Is history dead?

Cultural studies scholars are ravaging the facts to suit their bassackward theories.


Sean McMeekin
January 12, 1998 9:39PM (UTC)

If a history buff who fell asleep in 1968 were to awaken today and
stroll into a bookstore, she would likely be overwhelmed by the variety
of themes now covered in books labeled as "history." She would find
institutional surveys of the development of medicine, psychiatry,
criminology and the liberal professions. She would come across broadly
conceived works on gender and race relations, on the theory and practice
of sexuality and on the relationship between culture and imperialism.
Among the latest academic monographs, she might encounter imposing tomes
documenting the history of popular traditions or cultural artifacts:
say, a history of furniture in modern France. Her eyes, no doubt, would
light up at such evocative titles as "The
Cheese and the Worms," "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman," "Discipline and
Punish," "Taste and Power." Such books would be a feast for the eyes of
this sleepy history lover, luring her in with their promise of novel
intellectual pleasures.

Her enchantment with this marvelous cornucopia of book titles, however,
might not long survive an encounter with the prose
lodged between the books' covers. What would she make of the following
passage, for example, from the introduction of "Taste and Power:
Furnishing Modern France" (1997), a work broadly representative of the
kind of "cultural history" that has come to prominence in the 1990s?

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"Selves -- neither unitary nor fully self-knowing -- are thus made by
completely constituted, often mutually contradictory, experiences, some
of which are known and expressed linguistically, some musically, some
visually, and some in no known discursive framework."

This is history? she might think, wondering if perhaps she had missed
important developments in the study of the human sciences that had
rendered her own limited vocabulary inadequate. And anyway, wasn't this
book about furniture? If she reads on, our out-of-date history fan will
be told that "discourse does not merely reflect or represent realities
or persons -- it also constitutes them," and that, "in certain
conjunctures, objects are likewise both constitutive and
representative." By this point, enchantment with the book's promising
title will have given way to befuddlement, and perhaps to hostile
disdain. What do "discursive frameworks" and object "conjunctures" have to do with the study of the past?

What Jacques Derrida's deconstruction did to the study of literature in the 1980s, the inexorable rise of "cultural studies" -- the trendy new cross-disciplinary field that dissolves traditional notions of historic fact in an acid bath of theory -- now threatens to do to the discipline of history. This is the premise of Keith Windschuttle's "The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past." Windschuttle's book aims to defend
"traditional," that is to say factually based, history against an
onslaught of fashionable academic theories (structuralism and
poststructuralism, cultural relativism, postmodernism, etc.) each of
which denies, in its way, that objective "truth" or "knowledge" about
the past can possibly be determined. Taken together, these theories in
Windschuttle's view threaten the core goal of the historical discipline
as first bequeathed to us by Herodotus: "to record the truth about the
past."

Windschuttle wants to rally historians to the defense of the discipline but he's swimming against the tide. His book takes pains to praise
recent work by academic historians whose solid empirical research and
measured conclusions do honor to their discipline, but he argues that such
historians are an embattled, dwindling minority. His pessimism is well founded: The triumph of cultural studies not just in history but in the wider human sciences has been clear for all to see. One need only consult the course manual of any prestigious
university to see that degrees are now being offered in vaguely defined
subjects like "textual studies," "women's studies," "peace studies,"
"media studies" and so on. Poststructuralist texts by Derrida and
Michel Foucault are assigned in nearly every academic department outside of the
"hard" sciences (yes, even in accounting, as Windschuttle pointed out to
this reviewer's amazement).

Whether avowedly "structuralist,"
"poststructuralist," "postmodernist" or "new historicist," humanities
professors and their students have been dancing to the same tune for
some time now, analyzing social "texts" (everything, from underwear to political ideology, is an alien text to be deciphered) to reveal the way human actions and literature are supposedly dominated by the omnipresent structures of language, ideology and culture. Proponents of the new cultural studies
openly proclaim their hostility to traditional history, which aims merely to record past events and aspires toward an ideal of objectivity. Historians' claim to be objective in their evaluation of source matter is now widely seen as a naive pretension peculiar to the culture of Western rationalism, and is derided as old-fashioned "positivism."

One might think that historians, being the guardians of the oldest social science, would resist the encroachment onto
their turf by the upstart cultural studies movement, but a brief glance at the jargon-encrusted monographs coming out of history departments over the past decade makes it clear that little resistance has been offered. More historians every year, it seems, have adopted the belief that, as Windschuttle puts it, "the study of the past is best done by approaching social practices and relations through textual analysis." Not, that is, by combing the
archives for empirical data in order to reconstruct a factual, narrative
history of people, places and events, but by wandering through recondite mazes of theory, in which all claims to objective truth are regarded as manifestations of coercive power. Make no mistake: It is now considered reactionary in many universities to claim that historical knowledge
is, or should be, constructed on the bedrock of objective fact.

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The tepid response Windschuttle's book has so far generated among
academic historians is revealing. Although "The Killing of History" was
reviewed favorably in conservative publications like the Weekly
Standard, the Washington Times and the Wall Street Journal, it has been
dismissed or ignored in both the mainstream liberal press and in intellectual journals. In the American Historical Review, the official journal of the American Historical Association, Windschuttle's goal of affirming "the autonomy of the historical discipline" by "rallying around the flag of objectivity" was
dismissed as "born-again empiricism." Employing just the kind of
theoretical jargon denounced in "The Killing of History," the AHR reviewer
accused Windschuttle of constructing "an insufficiently differentiated
'other' in a night in which all cows are vaches folles." Translated
into English, this means the AHR thinks Windschuttle is insufficiently
appreciative of the rich diversity of theories currently being used by
historians.

This view was seconded by the Los Angeles Times Book
Review, which devoted all of four paragraphs to Windschuttle (four more
than did the New York Times Book Review). The reviewer, a prominent
professor of American history, proposed that the growing popularity of
"contemporary cultural and linguistic theories," far from representing a
potentially terminal crisis for the historical profession, as
Windschuttle believed, was in fact evidence that "contemporary
historiography ... is more wide-ranging, inclusive, sophisticated and
diverse in its approaches and methodologies than ever before." Because
relatively few academics read the Wall Street Journal or the Weekly
Standard, the dismissal of Windschuttle's book in AHR and the L.A. Times and, even more crucially, the failure of the New York Review of Books to review it -- effectively killed its chances among professional historians, its target
audience.

This is unfortunate, for "The Killing of History" is a tour de force.
Whereas recent critics of academic "radicalism" such as Allan Bloom,
Roger Kimball and Dinesh D'Souza focused their attention on the broad
political context of contemporary academic practice, Windschuttle homes
in on postmodern theories themselves, and methodically explains how they
distort specific accounts of actual historical events. He shows how
structuralist assumptions shaped books about the European conquest of America
published on the quincentennial of Columbus' voyage; how
poststructuralism has distorted histories of mental asylums, medicine
and penal policy in Europe by Foucault and his admirers; and how
a doctrinaire cultural relativism has been used to
mangle historical understanding about the death of Captain Cook in
Hawaii. In his discussion of these and several other historical case
studies, Windschuttle performs what he calls "road tests" of recent
theoretical models to see how they handle "the rougher terrain of actual
historical subject matter" -- and also how such models withstand
"competition over the same ground from those empirical jalopies that the
new crew wants to consign to the junk yard."

Not surprisingly, Windschuttle finds that the "empirical jalopies" are
the only ones to make it across the finish line. In his first case study, we are presented with a fancy theoretical account of Cortés' conquest of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The essay, "Fierce and Unnatural Cruelty: Cortes and the Conquest of Mexico" by Inga Clendinnen, was published in "New World Encounters," edited by new historicist Stephen Greenblatt. Clendinnen uses structuralist analysis -- in which static, predetermined cultural differences become a template into which all historical actions are squeezed -- to differentiate between Spanish and Indian cultural attitudes toward warfare. Aztec religious ideals, she argues, inhibited unrestrained killing on the battlefield. Indian warriors frowned on
ambush or on killing from a distance (arrows and darts were fired only
"to weaken and draw blood, not to pierce fatally"), preferring
face-to-face combat between equal opponents, which led ideally to
capture and the proper ritual sacrifice of opponents. Spaniards, by
contrast, preferred ambushes and missile attacks because they allowed
warriors to kill with low risk to themselves. Thus the improbable
conquest of a city of 200,000 people by a force of 500 Spaniards is
explained as the result of a noble warrior's code practiced by the defeated. "Had Indians been as uninhibited as Spaniards in their killing," Clendinnen concludes, "the small Spanish group ... would have been whittled away."

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The trouble with this structuralist account of the conquest of Mexico,
Windschuttle explains, is that it ignores the mundane political,
technical and military facts, which ironically can be found in Clendinnen's own essay. Because the capital city of
Tenochtitlan, a "murderously cruel and authoritarian imperial power,"
was resented and despised by the neighboring tribes from whom human
tribute was exacted, the Spanish had little trouble recruiting allies to
overcome their numerical disadvantage.

The Aztecs' ineffectiveness on
the battlefield in fact reflected incapacity more than inhibition.
Indian warriors were fighting with Stone Age weapons not sharp enough to
pierce warriors to the heart, weapons so ineffectual that the Spaniards
removed their armor in favor of quilted cotton. In fact, when Indians
captured Spaniards alive, they forced their prisoners to demonstrate the
use of European weapons such as the crossbow, and then immediately fired
the weapons at advancing Spaniards, without, it must be said, stopping
to reconcile this form of killing with any cultural ideals. The Aztecs
had no tactical experience with the siege warfare unleashed upon them by
Europeans who had been conducting sieges for more than 2,000 years, and they
had no answer to European firearms and cannon.

It is empirical details
like these, Windschuttle shows, that bring history to life, rendering
absurd structuralist explanations of fluid events that picture
historical actors as imprisoned inside an unchanging, all-encompassing
cultural system.

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Windschuttle notes that behind these new histories lurks a revisionist impulse that prevents historians from taking the facts at face value. In many of these theories, the native cultures invariably end up being valorized over the bad imperialist white men. One of the reasons historians don't criticize these new trends is that they're afraid of being painted as reactionary colonialists. But Windschuttle shows just how superficial such sympathies for oppressed peoples are. He points out that despite these historians' sympathy for the imperial culture of Tenochtitlan, they have done little to resurrect the views of their conquered neighbors. The interest of cultural studies theorists in the conquest of the Americas, Windschuttle argues, "derives only in small part from any real sympathy they might have for the natives and far more from their fervor to adopt a politically correct stance against their own society."

A reckless disregard of facts also distorts the "histories" of Michel Foucault. The works of Foucault, a radical French
theorist obsessed with the supposed cultural repression inherent in
modern "bourgeois" society, have become de rigeur over the past 20
years or so, required reading for both undergraduate and graduate
students in the humanities. Inspired by Foucault's famous declaration
that "theory ... is practice," seemingly an entire generation of academics
has come of age believing that by reading Foucault's books, and talking
about them at conferences and cafes, they were committing radical
political acts. Unfortunately for Foucault's admirers, his theories,
when exposed to the historical record, implode into rubble.

In "Madness and Civilization," the work that made Foucault's reputation,
the theory runs as follows. In the "classical age" of Western reason,
circa 1650-1789, a rational, "bourgeois" civilization was constructed in
opposition to "madness," by a process Foucault calls "the great
confinement," in which the unemployed, the poor, the criminal and the
insane were locked up in workhouses, charitable institutions, prisons
and, especially, asylums. In this way, Foucault argues, a morally
authoritarian "work ethic" was enforced on the West, which stifled
individual freedom and bred bland "bourgeois" conformity.

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As in his later works on the development of clinical medicine and the
modern penal system, Foucault's main concern in "Madness and Civilization"
is to show that nefarious power relations dominate the institutions that
govern the modern world. By defining "madness" in opposition to Western
reason, asylums enforce community norms of behavior. In its focus on
individual patients, instead of on diseases, modern clinical medicine
separates people into the healthy and the sick ("The Birth of the
Clinic"). In its use of strict timetables, standardized architecture
and institutional uniforms, the modern prison, like industrial factories
and military barracks, exerts control over individuals' use of time and
space ("Discipline and Punish"). In all three books, Foucault aims to
demonstrate the connection between knowledge and power. (He prefers, in
fact, not to separate the terms at all, and usually speaks of
"knowledge/power"). Respectively, then, modern psychiatry exerts tyranny
over our minds, clinical medicine exerts tyranny over our bodies and
the prison model of social surveillance exerts tyranny over our actions.

Now, these are pretty nifty theories, and they have held great appeal
for many self-loathing bourgeois undergraduates wishing to rebel against
conformist bourgeois parents. But as Windschuttle shows, the history is shaky, at best. Europe did, for example, experience a "great confinement," although not during Foucault's classical age of reason. Between 1650 and 1789, in
fact, the total number of subjects confined to asylums in Foucault's
native France grew in near proportion to overall population growth, from 2,000 to about 5,000. From 1815 to 1914, by contrast,
the number of asylum inmates grew 20-fold, to more than 100,000. A similar mass confinement took shape in 19th century England
as well.

In both cases, Windschuttle argues, the asylum movement was born of political idealism, out
of a nascent democratic politics. It was animated not by the desire of
tyrannical psychiatrists to exclude the mentally ill from bourgeois
society, but by democratic reformers who believed the condition of
insanity to be temporary and therapeutically treatable. Of course,
these somewhat naive hopes were never perfectly realized. Mental
patients have often been misdiagnosed or maltreated, and most of those
confined have never been fully "healed." But the modern impulse to view
insanity as an unfortunate condition under which fellow humans are
suffering through no fault of their own, which Foucault decries, is in
fact far more humane than was medieval treatment of village idiots and
madmen, for example, who were often accorded the same status as domestic
animals or exposed to humiliating public ridicule. Foucault's theory of
the victimization of nonconformists by way of modern reason,
Windschuttle demonstrates, is patronizing to the insane, insulting to
the modern psychiatric profession and historical nonsense.

Foucault's legacy, Windschuttle believes, may be most apparent in the
character of contemporary academic debate. Each of Foucault's major
works asserted that different eras and cultures have different systems
of thought -- he has called these variously "epistemes" and "discursive
formations" -- which are incompatible with one another. The upshot of
this assertion is that what is "true" is only true within a certain
society. There are no universal standards that can measure the truth of
a proposition in every culture, there are no universal values, no single
human nature. (This emphatic denial of universals is what
differentiates poststructuralism from structuralism, which posited that
there are standard rules of language and culture that determine
behavior in all societies).

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Foucault himself, it is true, implicitly
renounced cultural relativism in the last years of his life when he took
up the cause of gay rights -- without universal standards, human "rights"
talk was impossible. But Foucault's admirers still embrace his earlier
relativism, which provides easy refuge in any academic exchange. Just
as Marxists once "refuted" opponents by identifying their class position
so as to expose purported ideological bias in their arguments, so
"Foucaldians," in Windschuttle's view, now ensure that in any historical
debate, "any question about the facts of a statement is ignored and the
focus is directed to the way what is said reflects the prevailing
'discursive formation.'" Thus history discussion seminars increasingly
consist less of "talk about real issues" than of an endless cycle of
"talk about talk."

As evidence of this decline in the standards of debate, Windschuttle
offers up the recent public brawl between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath
Obeyesekere over the death of Captain Cook. Although both are
anthropologists, their argument has serious implications for historians.
Briefly, Sahlins' structuralist explanation of the events leading to
Cook's death runs as follows. Although Cook was initially welcomed by
natives as their returned god Lono upon arriving in Hawaii in January
1779 during a festival celebrated in Lono's honor, his
return to the island in February to repair a broken mast coincided with
a different period in the cultural calendar, when the warlike god Ku
usurped Lono's authority. Cook's bad cultural timing, Sahlins argues,
necessitated his sacrificial death, so that his godly powers could be
usurped by the Hawaiian warrior chief, Kalani'opu'u.

This structuralist determinism, Obeyesekere counters, is nonsense. The
historical evidence available suggests only that the Hawaiians,
possessed of "practical rationality" like all peoples, welcomed Cook as
a chief, most likely to enlist his aid in the incessant warfare waged
with chiefs on other Hawaiian islands. In fact, Cook, during his
successful first visit, was forced to genuflect in a temple before an icon of
the war god Ku, something a god could not possibly do. More
importantly, Cook was a foreigner who didn't know the natives' language
and knew nothing of their religion -- behavior surely untypical of
Hawaiian gods. And he was killed for very prosaic reasons: After Cook
took the native chief hostage in retaliation for the theft of his ship's
cutter, the Hawaiians surrounded Cook's men and killed them when they
tried to escape. No theory, structuralist or otherwise, is needed to
explain this.

Sahlins' subsequent response to Obeyesekere, Windschuttle
demonstrates, provides a textbook demonstration of the Foucauldian method of intellectual debate. The attempt to ascribe "practical rationality" to the
Hawaiians, Sahlins writes in his recent book "How Natives Think"
(1995), proves that Obeyesekere, although a Sri Lankan, is a captive of
Western concepts. "Rationality" is, in Sahlins' view, a cultural
construct, an ideology he labels "commonsense bourgeois realism." To
prove his point, Sahlins invokes a famous passage from Foucault's "The
Order of Things," frequently cited by academics, that described a
strange taxonomy to be found in "a certain Chinese encyclopedia," in
which animals are described as "(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b)
embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens," and on and on.
Because this classification system makes no sense to us, Sahlins argues,
"it must mean that objectivity itself is a variable social value."
Because the cultural system of the Hawaiians lacked such "objectivity,"
Cook must indeed have been killed as "Lono," however improbable that
seems in the face of a common-sensical interpretation of the evidence.
"Different cultures," Sahlins concludes, "different rationalities."

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Sahlins' argument for cultural relativism, like his explanation of the
death of Captain Cook, collapses when exposed to empirical reality. In
fact, Foucault's "Chinese encyclopedia" does not exist -- it was invented
as a playful thought experiment by Argentine writer Jorge Luis
Borges. "There is no evidence," Windschuttle writes, "that any Chinese
person has ever thought about animals in this way." Amazingly, Foucault
himself admitted this, openly citing Borges as his source. But Sahlins,
like most academics who deploy Foucault's Chinese encyclopedia, does not
mention Borges; he is using it as evidence about the supposed mental
world of non-Western cultures. "That a piece of fiction can seriously
be deployed to make a case in history or anthropology," Windschuttle
declares, "indicates how low debate has sunk in the postmodern era."

Relativist mantras about "cultural diversity" are not only
intellectually untenable, they are a denial of history. "For the past
ten thousand years at least," Windschuttle points out, "indigenous
cultures on every continent have been subject to a process of change
that has varied from merger and absorption into other cultures to
complete obliteration by a conquering power." Cultural relativists wish
to overturn this seemingly unstoppable historical trend. What they are
really pining for, according to Windschuttle, is a "return to
tribalism." By rejecting "rationality" as a tainted construct of
Western reason, that is, relativists are abandoning history altogether:
They would have us return to the mythical tall tales all human cultures
once used to reinforce their self-image before Herodotus and Thucydides
set out to find the truth about the past. If the relativist project
were brought to its absurd conclusion, Windschuttle believes, advocates
of cultural "diversity" would have us reject all that the Western
historical tradition has learned over the past several millenniums and
return to "differentiating between human beings on the basis of
genealogical blood lines, in other words, on racial grounds."

Although most proponents of cultural studies would argue that their theories emphasize that cultures are human-made constructs, not effects of biological difference, Windschuttle has hit upon a deeply troubling aspect of the new historical relativism. If every culture must be interpreted according to its own values, is there any place for ethical judgement of another culture? Given this conundrum, it hardly seems like an accident that two heroes of the cultural studies movement, Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man, were associated with the Nazis.

Might historians yet compose laudatory odes to Adolf Hitler, champion
of a gloriously anti-rational, anti-Western culture? If this seems
far-fetched, we would do well to remember that a number of paeans were in
fact composed earlier this decade to indigenous American cultures that
brutally dismembered innocent human subjects in ritual sacrifice and
then ate them. As Windschuttle reminds us, when the Spanish
conquistadors entered Tenochtitlan in 1519, they encountered piles of human skulls not unlike those uncovered in Nazi death camps. One Spaniard, Bernard Diaz del Castillo, remarked that the skulls were "so regularly arranged that one might count them, and I estimated them at
more than one hundred thousand." If historians cannot evaluate the
actions of various cultures according to standards of rational judgment,
Windschuttle declares, then we may as well throw up our arms and accept
the cultures of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as "equal but
different."

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Is history really dead? Of course not -- not yet, anyway. There are
many energetic historians, both inside and outside the academy, who
continue to do real empirical research and write readable books about
real people. Windschuttle might have devoted more space in his book to
celebrating the positive contributions to historical knowledge being
made today by his fellow "born-again empiricists." He might also have
chosen more challenging targets in his critique of the cultural studies
crowd. Robert Darnton, for example, is a talented French Enlightenment
historian who has greatly influenced the current trend toward "cultural
history." Darnton is more scrupulous in his scholarship than Foucault,
less polemical, and also a much better writer. But his use of
structuralist theory to "read" the culture of Old Regime France raises
no less troubling questions about historical practice than does Foucault's poststructuralism.

If Windschuttle's survey of contemporary historical practice is
incomplete, however, his diagnosis of the current malaise in the
historical profession is sharp and well worth attention. The attempt
by postmodernists to reduce all history to competing narratives told by
different cultural groups, Windschuttle argues compellingly, is "not only a
theoretical delusion but ... politically inept." For, he argues, "to
eliminate the narrative of what really happened irrespective of whether
[historical actors] were aware of it or not ... would deprive us all, no
matter what culture we inhabit, of genuine knowledge of our past." Just
as so-called "Western" science and technology have long been open to the
world's exploitation, so, too, should the tradition of impartial
historical investigation bequeathed to us by Herodotus be available to
everyone. Not by proclaiming "different cultures, different
rationalities," but rather by giving us a chance to face "the truth of
both our separate and our common histories," can historians truly
fulfill their calling in helping people "learn to live with one
another." If we allow history to die, we will lose this precious
resource. Keith Windschuttle deserves high praise for opening our eyes
to the danger.


Sean McMeekin

Sean McMeekin is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UC-Berkeley and a freelance writer.

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