One of the most significant developments in academics in the last several decades is the rise of Post-Modernism. For the uninitiated, post-modernism questions the truth of everything – from social tradition to personal ritual, a post-modernist would argue that every aspect of human existence is constructed by human themselves. If everything is a construct, nothing is “true,” or we might say nothing is “real.” Post-modern historians have likewise questioned the value of history, since every fact or idea a historian has about the past represents their bias and the choices they make about how and what history they are presenting. But if it is so constructed, is history valuable? Today we examine our struggle with that question.
Entire books have been devoted to explaining post-modernism, so if you are interested in a detail examination of it, you should look elsewhere. For this post, it suffices to repeat our definition above: post-modernists believe that our society, our culture, our language, etc., are human constructions. Historians used to believe that history could shape a national consciousness or could pass lessons to the present. Today most acknowledge that history's influence and lessons are also constructions. Nothing is “real” or “true” because, for the sake of brevity, everything is made up and only believed to be true. Life is a subjective experience unique to the individual and it's impossible to be objective since what is true to one person may be untrue to another.
One of the hard parts about post-modernism for historians is that it forces us to admit that we can never truly know the past. Our work, the lectures, the books and the articles we produce, is ultimately just our own personal and present constructions of the past. We cannot prove that something in the past is “true,” instead we are convincing others to agree with our set of facts about the past over another. Once you realise how devalued history becomes through the post-modern lens, it is a bit demoralizing. History is “made up” by historians. Its “truth” is how many believe them.
What's worse is that we also couldn't possibly communicate the totality of human experience. As far as we know the only thing that can process the complexity and enormity of human experience are humans themselves. A book, no matter how well written and detailed, is only a pale shade of living experience. A book detailing every experience of a single individual is still too much for a reader to absorb or appreciate. Imagine trying to write about a family of individuals? Or something believed by a dozen individuals? A government formed by hundreds to govern thousands or millions? The effort scales far far off the radar of human capability if we were to try to recreate the past as truthfully as possible.
So first we must accept the impossibility of our task comes from physical limitations as much as existential crises about knowledge. Let's say that we invent a device that does communicate the totality of experience to another individual. Some sort of mind-downloader that lets us live the uniqueness of another human's experience. We've overcome the physical barrier to communicating the whole of the past. We are still confronted by the post-modern problem of subjective experience and constructions.
Let's look at an example. You and your friend listen to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin" for the first time. You are immediately struck by the lines, "Come mothers and fathers / Throughout the land / And don't criticize / What you can't understand / Your sons and your daughters / Are beyond your command." Your parents had tried to control you in your late teenage years and this line makes you remember walking out of the house at 17 to live your own life. You feel happy and triumphant.
Using the mind-downloader, you live your friend's experience of the song. For your friend, every time Dylan says "for the times they are a-changin," they are racked by an even stronger emotional response. Fear, anxiety, sadness. Dylan's song isn't an expression of freedom, but a lament for an ever-changing world that will never - that can never - be the same.
Which of these two experiences is more true? Is one wrong or right given what Dylan intended the song to mean? Does it matter that one is a deeper emotion or a more shallow one? Does the commonness of your experience make it more or less valuable than the somewhat unique response of your friend?
These are not questions that historians ask about the past. They are not ones that weigh the value of past events and individuals in relation to their accuracy, to their impact on others, and to what was known at the time. In short, historians examine accuracy, effect and uniqueness. Accuracy, you might say, sounds like truth, but there's a key distinction between asking the truth of a fact compared to the truth of the construction of the past. While examining historical sources, historians are charged with asking: Can we confirm this information? And in turn, what effect did it have? Is it a unique or common experience/source/idea?
"Is it true?" is not a question we seriously ask anymore.
Truth is relative after all. Bob Dylan's song is a thousand things to a thousand people. It can be an inspiration or a depressing reminder. You could list its sales and the money it made and it becomes a statistic which is more meaningful to some and less meaningful to others. As post-modernists suggest, despite the feeling that one might be more 'true' or 'worthwhile' than the other, both are entirely constructed. We like to imagine that the value of past experience is a one-way street going from Point A in the past (when it occurred) to Point B in the present (when we realise its value), but in fact it's the reverse. We impose value onto the past. We impose value on everything! That's the crux of the existential crisis that nothing has value but what we make up for it.
And that's the beauty of history. It is nothing more than the stories we tell about ourselves. It has value to storyteller and audience. We can see the historian everywhere. From your parents telling the story of how they met for the hundredth time, to your friend's story about that one time he saw a flying pig, to the time your hometown chef won that chili cook-off in the county over, to the nation that fought the just war against fascism. As Canadian writer Thomas King says in his book, The Truth About Stories: The truth about stories is that's all we are.
In the quiet of your mind, ask yourself: who are you? Why are you the person that you are? The answer is probably a whole lot of stories about yourself whether you know it or not. You don't like broccoli because of that one time the dog threw it up. You fell in love because you had to buy flour at 2:09am. You like the summer heat because you don't like socks. You don't like socks because you like summer heat. You cry during Bob Dylan "The Times They Are A-Changing" because of all the times that changed and you weren't ready.
These stories are the most valuable thing about who you are. They make you who you are. Without them, you are a blank slate, an empty vessel devoid of the complex, messy, amazing individual experiences that makes us human. A person without a past is hardly a person at all. We can say the same thing about human communities - without history, they are hardly communities at all.
As human gathered to form social groups, their communal past experience was probably relayed like their individual ones. Just as we make up value for our own individual past experience, we began placing value on our shared experiences. The history of villages, of kingdoms, of nations, all naturally emerges as a result of humans telling the stories of who they are. We collectively attach value onto experiences to tell the story of Canada, or of women, or the French Revolution, or of 19th century British working class families. Instead of dogs throwing up, late night flour purchases, or sockless summer days, we talk of bravery during war or grave meetings in tennis courts or the decisions of the impoverished during desperate times.
Though all experience and historical "truth" is relative to perspective, that does not diminish the worth of each of those perspectives. Sure, history is formed by constructions of society and linguistics, just look at gender, or race, or political and economic systems. They are ways for humans to try to make sense of the world. And so are the stories we tell about ourselves. I saw a dog throw up cake too, but I still eat cake and don't tell that story to anyone. I like cake, so why tell that story? (Of course the historian might say that the lack of a consequence from that experience is as important as the effect of the broccoli one!) Yes, lessons can be learned from these stories. We can remember things like don't eat broccoli, or don't invade Russia in winter, or always know times are a-changin'.
Historians providing lessons from the past is only part of our profession's importance. Like so many artists in the post-modern age, we are must acknowledge we are content producers. We put words on a page and we are creating something from nothing. In the cacophony of infinite human experience that is the past, historians transcribe a single voice from the white noise. Or a chorus of voices or a symphony of sound. Limited as we may be by poor recordings or distorted notes, historians take the complex and make it simple. We overcome the physical impossibility of communicating the past as best we can. We are not composers but conductors, or as French historian Marc Bloch might say, not lawyers but witnesses - we do not create or indict, but we organize and observe. To use one of my favourite quotes about our profession from Johann Droysen in 1868:
History is humanity's knowledge about itself, its certainty about itself. It is not 'the light and the truth,' but a search thereof, a sermon thereupon, a consecration thereto. It is, like John the Baptist, 'not the light but sent to bear witness to that Light.'
Our duty is not to speak of truth. We bear witness to the great endeavour of human existence, we worry about the accuracy, effect, and uniqueness of our stories, not the truth of them. The only truth about history is that it is all we are. The historian's task is to search and communicate the answer to that question: Who are we? Describing who we are - all of us, not just the rich white guys who wrote so many books - that is the historians' task. It is the truth and the answer for which we will always search but we will never find. Or as Droysen says, "It is not 'the light and the truth,' but a search thereof, a sermon thereupon, a consecration thereto."