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the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is History? •

What is History?

Book cover: In Defence of History

Book Review


In Defence of History

Richard J. Evans
Granta, 1997 307 pp., 15.99 (hardback)

Professor Antony Easthope

Manchester Metropolitan University

Note: This review first appeared in Textual Practice, vol.12, no. 3 (Winter 1998)

In Defence of History aims to defend a mainstream notion of history-writing against 'intellectual barbarians' (p. 8), namely 'the invading hordes of semioticians, post-structuralist, New Historicists, Foucauldians, Lacanians and the rest' (p. 9). That statement is pretty typical of the tone of the book, a robust, earthy common sense in which the word 'paranoia' would be less likely to appear than 'parakeet'. It admits that there is more than one kind of postmodernism ('there are many different varieties', p. 205) yet rides roughshod over all these differences in its lampoon. Evans may not know much about postmodernism but he knows what he doesn't like.

Given the topic one might have expected a serious and sustained discussion of Foucault's account of history - we get a paragraph on pp. 195-6. Certainly there should have been a chapter on Hayden White, the most significant historian who might qualify for the adjective 'postmodern'. In Defence of History steps aside from the risks entailed in any such critique, preferring a number of sniping remarks along the way. Lyotard? Dismissed in a single sentence and a bizarre one at that, to the effect that 'master-narratives are the hegemonic stories told by those in power' (p. 150). Like most conventional writing on history in England, this book makes much of the laborious obligations of the historian towards primary sources, the sacredness of facts and the worthiness of grubbing around the archive - Evans advocates in fact 'a return of scholarly humility' (p. 201).

'Saussure argued therefore that words, or what he called signifiers, were defined not by their relation to the things they denoted (the signified) but by their relation to each other' (p. 95). Well, no he didn't; the signified is the concept or meaning and the thing (what philosophers term 'the referent') is another question altogether. This is a howler, though a common one which gets regularly crossed out in undergraduate essays for courses in theory. So is the next. It is asserted that Derrida's position was that 'Nothing existed outside language' (p. 95). For this view the footnote (number 36) cites pages in David Lehman's shaky and one-sided book, Signs of the Times. After Lehman the footnote directs the reader generally to Of Grammatology though not specifically to page 158, which states 'il n'y a pas de hors-texte'. Doesn't a historian's scholarship include enough O-level French to distinguish between 'Rien n'existe hors du language' and the much more troubling assertion Derrida actually made? Did Evans read Of Grammatology as his note claims? Later he cites Lehman again - not Derrida - as the source for Derrida's views on Paul de Man (footnote 17, p. 236).

Evans understands 'logocentric' to mean a feature of people who imagined 'they were rational beings engaged in a process of discovery' (p. 94). Surely even the most nonchalant reading of Derrida would disclose something of what was in fact at stake around logocentrism? It is said that Derrida 'rejected the search for origins and causes as futile' (pp. 159-60) though no reason is given for this claim (perhaps it has something to do with the logocentrism of supposedly absolute origins?). The first obligation of a critic is to give a fair, accurate and detailed account of the arguments he or she intends to attack. If Evans' procedure in dealing with texts, source material and key questions is what historians mean by scholarly humility they will be disappointed to find that it is not widely imitated outside their own discipline.

'Nor is the Kuhnian notion of a paradigm really applicable to history; historians in general do not work within rigid and constricting paradigms' (p. 43): the qualifiers here make this a typically slippery statement (historians don't work within paradigms at all? historians do work with paradigms but only flexible ones?). In Defence of History seems to imply the first since it constantly reiterates a belief that history is 'objective' (see pp. 2, 3, 9, 30, 35, 36, 37 etc.). Taking paradigm to mean 'theories, assumptions' (as Evans does, p. 42) I think I can show that his whole conception and defence of history takes place within a familiar, traditional paradigm of which he remains unaware.

Most contemporary critical theory arrives by passing through a single gate, recognition of the distance or gap or non-coincidence between reality and representation. Hayden White in 'Response to Arthur Marwick' writes persuasively of how the gap between events (reality) and facts (representation) presents itself to the historian, and the worries that ensue:

The events have to be taken as given; they are certainly not constructed by the historian. It is quite otherwise with 'facts'. They are constructed: in the documents attesting to the occurrence of events, by interested parties commenting on the events or the documents, and by historians interested in giving a true account of what really happened in the past and distinguishing it from what may appear to have happened. It is the 'facts' that are unstable, subject to revision and further interpretation, and even dismissable as illusions on sufficient grounds.

In Defence of History admits that texts are texts and reality is reality. But it is not aware of this as a general problem - only as a specific one which affects historians in a particular way, and one they can deal with easily if they are scrupulous and attentive.

Evans begins by advancing what seems to him incontrovertible: 'present reality can be felt and experienced by our senses' (p. 96). He would be, I guess, be deeply disconcerted to learn that this classic empiricist assumption would be disputed by almost ever major philosopher who has written this century. The fundamental view taken by In Defence of History is that all history-writing faces is the regrettable little difficulty that the past is not actually 'felt and experienced by our senses' in the present. Historical interpretation has evolved 'through contact with the real historical world', a contact said to be 'indirect, because the real historical world has disappeared'; but hey, no worries, for the documents 'which the real world of the past has left behind ... were themselves created in a much more direct interaction with reality' (p. 112). Reality is still there but at a slight remove. The gap between reality and representation, including historical reality, historical representation, far from being radical and irremediable, consists only of readily discernible degrees of directness and indirectness.

Rewriting the gap between reality and representation as simply the difference between direct experience (the present) and indirect or less direct experience (the past) has a neat economy. It saves Evans from any troubling inquiry into the epistemological consequences attending a possible correspondence or adequation or correlation between reality and representation (including the immensely tricky question of where anyone might actually have to be placed so as to assess just where reality ended and representation began). And it allows In Defence of History to begin with statements which appear to accord a relatively high degree of autonomy to the textual activity of history-writing ("texts ... supplement or rework 'reality'" Dominick La Capra, cited with approval, p. 80), slide into intermediary claims ('the past does impose its reality through the sources in a basic way', p. 115; 'the past does speak through the sources', p. 126), and then end up with the resoundingly empiricist conclusion that, despite it all, 'it really happened', we can 'find out how' and know 'what it all meant' (p. 253, the last page of the book).

Derivation (more or less direct) of representation from reality can be found in Locke; so can the necessarily related view that language is in principle transparent to meaning. In Defence of History acknowledges that it's not easy to read a text but, as was noted before, is innocent of the problems introduced into reading by the distinction between signifier (the sound image) and signified (meaning or concept). Nor apparently has Evans had time to consider the problems around reading and re-reading Derrida discusses in 'Signature Event Context' (not to mention the issue of the original). In Defence of History inhabits a simpler world: if we are always mindful of the 'intentions of the writer during the act of reading' (p. 104), then we will find that 'the limits which the language of the text imposes on the possibilities of interpretation' are set 'to a large extent by the original author' (p. 106). [Another dodgy qualifier, I would say: what extent is envisaged by 'to a large extent', and why does this latitude exist at all?]

Though his name is on the cover Richard J. Evans did not really write In Defence of History - rather, the dominant paradigm of the English empiricist tradition wrote it for him, because he made no critical attempt to interfere with its passage through him onto the page. Such an uncritical stance in no way prevents the book from adopting that blunt, Hobbesian, man-of-the-world aggressive tone which in many circles of history-writing seems to pass for machismo (for example, the sarcastic remark that when Patrick Joyce referred to 'the intellectual history of our own times' what he 'really meant was his own ideas', p. 6). Of course this present review is hostile in tone but I would hope its hostility is directed against incompetent use of sources and sloppy arguments rather than personalities.

In Defence of History was well received by some London reviewers on grounds that it saw off the invading hordes of postmodernist. It is depressing to think that this uninformed yet totally self-confident work of naive provincialism should come from close to the heartlands of English culture. [Just to finish: the more correct term for 'subconscious' (p. 206) is 'unconscious'.]

June 1999

Author's response to his critics

A response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

A further response Dr. Diane Purkiss

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