Keith Jenkins On "What is History?". From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White. Routledge. 2005.



Keith Jenkins

On 'What is History?'

From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White


In this book Keith Jenkins argues that older modernist discussions about the nature of history - including those by Carr and Elton -are now partial and dated guides to contemporary debates. He advocates that they be ‘replaced’ by two other theorists, Richard Rorty and Hayden White.

In his introduction and first chapter, Keith Jenkins places Carr, Elton, Rorty and White within current discussions concerning the discourse of history. This ‘contextualisation’ is then followed by four chapters: in the first two Carr and Elton are subjected to radical critique; in the latter Jenkins introduces aspects of the works of Rorty and White, postmodern-type thinkers who in his opinion represent a possible way forward for today’s historiographical concerns.

Keith Jenkins’ exploration of Hayden White’s work is particularly significant. For although White has long been recognised as one of the most original history theorists currently writing, his work is actually little read and little understood in many orthodox historical arenas, or by most history students. Jenkins argues that the neglect of White and the general suspicion of ‘theory’ among many historians are issues which need to be urgently addressed.

On ‘What is History?’ should enable students to gain insights into and understandings of many current debates with regard to the ‘history question’, insights and understandings that necessarily move us beyond those old introductory favourites, Carr and Elton, into new and vital areas of consideration.



Acknowledgements                                                                           vii

Introduction: history, theory, ideology                                            1

1  History today                                                                                     15

2  On Edward Carr                                                                                 43

3  On Geoffrey Elton                                                                             65

4  On Richard Rorty                                                                               99

5  On Hayden White                                                                            137

Notes                                                                                                183

Further Reading                                                                              199

Index of names                                                                               203

For Maureen, Philip and Patrick



I would like to thank Peter Brickley, Richard Brown, Andrew Foster, Keith Grieves, Guy Nelson, Richard Pulley, Geoff Scale and Alan White for their comments on the arguments I have tried to put forward in an introductory way in this book. I have attempted to take on board their critical suggestions whenever possible and those that ‘have not made it’ I have kept gratefully for possible future use.

The author and publishers would like to thank the following who have kindly given permission for the use of copyright material: Macmillan Press Limited, for excerpts from E.H.Carr’s What is H is tor y? ; Cambridge University Press and the Royal Historical Society for excerpts from G.R.Elton’s Return to Essentials; Cambridge University Press and Richard Rorty for excerpts from R. Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, also Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers Volume 7, and Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers Volume II; University of Minnesota Press for excerpts from R.Rorty’s Consequences of Pragmatism; Johns Hopkins University Press for excerpts from Hayden White’s Metahistory, Tropics of Discourse and The Content of Form. Every effort has been made to obtain permission from the publishers of G.R.Elton’s The Practice of H is tor y. Any queries about the above should be addressed to Patrick Proctor at Routledge, London.

Keith Jenkins, 23 November 1994



This book has been written as something of a sequel to an earlier volume published in 1991 entitled Re-thinking History and, as on that previous occasion, this new work is addressed primarily (though obviously not exclusively) to advanced and undergraduate students and their teachers.1 And I have written it because I think it is necessary to introduce such students—who may well be studying the question of the nature of history in some detail for the first time -to some of the more contentious, polemical and difficult debates which are currently in circulation, and which are arguably determining how this particular discourse is being constituted and considered today.

If, however, these comments indicate in only the very briefest of ways who I have written this book for and something of its general purpose, I do not actually want to enlarge on these intentions at this early stage. Rather what I do want to do, is to go on to explain my approach to the question of what is history, how and why I have organised it around the four people whose names appear in the book’s subtitle—Edward Carr, Geoffrey Elton, Richard Rorty and Hayden White—and, more importantly perhaps, why I have put into that subtitle an element of movement, that is, from Carr and Elton to Rorty and White.

For, whilst I think that readers will find a good deal of description and exposition in this work, I shall also be running a particular argument throughout its entirety, it being within the ‘movement’ just mentioned that what polemical cutting edge the book has is located. For these two simple words, from and to, carry within them the weight of the thesis I shall be developing in the following pages, my position being (in brief for now) that despite the continued popularity of their texts as ‘essential introductions’ to the ‘history question’ (which is why I have thought it useful to organise this book around individual historians/theorists and not around ‘schools’ or ‘movements’ or ‘concepts’ or whatever)2 I feel that Carr and Elton are no longer



good enough embodiments and/or guides to the more reflexive debates on ‘what is history?’ currently taking place, so that they should now be effectively abandoned in favour of more relevant and generous exponents as to what is going on, exponents from whose number I have chosen to look at just two: Rorty and White.3

How can this ‘thesis’ be justified; what sort of reasons for replacing Carr and Elton can be given? Here I think that at least two types of answer, operating on two different levels, can be put. First, there is an answer that is actually a rather obvious one, but which I want to mention briefly, not only because it is apparently ignored by those still recommending Carr and Elton as ‘essential reading’, but also because it will allow me to ‘introduce’ Carr, Elton, Rorty and White. Second, there is an answer that, whilst somewhat more complicated, nevertheless takes me in the direction in which I want to go, and which I will therefore outline in more detail. For this second answer will enable me both to justify my treatment of Carr, Elton, Rorty and White with regard to the position I shall be developing, as well as letting me say something about how my argument—and thus the book which embodies it— is constructed.

I think that the level one answer as to why Carr and Elton now have to be left behind, then, is simply because the books for which they have long been best known with regard to the question of what constitutes history—Carr’s What is History? and Elton’s The Practice of History—are now around thirty years old and unrevised.4 Carr’s text, which first appeared in 1961, was the published version of lectures he finished drafting in 1960, and although he had written a new Preface to it by the time of his death in 1982, no changes had been made to the body of the work. Similarly, whilst Elton produced a further text in 1970 justifying the principles and practices of (his kind of) political history, and whilst he published a revisionist work Return to Essentials in 1991, The Practice of History (1967) remained effectively untouched.5

By virtue of the age and the unrevised character of their works, therefore, it really does not seem sensible to me that, as history teachers, we should still be suggesting to our students that their first (and sometimes their only) port of call with regard to the question of what is history should be the ‘Carr-Elton debate’. Or at least it should give us pause for thought (I mean, how many other discourses introducing students to their current practices recommend as basic reading thirty-year-old texts?). Yet from a study of course reading lists, lecture programmes and conversations with historians, it seems that this is overwhelmingly what continues to occur. For, since their original publication dates,



Carr and Elton’s most famous texts have never ceased to be Strongly recommended’, have never stopped selling well, have never been unavailable and have thus never lost -certainly within the academic mainstream—their preeminent status as the works ‘to raise the issues’. Consequently, it seems no exaggeration to say that Carr and Elton have long set the agenda for much if not all of the crucially important preliminary thinking about the question of what is history. And all this is well-recognised of course, as Dominick LaCapra’s comments (which draw on a very different experience of introducing students to history from my own) seem to confirm:

A standard practice in historiography seminars is to begin by assigning Elton’s The Practice of History and Carr’s What is History? …as representing the alternatives in the self-understanding of the discipline. This practice is sure to generate heated debate among students, and it starts the course with a pleasant ‘Steve Reeves meets Godzilla’ scenario. The result is usually a more or less pragmatic and eclectic ‘synthesis’ of the two works that may serve as a tenuous consensus on which the seminar may proceed in its study of less ‘theoretical’ and ‘methodological’ assignments.6

Yet, as I say, these texts as ‘representing the self-understanding of the discipline’ are arguably no longer good enough today. For over the last twenty to thirty years there has developed around and about this dominant academic discourse a range of theories (hermeneutics, phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, new historicism, feminism and post-feminism, post-Marxism, new pragmatism, postmodernism and so on) as articulated by a range of theorists (for example, Ricouer, Foucault, Barthes, Althusser, Derrida, Greenblatt, Kristeva, Bennett, Laclau, Fish, Lyotard et al.) which have reached levels of reflexive sophistication and intellectual rigour with regard to the question of historical representation, which one could not even hazard a guess at from a reading of Carr and Elton’s vintage texts—or from their later thoughts on the subject, come to that. From this perspective then, Carr and Elton cannot help but appear passé, all of this suggesting that we should now move on to theories and theorists of the type just mentioned—and in this particular text to Rorty and White—if we are to gain a better understanding of how the discourse of history is being currently rendered.

To those who already have some familiarity with these ‘current renditions’, the choice of Richard Rorty (if not Hayden White) as



part of a ‘Carr-Elton’ replacement package may seem odd. Because, although Rorty has written extensively on the history of ideas, he is not really a historian at all but a philosopher.7 So why in the present context choose him? Well, although one may not go all the way with Harold Bloom’s view that Rorty is simply ‘the most interesting philosopher in the world today’, it is easy to see why Bloom should think this. For (again, over the last twenty to thirty years) the once ‘analytical’ Rorty has not only blended a ‘personalised’ Dewey-type pragmatism with readings of, say, Nietzsche and Freud, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Foucault and Derrida, Davidson and Quine, but he has also quite deliberately absorbed and worked on aspects of semiotics, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, post-feminism, post-Marxism and postmodernism, collapsing in the process the old disciplinary borders of philosophy, science, literature, politics and history, so to arrive at an original and seminal position that can be described as an anti-foundationalist, anti-epistemological, ironic, rhetorical, conversationalist type of philosophy. Rorty therefore seems to me to be the embodiment of the contemporary, a barometer, perhaps, of intellectual pressures across so many discourses, all of which (like history) have the construction of meaning and the problems of representation in focus. In that sense Rorty—moving as he does with such ease across the entire intellectual terrain—expresses some of the arguably most vibrant areas of contemporary intellectual life, areas which I have tried to summarise through an examination of aspects of his philosophy. My aim in using Rorty is therefore two-fold: to introduce historians to his own personal ‘take’ on these wider concerns, and to provide a guide to that wider intellectual milieu against which Carr and Elton’s views on history are just no longer credible, whilst Hayden White’s very clearly are.

I came across White’s work before that of Rorty through a reading in the mid-1970s of his Metahistory (1973) and, since then, I have tried to keep up with the steady stream of his more theoretical books and articles. In 1978, White published a collection of essays entitled Tropics of Discourse and followed this in 1987 with The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, whilst more recently he has, for example, written on Proust and penned an incisive Afterword to a collection of essays edited by H.A. Veeser, The New Historicism.8 Together, in these and other pieces, White has ranged across a host of historians, history theorists and cultural critics—Marx, Michelet, Carlyle, Burckhardt, Droyson, Jacobson, Lévi-Strauss, Kristeva,   Foucault,   Ricoeur,   Derrida,  Kenneth   Burke,   Barthes,



Wellek, Auerbach, Frye et al.—whilst his footnotes read like compilations of some of the more important debates in contemporary thought: deconstructionism, narratology, linguistics, post-structuralism, and so on, White applying these and other aspects of thought directly to historiography, historical method and wider historical discussions in thought-provoking ways. Even so -and one says this with an enormous amount of regret—because of what can only be described as the chronic, anti-theoretical nature of mainstream ‘history culture’ in this country, relatively few students, and indeed relatively few teachers and historians, have actually read much White, whilst to some he remains effectively unknown. And it is because I think White should be known and should be discussed that I offer here a sort of ‘rough guide to Hayden White’, a guide which I hope might be useful for aspiring historians and which might encourage them to read for themselves one of the most stimulating theorists writing today, writing which takes us far beyond the old shibboleths of Carr and Elton both ‘in themselves’ and certainly beyond the parameters of their ‘debate’.

That is not all, however. For it is interesting—and it encourages in this area a polemical tone that I have taken advantage of—that in his 1990 essays on the nature of history (in his backward-looking and backward-entitled Return to Essentials) Elton signals all that is wrong with current ‘theorising’ via a savage critique of post-structuralist, deconstructionist and other postmodern ‘fads’, picking out Hayden White as the arch-exponent of what might be termed ‘this regrettable rubbish’ and spending several dismissive pages of a slim text attending to his malign approaches and influence. Accordingly, in this way the old ‘Carr-Elton debate’ becomes explicitly enmeshed within those discursive practices that Rorty and White are both obviously engaged in so that, at this point, these ‘first level’-type reasons for affecting the movement of this introductory text on the question of what is history become embodied in its very title: On ‘What is History?’: From Carr and Elton to Rorty and White.

So to the second level argument as to why move on, an argument that goes beyond the reasons I have just considered by incorporating and contextualising them within the broad thesis that informs this text and which offers me an explicatory frame of reference which I have constantly alluded to with regard to my comments on Carr, Elton, Rorty and White.

Here, my argument is that those general changes which have occurred over the last twenty to thirty years, and which I have already suggested have reorganised the recent/current intellectual



landscape, are not unconnected to a whole series of socio-economic, political and cultural changes that have infused them with life. And in order to hold these interconnected material/ theoretical actualities together, I have drawn on both the concept of postmodernity (as the most useful concept available under which to signify our socio-economic, political and cultural condition) and on the concept of post modernism (as signifying the best way of making sense of various Expressive’ intellectual changes at the level of theory), these concepts enabling me to argue that in this postmodern world (and despite their ‘differences’) the works of Carr and Elton are unmistakably modernist and are thus, in that sense, generally irrelevant to an understanding of what history is in our ‘new times’, a disadvantage that the ‘postist’ Rorty and White do not suffer from. Let me at this point, then, lightly sketch out in a preliminary and skeletal form (I shall have occasion to revisit it) the understanding I have of our postmodern condition and history and its relevance to Carr, Elton, Rorty and White: let me sketch out the second level.

Today we live within the general condition of post modernity . We do not have a choice about this. For postmodernity is not an ‘ideology’ or a position we can choose to subscribe to or not; postmodernity is precisely our condition: it is our fate. And this condition has arguably been caused by the general failure—a general failure which can now be picked out very clearly as the dust settles over the twentieth century—of that experiment in social living which we call modernity. It is a general failure, as measured in its own terms, of the attempt, from around the eighteenth century in Europe, to bring about through the application of reason, science and technology, a level of personal and social wellbeing within social formations which, legislating for an increasingly generous emancipation of their citizens/subjects, we might characterise by saying that they were trying, at best, to become ‘human rights communities’.

Of course this general failure has not been total or unrelieved; there have been many substantial successes. But notwithstanding these, I think that it is now possible to see that the two socio-economic-political-ideological variants set to provide the vehicles for the emancipations of modernity—a bourgeois version of a liberal market capitalism, which, in the very structure and primacy of its economic imperatives was in contradiction to its universalistic ‘formal’, emancipatory rhetoric—and a proletarian version as articulated most cogently by (as it has turned out) various total(itarian) Marxisms, have by now either faded enough for us to have had to re-think our earlier assumptions, or have



disintegrated enough for us to have had to revise our earlier hopes. And it is our own current existence at this disappointing stage (at the stage of being past modernity whilst recognising the unfulfilment of what was promised by it) that here in the West has given rise to either a series of jaded and/or nostalgic reassessments that can be recuperated back into a now thoroughly sceptical capitalism as apologetics, or to a range of sometime radical critiques which still hold out the vague promise of an emancipatory future beyond the modern. And it is arguably in the variously articulated and tense interconnections of such reappraisals as to what has gone wrong, that have led various theorists to a detailed consideration and critique of the foundations of modernity, re-appraisals which, historically unique in their intensity and extent as they trip across the whole discursive field, have reached the general ‘conclusion’ that there are not—and nor have there ever been—any ‘real’ foundations of the kind alleged to underpin the experiment of the modern; that we now just have to understand that we live amidst social formations which have no legitimising ontological or epistemological or ethical grounds for our beliefs or actions beyond the status of an ultimately self-referencing (rhetorical) conversation. The recognition of this, variously expressed at the level of theory from the actualities of living in the condition of post-modernity, is what I would want to call postmodernism. And here there is a type of choice available. For, although we cannot pick and choose whether we want to live in postmodernity or not, we can (and many of us still do) exercise a bit of picking and choosing between the remaining residues of old ‘certaintist’ modernisms (objectivity, disinterestedness, the ‘facts’, unbiasedness, truth) and rhetorical, ‘postist’ discourses (readings, positionings, perspectives, constructions, verisimilitude) rather than going totally for one or the other. Consequently it is here, between old certainties and rhetorical postist discourses, that the current debates over what constitutes history and how historical knowledge is effectively constructed, live.

The detailed reasons for this are complicated, but to give an introductory generalisation, the argument for saying that this is where history is located today rests not least on the ideological importance given to history in modernist projects. For both bourgeois and proletarian versions of modernity (their obvious differences notwithstanding) articulated as key elements in their respective ideologies, a shared view of history as a movement with a direction immanent within it—a history which was purposefully going somewhere—differing only in the selection of ‘its’ ultimate destination and the ‘essentialist’ dynamics (the entrepreneurial



individual, the class struggle, etc.) which would get ‘it’ there. Both bourgeois and proletarian ideologies therefore expressed their historical trajectories in versions of the past articulated in the upper case, as History; that is, a way of looking at the past in terms that assigned to contingent events and situations an objective significance by identifying their place and function within a general schema of historical development usually construed as appropriately ‘progressive’.9 And today, with the capsizal of the optimism of the modernist project in ways which, metaphorically speaking, sink right down to its once ostensible roots, so we have witnessed the attendant collapse of history in the upper case; I mean, nobody really believes in that particular fantasy any more.

But that is not all. It is not only that we now realise that an upper-case history is a formal and thus empty mechanism to be filled according to taste (of History as if it was progressing towards the formal freedoms of a liberal market economy; of History as if it was what Marxists said it was). For whilst these metaphorical/ allegorical versions of the past were one crucial element of modernist ideologies, another way of reading the past was also being developed within the bourgeois version. This version was just as ideological as any upper case history ever was, but, expressive of the more conservative elements of the bourgeoisie and already establishing or established interests (of those who did not, as it were, want to ‘develop’ too much or too fast any more in case such ‘progress’ proved disadvantageous to them), this variant became increasingly cultivated until, as the need for a future-orientated upper case past lost its urgency as more and more of the bourgeoisie ‘made it’, it became dominant. This version of history is, of course, history in the lower case, as plain, common-sense, humble ‘history’; that is to say, history construed in ‘academic’ and ‘particularistic’, not worldly and universal, forms which, whilst insisting with as much force as any upper case history ever did that it was proper history, modestly eschewed metanarrative claims that it was discovering in the past meaningful trajectories, purposes and teleologies. Within increasingly bourgeois social formations that were able to undercut and thus marginalise the no longer needed upper case, this more servile version of history has become to such an extent the version that today, ensconced within the universities and other academic institutions, this way of looking at the past—as the study of the past ‘for its own sake’ as distinct from the study of the past explicitly for the sake of the bourgeoisie or the proletariat -has become almost natural.



But only almost. For the attempt to pass off lower case bourgeois history as though it is identical to history itself, as though the study of history in the form of the disinterested scholarship of academics studying the past ‘objectively and for its own sake’ (own-sakism) really is ‘proper’ history, is now unsustainable. For, as history in the upper case has been undercut by theorists for reasons to do with their own re-thinking of the modernist project, so the argumentative means to do this fundamental re-evaluation of the foundations of these relative failures has impacted upon the ‘foundational’ verities of lower case history too, the result being the problematicisation of both ‘History’ and ‘history’. Consequently, we recognise today that there never has been, and that there never will be, any such thing as a past which is expressive of some sort of essence, whilst the idea that the proper study of history is actually ‘own-sakism’ is recognised as just the mystifying way in which a bourgeoisie conveniently articulates its own interests as if they belonged to the past itself. Because of the way in which upper case claims have been undercut, not only do upper case claims to be in the business of having a ‘real’ knowledge of the past look comic, but so do lower case claims as well. Consequently the whole ‘modernist’ History/history ensemble now appears as a self-referential, problematic expression of ‘interests’, an ideological— interpretive discourse without any ‘real’ access to the past as such; unable to engage in any dialogue with ‘reality’. In fact, ‘history’ now appears to be just one more ‘expression’ in a world of postmodern expressions: which of course is what it is.

It is at this moment of postmodernity as a socio-economic-political-cultural condition, and of po stmodern is m as a pervasive theoretical presence, then, that we can begin to locate individual historians and types of history. For what current historians make of the present situation—whether they radically and variously welcome the new opportunities it affords in order to work in the cracks opened up in old upper/lower case orthodoxies, or fearfully see in it the end of, if not the best of, all possible worlds, at least the end of theirs—determines where they stand with regard to what they think history now is. My argument will therefore be that those who will be the best guides to history today are those who not only know all about the collapse of both upper and lower case versions into uncertainty, but who like it and can accept it. As Roland Barthes explained in The Discourse of History, whilst the past can be represented in many historians’ modes, some are less mystifying than others in as much as they overtly call attention to their   own   processes   of   production,   clearly   flag   their   own



assumptions, and indicate explicitly and repeatedly the constituted rather than the found nature of their referent, ‘the historicised past’.

If we accept this, then it seems fairly clear to me that Carr and Elton are, in their ‘modernisms’, just too certaintist, just too mystifying, just too committed to the pretence that they can engage in a ‘real’ dialogue with the ‘reality’ of a (somehow) non-historiographically-constituted-past-as-history, to be reflexive enough guides to the question of what is history today. No, what are needed today are guides who realise that, modernist histories being sired and developed within modernity, then with the end of modernity so its ways of conceptualising history have also ended, and that within our own postmodern times, modernist renditions are now naive: their historical moment has passed. What are therefore required today are guides who, accepting not so much the ‘end of history’ per se but the ‘end of modernist renditions of history’, can face this with equanimity and even optimism. In other words, guides such as Richard Rorty and Hayden White.10

These, then, are my ‘two levelled’ reasons for choosing to move on from Carr and Elton to Rorty and White. What I want to do now is to explain briefly how I have organised the text in which I have expanded these arguments in order to help the reader ‘get through it’.

I begin with a first chapter entitled ‘History today’. In it I summarise the ‘nature of history’ today under the impact of postmodernism, and sketch in a few more particular aspects against which I have then positioned Carr, Elton, Rorty and White. In Chapters 2 to 5 I examine the four of them in more detail, detail which I will explain when I reach the relevant chapters. But I think that at this juncture it is useful to make just a few preliminary observations with regard to the way they will be considered. I have four points to make.

First, it is not my intention to go in for some kind of introductory survey or potted overview of the ‘lives and works’ of Carr, Elton, Rorty and White; there are, for example, no biographical details in what follows. Rather, in keeping with my general thesis that in order to understand history today we need to move on from Carr and Elton, I have simply posed to the three historians under consideration two questions; namely, what do each of them think history is (i.e., what are their views on the question of ‘what is history?’) and second, I have asked what possible use are the answers they give to this question to students coming to the study of what is history today in what might be termed its more ‘reflexive’ ways. And I have posed to Rorty a



different question; namely, what does he have to say in his philosophy that ‘reflects’ our general intellectual condition and its consequences that will help students, from the vantage point of his position, to understand what is happening in the narrower discursive field of history.

Second, I think that by now it will be rather obvious that Carr and Elton will not come out of this particular exercise as well as Rorty and White. To which some readers may well object that my whole approach is seriously flawed because my questions are so weighted against the answers Carr and Elton give. It may be objected, for example, that it is unfair on Carr and Elton to judge their answers and their usefulness against criteria they perhaps did not know very well or rejected. However, I do not think objections of this kind have much force. For if—and this is my argument— history today is best understood in terms which Carr and Elton are, for various reasons, outside of, antithetical to or dismissive of, then this is precisely why they should no longer be used in the ‘Steve Reeves meets Godzilla’ approach they still so commonly are. I am certainly not arguing -and I want to make this point very clear—that Carr and Elton ought not to be discussed intensely alongside as many other historians/ theorists as can be coped with within, say, any given learning-teaching situation. Of course they should. My argument is only that their still preeminent status as the historians to raise (and possibly exhaust) the issues should be re-thought. For I think the ‘issues’ have now moved on, and I hope that my more favourable treatment of Rorty and White may indicate where many have moved on to.

Third) the fact that I am less critical of Rorty and White than Carr and Elton, does not mean that the former duo have escaped critiques by many other people. Indeed, in the case of Rorty, ‘Rorty-bashing’ has almost become an intellectual sport, and for those who would like to get a possibly more ‘rounded’ view of him, then they could well turn to the substantial criticisms to be found in, say, Norris, Bhaskar or Bernstein, and to the collection of critical essays edited by Malachowski—as I do myself on occasion.11 But on the whole I have tended to write favourably on Rorty because: (a) I like a lot of what I think he says; and (b) I can use him for my own purposes. Quite fittingly I suppose, my treatment of Rorty has been pragmatic. So has my use of White. Like Rorty, White has some vociferous opponents and I am not unaware of some of the charges levelled against him.12 But although I have taken some of these on board, and whilst I cannot say I have ever found White an ‘easy’ or unproblematical read, I have invariably found him immensely stimulating and provocative.



It is because of both of these qualities in White -that he is both difficult and yet extremely worthwhile—that I have written about him in the manner I have: in a way which I hope is not too simplistic or Vulgar’ but certainly popularising, leaving it open to readers to go on to the detailed critiques if they wish.

All this is not to say—and this is the last comment I want to make in this third section—that I regard Rorty and White as having the last word on anything, or believe they have just about got things right. Because that is not my view. Nor, of course, are Rorty and White the most ‘revolutionary’ theorists writing today, not least because they are effectively ‘radical/left liberals’, and I am particularly conscious of critiques of Rorty and White that come from further along the political left; in that sense they hardly offer ‘the last word’ either. But as I have already explained, I think that at this specific postmodern juncture Rorty and White do make the sort of radical and broad interventions that both encapsulate the condition of postmodernity and offer starting points to move on from. Rorty and White are not to be read as ‘endings’, then, but as potential beginnings; theorists to be used as possible starting points, whether positively or negatively it must be for those using them to decide. But I am positive about them.

Fourth, I want to say something about the length of this book and the ‘personal’ way in which it has been written. I have tried to keep the book fairly short simply because it is something of a polemic as well as an expository exercise. Thus, whilst it is perfectly possible and legitimate for readers to dip into the book in order to get out of it what they want (so that, for example, someone thinking they may be able to get a quick crib on Carr may go just to his chapter) and whilst the individual chapters on Carr, Elton, Rorty and White might be read as fairly autonomous ‘interpretations’ of their subject as such, I hope that most readers will read the book in the way in which it has been sequenced and in its entirety in order to get the full argument. Hence its relative shortness, which might make it manageable to be read in four or five sittings. At the same time, of course, one of the consequences of writing both a short and a relatively polemical text, is that it increases the risk of both under- and over-statement, whilst the occasional resultant exaggeration or reduction in order to make a point visible and different enough to be noted -especially in the more critical Carr and Elton chapters—is a recurrent risk. However, I think that such risks are worth taking given the possible (if by no means certain) benefits, and here I would draw support from Dominick LaCapra’s note in the concluding chapter of what he



regards as his own polemical book, History and Criticism, wherein he writes:

This book is obviously polemical in its attempt to rethink certain assumptions and procedures of the historical craft. It is intended as a critical intervention in a profession where debates about self-understanding and practice are not as prevalent as I think they should be…. In spite of the difficulties of ever finding convincing proofs of large-scale judgements, I would contend that I do not simply set up ‘straw men’. I think the exaggerations bring into relief prevalent features of current historiography that are indeed

open to question.13

Finally, a further comment not unconnected to LaCapra’s. Which is to say that despite all I have previously argued, some readers may still think that when surveying aspects of a discursive field for introductory and expository purposes as well as polemical ones, then I really ought to have been more neutral, objective, balanced and disinterested in my respective treatments of Carr, Elton, Rorty and White. To which my reply is that I think that by now we should all have learned that this particular stricture must go unheeded. For today we know of no such things as neutral/objective ‘interpretation’, as ‘innocent’ surveys, as ‘unpositioned positions’. Rather, we should all know by now that the best we can do is to alert and keep on alerting ‘readers’ to the position we are interpreting from, rather than imagining that interpretations not only might spring from nowhere, but that some interpretations are not interpretive at all but ‘the truth’. As Dean MacCannell has observed:

Everything written in the ‘objective style’ …now risks being read as a kind of political cover-up; hidden complicity…. Interestingly, the one path that still leads in the direction of scholarly objectivity, detachment, and neutrality is exactly the one originally thought to lead away from these classic virtues: that is, an openly auto-biographical style in which the subjective position of the author, especially on political matters, is presented in a clear and straight-forward fashion. At least this enables the reader to review his or her own position to make the adjustments necessary for dialogue.14


Chapter 1


No discourse—and therefore no contribution to, and/or comment on, aspects of an existing discourse—is of ‘a natural kind’. You cannot find a historical or geographical or scientific or literary discourse just out there, just growing wild. Discourses are cultural, cultivated, fabricated and thus ultimately arbitrary, ways of carving up what comes to constitute their ‘field’, so that like any approach in any other discursive practice an introductory discussion about ‘history today’ could begin from innumerable starting points and be developed in various ways: in these matters one always has to make a start (and come to an end) somewhere. Accordingly, what follows is just my own way of introducing a little of what I think is going on in debates about history today, just one way of trying to locate Carr, Elton, Rorty and White in relation to them, and just one way of helping me to reach the conclusion I want to reach and which I hope might appear plausible; namely, that Carr and Elton, unlike Rorty and White, are, in their modernisms, not much to the point when now discussing the question of ‘what is history?’

My approach has four parts. First, in Section One of this chapter, an examination of how aspects of history are now being considered and problematised from textualist and ‘postist’ viewpoints will be carried out. To get into this area I start from the premise that there is a radical distinction to be drawn between ‘the past’ and ‘history’, going on to look at how this distinction has been ‘worked’ by three historians/theorists (Tony Bennett, F.R.Ankersmit and Hayden White himself) so as to arrive at some early and general understanding of what history today arguably is. Second, I look at just four ‘representative’ implications for ‘traditional’ histories as occasioned by such workings of the past-history distinction; implications involving the areas of ideology, historicism, historical truth and empiricism. Third, because these (and similar) implications have given rise to understandable resistances from traditional historians right across the intellectual



and ideological spectrum, I give some indication of the sorts of debates that are currently taking place with regard to the impact of such textualist/postist discourses and my own position in relation to them so that I will then be able to contextualise and locate (and this constitutes the fourth and last section) Carr, Elton, Rorty and White, before going on to look at each of them in detail.




Let us start, then, from the assumption that historical theory today can best be accessed by drawing a radical distinction between ‘the past’ and ‘history’, rendering the idea of history—as the various accounts constructed about the past by historians and those acting as if they were historians—by the term historiography. Let us assume that we do not just want to recognise this past-historiography difference and then pass on quickly to ‘do’ some history, but that ‘we’ want to dwell on it, to make it the centre of our concerns so that we might understand history via some of today’s most important debates. And let us say that the best entrée into these debates is via some general ideas about historiography as articulated by Bennett, Ankersmit and White.

Thus, for Tony Bennett, it would appear that characterising history as historiography (as writing, as texts different to the past which, whilst not itself a literal text, can only be ‘read’ through its remaining textual traces, its once actuality being inaccessible simply by virtue of it no longer existing) t heorises both the notion of ‘the past’ and the ‘writing-up’ of it.1 For, given that the past exists by definition only in the modality of its current historiographical representations, then this means that the issues involved in ‘traditional’ debates about the nature of historical scholarship can be rethought in a manner that allows a break with the ways in which they have been posed as part of a general epistemological problem concerning the nature of our access to the past as such. For, as Bennett says, that ‘is not the point at issue in historical inquiry, and never has been’.2 For historians, of course, never access the past as such, so that the problems formulated along the traditional lines of, ‘how can historians truly/ accurately know the past?’, or, ‘if historians cannot access the “real past”, then how can we have checks on historians’ accounts that are “real” checks as opposed to being “just interpretations”?’, are beside the point. For what is at issue in historiography—and indeed what can only ever be at issue—is what can be derived and constructed  from  the   historicised record or archive. It is the



‘historicised’ nature of the records/archives that historians access which must be stressed here. For such records and archives are, as Bennett explains, only too clearly highly volatile and mutable products of complex historical processes in that, apart from the considerable amount of organised labour (librarians, archivists, archaeologists, curators) which goes into their production (preserving, cataloguing, indexing, ‘weeding out’), the composition and potential of such traces/records vary considerably in terms of their potential use over time witness, says Bennett, ‘the influence of feminist historiography in expanding the range of what now counts as the historical record.’3 In this way, then, we can think of ‘the past as such’ as being an absent object of inquiry, its presence (its absent presence) being signified by its remaining traces, which is the only ‘real past’ we have, such traces functioning not as the historian’s referent in the sense of actually being some kind of extra-discursive reality, but as if they were such a referent in that they constitute the last court of appeal for historical disputes, ‘the point at which, so to speak, they hit base— but a base within discourse.’4

On this account history is therefore simply the (itself historicised) discipline through which historians working at the level of what Bennett has called the public historical sphere (e.g. salaried workers in higher education) come into contact with the historicised record or archive as currently existing in order to ‘intervene’ in it (to interpret it) so that from this perspective historiography may be regarded as a specific discursive regime, governed by distinctive procedures, through which the maintenance/transformation of the past as a set of currently existing realities is regulated. It constitutes a disciplined means for the production of a ‘historical past’ which exercises a regulatory function in relation to the ‘public past’. Its role in this regard is enormously important, [for] While their effects may not be immediately apparent in the short term, the conduct of historical debates and their (always provisional) resolution decisively influence the public face of the past over the long term…such debates requiring] as a condition of their intelligibility, the sense of a distinction between past and present and an orientation to historical records as if they comprised a referent. That this referent proves to be intra-discursive and so mutable does not disable the historical enterprise. To the contrary: the discipline’s social productivity consists precisely in its capacity to reorganise its referent and



thus transform ‘the past’—not as it was but as it is. Understood in this way, the cogency and productivity of historical enquiry may be admitted without the question of its relations to ‘the real past’ ever arising.5

This is not to doubt for a moment that the past actually existed, of course, but rather that in respect of what is at issue in historio-graphical disputes and the manner in which they are conducted, ‘it may be allowed to go its own way—as it surely has’. In this perfectly straightforward way of seeing things, then, the ‘real past’ doesn’t actually enter into historiography except rhetorically— except theoretically—so that in this sense we can understand in quite a matter of fact way some of what Derrida is driving at in his (in)famous remark that ‘there is nothing outside of the text’, that there is no ‘extra text’.6

Now, Bennett’s own way of putting his argument is more nuanced and developed than the brief reading offered here, but pulling things together as they have been described, Bennett’s point might be summarised by saying that ‘the past as constituted by its existing traces’ is always apprehended and appropriated textually through the sedimented layers of previous interpretations and through the reading habits and categories developed by previous/current methodological practices. Consequently, the status of historical knowledge is not based for its truth/accuracy on its correspondence with the past per se but on the various historicisations of it, so that historiography always ‘stands in for’ the past, the only medium it has to affect a ‘historical’ presence. Accordingly, such arguments as these go some considerable length towards undercutting traditional historiography insofar as it seems to depend upon that correspondence as actually being between historiography and a separate, non-historiographically constituted past. Here, some interesting arguments by White and Ankersmit develop what is meant by such ‘undercuttings’.

Although, as we shall see, White occasionally articulates his definition of what he thinks history is in different ways, the understanding which I think he usually works with is that the historical work is a verbal artifact, a narrative prose discourse, the content of which is as much invented—or as much imagined -as found.7 It is White’s stress on the invented/imagined element that I want to explain and develop at this point: what does he arguably mean?

I think White means at least two things. First, that in order to make sense of events or sets of events in the past, in order to make ‘the facts’ of the past ‘significant’, such events/facts always



have to be related to a context, to some sort of ‘whole’ or ‘totality’ or ‘background’, or even to the notion of ‘the past itself. Here the problem is that whilst the historian can certainly ‘find’ the traces of past events in the historicised records/archive and thus (selectively) establish (some of) ‘the facts’ about them in, say, a chronicle-type form, no historian can ever find the context or the totality or the background or ‘the past as such’ against which the facts can become truly significant and meaningful. What this means is that any such ‘context’ which is constructed to contextualise the facts has to be ultimately imagined or invented; unlike facts, the contexts can never be definitively found. Therefore, because to be meaningful all historical accounts have to involve part-to-whole or whole-to-part relationships (that is, as we shall see White put it later, accounts to be meaningful involve metonymic or synecdochal ‘tropes’),8 then at least three conclusions can be drawn at this early point. First, that all interpretations of the past are indeed as much invented (the contexts) as found (the facts) so that, on this first argument alone, White’s definition seems plausible. Second, because of this imagined (fictive) element in all histories (i.e. histories of both the upper and lower case) then no history can be literally ‘factual’ or completely ‘found’ or absolutely ‘true’. Third, that because of the inevitable troping of parts-to-whole and whole-to-parts, then all historical accounts are ultimately metaphorical and thus—because of their inescapable troping—metahistorical.

This is the first thing that White seems to mean by his understanding that the historical work is as much invented as found. The second is this. White thinks that most historians consider that the characteristic form in which they represent their accounts of the past to their audience—that is, the narrative form— is the actual content of the past (namely narrativity) then go on mistakenly to treat such narrativity as an essence shared by both the historical representation and the sets of events in the past. Now, this is perhaps a difficult point to grasp when stated baldly, so it might be useful to take a few sentences to spell it out. Accordingly, White’s explanation might be said to go roughly as follows.

Since its invention by Herodotus, traditional historiography has predominantly featured the belief that history consists of congeries of lived stories, individual and collective, and that the principal task of the historian is to discover these stories and retell them in narrative form, the truth/accuracy of which would reside in the degree of correspondence of the story told to the story lived. However,   says   White,   the   point   to   be   made   here   is   that,



unfortunately for this traditional view, it has recently been realised that people in the past did not actually live stories either individually (at the level of Veal-life’ stories) or collectively (at the level of, say, metanarratives which give purpose and meaning to the past as, for example, in Marxist or Whig theories of history) so that to see people in the past or the past ‘as such’ in story form, is to give to it an imaginary series of narrative structures and coherences it actually never had. To see the con tent of the past (i.e. what actually occurred) as if it were a series of stories (of great men, of wars and treaties, of the rise of labour, the emancipation of women, of ‘Our Island Story’, of the ultimate victory of the proletariat and so forth) is therefore a piece of ‘fiction’, caused by mistaking the narrative form in which historians construct and communicate their knowledge of the past as actually being the past’s own. Accordingly, the traditional idea that the truth/accuracy of history as told in narrative is evidenced by its degree of correspondence to stories once lived is ‘undercut’ when it is recognised that there are no stories in the past to correspond to: that the only stories the past has are those conferred on it by historians’ interpretative emplotments. Thus, any theory of correspondence that goes beyond the level of the statement and/or the chronicle—and by definition historiography always goes beyond the statement and the chronicle—is ultimately self-referencing. Ultimately, any such alleged correspondence is not between the historian’s story and the story the past itself would —if only it could—tell, but between the historian’s story and the past’s story as put into narrative form ‘in the past tense’ by historians themselves.

This point is reinforced a little differently by Ankersmit. For him,9 the history text consists of many individual statements. Most of these claim to give an accurate description of some state of affairs in the past. Historians formulate these statements on the basis of the sources they work on in archives, etc., and it is these sources when used as ‘evidence’ that will decide the truth or falsity of the statements in question. But—and this is Ankersmit’s argument -because the sources available to most historians will enable them to write many more ‘true’ statements than are actually to be found in their texts, then out of all the statements the historian could have made, the ones actually made are carefully selected, distributed and weighted, the result being that a certain ‘picture of the past’ (an icon) is fabricated. Consequently, says Ankersmit, we can make two points about the texts’ statements: (1) that individually they refer to, and describe, a fragment of the past and can either be true or false; and (2) they



collectively define a ‘picture of the past’ which cannot be said to be either true or false but simply an ‘iconic’ impression/reading. For—and this is where Ankersmit and White come closely together - the significant point is that whilst it is generally the case that individual discrete statements (facts) can indeed be checked against the discrete source to see if the historian’s account corresponds to it, the ‘picture of the past’ cannot be so checked, simply because the statements as put together by the historian to form such a picture do not have a picture of their own prior to this assembly for that assembly to then be checked against. And since, argues Ankersmit, what is essential in the writing of historians is not to be found at the level of the individual statement but rather at the level of the picture of the past (in that it is these pictures which, for example, most stimulate historiographical debate and thus determine the way we ‘see’ the past), then historiography is again as much invented/ imagined as found. Saying true things about the past at the level of the statement is easy—anybody can do that—but saying the right things, getting the picture straight, that is not only another story but an impossible one: you can always get another picture, you can always get another context.10




Now, as has already been suggested, these ways of theorising and working the past-historiography difference have some serious implications, especially for traditional history, in that once the impossibility of any literal representation of the traces of the past as the past per se is seen, then all such representations, being ultimately as much imagined/invented as found, mean that historiography ultimately becomes a series of ideas (theories) that historians have about making the past into ‘history’, all of which are problematic. At this point, then, it might be useful to consider briefly four examples of what such problematicisations of traditional historiography might be, not least because it is against them that some ‘traditional’ historians have recently reacted, it being this ‘engagement’ that provides the basis for many of the debates on what is history today, within and against which Carr, Elton, Rorty and White might be located.

The first problem is ideological and again takes cognisance of some of White’s arguments as a point of entry. For, White knows very well that at the level of historical meaning (as opposed to the level of the statement/chronicle), the conviction that the past has



some sort of comprehensible meaning in it stands, in these postmodern days, on the same level of conviction that it has not; that is to say, the matter is undecidable. Consequently, any claims which suggest that history has to be considered in a specific way because such a way embodies, or reflects, or is expressive of what the past and/or historiography really are, are ideological. Such claims are equally ideological whether they are made at the level of the upper case, as ‘History’, or at the level of the lower, as ‘history’, the lower case being seen by White as effectively ‘bourgeois’. For having had their own use of history in the upper case (for example in Whiggism) the bourgeoisie, having nothing else to ‘become’ in so far as they now live in their once future, have no need for a historical trajectory that has not yet reached its destination. Consequently, what could be more ‘natural’ (i.e. ideological) than understanding ‘proper’ history as a non-worldly, academic discipline ostensibly above politics? The conclusion to be drawn, therefore, is that all histories (that is, historiography as such) are suasive. History is always history for someone, and that someone cannot be the past itself for the past does not have a self, so that any history which considers its particular type of discourse (its species type) as identical to history per se (its ge nus ) is not only ideological, but ideological nonsense.

The second problem is related to the first, and again it draws on White. For White sees all histories, in whichever case, as equally historicist. He rejects the dichotomous view, held especially by ‘bourgeois’ historians, that historicism is an improper use of the past in so far as it uses it ‘illegitimately’ to illuminate present-day problems and/or, worse still, predict future events, on the basis that every representation, ‘however particularizing, narrativist, self-consciously perspectival, and fixated on its subject matter “for its own sake”, contains most of the elements of ... historicism.’ All historians have to shape their materials somehow vis-à-vis the present imperatives of narrative in general, and White argues that in the very language historians use, they subject the past to the kinds of ‘distortions’ that historicists impose upon their materials in a more explicit way, for

How else can any past, which by definition comprises events, processes, structures and so forth, considered to be no longer perceivable, be represented in either consciousness or discourse except in an ‘imaginary’ way?11

In that sense, those old dichotomies (so beloved of the seminar room) between ‘proper’ history and ‘historicism’, and between



‘proper’ history and ‘ideological’ history, obscure more than they illuminate about historical representation, the only difference between these oppositions being that in ‘proper’ history the element of overt construction is displaced into the interior of the narrative, whilst the element of ‘found’ data is permitted to occupy the position of prominence in the imagined story-line itself, in upper case history the reverse being the case: these are two sides of the same coin.

That is not all. For, at this particular conjuncture of the postmodern condition, the remarks made earlier (especially in the Introduction) are pertinent. To argue, in this context, that the study of history should have nothing to do with projecting ‘a past into the future’, is precisely as present-centred and ideological (historicist) as the argument that it should. That is, whereas upper case history is generally quite explicit that it is present-centred in its use of the past as a basis for a trajectory into a different future, the fact that the bourgeoisie doesn’t want a different future, and therefore doesn’t want a past-based ‘future orientated trajectory’ (the fact that at this point the past can be neutralised and studied not for ‘our sake’ but its own) is precisely what is needed in the present. Thus to pretend not to be present-centred is what actually constitutes the present-centredness of lower case history. Consequently, both upper and lower case histories serve—by the way they situate themselves in the present—their own present-centred (historicist) needs.

Third, the above two arguments (and indeed perhaps all the remarks made already) underline the point that all history is interpretive and never literally true (besides anything else, a ‘true interpretation’ is an oxymoron). For, as already argued apres Ankersmit and White, in history discourse historians transform into ultimately imagined narratives a list of past events that would otherwise be only a collection of singular statements and/or a chronicle. Consequently, to effect this transformation, to give disparate facts some ‘unity of significance’, then the events, dates, agents, etc. represented in the statements/chronicle must be encoded. The obvious point to be made here is that this encoding is not of the type which means that the narrative explains more fully or more correctly the statements/chronicle, but rather that narration produces a meaning quite different from them, as it emplots the events which serve as its primary referent into patterns of meaning no literal representation of them as facts could ever produce. This means that, since no given set of events are, say, intrinsically tragic, heroic, or farcical, but can only be constituted as such relative to a given story-type that endows them



with a meaningful form, then precisely insofar as the narrative endows real events with the kind of meaning found otherwise only in myth and literature, we are justified in regarding such a construct as an allegory. Indeed, says White, a ‘narrative account is always a figurative account, an allegory’, it being only a modern empirical prejudice ‘in favour of literalism that obscures this fact to many modern analysts of historical narrative’. And certainly all this is well known to those who work on the margins—say in hermeneutics -where historiography is seen less as a decipherment than as a ‘translation’ and a ‘carrying over’ of meanings from one discursive community to another.12 In other words, history as a discourse is not an ‘epistemology’.

Fourth and finally, because an iconic/narrative account is always a figurative account, an allegory, then history cannot have a ‘true’ correspondence in ways traditionally seen as mime tic or empirical . For, as White again argues against the idea of mimesis, even in the most chaste prose (that is, history texts intended to represent things as they are without any rhetorical adornment)

every mimetic text can be shown to have left something out of the description of its object or to have put something into it that is inessential to what some reader, with more or less authority, will regard as an adequate description.13

On analysis, then, every mimesis can serve as an occasion for yet another description of the same phenomenon, one claiming to be more ‘faithful to the facts’. And so on ad infinitum—this is a world of endless deferments—Derrida’s world. Thus, by extension from mimesis, empiricism, with its obsession for getting the facts (and getting them right), along with its attendant fetishising of the sources wherein they are to be found, succumbs also to the critique of deferral. For empiricism is most flawed, White argues, when it refuses to see how narrative constitutes the grounds whereon one decides what shall count as a ‘fact’ in the matters under consideration in the first place. Again, this is not to say that ‘facts’ do not exist, rather that the most they can offer (and here White draws on Collingwood) are the e lemen ts that can be made into a story by emplotment. This means that how a given past situation is to be plausibly configured depends on the historian’s skill in matching up a specific plot structure with the set of events/ facts he or she wishes to endow with meanings of a certain kind, the plausibility of the result(s) being matched up not only to the ‘now’ constituted and worked facts, but intertextually vis-à-vis the condition of the history culture of any given social formation.





If these are just some of the implications to be drawn from just a few of the current debates, then these various undercuttings of the correspondence-type realist/empirical ‘foundations’ upon which traditional historians have defined their own brands of history as if theirs was history as such (this being one of the means whereby they have tried to prevent ‘history’ from falling to the possibility of it being defined as ‘whatever anybody wants it to be’) have given rise to understandable anxiety. For, as more and more people have come to see that there is no such thing as a history ‘of a natural kind’ (and that what predominantly passes for history is only the definition of those who have previously had the power to define it and that ‘others’ may now wish to define it ‘other’ -wise), then traditionalists have been forced onto the defensive. They have been made to assert that, in a curious sort of way, their definitions of history are more or less ‘of a natural kind’ type—and that history effectively has a ‘properness’ which they have captured—in order to prevent what they see as the establishment of a dangerous ‘relativism’ or even some sort of anarchic nihilism. Hence the rallying cries that have recently been heard from various traditionalist positions, that not only ‘their’ histories but in fact history ‘as such’ is in mortal danger, this ringing of the alarm bells against the common dangers emanating from a general ‘textual’ postmodernism of the sort just described being seen as something which is not restricted to those traditionalists on, say, the political right, but includes all those who might be termed traditionalists within ideological positions. That is to say, opposition to postmodernism is today coming from traditionalists within the Marxist left, from traditionalists within the liberal centre, and from traditionalists within the conservative right. To make this a little more complicated, it can also be seen that the postmodernists who are attacked are not neatly located in some clearly identified and hence easily targeted ‘party’, but rather—as embodiments of a general condition—are to be found right across the political spectrum and thus within each of the broad ideological positions mentioned.

And it is not only that. For, to make all of this even more complicated, many of the traditionalists across the political spectrum are convinced that, although some of their fellow-travellers are indeed inclined to postmodernism, nevertheless, such weak spirits have only deviated from the general party line because they do not see how much postmodernism derives from, and thus benefits, rival ideological positions. Thus, there are those



on the left who, whilst appreciating that their number includes postmodernists, still want to say that postmodernism is essentially an expression of a stage of late-capitalism and so is especially advantageous to (and even the property of) the centre and/or the right. Similarly, there are some on the right who, whilst conscious of their own Young Turks, insist that postmodernism is a radical, deconstructive (i.e. destructive) force particularly emanating from the left, and intent upon abolishing all (i.e. their) values. Similarly, there are those in the liberal centre who, whilst recognising the liberal sentiments of anti-foundational pragmatists and the like, are fearful of that type or anti-foundationalist radical who says that his/her postmodernism is a necessary clearing away of the accumulated impediments that have grown up to prevent a freer and more emancipated liberal utopia, interpreting this extension of freedom as an invitation to types of unnatural licence that will further threaten the stability of liberal social formations already problematicised by the individualistic practices of its normative hero, homo economicus.

Accordingly, in order to gain a further understanding of the impact of postmodern tendencies on traditional histories/ historians across the spectrum, and to locate within it Carr, Elton, Rorty and White, I think it might be useful to give a brief account of just some of the ‘controversies’ with regard to the question of ‘what is history?’ which postmodernists are causing, as coming from the traditional centre, the traditional right and the traditional left, and how these criticisms might be met and rebutted. What then, to begin with, are some ‘traditionalist’ objections to the impact of postmodernism on history like? I start with a typical example drawn from what might best be regarded as the traditional centre.

Thus, in a recent series of exchanges in the journal Past and Present , Lawrence Stone and Gabrielle Spiegel have raised a call to arms against the inroads into history made by a ‘textualising’ postmodernism.14 According to Stone, what ‘historians’ ought to object to is when postmodern types say such ‘textualist’ things as ‘reality is defined pu rely as language’, or when they declare, ‘not that truth is unknowable, but that there is no reality out there which is anything but a subjective creation of the historian; in other words, that it is language that creates meaning which in turn creates our image of the real’. For clearly this is a threat to history per se because, ‘if there is nothing outside the text, then history as we [sic] have known it collapses altogether, and fact and fiction become in-distinguishable from one another’. Only so long as it stays on the right side of this breakpoint does Stone concede that



the ‘linguistic turn’ in history might have some merit.15 This is a similar position to that taken by Spiegel:

As a language-based conception of reality, [a textualist] post-structuralism has disrupted traditional…historical modes of interpretation by its denial of a referential and material world…. Until recently the writing of history depended on a concept of language which, as Nancy Partner puts it, ‘unhesitatingly asserts the external reality of the world, its intelligibility in the form of ideas, concepts, phenomena or other mental things and a direct connection between mental things and verbal signs’. But post-structuralism has shattered this confident assumption of the relation between words and things, language and extra-linguistic reality, on the grounds, as she states, that language is the ‘very structure of mental life, and no meta-language can ever stand outside itself to observe a reality external to itself.’ This dissolution of the materiality of the verbal sign, its ruptured relation to extra-linguistic reality, entails the dissolution of history, since it denies the ability of language to ‘relate’ to (or account for) any reality other than itself. Such a view of the closed reflexivity of language …necessarily jeopardizes historical study as normally understood…If texts—documents, literary works, whatever—do not transparently reflect reality, but only other texts, then historical study can scarcely be distinguished from literary study, and the ‘past’ dissolves into literature.16

Meanwhile, from the traditional wing of the conservative right, Elton has attacked postmodern exponents of this so-called linguistic/ narrative turn as ‘obtrusive theoreticians’ and as ‘prophets of uncertainty, relativism and individual self-love, to the point where history is said to have no independent reality at all’, it being this ‘nihilist conclusion that a proper training—a professional training -in the treatment of the historical evidence will eliminate: real and informed contact with the relics of the past ought to cure people of those philosophical vapours’.17

On the traditional left, there are those (Christopher Norris, Terry Eagleton, Alex Callinicos, Fredric Jameson, Raphael Samuel et al.)18 who see in textualism/postmodernism not only its radical potential to undercut any remaining bourgeois certainties, but also its ability to be used by enemies of the left to do the same to theirs. Here is a passage from Elizabeth Fox-Genovese wherein she articulates rather typically the ambivalence felt by the left for a



postmodernism it cannot ignore but which apparently threatens its own political cogency and power:

We still use history to refer, however imprecisely, to what we like to think really happened in the past and to the ways in which specific authors have written about it. Contemporary critics [however] tend to insist disproportionately on history as the ways in which specific authors have written about the past at the expense of what might actually have happened [and] insist that history consists primarily of a body of texts and a strategy of reading or interpreting them. Yet history also consists, in a very old-fashioned sense, in a body of knowledge—in the sum of reliable information about the past that historians have discovered and assembled. And beyond that knowledge, history must also be recognized as what did happen in the past—of the social relations and, yes, ‘events’ of which our records offer only imperfect clues.

History cannot [therefore] simply be reduced—or elevated— to a collection, theory, and practice of reading texts…. It is possible to classify price series or coin deposits or hog weights or railroad lines as texts—possible, but ultimately useful only as an abstraction that flattens historically and theoretically significant distinctions. …For historians, the text exists as a function, or articulation, of context. In this sense historians work at the juncture of the symbiosis between text and context, with context understood to mean the very conditions of textual production and dissemination. …History [therefore] at least good history…is inescapably structural. Not reductionist, not present minded, not teleological: structural…. By structural, I mean that history must disclose and reconstruct the conditions of consciousness and action, with conditions understood as systems of social relations. …I further mean that, at any given moment, systems of relations operate in relation to a dominant tendency…what Marxists call a mode of production—that endows them with a structure. Both in the past and in the interpretation of the past history follows a pattern or structure, according to which some systems of relations and some events possess greater significance than others. Structure, in this sense, governs the writing and reading of texts.19

Now, how might these not untypical objections to a ‘textualist’, postmodern approach to history of the type recommended by Bennett, Ankersmit and White et al. be met? Well, it is clear that



engagement with the details of Spiegel or Fox-Genovese would take some time and, besides, there are points in their arguments where one may be in some agreeement. But having said that, the sorts of critique offered by Spiegel et al. seem to rest at a general level either on misunderstandings of what ‘textualism’ is, as used, for example, by Bennett and Ankersmit and White, or they hark back to a way of thinking about types of ‘grounds’ for historical knowledge that have, in actual fact, never been available to them. What follows are therefore four lightly sketched in responses to Stone et al.20

First it is no part of any postmodernist argument that I know-not Bennett’s nor Ankersmit’s nor White’s nor Rorty’s nor Derrida’s, nor even Baudrillard’s—to deny the material existence of the past or the present. Not for a moment do they not take it as ‘given’ that there is indeed an actual world ‘out there’ which has been out there for a long time, which has a past. Nor do they deny that that world is the effects of causes which do not include as causes their current mental states. In other words, postmodernists are not idealists.

Second, whilst there is thus no assumption at work within postmodernism about there not being an actual past, there is a strong insistence that that once actual past is, apres Bennett, only accessible to us through texts and thus as a ‘reading’. Thus, the point to be made against Stone et al., is that Stone would be identifying a problem within the idea of the past as textuality, only if the past had ever been accessed (or could logically ever be accessed) outside of textuality. For, if the past had ever been, or could ever be, accessed/appropriated/ expressed directly, then textuality would indeed deform and distort it. But given that such direct access has never been possible (presumably for the past to ‘express itself it would have to ‘re-enact itself); given, that is, that the only past that historians have ever had access to is precisely Bennett’s historicised records/archive, and given that in practice historians have pretty much to a woman and man had no problems whatsoever in accepting this as if this was exactly what, at a minimalist level, ‘studying the past historically’ meant (i.e. going to the record office, surveying a site, reading other historians, accepting a structural metaphor if one felt like it), then the objections to textuality by Stone et al. are taken on behalf of a practice no historian has ever achieved or is ever likely to.

Third, this is not of course to deny the point implied and/or variously made by Stone et al., that if the historian’s interpretation of the past cannot be checked against the past as such (i.e. if the stories historians tell cannot, après White, be checked out with



reference to the past’s own historical rendering of itself; or, if the pictures constructed—apres Ankersmit—cannot be checked out with reference to the past’s own historical iconography) then it follows that over and above the statement and the chronicle there can be no fully independent check on historians’ accounts save by other historians’ accounts; that is to say, intertextually by recourse to ‘peer appraisal’. But of course this would only be a problem for historiography now; would only signal the end of historiography now, if historiography’s continued existence depended on this having not always been the case (i.e. if, in effect, ‘peer review’ was not the generally accepted bottom line with regard to the plausibility of any historian’s interpretation; if, in effect, an historian’s reputation was not ultimately dependent upon ‘peer conversations’). But it has to be, for the events and situations of the past cannot judge the interpretations conferred upon them precisely because they are the phenomena about which the interpretations are being made. So what is going on here, what might Stone and the others be worried about? I think there are possibly two things: (a) that Stone et al. fear that the ‘peers’ who may be increasingly called upon to do the reviewing of ‘proper’ historians’ practices may find them intellectually unconvincing; and (b) that such new peers might accordingly open up historiography far more generously than hitherto so as to include historians currently marginalised, so ‘relativising (by taking away their ostensible ‘real’ foundations) traditional practices and thus indeed endangering ‘history as “we” have known it’.

Similarly, the crucial argument from Spiegel that the ‘dissolution of the materiality of the verbal sign means the dissolution of history’, would only have any weight if Spiegel could show that history as a ‘discipline’ had ever rested on a verbal sign whose materiality had never been ‘undissolved’. But given that this has never been the case, then it is difficult to see what has changed by ‘textualising historiography’, except that we now know that history just is, and always has been, textual, so making us suspicious of the motives of those who see this recognition of what has always been the case (‘nothing has changed’) as something of a crisis, rather than, say, a celebration and an opportunity for increasingly reflexive work. Here ideology and mystification are at work. Of course this last point can be applied directly to Elton’s fear of ‘postist’ tendencies as leading towards nihilism. For it seems reasonable to suggest that it is only because Elton thinks that his version of history (as a lower case phenomenon) is really ‘proper’ history that he can fear—as a result of his own view of history coming   to   an   end—that   this   signals   the   end   of   ‘things’



themselves, i.e. nihilism (and what, one might ask, could be more full of self-love than that?) For, if this was not the case, if Elton did not identify his particular species of history with its genus, then it is difficult to understand why he cannot relax and enjoy the rich plurality of the different ways of reading the past which postmodernism suggests (not least because Elton is at pains to point out that he is himself a pluralist—the generally anti-Eltonist McLennan agreeing that this constitutes a major part of Elton’s ideological position).21 The only conclusion to be drawn, then, is not that Elton doesn’t like pluralism, but that he likes only the sort of pluralism he likes, i.e. a pluralism which doesn’t have the generosity to include, say, Hayden White within it.

Fourth , and finally, with regard to the sort of objections to textualism raised by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese from the vantage point of a Marxist (structural) methodological appropriation of the past, it would be useful here simply to juxtapose against her position the claims for textuality made by Hayden White himself. For, it would appear that if Fox-Genovese thinks textualism prevents her from doing the ‘structural’ history she wants to do (and if Stone or Spiegel et al. think it prevents them from using the kind of historical method they like; or if they think it stops them from not being able to continue in the same way as they have been doing if they wish) then she (and they) have just not realised that textualism is not a way of ‘doing’ history at a l. This is the crucial, but, it would seem overlooked, point. For what textualism does is to draw attention to the ‘textual conditions’ under which all historical work is done and al historical knowledge is produced. What textualism does is to allow all the various methodological approaches, be they Marxist, or empiricist, or phenomenological, or whatever, to continue just as before, but with the proviso that none of them can continue to think that they gain direct access to, or ‘ground’ their textuality in, a ‘reality’ appropriated plain, that they have an epistemology. What textualism does is to add a heightened sense of reflexivity as to the limits and possibilities of historical understanding. Textuality, then, is the condition operating in everyb ody’s histories; it is impossible to conceive of a history that is not textual; textuality, as they say, ‘is the only game in town’. Here then is White pulling all of this together, after which I want to summarise my own defence of textualism/ postmodernism before proceeding—in the light of what will by then have been said—to the fairly straightforward (but essential if they are to be easily understood vis-à-vis the ‘history question’) ideological positionings of Carr, Elton, Rorty and White. And here is White now:



First, it should be said that every approach to the study of the past presupposes or entails some version of a textualist theory of historical reality of some kind. This is because, primarily, the historical past is, as Fredric Jameson has argued, accessible to study ‘only by way of its prior textualisations’, whether these be in the form of the documentary record or in the form of accounts of what happened in the past written up by historians themselves on the basis of their research into the record. Secondly, historical accounts of the past are themselves based upon the presumed adequacy of a written representation or textualisation of the events of the past to the reality of those events themselves. Historical events, whatever else they may be, are events which really happened or are believed really to have happened, but which are no longer directly accessible to perception. As such, in order to be constituted as objects of reflection, they must be described…in some kind of natural or technical language. The analysis or explanation…that is subsequently provided of the events is [therefore] always an analysis or explanation of the events as previously described. The description is a product of processes of linguistic condensation, displacement, symbolization, and secondary revision of the kind that inform the production of texts. On this basis alone, one is justified in speaking of history as a text.

This is, to be sure, a metaphor, but it is no more metaphorical than Marx’s statement that ‘all previous history is the history of class struggle’ or the statement by Fox-Genovese that ‘History, at least good history, is inescapably structural’. More importantly, the statement ‘History is a text’ is in no way inconsistent with [all] …other statements about the nature of history. On the contrary, it is or at least can be so considered for methodological purposes …qualification of these…[methods]. As thus envisaged… textualism…has the advantage of making explicit and therefore subject to criticism the textualist element in any approach to the study of history.22

What, I wonder, would Fox-Genovese’s response to this be?

These, then, are some typical ‘traditional’ critiques of a textualist, ‘postist’ type of historical understanding and some responses to them - critiques and responses that are indicative of the sorts of debate now taking place over the question of what is history and which Carr and Elton are, at best, marginal to. Accordingly, it is now possible to pull together the sorts of



‘defences’ that have been considered so far, my position on what I take to be a textualist approach to history being summarised (with a little help from Stanley Fish and Hayden White) as follows.

(a) The generally implicit, but occasionally explicit, claim of ‘proper’ historians to be more immediately in touch with the actualities of the past (and in more disinterested ways) than ‘textualists’, cannot be maintained because al accounts of the past (and, of course, the present) always come to us textually through some kind of ‘natural or technical language’.23

(b) That because the past cannot carve itself up and/or articulate itself, but always needs to be ‘spoken for’ and constructed, then every approach to the study of history presupposes ‘some model for construing its object of study, for the simple reason that since “history” comprises everything that ever happened in “the past”, it requires some tertium comparationis by which to distinguish between what is “historical” and what is not and, beyond that, between what is “significant” and what is relatively insignificant, within this “past”’.24

(c) Consequently, this means that the various theoretical conflicts between textualists and their anti-textualist ‘proper historian’ critics are not actually disputes between textualists and ‘proper’ historians at all, but because everybody’s historical knowledge is textual—because textuality is indeed ‘the only game in town’ - between ‘different theories of textuality’, i.e. between different conceptions of what history is, and how historical knowledge is produced, and to what end. As Stanley Fish has put it, ‘one can always lodge objection to the histories offered by one’s opponents, one cannot (at least legitimately) label them as non-historical…’.25

(d) For, as White has himself argued, whilst anti-textualists may not like the implications of textuality for their sort of understanding of what they think history is, given that whether ‘history’ is considered simply as ‘the past’, the documentary record of this past, or the body of reliable information about the past, ‘there is no such thing as a distinctively “historical” method by which to study this “history”’. Therefore, for anti-textualists to accuse textualists (notwithstanding the fact that they are actually ‘unreflexive’ textualists themselves) of being non-historians and/or ‘theorists’ (for all historians—including Elton—are ‘theorists’ given that historical knowledge is not of a natural kind) is an accusation which cannot stand. Consequently—and this is why White does not see textualism as preventing any sort of methodological approach to the past



—White thinks (and I agree) that historical study will always be formally taking place irrespective of the substantive method employed if it takes as its object of study any aspect of ‘the past’, distinguishes   between   that   object   and   its   various [imagined] contexts, periodizes the processes of change -governing the relationships’ between them, posits specific causal    forces    as    governing   these    processes,    and represents the part of history thus marked out for study as a complex structure of relationships at once integrated at any given moment and developing and changing across any sequence of such moments.26

(e) Thus, whilst I think we need to be very much aware of why Stone et al. are ideologically committed to their own ways of doing   history,   what   they   cannot   do—or   are   remarkably unreflexive if they do do it—is to define their preferred version of   what  constitutes  history   as  resting   on   some  kind  of foundation beyond textuality and beyond ‘the status of a conversation’. For history ‘as we have known it’ therefore, read history ‘as t hey have known it’; for ‘history is in danger’, substitute ‘their history is in danger’. I mean, why not?

These are some of the conclusions I want to draw from some of the debates around the postmodern impact on historiography, all of which suggest to me that the better way of thinking about the question of what is history today is well and truly in the grip of a textualist/rhetoricist/conversationalist style of postmodernism: that we have reached the end of modernist versions of what history is. I think that as historians we should be aware of these types of argument simply because they now saturate the general intellectual culture in which we all operate. In particular, I think that we might all begin to take on board the ideas of someone like Stanley Fish, Fish being of the view—as articulated at considerable length in his Doing What Comes Naturally27 — that we live today in an unmistakably rhetorical world which has given rise to a whole series of turns (the ‘linguistic turn’, the ‘semiotic turn’, the ‘discursive turn’, the ‘deconstructionist turn’, etc.) all of which have replaced literalism, and all of which have problematicised the old foundational attitudes of both the ‘Western Tradition’ in general and, more recently, its modernist manifestations. I think it might therefore be useful at this point to briefly link up by way of a conclusion the sort of textual/rhetorical/ narratological history discussed   so   far   to   the   recognition   of   what   is   a   general



phenomenon in our present cultural condition; namely, that of the problematical textualising and narrativising of knowledge per se; that of the ubiquity of the problematical story as such. To link the history I have discussed so far to this general phenomenon, and to summarise quickly and draw a line under the discussion in this section, let me briefly present Brian McHale on the impact of the ‘narrative turn’ in general, and Raphael Samuel on the impact of the ‘deconstructive turn’ on history in particular. Thus McHale:

Story, in one form or another, whether as object of theory or as the alternative to theory, seems to be everywhere. Historiography (LaCapra…White…) psychology (Spence… Bruner…) philosophy (Rorty…) sociology (Brown…) economics (McCloskey…), and many other fields and disciplines of the human sciences—all have recently been affected by what Christopher Norris…has called the ‘narrative turn’ of theory. It is [thus] indicative that the editors of a recent volume of conference papers on ‘Objectivity and Science’ …would choose to use ‘stories’ in titles where once they would have used ‘theories’: ‘Stories about Science’, ‘Stories about Truth’, ‘Stories about Representation’, even (what else?) ‘Stories about Stories’.

The narrative turn would [therefore] seem to be one of the contemporary responses to the loss of metaphysical ‘grounding’ or ‘foundations’ for our theorizing. We are no longer confident that we can build intellectual structures upward from firm epistemological and ontological foundations. We suspect…that, whilst there may well be somewhere a ‘world’ underlying all our disparate versions of it, that world is finally inaccessible, and all we have are the versions; but that [that] hardly matters, since it is only the versions that are of any use to us anyway, and [that] the putative world-before-all-versions [like the putative history-before-all-historiography] is, as Rorty…says, ‘Well lost’.28

And thus Samuel, bringing (not all that approvingly) all this back home to history:

The deconstructive turn in contemporary thought, even if its influence has only been felt at second and third remove, or… by osmosis, puts all of history’s taken-for-granted procedures into question, both as an intellectual discipline and as a literary (or writerly) mode. By placing inverted commas, metaphorically speaking, around the notion of the



real, it invites us to see history not as a record of the past, more or less faithful to the facts, nor yet as an interpretation answerable to the evidence even if it does not start from it, but as an invention, or fiction, of historians themselves, an inscription on the past rather than a reflection of it, an act of designation masquerading as a true-life story. It asks us to consider history as a literary form, on a par with, or at any rate exhibiting affinities to, other kinds of imaginative writing -narrative or descriptive, comic or realist, as the case may be. Our continuities are [therefore] storytellers’ devices to give order and progression to the plot; the periodisation, by which we set such store, is a strategy for narrative closure. Events are singled out for attention not because of their intrinsic interest, but because of the logic of the text; they are not material realities but the organising units of historical discourse, ‘highly coded tropes that “read” or allegorize the




If these are the sorts of debate constituting some of the more ‘advanced’ rhetorical/textual/postmodern ways of regarding history, all that remains to do now before looking in detail at Carr, Elton, Rorty and White is to position them vis-à-vi s history today. How can this positioning be done?

The first thing to note is that none of the four being discussed can be positioned in the sort of old-fashioned way Elton likes; that is, on the basis of whether they are ‘proper’ historians or not (for on this basis Rorty and White would certainly not—and perhaps Carr would not—qualify). Nor, in the light of my previous comments, can we put Carr on the left, Rorty and White in the centre, Elton on the right, and just leave it at that. For, whilst that is where they roughly belong, it has already been noted that the left, the centre and the right, are divided internally. For—to recall briefly these divisions—whilst Carr is indeed on the left, his old Marxist/modernist attitude is very different from the post-Marxism of, say, Tony Bennett, Ernesto Laclau, Chantel Mouffe, Dick Hebdige, and so on.30 Although Rorty and White are more iconoclastic and rigorously critical of the centre and right than Carr ever was, Rorty and White are not so much on the left as in the liberal centre, a centre broad enough to contain Stone et al. Again, whilst Elton is certainly on the right, this is a location his Toryism shares with such ‘radicals’ as Jonathan Clark who can readily accept that the struggle for hegemony exposed by post-



modernism is a game anybody can play—and who plays it. Again, Elton’s Toryism may not suit, say, Arthur Marwick or Lawrence Stone, but his hard professionalism finds echoes in their own versions of ‘proper’ history. So, how can Carr and Elton and Rorty and White be fairly easily located against/within the postmodern?

Well, I think the best way to do it is simply to recall that postmodernism is a complex re-assessment of the modernist project, and that what makes a person like (or, at least, not fear that re-assessment) is whether or not he or she can see a future without any nostalgic longings for the old traditions, certainties, foundations and accumulated mental furniture of modernity. Thus, it would seem that what makes historians respond favourably to the postmodern condition—irrespective of their left, centre or right ideological positions -is whether they are happy with, for example, an understanding of the past as a historiography which asserts that such an understanding is always positioned, is always fabricated, is always ultimately self-referencing and is never true beyond peradventure; that history has no intrinsic meaning, that there is no way of privileging one variant over another by neutral criteria, and which sees histories located at the centre, or on the margins, not necessarily by virtue of their historiographical rigour and/or sophistication—for brilliant histories can be variously marginalised—but by their relationship to those that have the power to put them there. Further, that historians respond favourably to the postmodern condition if they have no yearning for, or feelings of despair for, the loss of either ‘reality’ or ‘the reality of things past’, accepting that what traditionalists might regard as a ‘crisis’ is more of an opportunity to carry on working with an increased reflexivity in all types of ‘different’ and ‘other’ areas. Historians respond favourably to the postmodern condition if they care nought for the foundational certainties of modernity, feeling that they can effectively construct something on the ‘basis’ of nothing (for when—in fact—was it ever different?). Postmodern historians think that human beings can live ironic, reflexive, historicised lives, without the magic, incantations, mythologisations and mystifications spun by certaintist historians from across the board in both upper and lower cases. Postmodern historians see their own histories as being made not for ‘the past itself but for themselves and for people whom they like (for when, they ask, was that ever not the case?). Postmodernism is thus about history all right, but not, as Brenda Marshall puts it, of the kind of history that



lets us think we can know the past. [No] History in the postmodern moment becomes histories and questions. It asks: Whose history gets told? In whose name? For what purpose? Post-modernism is about histories not told, retold, untold. History as it never was. Histories forgotten, hidden, invisible, considered unimportant, changed, eradicated. It’s about the refusal to see history as linear, as leading straight up to today in some recognisable pattern—all set for us to make sense of. It’s about chance. It’s about power. It’s about information…. And that’s just a little bit about what postmodernism [is].31

But it’s enough to see why Carr and Elton are not postmodernists and why Rorty and White effectively are.

Carr belongs to that part of the left, then, which is suspicious of postmodernism, seeing it as emerging primarily from the exigencies of late-capital, a response to the fragmentation of the social into the commodity forms that underwrite it and which allows for umpteen differences to be recuperated back into it via both consumerism and a contrived, fakey, political pluralism. From this perspective, tainted by capital, postmodernism cannot really be embraced. For whilst, as already noted, this part of the left does not hesitate to use post-modernism’s ironic rhetoric to deconstruct any lingering bourgeois certainties, it would still like to retain a few of its own: a basic rationality, some contact with a reality which is not hyper-reality and, so far as history is concerned, some knowledge of the past that would be useful to it because it would be, to all intents and purposes, true. To this element of the left—to Fox-Genovese et al.—the attitude taken towards postmodernism is therefore an ambivalent one, an attitude Carr shares.

For although Carr is of an older generation than Fox-Genovese and company, it is within the sort of ambivalence just mentioned that Carr should be located as an historian who, while sceptically discounting any claims for a type of historical knowledge which prioritised an empirical/positivistic concern for facts that could be meaningful without the intervention of the constitutive historian, still hankered for a leftist interpretation that was not just interpretative. The circle that Carr tried to square was that, whilst he knew all historiography was interpretive ‘all the way down’, he still wanted his own interpretation to be somehow exempt; that in some way the history which he interpreted as ‘progressing’ really was progressing in exactly the way his interpretation suggested, and would have been doing so whether he had spotted it or not. That is to say, historical progress really was objectively ‘there’ and



not just created by Carr: whether by luck or by judgement his interpretation had, in fact, come up trumps.

Carr was no pessimist then—indeed his optimism about the continuation of progress was what he felt distinguished him from the sceptics and cynics he saw all around him—but what sets his optimism apart from a postmodern type is clearly his desire for some real foundations upon which to base his historical analyses and knowledge. Thus, in the end (and despite his sometime carefully controlled scepticism) it is Carr’s modernist yoking together—in precisely the immanent ways of nineteenth-century certaintists—of the past to the present and to the future, which provides him with the far from sceptical answer he eventually gives to his famous question: ‘What is History?’.

Elton is a man who holds Tory principles and talks about them openly and frankly. And, as a Tory, there must therefore be within his position that typical combination of scepticism (which comes from having an ideology that holds to the idea of the imperfectability of man, the imperfectability of politics, and hence the imperfect-ability of knowledge) and absolute, even authoritarian, values: of the ‘real’ capacity to be able to tell good from bad, right from wrong, the proper from the improper, the professional from the amateur, the true from the false, so as not to let imperfectability gain the upper hand. Predictably, both scepticism and certainty are held in a balanced (organic) way; the scepticism measured and controlled when applied professionally to history in the lower case (leaving room for the possibility of ‘objectivity’ and various degrees of ‘truth’), unrelenting and savage when applied to those enthusiasts who might think that objectivity and truth (as, for example, in Carr and his lefty fellow-travellers) was a possibility in the upper. In these ways Elton’s approach as to what constitutes proper history and the correct attitudes to bring to it mirrors his ideological position.

Of course, Elton may well have objected to this, holding pretty much to the view that his politics and his historical work are not mixed. Moreover, there is perhaps no one on record who more strongly believed that the proper study of the past is the study of it ‘for its own sake’ and that the cardinal, ‘treasonable’ crime, is to prostitute oneself to the siren songs of a present which would ask its historians to give it the past it wants; for Elton, (his) history is above (his) politics.

But what doesn’t seem to have occurred to Elton—or if it did he never discussed it at length—is that the lower case history he pursues as if in his hands it was apolitical, just is modernist/ bourgeois ideology, just is ideology tout court. In fact, Elton’s views



on history are steeped in the ideological combination of pessimism on the one hand and a stubborn (if wearily held) hope on the other, it being symptomatic of such a position that Elton’s first sentences in the first chapter of what he has called his modest manual for professional, lower case historians (The Practice of History) reads in a most unprofessional and non-lower case way:

The future is dark, the present burdensome; only the past, dead and finished, bears contemplation. Those who look upon it have survived it: they are its product and its victors. No wonder, therefore, that men [sic] concern themselves with history.32

Rorty and White are in that (smallish) part of the liberal centre that goes along with the postmodern without any nostalgia for a foundational fix. For, unlike the majority of historians in the centre (which means—because the centre is so large—the majority of historians of whom Stone and Spiegel are typical), Rorty and White’s ‘scepticism’ goes all the way down, applying to both upper and lower cases. The reason why Rorty can be so ‘laid back’ about his undercutting of metanarratives, western foundationalism, traditional epistemology, orthodox ontology and so on, is because he doesn’t at all see liberal social formations, North Atlantic style, as either terrible, or in crisis, or threatened by the capsizal of philosophical values. For Rorty, it is precisely anti-foundationalism and anti-representationalism that will clear the decks of all that metaphysical clutter which the first modernist project got caught up in. No, what liberals needed then (but what they could not quite get for understandable historical reasons) they can have now: irony;

the citizens of my liberal utopia would be people who had a sense of the contingency of their language of moral deliberation, and thus of their consciences, and thus of their community. They would be liberal ironists—people who met Schumpeter’s criterion of civilization, people who combined commitment with a sense of the contingency of their own commitment…. I use ‘ironist’ to name the sort of person who [therefore] faces up to the contingency of his or her own most central beliefs and desires—someone sufficiently historicist and nominalist to have abandoned the idea that those central beliefs and desires refer back to something beyond the reach of time and chance.33



From this position, Rorty therefore has no fears about the end of certainties—for it is precisely old certainties (in the form of various total(itarian) closures) that have caused problems for ‘freedom’ in the first place. And for those who think that an ironic, nominalist, anti-foundational attitude towards life cannot be a strong enough cement to hold social formations together, Rorty suggests that they think again:

If you tell someone whose life is given meaning by [the]… hope that life will eventually be freer, less cruel, more leisured, richer in goods and experiences, not just for our descendants but for everybody’s descendants…that philosophers are waxing ironic over real essence, the objectivity of truth, and the existence of an ahistorical human nature, you are unlikely to arouse much interest, much less do any damage. The idea that liberal societies are bound together by philosophical beliefs seems to me ludicrous. What binds societies together are common vocabularies and common hopes…. To retain social hope, members of such a society need to be able to tell themselves a story [stories] about how things might get better, and to see no insuperable obstacles to this story’s coming true. If [such] social hope has become harder lately, this is not because the [philosophers]… have been committing treason but because, since the end of World War II, the course of events has made it harder to tell a convincing story of this sort.34

And hence the need to unravel and re-weave the unfinished project of modernity in postmodern type structures; to re-articulate in those radical historicist and nominalist ways offered by postmodernism the hope of actualising more fully emancipated ‘human rights communities’.

It would be wrong to present White as some pale reflection of Rorty, not least because White occupies a political position which I think he himself regards as somewhat more radical than the ‘civility’ typical of Rorty’s discourse. Nor has White been silent (as opposed to being detailed) about his own political preferences, his historical work leading him towards a reading that embraces an ironic disposition whilst reflexively offering a position beyond it, and which optimistically holds out a promise of a post-ironic culture. In the end, White agrees with Kant that we are free to conceive of history as we please, just as we are free to make of it ‘what we will’; free to construct accounts of the past consistent with ‘whatever modality of consciousness is most consistent with



[our]…own moral and aesthetic aspirations’.35 Those aspirations seem to be, for White, individually emancipatory and empowering, especially for those whose discourses are on the margins and/or barely audible. White’s view on history allows for those ‘creative, interpretive distortions’ which, optimistically, go beyond orthodox ways of reading the past the present and the future in Utopian ways.

For White then, if you are going to go to the past, to help in the present, to get the future you want (which is indeed why he thinks we go to history) then, as he puts it, you had better ‘have an address [a purpose] in mind’, rather than go wandering around the streets of that past like a flaneur. To be sure, says White, ‘Historical flaneurisme is undeniably enjoyable, but the history we are living today is no place for tourists.’ Thus if, he writes, you are indeed ‘going to “go to history”, you had better have a clear idea of which history, and you had better have a pretty good notion as to whether it is [or can be made to be] hospitable to the values you carry into it.’36 And as we shall see, I think that White has got both of these things.

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