Deconstructing History (Second Edition)
By Alun Munslow
To what extent is “history” concordant with the past? To what do we owe our faith in the accepted practices that constitute the world of academic historical writing and research? Is the past, as it really was, accessible to us? Does history “exist” on its own, something empirically and evidentially discovered; or, rather, is it created by the historian who, through language, merely constructs a particular version or account of the past? These are just some of the overarching questions that Alun Munslow addresses in the second edition of his renowned Deconstructing History.
For Munslow, history (as a discrete body of institutionalized knowledge-production, i.e., discourse) must reconcile itself with its postmodern self-consciousness; a reflexive self-consciousness that drapes a curtain of doubt over the hard-line empiricism that has defined history as a distinct and organized discipline since the late 19th century. To this end, Munslow provides an admirable survey of how our postmodern suspicion of representational thinking and the “metaphysics of presence” undermines and transforms conventional historical thinking and practice. To this end, Deconstructing History does not entail an actual “deconstructive” reading of history, per se. Rather, it is an introduction to the intellectual and academic problems pertaining to history as discipline – specifically; the challenges that a deconstructive (or, in Munslow’s terms, a post-modern) impulse poses for the vast nexus of foundational beliefs and unshakable certitudes underlying modern academic historical writing and research.
When Munslow uses the word “deconstruction” he is not invoking the work of Jacques Derrida, or any particular deconstructive thinker; but rather, “deconstruction” for Munslow metonymically stands for an intellectual skepticism with regards many predominating assumptions and presuppositions held immutable in Western thinking and culture. And while Munslow’s definition of “deconstruction” inevitably draws on many of the ideas and problems commonly associated with that body of thought, he relinquishes any responsibility or obligation to pay particular fidelity to any definitive “theory” or “school” resembling “deconstruction.” And this is where the first problem arises: Munslow’s understanding of deconstruction as a way of “reading” history is purely functional. The deconstructive impulse rests in a “peeling-back process [that] seeks out that which is repressed in the text (primary or secondary) – not only what is hidden from the naïve reader but also what is hidden from the intention of author(s).” (p. 111). What’s lost here is the way in which the text is supposed to deconstruct itself. A deconstructive reading is intended to let the text speak in its “Otherness,” and not a procedural methodology by an active and imposing reader-subject. In other words, Deconstructing History presents deconstruction as yet another school of thought or methodology. This severs deconstruction from the free play of meaning within a text – the reading that demonstrates the impossibility of reading. Munslow’s deconstruction amounts to a “representation” of deconstruction – and thus attempts to enclose the deconstructive impulse, to give it a definitive and discernible meaning. At worst, this has the tendency to reduce the deconstructive free-play of the text to a mere semblance of itself -rendering it an impotent “school of thought” or methodology to be applied, proactively, by the historian (subject).
Munslow’s ambition is to present an easily accessible introductory text bridging the open space between deconstructive theory and the dominant discourse of history and historiography; but his ambitiousness comes at a cost. For the sake of clarity, coherence, and convenience, Munslow offers the reader a stable intellectual infrastructure comprised of an ongoing comparison between three competing modes of thought: reconstructionism, or the faithful empiricism that holds that there was a definitive past capable of being described, explained, understood, and articulated through direct access to the textual sources; constructionism, or the articulation of theories and explanations accounting for the relationships between historical events (in particular, Marxist historians or the Annales school); and finally, desconstructionism, which (in Munslow’s terms) rejects the very notion of stable or closed meaning and originating sources (in a word, a rejection of the logocentrism of the Western tradition).
For the most part, this triadic structure simplifies an otherwise complex nexus of attitudes and beliefs among competing opinions within the historical discipline. It allows Munslow’s text to parse out the significant and compelling differences between the three major modes of historical thought. Deconstructing History summarizes each mode of thought as it relates to four major problems: epistemology; evidence; theories of history; and narrativity. Each chapter includes a summary and description of how each approach to history responds to these particular problems. This creates an easy-to-follow model for uninitiated readers (in particular, undergraduate history majors) – but at a costly expense. The whole point of a deconstructive approach to the text is to show that the conceptual frameworks that we take to be “natural,” “essential,” or “innate” are, in fact, derivative, parasitic constructions themselves. But the point is not that we need to look further for a more “originary” origin; but rather, to call into question the “originary” trope in the first place.
In addition to the comparative analysis between the three major modes of historical thought, Deconstructing History also includes two chapters dedicated to two particular “deconstructionist” thinkers, Michel Foucault and Hayden White. The Foucault chapter is an informed, albeit heavily simplified, introduction to the latter’s complex thinking on the question of history; while the chapter on White summarizes that thinker’s tropological (figurative) (i.e., literary) approach to the historical sciences. And while these chapters prove helpful in providing particular demonstrations of what a post-modern approach to history looks like, there are several problems with including Foucault as a “deconstructive” historian (least of all Foucault’s explicit criticisms of deconstruction). To be sure, a stronger case could be made for including White, but this too isn’t without its problems – once again demonstrating the limits of Munslow’s use of the term “deconstruction” as a metonymical stand-in for “postmodern” more generally.
Deconstructing History is most successful in its effort to broach some of the complex problems and difficulties that deconstruction poses for traditional historical research. Some problem-areas are given more attention than others, as in the case of the questionability of the correspondence theory of truth and the critique of the relationship between language and actuality, signifier and signified. A not insubstantial amount of attention is paid to the question of narrativity, but it largely figures in the broader question of history as a literary, rather than scientific, endeavor. Scant attention is paid to the question of whether narrative accounts for our primary mode of experiencing the world, or whether narrative is a construct, neither natural nor fundamental to our experience of the world. A great deal of the text grapples with the question of how history is represented in textual form, with a an insightful discussion as to whether the text of the “historian” is at all capable of reflecting the “reality” of a past that is no longer immediately accessible, or even whether such a representation is meaningful in the first place.
Deconstructing History reads like a freshman survey class; it wants to draw attention to some of the major problem-areas, without investing too much energy or time in any one particular discussion. In this respect it is a success – but at a cost far too great to remain adequately attuned to the spirit of that which it aims to invoke. The text attempts to demonstrate how the deconstructive impulse can modify, reshape, and reform the way we understand how history (as textuality) comes into being. It’s a worthwhile attempt to apply deconstructive thinking to history as discipline, but in doing so, has largely neglected that which made (and continues to make) deconstruction so interesting and attractive in the first place. Munslow’s text will undoubtedly inspire a miniscule fragment of the population interested in questions of history and theory to look further into deconstruction, perhaps even motivating them to learn how to re-read and misread history as an open textuality. For that, I highly recommend Deconstructing History. But for anyone who is looking for a serious engagement of both history and theory, or a deconstructive reading of history (in a similar vein as De Man’s reading of Shelley’s The Triumph of Life), then Deconstructing History falls short of the mark.