Posted by: aboutalbion | December 21, 2013

History and rhetorical realisms (5)

After their survey of three types of history writing, which chart a decreasing trustworthiness of the narrative output, Jenkins and Munslow add a postscript which they call the ‘endist’ position.

People who write from this position “

whether there can be any useful historical knowing in the sense of understanding the meaning of a somehow connected series of events and, moreover, [mistrust] our cultural need for it”. (p15)

People who participate in the ‘endist’ discussion are people who are unable to believe “that the past, history, had its own intrinsic value, its own purposeful meaning, an essence which … if it were read carefully …bring[s] history’s underlying raison d’etre to the surface”. (p15)

Those who discuss ‘endism’ “can see very clearly that relativism is inevitable and unavoidable today … for if … goods – including men, women, ideas, concepts – have only got a market value … then it is inconceivable that the saturation of the socio-economic with relativism should exclude from its sodden state any other area of life.  And this obviously includes … ethics, morality and the discourse of history per se.” (p15f)

The ‘endist’ position states “relativism to be ‘the only game in town’”. (p16)  And the ‘endist’ writer finds her/himself in an unusual position.

The ‘endist’ writer infers that, “[in relation] to all historical [sources], … no value, no semantics are entailed [from the facts of the past and the syntax of the past]: you can read the past, in its parts or its putative whole, any way you like.  No necessary meaning, no necessary significance, no necessary emplotment follows …”. (p16)

In other words, fictive historical narratives “can no longer make claims – at the level of the text – to truth, objectivity, disinterest, neutrality …i.e. they can make no claims to being epistemological”. (p16)

Therefore, the ‘endist’ writer is drawn logically to “indifference to whether history continues or not [because] there are better things to think about”. (p17)

Jenkins and Munslow cite one writer who “takes it for granted that, sired and born within modernity, histories as we have come to know them … are now … slipping out of our conversations”.  Rather, this same writer prefers “acts of the imagination that rethink time and the ‘time of our lives’ in ways that are not contaminated by (what she calls) the radioactivity of the old idea(s) of history …”. (p17)

I think that ‘endist’ discussions can be critiqued on the grounds that the difference from deconstructionist histories has been asserted but not evidenced.

I think this at the moment for two reasons.  First, so far as I can see, ‘endist’ writers weight their work in their present circumstances.  And second, I am unable to find any essential difference between literary “acts of the imagination that rethink time and the ‘time of our lives’” [endism] and literary expressions of a writer’s “will to power” (Nietzsche) in which the writer aligns her/himself (directly or indirectly) with imaginative continuities to alleged ideas and people of the past [deconstructionism].

*       *       *

Looking back over this series of posts, Jenkins and Munslow’s way of classifying the writing of history has kept my interest all through, and I think they have justified their approval for the US theorist Hayden White’s general definition of history as “a narrative prose discourse the content of which is as much imagined as found”. (p5)

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


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