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in the


From Scientific Objectivity to the

Postmodern Challenge

Georg G. Iggers



~V" ~w~

Wesleyan Unversty Press

Published by Umverslty Press of New England

Hanover and London

Chapter 8

Lawrence Stone and

"The Revival of Narrative"

In 1979 there appeared m Past and Fresem, whtch had been since
tts founding in 1952 the most tmportant forum m Great Britain
for discussions in history and the soctal sctences, Lawrence
Stone's essay "The Revtval of Narra tive: Reftecttons on a New
Old History."t In this now famous prece, Stone notes that n the
1970s a baste transformation took place n the way history was
viewed and written. 1)e belief central to social sctence hstory,
that "a coherent scient!ncexplanation ofch.,!gejrhe past"2 rs
possible, was widely rejecfed. Iri .its J:l~i.tllt;}J&Q.f!1.r'gt;da re,
newed interest in the most \'m:t.ed aspects of human exrstence,
~ccompanied l)y"iliecovi"tion ;;th~t ie ctiliure. f tfte group,
and even the will of the individual, are potentrally at least as
imprtant. causal agents o f change as the impersonal forces f
material output and demographc growth. "3 Ths renewed emphasis on the expenences of concrete human bengs ushered in
a retum to narra tive forms of htstory.
The tum to experience involved a criticai reexammatiOn of
scientific ratonality. Social science-oriented hstory had presupposed a postive relationshp to a modem, expanding industrial
world m which sctence and technology contributed to growth
and development. But this faith m progress and in the ctvilzaton
of the modem world has undergone a serous test since the
screntists still
I g6os. In the r gsos Amenc an htstonans and soctal
of a truly
spoke complacently of a national "consensus"




The Challenge of Postmodernism

classless soctety, free from deeper social conflicts, wluch distinguished Amenca, past and present, from Europc:. John Kenm:th
Galbrath 111 1958 publshed The Aff/uew Sooely. _,As we alrc"dy
menttoned, Damel Bell's The Ell(/ of ldeology appeared m
rg6o,5 followed in 1962 by Michacl Harnngton's The Otiter
Amenca. whtch focused on those segments of the Americ:an
populatton, the poor, Whte and Black, who had been exclucled
from the aflluence and did not share m the consensus. In the
United States the previously hdden tenstons in the socety carne
to the fore m full force wtth the civil disobeclience movemen: of
the early 196os and the bloody upnsngs m the ghettos 111 the
second half of that decade. The Yietnam War then divtded
Americans as profoundly as the Algerian War had divtded the
French a few years earlier. But the opposttion to the war went
beyond purely polittcai tssues. The conllicts of the sccond half of
the rq6os, tnggered m the United States by the confltcts about
civil ~ghts and about the Vietnam War, [ocused not only on
cnttctsm of existmg poltica! and socml condillons, but also on
the quality o[ life m a highly mdustnalized society. The fatth m
progress and sctence, wluch was basic not only to the quamttatve New Economtc history but also to Marxtsm, became mcr,asmgly problematic in vtew of the dangers and the brutality wLth
which tcchnology transformed the mdustnal countnes and affected the developmg nattons.
lt 1s important to realize that the student movement o f the late
rg6os m Berkeley, Pans, Berlin, and Prague turned agamsi l>oth
caoitalism in the West anel the Sovtet form of Marxtsm. Thts ts
m{portant for the developments within historiography if one ts to
understand why netther the usual social-sctetllific models nor
historical materialism could continue to be Oonvmcmg. Both
start from macrohistorcal and macrosocietal conceptiOn~ for
which the st: te, the market, or for Marxtsm the class, are central
concepts. In )oth, the firm belief in the possibility and ~estrabil
tty o f sctentit:oally steered growth ts taken for granted. 1 hc focus
on soctal stn. 'tures and social processes, shared by orthodox
soctal science c nd orthodox Marxism, left litlle roam for tl10se
segments of the populatton who had prev10usly been negkcted
and who now clatmed an tdentity and a history of thetr Jwn.
Moreover, both soctal sctence and Marxist htstoriognphy

"The Revival of Narrallve"


showed little interest m the exstenttal aspects of everyday lifetts matenal, but also its emottonal side, Its hopes and fears.
A pesstmtsttc vtew regarding the course and quality of modem Western civilizatton occupted a central place in muc'1 of the
"New Cultural History." This new history mamtamed a paradoxtcal relationshtp to Ivlarxtsm. It shared the Marxtst vtew regarding the emancipatory functiOn of htstonography; but tt
understood the constramts from wluch men and women were to
be emanctpated quite differently from classcal Marxtsts. The
sources of explmtatton and dommation were not to be found
primarily n nsttutwnalized structures, m polit1cs or in the
eonomy, but more tmportantly in the many mterpersonal relatons m whtch human bemgs exert power over others. Gender
thus also assumed a new anel stgnificant role. Foucault in an
tmportant sense replaced Marx as the analyst of power and of its
relation to knowledge.
One key questton ratsed by Stone was whether and m what
way history could or should understand 1tself as a sctence. Not
only social sctence-oriented htstonography, but also the older
traditon of criticai histoncal research as tt had developed Wtth
Ranke in the mneteenth-cenrury umvers!les viewed h1story as a
science, However, for the latter sctence had had a different
meamng. lt involved the repudiatton of the postttvism of the
analytical socal sciences and emphaszed the distinction between the human or cultural scences (Gewesw1ssenschaften)
and the natural sciences. It nevertheless adhered to a concept of
science and vtewed history as a scentfic disctpline. Hence m
Germany the term Gesc/uchwwssenschaft (historical sctence)
replaced the term Geschtclllsschreibung (the wntmg of history)
to describe what professtonal htstonans were doing. The concept
science here involved the centrality of a logtc of inqury that set
rigorous methodologtcal guidelines for obtaming obJective
knowledge. While stressng the role of empathy in htstoncal
understanding, wh1ch mvolvecl the subjectivity o f the historiao,
this school of htstoncal scholarship nevertheless had postted a
clear line o f distmction between htstorical scholarship and imagina tive literature. lt should, however, be stressed that this distinction between analysts and narration was frequently not adhered
to. Georges Duby in The Legend of Bouvtnes' and Jacques Le





of Postmodernism

Goff in his recent biography o f Samt Loms,B ~s we shall se e la cer,

demon stratcd that narrat wn occupied an Important placc m the
Amw/e s traditon.
Although Stone emphat!cally reJected the illusion of "coher ent sc1entifie explan atwn" m history, he nowhere suggested that
historical narratlve, despite Its necessarily literary form, sunen
ders its claim to ratlonal inquiry
as we saw m the introductwn, a numbe r of theons ts in F rance
and the Unted States, mostly coming from literary cntiCJs
such as Roland Barthes, Paul
Derrid a, and Jean-Frano!S
tpostm odern ists-a la bel some o f them would vigorously reJec
would call for this surren der
tween fact and fiction, history and poetry. They viewed history
as havmg no reference to a reality outside of its texts. But as
shall see, pract1cmg histonans seldom
radical brcak between the older social
new cultural history, but the themes and wllh them the metho
of the new histonography changed
shifted frorn structures anel processes to cultures and the exi>.ten
l!al life expen ences of comrnon people
greate r skepl!c1sm regarding the clmrns of the traditiOnal socwl
sciences, Il did not mean a fiight mto the imagmary. Not onl:t did
htstorians contmue to work conscientiously and cntically wtth
sources, but, as we shall see in the followng sect10ns. thcy also
adople d rnethods and findings from the social scJCnces. Thus
they by no means gave up the convicllon that the Justonan must
fo!low ratlonal methods to gam truthful ms1ghts mto the past.

Chapter 9

From Macro- to Microhistory:

The History of Everyday Life

lncreasmgly m the 1970s and rg8os histon ans not only m the
West, but in some cases also in the Eastern Europ ean countn
began to quest1on lhe assumptons of social scienc
key to the worldview o f socwl science h1story, as seen by
cntics, was the belief in modernization as a positiv
rnost radical form this belief was voiced in Francis Fukuyama
1989 essay "The End of History,"I wh1ch proclmmed
modem technologJcal society based on capitalist free rnarke
principies accompanied by representa tive parliarnentary
tions signified the achievement of a ratJOnal arder o f things as the
outcom e of histoncal development. A good dealle ss sangum
other social scienc e-onen ted historians such as J rgen Kocka
heaware of the destructive aspects of rnodern societies, nevert
lcss expressed their confidence m the overall posttive charac
of modermzatio
veloped technology would be coupled w1th democral!c polil!c
mstltutions guaran
tural pluralism.2 For Kocka the collapse both of Nazism and
the Marxist-Lemnist systems m Easter n Europ e and the Sov1et
Uruon seemed 10 confirm ti11S pomt. A key function of a cntica
htstorical socml sctcnce was, m hts vtew, to pomt at the atavtst

aspects of socwl orders m the twenu eth century that stood m the
way of a truly modem socwty, as Wehler and he had dane
their analysis of Germa n society before I945






The Challenge of Postmodernism

For Carla Ginzburg and Carlo Pom, two of the most rmpor
tant representalives of mrcrohrstory m ltaly, the key rcason for
the decline of macrohistoncal conceptrons and with them o:
social scrence approaches to hrstory was to be found m the loS<.
of faith m JUSt this optrmrstrc vrew of the beneficral soem! anel
politrcal fruits of technological progress.J The arguments madt:
agamst macrohistorical socral scence approaches, whrch m
cluded Marx1sm, were based on poliucal and ethrcal grounds
even more than on methodologrcal ones, although, as we shall
see, the Italian school in part1cular subJCCted the baste assump
t1ons of socal sc1ence history to a searchmg methodolog!cal
critique. A key objeclion to lhe sacra! scenco conceptron ofa
world hrstorcal process characterized by modernzalion was, m
therr view. the human cost. Th1s process, they argued, has un
leashed not only rmmense productve forces but also devastating
destruclive energies that are inseparably linked with them.
Moreover, it has taken place, so to say, behnd the backs of
people, primarily "little people," who had been neglected as
much m social 'crence-oriented history as they had been in the
convenlional p<litical history that focused on lhe high and
mighty. History nust turn to the condit1ons of everyday life a;
they are experien:ed by common people. But the knd o f lustorJ
of everyday life th~t Fernand Braudel had offered in the 196o;
and 1970s m The Strucwres of Everyday Lif<?' for them 1mssed
the pomt by attending to matenal conditons v11thout exammmg
how these condittons were expenenced.
We have already pointed to the role that politlcal belief;
played not only m the scholarship of the older school of polittcal
historiography but also in more recent forms of o;ocal Iustor1
and, of course, in Marxism. They play the same role, and perhap;
a more readily apparent one n the new microhistoncal ,.tudie;
of everyday life. lt s not coincidental that in ltaly many histori
aos, like many of their Brtish colleagues, began as professed
Marxrsts and then moved in directtons that challenged the basi o
macrohistorical conceptions of Marxism. The subect matter of
h1storical studies moved, for the historians of everyday life, from
what they call the "center" of power to the "margrns," to th'
many, and the many are for them ovenvhelmingly the disadvan
taged and the exploited. This stress on disadvantage and expiai-

The History of Everyday Life


tation disttnguishes thrs hstonograp hy from older romantrc

traditions of the history of popular life such as the mneteenthcentury ethnology of Wilhelm Riehl.S While Riehl looked nostalgically back to an idyllic folk society free of inner contlicts, the
histonans of everyday life emphasrze the lack of harmony.
The many, however, are not vrewed by these h1storians as part
of a crowd but as rndivrduals who must not be lost erther within
world lustorical processes or m anonymous crowds. Edward
Thompson had already made clear the motrvatiOn of hrs h1story
when he proclarmed the arm of The Makmg oft!ze Englis!z Workmg C/ass to be "to rescue the poor stockinger .
[and] the
'obsolete' hand-loom weaver
from the enormous condescension of posterity. "6 But if one wishes to rescue the unknown
from oblivwn, a new conceptuai and methodolog1cal approach
to history is called for that sees history no longer as a unified
process, a grand narrative in which the many individuais are
submerged, but as a multifaceted flow wth many rndividual
centers. Not hrstory but hrstories, or, better, stores, are what
matter now. And ifwe are dealing with the individuallives of the
many, we need an eprstemology geared to the expenences of
these many that pennrts knowledge of the concrete rather than
the abstract.
By the 1970s a history that anchored culture in a firm polittcal,
socral, and economic context had been prepared m the great
works o f George Duby on marrage, the perpetuatron of national
myths, and the social structure of feudalism7 and m Jacques Le
Goffs works on mtellectuals and clencs and conceptons and
pattems o f work.B Le Goff and Duby also succeeded n wrtting a
,;ocral and cultural h1story in which narrative and individuais
played a central role, as n Duby's work on the Battle of Bou"nes on Sunday, July 27, I2f4, as a historical event that was
transfonned nto a national myth (1973),9 and most recently m
:acques Le Goff's 1996 biography of St. Loms.JO In the course of
the 1970s studies o f popular culture became more frequent m the
English-speaking and the Italian world, as m Keth Thomas's
Religwn and the Decline of Magrc: Studies 111 Popuiar Beliefs in
r6rh arzd nrh Cenrury Europe (1971),11 Peter Burke's Popular
Cuiwre m Early Modem Europe (1978),12 Natalie Z. Davrs's
Society and Culwre in Early Modem France (1975),'' and Carlo

I04 The Challenge of Postmodernism

Ginzburg's Tlze Clzeese and the Worms: 11le Cosmos of a Sixteemh-Cemury Miller (1975),14 in all of wluch religion occupies
an important place, in Davis's case with a strong focus on gender.
There is no reason why a htstory dealing with broad soc1al
transfom1ations and one centeiing on mdividual extstences cannot cooex1st and supplement each other. lt should be the task of
lhe h1storian to explore the connecttons berween these two kvels
of hisloncal experience. Nevertheless a vigorous debate took
place m the 198os in Germany between advocates of a social
sctence history, who called for strct conceptual and analytical
guidelines, and lhe champ1ons of everyday h1story, for whom
these oouidelines meant the death lmell for lived experiences,
wh1ch they ardently believed should be the true subject matter
of historv.15 In a crucial arttcle, "Missionanes in the Row
Boat"(r9S4)I6 Hans Medick soughtto stake outthe baste positions of everyday history. For this history, cultural anthropology
as it was represented in the seventies antl etghties by Clifford
Geertz served as a model for histoncal research. This scnnotlc
approach is pursued in Geertz's conception of a "thu:k de"criptiOn, "17 which means an immediate confrontatlon wtth an other.

!t also means that we do not WISh to read our preconcepuom mto

the other but to recapture It as It ts. Nevertheless, ai tlus point
Geertz and Medick become enmeshed m a seemmg contradicl!on because the thtck description they cal! for does not give us
access to an individual but only to the culture in wiuch he or she
IS bound up. Thus the "poor stockinger," whose mdividual dignity Thompson set out to rescue from the impersonal forces of
history, now again loses hts indviduality to a culwre smce we are
able to gam insight mto the mdividual only through the culttire
tha shapes him or her. Netther the ethnologtst nor the histonan,
according to Geertz and Medick, has immediate ac:ess tJ the
experience of others. Therefore he has to continue to decipher
these expenences mdirectly through symbolic and ritualisti: acts
that, pro<:eeding beneath the Immediacy of individual mtentwns
and actwns, fonn a text that makes acccss to another culture
Kocka cntiCized Medick's approach, wnich he descnbed as a
"neohstoncism" (not to be confused with the New Historicism
in the U nited States discussed earlier) on two grouncls: Like the

The History of Everyday Life


older histoncism, tts emphal!c renunciatJOn of theory and tts

insistence on immediate experience, in h1s op1mon, led to a
methodologtcal mationalism. One cannot have coherent ms1ght
mto reality if one does not proceed With explicit questions that
help us to loca te what we are lookmg for m the immense multitude of experiences. For Medick the very approach to our subJect matter With carefully formulated questlons prejudices our
findings; for Kocka the absence of these questions makes meaningful knowledge Impossible. Moreover for Kocka the concentration on the "small" aspects of history tsolated from broader
contexts renders histoncal knowledge impossible and leads to
the tnvmlization of lustory. There is therefore a danger that
the history of everyday life may detenorate mto anecdotes and
Now for Medick "smallts beautiful" by no means signifies an
anecdotal history cut loose from larger contexts. In fact, Medick
msists that history should move from concern With "central"
msl!tutions to the margms, where mdividuals who do not conform to lhe established nonns are to be founct.IH Ne;ertheless
the individual can only be understood as part of a larger cultural
whole. Thus the microhistory he pursues cannot stand Without a
macrosocml context. Not only the Alltagsgesc/uc/ue (everyday
h1story) that Medick represents in Gennany, but also microhistory as conceived by its ltalian advocates, to whom we shall come
below, assumes the existence of a comprehensive popular culture. Hence the turn to historical anthropology with its semiottc
approach to the symbolic expressions of culture. For the ltalians
tlus is a peasant culture that has endured since pnmordial times.
At this point the protomdustnalization proJect launched m
the early 1970s at the Max Planck lnstitute for History should be
ment10ned. The focus here was on a small unit, the peasant
household. Franklin Mendels, a Belgtan Amencan who comed
the term "protomdustnalism" m 1972,19 focused on the mterplay
of economic forces and regenerative practices m these households. According to him cottage industries in a penod o f increasing demand for textiles led to an early form of industrialization
and furthered the increase of population, w1th earlier marriages
and more children, to meet the need for labor. Important studies
along these !ines were carried out in Great Britain and elsewhere

I06 The Challenge of Postmodernism

m the early 1970s20 and helped insp1re the German proJect,

resulting in 1979 in a collaborative volume, lndusrnalizatwn Before Industrwlizatwn,2! concentratng on the development of
domest1c mdustry in the countrystde prior to the lndustnal
RevolUllon. Despite the reservatons these histonans expre;sed
in rcgard to t\1e systemattc soc.al scences, which in the1r view left
too little spat\e for human initative, they relied heav!ly m their
work on the l.ard soc1al scences, primarily economics and historical demog;:phy. They operated wth concepts of soctal differentiation and of a market economy that derive from classtcal
political economy. In this sense they worked withm a conceptual
structure similar to the one we already noted m Emmanuel Le
Roy Ladune's analys1s of the interplay of foocl prices a~d population pressures. Nevertheless wtth the strec.s on the fam1ly as the
key unit m the productive process, new foci emer. From the hard
framework of a quantttative demography, we move mto the
much more concrete setting of families in which protondustrialization brings about changed reproductive panerns mvolving
early marriages and childbeanng as property relat1ons change.
Work pattems too change. The studies show to what extent
spending, saving, and work are determmed nor only by ecorom1c
pressures but by questions of status and honor expressed
through conspicuous consumption.22 Thus to understand the
nature of a rural protoindustrial commumty we need to go beyond economic anel demographic analys1s to the cons1deration
of culture.
In the 198os the mam partlcpants n lhe protomdustralization project at the Max Planck Institute for History, Hans
Medick and J rgen Schiumbohm, JOned by an Amencan, Dav1d
Sabean (who at the time was at lhe Insttute) proceeded from
their more general studies of protomdustrializaton to an exanu24
natwn o f the process in a specific locality, Medick23 and Sabean
m two villages in Suabia, Laichngen and Neckarhausen,
Schlumbohm25 n the pansh of Belms n Westphalia. On one
leve! this ts a contnuaton of older forms of soctal scence research. A tremendous number of datais fed mto the cornputer,
particularly concerning propeny nventones at marriage and
death as well as vital statistics, tnal records, ltteracy, eto. The
resultts a host o f information that relates to culture. Inventaries,

The History of Everyday Life


for example, y1eld informat1on on book possesswn. The focus 1s

on one village or locality over a penod of approx1mately two
hundred years, from the old regtme to the latter part of the
nmeteenth century. Desptte the frequent tribute they pay to
Geertz, their approach 1s very different. Instead of tluck descnption, they work with hard material and soc1etal data. which they
then interpret. The Geertztan concept1on of a culture as an
integrated sem1ollc system-not enlirely different from the romantiC notion of a village commumty that we find m nmeteenthcentury ethnologsts like Wilhelm Riehl, nostalgc for a s1mpler
and more harmomous folk culture-1s replaced by one that sees
differenllation and conftict. Moreover, the h1story of the localilles takes place wtthin the context of the great polit1cal, economc, and soc1al changes in the transttlon from a premodern to
a modem soc1ety. Although they dislike the concept o f moclernlzatlon, these histonans work wtth t, m awareness of the "costs."
They are thus much closer to traditional social sctence imtory
and much further removed from lustoncal anthropology than
they concede.
There are great s1milant1es and yet fundamental differences
between the anthropological and m1croh1storical htstorians m
Germany whom we have JUSt discussed and the Italian practtlioners of microswna. Desp1te similantles in thetr poiit1cat outlook, they come from two different traditions. The man
representatives of the Italian tradillon, Carla Ginzburg, Carla
Pom, Giovann Lev, and Edoardo Grencli, began as Marxists."
They reacted against Marx1st doctnnes on two grounds: One was
ther reJeCtlon of the authoritarian aspects of the established
Communist partles. The second, which they re1terated repeatedly, was the1r loss of faith n the macroh1stoncal conceptlons
that Marxtsm shares w1th non-Marxist conceptwns of growth.
They wtshed to g1ve history again a human face, wh1ch led them
to react not only against traditional Marxism but also against the
analytlcal social sctences and the Annales. The latter avo1d the
narrowness of lhe rwo former, but Braudel's house of lstory, as
Lev1 notes, has many rooms perm1ttmg a vanety of outlooks and
approaches-but there are no people livmg m.27
The practitloners of microswna, like the1r German colleagues, want to return to the iife experences of concrete human

I08 The Challenge of Postmode.-nism

bemgs. They preserve three elements of the Marxrsl lustoncal
orientatiOn, two of wluch they share with the Germans: The first
1s the belief that social inequality is a central characte nsuc cf ali
histoncal societiCs. The second is the role producl!on and reproduction play in the formatiOn o[ cultures. Econom1c forces, they
msist do not offer an explanation for socral and cultural asects
of life, but they enter into them. They consl!tule sgnificant
causes of soem! nequality wlthout which lustory cannot be understood, although mequality takes on forms thal exlenc. lar
beyond polilical, economrc, anel social mequality as tl. has been
traditionally conceived, particularly m the Marx1sl tradtllon. The
thtrd is the belief that htsloncal study must be oased on ngorous
method and emprica! analysis. While criticai of Jradtttonal
Marxrst and social science approaches, lhey avotd the behel,
vmced by Geertz and taken very seriously by Medick m lus essay
on the mtssionanes, that history gams many o f tls mstghts rrom
poetry, a position vmced also, as we have seen: by Hayden ~h~~~
and adopted by Amenca n culturall ustonans ltke Natahe D"vtsfor whom, al least in their methodological statements, the borderline between fact and fictton becomes fluid. For the pracl!l!oners of 11 ucrosrona, the line rs much less flwd. They mstsL that
the Iustonan deals w1th a real subject matter. Thetr cntict,m of
traditional social science approaches is not that soem! sctence ts

nol possible or desirable but that soem! scientists have made

generalizattons that do not hold up when r:sted agamst _rhe
concrete reality of the small-scale hfe they datm to expiam.
There 1s nc''ertheless a certain contradictton between theory and
practice in 'the writmgs of both the German and. lhe Itahan
onentatt on.\Whil e the ltalians remam skeptrcal ot what they
consider to t\e Geertz's methodological irratonalism, the~' too,
particularly (\ulo Ginzburg, move m thetr lr.stoncal narratives
to a position dose to Geertz's thtck descnptron. Conversei v, the
Germans worked from the start closely Wilh soem! scrence methods involving compute r analyses o f long scries ..
Unlike the German mrcrohtstorians, the Itahans have had a
firm mslitutional basis m the JOurnal Quaderm Swnci, which
since 1ts founding m 1966 had occupieo a place m !tal).'_ not
ctissimilar to the Amwles in France or Pasr allil Present m ...rreat
Britain as a forum for a broad spcctrum of histoncal approaches.

The History of Everyday Life


In Germany Gesc/uchce und Gesel/schaft played such a role, but

with a much stronger socml sc1ence onentatiOn. Only wtth the
founding of Hisronsche Amlzropologte m 1993 did a German
JOurnal comem to existence representmg the vtewpomt ofnucrohistory and h1storical anthropology.
Significantly the new JOUrnal published m rts first volume an
artide by Carla Ginzburg on the Italian tradition o f mtcrosrona.2Y
The arlicle essentrally restated ideas that Ginzburg and Poni had
first put forward m Quadenu Sronct m 1979 and m other programmatiC statemen ts elsewhere. They pomted to the cnsrs of
macrohistory as part of an mcreasmg disilluswnment m the 1970s
wtth granel narratives. Large-scaie soem! scientific studies based
on massive quantitattve compute nzed data were questiOned, not

because a soda! sctentific approach was mapplicable but beca use

the large-scale generalizalions distorted the actual reality at the
base. A bas1c comm!lment of mtcrosroria, according tons practtliOners, rs "to open history to peoples who would be left out by
other methods" and "to elucidate htstoncal causation on the levei
o f small groups where most of life takes place. "30
There are affimt1es between the theoretrcal and methodologrcal posrtiOns articuiated by the advocates of mcrosrona and
those of Foucault and Geertz, but also marked differences. Like
Foucault they seek to show how "hegemonic mstitutions have
excluded certam ways of tlunking as demomc, rrrational, heretrcal, ar crmmal, "31 as Ginzburg did m the case o f h1s miller
philosopher and cosmologtst Menocchi032 and Levt did m the
case of the parish pnest Giovan Battlsta Chiesa.J3 And Iike
Geertz their aim ts an "interpre tive" study of culture that needs
to be approached "through smgle, seemmgly msignificant, signs,
rather than through the applications of laws denved from repeatable and quantifiable observations."3' In Levi's words:
"The microhistoncal approach addresses the problem of how
we gain access to knowledge of the past by means of vanous
clues, signs and syrnptoms. "35 Yet they contmue to msist that
there is a reality externai to the historical texts that can be
known. Adnutted ly knowledge ts mediated. Because tt ts, mtcrolustorical methoC: "breaks with the tradil!onal assert1ve,
authonta uve form of discourse adopted by hrstorians who present reality as objecttve. "36 Gomg back to a form o f presenta-

11 O The Challenge of Postmodernism

tiOn that preceded that of professionalized histonography, nucrostorw mtroduces a narralive in which lhe histonan transmiiS

his/her findings but also hts/her procedure. "In nucrolustory ... the researcher's pomt of VieW becomes an mtrmsic
part of the account."J7 The narrative. becomes importanl for
the presentation of the histonan's findmgs beca use lt can communcate elements that cannot be conveyed m abstract Jorm
and beca use il shows the process by wluch the lustonan arrives
at his/her account.
Yet desplte these limtal!ons placed on obJeCtiVIly, m:croswna shares severa! basic assumptions With older social science
that serve to distmgmsh lt from Foucault's and Geenzs approaches. For Foucault, Edward M~1r notes, "theories cannot
be verified because standards of venficatwn come trom a modem scientific disctpline that makes the past conform to the present. Correctness means conformtly to an order of thmgs that
has been defined by a disctpline or an insntution." 35 For Gmzburg and Levi tlus iS "an evasion. Correctness must be determined by the concrete, phystcally real evidence the past
presents us. "39 !Vlicrostona does not reJect the empmcal soctal
sctences m toto, but stresses the methodological need of te;tmg
thetr con,tructs agamst existing reality on a small scale. lt quesuons Geertz's approach to culture on stmilar grounds. De;pite
Geertzs claim that he deals wtth a world on a small scale. he
adheres to a macrosoc1al concepHon of a culture as an mtegrated system, a whole. As Levi notes: "lt seems to me that
one of the main differences m perspecuve between mtcr-Jhistory and mterpretive anthropology ts that the latter sees " ho-

mogenous meaning in public stgns and symbols whereas

microhistory seet{s to define and measure them wtth refcrence

to the multiplicHy of socml representatwns t1ey

pro duce. "40
. .
The result ts a soctety markcd by "soc1a I d1 erentwuon.
Here considerations of hegemony and social inequaltly, wh1~h
were pnme concerns of Marxist histonography, shapc the htstoncal concepuon of the mtcrohtstonans.
We shall briefly examme two of the most represenuuv e
works of the nucroscona tradit!On, Carlo Ginzburg's The Cileese
and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Si.lleelllh-Century Miiler 1. I-)75),
and Giovanm Le-vi, lnhentmg PoH'er: Thc Swry o{ m1 Exorctst

The History of Everyday Life


(1985). These books have much in common and yet are very
dtfferent m thetr conceptual and narrative approaches. Ginzburg's book has become a classtc, perhaps also because it reads so
well and confronts us Wtth a very rich individual. Levi's exorctst 1s
much more deeply embedded m social structures and the text 1s
more analytical. Both books share the general characteristtcs of
nucrostoria, the concentration on an mdivduaJ in a oiven localitv
and the attempt to stress the difference of thts ve.;'tocal settmg
from a larger norm. In both there IS a careful reconstruction of
the social and politcal setting, wtth the focus agan on the local
rather than on a broa der transregionallevel. And yet Ginzburg's
approach to hts protagomst, Menocchio, is much more hermeneutc than Levi's. The pnmary focus is on Menocch10's mental
world. And the way mto hts nund ts through the texts he reads.
Reading is not an impersonal process by which meanngs are
commumcated: rather the wntings of elite mmds enter mto the
mind ofthe peasant miller through the pnsm of a popular culture.
In turn Ginzburg's own imagmation is Vital m the reconstructton
of Menocchio's thought processes. The narra tive ts mterrupted
by the presentation of the investiga tive strategies of the author.
Levi's concern is much more social sctentific, to test or correct
established hypotheses. There are frequent passages spelling out
hypotheses to be confirmed. A central concern is the pattern of
power relationshps in the village. These cannot be understood in
terms of economic factors or formal political mst1tut10ns. Levi
questions the extent to which tmpersonal forces of the market
and the development of a modem state machmery determmed
these power relationships. He argues that the dectsive element in
the understanding o f the peasant world was "the preservat10n o r
transrmss10n of mtangible or symbolic goods: power and prestige. "42 To establish his pomt, he resorts to the sources and methods used by more traditwnal socml history, a prosopography that
rehes on pansh registers, notarial acts, data from land-tax surveys, and other admmstrative documents to reconstruct the lives
of the persons exorc1sed by Chiesa and their social settmg. H e
also relates data on iand sales to data on the const1tut10n of
families und inhentance to demonstra te that m the place of the
blind market of classical economics there operated in the village
a complex market in wh1ch socwl and personal relallonships,

112 rhe Challenge of Postmodernsm



involving family strategies, played a determining raie in establishing the pnce IeveL The peasant commumty of the village of
Santena thus 1s not merely the pass1ve obJeCt of macrosocml
changes but has a dist111ctive npuL Finally the dyllc image o' a
highly cohesive peasant society free of conflicts collapses 111 tl1e
course of this analyss.
Thus wc see again in the work of the ltalian rnicrohistonans,
partcularly Levi, as we saw with the Gtting en group, rhat nucrohistory ts an extension and not a repudiation o f older soctal
science history, a rediscovery of culture and the mdvtduahty of
persons and small groups as agents of hi~torical change. Nevertheless the soc1eties and cultures to wh1ch 1111crohlstoncal a pproaches are applicable appear to have both spattal and
tempora llimns. The charge that mcrolustonans examme small
eommuntlles with Iittle or no reference to a broader context ts
not JUStificd, at least not in the works we have exam111cd. Thne
have been no comparable histoncal studies, however, of modem
urban communlles, although work in urban anthropology lcas
been dane. Ali of the works we have discussed deal with a
premdustral world or with the transttion of thts world in to the
early stages of industrialization. In part tt was posstble to deal
with villages like Neckarhausen4J or Santena because they wne
retativety self-comained and self-suffic1ent even if they could not
fully escape the tmpact of state admimstrat1on ando f the markeL
Todav Neckarhausen has become in large parta dormttory town
whos~ populat ion commutes to employment or busmess act!VIlies in large population centers.
There s an obvious conflict between cenam of the theoretH:al
statemerns of the mcrohistonam. and their actual research and
writing. They rightly stress the discontmutws wltlun luswry and
deduce from them that no grand narrauve IS possrble. But they
operate wth a Jargely negalive evaluation of modenu zarwn.
Although they find conflicts and divisons m the premod em
commumtres they study, they regard the1r pa;smg Wtth a certHm
degree of nostalgm. That 1s, they rurn to nucrohlstoncal communities not simply because the sources exist to study them nucrohtstoncally, but also beca use of acertam dislike for the modem
world. Manv Annales historians may have b~en sunilarly mcllvated to tur~ to the medieval or early modem world. In a num-

The History of Everyday Life


ber of recent anthropologrcally onented works, such as Enc

W?lf~ Europe and tlze Peoples Without a History44 and Sidney
Mmtz s Sweetness and Power: Sugar 111 Modem History,45 dealmg Wtth the expanson of Europe imo the non-We stem world
modemization, seen as a destructve force, constitutes a red
thread. This is also frequently the case 111 medieval studies, as
Jacques Le Goff's already mentioned famous essay "Time,
Work, and Culture 111 the Middle Ages," about the orign of the
modem concept oft1me. Althoug h Foucau lt has emphasized that
h1story has no umty but ts marked by "rupture s," hrs works about
111santy, clinics, and prisons assume that the course of modem
history is charact enzed by ncreasng discrpline m daily life. Ths
1s also the basic idea 111 the works of Robert Muchembled who
like Foucault, links the develop ment of the bureaucratic s;ate ~
early modem France with the exclusion of nonconform1st, marg111al groups. And t s also the theme of Norbert Elias 's essentially macrohistoncal The Civi/izmg Process,;6 whch was first
published when he :v as in exile m I 939 and became known only
after tt was repubhshed in I969; 1t traces the disc1plining of
manners. Here Ehas put forward the thesis that, begmning with
absolutism, a courtly culture developed that sub ected bodily
functwns such as eatng,digestmg, and lovemak111g,
which were
formerly practlced relatvely uninhibltedly, to new, stnct rufes
and banished them to the priva te sphere. Certainly disc pline has
raken on more admimstratively organzed forros m the modem
world, but 1t is doubtful that it was less pervasrve m the premod cm world that these authors have romantictzed to such an
. Sev~ral cntctsms have been raised repeatedly against the
rmcrolustonans: (I) that thetr methods, with thetr concentrat n
on small-scale history, have reduced history to anecdotal antiquanan sm; (2) that they have romanllcized past cultures;
(3J that because, as already suggested, they purportedly work
wnh reJatively stable cultures, they are mcapable of dealing wth
tiJe modem and contem porary worlds marked by rapid change;
and (4J 111 th1s connectton that thcy are mcapable of deaJino wtth
po IltiCS.
N evcrtheless, there have been serious attempts to use microhtstoncal approaches to deal with politcaJ conflicts 111 the twen-

I 14 The Challenge of Postmodernism

tieth century. What links the hrstory of evcryday life. (.411ragsgeschiclzre)? m the modem and contemporary penod ;;rth
the mrcrohrstory dealing with premdustrial socrety is the commrtment to go beyond mpersonal soem! structures and proce:;ses
to the concr"t:te lfe expenences of human bemgs. Lutz NethJmmer, whose primary concern ISto explore the everyday world of
the working classes, mclueling workmg-class women, quest10ns
how rnuch value price and wage statistics or governmental re-

ports have for understandng the condtions withm wh1ch people

have operated. Here again microh1story IS seen nol as an alternative io analyses o f large-scale social anel poltica i processes but
as a neccssary supplement. At the center of rmcrohrstoncal mvestigations stand men and women who have bcen neglected m
the tradtional sources. Bographies anel memmrs play an rmportant part m ;he reconstruction of their lves, but obnously m
most cases th.>se sources are not avmlable. IIere, too, oral hrstory
can make a r.cntribution. Orallustory has been used particularly
to elea! with th' victims and more recently also the perpetrators
of the Holocau~; and most recently the vict1ms and perpetrators
of the Stalimst persecutions and massacres. Admittedly there are
problems with mterviews, particularly when these are gathered
severa! decades !ater, when the memory of those mtervwwed has
been affected by consequent events and expenences. Nevertheless interviews can be checked against other evdence and Q(her
interviews for corroboration. Local history groups have often
used oral hstorv methods to commumcate the lfe expenences
of common people for their own sakes, but particularly m Germany, and in recent years in the former Sov1et Umon, these
methods have been used as part of a reconstructron of re.:ent
There have been questions difficult to answer by traditi<lnal
methods of oolitical and social analysis. Alf Leltke, closely associated with -the microh1story group at the Max Planck lnstitute
for History in Gttingen, asked how the historical catastrophes
of the Gern1ans m the twenueth century were poss1ble. How
does one explain that the workmg classes. who were organ1zed
within a social democratlc movement supposedly opposed to
German policies leading to war, largely supported the war m
rgr 4 or why ndeed in 1933 there was virlually no open rSIS-

The Hstory of Everyday Lfe


tance agamst the Nazis among workers but, mdeed, wrdespread

support?<S Older sociological categories of class reqUire careful
scrutmy and modification. Carefully conducted m-depth mterviews can throw hght on the complexlty of political and social
altitudes. Thus workers mbued with a work eth1c and proud of
standards of Gennan workmanship performed well m war mdustnes, no matter what the1r polit1cal outlook was. Between the
poles of poli!Ical opposition and support there was a broad spectrum of res1stance m the workplace, wh1ch took a vanety of
fo_rms. Two maJOr oral h1story projects orgamzed by Lutz
N1ethammer among mdustnal workers, the first conducted m the
Ruhr reg10n, 49 the second in Eastern Germany in the last days of
the German Democrat1c Republic,so probed into personal recollectlons o f the Third Reich anel the postwar penod. In the Sov1et
Umon, beginning With Perestroika, oral h1stonans assocmted
With the Memorial group carned out extens1ve mterv1ews w1th
survrvors of the Stalin era.
Some critics of Alltagsgesclzrc/ue as It has been pract1ced m
Germany have expressed "the fear that 1t will normalize the
1mage of the Nazi regime by concentratmg on the mundane,
everyday aspects of life that continued relat!vely undisturbed. "51
Th1s was certainly not the intenton of the Niethammer team.
One example of the criticai function of oral history, Christopher
Brownmg's Ordinary Men: Reserve Po/ice Batta/ion ror and the
Final Solutwn m Poland (1993),52 1s based on interrogations in
the rg6os by the state prosecutor's office in Hamburg of 2 w
former members of the battalion who were involved m the mass
executions of Jew1sh Civilians m Poland. Browning's study adds
a new perspective to the h1story o f the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Until then the Holocaust had mostly been seen as a vast
and con:ptex admmistratve process, as Raoul Hilberg53 had descnbed 1t, carned out from ther desks by bureaucrats like Adolf
Ei~~~ann, who for Hannah Arendt embodied "the banality of
.;vil. ' 4 Brownmg now focused on the role of the little men at the
.Jottom of the hierarchy of the "machmery of destructton" who
personally carried out the mllions of executions. His account of
3.eserve Police Battalion ror showed how middle-aged Hamburg policemen, many of workmg-class background, without
overt anti-Semitic sentiments, were involved m the mass execu-

116 The Challenge of Postmodernism



tons in Poland. "The re is nothmg mherent

m the methJdology
of Alltagsgesc/uchte," Brownmg notes, "tha
t necessarily diminshes the centrality of the Holocaust in the h1sto
ry of Nazt Germany. On the contrary, I would argue, 1t ts the
best method for
revealing how deeply mass murd er was embedde
d m the lives of
Germ an personnel stal!oned in occup1ed easte
rn Europe."55
This leads us once more to the methodol
ogJcal questons
raised by the practtioners of microhistory. Thei
r key argument
against social science approaches to h1story was
that such lustory
depn ved the past of its qualitattve aspects and
ieft it without a
human face. The question was how the hum
an anel the porsonal
side of hstory could be recaptured. As we
saw, Han s lvledick
found the model for such a history in the "thic
k descriptlon" of
Clifford Geer tz's cultural anthropology. Histo
ry, like anthropology, was an mterpretive and nota systematic
science. Cold analyJs was replaced by an immediacy difficult:
to put mto words.
It appears to me, however, that the epistemol
ogy o f th1ck descript!On contams an unresolvable contradic
tton. lt views the
subject of lts study as totally different from
the observer. lt
nghtly warns against proJectmg the obscrver'
s thought categones onto the observecl. Th1ck descripuon
shoulc! make the
"oth er" appe ar to the observer m h1s/her "oth
erness." Tll!S endows the subject of observation wtth an elem
ent of obJccuvity
and makes tt appe ar as an objeCt embeclded
in reality. On the
othe r hand, thts anthropological approach chall
enged the objectlvty of the world. lt vtewed the othe r as a
text thut needed to
be read very much as one woulcl read a litera
ry text. A text.
however, could be read in a variety of ways.
The logtcal consequence of thts approach should have been
the elimmat:on of
the border between fact and fictlon.
But m fact tlus was not the mtent of the mtcr
oluslonans. In
the1r effort to restare the subjectivity and rhc
indivtduality of the
men and women they studied, they rejected the
preoccupation of
the social sciences WJth anonymous structures
and processes, but
they too in their work as h1stonans assum
ed that they were
confronting a real subject matter. In the!f effor
t to come dose r
to this subject matter, they were quite willing
to use the toJls of
the social >::~ences. It is strikmg how, parl!cular
ly 111 Gerrnany,
microhJstor'.ans relied on com pute r tech!lJque
s, to be sure with

The History of Everyday Life


the intent not to establish broad genera!ization

s but rathe r to
discover exceptions to these generalizations.
Although the Italians we cliscussed retlected an anthropologic
al approach much
more emphatically than their Germ an colle
agues and relied
much less on lhe computer, they nevertheless
rejectecl what they
consiclered to be the methodolog1cal relatJvism
of cultural anthropology in the Geertzian manner. In the
final analysis microhistory appears not as a negation of a histo
ry of broa der social
contexts but as a supplement to it. The m1cr
ohstonans have
added a sense of concreteness to the study
of the past. Using
mJcrohstorical methods, Chrstopher Brow
nng m Ordi nary
Men thus did more than merely detail even
ts w1thn the Holocaust; through h1s focus on individual perpetrat
ors he also endeavored to add a dimension to their behavwr
that would not be
disclosed by broacler generalizattons. The
Holocaust, Chnstopher Brownng emphas1zed, s not an abstr
action. Nor are the
narratives of it, as Hayden Wh1te suggested,
primarily constructs
of the historian.56 Rath er, as Browning notes
: "The re 1s a constant dialectical interactwn between what the
histo nan brngs to
the research anel how the research affects the
h1storian. "57

The End of History as a Scholarly Discipline?

Chapter 10

The "Linguistic Turn":

The End of History as a
SchoL~rly Discipline?

l havc already referred to postmodern theones of lustory that

take up the questions of the possibility o r impossibility o f lustoncal knowledge and the forms historical wnting shouid assume m
a postmodern age. In this chapter I would like to rmse the questton of the extent and manner in which postmod ern theones of
history and ianguage have actualiy served as the basis of lustoncal wnting. These theories proceed from the convtction, to ctte
Lawrence Stone once more, "that a coherent sctentific expianat!on o f change n the past"' is no longe r possible. But postmod ern
theores go beyond Stone's formulation m clammg that anv coherence is suspect. The baste dea o f postmodern theory of hstoriography ts the denal that hstoncal writng refers to an actual
historical past. Thus Roiand Barthes2 and Hayden Whtte asserted that hstoriography does not dffer from fictiOn but ts a
form of it. Aceordingly White tned to demonstra te lfl Met.~lus
tory: Tlze J-listorical lmaginatwn m tlze Ninereemh Cen.rwy m
Europe (1973), by the exampie of four htstonan s (Mtchelet,
Tocqueville, Ranke, and Burckhardt) and four philosophe :s o f
htstory (Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Croce), that there are no
criteria of truth m hstoncal narratives. There.fore, he argued,
there s also no essenl!al difference between lhe wntmg o f lm tory
and the philosophy of history. The criticai philologtcal occupa118


l!on Wtth the sources can, to be sure, discover facts, but any step
beyond thts toward the constructiOn of a historical account s
determined, for White, by aesthettc and ethtcal, not by scientific
considerations. Form and content, he argues, cannot be separated m histoncal wntmg. Historians, he contmues, have at thetr
disposal a limtted number of rhetonca l possibilittes that predetermme the form and to acertam extent also the content of ther
account so that, as we saw, "historical narratives are verbal
fictions, the contents of which are as much mvented asfound and
the forms ofwhich have morem common with thetr counterp arts
m literature than they have with those in the sciences. "3
Here White goes far beyond a traditon of historical thought
that, from Herodotu s to Natalie Davts, recogmzed both the literary aspects of htstoncal accounts and the role of imagmatiOn in
constructng them, but nevertheless maintaned a faith that these
accounts offered ins1ghts mto a real past mvolvmg real human
beings. Natalie Da vis frankly admttted that inventiOn occupies a
cructal place m the reconstructton of the past, but she also msisted
that this mvention 1s not the arbitrary creatton ofthe hstonan but
follows the "voices of the past" as they speak to us through the
sources.4 Ranke stmilarly recogmzed the role of tmagination m
reconstrucng the thought processes of his hstoncal actors.
There ts therefore a difference between a theory that demes
any clmm to reality in histoncai accounts and a histonography
that tS fully consctous of the complexity of htstoncal knowledge
but still assumes that real people had real thoughts and feelings
that ied to real acl!ons that, wtthm limtts, can be known and
reconstructed. To be sure, as Patnck Bahners put It, sctence smce
Kant has possessed no "matena l critera o f truth."5 But Kant and
subsequent scientific and social scentific thought, including that
of Max Weber, still assumed that there existed a logic of
sctentific nquiry, which could be commumcated and which,
while not providing material cntena, offered formal standards
for the exammatiOn of the world o f nature and of men. B ut even
these cntena have been questiOned by some contemp orary theorists o f science.
Among modem and contemporary theonsts of sctence who
have challenged the notion that scientific inqUiry leads to a progressive understanding of reality, one must distingush between


Tlle Challenge of Postmodernism

radical skepttcs such as Gaston Bachelard6 and Paul Fcy=rabend7 on the one hand. and historical relativists such as Thomas
Kuhn on the other. Bachelard and Feyerabend understand sctence as a poettc activity for which there is no bmding logt: or
method of inqmry. In The Structure of Sciemific Revo/w,ons
(rg6o)B Kuhn toa argued thatsctence cannot be under>tood as a
refiect!on of an objecttve world. He did no! regard it as fictton,
however, but as a htstorically and culturally conditioned discourse among people who are in agreement about the rules that
govern the1r discourse. For hm science is an instttutional'zed
form of scientfic inqmry, a way of dealing wtth reality tn a
scientific community, whose members agree in regard to strategies of invesl!gaton and explanaton. Thus Kuhn also quest1ons
the relatonslup of sctence to reality, but he does not, as do
Bachelard and Feyerabend, question the possibility of a ratwnal
scientific discourse.
The question of the relationship between knowiedge and reality also plays a central role in lingutste theory. Modem sCience
has understood language as a vehicle for the transmJssion of
meamngful knowiedge. Log1cal positivism, as 1t origmated in the
Vienna circle in the 1930s and then played an 1mportant role in
Anglo-Amencan analyt1cal philosophy, strove for a langLage
cleansed of ali contradictiOns and culturally condit10ned arnbiguities, capable of commumcatmg log1cal concepts and the results of scientific inquiry. Structuralism subsequently questtoned
preeisely this referential function of language.
For language theory as It was formulated by the Sw1ss lin&.mst
Ferdinand de Saussure in Course in General Linguistics,q w~1ich
appeared posthumously n rgr6. two related 1deas were bas1c:
Language forms a closed autonomous system that possess=s a
syntactc structure. Moreover. 1anguage is not a mean~ for com-

municating meaning and unts of meanmg, but on the cont1ary,

meamng IS a function of Ianguage. Or to put 1t differently: Man
does not use language to transmit h1s thouglm, but what rnan
thinks IS determmed by language. Here we have the central .dea
of thc structuralist concepton o f society and hh;tory: Man moves
within the fr:tmework of structures-n ths case linguistie structures-whi he does not determme, but which detennme Ium.
This concepti)n played an tmportant rolem literary theory m the

The End of History as a Scholarly Discipline?


1950s and 196os in the "New Cnttcism" in the Umted States, and
separately in the discussions m France mitated by Roland
Barthes and leading to the deconstructiomst method of Jacques
Dernda.IO From the perspective of language theory, the text has
no reference to an externai reality, but is contained Withm Jtself.
This is true not only of literary but also o f htstoriographical texts.
Since texts do not refer to reality, Barthes argues, there IS no
difference between truth and fiction.ll The text, moreover, is
seen not only mdependently of its relat1on to the externai world,
but also independently of its author. What matters is exclusively
the text, not the context in which !l originated. The next step,
undertaken by Michel Foucault, s to elimmate the author as a
relevant factor in the production of texts. And as the author
disappears, ntentionality and meaning also disappear from the
text. For Foucault, history therefore !ases its significance. lt is a
late invention of Western man in what he calls the "classical"
phase of modem history, a phase that has already passed. lt
seems paradoxical that so much ofFoucault's writmgs, ch1efly h1s
works about msamty, the clinics, punishment, and sexualty, but
also his major theoretical presentations, The Archeoiogy of
Knowledge and The Order o{ Thmgs, nevertheless refiect a thoroughly hstorical perspective.
Foucault and Derrida's cntiCism JS directed agamst the Jdeological presuppos1tions that are hidden in every text. The text,
they argue, must therefore be Iiberated from its author. At the
same time they radicalize de Saussure's concept1on of Ianguage.
For de Saussure, language still possessed a structure; it constituted a system. There still existed a unity between the word
(signifier) and the thing to wh1ch 1! referred (s1gnified). For Derrida, this unity no tanger exists. Instead he sees an mfinite number of signifiers wthout clear meanmgs, because there IS no
Arch1medean point from which a clear meanmg can be ass1gned.
For historiography this means a world Without meanng, devoid
of human actors, human volitons or intentions, and totally lacking coherence.
Therefore, if history will be written in the future, it will have
to take on completely different forms. This theme s taken up
m Amercan discussiOns of the nature of historical prose. For
Hayden White, as we saw, hstonography must today be seen as

122 The Challenge of Postmodernism

primarily a Iiterary genre followng literary critena. Donnnck

La Capra. ;lll 1985, called on hstoriography to recapture the
rhetoncal t;uahty It had treasured since classical anttqUJty.l2 In
th~ nmeteeJ th cemury, as history becamt: a professwnal disciplme and lall claim to being a rigorous science, hstonan; frequently sougf~' to free historical writmg from its rhetorical
elements. It became fashionable to posJt a s1mple dichoromy
between sc1ence and rhetoric without understanding that a]: language, mcluding that of scence, has a rhetoncal dimension. To
CJte La Capra, "this tendency, which defines scJence as the adversary or antJthesis of rhetonc, has often been con]omed W1th a
defense of 'piam style' that depends or pretends to be entirely
transp~rent to its object." 13 But there 1s no such "piam style." In
fact, histoncal writing, even in the nneteenth and twentieth
centuries, the age of professionalized scholarship, did not tose Its
rhetolical ~~ literary qualitJes. And the great historians recogmzed this. I hus Ranke emphasized that history was not only
SCience but also art and that the two were mseparable.ll J:t is
noteworthy that Theodor Mommsen received the Nobel Pnze
~or literature the second time t was given m 1902. Apart from
Isol.ated works of quamitative history, there are few examples of
a historiography without a significant rhetorical or literary component. not even Robert Foge! and Stanley Engerman 's cliornet~c ~tudy of Ameri~an slavery, Time on the L"'ross, which despJte
Its Immense quantitative apparatus tells a story mmecl to persu~de the reader of ther argument that slavery was both cost
effzcwnt anel humane. Rhetoric, of course, plays an 1mportant
role even m the documents with which the lustorian works. The
sources, or at least the documents that serve as sources, me
themselves Iinguistlc constructs, texts, which, unless they 1.re
pure data, use rhetorical strategies to make a point. Statistical
data, too, are selected and constructed.
A broad segment of histoncal thought today takes the abo ve
conceptlons of language and textuality serously. The Frend1
mput into these discusswns has profoundly aflected literary critiCJSID and tlleory m the United States. The impact of JinguistJc
theory on h1stoncal studies has been even greater in the Umted
States than m France and, m the Umted States, markedly greav:r
in European than in American h1story. Jn the followmg pag.:s






The End of History as a Scholarly Discipline?


our pnmary but by no means exclusive emphass will .~e onthe

American discusswns, for here the concept of a hngUJstic
turn"l5 was nvented. The central element of this "turn" consists
m the recogniton of the importance of language or discourse in
the constituton of societJes. The social structures and processes
that were seen as the detennmants of a society and culture are
now increasingly VIewed rather as products of culture understood as a communicatve commumty. This stress on the centralIty of Ianguage has entered in to a good deal o f recent scholarship
in political, socJal, cultural, and mtellectual history. Bm wh!le
certain wnters drew very radical consequences from hngmstic
theory and reduced history to semiotJcs, in which soc1ety was
seen as culture and culture as a "web of s1gnificance" resembhng
a Iiterary text and defying reductJOn to a reality beyond the text,
other historians saw language as a tool for approachmg social
and cultural reality.
The cultural anthropolog1st Clifford Geertz has provided recent historical thought with perhaps the most important stlmulus
toward a semiotic approach to culture. "Believmg With Max
Weber," he writes, "that man is an animal suspended in webs of
significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs,
and the analysis of it to be therefore not an expenmental sc1ence
. one m
. searc h of meamng.
. "16
in search of law but an interpreuve
But he gives the concept "web of significance" a very different
meanng from the one Weber gave 1t. ForWeber this constituted
a repudiation of the pos1tvist method, which restncts 1tself to the
emprica! observatwn of reality. Reality,. Weber agrees With
Kant is accessible only through the mediation of the logical
categ~ries o f the mmd. But for him this by n~ means signifies a
repudiation of a ngorous log1c of socJal scientJfic mqUJry. In fact
for Weber objectivty" constJtutes the cornerstone of social
scientific inquiry.J7 Objectivty here does not relate to an "obJCCt" m the externai world but to the methodology of the social
sciences by means o f which this world IS stud1ed. The logic o f th1s
methodology has Its roots in the intellectual history of the Western world smce Greek antiqmty; ts validity, however, extends to
ratonal thought in all cultures. We have already c1ted h1s
affirmation that JogiCal argumentatlon in the social sc1ences must
be convincng to a Chinese as well as a Western mmd. The



The Challenge of Postmodemism

Weberian noilon of the "ideal type" does not nega te but racher
presupposes the notion that there are real social structures and
processes that form the subject of social scientific mquir). It
recogmzes that a purely emprica! approach s not possi ble:
nevertheless It assumes that one can approach social reality
by tesung the "ideal types" against emprica! findings. For
Weber, moreover, social science studies the macrohistoncal and
macrosocal structures and processes that form societies. This
emphasis on clear concepts anel explict theones, as we saw,
forms the basis of a great deai of social science-oriented rhou >ht
including the German school of "Historcal Social Scienc'of
Hans-Ulnch Wehler and Jrgen Kocka, wluch cultural histonans mcreasmgly reJect as objectivistic.
Despte his invocation of Weber, Geertz thus goes in a totally
different directon. What anthropologists do, he tells us, 'is
not a matter of methods" but of "thck descnption." Thick clescnptwn as an alternatve to method rests on a conception of
culture that Geertz defines as "semiotic. "IS From this perspechve, a culture possesses the charactenstics of a language ar.d,
hke a Ianguage, cons!Itutes a "system." Ths makes interpretaton possible because each act and each expression has a syrnbolic value that retlects the culture as a whole. Thick descnptwn
mvolves the direct confrontation with the syrnbolic expressions
of the culture free of any theory-guided questions that, by
means of abstrac!Ions, threaten to depnve the manifestauons of
the culture of their vitality. On the surface there thus appears
to be a Similanty between the anthropological confrontaticn
wth the subject of study through thick description and the he.:meneutic approach of classical historicism, which seeks to "understand" Its subject free of abstractions. But this simildritv :s
deceptive. HermeneutJcs assumes there is a common gro~nj
between the c:bserver and the cbserved that makes understanding possib'e. Geertz on the contrary views the subject h~
observes as tota\ly different. To reduce the subjeet to terms w~
can understand }eans to distort It rather than grasp I! m Its

In the previous chapter I discussed Geertz's Impact on tlJ,,

history of everyday life and on microhistory. Here we are mterestcd in the semiotic approach to cultural history. Geertz's ap-

The End of History as a Scholarly Discipline?


proach, so frequently invcked in recent cultural history,presents

a number of problems for a cntical history. Not only is he not
a histonan but he has little unclerstanding for hstcry. His faC1ous essay on "The Balinese Cockfight"I9 IS a prime example
of his approach. The react10ns of the audience at the cockfight
reflect a culture, seen as a semiotic system, that is both mtegrated and stable, fonning a whole. Gerrtz does not see the
culture Witlun the framework of sacra! processes takmg place m
Balinese society; nor does he consider sacra! divsions and social
conflicts. Thus despi te his avowed purpose of avoiding systematJZation anel concentratmg mstead on the umque manifestation
of behavior, he resorts to the very macro conception of society
that he rejects. And ths results m methodological irraticnalism.
The mterpretation of symbols cannot be tested empmcally. The
"meaning" of the foreign culture confronts the anthropologist
directly. This is to prevent the introduclion of a subjective bras,
which supposedly colors the work of both analytical soc~al scientists workmg with theory-guided queslions and the traditional
histonans who believed they could understand the subject of
their study. But in fact there are no mechansms of contrai n
Geertz's nterpretation of cultures. The result is the remtroducticn of the anthropologist's subJeclivity or Imagmati~n mto his
subject matter. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, m his
study of Maghreb culture, has offered a more differentiated
view of culture than Geertz. His approach, which stresses the
economic and social context of culture but recognizes the symbolic character of these relatronslups, reflects his early begmmngs m Marxist thought but also his remterpretation of
Marxism. He agrees with Max Weber that m the final analysis
ccncepts of honor enter mto economic relatronships to form a
cultural substratum. The culture can no longer be seen as a
self-contained text, but must be seen in a politcal, social, and
economic context of change that must to be approached through
LS symbols.
Two modificalions of a Geertzran apprcach and Its apphcat1on to a histcrical theme might be mentioned here, Marshall
~:ahiin's essay on the death of Captain Cook2 and Robert Darnt:m's Tire Great Cat Massacre.2I Sahlin portrays the mteraction
C>f two different cultures, the Polynesran culture of Hawaii and


The Challenge of Postmodernsm

the ~Weste~n culture of the Bntlsh explorers rhat impmges on il,

each wlth '\ logic of its own. He then seeks to explain the rr.urder
of Co~k b\ lhe Hawaiians m terms of the religious cede of
Hawanan cviture and at lhe same time places 1t Withm the framework of the \~xpansion of Western capllalism. Thus text and
context, which 'have been separated by Geertz, are reJomed. But
the reconstruct!On of Hawaiian culture, like Geertz's study of
Balinese culture, has few mechamsms of empirical ce-ntro!.
Darnton, on the basis of an account by a pnnter apprentice thirly
years after the fact, recounts the story of a ntua killing cf cats
carried out as a symbolic act of revolt by pnnters agamst the1r
employer and his wife. According to Charlier, Darnton uses
culture in Geertz's terms as "an historically transmitted pattern
of meanings embodied m symbols, a system o f inhented conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and
attitudes towards life. "22 Similarly to Le Roy Ladune m the
Camzval in Romans,23 Darnton interprets the ntualism of the
massacre m terms of sexual aggresston, through which the economically and socially explmted symbolically confront theu supenors. As Geertz does in the "Balinese Cockfigllt," Darnton
seeks to recapture a folk culture. At the same time he places this
text Witlun the broader context of the conliict that resulted from
the econmmc transformation of lhe pnnting trade under the
pressures of capitalist modermzaton. But the question remams
whether through thc thick description of the cat massacre, reminiscent of the Balinese cockfight, one can actually reconstruct a
culture in allits complexty.
Although Geertz has been frequently mvoked by cuilural
histonans, he has in fact proved to be of limited value to theu
work beyond contributing to the turn away from what he calls
31l experimentaJ science in search o f law [to] an interpretlv; one
m search of meamng."24 In this search for mcanmg, lanfuage
became an important senuotlc tool. Thus a "linguistlc turn" has
occurred in diverse areas of socml and cultural h1story, but .nowhere has the belief that language refers to reality been given up,
as tt \Vas m lhe reinterpretatiOn of Saussurean lingu1stic theory
by Barthes, Derrida, and Lyotard.
I shall briefly examme severa! onentatwns m reccnt soem I and


The End of History as a Scholariy Discipline?

cultural history that assign a key place to language or discourse

no! as a substitute for socal reality but as a gmde to it:
O f these the one furthest removed from cultural anthropology
and most closely akm to traditlonal forms of mtellectual history iS found in the studies m the h1story of pohtlcal thought by
J. G. A. Pocock. Quentm Skmner, and Reinhart Koselleck. In
many ways they resemble traditlonal intellectual histones as
represented m the classcal histories of rdeas of Benedetto
Croce, Friedrich Memecke, R. G. Colhngwood, and Arthur
Lovejoy. They, toa, proceed hermeneutically m studymg the
texts Ieft by the great politlcal theonsts. They see these texts as
containing authonal intentions, and in their ViCW il contmues to
be the task of the histonan, as it was of therr classical predecessors to fathom the meanings of these texts. Since ideas can no
lon~er be understood pnmarily as the creations of great mmds
but must be seen as part of the discourse of the mtell;_ctual
community within which they were articulated, Pocock-> and
Skmner26 turn to the contmmty of Western political thought
from Florentine humamsm to the emergence o f a concept o f CIVil
society in the Enlightenment. Both use the. terrn "Pohtical
Thought" in the ttles of their books. They d1stmgmsh themselves from traditional mtellectual hrstory by the1r emphasrs on
discursive structures that persisted over long periods of ume. In
viewing texts as vehicles for the commumcatwn of conscwusly
held ideas, they differ from postmodern conceptwns o f language
and discourse. Ideas, they maintam, contmue to be conce1ved
and articulated by thinking human bemgs who are aware o f what
they are doing and yet rellect and art1culate Withm the framework of the discourse of the1r commumty. The discourse presupposes a commumty of relatively autonomous actors ~vho can
communicate w1th each other because they speak a ,ommon
Ianguage through wluch they can affect the political and sacra!
world. This conception of discourse rs not far rem~ ved fro_m
Jrgen Habermas's theory of commumcatrve act10?. The dtscourse contributes to the forrnation of politrcal reahty, oy whrch
in turn it is also affected. Remhart Koselleck28 goes funher than
Pocock and Skinner in using the analysrs of discourse as a means
of reconstructing not merely the history of politrcal thought but
also that of politrcal and social structures. Together w1th Werner

128 The Challenge of Postmodernism

Conze and Otto Brunner, two of the rnost Irnportant Germa n

social h1storians, Koselleck in 1973 launched a sev.;n-volurne
encyclopeda of "Basic Historical Concepts."29 In lengthy articles, some over a hundred pages long, authors examm<d n depth
the meanng and transformation of key poltica! and ,;ocml con'
cepts m. Gerrnany in the period betwecn 1750 and 185o. The
assumptiOn was that through an analysis of the "politico-socml
language" of the period nsights could be gamed mto the social
and political transformaton from premod ern to modem institutons and thought pattern s that took place in this crucial penod.
Moving closer to an analyss of political history that stresses
symbols rather than concepts are the works of Lynn Hunt,
FranoiS Furet, Maurice Agulhon, Mona Ozouf, and William
Sewell on the revoluuonary changes m France. One should mention here Rgine Robin's analysesJo in the early 19705 of the
language of the ca/uers de dolances in the early stages of the
French Revolution and the semantcs of political terms such as
"nat I on " "Clroyen, " an d "setgneur. " A s Lynn Hunt explam
s in
the mtroductwn to her Poliucs, Culrure wul C/ass in rhe Frenc/J
Revolw on (1984), ths work conce1Ved m 1976 began a; "a social
h1story of Revolu twnary politcs" but "increasngly tllrned mto
a cultural analysis in whch the politcal structures
but on<i part of the story."JI Hunt by no means demes the role of
socal s~ructures and processes in bnnging about the French
Revolut'c>n, but in hcr opinon these are not enough to expiam
the Revo'Wion. The politics of the Revolution was not a mere
expres swn'of underlying economic and soem! mteresw. Rather ,
through their language, their irnagery, and the1r everyclay poliucal acl!Vttles, the revolutionares had partc1pated in the reshapmg of soc1ety. In this way they had contributed to lhe creatw n o f
new social and poltica! conditons. Thc decistve factor m the
formation of the politcal culture of thc French Revolu aon were
for Hunt the symbolic gestures, mages. and rhetoric of the revolutionaries. Hunt here expresses her debt to Furet, Agulhon, and
Ozouf. Furet, orginally a Marxist. had m the 196os and early
19705 advocated a socml sctence onenration wtth ,, strcng quantitative bend. In the 1970S, as we saw, he took 1ssue not only wth
the hardline Marxist analysis o f the French Revolution IJy Aibert
SobouJ,32 but also with such cntics of a Marxst position as Alfred

The End of History as a Scholarly Discipline?




Cobban33 and George Taylor,34 who considered Soboul's3; ar

Lefebvre 's36 conception o f a bourgems revolutton madeq uate
but contmu ed to seek economic and social explanatwns. Furet
now sought to place the Revolu uon m the framework of a pohllcal culture in whch ideas played a significant role.3 7 The concept
of a poliucal culture was developed f~rther in Agulhon's 38 and
Ozouf's39 studies of revoluuonary festivais, symbols, and rhetoric, which created a republican consciousness in broad segments
of the populaton.
. .
In a somewhat similar manne r, WIIham Sewell, m
W01 k and
Revolu uonm France: The Language oi Labor from the 0/d
Reg1me ro r848 (Ig8o),4D deals with the dectsive role of la?guage
m shapmg the revolutionary consciousness of workers. Hts focus
on the revolutonary movement that Ied to the events of 1848
in Marseilles. He points to the broad consensus 111 recent stud1es
that the most 1mporta nt impulses for strike acuons and outbreaks o f vwlence in France, England, Genna ny, and the Umted
States the early decades o f industrializaton dtd not come from
ctustnal workers, as Marxtsts assumed, but from art1sans. The
revoluu on of 1848 thus took place with111 the framework of
perceptions that were deeply rooted in a pre111dustnal. corporattst w~rld. Thus Sewell notes that ''althou gh we obvwusly cannot
hope to expene nce what nineteenth-century workers expenenced ... we can, w1th a little ingenuity, search out m the
surv1ving records the symbolic forms through which they expenenced their world." And "becau se commumcatwn IS not l111uted
to speech and writng, we must also seek out the mtelhgible
forms of many other activtties, events and 111StJtUttons: of the
practces of artisans' organizatmns, of rituais and ceremomes, of
the shape of poliucal demonstratmns, of legal regulauons, or of
details o f the orgamzatton o f produc twn" in wh1ch "the symbohc
conten t and the conceptual coherence of working-class expenences" are rellected. 41
While Sewell stresses the role of symbols, Gareth Stedman
Jones and Thoma s Childers concentrate more directly on language. Stedman Jones m partJcular emphasizes the extent to
which Ianguage not only expresses but consttutes soctal reahty.
Yet ali three accept the extstence of real social structures a.nd
processes and see Il1 language a tool for examining them. L1ke

i 30

The Challenge o f Postmodernism

Thompson, Stedman Jones deals WJth the constuutJo,1 of the

English workmg class. H e acknowledges Thompson 's contributmn m freemg the Idea of class consciousness from Its 1m media te
link to an economic base. But more specilically than Thompson,
he locates the essential elements of class conscmusne~s in the
language o f class. Thompson 's conceptiOn o f workmg-class expenence needs to be refined beca use this expenence 1s embedded
in a language that gives It its structure.<2 Thus convontmnal
conceptions that have mterpreted Charllsm m terms of class
conscJousness are inadequate if they ovt:rlook the extent to
wh1ch Chartism was embedded not in social structures but m a
g1ven politicallanguage. The rise and decline of Chartism, Stedman Jones argues, was detennined less by the economic misery
or the social transformations occasioned by the Industnal RevolutiOn than by the politicallanguage wlth which the supporters
of Chartism mterpreted their economic anel social deprivatmn.
By no means does this mean that economic conditJOns and social
transformatons are to be neglected in the analysis of Chartism
as a political movement, any less than Sewell neglected ':hem m
Jus treatment o f the revolutionary movement that lecl to the 1848
uprismgs m Marseilles, but they must be unclerstoocl by means of
the language and the discourse that shaped the polilical conscmusness of workers.
Th1s same viewpomt is present in Thornas Childers's essay
"The Soem! Language of Politics m Germany,"'3 in which he
relates lus own thoughts to those ofHunt, StedmanJones, Sewell,
anti Scott. His immediate concern in the essay 1s lhe olitical
culture ofthe Wemar Republic, wh1ch led to lhe nse of the Nazis.
His startmg point 1s the controversy between socml scier:ce-ori-

entecl h1stonans such as Hans Ulrich Wehler and Jrgen Kocka,

who explamed Nazism m terms of the bela teci anel incomplele
democralization of Germany in an age of mduslnalizatiOn, anel
their English cntcs Geoff Eley and David Blackbourn, wh} questioned the thesis that modermza110n in Germany differed subslantially from that m othercountries. BOLh lheses are inadequate
m Ch1lders's sight beca use they rely too exclusively on economc
and social factors. Childers does not deny lhe mportance cf these
faclors but believes they must be seen w1thm the framework ofthe
political language employed. Tlm; language reflects aclual soem!

The Encl of History as a Scholarly Discipline?


distiiiC[IOnS but alsO shapes the poltica! and SOCial COnSCIOUSnCSS

o f the classes that speak it anel hear It. Childers therefore sets out
to examme the vocabulary used by polit1cal partes, mterest
groups, governmental authonties, and individuais morder to delineare the politcal conscwusness of the contenclmg sides. To do
this he analyzes the language used in "day-to-day part1san llterature and activitJes-Jeaftets, pamphlets, posters, speeches, and
meetings-for every natiOnal campmgn anel a great many local
conlests from 1919 to AclolfHitler's assumption ofpowerm January 1933 "" m arder to reconstruct the political discourse .?f the
time. Like Sewell and Stedman 1ones, he challenges the ontological pnority o f econom1c events" Without neglectmg the role o f
social and economic conditions.
Joan Scott in her essays m Gender and 1he Poliucs of Htswry
(rg88), at least m her theoretical fonnulations, advocates a positon consiclerably more radical WJth regard to the pnmacy of
speech than any of the histonans whom we have JUSt dJscussecl
in her attempt to lay the foundations for a :remm1st readmg of
history." Unlike these histonans, she exphc1tly endorses Dernda's conception of language and Foucault's conception of
power. She agrees w1th Derrida that lraclitional language pos1ts
a luerarchical arder thal consistently over nme has resulted I~
the subjugation of women.45 Similarly she accepts Foucault s
notwn that knowledge constltutes power and dommatwn. But
while Derricla 's posltion pos1ts a lingmstlc determmism that
leaves little space for an active political program, Scott bases a
femimsl politics on a Derndean theory of language. She convmcingly argues that gender m a socml and pol.i.ncal m con~;ast to a
bwJoaical sense 1s not g1ven by nature but consntuted by languag;. She then criticizes Stedman Jones because "he treats
language sunply as a velucle for commumcanng ide~s mther than
as a syslem o f meaning o r a processo f sgmficatwn. Further, sh~
notes critically that "he slips back to the not1on that language
reflects a 'reality' externa! lo 1t, ralher than being constttutive of
lhat reality."46 Thts led Sewell m an olherwise very positive
review of the essays to note that "Scott has accepted Derndmn
and Iiterary cleconstrucnomsm too. uncntJc~lly, and has not
sufficiently cons1dered lhe problems mherent m appropnatmg a
theorel!cal vocabulary mlally developecl m philosophy and ht-

132 The Challenge of Postmodernism

eraryc ritcts m for the sludy of lnstory." Thus "she argues
any drsunctton between history and literal ure vanrshes." 7 When
I recently comm uncal ed wtth her on tlns question, she expli-

cated her posnion by writmg me: ''f\1y argumcnt 1s

not that

reality :s 'merel y' a text, but rather that reality can only
attnmed through language. So social and poliucal stn.Ictures
aren t demeci, rather they must be studi.:d through thelf lingurs
uc aruculatron. And Derrid a rs useful for such a swdy. , .
Except for the recourse to Dernda tlus !S a perspecttve
essenttally differe nt from that of Stedm an Jones, whom sne cntrctzes. As a matter of fac!, in her studies of the role of teadin
women who represented a feminist vicwpomt m the revolu
tionary .movements rn France ,' 9 Scott assrgns a role to Janguage very
stmrlar to that assrgned by Sewell and Stedrnan Jones.
In conclusron: Lnguisnc theory, as rt has been dcvelo ped
Frcnch literary theory from Barthe s to Dernd a and Lyorar
contains an elemen t that in my opuuon must be tah.n
senously and that has applicat10ns to lusloncal thouoht and wntmg. The partcrpants in this discussion have nghtl~ ra";ed
point tha . hrstory taken as a whole conlam s no imman ent unity
o r coher< nce, that every concept10n o f hrstory is a constr
constl tutd' through language, that human bemgs as subjec
have no m.egra ted personality free of contradictlons and ambivalences, hld that every text can be reacl and mterpr;ted
dtffere nt ways because it expresses no unambrguous mtentlons.
Fouca ult and Dernd a have wrth good JUStification pomle d
the political implications of language and thc luerarchtcal relatrons of power mhere nt in rt. These contradictions, wluch perme
ate ali of human life, force lhe observ er to "decon struct" every
text, morde r to lay bare tts ideologtcal elements. Every reality
not only comm umcat ed lhrough speech anel discourse bJt
rn a
very fundam ental way ts also constt tuted by them.
Never theless thts philosophy of Janguage lends rtself beller to
literary cnttcis m than to historcal wntmg . For illstorcal
accounts, even if they use forms of narrattve that are closely
patterned on lterar y models, still clmm to portra y o r reconstt uct
actual past to a greate r extent than rs the case in ficlron alliter

The End of Histor y as a Scholarly Discrpline?

ture. Desp1te the mvocatton of postmoclern lingmstlc theory
Joan Scott and by Lynn Hunt m her volume New Cultural

wrv,so social and cutturall11storians have moved ITI a very dtffer-

eni direcu on. The "lngursttc turn" m lnstoncal studies over

past decade and a half has been part of an effort to break
determmsm mherent m older soctOecononuc approaches
and to
emphasize the role of cultural factors, among whtch .langu
occuptes a key place. But as Stedm an Jones notes, thts ts nota
ma !ler o f replacmg a soctai wrth a lmgmsuc mterp retauo n, but
examm ina how the two are relatecJ.SI Lmgusttc analysrs
proven to0 be an 1mport ant supple menta ry tool in recent studie
s of
political, socal, and cultura l htstory. Yet m genera l, althou gh
historians wtth whom we h ave dealt m thts chapte r have empha
sized the 1mpact o f language, rheton c, and symbolic behav tor
politcal and socral conscrousness and action, the extren;~ posruon that "realit y does not exist, that only language exrsts (Foucault)52 has been shared by few. Mos! luston ans would agree
Carrol l Smith -Rosen berg that "while lingUislrc dtfferences structure socrety, soctal differences structu re language." 53


Chapter I!

From the Perspective

of the rggos



In 1979 Lawrence Stone, m his now famous artcle "The Revival

of Narratve," cast doubts on the older social science model of
historical studies and endorsed the new orientation toward anthropology and semiotcs. In 1991, ma note, "History and PcstModernism."I agam m Past and Presem, he expre:;sed lus
concern about the radical direct10n h1storical discourse had
taken smce then. As we remember, m "The Revi vai of Narrative" he had hcralded "the end of the attcmpt to produce a
coherent scientific explanation of change m the past." He ll)W
saw a tnple threat to history: from postmodernism, from linguistcs, and cultural and symbolic anthropologyo and from rhe New
Historicism. Ali three agree in dealing with polit!cal, mstitutional, and social pracuce as "discursive sets of symbolic systems
or codes." ''Texts thus beco me a mere h ali o f mnTors reftect.ng
nothing but each other, and throwing no lignt upon the 'truth,'
which does not exist." From these perspectives, m the fiJal
anaJysis, "the real is as imagned as the imagmary. "2
Stone's warmngs were promptly challenge by thc Bn!Ish
socal and cultural historiao Patrick Joyce. The real," he adnmted, "can be smd to exist mdependently o f ou r representatlom; o f
It," but he insisted that "lustory IS never present to us m anythmg
but a discursive form." The maJOr advance ot postmodermsm, in
his VIew, was the recogntion that "there IS no overarchmg coherence evident m either the polity, the economy or the so:Ial




From the Perspective of the 19905


sy,tem" and that "there is no underlymg structure" to wh1ch the

te>:ts from which our understanding of the histoncal context
emerges "can be referred. "3
But from the perspective of the 1990S, Joyce's position seems
much less convincing than it did a decade earlier. O f course, even
m the 198os the postmodern approach as defined by Joyce by no
m<!ans had a monopoly. The "linguistc turn" that occuped the
pages of the Amencan Hisroncal Revww and other Amencan
journals in the second half of the 198os did not have the same
fa.>cinatiOn for hstonans outside North Amenca, even m
France, although the concepts on which it rested origmated n
large part in French literary theory from Barthes to Dernda. We
have already noted the limited effect radically formulated theories of lingustic determmism had on hstorical writmg, even on
writers such as Gareth Stedman Jones, William Sewell, Lynn
Hunt, and Thomas Childers, who saw in discourse a significam
key to historical understanding. Stone could argue convincingly
"that it is impossible to think of a maJOr historcal work wntten
from a thoroughly postmodernist perspective and usmg postmodernist language and vocabulary." 4 Perhaps Simon Schama's
Dead Certmnlles: Unwarramed Specuiauons5 and Jonathan
Spence's The Quesllon of Hu6 went farthest in the direction of a
historiography that conscously dissolved the border between
sd10larly history and histoncal novel.
At the threshold between the 198os and the 1990s stand the
revolu!Ionary changes m the Soviet Umon and in Eastern
Europe. In retrospect there may be explanations for these
changes: ar the !Ime they were largely unforeseen. In significam
ways they undernuned the self-confidence of the older soctal
sciences, which believed in the possibility of coherent social
explanation, as well as of the new cultural history, wh1ch largely
ignored the poli!Ical context of the culture of everyday hfe. The
collapse of communism appeared to confirm the prediCtions of
Western advocates of cap1talism who, like FranciS Fukuyama,
were convinced that the pressures of economtc modermzaton
vould necessarily lead to corporare market economies and representat!ve democracy. America would thus become the model
tor the world-though the events following 1989 soon disproved
chese prophesies. Notwithstanding these predictions, few ana-





The Challenge of Postmodernsm

lysts had expected the Immanent collapse of the Soviel sysiem.

While reforms in lhe Soviet Union and lts Eastern European
client states m the wake of Gorbachev's Perestroika had been
anticipated, H was generally expected that they would occur
withm the framework o f the socwlist system and would Ie ave the
111ternational arder dominated by the two superpowers mtact.
Largely unexpected was the unification of Germanv as well as
the dissolution of thc Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, Il was
generally believed that internai reforms m the Eastern states and
the Soviet Union would normalize relations betwecn the two
blocks. As regards Germany, this normalization would have
meant that unificatlon would Jose its urgency. Unforeseen were
the new forms of domestic and especially ethnic VIolence that
followed the events d 1989 to 1991, not only in the successor
states of the Soviet l:nion and of Yugoslavia, but also m the
Moslem world and m \Subsaharan Africa. The changes in the
world arder raised sigi\\ficant quesl!ons for histoncal thoughi
and pracl!ce that made it-:lifficult for histoncal inqUiry to follow
the !ines It had followed prev10usly.
Undoubtedly the persistence of cultural traditwns becamc
increasingly apparcnt. The concepts of modcrnization that hacl
dommated a great deal of socml science thought 111 the 1950s anel
196os and continued to play an Important role late r wcre difficul!
to reconcile with the revval of relig10us fundamentalsm anel
ethnic particulansm. Seventy years of Communist rule had not
eliminated ancent religiOus traditions. Similarly fundamentalism 111 ts Moslem, Protestant, Orthodox Jewish, anel Hindu
forms appearcd to be a reaction agamst the Impact that modernizatwn had on traditional beliefs and mores. Ali thi:; seemed to
make anthropological approaches to history even more urgent.
At the same time the failure of the Commumst regimes to keep
in step with the structural changes in the modem econonucs
undoubtedly contributed to their collapse. Begmning in the
196os the scientific-teclmical revolution was a maJor tl1eme m
theorel!cal discusSions in the Eastern Bloc, but this revolution,
which led to a posundustrial mformation economy in the West,
failed to occur m the Soviet Bloc. The Soviet Union and Its client
states collapsed in part because of their mability to face the
challenges of a modemizng society. Paradoxically lhe cvents o f

From the Perspective of the 1990s


1989-91 not only discredited basic Marxist concepts and made a

shamblc>; of Marxist teleology but also lent themselves well to a
Marxist analysis. As an Ideology and a utopia Marxism had
turned out to be a ba dream. Yet ma significant way, to use
Marx's concepts, the collapse of the Soviet system demonstrated
the revolt of the changing means of production agamst the outdated conditions of production. The Ideology and the dictatorsiup contributed to the rigidification of a system that could not
respond to the changmg exigencies of the time. While these
observations lend support to a structural anda cultural approach
to the history of the recent past, they also rmse the question,
somenmes neglected in recent historical studies, of the role of
politics. Undoubtedly personalities such as Gorbachev and Yeltsin affected the course of events, even if they did so Withm
clefinite structural constra111ts. Ali this seems to call not for the
abandonment of older patterns of social, cultural, and poltica!
lustory 'Jut for a broadening of the perspective and methods of
historical mquiry.
Loolung at the discussions and the publicauons of the last
severa! years, one IS struck by both contmUities and ruptures.
Theme~. that dommated in the 198os contmue to receive attention toelay. The disillusion with quant!lative history cont111ues.
The mterest in anthropological history fiourishes, as demonstrateel by the founding of the German-language journal Hiswnsclte Amhropo/ogie in 1993 The ltalian JOUrnal Quaderm
Swncr has been a pioneer in these studies. The Russian JOUrnal
Odysseus rellects similar interests. The programs of the annual
meetiiPs of the American Histoncal Associal!on, but also the
tables <~f contents o f maJor JOurnals in the United States, demonstra te :he fascination With the themes of "class, gender, and
cthmcity," reftecting current social and political pressures 111 the
Umted States and elsewhere. Nevertheless, there IS also a
markcd retreat 111 recent lusrorical studies from the pronounced
culturalism of the 198os to new concerns With the modem and
contcmporary world, away from the preoccupation with the
early modern and medieval European world, wluch had been the
subJCC' of a great deal of the new cultural lustory.
The pronounced reorientation of the Annales was 111dicative
of thc change of mood m the r9gos. As I have mentioned, in




From the Perspect1ve of the 1990s

138 The Challenge of Postmodernism

Januar y 1994 the JOurnal dropp ed lts subtltle Economws. Socits. Civilatwns, wh1ch it had used since the immediate postwar period, and rep!aced it by Hist01re, Sete/Ices Socwles. The
change in mune was the result of intense discuss1ons among
editors snce the late 198os. reftected m an editon
ary-February 1ssue of 1994 announcing the chang e.' An Important editorial in 1988 had a!ready suggested that h1story and the
social scences were entering nto a deep crs1s.s The change
name, however. demon strated an awareness that the
and social conditions had changed fundamentally m recent
The subtitle Econonues. Socits. Civilisat/0/IS had consc10usly
elimnated politics as a prime concern of history and With
modowngraded the role o f narratves. Now m the face of the
mento us changes at the end of the rg8os, polil!cs was rediscovered and with t the role of personalites. The new title was
intend ed to mciude politics once more. And in the realm
politiCS, as FranoiS Furet' s reapprmsa! o f the Frend1 Revolutiou
mdicated, Ideas and persons again p!ayed a deciSIVe role. The
Annales in choosmg the new tltle by no means intended to exclude societv and cu!ture from lustoncal consideration, but
w1shed rath;.r lo reestablish the poltica! context in which they
\occurred. They now wished to pay greate r attenti on to presell
day problems. The
social sc1ences was to remam, but econom1cs, ';ocw!ogy, anj
poltica! sc1ence were to regain the position they had los\ m the
post-Wor!d War li Annales, which did not mean a relurn
oldtime diplomatic
stract models separa ted from a broade r poltica! anel social con.
text. The Annales 1ssues of the 1990s reOected th1s reonentatio:J
Problems o f the contem
important role in the journal in lhe I930S, r~surfaced. Recen

issues have dealt with such di verse contemporary .::oncerns as the

J oopenn g of the Sovet arch1ves, the organizat1on of labor m
pan, the confro ntation
tradit!oual socieues,
capitalism, polittcs and AIDS m Za1re, religious v1olence mlndi
and Algen a today, but also traditlonal topics going back to ne
early modem and the medieval period, such a; the centralizatio
o f state power in Asian and Europ ean societ ks, urban socmbl


Ihe Middle Ages, the deve!opment of credit networks,

finances, and accountability m a mercantile economy, "illnes
fmth and the 1magmary" m the Middle Ages, utopws m
cen;ury Ilyzantium, and Jewish communal life from
teenth to the twenteth century.
The renewed turn to politics and to the social scwnces m the
Awwl es and elsewhere does not repres enta repudiatmn of older
mterests and concerns but rather a broademng of the scope
cn!nstorical studies. lmpor tant aspeets of the postmodernist
tique of histoncal reason remam m p!ace. The faith in the grand
narrat1ves focused on the modernizatlon o f the Western world
the cu!mmatmn o f a cohere nt h1storica! process is irredeemably
!ost. Reftectmg on the !nstory o f the Annaies, J acques Revel, one
of its longtime editors and since 1995 director of the Ecole des
Haute s Etudes en Sciences Sociales, m a volume published
1995 that tnes to reasse
wriles that the vs10n of "total" or "global" hlstory that occupw
thr"e generalions of Annales
But h1story has not been reducecl to a mulllplcity of unrelated
entil!es. We have seen how the microhistorans in ltaly and
Germany, desp1te their concentrat1on on the local, never !ost
s1ght of broad er historical and poltica! contexts. In fact they
believed that the concentratiOn on the local, wh1ch always differed from the "normal,''IO made 1l possible to test generalizast,
tions. No matter how hard microlustonans challenged Marx1
Wt!benan, o r Rostowan conceptions
nmodem world, they failed to escape from a notmn of moder
Ization, now seen mostly as a destructive
th" nucroscale of local history. The mam theme o f microhtstonca.. studies m fact has been the mpact o f state, economy, and
church on the countryside in an age of incipent modernizatio
Finally, postmodernism had rmsed 1mpor
quest1ons that radically challenged the
krowl edge. Not only was the coherence of history questioned
bLl a!so the coherence of the author and of the text. The Imme-


di :tcy o f historcal knowiedge was demed; this, however,

ncthing new but went back at least to Kant. Hayde n Whte
asserllon that h1story always assum
shared the qualities of literary texts, was generally accepted, but


The Challenge of Postmodernism

not Jus concluswn that hrstory, like ali literature, rs therefore

essentia!ly a "fiction-makmg operation," Roger Chartrer commented rn 1993 that "even if the hrstorian wntes rn a 'literary
manner,' he does not produce literature."ll Hi,; labor rs de 0 ,,ndent on archival research and, while lus sources do not p;esent
themselves n an unambiguous form, they are nevertheless subJect to cri ter. a of reliability. The histonan ts always on the outlook for forgcry and falsification anel thus operates witll a notron
of truth, howe 'e r complex and ncomplete lhe roacl to rt ma1 be.
Ali thrs poir.ts not to a new paradigm but to an expa;,ded
pJuralism. lt s apparent that the "loss of history"'2 so widely
noted after World War I! is not charactenstic of the present
mood. In Germany the sense o f loss rs attributable to the discreditmg of natronal traditrons; elsewhere, it stemmed from lhe belief
that lhe modem world spelled the end of traditional values and
forms of commumty. Temporarily rn the early 1970s hrstory
course offerings in the United States, Great Bntarn, \Vest Germany, and eJsewhere, but certamly not in France or Poland, were
replaced by sacra! studies courses, and at least rn lhe Englishspeakmg world the social scrences frequentJy took a strongly
ahrstoncai srance. The number of lustory students declined clrastrcally in the United States. But thrs trend was reverscd rn the
r98os. History offenngs at the umversities became more diversified, particularly m the United States, to include gender and
ethnic studies as well as the study of non-Westem soc1etres and
cultures." Histoncal JOUrnals, books, and TV presentalrous proliferated. The commemoratrons of the fiftieth anmversanes of
the liberauon of the concentraton camps and the end of World
War Il were mdicators of the intense concern wllh hrstory. Thus
the cataclysmic changes m Europe smce 1989 appear to trave
strengthened rather than weakened intereslm the past.

Concluding Remarks

I. The "End of History"l

Repeatedly m recent years the oprmon has been expressed that

we are livmg m a posthistoncal age, that h1story as we have
known it has come to an end.' What rs meant is obviously not
that l!me will hence stand still, but that there is no longer lhe
possibility of a grand narrat1ve that g1ves h1story coherence and
meanmg. The idea that has been central to Judaeo-Chnstran
farth since Biblical anl!qurty has been questwned, namely, that
history has a transmunda ne purpose and direct10n. The Enlightenment secularized tlus faith and placed the eschaton of history
in to the process of human hrstory itself. lt celebrated the civilizatlon of the modem West as the h1gh point and the approachmg
fultillment of a desirabte social arder in which human freedom
and culture would be guaranteed. Most recently Francrs Fukuyama has rerterated ths optunistic belief.2
The nineteenth century marked the hrgh pomt of coufidence
m the beneficence of hstoncal development, yet at the same
trme t marked the beginmng of a deep uncertamty about the
quality of modem culture. The early cntique carne from vorces
uneasy about the very notrons of scieutific ral!onality, techmcal
progress, and human nghis so lughly valued by the c1V1h2.at1on of
the nineteenth century. They included not only thinkers nostatgc for a premodem, premdustnal world, but also some who
wanted to go beyond it. Tlus often antrdemocratic critique
tumed agamst the visron of a world m whrch enlightenment