Postmodernism diffused through the Anglo-American academy in last quarter of the 20th century. Although it is mostly domesticated, the type of scholarship still informs some researchers in the 21st Century. This legacy is seen in the thought of historians Alum Munslow and Keith Jenkins. For instance, Jenkins, in his popular book Re-Thinking History, says that historians use the idea of truth to support their preferred accounts of the past:
‘truth’ and similar expressions are devices to open, regulate and shut down interpretations. Truth acts as a censor—it draws the line. We know that such truths are really ‘useful fictions’ that are in discourse by virtue of power (somebody has to put and keep them there) and power uses the term ‘truth’ to exercise control: regimes of truth. (1991, 32)
He admits that historians study sources, but adds that
the historian’s viewpoint and predilections still shape the choice of historical materials, and our own personal constructs determine what we make of them. The past that we ‘know’ is always contingent upon our own views, our own ‘present’…. Epistemology shows we can never really know the past; that the gap between the past and history (historiography) is an ontological one, that is, is in the very nature of things such that no amount of epistemological effort can bridge it. (pp. 12, 19)
With this in mind, Jenkins calls for imagination, and repeats a common frustration that orthodox historical studies have an inability (or unwillingness) to address new evidence or new subjects, such as blacks, women, Chicanos, American Indians, immigrants, families, cities. Jenkins says that orthodox historicans proclaim this new evidence or new subjects as
Disjoint[ed] and incoherent[ce]” that lacks “central themes or a framework,” and that does not try to answer any “significant questions” of the kind raised by previous historians.
they presume a unity that is thought to be spurious, because they impose a political identity upon nonpolitical entities (notably race, gender, and class), and because they perpetuate the “hegemony” of the established political elite over all the groups suppressed and oppressed by the old history- women, blacks, Chicanos, etc. It is difficult, moreover, to see how the subjects of the new history can be accommodated in any single framework, let alone a national and political one. For what they are all “clamoring for” is not a place on the periphery of history-that they always had-but at the center, and not intermittently but permanently (665)
Taking this approach, no one subject—political processes, elections, labour—should be a preferred area of study for the historian. Instead, all objects, subjects, processes, events, are legitimate areas of study: None is more or less important to the understanding of life in general, or a period in particular. This can offer a “valuable corrective” (669) to history in so far that it opens avenues for other areas of study that are neglect, slighted, or viewed as insignificant
This is a radical shift for conventional historians and their epistemological approaches, choices, and understanding of the past – the view of highlighting, selecting periods, events and so on and identifying that they are more significant than others, and thus require a more attentive study – instead, deconstructive approaches suggest that merely what historians do is preclude other avenues of meaning making and understanding. This is why deconstructive anthropology seeks to draw attention to unconventional modes of understanding the past; it highlights how ‘conventional’ approach is but one of many and that it is little deserving of privilege.
What is being de-privileged and deconstructed is not only history as traditional historians have understood it but the past as contemporaries knew it. Contemporaries may have thought that their history was shaped by kings and statesmen, politics and diplomacy, constitutions and laws.
Given these five points, postmodernists argue that historical accounts are merely reflections of discursive priors. These preconceptions thus render a certain set of mechanics to fulfill the role required by the theory. For this reason, Jenkins suggests that we ought to “forget history” and instead turn towards the “imaginaries provided by postmodern type theorists” (1999, 12).
The second line of argument against empiricism stems from postmodernists questioning the evidence itself and the use of source material. Keith Jenkins remarks that
the historian’s viewpoint and predilections still shape the choice of historical materials, and our own personal constructs determine what we make of them. The past that we ‘know’ is always contingent upon our own views, our own ‘present.’ (1991, 12)
Epistemology shows we can never really know the past; that the gap between the past and history (historiography) is an ontological one, that is, is in the very nature of things such that no amount of epistemological effort can bridge it. (1991, 19)
Jenkins two points illustrate postmodernists suggest that the use of evidence is informed by social conversions and personal interests influenced by cultural dispositions not by methodology. Historians have objected to this characterization, and have responded by saying that informed critique by other historians dampers the bias brought by convention and interest.
This brings attention to a third and related line of argument. As the majority of the evidence that historians use is text based – letters, newspapers, documents and so on – historians do not in fact correspond the texts they write to events in the past. Instead they refer to other texts. Hence, the meaning of the historians’ text does not correspond to the meaning of an event, but to the meaning of another text. Additionally, due the “death of the author” thesis, there can be no single and limited intended meaning of a particular text. Hence the ambiguity of meaning requires that historians give believing that the texts to which the refer mirror events that occurred in the past.
One impact of this thought is to view the historical interpretation as a process of invention, imagination, creation through a selection between conjectures based upon the known and the unknown. To unravel these histories, one must decode or deconstruct the process of historical interpretation. Or as Foucault does, turn on the decoders themselves and decode the decoders. This rupture, Bentley remarks, the postmodern was an “inestimable good in shaking one of the more conservative disciplines to its foundations and giving rise to much innovative and intelligent writing.” Bentley continues to add that “rarely has a generation had the opportunity of the current cohort of students to rethink what history means” (Bentley 1998, vii).
Due to the nature of historical writing there are opportunities where for the sake of brevity and narrative, historians make use of generalizations or summery interpretations to convey their point. For the classic paradigm of historiography, key criteria to apply to these generalizations and interpretations is that they ought to prove to be ‘credible, fair and intelligible.’ (Behan McCullagh 2004, 138), in other words there are good reasons for thinking that these generalizations and interpretations are true. Generalizations are also employed because they vitally assist effort to synthesis large amounts of data and evidence as well as assisting in providing a causal analysis.
However, in a very strict sense, most historical generalizations are false because their scope present many opportunities for important exceptions and anomalies. Additionally, unless they are bounded by qualifications, most generalization are become meaningless. However, qualifying generalizations makes them less general and so less useful.
Given this, postmodernists disagree that generalizations and interpretations can in fact be true. They merely state that these narrative devices are but one form of description, and that as there is no adequate method to assess the various descriptions that can be made, there is no basis to believe that the particular generalizations and interpretations on offer are more accurate than others. As Frank Ankersmit writes “generalizations do not express any truths on the nature of (socio-historical) reality; they only reflect regularities in how we have actually decided to conceptualize reality” (1983, 160). And keeping in mind one of his main arguments (‘the past itself has no narrative pattern or structure’ [1983, 110]), it is likely that Ankersmit would agree that generalization hide more than they enlighten, and in doing so enable social projects to use generalizations and summary interpretations to pursue projects that are false and misleading at best, and disastrous for humans at worst.
For these reasons Lyotard has renounced generalization or metanarratives in The Postmodern Condition. His attack is twofold. The first is to undermine the credibility of knowledge, while the second illustrates how well known historical generalizations are false. He concludes by advocating that no historical generalization can be true. Instead generalizations are considered legitimate based on the preferences of language games and little more. And considering that language games are merely an expression of power, there is no need to respect the claims of previously legitimated generalizations. What is implied is that generalizations and narratives come to support power. Which this is mind, Lyotard’s recommendation for historians therefore seems to be that they should confine themselves to specific and local studies, not necessarily those of any general consequence, and refrain from making general statements.