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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Thought for the Day (and a bit)

In the latest in our series of latter-day koans for the (dys)functioning twenty-first-century historian, I offer the following for you to ponder:

What is this book for, exactly?

I just read the first chapter of Narrative and History.  Not sure I'll read any more but we'll see.  Let's just say I am unimpressed.  It's not that I went into it with any particular preconception; I've not been very impressed in the past with the author's work or that of his guru, Keith Jenkins, but I've no axe to grind against critiques of traditional history.  If anyone ought to approach someone who claims to represent 'deconstructionist history'  positively it ought to be me, especially now I'm a card-carrying Derridean.  But, well ... what is the author of this tome?  Does he see himself as a historian?  If so he seems to have a very odd view of the practising historian and her/his attitudes.  Most of what he says on that score (thus far) is unsubstantiated caricature.  Or does he think he's a philosopher of history?  Because if so, his understanding of the post-structuralist philosophy he claims to advocate is shocking.  And I say that as someone, as you know, who makes no pretence at all to be a philosopher.  Or is he just Keith Jenkins' panegyrist?  The fawning over Jenkins is really quite nauseating.

So far, we have a lot of long words but our man hasn't demonstrated very clearly that he understands that many of them.  Certainly he seems not to understand what deconstruction means.  At all.  In spite of writing a book called Deconstructing History (see also here).  He also has a curious understanding of what 'historicism' is too.  He seems to see no contradiction between his premise about history being essentially 'authored' and history being inseparable from the politics etc of the writer of history ('authored history') and everything that Barthes and Derrida (whom he cites as being behind the view of history he champions) said about the author.  Thus far (this might get resolved) we seem to be told that we can identify the ideological positioning etc of a modern writer of history, but the ability of a modern historian to do something similar with his/her sources appears to be pooh-poohed.

This book is apparently a primer for history students, but I don't think it could safely be given to any undergraduates - even on a course about post-linguistic turn approaches to history - without seriously misleading them.  Maybe I'm being a bit harsh - it wouldn't be the first time after all - but this whole project seems to me to be predicated on no one knowing anything about either history or philosophy, on the assumption that practising historians mostly don't think about what they're doing (and maybe that's truer than it ought to be, but less true than many seem to think) and on the reader not actually going and checking out and engaging with the philosophy on its own terms but simply 'applying' the bizarrely cock-eyed critique  presented in the book, willy-nilly, to set texts.  I really cannot see the point beyond that.  So far this seems to me to be a very bad book, even on its own terms.  Maybe it'll get better.  I'm not confident.