What is postmodernism?

Michel Foucault gives us a great perspective of Postmodern history: “I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth. One ‘fictions’ history on the basis of a political reality that makes it true, one ‘fictions’ a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth.”1

The Postmodern approach to history differs dramatically from that of all other worldviews. For example, a Christian worldview sees history as the grand unfolding of God’s divine plan to redeem a fallen humanity. In contrast, the more radical Postmodernists see no ultimate purpose in history. Less radical Postmodernists advocate the view that history is what we make of it. They believe that historical facts are inaccessible, leaving the historian to his or her imagination and ideological bent to reconstruct what happened in the past.

Postmodernists use the term historicism to describe the view that all questions must be settled within the cultural and social context in which they are raised. Both Lacan and Foucault argue that each historical period has its own knowledge system and individuals are unavoidably entangled within these systems. Answers to life’s questions cannot be found by appealing to some external truth, but only to the norms and forms within each culture that phrase the question.

Unlike Postmodern history, the traditional approach to history holds that by sifting through the evidence at hand (texts, artifacts, etc.), we may arrive at a more or less accurate understanding of past events and their significance. This means that not all descriptions of history are equally valid. Some accounts may be more true to the actual events than others. As new information comes to light, any narrative of history could be revised or supplemented.

However, most Postmodernists doubt that an accurate telling of the past is possible because they blur the difference between fact and fiction—some even claim that all historical accounts are fiction. For Foucault, truth and knowledge were constructions we offer to persuade others. They need not correspond to reality, for we construct our own reality in such a way as to give us power over others. 

While the history of humanity itself may not have a purpose, the writing of historical accounts does. Resonating with Foucault’s approach to history is the view that the writing of history should promote an ideology. If, as Foucault declares, a claim to knowledge really is nothing but an attempt to overpower others, then retelling history serves the purpose of gaining power for some repressed group.

Thus, according to the Postmodern condition the discipline of history has turned away from the study of significant individuals and the struggles between nations to focus on social groups and institutions.  As a result, conventional historical 'truths' have been subject to much revision. Postmodern cultural historians consider bias unavoidable in whole or even in part. As a result we see a growing willingness to arrange and edit facts in a way that supports the message of particular historians. This is precisely where the line between recording history and revising history is crossed.

This rewriting of the past to serve a purpose, known as revisionist history, contributes to empowering oppressed social minorities. Thus feminist histories attempt to expose a male-dominated, patriarchal past and point the way for empowering women. Likewise, homosexual histories are put forward ( to provide equality for homosexuals. Black histories emphasise the horrors of slavery to redress past maltreatment of African Americans. An example of this is David Olusoga's 'Black and British', which is a BBC TV programme where he teaches of the often forgotten African presence in Britain, which dates from the Roman invasion. Every repressed group—minorities of all colours, ethnicities, nationalities, and sexualities—has an injustice that must be exposed in order to rectify the abuses of the past.  This can often distort history in favour of a single minority's view, especially in today's politically correct world, for example, narratives of transgender community history are being written in where for the most part they do not exist, in a bid to normalise the movement.  
David Olusoga's brilliant TV series
This Egyptian engraving is being cited by Transgender campaigners
as evidence for a large and flourishing ancient transgender community.

Some feminist historians assert that men cannot write histories of women, first because men simply cannot understand women, and second because men have masculine ideologies and women have feminine ideologies. The same is said about a person attempting to write the history of a different race. It cannot be done since all people are presumed to be under a cloud of racial bias.  There has been a backlash against alledely white-male dominated history, such as the ridiculous attempts by University of Michigan students to reverse-segregate lectures, where only black students can attend sensitive issues.

Black Michigan students protest in favour of 'white free zones'

Because ideas have consequences, we cannot afford to overlook the consequences of the more radical Postmodern approaches to history. If history is mere fiction, or even largely so, then those who deny, for example, the Nazi holocaust are validated in their attempts to diminish the numbers of Jews imprisoned, tortured, starved, shot, cremated, or buried in mass graves. Indeed, if history is largely fiction, then Mother Teresa and Adolph Hitler cannot be used as examples of good and evil. There are no “facts.” There are only various degrees of fiction. Thus, many holocaust deniers veil their anti-semitism in pseudo-post-modernism.  It is difficult to determine whether post modernism is a force for good in history; that it stimulates debate , engages people of various groups in history and allows revision of history in the light of new evidence are all very positive qualities.  However, I am still skeptical of it as it many are using it to argue that we live in a 'post-truth' world.  This allows people to easily twist history to their own agendas.  While the extent of this is not quite Orwellian, it is unsettling to see historians dismissing definitive facts as 'fake-news', and advocating a more favourable, albeit false history, whether this be a likely non-existent, normalised transgender community in Ancient Egypt, or various narratives simply dismissing the clear evidence of the Holocaust and arguing that the genocide was instead a Zionist conspiracy to dupe the masses. 


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