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Theosophy and Postmodernism

Dec 08, 1996 04:58 PM
by Maxim Osinovsky


>I'm not familiar with Himmelfarb. My focus of study was more
>Lacanian than historical (so put me in the French school if you
>would like), though I'm quite interested in the latter, and would
>like to learn more about her take on this subject.

Gertrude Himmelfarb's On Looking Into the Abyss: Untimely
Thoughts on Culture and Society (NY: Knopf, 1994) is a collection
of essays previously published in The American Scholar, NY Times
Book Review, etc.

Here is a couple of quotes related to the Holocaust:

> pXI: If Lionel Trilling's presence is so conspicuous in this
> book, so is the memory of the Holocaust. This too was not
> anticipated or consciously intended by me. Yet it now seems to
> me perfectly natural and proper. In almost every essay, the
> Holocaust stands as a rebuke to historians, philosophers, and
> literary critics who, in their zeal for one or another of the
> intellectual fashions of our time, belittle or demean one of the
> greatest tragedies of all time. Historians who thinks it the
> highest calling of their profession to resurrect the "daily life
> of ordinary people" can find little evidence in the daily life
> of ordinary Germans of the overwhelming fact of life--and of
> death--for millions of Jews; those who look for the "long-term"
> processes and impersonal "structures" in history tend to explain
> this "short-term event" in such a way as to explain it away; and
> those seeking to "deconstruct" the history of the Holocaust as
> they deconstruct all of history come periously close to the
> "revisionists" who deny the reality of the Holocaust.

> pXIII: One lesson that was confirmed for me while preparing this
> volume is how rapidly academic disciplines change and
> intellectual fashions evolve. I first learned that lesson soon
> after the publication of my book *The New History and the Old*,
> in 1987. In a lecture the following year I ventured to suggest
> (what I had not said explicitly in the book) that the next stage
> in the evolution of the "new history" would be the
> "deconstruction" of history. My audience, which included some
> distinguished historians, ridiculed the idea. Surely no real
> historian, I was told (this was meant to exclude a well-known
> philosopher of history who, it was agreed, did not qualify as a
> historian), could possibly do anything so absurd. Within a year,
> more and more historians, and not only philosophers of history,
> were doing just that. (Some had been doing that earlier, but no
> one noticed.) Even I, prepared for that development, was not
> prepared, either emotionally or intellectually, for the next
> logical step, the deconstruction of the Holocaust.

A long quote from her essay on "Postmodernist History" (p131-3):

> For the historian, as for the philosopher, the quarrel between
> the Ancients and the Moderns is being superseded by a quarrel
> between the Moderns and the Postmoderns. If the great subversive
> principle of modernity is historicism--a form of relativism that
> locates the meaning of ideas and events so firmly in their
> historical context that history, rather than philosophy and
> nature, becomes the arbiter of truth--postmodernism is now
> confronting us with a far more subversive form of relativism, a
> relativism so radical, so absolute, as to be antithetical to
> both history and truth.*

> *[Footnote] "History'" in this context, refers to writings about
> the past rather than the past itself.

> For postmodernism denies not only suprahistorical truths but
> historical truths, truths relative to particular times and
> places. And that denial involves a repudiation of the historical
> enterprise as it has been understood and practiced until very
> recently.
> Postmodernism <...> is best known as a school of literary
> theory. But it is becoming increasingly prominent in such other
> disciplines as history, philosophy, anthropology, law, and
> theology (and in architecture, where it has a more specialized
> meaning). Its forefathers are Nietzsche and Heidegger, its
> fathers Derrida and Foucault <...>. From Jacques Derrida
> postmodernism has borrowed the vocabulary and basic concepts of
> "deconstruction": the "aporia" of discourse, the indeterminacy
> and contrariness of language, the "fictive" and "duplicitous"
> nature of signs and symbols, the dissociation of words from any
> presumed reality. From Michel Foucault it has adopted the idea
> of power: the "power structure" immanent not only in
> language--the words and ideas that "privilege" the "hegemonic"
> groups in society--but in the very nature of knowledge, which is
> itself an instrument and product of power. The combined effect
> of these doctrines is to impugn traditional rational discourse as
> "logocentric," "phallocentric," "totalizing," "authoritarian."
> [Footnote] This description of postmodernism by a postmodernist
> may read like a parody, but it is all too typical of the genre:
> ...indeterminacy and immanence; ubiquitous simulacra,
> pseudo-events; a conscious lack of mastery, lightness and
> efvervesence everywhere; a new temporality, or rather
> intemporality, a polychronic sense of history; a patchwork or
> lucid, transgressive or deconstructive approach to knowledge and
> authority; an ironic, parodic, rexlexive, fanrastic awareness of
> the moment; a linguistic turn, semiotic imperative in culture;
> and in society generally the violence of local desires diffused
> into a terminology of seduction and force.**
> **[Endnote] Ihab Hassan, *The Postmodern Turn: Essays in
> Postmodern Theory and Culture*, quoted, not ironically, by
> Ganrielle M. Spiegel, "History and Post-Modernism," *Past and
> Present*, May 1992, p. 194 (n. 3).

In literature, postmodernism amounts to a denial of the fixity of
any "text'" of the authority of the author over the interpreter,
of any "canon" that privileges great books over lesser ones. In
philosophy, it is a denial of the fixity of language, of any
correspondence between language and reality--indeed, of any
"essential" reality and thus of any proximate truth about
reality. In law (in America, at any rate), it is a denial of the
fixity of the Constitution, of the authority of the founders of
the Constitution, and of the legitimacy of law itself, which is
regarded as nothing more than an instrument of power. In
history, it is a denial of the fixity of the past, of the reality
of the past apart from what the historian chooses to make of it,
and thus of any objective truth about the past.

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