Academic journal article CLIO

History and Periodization

Academic journal article CLIO

History and Periodization

Article excerpt

In Nothing but History: Reconstruction and Extremity after Metaphysics, David D. Roberts has proposed that the practice of historical inquiry culminates in what is "at best only a true redescription -- partial, provisional, to some degree idiosyncratic and contingent."(1) This "weak but constructive mode" (317) is, he argues, the best guarantee of resisting our embeddedness in particular traditions and master narratives. Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., similarly concludes his Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse with an appeal to a new form of historical representation that repudiates "the omniscience of a Panopticon for the particular perspectives of situated viewpoints."(2) While these books are very different in method and approach, they share a set of similar concerns about the nature and practice of history particularly representative of what one reviewer of Roberts's book (quoted on the dust jacket) has termed the current debate on the status of historical knowledge "in our present `postmodern' time." The problem of periodization in history involves all of the philosophical or methodological issues that permeate current discussions of historical knowledge and its representation: relativism, narrativity, master narratives, objectivism, rhetoricity and the linguistic turn, ideology and contextualism, to name only a few of the major issues of the "present" moment. Indeed, it is possible to conceive of Berkhofer's and Roberts's books (both published in 1995) taking their place in a future period history of -- as the reviewer referred to above describes it -- our "present `postmodern' time."

A good deal has changed (and stayed the same) since the publication, two decades ago, of Maurice Mandelbaum's The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge. There periodization is conceived as a form of selection of historical elements within a specific chronological frame that all too often is based on uncritical assumptions of "an overriding unity that embraces all aspects of social life. Such a unity is sometimes held to be based on the dominance of some form of institutional structure, as has sometimes been held by Marxists; sometimes it has been identified with a pervasive Zeitgeist; at other times it is more modestly claimed that there are common intellectual presuppositions and common forms of sensibility that underlie traits common to the social institutions and to the cultural products of an age." Mandelbaum warns that "any one of these monistic tendencies will do much to obliterate the degree of independence that, I believe, must be preserved in various fields of historical inquiry." Mandelbaum's principal example of a monistic error is that of dating "the beginning, middle, and end of the period with which we are concerned."(3) But differences in the synchronicity of diverse patterns of development or in the role of diverse facets of institutional structures within a so-called period also, he argues, undermine the efforts of historians to represent accurately "the nature of a society or the changes taking place within it" (23). While Mandelbaum is shrewdly attentive to many of the same concerns that are central to the work of Berkhofer and Roberts, the issues involved have clearly undergone a significant change -- and with that change has come a shift in vocabulary. Ideology and alterity are now key concepts in the more radically contextualized approaches to historical knowledge, or what Roberts refers to as "the historians' visceral sense of the drama of the particular case,"(4) while the words "contingency," reflexivity," and "narrative" form a collective idiom that itself invites period generalizations.

Michel Foucault sums up this ostensibly "postmodern moment" in his borrowing of Nietzsche's concept of genealogy where, Foucault writes, "if the genealogist refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics, if he listens to history, he finds that there is `something altogether different' behind things: not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms. …

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