The myth lingers on

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August 21, 1998

The myth lingers on

Lachlan Mackinnon

THE SOCIAL MISCONSTRUCTION OF REALITY. Validity and verification in the scholarly community. By Richard F. Hamilton. 289pp. Yale University Press.

Pounds 22.50 - 0 300 06345 8.

Wellington never said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton; Mozart was not buried in a pauper's grave. Richard F. Hamilton's ragged, wide-ranging book, concerned with how error is perpetuated within the scholarly community, begins with these two relatively minor instances. The account of Mozart's last years, showing that he was both much better off and more highly regarded than is generally supposed, is the fuller of the two discussions, and the way in which his first major and romantically inclined biographer Otto Jahn told the story is shown to have set an entirely misleading precedent. What Professor Hamilton learns from the Mozart affair is that "intellectuals can produce and maintain discourse . . . independently of political or economic elites" and that "generations of intellectuals (and their immediate audience, the well educated) have proved curiously accepting". The Mozart myth has, he argues, the "underlying theme . . . that artists, the talented, the creative minds, or intellectuals, are not paid enough".

There follows a long, patient and careful demolition of Max Weber's thesis on the relationship between Protestantism and early capitalism. Not all of the discussion is new, and in many ways the Weber thesis already seemed ropey enough not to need this further critique, but Hamilton shows by a statistical examination of textbooks how widely it is still held in fields other than the one to which it directly applies; economic historians may have quietly shelved it, but sociologists and others continue to treat it as gospel. I was sorry that he did not say more about the ideological motivation of Weber's work, the determination to show the inadequacy of Marxism. If Protestantism could be proven to have caused economic transformation, by implication essentially superstructural elements like religion were as important as the direct economic causality on which Marx relied.

Hamilton then grinds his particular axe, the nature of those who voted for Hitler. With an impressive array of statistics, he resumes an argument begun elsewhere, that Hitler's support can at the very least not be shown to have come from the lower middle class. The argument that it did, he feels, both derives from and plays a part in confirming a snobbish and reductive view of the lower middle class. He sees a "double standard" having been applied, "a direct parallel to one seen with respect to the Weber thesis. A weak standard is allowed for the original claim; a stringent one is set for the challenge."

Hamilton's third major target is Michel Foucault. He concentrates on Foucault's early work on penology, showing, for instance, that the panopticon was hardly ever realized in bricks and mortar. Again, there is a faint feeling of familiarity here, but Hamilton's demolition of Foucault's claims to scholarship is highly entertaining. He is also concerned by how Foucault's work, despite the problems seen by a number of reviewers, somehow passed academic muster.

Part of the problem, he thinks, was the "shortage of knowledgeable reviewers", part the relative inaccessibility of some of Foucault's sources. However, there were simpler failures. Noting the widely known progressive failure of English juries to convict on capital charges through the eighteenth century, Hamilton writes that "Power," clearly, was being thwarted by "the people." This experience again challenges a basic truth of Foucauldian science. For Foucault, the solution is simple: he does not report the actual practice. But the difficulty was also missed by the critics.

Despite the "approved stance" academics take, one of a "proudly announced critical propensity", he fears that too many were simply participants in, or victims of, "conformity".

Because he focuses on the early work, Hamilton is unable to engage with Foucault's later theory of a freely circulating "power" by which social issues were determined, a theory which is perhaps seductive partly because it resembles the ethics of the bathhouse writ large, and is almost entirely insusceptible of empirical testing. Equally, he does not need to reiterate the common complaint that Foucault was entirely unable to account for the epistemic transformation he insisted had taken place, whereas Thomas Kuhn's paradigm-shifts, to take a cognate example, could at least be traced to the work of particular individuals. Most importantly, he does not have to deal with the evasive slippage by which Foucault is now more commonly referred to as a philosopher rather than as a historian, as though idleness, misrepresentation and sloppy thinking were only to be expected of philosophy.

Hamilton comes to some rather banal conclusions: scholars should avoid "groupthink" and check their colleagues' sources. This is no doubt true, but it falls flat at the end of a study which raises much larger questions. The major targets of Hamilton's inquiry, Weber, the lower middle class and Foucault, are all instances of idealtyping in different forms. Weber wanted to produce an early capitalist in whom religious belief and economic practice were at one, a type against whom deviations could be measured. Hamilton makes us feel, uneasily, that in this case the distance between Max Weber and Peter York, who gave the Sloane Ranger her being, may be less than we would want to think. The lower middle class, anathematized as a type, has learnt its lesson all too well; Poujadisme and Thatcherism are the results. Foucault wanted to create alternative worlds, by which our own might be relativized, and he might be better thought of as a science-fiction writer than as a historian or even a philosopher.

Without saying so, Hamilton shifts his argument from the simpler matter of citation-chains which perpetuate mistakes to a broader theoretical field, one he leaves untilled. I was left wondering what would have happened if Louis Althusser, who is not mentioned in this book, had not killed his wife. The faults of Althusser's work (the jargon, the scholasticism, the dependence of his model of the State Ideological Apparatus solely on the educational settlement of the Third Republic, for instance) are glaring. None the less, he might offer historical sociology a way between abstract types and atomized local investigations in his emphasis on the relative autonomy of the superstructure and of elements within it. His insistence that the final instance, the economic, is the one which never comes - that it is a kind of theoretical vanishing-point - saves him from too rigorous a determinism. As Althusser's biographer, Yann Moulier Boutang, has written, it was an extraordinary intellectual "abdication", particularly in an age which swore by Foucault's theories of madness, that Althusser's judicial status should have been allowed simply to erase his thought. Richard Hamilton's study of academic conformity and carelessness is admirably level-headed, but his recommendations do not have the theoretical range they would need to have a significant effect.

Lachlan Mackinnon


February 23, 2001

All quiet on the postmodern front

Arthur Marwick

The "return to events" in historical study

In a recent issue of the TLS (September 29, 2000), John Ellis, the distinguished Germanist, published an unflinchingly hostile review of David Macey's Dictionary of Critical Theory: the neo-Marxist postmodernism being expounded was, he said, nothing more than an absurd belief system. To Professor Ellis's chagrin, not a dog of a reader (to adapt an old saying) lifted his leg in protest. Had all the fire departed from postmodernist bellies, was the postmodernist tide now definitively ebbing?

The Great War (also referred to as "the culture wars", "the history wars", or "the science wars"), which had its origins deep in the 1960s, was, in the 80s, marked by phenomenal victories on the part of the postmodernists. They overran much of Eng Lit and established the puppet state of Cultural Studies. They walked, without even token resistance, into History and Philosophy of Science, being embraced by weeping Sociologists; flamboyant hopes of conquering the high peaks and cantons of the Natural Sciences were, however, exposed as ill-conceived. Parts of the marcher lands of History fell easily, though it was here that some of the nastiest fighting took place.

John McGowan, in Postmodernism and Its Critics (1991), thought that postmodernism, as a philosophy or intellectual discourse, had four variants: post-structuralism (Derrida and Foucault); the new Marxism (Jameson, Eagleton, Said); neo-pragmatism (Lyotard, Rorty); and feminism (which -man of discretion! -he did not discuss). But any deduction therefrom that postmodernism is, at most, one-quarter Marxist must be tempered by an appreciation that all the great intellectual debates of the 1960s were within the Marxist tradition (Foucault calling Sartre "the last Marxist", and meaning it as an insult, yet comparing Marx to Newton and Darwin). A useful label is "Marxisant" for those, contemptuous of vulgar Marxism and, of course, all official Communist parties, who still accepted Marxist periodization, Marxist condemnations of the bad "bourgeois" society and Marxist perceptions of what ought to be the role of the "proletariat".

Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Lyotard and the luminaries of the Left Bank were all Marxisant. Thus postmodernism inherited a strong radical Marxist constituency, which greatly increased as traditional Marxism suffered blow after blow; only the rigorously scholarly and materialist, like E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, held out.

But postmodernist philosophy could claim an organic connection with postmodernism in the arts, postmodernism as a style. The argument that modernism had come to a stop, with nowhere to go, was a persuasive one, particularly with respect to architecture. Whether postmodernist art, literature and music really represent a total reaction against modernism, rather than an extension and extreme exaggeration of it, is probably best met with the response that it is both, with, often, the state-of-the-art frisson of incorporation of the latest technology, as in video installations or digital art.

Since the upheavals of the 1960s, there had been no such thing as the shock of the new; that had been replaced by the simple allure of the ever-more shocking.

With the power and the bathos of e-mail, the Internet and cellular telephones, the excesses and contradictions of consumerism, and the Thatcherite and Reaganite revolutions, it was difficult not to feel "the contemporary" as palpable, and the explanation that this was "the condition of postmodernity" as plausible. The aphorisms of Lyotard and Jameson were deeply satisfying: who did not feel what Jameson referred to as "a sense of unlimited change co-existing with unparalleled standardisation"? Despite its deep Marxisant substructure, much of postmodernism appealed profoundly to those who were by no means politically radical. They might not be sympathetic to the formulaic linking of the condition of postmodernity to an alleged crisis in late capitalism, but they were aware of all the disruptions and uncertainties implicit in globalization. Many aspects of postmodernist theory had a liberating feel about them: the insistence on plurality and difference; the abandonment of "grand narratives", of which, of course, traditional Marxism was the grandest; the recognition of the insecurities of language and the lack of a direct correspondence between language and reality, if not the whole-hog position of everything being constructed within language.

One of the biggest academic growth areas in the last quarter-century has been Popular Culture. Since the rise and rise of television, pop music and fashion, commercialized mass sport, and the commodification of almost everything are very much associated with the assumed condition of postmodernity, it was natural that postmodernist theory should be at the heart of the study of Popular Culture, insisting, for instance, that theories of narrative and emplotment were essential in, say, analysing television programmes.

Postmodernism drew prestige too from the early association between structuralism and the most celebrated of all historians, Fernand Braudel.

Levi-Strauss sought to snub Sartre by declaring, "Whatever meaning and movement history displays is imparted and endorsed, not by historical actors, but by the totality of rule systems within which they are located and enmeshed"; but this was close to what the Annales historians, with their rejection of histoire evenementielle, believed. Further bottom was given to the cause by praying in aid the anthropologist everyone wished to be seen quoting, Clifford Geertz, and his "webs of meaning".

However, there can be no doubt that political radicalism was the most powerful impetus behind postmodernism, of which Geraldine Finn wrote that it seemed to open up spaces in culture and consciousness where we can speak, hear and recognize other and heretofore subordinated histories, realities, reasons, subjectivities, knowledges and values which have been silenced and suppressed and certainly excluded from the formulations and determinations of the old modernist project.

New departments created, and new appointments made, to further women's studies, black studies and post-colonial literature created bases from which the whole postmodernist project could be expanded. The euphoric, totalizing (though, formally, postmodernism is supposed to be the opposite) enthusiasm of that blissful dawn when post-structuralism, radicalism and feminism were just beginning to come together, is well captured by the note on which the other John Ellis, and his partner, Rosalind Coward, opened their 1977 book, Language and Materialism: Developments in semiology and the theory of the subject:

"Perhaps the most significant feature of twentieth-century intellectual development has been the way in which the study of language has opened the route to an understanding of mankind, social history and the laws of how society functions."

It was, of course, the overtly political agenda of the postmodernists, and their attacks on conventional studies, the sciences and history, in particular, which provoked punitive counter- attacks. Alan D. Sokal, a Professor of Physics at New York University, is a dedicated Old Left figure whose commitment had extended to going out to teach mathematics for the Sandinista government. The publication in the spring/summer 1996 issue of Social Text, an American postmodernist journal of cultural studies, of his hoax article, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity", was a brilliant stroke against postmodernist claims that there was a relativist and indeterminate postmodernist science which in itself supported feminist and radical causes.

But to achieve a fuller answer as to why the postmodernist front has fallen silent, we should consider the original German title of Erich Maria Remarque's classic: what was transpiring Im Westen was nichts Neues. Since the thunderous assaults of the 1980s and early 90s, there has simply been nothing new. On the grounds that in an age which, being postmodern, was, by definition, post-hot war, and post-cold war, any kind of war was impossible, Baudrillard wrote an article in Liberation of January 4, 1991, entitled "The Gulf War will not take place", leading inexorably to further articles, "Is the Gulf War really taking place?" and "The Gulf War has not taken place" (Liberation, March 29, 1991), insisting that the War was actually that characteristically postmodern phenomenon, a massive media campaign. For the cause of postmodernism, this burbling nonsense amounted to devastating friendly fire. As John Searle comments in Mind, Language and Society (1999): "It is a sad fact about my profession, wonderful though it is, that the most famous and admired philosophers are often the ones with the most preposterous theories."

At no time did postmodernism carry all before it. Just when the speculative ideas associated with it were emerging, perfectly formed, a new reflexiveness, carefully examining methods and principles, was beginning to develop in the humanities, particularly in history. Thatcherism, with its insistence on value for money from education, strengthened this process. There has been much groaning in academia over the new regime in which intended "outcomes" have to be specified and "benchmarked", welcomed, however, by those of us who have always been explicit and disciplined in our teaching. The new regime, certainly, is inimical to the fantasies and unfounded authoritarianism of postmodernist cultural theory; those who have lived by indeterminacy and the discursive shall perish by benchmarking and Learning Outcomes.

In the 1980s, young postgraduates, going, as apprentice academics, into any of the humanities, felt bound, unless exceptionally gifted or independent-minded, to give their work a distinctive postmodernist ring. Today, I find Open University students objecting to postmodernism and feminism being thrust down their throats, and some tutors objecting to being parties to the thrusting.

Even in America, the forces of external accountability are strong. John Ellis (the Germanist) has remarked that postmodernist posturing "brings power and prestige on campus but lacks any validity in the wider world".

Large tracts of Eng Lit, particularly in America, remain in the condition of pre-1989 Albania, but elsewhere "nothing new" is synonymous with "out of fashion", and we all know the desolation of being out of fashion. Ludmilla Jordanova has been a loyal and aggressive Foucaldian; but now, in her recent History in Practice, she recognizes that postmodernism was merely a fad of its day: "in the late 1990s the enthusiasm is beginning to subside."

Former devotee John Tosh has also, in the latest edition of his book The Pursuit of History, lapsed, lapsing also into one of today's ghastliest cliches: postmodernist appeal was simply explained "by its resonance with some of the defining tendencies (sic) in contemporary thought". Most portentously, Willie Thompson, the former Marxist from Glasgow Caledonian has, in his What Happened To History?, just published a brilliant explication of history as a domain of knowledge analogous to the natural sciences, based on evidence and eschewing second-hand postmodernist tropes, such as nations as "imagined communities" or "memory" as a collective phenomenon inextricably bound up with popular radicalism.

In fact, at this very time, historians are turning back to events, deserting structures and "webs of meaning" in shoals. In France, the lifting of the interdict on histoire evenementielle was symbolized when, in 1994, Annales changed its subtitle from Economies, Societes, Civilisations to Histoire, Sciences Sociales. A culminating point came in the March/April issue of 1999 which had a section on that most evenementielle of events, the Fronde.

Robert Descimon wrote that "the return to events", seen as incompatible with "Fernand Braudel's total history", is opening new "explanatory perspectives", particularly in relationship to willed human action. Throughout the postmodernist efflorescence, event-based history was the prerogative of the Sorbonne and the Ecole des Chartes, led by Yves-Marie Berce, whose magnificent doctorat d'etat, Histoire des croquants: Etudes des soulevements populaires au XVIIe siecle dans le Sud-Ouest de la France had appeared in two volumes in

1974. "Croquants" is the condescending term for "peasants" met with in La Fontaine's Fables: in Berce's account, they are highly resourceful in ensuring that their risings were events of considerable historical significance. Berce's Fete et Revolte (1994) is full of willed action. One event he deals with is the Carnaval of Romans, subject of a grossly oversold, vestigially postmodernist, book by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. Deftly, Berce lodges a note of dissent: "Sans la suivre (my italics), j'ai fait mon profit de l'interpretation brillante donnee par E. Le Roy Ladurie." In 1992, having been affected, as we all have, by the dramatic events of 1989-91, Berce published (notez bien le titre) La Naissance dramatique de l'absolutisme, 1598-1661. Fainthearts at Macmillan cut the obviously deeply felt "dramatic", a tug at the tail of Braudel's la longue duree, coming up with an unremarkable (but decisively non-postmodernist) The Birth of Absolutism: A history of France 1598-1661 (1996).

What historians are studying is the way events are experienced, the outcomes of those experiences, and the place of events in complex chains of causation.

Obvious examples are Mark Mazower's Inside Hitler's Greece: The experience of Occupation, 1941-1944 (1993) and The People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution,

1891-1924 by Orlando Figes (1996).

Historians, furthermore, are now, after having talked about it for years, developing genuine transnational comparative approaches to their analyses of events. (Postmodernist historians write about la patrie or, in the case of local hero Patrick Joyce, Britain's own uncompromisingly incomprehensible postmodernist historian,Lancashire.) A most impressive example is Steven J.

Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Volume One, The Holocaust and Mass Death before the Modern Age (1994). In The Legacy of Nazi Occupation: Patriotic memory and national recovery in Western Europe, 1945-1965, the Belgian Pieter Lagrou sharply disposes of postmodernist abuse of language: "The universality of the fashionable terminology of 'national memory' might cause its users to forget the metaphorical and probably even inappropriate use of the word 'memory' in this context. Few human characteristics are more inalienably individual than memory."

Postmodernist/Marxist junk about nationalism being "invented" has been seen off in work by Anthony Smith, Adrian Hastings, and the classic, and event-filled, States, Nation and Nationalism (Munich 1994, London 1996) by Hagen Schulze, Director of the German Historical Institute in Bloomsbury: "A whole series of disasters began in 1309 with the exile of the popes in Avignon and assumed even more dramatic features with the beginning of the Hundred Years War in 1337.

Increasing famines and plagues reached a climax with the Black Death . . . .

There followed the Jacquerie . . . ."

I conclude my case by citing the two volumes just published of The Short Oxford History of Europe. By organizing his contributors into teams, Open University-fashion, the editor, Tim Blanning, has coaxed out an integrated narrative which demonstrates the effects of events on society, economy and culture, and vice versa, from the era of "International Rivalry and Warfare" and of "Orders and Classes: Eighteenth-century society under pressure" to the moment of release of the "destructive force of the First World War" and "its horrific long-term consequences", with nary a cheep about gender, memory, identity, or imagined communities.

For some time, I have been running a check on how often the names Foucault and Marx appear in the indexes of serious books in my general field. Their disappearance has been quite staggering. In Albrecht Folsing's Albert Einstein:

A biography (1997), I did find the two names -Foucault (Jean-Bernard) and Marx (Wilhelm): both real scientists. Readers should as quickly as possible get hold of the February 1999 issue of the historical journal Past and Present. With exquisite judgment, the editors simply printed, unaltered, Patrick Joyce's "The Return of History: Postmodernism and the politics of academic history in Britain", this return to planet Joyce being an incomprehensible mix of jargon, cliche, gibberish and unfocused rage. Postmodernism had produced its very own "longest suicide note in history".


March 23, 2007

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