for Foucault’s intellectual development. The subject matter of many of his later books arose from his own experience—Madness and Civilization (1961), The Birth of the Clinic (1963), Discipline and Punish (1975), and The History of Sexuality (3 Vols. 1976-1984) all dwell on topics of deep personal concern to their author. Foucault’s intellectual career was to be a lifelong crusade on behalf of those whom society labeled, marginalized, incarcerated and suppressed.4
For Foucault, truth and knowledge were constructions we offer to persuade others. They need not correspond to reality, for we construct our own reality in such a way as to give us power over others. With this in mind, his admission in Knowledge/Power is revealing: “I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or ‘manufactures’ something that does not as yet exist, that it ‘fictions’ it. One ‘fictions’ history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one ‘fictions’ a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth.”6
Postmodern History – Revising History
While the history of humanity itself may not have a purpose, the writing of historical accounts does. Resonating with Foucault’s approach to history is the view that the writing of history should promote an ideology. If, as Foucault declares, a claim to knowledge really is nothing but an attempt to overpower others, then retelling history serves the purpose of gaining power for some repressed group.
Thus, according to the Postmodern condition the discipline of history has turned away from the study of significant individuals and the struggles between nations to focus on social groups and institutions. Tom Dixon writes, “Social historians are often driven by activist goals. Historical research becomes not an attempt to understand the past but a propaganda tool for use in modern political and social power struggles.”7 Dixon also notes, “Postmodern cultural historians consider bias unavoidable in whole or even in part. As a result we see a growing willingness to arrange and edit facts in a way that supports the message of particular historians.”8 This is precisely where the line between recording history and revising history is crossed.
This rewriting of the past to serve a purpose, known as revisionist history, contributes to empowering oppressed social minorities. Thus feminist histories attempt to expose a male-dominated, patriarchal past and point the way for empowering women. Likewise, homosexual histories are put forward (in response to homophobic repressions) to provide equality for homosexuals. Black histories emphasize the horrors of slavery to redress past maltreatment of African Americans. Every repressed group—minorities of all colors, ethnicities, nationalities, and sexualities—has an injustice that must be exposed in order to rectify the abuses of the past.
Take as one example Rigoberta Menchu, who won the Nobel Prize in 1992 for her autobiography, I, Rogoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Her book became an instant success on college campuses, where professors used her story to demonstrate the plight of the impoverished Guatemalans languishing under government death squads. Menchu maintains that she personally witnessed the Guatemalan army burn her brother alive in her town’s public square. However, when doctoral student David Stoll went to Guatemala to verify Menchu’s story, he discovered no villager had a memory of such a slaughter by the Guatemalan Army.9 In fact, the key struggle in the book, between her father and a light-skinned landowner, was actually an argument between her father and his in-laws.
As it turns out, Menchu had told her story to French leftist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, who actually wrote the autobiography, misrepresenting many “facts” in her book. Burgos-Debray claimed that Menchu, as a female, was denied school, yet she actually attended two Catholic boarding schools through seventh grade. The book states that she worked on a plantation under horrible conditions, yet she never set foot on a plantation as a child. Also, the author claimed that the local villagers saw the Marxist guerrillas as liberators, when in actuality the villagers were terrified of them.
Kevin J. Kelley comments, “U.S. leftists who give his [Stoll’s] arguments a full hearing—and who have not been deafened by their own dogma—will find Stoll’s analysis difficult to dismiss.”10 Yet, in response to Stoll’s research, Professor Marjorie Agosin of Wellesley College stated bluntly, “Whether her book is true or not, I don’t care. We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it.”11 Ideology therefore trumps integrity.
Some feminist historians assert that men cannot write histories of women, first because men simply cannot understand women, and second because men have masculine ideologies and women have feminine ideologies. The same is said about a person attempting to write the history of a different race. It cannot be done since all people are presumed to be under a cloud of racial bias.
Postmodern History – Conclusion
Because ideas have consequences, we cannot afford to overlook the consequences of the more radical Postmodern approaches to history. If history is mere fiction, or even largely so, then those who deny, for example, the Nazi holocaust are validated in their attempts to diminish the numbers of Jews imprisoned, tortured, starved, shot, cremated, or buried in mass graves. Indeed, if history is (largely) fiction, then Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler cannot be used as examples of good and evil. There are no “facts.” There are only various degrees of fiction.
Rendered with permission from the book, Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews (Rev. 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.
1 Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, Colin Gordon, ed. (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1980), 193. Cited in Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theories Are Murdering Our Past (San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 1996), 151.
2 See Mark Goldblatt’s article “Can Humanists Talk to Poststructuralists?” in Academic Questions, Spring 2005, Vol. 18, No. 2. Goldblatt’s answer: “This is why humanists, in the end, cannot talk to poststructuralists.” Goldblatt levels at Derrida the following charge: “For Derrida winds up his analysis with another logical throw-away: ‘Neither/nor, that is, simultaneously either/or.’ In other words, whatever Derrida is affirming, he is also simultaneously denying. From a humanist perspective, the only way to read Derrida on his own terms is mentally to insert the phrase ‘or not’ after every one of his statements” (59).
3 Christopher Butler, Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002), 32–36.
4 John Coffey, Life After the Death of God: Michel Foucault and Postmodern Atheism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Papers, 1996), 1. Online at http://jubilee-centre.org/online_documents/LifeafterthedeathofGod.htm (September 2005).
5 Mark Poster, Foucault, Marxism and History: Mode of Production versus Mode of Information (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1984), 73. Cited in Windschuttle, The Killing of History, 132.
6 Foucault, Power/Knowledge, 193. Cited in Windschuttle, The Killing of History, 151.
7 Cited in Dennis McCallum, ed., The Death of Truth (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996), 133.
8 Ibid., 138, 139.
9 See David Stoll, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Oxford, UK: Westview Press, 1999).
10 Ibid., back cover.
11 Robin Wilson, “Anthropologist Challenges Veracity of Multicultural Icon,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1999. http://chronicle.com/colloquy/99/menchu/background.htm
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