Encounters: Philosophy of History after Postmodernism
Mary Ann Furno
By Ewa Domanska. Charlottesville, VA and London: University Press of Virginia, 1998. xii + 293 pages. Works cited, index. ISBN 0-8139-1767-0. Paper. $21.50 on Amazon.com.
“ Every kind of human activity is essentially a way of searching for oneself and for self-realization.” This statement marks the beginning of Ewa Domanska’s self-interview upon concluding an ambitious series of interviews with distinguished academics. Ms. Domanska recounts a personal intellectual quest that originates in the Polish experience of 1982-87 and serves as the lens through which to view these learned exchanges. The “factographic skeleton and knowledge of historic processes” that produced a “dehumanized history” and “lost the human being” (258) gave rise to a “yearning for freedom, liberty and tolerance . . . [a] philosophy that would enable us to find our way in the political turmoil” (258). Postmodernism, with its “free, inscrutable, uncontrollable, unpredictable, decentralized, relative, deceptive, unstable, ironic-but inspiring, shocking, heretical and perverse. . . radically new way of perceiving the world . . . through intuition and emotions; the world long lost, the world of the sacrum . . . was the philosophy I craved” (260). Domanska’s growing exposure to postmodern ideas convinced her that “these conceptions would change the way we see the past” (260). Yet the very philosophy that ignited a rethinking of history and a semblance of new life developed into excess: a radicalization of thought and debate that resulted in a “state of . . . intellectual weightlessness” (261) prompting a “hunt for a postmodernist . . . a master, a heretic” (261). Ensuing conversations that evolved into interviews became “goldmines of inspiration” (262).
Domanska has facilitated discussion in current times of a historical development we call postmodernism.
Alan Megill’s introduction sketches out postmodernism‘s historical context and introduces the interviewees’ viewpoints. Lynn Hunt’s postscript is an enriching and lively elaboration of the interviewees’ comments. The interviewees, in varying degrees, allow history to “cross over” into literary theory, linguistics, narrative, aesthetics, literature, social sciences in an attempt to dislodge it from Reason, Order, and Science “as related to a concept of modernization . . . a concept of linear progression. . . a process. . . . called rationalization that gave history a direction” (Iggers 107); an overarching teleology, consistent with Domanska’s experience under communism. These exchanges are marked by the ease with which multiple references and notable philosophers/historians are cited-all toward trying to “reimagine history outside of the categories that we inherited from the nineteenth century” (White 34), and “make room for a conception of the past that resembles an incoherent archipelago” (Ankersmit 90). The reader is presented with a view of human effort in an intellectual process in the absence of an epistemology. The intricacy and “concentric” (Kellner 44) nature of the discussions assume a familiarity with postmodern thought that few general readers probably possess.
Ankersmit’s interview raises the “theoretically perhaps less interesting but. . . quite important dimension to the relation between the historian and his audience. . . . Historians also have a cultural responsibility to be understandable or readable. . . for a lay public. . . as a kind of mediator between the past and present” (80). Where the reader/subject places her/himself in relation to these “crossings over” is a question to weigh when reading Encounters. The centrifugal thrust of these “crossings” also leads one to think in terms of history’s “placelessness” (Danto 172). These interviews lead the reader “away from monologic scientific grounding. . . in a swerve toward mutual interrelationships, toward dialogic interdisciplinary linkages” (Kreisworth 298); in effect, “call[ing] into question the naive certainty of cognition” (Topolski 124). In reply to Domanska’s question, “What is the new purpose for the theory of history?” we read: “Theory of history today. . . should recognize a special sort of reader who will toggle back and forth. . . from a vision of the past as knowable and comprehensible to a resignation that all we have are figural linguistic accounts” (Kellner 46). In the postmodern pursuit of humanizing history-giving it a “human face” -the text, written or visual, is the “place” where history is “found.” In the very first interview, we read about an “anti-nontheoretical narrative concept of history” (White 15) that, with varied significance, is cited by all the interviewees, though also acknowledging Hayden White-Domanska’s “heretic”-as notable for “reading through” historical writing as formed by narrative structure. History, as story, is marked by “permeability.” The primacy of language-and with it, the subject-necessarily relativizes historical truth and meaning that render historical writing aesthetic and metaphorical. The exchanges about historical novels, microhistories, literature, cultural histories, archives, and museums through which history is refracted and “found” remind us that the irreducible human condition incorporates-represents-the “historical moment” (Rusen, 157) through ubiquitous forms of expression. The discursive nature of Encounters simulates a process of deconstruction. The reader will “toggle back and forth.”
That the interviews with Jerzy Topolski and Jorn Rusen are centrally placed in the series is not insignificant. Each man’s historical memory-Nazi and Marxist ideologies, and the Holocaust-effects a certain “restoration” of history: fewer references, overall; critique, with more apparent processes of integration between analytic philosophy and postmodernism. Both acknowledge the significance of narrative to a reintegration of history as metahistory, and, in writing history, both note the need for historians’ “aware[ness] of the main problems of present-day life” (Rusen 150) and “becoming more open to the truths proclaimed by others” (Topolski 127). The problem of writing history seems pivotal in these interviews. Topolski’s language is one of rapprochement with narrative, but his memory (as Domanska’s) of the “white spots” in Poland’s history has left him uneasy with “too far-reaching relativizations” that “deprive one of points of support that human beings need in life” (136-37); namely, of truth which is “also a moral category” (136). Countering postmodernity’s “radical criticism of reason” (139) in the face of Nazism’s “antireason. . . irrationalism,” Rusen’s language represents “a specific kind of reason” (140). His interview reads like a metahistory in progress; that is, a metahistory that “makes it necessary to reorganize our idea of historical thinking vis-a-vis the experience of meaning in history” (144). History’s distinction encompasses the wider significance of its “cultural function of orienting practical life and manifesting identity” (145).
Domanska has facilitated discussion in current times of a historical development we call postmodernism. Ten years have passed since the publication of Encounters, and during that time we have observed societies fiercely accommodating to the technique and rationalization of technology. In this context, history as “aesthetics,” “life,” “anthropological,” an “experience” might be in crisis-an issue Domanska frequently addresses-and, with that, the very self-realization and humanization for which Domanska hoped. We have “observed” historical development in Encounters.
If you would understand anything, observe its origins and its development, said Aristotle. In a reach for origins, Giambattista Vico’s conception of a thunderous primordial scene prompting a look up to the sky, and arousing vocalization, is noteworthy in our imagination: the “historical moment” as possibly lying somewhere in the space between looking up and an utterance.
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