Historiography: Poststructural

Structuralism is the stance that, without any further external objective reference, the objective nature of reality is rooted in binary oppositions in language. Language filters everything, and the signifier is an arbitrary but regulated noise or squiggle that stands for something else, the signified. The signified is a concept, and these concepts can be worked into contrasts. Something is defined by the not-something, which could well be something else, but related by the completely negative relationship. X is not not-X. This binary pattern is obviously mathematical, it is then deemed to be in the mind, a kind of super language before a particular language gets going, and thus there is a solid link between the mind and culture, between the psyche and the collective conscious rooted in communication.
History too can be laid out mathematically, seeing structures in the past and relating to the present. Governments and people arranged themselves, and followed patterns, producing relationships and made distinctions, having an ordered life. However, is this an explanation or a pattern to be found everywhere and therefore of no particular significance?
The problem is that it describes nothing (Brody, 2001, 301). It is a flat, static, imposed framework from above on to people's lives lived according to nuances and adjusted relationships. Some groups, including indigenous people, have avoided dichotomies and deductive reasoning so this system imposed really is an imposition (Brody, 2001, 302). It tells a great deal about near contemporary Western rationality, but not necessarily about other parts of the world, other parts of Western societies, and previous time periods.
It tells therefore nothing about change which is the interest of history: evidence that shows something else.
Structuralism was a route to postmodernism (a cultural phenomenon) via poststructuralism. As soon as it is admitted that an entity contains some trace of its opposite in order to be that entity, and as soon as the ambiguity of that concept comes into play, the structural system starts to break down. Then the join between the mind and culture is not longer there, as each shares free flowing potential. Culture becomes its own start and finish, held within the fluidity of language.
The shift is huge because structuralism proposed a universal mind and universal grammar of which the cultural details were just an indicator. Now there is nothing universal because there is only the particularity of the produced text and the consumption of it. Though, like in structuralism, everything fundamental is textual: everything we do, touch and experience is a sea of signs. They are all particular and transient in their output and consumption.
Another route to the same place is from modernism. Modernism was the view that there were metanarratives available. These were the theoretical guides that best fitted the facts as they were established. The facts could be found through disciplines, in open co-operative and competitive environments of truth seeking. This is why history is a thoroughly modernist discipline of inductive reasoning, the purest form being the empirical school. Doing enough accurate historical analysis on the sources gets to the truth.
The last persuasive modernism is perhaps that of communicative reason. Whilst there may well be powerful economic interests, a sort of objective condition, warping the cultural lifeworld into disenchantment, yet because rationality can have its own autonomy (May, 1996, 143) it is still possible to find intellectuals distanced from market pressures to come to truth in communication, over and above all the false consciousness that invades us in our subjective states. The Enlightenment is still alive and truth is still possible. (See May, 1996, 139-157)
However, what if these intellectuals cannot escape the distortians of the instrumentally impacted lifeworld? Furthermore, why should they arrive at one argument in their field? If the same ideological distortion affects every item of evidence, nothing is corrected.
The objection here is that there is not a value-neutral fact: all historical data but the most banal is interpretation, and that consituting them into facts is a kind of reality-effect (Barthes), where we are seduced into taking a construction as a fact.
In this case text is all there is, in flows. These flows are called discourses: self referential flows of meaningful text for as long as they are given and read and where the consumption is the key. As with narrative history (which is significantly related), there is no way of telling the difference between a fictional account and a real one. The two intertwine. There is a difference, however, between narrative and poststructural/ postmodern history and it is in the use made of text in postmodernism. Narrative history is about telling a story, a good story, and one which brings historical research alive. Poststructural history, when deconstructing, is looking for the full range of signs present and not present (but involved), and analyses the discourse into other discourses.
So it is that postcolonial historians of the subaltern studies school can take official value laden colonial documents and expose them to the opposite meanings implied within. When a group of people are being oppressed, and are being described as something like low life, the deconstructor realises that they must be a threat and that their opposite characteristics are in the silences of the discourse and constitute the threat. The put down starts from a high position.
The problem with deconstruction, however, is its thoroughgoing nature. It never stops and there are few boundaries. Whilst the powerful might be happily decentred, so are the victims.
The deconstruction of hunter-gatherers has contributed to the view that they do not exist at all; they become, instead, a myth of colonial theory, a part of someone else's ideology, or, at best, an edge of some other way of life. To those who live, or whose ancestors have lived, by hunting and gathering, this deconstruction must come as a surprise. (Brody, 2001, 302)
So the usefulness of undermining concepts of the exotic Other, the primitive in time and place, is that such people can be seen as living an enriched and charming life, close to the earth rather than technology, advanced and knowledgable rather than backward.
The process does not stop and the whole categorising of the hunter-gathers falls into the shifting sands of writing. The same happens with gender history. Whilst the masculine gender becomes thoroughly undermined in its use for universality, it becomes particular and relative, and is seen for the construction it was, so the feminine too becomes decentred, just as the concept of woman was growing in importance.
The upshot is that it becomes inescapable to see the process of history not as historians working through sources to produce a reliable account, but historians working through meaningful texts to produce another meaningful text. The past is another country: nor is any objective meaning of the past contained simply in the sources waiting to be extracted because they were never there in the first place. Rather, the sources contain a rich density of meanings, some in the text and some between the words, but only in the text and between the words.
In postmodernism the reader is entitled to deconstruct the secondary text produced by the historian. The historian's layer is added, on to what is subtracted. This means looking at the entirity of the text, and the whole range of actual and potential meanings therein.
So the history continues to be done not just by the professional historian but the reader too.
History as an object, out there, is lost, as the historical text is open to deconstruction and multiple readings. So questions follow like:
  • Is history dissolved? Has it lost the anchor in real events?
  • Is history now joined to every other non-objective field of knowledge?
  • Is reality reduced to the imaginary, when both are locked within text?
  • Is language everything now, the social linguistically constructed?
  • Is the author no more than a puppet of impersonal codes?
This argument is being cranked further:
  • Has text lost its coherence of meaning?
  • Does not one history expose many histories and other disciplines?
There is a kind of history possible. Texts are produced historically, says New Historicism (Foucault). So text has geographical, social, cultural and intellectual contexts. Social institutions produce cultural scripts, and the scripts can be understood as texts of history. Text is at the very heart of the process of the power game that is in at the very start of the process of cultural production. Textual discourse is a powerful way of creating institutional control. The text shapes cultural and mental life. This then is a theory of cultural production, based in points in time. Cultural production can be regarded as like material production, although the material is bound up in and within the language. This is then a way of doing history: what texts and produced when.
This is saying:
  • Language is situated in its production
  • Language is local in where it is generated
  • All texts have social spaces - production and relationship
  • Locality includes the political and the social and comes into the text
  • Thus text has context
  • Texts generate and mirror social realities
It still then becomes play to a mass of meanings and the assumptions of the reader. This argument still cannot get to the pre-language state of reality. It simply talks about the production of text by institutions situated historically with symbolic linguistic codes. It demonstrates that all social institutions and transmissions are understood as textual codes.
  • So is the imaginary real then, rather than the real imaginary?
  • Is language everything now, the social being linguistically constructed when the linguistic is socially constructed?
All this seems regrettable to many a historian. But as Munslow states:
...all I have is the tale that I choose to bring forth from the sources which are impregnated with the previous meanings that I, and other historians, have of them. (Munslow, 1997, 118)
So, from this perspective, the role of the historian is to construct the object of study, a text, and deconstruct it, and grapple with its social construction from its time (See Green, Troup, 2000, 301).

Some Personalities

Dates in brackets are some times of impact just in areas mentioned or show lifespan.

Adrian Worsfold


Arts & Social Sciences Faculty (2002), Monster/ Critic [Online], The University of Strathclyde, Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.strath.ac.uk/Departments/scigs/gcp/p_cmavor.doc 27 [Accessed September 20, 2003, 21:05]

Brody, 2001, H. (2001), The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers and the Shaping of the World, London: Faber and Faber.

Carr E. H. (1964), What is History? London: Pelican

Green, A., Troup, K. (eds.) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 297-307.

Joyce, P., 'History and Postmodernism' in Jenkins, K. (ed.) (1997), The Postmodern History Reader, London: Routledge, 244-249.

McCullagh, C. B. (1998), The Truth of History, London: Routledge.

McNeill, T. (1999), [Online], The University of Strathclyde, Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.sunderland.ac.uk/~os0tmc/culture/myth1.htm [Accessed September 20, 2003, 21:20] GB Last Update 11-Feb-99

Munslow, A. (1997), Deconstructing History, London: Routledge.

Stone, L., 'History and Postmodernism' in Jenkins, 1997, 242-243.

Spiegel, G., 'History, Historicism and the Social Logic of the Text in the Middle Ages' in Jenkins, 1997, 180-203.

Walkowitz, J. (1992), City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London, Little, Brown and the University of Chicago Press in Green, Troup, 1999, 308-325.