Postmodernism and Historiography

Hayden White

Postmodernism is a term which names, first, a certain epochal selfconsciousness, a sense shared by many artists and intellectuals of having to work and create in a situation deprived of the certainties of twentieth century modernism. Indeed, postmodernism arose on the ruins of the search for certainty, objectivity, foundations, and even truth itself that had underwritten the West's belief in “progress” since the time of the Enlightenment. Thus, the term postmodernism can be defined more by what it has denied, rejected, or simply abandoned of the philosophical and social endowment of the Enlightenment than by any positive cognitive content or utopian aspiration of a distinctively modern kind. On the other hand, however, the term postmodernism also refers to a number of cultural movements arising after the 1950s in architecture, literature, film, art, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and the human sciences in general which purport to transcend the limitations, prejudices, and illusions of an artistic modernism of the kind represented by the International style in architecture; T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein in literature; and the historical avantgarde represented by Surrealism, Cubism, and Abstract Expressionism in art. The two kinds of postmodernism share a suspicious of every kind of foundationalism: epistemological, ontological, ethical, and esthetic. This rejection of foundationalism includes the ideas—epistemological, ontological, ethical, and aesthetic—which have underwritten and authorized the kind of knowledge produced by historical research since the middle of the 19th century. This does not mean that postmodernists are uninterested in the past, in history, and its interpretation. On the contrary, many postmodernists believe that a specifically postmodernist idea of “history” provides the only basis for the kind of knowledge required by an emerging global society and the new cultural media that have made it possible.

However, this postmodernist “history” has little in common with that posited as the basis for modern, scientific historical research. In fact, it is much closer to premodern conceptions of history understood as a reserve of exempla to be drawn on for practical(political, pedagogical, ideological) purposes and as a discourse rather than a discipline. Postmodernists—in architecture, the arts, literature, cinema, and philosophy—tend to view the past as a vast, inchoate, fragmented, decontextualized, and synchronic congeries of forms, media, genres, and ideas which can be treated as objets trouvés in the manner of Duchamp's “fountain” (the inverted urinal which he signed “R. Mutt,” exhibited in an art-space, thereby effecting its transformation into a work of art). For postmodernists the “past”— irredeemably absent and accessible only by way of spoors, fragments, and traces— is the place of memory, reverie, and fantasy, and therefore of poetic inspiration, rather than a space of past human actions that can be recovered and represented more or less accurately as it really was (as it is for scientifically oriented, modern professional historians). Postmodernists are much more interested in the meanings which, by means more or less artistic, can be produced by reflection on pastness than they are in truth understood as a finite set of true statements about discrete periods of history attested by a documentary record. There are few postmodernist histories because postmodernists reject what professional historians would recognize as scientific historiography. Indeed, postmodernist treatments of “the past” are to be found predominantly in artistic works: “historical novels”(such as Libra and Underworld by De Lillo; Coetzee's Foe, Bannville's The Untouchable, Roth's American Pastoral and The Plot Against America), epic films(Vigne's Le retour de Martin Guerre, Attenborough's Ghandi, Richardson's Charge of the Light Brigade, or Oliver Stone's JFK) and documentaries (Lanzmann's Shoah, or Resnais's Nuit et brouillard), site constructions (such as Cristo's “wrapping” of the Reichstag), comix (like Spiegelman's “Maus” and “Towers”), the paintings of Anselm Kiefer or installations by Christian Boltanski) and museological revisionisms (such as Libeskind's “Jewish Museum” in Berlin), or witness literature (such as Primo Levi's Se questo è un uomo) rather than in such attempts to write historiography in a postmodernist mode as Simon Shama's Dead Certainties and Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms.

Much of the postmodernist experimentation in the representation (or rather, the “presentation”) of the past derives from dissatisfaction with traditional scientific history's inability or reluctance to deal effectively with the “extreme” events connected with the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century: the Holocaust specifically, but also “industrialized genocide” in general, the use of atomic weaponry (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) and other arms of mass destruction (firebombing, anti-personnel mines, long distance rocketry), world population explosion and migration, new kinds of diseases (Aids), globalization, etc. A universal demand on the part of populations which had hitherto been treated as peripheral to the great events of history, for representation of their experiences of such extreme event spawned new genres of testamentary and martyrological (witness) literature, video, and film. Therewith, the older opposition between history and memory was brought under question and history as the corrector of memory soon came to be thought of as “history the suppressor of the memory of the oppressed.” Walter Benjamin's brief on behalf of the anonymous and the neglected of history received wide recognition as a critique of professional historiography's identification with history's “victors,” interest primarily in the actions of great men, and association with centers of power and patronage. Movements on the margin of professional writing, such as feminism, women's history, post-colonial studies, cultural studies, “history from below,” and oppositional historiography, contributed to the general and growing disinterest in professional historical research, demeaned for its specialization, its preference for micro-phenomena, and its search for truth as against the desire for meaning. The demand for meaning, interest in the oppressed of the past, call for inclusiveness in history's subject-matter, rejection of specialization, fascination with the experience of “witnesses” to the extreme events of history, and, finally, the belief that these extreme events augured the advent of a new kind of historicity: all this promoted attitudes towards the past and the study of it which correlated badly with the principles of “scientific historical research” inherited from the early twentieth century. Within philosophy of history, which is to say, the philosophical study of the possibility and limits of the kind of knowledge produced by professional historians, such attitudes converged with the outcome of debates that had been going on since the 1930s and 1940s involving idealists (Collingwood, Croce), positivists (Popper), existentialists (Heidegger and Sartre), phenomenologists (Gadamer, Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur), and a group whom I wish to call historicists (Aron and Bloch, Isaiah Berlin, and Meinecke) over whether history could ever properly be called a “science” at all.
This debate will be or has been dealt with in other sections of this Dictionnaire. More relevant for the moment is the extent to which this debate bore upon certain questions and topics peculiar to its postmodernist aftermath: topics having to do with language, discourse, and narrative, on the one side, and questions having to do with the canonical view on the relation between history and literature, on the other.
Postmodernist treatments of the past and history (not all treatments of the past are “historical”) are typically criticized by historians (when they deign referring to them at all) for such beliefs that the past has no reality, that history is (nothing but) a text, that the principal problem of historical representation is that of narrativization, that, when if comes to representing the past, there is no important distinction between fact and fiction, and that, finally, historical phenomena are best made sense of by storytelling rather than by model building and causal analysis of chains of events. It has to be said that, with a few exceptions (R. Evans, K. Jenkins, and E. Domanska) being the most notable, these notions about postmodernism are more lamented than documented and responded to with scientific rigor by professional historians. To sympathetic representations of certain postmodernist ideas (by Ricoeur, Hartog, Derrida, Foucault, White, for example), professional historians tend to respond with warnings of the social dangers of the relativism and skepticism inherent in them. Two ideas especially are subject to the most criticism: the relation between history and literature and the concept of the world as a text.

Discussion on the relationship between history and literature go back to Ranke's famous criticism of Sir Walter Scott for mixing historical fact with fiction. Historical studies were transformed into a science by excluding a number of discourses and practices commonly mixed with historiography prior to Ranke's time: theology, philosophy, rhetoric, and romance. These exclusions were implemented in the interest of committing historical studies to a truthful by which was meant a factually accurate representation of the past. Had the effect of dividing Western culture's efforts to comprehend its past between those of professional historians, concerned to establish facts about the past, and a host of others—philosophers, novelists, poets, and, increasingly, social scientists—who were more interested in the meaning of those facts for the understanding of the present as they were in their significance for understanding the past. This issue arose in the post World War II years with respect to the Holocaust or Shoah. As the Nazi genocide of the Jews receded into the past, becoming in the process a distinctively “historical” event, survivors of it especially became concerned less with the fact of its occurrence than with what it felt like to experience such an event and what it implied about the society (presumed to be enlightened, humanistic, humane, and rational) that had been responsible for this event or, in many instances, had either aided in its execution or simply stood by and let it happen without significant resistance. With the exception of a few manifestly pathological pseudo-historians, scientists, and scholars (known as revisionists), no one could really deny that the event had occurred, but the occurrence of it and the way in which it had been carried out brought under question most of the basic presuppositions of that scientific and humanistic culture on which the West had prided itself since the Renaissance. The growth of a large body of “witness” testimony, about the Holocaust but also about other genocides, about the experience of decolonization, about migration, and about the horrors of modern warfare, showed that “artistic” writing (such as Primo Levi's Se questo e un uomo) or cinema (such as Landsmann's Shoah) were infinitely better suited to conveying the “shock” of new, contemporary experiences than were the dry, measured, and antiseptic tones of the conventional historical narrator. Result: the return among postmodernists of a desire for the artistic representation of history as a means of dealing, not only with the past, but also with the present as history.

“The present as history”: In Mimesis, his magisterial account of the growth of realism in Western literature, Erich Auerbach argued that the basis of modern literary realism—from Stendhal, Balzac, Dickens and, later, Gogol and Tolstoy, Mann, Proust and Woolf—lay in the treatment of the present as history. This is to say that, whereas in the past, history had been about only the past, in the early nineteenth century “the present” was added to “history” which now became, according to Koselleck, a kind of causal force in its own right, such that people could now speak about “historical forces” and “historical processes” that changed that stable present from which one had formerly viewed a past “over and done with” into a heaving, moving, violent platform from which one could never confidently view either past or future.

It was in this sense that literary realism of the 19th century had taken as its referent—its ultimate referent, to be sure—historical reality which it proceeded to map out and examine in depth in ways that professional historians, fixated on war, politics, and great men could never have imagined. This was the real legacy of Sir Walter Scott, dismissed by Ranke as a romancier, but actually the inventor of a mode of studying the past in such a way as to show its relevance to the presence as figure to fulfillment. And this interest in history as the ultimate referent of “serious” literature remained alive in literary modernism—in Proust, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Brecht, Stein, Musil, etc. The point was that history had to be endowed, not only with truth, but also with meaning—which meant symbolization.

Now, the important point about literary modernism is that the opposition between factual and fictional discourse gives way to a simple difference among various kinds of writing. The principal distinction is between literary writing and utilitarian writing, wherein the latter is distinguished from the former by the “set” (Einstellung) towards the message which deflects significance from the referent to the code in which the discourse is articulated. On this view of the matter, the distinction between factual and fictional writing has less to do with the reality or unreality of the referent than the degree of “literariness” (the use of literary devices) manifested in the presentation. Thus, there can be literary writing that is factual (a historical work such as Huizinga's Autumn of the Middle Ages would be an example) and literary writing that is fictional (Finnegans Wake, for example). But if by “factual” writing one means writing that has the “real world” for its referent, then a work such as Mann's Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain or Musil's Man Without Properties are quite as “factual” as anything written by social historians in the modern age. And so too for a work such as De Lillo's Libra , Mailer's Castle in the Forest, Bannville's The Untouchable, or Coetzee's Disgrace. Like Tolstoy's War and Peace, these works seek to grasp the historical substance or the essence of an age, a period, a time. In order to do this, they must, unlike the writer of a report on what has been found in an archive, narrate and emplot the events to which they refer, thereby giving them dramatic weight and symbolic depth. Narrativity in historiography, increasingly disdained by modern scientific historians as mere rhetorical flourish, ornament, or ideology (Braudel), thus returns in postmodernist historical novels as the paradigm for mediating between being (factuality) and value (meaning).
All of which returns us to the distinction between history as a science and history as a discourse and the relation of postmodernist notions of the text and textuality to the conceptualization of “history” (as both an object of study and of representation).
Parerga: Postmodernist historical thought is present-oriented and is primarily interested in the past only insofar as it can be used to serve the present. Thus, Lyotard is only half-right in finding the origin of postmodernism in the rejection of the great schemata ('grands récits') of universal history which purported to disclose history's direction, aim, and meaning. Professional historians and philosophers of history had dismissed these great schemata as myth and ideology long before Lyotard reported their abandonment. But postmodernism goes further and rejects, not only the “grands recits” of providence, progress, the dialectic of the World Spirit (Hegel), Marxism, etc., but also (les petits récits) of professional historians as well; both kinds of historiography are deemed irrelevant to the practical needs of our epoch.

Central among these needs is “coming to terms with” a past “that won't go away,” especially the past of the Nazi genocide, which belied the myths of progress, enlightenment, and humanism sustained by professional historians in the service of the state and bourgeois society since the time of the French Revolution. For postmodernists, “the historical past” of the professional historians is an abstraction which never existed except in history books, was never experienced by anyone (except, possibly, certain deluded historians), and is meaningful ultimately only to professional historians themselves. What interests postmodernists is the past that continues to exist in the present, but less as heritage and tradition than as phantasm, memory, the “return of the repressed' (“le retour du refoulé, l'aprèscoup”), ghost, enigma, threat, or burden. This past must be “perlaboré,” its burden lifted from the present, so that living men can go into the future without the old delusions. Here historiology helps the “travail du deuil” which follows upon the dissolution of the great myths of Christianity, humanism, progress, Marxism, substantive rationality, capitalism, metaphysics, the heroic subject, and the bourgeois historiography. Therewith it becomes possible, postmodernists aver, to use the past as a place of fantasy, pleasure, a play of forms, even of utopian possibility.

This formulation of the postmodernist notions of the past and history is framed in vaguely Freudian terms in the interest of highlighting their potential therapeutic function (as against the merely didactic function of traditional, professional historiography). This formulation also allows one to account for what the critics of postmodernism take to be its fallacies, errors, and outright delusions.

First, postmodernists question professional historians' presumption that they alone have the authority to decide what history is, how it must be studied, and what uses can legitimately be made of historical knowledge. Postmodernists, per contra, tend to believe that nobody owns history, that anyone has a right to study it for purposes both theoretical and practical, that the past of history and the past of memory are quite different things, and that finding out what happened in the past is less important than finding out “what it felt like” for the patients as well as the agents of past events. This is why postmodernists favor the genre of the “testimony,” use of experimental, even surrealistic literary devices and mythological plots, favor cinematic “special effects” and poetic tropes and figures, and encourage a mixture of documentary with “fictional” techniques for the presentation (Darstelllung) of a past more indeterminate than clear in outline, more grotesque than heroic in its stature, more malleable than fixed in its form. The major contributions of postmodernism to historical consciousness are to be found in novels such as…

Disregard for the proprieties of professional historiography exposes postmodernists to charges of relativism and skepticism, which are often treated more as sins than as possible intellectual positions. Relativism, it is alleged, leads to epistemological and moral anarchy and is therefore to be resisted on ethical as well as cognitive grounds. So, too, skepticism is to be opposed on moral as well as cognitive grounds: it is supposed to lead to Pyrrhonism, nihilism, and chaos. It is as if historical truth were the only kind of truth we had and any attenuation of it would shake the foundations of civilization itself.

To these charges postmodernists reply: it is true that postmodernism is skeptical of professional historians not only because their work is boring or, alternatively, sentimental, but because they seem themselves to be in the pay of special interest groups, the state, wealthy patrons, corporations, the university itself. Moreover, their purpose seems to be to keep non-professionals from poaching on their turf, as if the past were a piece of real estate and access to it consigned to professional scholars alone. Finally, one can distinguish between a metaphysical skepticism which denies the possibility of any kind of knowledge and a skepticism about the kind of knowledge produced by a specific group, such as of a gild of professional scholars whose methods resemble those of lawyers or, in the worst cases, astrologers, while trying to pose as “scientists” pure and simple.

And so too for the charge of relativism which is typically equated with idea that all points of view are equally valid (or invalid), that there is no possibility of choosing among them on rational grounds, that, therefore, “anything goes” in thought and action, and that, as a consequence, ethical principles are a fraud and morality an illusion. Finally, postmodernists maintain that all knowledge is not only “knowledge about” particular things but also “knowledge for” particular social groups and cultural projects. Thus, the validity of any given presentation of the past and history is to be assessed in terms of its utility for the group for which it has been produced. The criterion is pragmatic or pragmatist and it holds as much for the natural sciences as it does for the human sciences. Historical studies have their own histories, they vary from time to time, place to place, and group to group. Which is why histories formulated on the basis of religious beliefs—such as St. Augustine's City of God or Froissart's Chronicon—are not less “historical” or indeed less “historiological” for their failure to conform to the criteria of contemporary professional historiography. And so too for the idea or vision of history to be found in literary, poetic, and other kinds of artistic media. If, as Ricoeur argued, historical consciousness is a product of a particular kind of experience of temporality, then the representation no less than the analysis of this experience requires all the resources that art as well as science can provide. Indeed, the effort to change the subject of history, to imagine a different past from that constructed for dominant groups of the industrial age, and to provide a historical basis for critiquing the immediate past and escaping from the institutional constrictions it has placed upon the present, all this seems to be taken more seriously by literary and cinematic, video and computer artists than by professional historians. The vision of a future idea of history is to be found in a postmodernist art which is more conceptual than mimetic, more “writerly” than “readerly,” more interested in the symbol than in the algorithm. Postmodernist writing, for example, transcends the conventions of traditional, narrativistic and fabulistic storytelling.
This did not mean that postmodernists had any greater faith in the “petits récits” of professional historiography. For postmodernism also rejects the version of the past and history produced by professional historians and the discourses of l'humanisme universitaire. They reject humanistic history's naïve faith in empiricism and trust in the “document,” its belief in a “subject of history” as an “action hero,” conqueror of inferior peoples, and carrier of civilization. For postmodernists, professional historians study the past as a thing in itself, write for other professional historians, derive no lessons of any use to the present, and seek to repress imaginative uses of history in the service of life (Nietzsche). Like Foucault, postmodernists are less interested in the past as a thing in itself than as a means of comprehending the present. Where history offers no insight into the present, it is condemned as mere antiquarianism. For postmodernists, truth is a semantic rather than an epistemological issue. Statements about the past and about their relevance for comprehending the present have less to do with what is said than with what is meant in what is said. Consequently, the significance of an utterance—whether about the present or about the past— cannot be separated from the context within which it is uttered. This idea of truth opens postmodernism to charges of relativism: cultural, moral, epistemic. Its suspicion of the possibility of deriving universals from the study of history exposes it to charges of skepticism. It should be noted, however, that skepticism about the possibility of knowledge regarding things no longer perceivable is one thing, skepticism about the very possibility of knowledge of anything, absent or present, is quite another. Postmodernists do not deny that we can have knowledge of the past. It is, rather, that we must use the imagination along with reason in the construction of that knowledge. And by imagination they mean not merely fantasy, dream, reverie but also poiesis, after the manner of Vico, the Romantics, and Michelet. Only thus can the ethical claims of memory—individual and collective—be reconciled with the epistemological claims of reason.

Academic or university historiography is too “disinterested” to bridge the gap which postmodernists perceive to exist between the truth of past facts and the meaning of this truth for the understanding of modernity. Like Foucault, postmodernists are interested in the past, not as an end in itself, but for what it can tell us about the present. This means that the establishment of the facts about the past must be followed by the interpretation of them. Above the level of atomic facts—such as dates and specific occurrences about which there can be no doubt—there arise questions about the past and history for which there can be no factual answers. When it comes to the meaning of the big events of modern history—the French Revolution, capitalism, industrialism, Nazism, even the Shoah—events so important to our own identities that we cannot not confront them, there can be no definitive answers. But of the making of interpretations, there is no end. We can only multiply interpretations and thereby undermine any dogmatic claims about the past, history, and human nature thereby. Since the past is by definition no longer open to perception, we can never be certain that any description of it or of any of its elements is adequate to it. In this respect the past differs from the present which, in principle, is observable. But what we mean by the present is as much a construction of thought and imagination, fantasy and hope or fear, as the past. Thus, caught between two abysses, a past that is dead and a future that is still unborn, we must choose to live in ambiguity, ambivalence, and despair. The world appears to postmodernists in the manner in which Heidegger and Sartre presented it in the 1930s. Neither philosophy nor science can help us. Whence the postmodernist recourse to art, literary writing, and the poetic imagination for dealing with the aporias of historical existence.
1. Since its beginnings, history has aspired to the status of a science according to standards of scientificity currently prevailing in the time and places in which it has been practiced. Since science itself has a history, which means that what it consists of is constantly changing, history's effort to become scientific is constantly changing also. This is why the different ways that historians construe the past and its relationship to the present appear to be incommensurable. While some historians typically see continuity and regular progress in history's millennial effort to become scientific, others just as typically register its continual failure to do so. None of this matters very much as long as a given society feels itself to be umproblematically connected to its (or the) past. It is when the past is felt to be a burden on the present, a debt rather than a legacy, that history may come to be thought of as a fake or pseudo-science and demands for its supplementation by “real” science, religion, art, or metaphysics called for.

2. Real historians, it is alleged, are interested in the truth and nothing but the truth about the past, without any ideological preconceptions or intentions, and in a spirit of objectivity and neutrality towards their subject-matter. Their principal activity is research, particularly in archives and especially in “original” sources or documents. They sift evidence, analyze data, construct arguments and offer proofs about what happened in some domain of the past insofar as the record allows. The facts of the matter pre-exist the historian's investigation of them; he (or more rarely, she) “finds” them rather than invents them. The recent past and present are not proper subjects of history because a certain time must have passed before one can know how certain processes “came out” eventuated, or concluded. So, too, one should not undertake to investigate any aspect of the past before the relevant archival materials have been made available. When the research is finished, the historians writes up his findings in a sober and severe style. No levity or rhetorical flourish can be allowed; irony is reserved for those amateurs and laity who think that “history” can be written by anybody, that the past is a general human legacy, and that anyone has the right to study it as best they can.
3. When it comes to claims to producing real knowledge (as against information) about the past, history must moot certain potentially disturbing the enigmas of temporality, the aporias of memory, and the paradoxes of desire. It must get on with the task of finding out “what happened” in the past and presenting it in an appropriately domesticated form so as to feign that death is not terminal and that the fruits of prior human labor are not totally lost to human memory. Enigmas: Of temporality, the sense of at once being, having been, yet to be, and ultimately not be. Of memory: the sense that the past is in me and yet is absent from me, that I can recall this past and, at the same time, lose it, that, in the end, I cannot trust memory but, at the same time, I cannot escape it. Of desire: the sense that I want what I do not have and have what I do not want, that I want what I cannot have and have what I ought not want, that I do not know what I want and do not want what I know.
4. Problem: In this essay, “history” refers to Western and for the most part modern Western notions about the past, the relation between past and present, and the uses to which historical knowledge can be put. Although all cultures and societies have an interest in the past, only a few of them have developed a specifically “historical” approach to its study. Although Western historians have claimed that a specifically historical way of studying the past and its relation to the present has universal validity, it would seem that such a way, mode, or idea presupposes notions about human nature, sociality, production, value, and meaning that are identifiably Western in kind. And indeed Western notions of historicality have spread only to those parts of the world in which other specifically Western beliefs and institutions—such as Newtonian science, humanism, Christianity, capitalism—have already taken root.
It should not, however, be thought that “history” in the West designates a single, monolithic orthodoxy regarding what it consists of, how it should be study, and the ends to which it can legitimately be put. Western historical sciences want to be “scientific,” but since modern Western historical thought has always fallen short of the ideals of science prevailing at any given time in its development, it has generated a number of different ideas of history conformably to the intellectual and artistic ideologies predominating at any given moment in its evolution. Times of social, economic, and political crisis provoke debates between representatives of these different ways of viewing history and about programs for the reform of historical thinking and its practices. It can hardly be denied that the West and (because of the dominance of Western institutions and practices worldwide) the rest of the world are currently undergoing transformations so extreme as to bring traditional institutions and values under question everywhere. It is therefore eminently understandable that historical thought and institutions should be subjected to the same criticism that is being launched against the other aspects of the intellectual and artistic endowment of the West. As a would-be science, historiography neither foresaw the crisis of modernism nor provides any advice about how to overcome it. Insofar as current calls for the revision of historical thought are based upon a sense of radical change and transition to a new, hitherto unimaginable world-system, these can be termed “postmodernist.”


(吉田寛+ 立命館大学「物語と歴史研究会」訳)

 まず最初に、ポストモダニズムとは、一つの時代を画する自己意識、20 世紀のモダニズムが生み出した確実性が失われた状況下で仕事や創造を行わなければならなかった多くの芸術家や知識人が共有してきた感覚を示す言葉である。事実、ポストモダニズムは、啓蒙主義の時代以来「進歩」への西洋の信頼を支えてきた確実性、客観性、その基礎づけ方、さらには真理そのものへの探究が崩壊した、その廃墟の上に生み出された。それゆえ、ポストモダニズムという言葉は、際だって近代的なものとされているような確実な認識内容、またはユートピア的願望というより、むしろそれが、啓蒙主義の時代以降、哲学的、社会的に受け継がれてきたものを否定し、拒絶し、あるいは単に放棄してきたことによって定義できる。しかしながら他方で、ポストモダニズムという言葉は、1950 年代以降にあらわれた建築、文学、映画、芸術、精神分析、哲学、人文科学における多くの文化的運動のことをも指している。そうした運動は、建築のインターナショナル・スタイルによって代表されるような芸術上のモダニズムの限界、偏見、幻想を超克することを目指すものであった。例えば、文学ではT・S・エリオット、エズラ・パウンド、ジェイムズ・ジョイス、フランツ・カフカ、ヴァージニア・ウルフ、マルセル・プルースト、ガートルード・スタイン、芸術では、シュルレアリスムやキュビズム、そして抽象表現主義によって代表される歴史的アヴァンギャルドなどがそこに含まれる。この二つの種類のポストモダニズムのいずれも、あらゆる種類の基礎づけ主義──認識論的、存在論的、倫理的、そして審美的な──に対する疑いをともに抱いている。この基礎づけ主義の拒絶は、19 世紀半ば以降、歴史研究が生んできたような種類の知を支持し、権威づけてきた諸観念──認識論的、存在論的、倫理的そして審美的な──の拒絶をも意味している。こうしたことは、ポストモダニストが過去、歴史、およびその解釈に興味を持たないということを意味するのではない。それどころか、多くのポストモダニストは、歴史についてのとりわけポストモダニズム的な見方が、姿を現しつつあるグローバル社会と、それを可能にしてきた新しい文化的メディアが要求するような種類の知に対して、唯一の基盤を提供するものであると信じている。


 ポストモダニストによる過去の表象[再現前化](あるいは単に「現前化」といった方がよいかもしれないが)の実験の多くは、伝統的な科学的歴史への不満、すなわち、そうした科学的歴史が20 世紀の全体主義的体制と結びついた「極端」な出来事を、効果的に扱えなかったり、扱うことをしぶったことへの不満に由来する。そうした「極端」な出来事としては、いわゆる「ホロコースト」に限らず、「産業化されたジェノサイド」全般、核兵器の使用(広島、長崎)や他の大量破壊兵器(焼夷弾爆撃、対人地雷、長距離ロケット等)の使用、世界的な人口の爆発的増大と移住、新種の病気(エイズなどの)、さらにグローバリゼーションの進行などがあげられる。これまでは歴史の大きな出来事に対して周縁的なものとして扱われてきた人々の側から、彼らがそうした極端な出来事の中で経験したことを表象しようとする普遍的要求が生じ、それが新しいジャンルの遺言的で殉教者的な(証言)文学やビデオ、映画を生み出した。それにともない、歴史と記憶との間の古くからの対立が問題とされ、記憶を訂正するものとしての歴史は、直ちに、「虐げられた人々の記憶を抑制するものとしての歴史」と考えられるようになった。ヴァルター・ベンヤミンによる、歴史上の名もない人々、無視されてきた人々のための簡潔な文章が広く認知されたのは、専門的な歴史叙述が、歴史の「勝者」と一体であったこと、もっぱら歴史上の偉大な人物たちの行動にのみ関心を示してきたこと、さらには権力や庇護者の中枢と結びついてきたことへの批判としてであった。フェミニズムや女性史、ポストコロニアル研究、カルチュラル・スタディーズ、「下からの歴史」、対抗的な歴史叙述といった、専門的な歴史叙述の周縁部での運動は、専門的な歴史研究への無関心を広げ、かつ増大させることに寄与したが、それはまた、[これまでの歴史の]専門化、ミクロな現象への偏向、そして意味への欲望に反対して真理を探究すること[の価値]を貶めた。意味への要求、過去の虐げられた人々への関心、あらゆるものが歴史の主題へと包摂されるように訴えること、専門化の拒絶、極端な歴史的出来事についての「目撃」経験に魅了されること、そして最後に、これらの極端な出来事が新しい種類の歴史が到来する前兆であると信じること。こうしたことのすべてが、20 世紀初頭から受け継がれてきた「科学的歴史研究」の諸原理とは相互に相容れない過去に対する態度、あるいは過去の研究に対する[新しい]態度を促した。歴史哲学の中で、より正確に言えば、専門的歴史家が生み出してきた種類の知識の可能性と限界についての哲学的研究の中で、このような態度は、観念論者(コリングウッド、クローチェ)、実証主義者(ポパー)、実存主義者(ハイデガー、サルトル)、現象学者(ガダマー、メルロ=ポンティ、リクール)、そして私が歴史主義者と呼ぶような一団(アロンとブロッホ、アイザイア・バーリン、マイネッケ)を巻き込んで1930〜 40 年代から進行してきた、果たして歴史は真の意味で「科学」と呼ばれうるのか否かをめぐる論争の成果と一体化することになった。




 「歴史としての現在」。西洋文学におけるリアリズムの発展についての重要な著作である『ミーメーシス』の中でエーリッヒ・アウエルバッハは、近代の文学的リアリズム──スタンダールから、バルザック、ディケンズを経て、後にはゴーゴリ、トルストイ、マン、プルースト、ウルフまで──の基礎は、現在を歴史として扱うことにあると主張した。言い換えると、かつて歴史は過去についてのものに過ぎなかったが、19 世紀初頭に「現在」が「歴史」に加えられた。それは今や、コゼレックによれば、それ自体の権利において一種の原因の力となったのである。今や人々は「歴史的な力」や「歴史的な過程」について語りうるようになった。それによって、かつてはそこから、過去を「すっかり乗りこえられて終わったもの」として眺めることができた安定した現在は、そこからは誰も確信を持って過去も未来も眺めることができないような、波打ちながら動く暴力的な基盤へと変化したのである。

19 世紀の文学的リアリズムが、その指示対象として──その究極の指示対象として、と言ってもよい──歴史的実在を取り上げたのは、そうした意味においてであった。文学的リアリズムはその歴史的実在を、戦争や政治や偉人に執着した専門的歴史家には決して想像もできなかったような方法で、綿密に描き、深く吟味したのであった。これこそが、ウォルター・スコット卿の真の遺産であった。彼はランケによって小説家として退けられたが、実際には、実現されるべき図としての現在との関わりにおいて過去を研究する方法を発明した人物であった。そして、「高級」文学の最終的な指示対象としての歴史に対するこの関心は、文学的モダニズム──プルースト、ジョイス、エリオット、パウンド、ウルフ、ブレヒト、スタイン、ムージルなど──の中に生き続けた。重要なことは、歴史は真実だけでなく意味をも伴わなくてはならないということであった。これは象徴化を意味する。




 そうしたニーズの中心には、とりわけナチスのジェノサイドに代表されるような「過ぎ去ろうとしない」過去に「慣れる」ということがある。それは、フランス革命の時代この方、国家とブルジョア社会に奉仕する専門的歴史家によって支えられてきた進歩や啓蒙、ヒューマニズムといった神話が偽りであると暴いた、そのような過去である。ポストモダニストにとって、専門的歴史家が言うところの「歴史的過去」は抽象[概念]であり、そんなものは歴史の本の外には存在したことがないし、誰も──それに惑わされた歴史家はいるかもしれないが、彼らを除けば──経験したことがないし、究極的には専門的歴史家たち自身にとってのみ意味を持つものに過ぎない。ポストモダニストの関心をひくのは、現在に存在し続ける過去であるが、それは遺産や伝統というよりも、幻想や記憶、「抑圧されたものの回帰」、亡霊、不可解なもの、脅威、あるいは重荷として存在するものである。この過去は「徹底操作(perlaboré)」されねばならない。その重荷を現在から取り去り、現在生きている人々が過去の妄想を脱して未来に進むことができるように。ここにおいて歴史学(historiology)は、キリスト教、ヒューマニズム、進歩、マルクス主義、実質的合理性、資本主義、形而上学、英雄的主体、ブルジョア的歴史叙述といった大きな神話が解体した後にやってきた「喪の作業(travail du deuil)」を助けているのだ。そこでは、過去を幻想、快楽、形式の遊戯の空間として、さらにはユートピア的可能性の空間としてさえ、用いることが可能になる、とポストモダニストは断言する。







アカデミックな、あるいは大学的な歴史叙述は、過去の事実についての真実と、モダニティを理解する上でこの真実が持つ意味合いとの間に横たわっているとポストモダニストが考えている隔たりを埋めることに、あまりに「無関心」過ぎる。フーコーに見られるように、ポストモダニストが、過去に関心を持っていることは疑いないが、その過去とはそれ自体が目的なのではなく、現在についてわれわれに教えてくれるものなのである。これが意味するのは、過去についての諸事実を確証するには、それらの解釈が伴わなくてはならない、ということだ。微細なレベルでの事実──日付や明らかな出来事のように疑問の余地がない事実──をこえたところに、過去と歴史についてのある種の疑問が、すなわちそれらに対しては事実に基づく答えがあり得ないような疑問が、生じる。近代史の大きな出来事、すなわちわれわれ自身のアイデンティティにとってあまりに重大であり過ぎて、われわれがそれらに向き合うことができないような出来事──フランス革命や資本主義、産業主義、ナチズム、あるいはまさにショアーのような──の意味について言えば、決定的な答えはありえない。しかし、それらを解釈する行為に終わりはない。われわれにできるのはただ、解釈を複数化し、それによって過去や歴史、またそこから浮かび上がる人間性についての、あらゆるドグマ的な主張を切り崩すことでしかない。過去はその定義からいって、もはや知覚できないものであるから、過去についての、あるいは過去の諸要素についてのどんな記述も、それが適切であるかどうかをわれわれは決して確かめることができない。この点で過去は、原則として観察可能な現在とは異なっている。だが、われわれが現在という語で意味しているものは、過去と同程度に、思考や想像、空想や希望または恐れによって構築されたものである。従って、死んだ過去とまだ生まれていない未来という二つの淵の間にはまり込んでいるわれわれは、両義性、二律背反、そして失望の中に生きる道を選ばなくてはならない。世界はポストモダニストにとって、ハイデガーやサルトルが1930 年代に提示したものと同じような姿に見えている。哲学も科学もわれわれを助けてはくれない。それゆえにポストモダニストは、歴史的実在のアポリアに何とか対処しようとして、芸術や文学的著述、そして詩的想像力に頼るのである。