Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Review: Postmodernism for Historians by Callum Brown

 Callum G. Brown, in his 2005 book 'Postmodernism for Historians', aims to provide the first dedicated primer on Postmodern theory for  History students. So to what extent is he successful to doing this?  And does he do this in a clear and accessible way?  Brown's account is also sympathetic to Postmodernism as a whole. With himself being a practitioner of many of the techniques associated with it. Because of this, the book is not just an introductory guide, but an argument for application of Postmodernism in History as a whole, as we shall see.

 Each chapter of the book is split into three main sections: 'Theory', 'Application in History' and 'For the student to do'. The first, as the name suggests concentrates on  the main aspects of 'Postmodern' theory relevant to History and forms the largest part of most chapters. The second draws from a variety of historians' works, exploring how they  have applied this theory while carrying out research. The third section concentrates on how a student could apply Postmodern techniques while studying. This format for the most part works well, but the final section is always the smallest- which is a disappointment considering the book's target audience.

In the introduction, Brown lays out the key tenets of Postmodernism. Firstly, that reality is unrepresentative in human forms of culture (such as textual and visual material). The second tenet then is that because of this no authoritative account can exist of anything. This of course causes conflict with a 'scientific' or 'empiricist' view of history- which would argue that one of the purposes of history is to reveal what actually happened in the past. He takes this idea forward in the first chapter in the first chapter 'Empiricism' which explains the reasons behind these principles. Firstly, by explaining the difference between a 'fact' and an 'event'. An 'event' is something that happened in the past, a 'fact' is a human construction- it is a record and expression of the 'event'. Because of the processes that go into trying to reconstruct the 'event'- such as consulting historical documents- an array of problems arise that obscure the truth, such as biases, accuracy and editing. This problem of being unable to represent reality becomes worse when the historian tries to make something meaningful out of their research. As Brown notes, it may be possible to objectively say 'the Bastille was overrun by people on 14 July 1789' but as soon as you develop this point it becomes a 'narrative-statement', For example, to say the storming of the Bastille marked the beginning of the French Revolution is to make a judgement based on the importance of an event. And as the historian's job involves more than a simple statement of an event- their work inevitably becomes a reflection of reality based  rather than a proven 'truth', as they develop narratives.

Brown is keen to point out that Postmodernist critique does not extend to the empirical method- in fact it as ever remains a key part of a historians toolkit to verify their work. Instead, it is a critique of the empiricist philosophy of knowledge. Brown also importantly refutes a common criticism of Postmodernism- that it denies the existence of reality. A Postmodernist does not deny the existence of reality, but simply the ability to reflect it fully and objectively.

                                                          Roland Barthes

The  chapters 'Sign' and 'Discourse' are mainly concerned with theory. The first of these deals with 'semiotics', one of the cornerstones of Postmodern theory. One way it does this is by engaging with the theorist Ferdinand de Saussure, engaging with theorists is a  recurring feature of Brown's exposition of Postmodernism. Which he often makes this easier through 'boxes' set aside from the main text, which is simple but effective. Semiotics is constituted of the study of 'signs', 'signs' are the constituent parts of any form of communication. These are often words, but can appear in other forms ,for example the word 'mouse' conveys the same meaning as the drawing of a mouse. A sign has two parts the signifier (the sign's physical form, such as a sound, printed word or image) and the signified (the mental conception of the idea expressed by the sign).The signifier is quite arbitrary and bears no resemblance to the signified. Crucially, each 'sign' is part of a 'sign system' through which it gains its meaning via similar or opposing signs. So how is this relevant for the historian? Brown refers to the work of Roland Barthes- who took the concept of sign-systems to cultural studies. He argued that everyday forms of culture have hidden languages with political meanings- using the example of a wrestling match. As such a historian can decode these languages or sign-systems within societies in the past. Semiotics also allows the historian to take more notice of the words they use in their work and what hidden meanings they may have.

The second of these chapters deals with 'Discourse'. Discourse can be loosely defined as something that is embedded in the 'signs' and is a result of a collection of statements based on these signs that form a narrative that conveys its meaning across society. This is perhaps, best understand through an example, something Brown uses to his advantage to help in understanding theory. For example, Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilisation explored the social construction of the idea of 'madness' throughout different eras. For example, in the Medieval era and the Renaissance madness was seen in a positive light, having a 'holy quality' in the former and representing 'high knowledge' in the former. From 1650 onwards, Foucault noticed a dramatic reconstruction of the idea of madness towards it resembling pure illogicality and lack of reason. Brown then argues that this- discourse analysis- is one of the easier tools sometimes associated with Postmodernism that one can pick up.

                                   The Libirare Plon edition of Madness and Civilisation

'Post-structuralism' explores the movement of the same name. In Post-structuralism, all knowledge is socially constructed- structures such as class, gender and race are not concrete and are the fabrications of society. For the historian, Brown suggests, this means instead of structures being used to study history (for example, a Marxist using class) they themselves should be studied, including how they originated and how the meaning and language has changed over time. Therefore, a post-structuralist would examine how a structure was understood within a period, rather than applying one to the whole of history. 'Text' dissects how the Postmodernist would look a text. Instead, of a simple piece of literature, for the Postmodernist 'text' is the material manifestation of signs, discourse and structures. This manifestation is not always written, in fact a 'text' can also be 'visual' or 'audible', such as an image or music. 'Texts' form 'stories' or 'narratives' and in turn 'metanarratives', which influence the former. The Postmodernist deconstructs these 'texts' in various ways, including identifying its intertexuality (how it borrows from other texts) and the signs, discourses and structures within the text. These are only some of the methods of deconstruction that Brown discusses. He also points towards the work of Hayden White, whom saw history as more of literary exercise than a science- they have to make the same decisions as any writer and they do these on poetic grounds.

The chapter 'Self'' is about Postmodernist ideas regarding the construction of our own identity. We construct the 'self' through how we perceive ourselves and our reaction to how others perceive us. In exploring this theme in relation to History, Brown mainly focuses on the 'Application in History' section of this chapter. One notable aspect historians have noticed is how people draw from society in the construction of their identities. For example, Alistair Thomson interviewed Anzac veterans and noticed overwhelmingly their recall of serving in the military was not based on their own experiences, but on the reconstruction of their memories based on Australian national culture. This chapter also deals with the agency of the individual in history and the practice of reflexivity. Whereas, Morality deals with perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Postmodernism in History- the fact that morality should not be based on empiricism. Brown argues this through the idea that morality changes throughout societies and time, but also through the fact Postmodernism denies an authoritative account of the past and thus anything is up to debate. However, as Brown suggests,  Ermarth has already noted that the lack of an authoritative account can actually have positive moral implications. Modernist and empiricist history has tended to led to authoritative and immoral stances (such as racist and sexist stances) to be held across society.According to Brown, Postmodernist history, with its endless debate, would not allow this to happen.

The final chapter 'Criticism of Postmodernism in History' is the only section completely dedicated towards negative views of the school of thought. Brown could have expanded on this, but then as points out there are plenty of works already out there that provide a thorough exposition of the supposed faults of Postmodernism. This section mostly acts as a refutation of these criticisms and these vary in strength. Nevertheless, this chapter is a welcome, if underweight, concluding chapter.

                               Hayden White discussed the literary nature of writing history

In summary, Callum Brown is mostly successful in providing an accessible introduction for students to Postmodernism and its relationship to history. It fills a large gap in the market, while also introducing the reader to a wide-range of theorists and further reading, which they may wish to follow. It also has some practical advice for students and how they can begin to apply these to their studies. The format of the book works well, but sometimes the large amount of theory could be balanced out with more practical advice of how to implement Postmodern techniques. Nevertheless, 'Postmodernism for Historians' overall is an enjoyable and useful introduction.

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