Posted by: aboutalbion | December 15, 2013

History and rhetorical realisms (4)

A third type of history put forward by Jenkins and Munslow is ‘deconstructionism’, and here the historian weights her/his work in favour of the present circumstances of the historian.

The deconstructionist historian believes that language itself “is a poor conductor of meaning” (p12) because language is arbitrary and changes over time.  So for this type of historian, the truth about the past is not available to the present.   It follows that the enterprise of writing history today is primarily a fictional “narrative creation of the historian in the present”. (p12)

This linguistic ‘turn’ reminds me of the primary school mantra, ‘when you point your finger at someone, you have three fingers pointing at yourself’.

This deconstructionist approach undermines any ‘objective’ claim of historians because there is no temporal distance between the past and the present.  On this view, history is essentially a thinly veiled fictional narrative about the present.

At the same time, “deconstructionist historians are not anti-realists”. (p12)  These historians do not deny the existence of artefacts from the past.  Instead, they deny the implication that the existence of historical sources necessarily means “being able to know what it means with a high degree of certainty.  … there is no entailment from fact(s) to value(s)”. (p12)

So a key idea for deconstructionists is that “the past has to be made into history by the work(s) of historians.  … there is no original … meaning … in the past per se …” (p12)

I think this idea resonates with the experience of common people.  For us, we are led to believe that today’s personal events are unlikely to have much significance about them.  Yet tomorrow’s national newspapers in the UK will write the first draft of the history of today in the UK.  National journalists are the historians of yesterday on this view.

If I have understood this type of history correctly, then deconstructionist historians use the language of the present, including references to (alleged) past events as precedents, to advance their descriptive understanding of the world of the present.

“Those working within the deconstructionist genre hold that history is always written from the need … to engage critically with those languages … through which we set to work with the real world.” (p14)

Having surveyed Jenkins and Munslow’s three types of history, the next post will refer to their fourth position – not so much a type of history as an open discussion.

[Jenkins, Keith and Munslow, Alun (eds) (2004) The Nature of History Reader.  London: Routledge.]

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