The most important element of postmodernism as it came to effect historiography, was its emphasis on language. Postmodern theory informs us that all historians have are “texts” whose relationship to the past “can never be known.” This assertion that a text is never fixed or fully knowable lead to what was essentially a “linguistic turn” in the discipline. In this paper, I will analyze the changes in historiography during this “linguistic turn” and how it came to challenge the absolutist forms of traditional historical thinking and the universalization of the western narrative mode. French philosopher Michel Foucault is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers during the postmodern period. In his historical theory, Foucault adopted the linguistic term “discourse” which he defines as systems of signs which give “meaning to language internally … and externally.” Discourse is then an “episteme” related to the broader structure of knowledge of the historical period in which it arises.Order now
Foculat diverges from Marxist thought, arguing that power is not of one form but instead dispersed and pervasive, found everywhere at every level of society. Power is then microphysical, strategic and tactical rather than acquired or preserved. Power is not the privilege of the dominant class, but an overall effect of its strategic positions. A Foucauldian historian would argue that power is linked to the formation of discourse within specific historical periods. In this way, discourses can be an instrument of power. Intrinsically tied to Foucauldian theory, poststructuralism is a rejection or critique of modernity. Modernism coincides with ideas from the Enlightenment (or the earlier ideas of humanism found from the Renaissance), the basic premise of its critique is situated in concepts of knowledge and truth. Hence, theories of knowledge from the modern period entail a trajectory of human knowledge and social development.
Poststructuralism works against the hegemony of western philosophy, especially that rooted in Enlightenment ideals. What the western world has generally defined as modernity is extremely limited. Postmodernists opened up the possibility that the search for the truth and objectivity might be the “prime Western illusion.” A poststructuralist would argue that the real truth is impossible to know. Structuralists look for patterns of meaning while poststructuralists question systematic thought. Jacque Derrida theorized that language is inherently unreliable and operates on the basis of differentiation. Since words are not determined by their relationship to that which they refer, they are subject to change. Derrida’s theory of deconstruction argued that a language or text in question has a “powerful actuality of its own.” Thus, words are never stable and fixed in time. This emphasis on texts, which was later referred to as a “linguistic turn,” marks a shift in which historians started reading sources as “words and stories.”
Linguistic theory in the postmodern age opened doors to new social and cultural histories. Drawing on postmodern thought, Joan Scott argues gender can be a category of social analysis. By emphasizing text analogy, Scott argues women are only classified as women because society has constructed the meaning of the word. In turn, society classifies men as men, because they are not women. In the same vein, Barbara Fields theorized that race was “an ideological medium in which people posed and apprehended basic questions of power and dominance.” Race, like gender, is then a constructed ideology. Like language and “texts” race and gender become ideological mediums in that they are not understood outside of their cultural context.
Race and gender are “culturally embedded” and “constructed from social and political needs… and highly reified in the languages that both created and reproduced their specific cultural meanings.” With this linguistic turn, historians who aligned themselves with postmodernism came to question a unified history and archivally grounded past. The postmodern aesthetic sought to unravel a traditional narrative form, to establish the unmeaning in meaning. More specifically, scholars began to challenge the narrative form of the west and a new cultural history “started reading sources as … forms of fiction.” This new cultural history defined culture anthropologically; for a cultural historian, no aspect of the world exists outside of cultural construction. Likewise, historian Natalie Davis argues that “fictional” dimensions of historical documents make them effective within their culture.
This means that all documents are not objective representations of the past but expressions of “the mental categories and cultural conventions of the world that produced them.” A deconstruction of “texts” called attention to the ideological biases built into any model of representation. Postmodernists saw western historical narratives as tainted with language of power and control. Each society has a “regime of truth” meaning, outside of a society’s politics and ideology there is no truth. By this standard, the past is elastic and nonlinear. While many scholars were attracted to postmodernism, others were deeply alarmed. If history is based primarily in interpretation then objectivity is unattainable. Descriptions of the “reality” of the past can lose meaning and with it, words become “unstuck from the reality which their believers once so ardently endorsed.” As previously mentioned, Derrida argued that there is no transcendental signifier or fixed meaning in texts. All texts then are “repressed and expressed” in order to maintain a western “truth.”
This further brings into question how western historical narratives conceal the contradictions and dissonances in order to frame a linear story. This new understanding of texts had profound implications on the ways in which historians construct a narrative. The traditional historical record is in line with a western definition of temporality. The linguistic turn brought into question the “western mastery of time.” Critics of modernity argued that by universalizing a western sense of time, entire histories were virtually erased.
Western historiography attempts to homogenize other places and cultures into “western modes of historical development.” These modes of development are intrinsically tied to western narrative form and other literary conventions. Narrative is a “defining element of history-writing, and the historiographical tradition.” Hayden White argues that all histories in the western tradition are in the form of narrative prose. He theorized that historians adhere to several recognizable plots in reconstructing history. Historians (consciously or unconsciously) impose plot structures upon historical sources. The four modes of emplotment as outlined by White–romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire–are all prevalent in western historiography as they “draw on the culture’s most familiar literary forms.” White’s discussion of narrative mode brings into question the objective nature of not only western historicism but “texts” as a whole. There is a clear distinction between “records of the past and …the interpretation of those records.” Practical realism contends that the act of representing the past makes historians an “agent who actively molds how the past is to be seen” By the same token, a source’s meaning can change over time. As previously mentioned, texts can be deconstructed and reconfigured in an infinite amount of ways.
History often amounts to that idealized by the authoritative record. The act of remembrance is strategically used to explain a group’s past and to transform it into a reliable identity source for the group’s present. Thus language and how it changes over time is inextricably tied to the creation of collective memory and political identity. Historian’s interpretation of the historical record shapes current reality by providing people with understandings and symbolic frameworks that enable them to make sense of the world. We rely on history for the provision of these symbolic frames, which can organize both one’s actions and conception of self and legitimize the social order. Japan, following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is an example of this. In their written and oral recollections, it was not uncommon among survivors to use the phrase “living hell” in describing the bombings.
Medieval artwork and writings that portrayed the “horrors” of a Buddhist hell were the closest existing representations of survivors’ experiences. Depicting Hiroshima, artists painted fire in the same way medieval artists had “rendered the flames of the underworld.” A new cultural understanding of the bombings depended upon the creation and reconfiguration of benign images. Water, for example, became associated with the bombings and survivors “parching thirst;” likewise, the traditional symbol of mother and child came to represent “the broken life bond.” Collectively shared experiences can be located in shared resources, such as language and cultural heritage, where words and objects contain particular meanings that are understood within a social group. Creating associations with nuclear warfare, the writing and artwork of the hibakusha transmogrified images in the public eye. The bombs, or what they later came to symbolize, signify a renewal and legitimization of the postwar state–virtually erasing the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war.
This perhaps proves Derrida’s theory that texts and symbols have no specific meaning outside of their relation to a culture at a specific moment in time. Language and texts gain meaning through changing societal specifications. Power, like language, is fluid in that it “doesn’t enter the story once and for all, but at different times and from different angles.” Foucault argues power comes from everywhere and is in constant flux and negotiation. As mentioned earlier, each society’s “regime of truth” dictates its “discourse.” These discourses are constantly reinforced and redefined. The linguistic turn marks what essentially transformed the discipline of history. With this shift sources were deconstructed in ways that challenged a conventional “liberal humanitarian view of progress” upheld in historical narratives of the west. Through the reconfiguration of texts historians can redefine history outside of traditional frameworks.