Friday, September 26, 2008

Bentley on modern historiography

This piece is obviously dated - indeed, the first half feels almost redundant from a post-9/11 perspective - but Bentley proves prescient. He provides a very insightful introduction to the shape of 21st-century historiography as it stands thus far.

"Postmodernism as an intellectual form is already provoking a backlash. The consequences for the writing of history of the crash of communism in 1989 have not yet begun to work themselves out, though we can certainly remain sceptical in face of arguments about the End of Ideology, the End of History and the Beginning of Post-History. The discipline has survived several political revolutions and two world wars: it ought to be able to cope with Mr Gorbachev. National identities still inform all versions of historiography, sometimes in indirect ways. Indeed we seem still to be using history as the early nineteenth century did, as a vehicle for locating groups and peoples and giving them a past that suits their present or encourages their sense of a future. All of these things may alter. But one development in the history of the present looks likely to be both permanent and valuable. Historians have never been so aware of what they are attempting as they have become over the past two decades. Always a reflective form of writing, history has become (as they say) 'reflexive': it is self-conscious to a degree and to a level of sophistication that no previous generation can match... Possibly historians will become morbid and self-destructive as a result. Not a few have already become self-important. Yet the move towards a deliberately constructed history gives critics of all persuasions the opportunity and the duty to keep their swords sharp against a moment when contingencies may threaten to destroy the discipline or subvert an interest in the past at all. We shall do well to remember that historiography forms the stone that whets the blade."

-Michael Bentley, "Introduction: Approaches to Modernity," Companion to Historiography (Routledge, 1997)

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