That's History

Book review The Killing of History: How a discipline is being murdered by literary critics and social theorists by Keith Windschuttle Macleay Press, 1994 Sydney RRP $39.95

Historians are a pragmatic lot, and not usually inclined to speculation. Many find historiography rather a bore, more or less irrelevant to getting on with the job. Like Keith Windschuttle, some are naive empiricists, and regard their craft as a kind of soft 'science', using inductive methods not so different to those used in some of the natural sciences. But few would go as far in this direction as Windschuttle does. For he makes it plain in this brazenly polemical book that only such an empirical approach will guard the historian from the potential dangers of postmodernism.
In the light of the 'theory-laden' recent past in the business of writing history, this can be at best only partly true. But the dangers Windschuttle warns against are real enough: he is particularly angered by the tendency in postmopdernism to deny individual agency and to reduce all intellectual productions, including the writing of history, to a series of 'discourses' containing linguistically and culturally determined (and frequently deferred) meanings. This game, he argues, fosters a radical and essentially pessimistic scepticism, and in a fundamental sense undermines both the practice of history and the integrity of its results.
These dangers may be real, but Windschuttle, having sounded the alarm, needs to show that postmodernism is both as bad as he says it is, and is really making inroads into current historical scholarship. He tries to do this in two ways: firstly, by showing just how wrong recent examples of history writing influenced by postmodernism can be, and secondly, by uncovering the anti-historical and anti-humanist roots of postmodernism itself.

Windschuttle's examples of bad 'postmodernist' history are hardly mainstream. He begins by contrasting some of the recent quincentennial work on the conquest of Mexico (all non-historians) with what he can garner from Inga Clendinnen's highly praised "Aztecs" (Cambridge, 1991). His point here seems to be that it is unacceptable to blame the savagery of the Spaniards when faced with the monstrous ritual slaying and cannibalism practiced by the Mexicans. This is followed by a discussion of Greg Dening's widely-feted "Mr Bligh's Bad Language" (Cambridge, 1992) in which he castigates Dening's naive acceptance of a number of ultimately misleading notions drawn mainly from cultural anthropology, which he erroneously applies, on insufficient evidence, to the world the sailors encountered in the Pacific islands. This is followed by a more vituperative attack on the 'spatial history' of Paul Carter, "The Road to Botany Bay" (Faber, 1987) where Windschuttle reveals the inaccurate evidential basis of Carter's speculative reflections on the mentalities of the explorers and the 'discovered' natives.

While many of Windschuttle's criticisms may be justified, both the premise - that much bad history is now being produced by scholars under the influence of post-modernism - and conclusion – that the discipline of history itself is threatened in a sort of relativistic deluge unleashed by these writers - are hard to sustain from these few examples. Most fields of academic history are, and have always been, riven by complex debates, influenced by differing ways of approaching the available evidence and also by broad theoretical concerns. Interlopers in fields dominated by historians have been common for many years (I could instance many examples from a field like the early-modern European witchcraze). Similarly, many admired historians have been indebted to the practices and findings of other disciplines, for instance, Keith Thomas drew heavily on the work of anthropologists in his "Religion and the Decline of Magic" (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971). Therefore, while his criticisms of these works may indeed be valid, Windschuttle's expectation that a theory-free, empirical history, unencumbered by the findings and theories current in other cognate disciplines, would produce necessarily better work, is more difficult to establish. Bad history has been written under many influences, including empirical and 'scientific' enthusiasms, Marxism, anthropological and sociological theories, and now of course, as he shows, under the influence of post-structuralists and Neo-Marxists. But clearly the enemy here is not simply postmodernism.

The second half of Windschuttle's book attempts to show up the anti-humanist and anti-historical legacy in a number of discrete fields on which postmodernism draws. It lacks the unity of purpose of the first part, probably because it becomes ever more obvious that the 'enemy' he aims at does not have the universal influence he has ascribed it. He begins by following a number of earlier specialists in their attacks on Foucault's inspired but muddled forays into institutional and cultural history. This is followed by an essay on the excesses of 'post-historians' (those who believe that the 'end' of history as we know it is nigh), darkly pointing to the influence of a failed nazism or a failed stalinism in their bleak millenial visions. Windschuttle then turns his sights on Popper and Kuhn. This is perhaps the most misleading essay in the collection, for in his hands Popper and Kuhn become the unwitting midwives to postmodern scepticism and relativism - an approach which is about as reasonable as blaming Freud and Jung for the appearance of LSD in the 1960s. These essays are clearly intended for the general reader or a student audience, but are hardly reliable introductions, since they wear their polemical intentions so openly. While their value might lie in pointing to the retreat into moral relativism and terminal scepticism implied by the 'linguistic turn', they fail on the whole to convince the reader that the practice of history is being more seriously threatened by this than any other zealously-held ideological commitment, past or present.

As is clear from what I have said, "The Killing of History" will irritate many on both sides of the Cultural Studies divide, including many historians. It certainly fails to carry the burden of the author's announcement of the imminent demise of history as a discipline, although it raises a number of valid criticisms of the results of a naive adherence to the 'linguistic turn'. However, more mischievously and more seriously, "The Killing of History" conceals from the reader the consequences of Windschuttle's own understanding of the practice of history.

There is no discussion in this book at all of the development of the writing of history in the last fifty years, or how theories and practices of other disciplines have inspired so many historians. One suspects this is because the rise of social and economic history, of Marxist history and 'history from below', the decline of the 'heroic' approach to histories of science, art and ideas, and more recently the resurgence of cultural history, and all the theoretical and external influences at play, cannot easily be squared with Windschuttle's view of history-writing as simply an empirical process. 'Truth' as written is rarely absolute, and to deny outright postmodernism's problematisation of the author and 'truth' as represented, begs a number of questions which need to be squarely and openly addressed, in the terms of the practice of history. This failure engendered by Windschuttle's polemical approach, is in stark contrast to a recent survey by three eminent American historians, Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, "Telling the Truth about History" (Norton, NY, 1994), which discusses the evolution of the discipline since before the Second World War, and also offers a more positive appraisal of the limited scepticism Windschuttle so clearly abhors. As these writers show, postmodernism's problematisation of the self is not new, and does not necessarily represent the end of the practice of history as we know it.

But is there really a 'crisis' in history, or merely a crisis of confidence? Or rather, is Windschuttle beating up and conflating the rise of Cultural Studies etc. with a more complex and long-standing phenomenon? Even in schools of art, design and architecture, where postmodernism has penetrated most visibly, and where 'history and theory' subjects are dominated by contemporary theoretical issues, is the retreat from history permanent or inevitable? I suspect not, for this retreat from history was begun much earlier in these disciplines, under modernism.
Indeed, Windschuttle's 'crisis in history' could be part of a more general politically-led (and funded) crisis of confidence in all non-vocational 'soft' subjects. One part of this 'crisis', and one of its immediate results, is an ageing population of practitioners in most established humanities disciplines, with a whole younger generation of scholars in the limbo of 'casualisation' or deferral (a smart career move) into growth areas like Cultural Studies, Asian Studies, European Studies, etc. Why these various 'Studies', and Cultural Studies in particular, have avoided the institutional axe may be because of their appeal to the 'relevance' demanded by the universities' paymasters, and perhaps also to their strategic relationship to the public spheres of politics and economy. As all good politicians recognise, knowledge is power, and usually up to no good.

Reviewed by Robert Crocker

Support independent writing on the visual arts. Subscribe or donate here.