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:
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.