The Eclipse of History?: Dealing with the Post-Modernist Critique of History
Prof Robert Ventresca.
In present debates about the meaning and purpose of history as an explanatory framework, it is common to speak of the ‘post-modern challenge’ to history and, indeed, of the ‘end of history’ itself. As various commentators have noted, the last two decades have witnessed a concerted, and effective, effort on the part of post-modernism to challenge the study of history as both a speculative and an analytical model of explanation. In short, we hear repeated assertions that ‘history’ has come to an end, be it as a speculative narrative of historical change over time, or as an analytical tool capable of fulfilling Ranke’s prescription for historians to ‘show how it really was.’
In part, the apparent eclipse of history reflects the fact that the 20th century was an anti-historical era. Because of the tumultuous events of the preceding century, the historical profession has been wracked with self-doubt and left wondering whether the ‘noble dream’ of an objective pursuit of historical knowledge can ever be realized. Indeed, over the past few decades, the ideal of objectivity has been under siege. And the attack has come mainly from within the historical profession itself, although it is part of a much broader current in virtually all disciplines.
As Wilfred McClay recently observed, professional historians today have become alarmingly ‘disdainful of the past,’ and sceptical about the realistic possibilities of achieving an accurate picture of ‘what really happened.’ Whatever one might think of this development – no doubt, the post-modernists applaud it – it is clear that, as McClay puts it, the assault on objectivity has ‘hopelessly muddled’ our sense of the past.
My paper argues that the most damaging effect of the post-modernist critique of history is that it has effectively snuffed out an appreciation for the past, at least among many professional historians, while the wider culture continues to consume the versions of history offered up by popular culture. While this has many positive dimensions, it also means we run the risk of marginalizing the historical-critical method of scholarship in favour of images of the past that are highly selective, inaccurate if not mythical, and often at odds with the ‘humanizing’ function of the historical enterprise.
Prof Robert Ventresca (Canada)
Assistant Professor of History
Department of History
King's University College at the University of Western Ontario
Professor Ventresca teaches modern European history, as well as courses on the philosophy of history and political extremism. He specializes in contemporary Italian and European history. His first monograph, due to be published in November 2003, examines Italy's transition from dictatorship to democracy, 1943-1948. Current research and teaching interests include church-state relations in 20th century Europe, the Catholic Church in the Cold War, the history of fascism, as well as migration in world history. He has published in the field of Italian, migration and women's history, and co-edited A Nation of Immigrants, a collection of articles on immigration in Canadian history.
(30 min. Conference Paper, English)