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Thinking tools – Post Modernism and Post Structuralism

These were the more challenging of the concepts to absorb and then relate to my practice as an Historian.  Before our tutorial discussion I felt that I was probably suffering from “Pomophobia”.  After our tutorial discussion I felt like I had indulged in what Geoffrey Elton calls the “intellectual equivalent of crack”, and although I was much clearer about Post Structuralism, Post Modernism was ‘doing my head in’.[i]  The first problem I see in Post Modernism is the underpinning that Truth, Fact and Objectivity can have so many meanings they become meaningless.  If this is true – then Post Modernism doesn’t exist because accordingly truth is meaningless so the belief in the theory can’t be true as truth has no meaning.  If it’s false then is it false?  As the other side of true (and accordingly there is no truth) then can there be a false? 

Secondly, that an author or creators’ intent is secondary to that of the viewer or receiver.  I reject that out of hand.  The viewer can take whatever meaning they chose from anything, but the creator’s meaning should never be secondary or made redundant, it is a product of that creator and to demote it so is demeaning, but perhaps that is the Post-Modernist intent.  This, to me, is what Carlyle talks about when ideologies ossify, they dehumanise History.[ii]  If there is no intended meaning in anything, then why is it that from ancient times, law and lore have been passed through generations in story form?  Why is story telling a “primary cognitive instrument”?[iii] 

I can see why Elton thought it was like “intellectual crack”.  What I did see as useful in Historical method from Post Modernism is that many meanings can be gained from each interpretation and each one is valid as long as good scholarship prevails.  This concept can provide a multitude of perspectives, as Keith Jenkins states, “One past, many Histories.”[iv]

Post Structuralism provided me with a similar awareness; that texts can convey different meanings to different audiences based in the semiotics of their cultural and social mores.  This has bearing on the way in which we interpret texts and highlights the importance of knowing the provenance of the text so it can be placed in time.  It should also make Historians mindful of their audience when writing Histories; that our interpretations may be construed in a manner that we are not always in agreement with or had contemplated.  With respect to Vauxhall, I have been made acutely aware of this as all of my primary sources, and many of my secondary sources, are written in the Eighteenth or Nineteenth Century vernacular.

Ultimately, the understanding of Post Modernism and Post Structuralism promoted consideration of my own thinking and understanding.  Dismissing a theory is quite easy when the theory is so esoteric, but having to construct an argument around them has given me mechanisms to keep my biases, filters and agendas (hopefully) in check.



[i] Southgate Southgate, B. Hsitory: Whay and Why? Ancient, Modern and Postmodern Perspectives.(2001) London. Chapt(s): Postscript. P.148

[ii]Stern, F., History as Biography. The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present.(1970) London, Macmillan. Chapt(s): 90-107.

[iii]Carrard, P., Narrative and Historiography: Writing the France of the Occupation. Style 34.(2000). Chapt(s): 243-259.

[iv] Jenkins Jenkins, K. Refiguring History: New thoughts on an old discipline.(2003) London. Chapt(s) 1. p.10

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