What kind of post-modern are you?

No, not some journal poll, but a question raised in the interview in her The New History that Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke included with her husband, Professor Peter Burke. He comes across, perhaps unsurprisingly, as a very clear-headed and sympathetic model of academic detachment; perhaps to drag more out of him, her questions by contrast seem oddly negative and nihilist. So, as well as saying things I can relate to about how one’s books are attempts to repair the previous one (I know I haven’t finished one yet, but it’s only discipline that’s stopping me writing the beginning of the one that will hold some of the stuff I won’t be able to say in the first) and that one really needs to get out of Oxbridge fairly frequently if one wishes to work there without becoming terribly isolated, some of his questions address what are becoming this blog’s perennial questions about how much theory helps or hinders and what use the whole historical enquiry shebang are. While I stay busy with actual writing and learning how little I know about real numismatics despite working in the middle of it for two years, you can therefore ponder the thoughts of someone wiser than me about this, our profession.

Peter Burke

Firstly, Dr Pallares-Burke asks him if he thinks that post-modernist approaches have robbed us of any chance of getting at the truth. He is subtle in response, distinguishing between a deliberate and self-conscious philosophical approach (as ‘post-modernism’) and a vaguer embedded cultural assumption (as ‘post-modernity’). Unsurprisingly, he sees the conscious version as more helpful, but characterises both as being about a readiness to believe that social structures, assumptions and beliefs are ‘soft’ and changeable, that accepted dogmas may change, and that the individual retains agency in the wider world, as opposed to older views that put us all in the grip of deterministic social forces. His actual answer to the question is that our new perspectives make it less likely that we will attempt to impose our vision on a swathe of history but also makes us less likely to do the work of relating what was then to what is now, a task of interpretation that he sees as the core of the historian’s task. It’s quite interesting to find a self-avowed practitioner of the ‘new history’ that the book’s title distinguishes saying that, in retrospect, it’s been unhelpful because of opening the possible range of questions so wide that historians now lose touch with each other. In particular, I could see the force of a suggestion that interdisciplinarity is a very necessary thing, but drives in many directions, and that if what we wind up with is a range of historians who speak more to members of other fields than to historians, all we have done is create more incompatible specialisms. That is, interdisciplinary scholars need to keep enough touch with some central idea of history that they can still usefully inform each other, not just their more traditional colleagues.

Secondly, there’s a bit that may as well be quoted in extenso:

“‘What is the use of history?’ Marc Bloch wrote a whole book trying to answer this simple question, put in all its simplicity by a child, because, as he said, it dealt with the important issue of the ‘legitimacy of history’. How would you deal with this question?

“If you’d like a short answer to this huge question, I would simply say that the use of the study of the past lies in helping us to orient ourselves in the world in which we live. A longer answer would involve making distinctions between uses (more or less practical), and also between pasts (more or less remote).

“Since the world is in constant change, it is impossible to understand it without trying to locate what is happening in broader trends over time, whether they are economic, cultural, or whatever. This is the essential justification for the study of the recent past. But the recent past is not intelligible by itself. I sometimes think that we ought to teach history backwards, starting with current events….

“Another use of history is to tell people about their ‘roots’, the culture from which they and their families came. At a time when more and more people feel uprooted in a world which is changing faster and faster, and when many people have been physically uprooted… this psychological function of the study of the past is an important one. It explains the increasing interest in local history in the last few years.

“But to study our own past alone is dangerous. It encourages insularity and a sense of superiority over others…. So it is crucial to combine the study of ‘us’ with the study of others, more or less remote….”1

This makes me ask myself several questions. I am very much interested in the early medieval history of the country from which I come, my first piece of sustained research was on Anglo-Saxon London and my second was on Scotland, where I have ancestry and family. I moved to looking at Catalonia principally because, as Magistra says below of literature, it has the sort of sources that answer the questions I want to ask. And my knowledge of England does help with my study of Catalonia, if only in contrasting the very different way the two societies used charters. All the same, I don’t think I do this to anchor my identity; if anything I do it to dissolve it, to suggest that my modern nationality and heritage (and, I suppose, privilege—it may all be guilt-driven, in the end) are no more important than what some small landowner did with a short-lived terracing project on the side of a Pyrenee eleven hundred years ago. The selection of my ‘other’ has been driven by a desire to find unploughed historiographical ground and an interest in mixing zones and liminal territories, and it may well have pushed me further than is good for me from the mainstream. But despite all of this introspection, I have given very similar answers to the `what use is history’ question in the past, even if I no longer do, and it gives me to wonder that I no longer seem to believe it. It may well be truer for others than it is for me.

As for his first justification, that history needs background and the background needs background, ad infinitum, that I baulk at much more readily. Only a modernist can get away with this; it is teleological. Anything old that has not had modern social phenomena that can be claimed as its offspring loses its ‘use’ in this sort of argument, and studying it therefore leads to scrabbling attempts to make it ‘relevant’ that should be alien to anyone trying to be objective. Sometimes, things are interesting even if they didn’t lead to anything else. This is the problem that Randolph Starn was trying to get round with the genealogical approach I described a while ago, and as I said there, sometimes things just don’t fit into linear schemes. One could just about fit such societies into Professor Burke’s idea by considering the distant past as an ‘other’ to give us perspective, and certainly I think that’s something I get from studying it, but just as Professor Burke gives no impression of really wanting to look at the early medieval roots of his study areas, I don’t really want to take my studies forward to the sixteenth century to see what they go on to mean: I feel quite strongly that they had meaning at the time, if we can but get at what it was, and that that’s enough. The question remains, that he addresses and I don’t, is: as I am not then but now, what do I think is the point of moving this stuff, via my interpretation, from then to now? I’m not sure I have an intellectual answer that is more than “LOOK WHAT I FOUND!”, and I may need to think about that some more.

Those are the bits I have the strong reactions to. As to interdisciplinarity, I think I’m actually situated about right, trying to be able to understand the basics of work in most fields enough to ask for meaningful clarification from an expert, and understand it, whether that be literature, liturgy, archaeology (most usually), anthropology or even physics. I still want to do what I think of as just ‘history’, though some would say I am hard social and some would call me soft political, and I don’t mind. But because all this stuff is happening too, I like to be able to understand what its practitioners are saying without leaving my own work for weeks at a time (which is why apparently deliberate intellectualisation and obfuscation annoys me). As for post-modernity and post-modernism, I don’t even care where I am on the spectrum; labelling my approach has no interest to me at all, especially with labels that I suspect are not useful to describe it. But maybe you the reader see something there you like?


1. Peter Burke, interview with M. L. Pallares-Burke, Cambridge, May and June 1999, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Peter Burke” in eadem, The New History, pp. 129-157.

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One response to “What kind of post-modern are you?

  1. Pingback: Seminary LXI: notables of the field and their Renaissances « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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