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Rethinking History Paperback – Feb 6 2003
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'Far and away the best introduction to the state of the question currently available.' - Hayden White, University of California at Santa Cruz, USA
About the Author
Keith Jenkins (1943-). Professor of Historical Theory, University College Chichester, UK
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The historian faces three problematic theoretical areas when trying to fit the past into history: epistemology, methodology, and ideology. The limits of historians' epistemology--the way they know what they know--prevents history from presenting objective, accurate accounts of a `real past'. That a historian can only write about the past from his/her present dictates the writing of history as a personal construct, built upon the narrator's (historian's) knowledge (including primary and secondary sources) and assumptions. Jenkins dismisses notions of definitive historical methods to get at the truth, given that the existing range of legitimate methods. As such, ideology always affects the construction of history. Jenkins aptly says, "History is never for itself; it is always for someone." (p. 21)
Jenkins's discussion on the practice of history is not a how-to section. Rather, it provides a post-modern vision of the historian's work. Historians make history. They do so, not from an impartial position seeking objective truth. Instead, historians wield a dominant sway over the reading of evidence that can be understood different ways. For Jenkins, this view of the historical discipline is liberating, allowing a historian to deconstruct the history of another and construct one of his/her own.
Chapter two, as its title indicates, poses and answers several questions about the nature of history. Of the seven questions addressed, three are mentioned here. First, to the question of whether history is a discourse about truth, Jenkins contrasts Geoffrey Elton's view that "the study of history...amounts to a search for truth" (p. 17) with the suggestion that such a search is "unachievable." (p. 34) Jenkins, influenced by Richard Rorty, understands truth as created and "dependent on somebody having the power to make it [truth] true." (p. 38) Second, Jenkins views as impossible the ability to empathize with research subjects. Historians cannot enter the minds of their examined actors to fully understand their predicaments. It is not really the mind of the past people that matter; for Jenkins views "all history as the history of the historian's minds." (p. 57) Third, to the question of "sources", Jenkins adopts E.H. Carr's proposal that a source "only becomes evidence when it is used to support an argument (interpretation) prior to which, although it exists, it remains just an unused piece of stuff from the past." (p. 59) Jenkins deems the idea that history rests on primary source documentation as an effort to grasp some [unachievable] truth and to embrace [ever-elusive] empathy.
In chapter three Jenkins proposes that historians live in a post-modern world that has produced a multiplicity of histories. Any attempts to stake out or recuperate a status quo will fail. He uses Jean-Francois Lyotard's view of post-modernism as the "death of centres" and "incredulity towards metanarratives" to suggest a reflexive approach to analyzing history as a discipline and to doing the historian's work. Post-modern historians should choose a theoretical position and deconstruct all historical interpretations that claim centre status. Moreover, beyond the realm of histories of periods and events, Jenkins prompts historians to produce histories that help historians understand "the world that we live in and the forms of history that have both helped produce it and which it has produced...a series of `histories of the present.'" (p. 83)
Keith Jenkins makes no attempt to mask that Re-thinking History is the philosophical product of his affinity for the post-modernism which stems from Friedrich Nietzsche, Hayden White, and Michel Foucault. The book opens with a page-long quote from White, in which he quotes Nietzsche. According to Jenkins, during his tenure at University College Chichester, he noticed that students lacked interest in questions such as "what is history?" and also possessed an intense hostility toward the question. These sentiments exist likewise among professional historians. Practically, Jenkins offers the book as a deliberate replacement to the [then] dominant thinking about history, as derived from scholars such as E.H. Carr, Geoffrey Elton, Arthur Marwick, and John Tosh. He wants to persuade historians that his is the best way to theorise history, "as a narrative prose discourse the content of which is as much imagined as found and the form of which is expungeably problematic." (p. xvii) If indeed Jenkins led the post-modernist charge on reshaping the historian's craft in the 1990s, apprentice historians can only hope to contribute as much to the discipline's growth in a lifetime as he did in a "short, cheap, and cheerful polemic" of 84-pages.
The book involves a lot of deconstructionist ideas but without much depth to them (since it's waaaay beyond the scope), but it has a great bibliography and encourages the reader to keep a critical eye on all of the ideas so that they can decide for themselves what to accept and adopt. I certainly won't accept all of his positions, but I'm glad I read the book.
This book basically applies these insights to historiography (the theory of how history is practiced and written). Keith Jenkins, who is basically an expositor of the ideas of Hayden White, is seen here attempting a popularization of a lot of Hayden White's work. Needless to say he is incredibly successful in this. Keith Jenkins presents these arguments in very readable and intelligible terms, and shows that history is what historians do when they want to understand the past. History and the past are two completely different things. The past is that which precedes us here in the present, and history is the way historians write about it. But because people are always ideologically motivated and positioned in the present, authoring an objectively true account of the past is impossible because facts must be selected in an infinitely rich and inexhaustible world, making those facts which come to be selected ideologically-laden. Moreover, there is no way to compare the relative merits of competing accounts of the past because the past itself is not an account, but a series of past events. Therefore, since there is no fundamentally correct "text" or account to which all other accounts can be compared, all we have are variations (interpretations) of the past, each equally groundless and ideological.
Keith Jenkins does, however, offer a novel defense of relativism in this book, parting company with Hayden White. Hayden White argues that relativism is desirable because is serves as the basis for "social toleration and the positive recognition of differences" (page 68). Once we recognize that there is no such thing as a correct view of the past, we can begin to entertain seriously other interpretations that differ radically from ours both in the style of argument and in the conclusions reached. Relativism, White argues, should prevail because it promotes a respect for diversity and creativity. Keith Jenkins takes a "power struggle" view and argues that some positions are deemed more correct than others because they have managed to gain control of the power structures. Citing Foucault, Jenkins argues the "knowledge is related to power" (page 31), and that notions of truth are "dependent on somebody having the power to make it true. ... [T]ruth and similar expressions are devices to open, regulate and shut down interpretations. Truth acts as a censor - it draws the line" (page 38-39). This is an interesting argument, and I found it persuasive.
Anyway, this book is recommended not only as an introduction to historiography, but to postmodernism as well. Consider it the most reader-friendly application of postmodern ideas to historiography out right now! A very entertaining read.
I would also recommend Jenkins' follow-up book, "Refiguring History", a much more mature and sustained work that contains wonderful discussions of the philosophy of Derrida.