Refiguring History: New Thoughts on an Old Discipline
reviewed by Thomas O'Brien - 2004
In this short 74-page book, Keith Jenkins builds on his critique of the discipline of history, and extends the discussion by calling for a new sort of history to provide for a radical, open-ended democracy without closure. Jenkins' earlier works -- Rethinking History (1991), On 'What is History'? From Carr to Elton to Rorty and White (1995), and The Postmodern Reader (1997) -- lay the groundwork for this book by arguing that it must be accepted that all histories historicize the past based on current cultural conditions. His 1999 book, Why History? Ethics and Postmodernity, then argues that acknowledging these bases and biases makes relevant a postmodern approach to history. The feat of postmodern story telling, he points out, has been mastered and best illustrated by theorists such as Foucault, Badiou and Ermath. Unlike rank-and-file historians, these postmodern theorists have no loyalty to or investment in the discipline, and are correct, contends Jenkins, in not sensing much of a need for it. Such an attitude allows for the possibility of emancipatory intellectual power for the individual and society. Jenkins then elaborates on the exact benefits of such an attitude: history as a means for radical democracy.
Jenkins divides his book into three chapters, and prefaces them with a helpful introduction. In Chapter One, "Opening time(s)," Jenkins draws on Derrida and observes that mainstream historians err by striving for objectivity, closure, and the search for real knowledge. Jenkins argues the opposite; that "unthought possibilities" and the desire for openness in the historical process, lead to "new disrespectful, contentious, radical readings and rereadings, writing and rewritings of the past . . . and this is excellent."(p. 3). Historic efforts, thus, are always works-in-progress, and the total dynamics of these processes continually undermine conservative attempts at cultural hegemony. At the socio-cultural level this lack of closure gives radical democracy (the preservation of the conflictive character of all personal/social processes to stave off hegemony and promote equality) a chance.
In Chapter Two, "Last order(s)," Jenkins returns to his critique of modernist historians, and, metaphorically speaking, knocks them off the lectern, citing their failures to want to get the story right. For Jenkins, the right story, of course, is an impossibility, and to think there is one (and to think one can be carefully trained to find it) is not only misguided, but oppressive. Yet far from being regrettable, Jenkins asserts, it is precisely these failures that bring forth possibilities of epistemological openness, radical otherness and new imaginations. By highlighting the failure(s) to ever get it right, argues Jenkins, postmodern historians can defeat academic orthodoxy and begin the process of genuine democracy.
In the final chapter, "Beginning again: on disobedient dispositions," Jenkins explains that in order for this paradigm to flourish, "an attitude of radical and critical disobedience … [which]… seeks no resolution or agreement" (p. 6) is necessary. While there are no formulae for bringing about such attitudes, they should, in their manifestations, disregard convention, disobey authority and replace closure with perpetual openness.
There is a growing joy in Jenkins' writing that is not as apparent in his previous work. This joy, it seems, stems from his resolution of the postmodern dilemma of engaging in work that will never be truthful. He finds a logic that both celebrates and disobeys history. If the stories are pursued postmodernly, and thus affect ongoing processes, emancipatory forms of democracy emerge, he happily concludes. Jenkins' argument is attractive on the large philosophical scale and on the personal level. Indeed, it is noble in this day and age in the academy, to argue for the removal of any restrictions placed on freedom, democracy, equality and the like, especially when it comes to the discipline of story-telling. Yet, Jenkins' recipe of problematizing our ways of history may be "excellent" for those of us who live comfortably (and without many responsibilities that require closure) in the academy, where we can afford to embrace chaos. But (ironically) isn't there a bit of elitism in his rethinking of history? If everyone could be a postmodern historian (a vision that I am sure Jenkins would allow for), what happens to the periodic necessity for closure? When and how does the desire for closure-which may be warranted to realize freedom, democracy and equality--supersede the desire for openness? When does his approach, in the practical matters of daily story telling and communication, lead to miscommunication, confusion and the promotion of the status quo? While it can and should be argued that our minds should be free to embrace open-endedness, they also have desires to be communal and compromising. Our bodies too have clocks that periodically need answers. Who delivers the basic needs? Who delivers our babies? Who prepares the meals, and attends to the clothing and shelter? Who gets the water from the well? When Jenkins cracks this mind-body dichotomy among all of us, he will make a genuinely radical contribution to new historicism.
Jenkins, K. (1999). Why history? Ethics and postmodernity. New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, K. (1997). The Post-modern history reader. New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, K. (1995). On 'what is history'? From Carr to Elton to Rorty and White. New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, K. (1992). Rethinking history. New York: Routledge.