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Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, and Deconstruction: Notes for Historians

  • Jane Caplan


The central purpose of this essay is to clarify some of the terms in literary criticism that are being employed in current historiographical debates, and to comment on some of their possible implications for German history. As interdisciplinary theoretical debates proliferate beyond their immediate sources, contested positions often come to be built on misleading, heavily derived, or partisan versions of the concepts and practices drawn from the other side. Once battle has beenjoined, the issue of more exacting definitions and distinctions may go by the board. On the other hand, my modest attempt to provide a glossary for others' arguments may mask a more presumptuous claim to both the knowledge and the distance needed to set a tangled record straight. But although I want to suggest which insights might be valuable to historians, and which may be more problematic or unhelpful, I cannot pretend to adjudicate between currently competing theories of knowledge-production. For the German context, that undertaking would require at least some discussion of late nineteenth-century idealist historiography, and of the debate about modernization and modernity that can be traced through Marx, Weber, and Habermas. This will have to await another occasion.



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1. This essay was originally intended as a discussion paper, and retains this character. I am grateful to members of the German Women's History Study Group and to Mary Poovey, as well as to participants in the Chicago seminar, for their critical comments.

2. For a recent constructively critical account of this kind, see Dews, Peter, Logics of Disintegration: Post-Structuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (London, 1987). The final chapter of Jay, Martin, Marxism and Totality (Berkeley, 1984), is also pertinent to the discussion here. For a discussion of language and discourse in the German historical context, see Schöttler, Peter, “Historians and Discourse Analysis,” History Workshop Journal 27 (Spring 1989): 3765.

3. Skinner, Quentin, ed., The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences (Cambridge, 1985), Introduction.

4. For a marxist critique of recent historical trends, see Palmer, Bryan D., Descent Into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia, 1989).

5. See Frederic Jameson's discussion of the terms modern, antimodern, promodern, and postmodern, in The Politics of Theory: Ideological Positions in the Postmodernism Debate,” New German Critique 33 (Fall 1984): 5365. For a critical view, see Habermas, Jürgen, “Modernity versus Postmodernity,” New German Critique 22 (Winter 1981): 314, and more extensively Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne: Zwölf Vorlesungen (Frankfurt, 1986).

6. Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, 1984), 3.

7. Jameson, Frederic, “Marxism and Postmodernism,” New Left Review 176 (July/Aug 1989): 33. See also his Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (July/Aug 1984), and “The Politics of Theory.”

8. The term historicism has had a confusing history itself, partly because of the tension in it between a constricted empiricism and a philosophically expansive positivism. Originating as a term for the nineteenth-century German academic claim to provide an objectively faithful account of past events (Ranke's “wie es eigentlich gewesen”), it was given a more metaphysical inflection in the later nineteenth century as relativist theories of consciousness and cognition gained ground (see Iggers, Georg G., The German Conception of History [Middletown, Conn., 1968]). In the 1940s, Karl Popper claimed the word as a pejorative category for all theories pretending to a “scientific” knowledge of the laws of History, with marxism as the chief offender. Most recently, the literary “new historicists” have marshalled the term in their bid to return studies of texts to the material and cultural conditions of their production and dissemination.

9. See also the more numerous distinctions proposed by Patterson, Thomas, in “Post-structuralism, Post-modernism: Implications for Historians,” Social History 14, no. 1 (01 1989): 8388, and references therein.

10. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, xxiv. For a discussion of the development of Lyotard's thought, see Dews, Logics of Disintegration, especially chap. 4.

11. In recent issues of New Left Review; and see Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London, 1985), and the extension by Norman Geras of his New Left Review critique of Laclau, and Mouffe, , Discourses of Extremity (London, 1990).

12. Williams, Raymond, “When was Modernism?New Left Review 175 (05/07 1989): 51; Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory (Minneapolis, 1983), 150; Anderson, Perry, In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (London, 1983), 48. Cf. also the neo end-of-ideology position adopted by the State Department's Francis Fukuyama, reported in New York Times (“Judging ’Post-History,’ The Theory to End All Theories,” 27 Aug. 1989, 5).

13. See Niethammer, Lutz, “Afterthoughts on Posthistoire,” History and Memory 1, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1989): 2753. I am grateful to Markus Wiener for this reference. Derrick's comments on the value of “the notion of the subject” are cited in Jay, Marxism and Totality, 536.

14. Paraphrased by Jameson, Frederic, The Prison-House of Language (Princeton, 1972), 6.

15. Indeed, if any recent intellectual conflict deserves to be called a Historikerstreit, it was surely the remarkably polemical war of position that was fought over structuralist marxism in the 1970s. The arguments here had less immediate resonance within American or German intellectual circles than among a small but influential group of British historians and intellectuals—chief among them Edward Thompson, Richard Johnson, Perry Anderson, Paul Hirst, and Barry Hindess. But the encounter was symptomatic of a new kind of clash between theoretical and practical politics that has since become widely characteristic of arguments within feminism as well as the left. Whether the structuralist initiative collapsed of its own intellectual deficiencies, or was beaten back by a redoubtable professional police action, is no doubt a matter of opinion. It is at any rate undeniable that the theoretical work of Althusser, Poulantzas, and the rest has not left a very durable legacy to history as a discipline, and that few historians have seen any reason to do more than dismiss it unread. (The exception here is Poulantzian, David Abraham'sThe Collapse of the Weimar Republic, 2d ed. [New York, 1986]; and see also Kershaw, Ian, “The Nazi State: An Exceptional State?New Left Review 176 [07/08 1989]: 4756.)

16. Derrida, Jacques, “‘Genesis and Structure’ and Phenomenology,” in his Writing and Difference (Chicago, 1978), 160.

17. Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, 61.

18. For one such critique, see Paul de Man's “The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida's Reading of Rousseau,” but also his claim that “It would seem to matter very little whether Derrida is right or wrong about Rousseau” (137). It is interesting that Derrida's (and de Man's) gesture of auto-subversion, which is enacted in a rhetoric of complexity and doubling, is what seems often to enrage their critics: but is it the obscurity that distresses them, or the subversion? Or perhaps the fact that by auto-criticism the critic anticipates and expropriates the grounds of the critique?

19. Fraser, Nancy, “The French Derrideans: Politicizing Deconstruction or Deconstructing the Political?New German Critique 33 (Fall 1984): 143.

20. See the discussion and references in Isabel Hull's essay in this collection.

21. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, 187; and see Mouffe, Chantal, “Radical Democracy: Modern or Postmodern?” in Ross, Andrew, ed., Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism (Minneapolis, 1988), 3145. Also Hirst, Paul, the deconstructor of Althusser, in Marxism and Historical Writing (London, 1985).

22. Literally, in logic, false reasoning; here intended to underscore Lyotard's refusal of meta-languages and his commitment to the instability of knowledge.

23. Postmodern Condition, 61, 67.

24. Note the difference, advanced in the name of deconstructive practice by the short-lived and excruciatingly carefully named “Paris Center for Philosophical Research on the Political,” between the projects of taking a political position, and questioning the position of the political—a distinction which is easily mapped on to that between intellectual work and political practice in any sphere. There is, however, a certain Arendtian moment in one set of attempts to politicize deconstruction, in that they amount in the end to a critique of the extension of the political beyond the state; cf. Fraser, “The French Derrideans.”

25. Bennett, Tony, “Texts in History: The Determination of Readings and Their Texts,” in Attridge, Derek et al. , eds., Post-Structuralism and the Question of History (Cambridge, 1987), 66.

26. See also Isabel Hull‘s related comments about men's alienated debates about themselves, via women.

27. The reconstituted hyper-individualism offered by “rational choice marxism” against the pretensions of both poststructuralism and Critical Theory seems rather a manifestation of the crisis of marxist theory than a resolution to it: see Carling, Alan, “Rational Choice Marxism,” New Left Review 160 (11/12 1986): 2462 (which incidentally misses the point about feminism), and Wood's, Ellen Meiksins critical response, “Rational Choice Marxism: Is the Game Worth the Candle?New Left Review 177 (09/10 1989): 4188.

28. This has been one lesson of the commentaries on historical narrative by Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra; see also Certeau, Michel de, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (Minneapolis, 1986).

29. Cf. Friedländer, Saul, Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death (New York, 1986); also Walter Benjamin's classic contrast between the politicization of aesthetics, and the aestheticization of politics.

30. This is the burden of Charles Maier's strictures against poststructuralist history in The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 168ff.

31. De Certeau, Heterologies, 200–203.

32. See Peukert, Detlev, “The Genesis of the Final Solution from the Spirit of Science,” in Childers, Thomas and Caplan, Jane, eds., Re-Evaluating the “Third Reich” (New York, forthcoming); and Baumann, Zygmunt, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca, 1989). The concept of “pathological modernity” reconfigures part of the field described in the older term “cultural pessimism.” The debate about “rationalizing” interpretations of American slavery, initiated by Robert Fogel, is also pertinent here.

33. As Robert Gellately has proposed in his most recent work on the operations of the Gestapo; see The Gestapo and German Society: Political Denunciation in the Gestapo Case Files,” Journal of Modern History 60, no. 4 (12 1988): 654–94, and more extensively The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy 1933–1945 (New York, 1990).

34. Cf. Martin Thom's critique of the biologically suspect language of antiracism, in Anti-racism: The Infections of Language,” Wedge 3 (Winter 1978): 1422.


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