Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Drawing Parallels with the Renaissance: Late-Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Possibility of Historical Layering

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Drawing Parallels with the Renaissance: Late-Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Possibility of Historical Layering

Article excerpt

OVER THE PAST several years, I have continued to reflect on an important intellectual and cultural development of the later twentieth century--the emergence of a new historical consciousness brought on by postmodernism. In a previous article for this journal I recommended some specific curricular reforms in the humanities that take into account this new historical self-consciousness. I now want to explore the implications of this cultural/historical awareness regarding the possibility of historical layering.

Students and scholars, especially in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, are increasingly aware of the currency of the term "postmodern" and its variations, "postmodernism," "postmodernity," and "postmodernist" (Bertens, Idea, 3). Although occasionally observed in popular culture, these cultural labels are more often encountered in the titles of learned articles and books and in the electronic discussions of academics on the Interact. Since postmodern critics themselves prefer soft definitions and blurred boundaries, we are often confused by the seeming contradictions and ambiguities of the cultural meaning(s) implied by the postmodern discourse. At the same time, we are also aware of the continuing use of the term "modern" as a common cultural label in describing current or contemporary events. My purpose here is not so much to provide clear definitions of these terms, but rather to consider the ways they have been used (and mis used) as historical labels in characterizing the cultural changes during the last half-century. Thus my concerns are that of a cultural historian whose research has been grounded in the history of the Renaissance. By drawing some parallels with Renaissance history, I shall argue for a more nuanced approach to recent times as a layering of both postmodern and late-modern cultural dimensions.

Similarities in space and time compression underlie my comparison of Renaissance and recent culture, just as David Harvey has used "the shifting dimensions of space and time" as a basic argument for his popular study, The Condition of Postmodernity (vii). Some years ago, the historian, William McNeill, explained the rise of the West around 1500 and related the European dominance to new understandings of space and time. According to McNeill, this historical process, rooted in the Renaissance, included the extensive overseas explorations by Europeans and led to a new, modern sense of global consciousness and conquest. He pointed, in addition, to the shift from geocentric to heliocentric views in astronomy as contributing to this new spatial and temporal sensibility. Today we are all aware of the far-reaching implications of new discoveries in science and of technological development, as we explore the vastness of space while confronting the challenges of living in a global village. In our daily lives we are aware of the increasing compression of time and rapidity of cultural change as we enter a new millennium.

Our new sense of compressed time has been particularly challenging for historians who try to interpret the meaning of the past for the present and the future. Indeed, one postmodern critic, in her study of "postmodern temporality," has referred to "the subversion of historical time" and pointed out a possible "disappearance of history" (Ermarth, xi, 7). Professional historians have responded variously to such postmodern commentaries. Some question the linguistic assumptions of Ferdinand de Saussure and his followers, including the post-structuralists, who would deny any direct encounter with the "material reality" or "presence" that is taken for granted by practicing historians (Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob, 207-17). Gordon Chang and Pauline Rosenau, on the other hand, have acknowledged the benefits of the post-structuralist/postmodernist criticism for improving and clarifying historical understanding. Still other historians, such as Kerwin Klein, Arthur Marwick, and Neville Kirk, have suggested new approaches to the writing of historical narrative, taking into account the assaults of the postmodern critics. …

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