Issue 7.2, May 1992

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Essay Excerpt

By some accounts today it would appear that history has become impossible. James Clifford insists that "the time is past when privileged authorities could routinely 'give voice' (or history) to others without fear of contradiction"(1988:7). This is because "twentieth-century identities no longer presuppose continuous cultures or traditions. Everywhere individuals and groups improvise local performances from (re)collected pasts, drawing on foreign media, symbols, and languages" (1988:14). According to Jane Flax, postmodernism has declared the death of Man, of History, and of Metaphysics. All concepts of Man are "fictive devices"; History, in turn, is a fiction constructed by "Man"; and Metaphysics seeks to justify both by reference to an illusory "unitary Being beyond history, particularity, and change"(Flax1990:33-35). These views may be summed up in the notion of the failure of the Enlightenment "metanarrative."Its greatest error was its realism, the failure to recognize that all narratives are fictions. Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism describes the need to escape the "totalizing narratives" that have characterized conventional historical explanation up to the present day. 

"What has surfaced is different from the narratives of something unitary, closed, evolutionary as we have known it: as we have been in historiography traditionally seeing metafictionas well, we now the histories (in the of the historiographic get plural) losers as well as the winners, of the regional (and colonial) as well as the centrist, of the unsung many as well as the much sung few, and I might add, of women as well as men." [Hutcheon 1989:66] 

Coming at a time when historians and anthropologists have been jointly developing new methods of "historical ethnography" or "cultural history," these views are troubling. How are we to take a claim that all historical understanding is built up out of fictions?Presumably, historians, ethnographers, and others are already engaged in the writing of those histories that will replace the oppressive, totalizing metanarrative of the past (with its subsidiary totalizing ethnographies appendedas footnotes). At the same time, one might legitimately ask, why bother to consult archives or go into the field, or to review colleagues' work simply to produce fragmentary fictions?

[...]

The term modem or "bourgeois" public sphere refers generally to those institutions open to the public and to those practices, which any member of the public may engage in, that are characteristic of modern societies-it refers, thus, to museums, theaters, libraries, galleries, schools, and universities; cafés, stores, stock exchanges (and, in general, markets); courts, legislatures, town halls; the print and, more recently, electronic media. The distinctive feature of the public sphere is that any member of the public centers, in principle, on equal terms and that communication and deliberation take place. Analyses of how the de jure equality is realized in practice-of the development of institutions, of the gendered definition and social construction of the public and of public opinion-are engaging an increasing number of researchers and offering new perspectives on some old, knotty historical problems. This has gone on to some degree, independent of the developing discourse about "postmodernism"; and the aim hereis to bring together the two concepts of "postmodernism" and the"public sphere"in a revealing way. (Reddy, 135-136)