Post-modernist challenge to ‘history’ — III

September 13, 2020

It is high time for the history departments of Pakistani universities to introduce environmental history

Hayden White.

While talking about The Making of English Working Class it must be borne in mind that the history of the English or British working class was not a novel phenomenon even before that book came out; numerous books on that theme had already been published over the years. Those were generally narrative or institutional sorts and viewed the history of the movement as one of triumphant advances in the face of internal and external obstacles.

The significance of Thompson’s monumental book, apart from its scale and scope, was his effort to grasp the consciousness which according to him was intrinsic to their class identity — of the individual and intellectual under discussion and, especially to give a voice to the marginalised, in the process of working class formation, the backward-looking nostalgic as well as deluded utopian.

The central thesis of the 800-page book is the growth of a specifically working class consciousness. Thompson ascribed new meaning to ‘class’ which to him was not a ‘structure’ nor a ‘category’ but a ‘historical phenomenon’ which actually happened in human relationship, “when some men as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”

This sort of social history was soon taken up and applied to the travails of all sorts of the suppressed, disregarded, despised groups, individuals, and intellectuals — it brought a new perspective to the history of women and was the wellspring of feminist historiography.

In the words of Sreedharan, Thompson considered historical knowledge to be provincial, incomplete, and approximate, yet he is determined to write history from the ‘bottom up’ and rescue the labouring poor “from the enormous condescension of posterity”.

Therefore, the traditional history, its scope and method were challenged. More so, that bottom-up approach to do history created a crevice for post-modernism to pervade the discipline of history. About post-modernist approach one can say with certainty that it enables the previously un-represented to find a historical voice, that it revalues the sort of historiography which has been practiced until very recently and moves the historical spotlight away from ‘dead white males’.

If post-modernism became a means to bring the dispossessed and disregarded into the fold of mainstream history there could hardly be any reason to object to it; quite the contrary, and many practitioners in this form of historiography have adopted the post-modern identification, particularly the feminist one.

However, there is much more that relates to considerations at the very basis of historiography, about the possibility of the knowing, about whether traditional historians practice has any validity, about whether anything trustworthy can be said about the past. When the new social history was tangibly inflected with structuralism and post-structuralism, and entirely new intellectual climate was generated, which brought about a paradigmatic shift in the methodology of history.

That trend started taking definitive shape in the early 1980s, partly owing to the spawning influence of the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. The attractions of the linguistic turn and the nausea of the 1968 hangover began to be felt and historiography as well as the literary studies, particularly in the Anglophone world, accepted a profound influence from it. However, the continental historians seemed to have had very little impact but even they could not remain impervious to it.

In 1976 was published an intervention from a structuralist source: Hayden White’s (1928-2018) Metahistory : The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. In that work, White tends to assimilate text of history and historical theory to literary production by demonstrating that they were always structured within the few rigid frameworks, e.g. tragedy, comedy, irony provided by literary models.

In Metahistory White claimed that the manifest historical text is marked by strategies of explanation, which include explanation by argument, explanation by emplotment, and explanation by ideological implication. He argued that historical writing was influenced by literary writing in many ways, sharing the strong reliance on narrative for meaning.

Therefore, White contradicts the view that “historiography can be objective or truly scientific and unaffected by anything”. The basic ideas that Hayden Whites employed had already been advanced in the early 1960s by the literary theorist, Northrop Frye, a Canadian literary critic and literary theorist, considered one of the most influential of the 20th century.

Hayden White set out his argument in the Introduction: In this theory I treat the historical work as what it most manifestly is: a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse… I maintain that they contain a deep structural content which is generally poetic, and specifically linguistic, in nature and which serves as the pre-critically accepted paradigm of what a distinctively ‘historical’ explanation should be.

Surface structure and deep structure are linked but separate. The linguistic deep structure, according to White, engendered only four possible emplotments – emplotments in this argument most definitely do not provide unlimited possibilities. These archetype emplotments are romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire, though White acknowledges that they can be mixed.

Metahistory examines eight writers and draws inferences from their writings. All of them except one are from the 19th century. Among historians the book takes into account Ranke, Michelet, Tocqueville and Burckhardt. From the theorists Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and Croce are the ones that Metahistory draws on for its theoretical conclusions.

Generally, historians criticise Hayden White and brand him as literary theorist who tends to downplay history vis a vis literary theory. Therefore, Hayden White was consigned to marginality in the circle of historical discourse. To conclude this column, let’s get back to post-modernism and its current status in the history departments in various universities.

Post-modernism and the linguistic turn had their heyday in the 1980s. By the concluding years of that decade and in the early 1990s post-modernism seemed to have passed its prime. As Richard Evans says post-modernist history eventually had to accept the traditional history’s supremacy.

In every department of history, a couple of positions were created to accommodate post-modernist historians. Currently, that remains the case but interestingly the traditional historians have imbibed the influences from post-modernism and its distinctive status even if it exists, it exists on the margins. Now the discipline of history is witnessing an environmental turn. Thus, it is high time for the history departments of Pakistani universities to introduce environmental history.

Post-modernist challenge to ‘history’ — III