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Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration



Donna Merwick

A rather curious and sobering thing happened to me as I was reading in preparation for this paper. I had expected to encounter a certain kind of literature in confronting the subject of postmodernity. It would be full of word games. There would be parodic essays on the supposed distinction between late modernity and postmodernity. There would be voices asserting or, alternatively, denying that ours is an age of all surface and no depth. Some would argue that it’s a world of mobility rather than substance, of the fragment rather than the whole, or of heterogeneities rather than totalities. We live, others would agree, by cheap commodification rather than community-building. I anticipated the teasing word constructions that baffle the uninitiated: the double-coding, the ‘aesthetic play’.1 I was, as I say, prepared for this discourse. Over the years, I have in fact learned a great deal from it. I enjoy it. This time, however, something discordant struck me in some of the literature. Subtly evident was an expression of deep personal disturbance or anger not at all in keeping with the ordinary gamesmanship and paradox-play or, as often, the dense analysis characteristic of postmodern theorising. Let me give some examples.

Frank Ankersmit is a demanding writer. He is a Dutch philosopher of history. He publishes in a number of European journals and also in History and Theory, a journal set up at Wesleyan University for the studies of such scholars. In a 1989 article on ‘Historiography and Postmodernism’, Ankersmit set out to make an argument in defence of the practices of postmodern writing, especially history. His way of doing it was in sentences like these, one following the other: ‘The point is that in an intentional context like this, p can never be replaced by another statement, even if the other statement is equivalent to p, or results directly from it.’2 This was the expected taut analytic prose. It was properly impersonal and ran to sixteen pages! But suddenly Ankersmit yielded to what can only be termed an outburst of anger. Examining historicism, and its central feature of essentialism, he hit out at certain of its practitioners. Historicism had made its entry, he wrote pointedly, ‘particularly in Germany’. He allowed himself to describe the historians of such a position. They were academics filled with an ‘optimistic self-overestimation’. ‘Anyone’, he went on, ‘cannot fail to notice the ludicrous nature of their pretensions’.3 Ludicrous is not a word Ankersmit would ordinarily use—or be expected to use—in a work of analytic philosophy. It is an extreme characterisation, bordering on the unprofessional. Here we have, perhaps, a window let open for just a moment: a Dutch man’s comment about Germany and a time in its recent history from which (he is at pains to show) postmodernity has to its credit declared itself separate and apart.

Consider one of Jean-François Lyotard’s essays as well. It is not easy to convince students to read his influential and long essay, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Perhaps it is enough to say that the essay (sometimes laboriously) relates postmodernism to the sociology of knowledge and describes our ‘postmodern condition’ as one of looking both back on and forward to modernism. For the most part, Lyotard, a Frenchman, stays within the stylistic parameters of an exposition given over to theoretical matters and the concise assemblage of data and interpretation. In a final impassioned paragraph, however, his work comes to resemble Ankersmit’s. He turns to those thinkers—the icons of German philosophy of history, Kant and Hegel—who had tried to totalise into a ‘unity’ a social and metaphysical world that, he declares, any analysis will show is manifestly heterogeneous. The French writer chooses his words carefully here, immediately identifying German historicism as not even rational but as a concession to desire. It was a ‘yearning for totality’. And it related itself to nothing less than the coming of terror. Kant, Hegel, and implicitly their historicist followers, he writes, ‘knew that the price to pay for such an illusion [as totality] is terror’. ‘The nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, he goes on, ‘have given us as much terror as we can take. We have paid a high enough price for the nostalgia of the whole and [of] the one’. Can we now once again, Lyotard asks,

hear the mutterings of the desire for a return to terror, for the realisation of the fantasy to seize the real. The answer is: Let us [in these times of postmodernity] wage war on totality … let us activate the differences and save the honor of the name.4

One could layer on this perspective—what I would for the moment want to call a European perspective—the writings of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the German theologian Hans Kung.5 It is Walter Benjamin, however, who most strongly articulates ‘the terror’ that results from yearning for unities and totalities. Like Ankersmit and Lyotard, he gives a place in his writings to meanings that should, one would think, keep their proper place outside the margins of theoretical, high-level philosophical discourse. Benjamin was a German Jew, a philosopher who took his own life after failing to escape from Germany and the Gestapo. Tragically, he had already made the connection between a yearning for totality and terror. He situated each in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. For more than anything else, fascism was able to legitimate itself by claiming to speak for a single national identity. And it had at hand a theory of the past to which many German academic historians were committed. Their historicism preached ‘a unity and … a continuity of history’. They wrote repeatedly of history as progress. The very passage of time was the advancement ‘toward a betterment’—implicitly toward the Third Reich. But Benjamin argued that they were (at best) naïve in their understanding of history and power, for it is ‘the victor who forever represents the present conquest or the present victory as an improvement in relation to the past’. Real history, he wrote, is that of those ‘traumatised by history’. It is the story of those ‘oppressed by the new victory’, even while the historians of the victor uncritically espouse ‘his [and his regime’s] narrative perspective’. History is the story of those who, amid the ‘deafening’ voices of the victors, are reduced to silence.6

For Benjamin, history is not a seamless narrative. It is always ruptured because it is always and only ‘the transmission of historical discourse from ruler to ruler, from one historical instance of power to another’. With his own times in mind, he concludes in one of his essays that ‘the continuum of history is that of the oppressors’. Continuity is ‘a process of silencing’. ‘The history of the oppressed is discontinuous.’ Its purpose, moreover, is not truth but redemption.7

I’ve mentioned Benjamin’s fellow European, Emmanuel Levinas. His ideas are parallel to Benjamin’s. Writing as early as the 1960s but still being published in the 1990s, his work is also ‘dominated by the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horror’. He writes that what we have of the past are only traces of the past. Presences are there but absences too, simultaneously. Our task? ‘The invisible must manifest itself if history is to lose its right to the last word, necessarily unjust … inevitably cruel.’8

I wanted to put this set of analyses before you because I was startled, and moved, by the way trauma, terror and deep emotion had seeped into writings that were either directly or indirectly confronting the issues entailed in describing and evaluating postmodernity. I also wanted to use them as a counter-weight to the discourse of those who are antagonists to postmodernism and postmodernity. The words of such critics are marked by a derision that, in my experience, few other proponents of a discourse position have incited. I’ve wanted to say that, on the contrary, the realities for which the words postmodernism and postmodernity are, after all, only stand-ins are in some of their origins and in their present operations far from deserving of contempt.

But listen for a moment to what I mean by contemptuous. In a January 1999 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, Gertrude Himmelfarb reviewed a book by Professor James W. Caesar, entitled Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought. She began the review:

It is perversely heartening to know that at least some of the follies and miseries that are so much with us today have been with us for centuries. If we have survived them so long, perhaps we can continue to bear with them.

It is also agreeable, she continued, ‘to find that a scholar can be passionate in pursuit of his subject without in any way impairing his scholarship’. Such a scholar is Professor Caesar whose book opens, she went on, with a ‘remarkable confession’:

If it were acceptable in a work of modern scholarship to rise with indignation in the defense of one’s country, I would begin this book with a simple call to arms. It is time to take America back. It is time to take it back from the literary critics, philosophers and self-styled postmodern thinkers who have made the very name ‘America’ a symbol for that which is grotesque, obscene, monstrous, stultifying, stunted, levelling, deadening, deracinating, deforming, rootless, uncultured and—always in quotations marks—’free’.9

This is the sort of shrill and contemptuous dismissal of postmodernism with which, I think, we are all familiar. Australia, and Australian political discourse, is not free of it, not in its substance, not in its shrillness. However, we have been asked to think about postmodernity in relation to positive notions about the creative aspects of writing histories and writing cultures. We are here to consider our current cultural conditions and, if we can, discover in them positive challenges to perform our work—our research and writing—in new and exemplary ways. In this, we are perhaps led in the direction of John Frow, an Australian literary critic who insists that, define it or describe it as you like, postmodernity makes certain things possible.10

Perhaps I have been asked to consider these issues with you because I have said again and again—to students, colleagues and readers—that I would not want to be performing my work (in my case, writing history) at any time other than now. Surely postmodernity is a word invented to cover the sets of conditions within which we now live and that exert pressures on our aesthetic practices—as physicists and business managers, as scientists and architects and novelists. I take my obligation to understand that set of conditions very seriously. I do so because my writing is unavoidably a cultural artefact produced within them. I want it to count. So I need to know how cultural objects are produced in this time of postmodernity, how they are consumed and validated. Along with others (but not everyone), I believe very firmly that in the social, economic and cultural conditions of our times, of postmodernity, we of the west are and have been experiencing a paradigm shift. I’m not foolish enough to engage in—or to engage you in—debating the specifics of that shift: exactly when it could be noted and became operative in each discipline and each national economy, exactly why we are heterophiliac and not essentialists, why we have come to problematise the taken-for-granted practices and beliefs of yesteryear. There is an oblique way of expressing this. At the least, it has the advantage of not being contentious: postmodernity is a ‘situation the interpretive conditions of which can no longer be described as modernity’.11

Let me stay with this notion of problematising, however, and look once again at Benjamin’s work. This time I want to read it for the certainties he considers problematic. I discover that these are some of the certainties he brings under question: that the passage of time is the continuous advancement of reason; that the proper narratives relating this passage of time must be and can be scientific, that historical writing is apolitical, objective, driven by a search for truth or for the essence of a subject. He queries the assumption that history texts, claiming objectivity and truth-telling, are essentially neutral in relation to power. He also tests its claim that somehow it has successfully set itself apart from those genres where contaminants such as subjectivity, a concern for style, ‘yearnings’ and other non-rational impulses have a place.

The certainties that were untenable to Benjamin are untenable to me as well. For me, postmodernity—the culture that is ours today—provides a space for problematising those certainties. I know that such a space was not there when, for example, I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the mid 1960s. Or, if such a space was there, it was only as wide as a handful of scholars like Hayden White and Norman O. Brown (and, I suspect, Manning Clark in Australia) were pushing at it to be.12 In the process of problematising my discipline and its certainties and in making my own determinations about the boundaries I want to set to that enterprise, I have experienced a release of the imagination and a challenge to perform as a writer that I would not have thought possible.13 It is not that I have discovered problems ignored within the tradition of historical writing. But what one is doing is finding ‘ways of speaking’ that make ‘old ways of speaking optional’.14 For, like the German historicists, I have also read the evidence of the past. I too have encountered it in archives. I have watched myself work as a researcher and as a writer, and I have observed my colleagues and students at their work. It is not the case that truth is there in the archives waiting to be discovered; it is not the case that finding the truth is the sole or necessarily the highest purpose of history-writing. It is not the case that the historian is practising some kind of positivistic science. Rather, it is an art form—or if it is a mix of the two, art and science, then let us accept this as our challenge and illumination.

We are in the business of constructing representations. The subject of representation has often been debated and theorised and, at such times, a space has invariably been opened for the new, for experimentation. One thinks of the Renaissance, or of Haarlem or Rome in the mid seventeenth century. Ours, I think, stands alongside those times, debating, theorising, puzzling over the copy and the original, arguing about the fit between the text and the image, daring the new. For some commentators today, representations will always be impaired because they are just appearances. They are not the real thing and, worse yet, their makers don’t even claim them to be. No claim is made for authenticity.15 The movie of The Client, the book The Client: which of these is authentic, which is a copy of which, or doesn’t anyone care? Many others equate the copy with the superficial. After all, we live every day with films and fashion designs that are marketed as the thing to see or to buy because they are simply simulations of the original. We live on the surface, it is said. We and those who are the custodians of our culture lack depth. Against this, others will ask whether ‘depth’ is not itself a metaphor, a western European construct and therefore not necessarily privileged over surface. Moreover, can we ever do anything more than interpret ‘the effects of the real’?16

Within these wide-open queries and discourses, we make our representations. We offer our performances. If we have the courage, we put on the market our experiments. I’m not suggesting that everything is up for grabs; I’m not suggesting that everything should be, for whatever reason, unsettled. I am arguing that any performance today, any exercise of the creative imagination in the cause of presenting knowledge, must be made with the fullest possible understanding of the intellectual atmosphere within which it is put forward for examination and acceptance. This is not to say that we need to get an understanding of postmodernity because it is the cause of what we are performing. Cultural artefacts or performances, as we know, are not determined by a regnant socio-economic base or set of political structures. The conditions called ‘postmodernity’ have an influence but cultural performances have their own rules. And this is true for poetry and legal narratives, for scientific papers and architectural drawings. Perhaps it is best to cast this in terms of performance and audience.17 The audience out there, the community out there, will or will not legitimate our work. Neither the sciences nor the arts can legitimate themselves.18

To be consistent, I think I should perform something of mine for you. Its title is Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York.19 This is the Preface or, as I called it, ‘Epitaph’:

He was the only one. He was the only man to have committed suicide in the town’s seventeenth-century history.

I first met him when I was writing another book on Albany, New York. He was the town notary. In a way he stood in the background, bearing witness to the contracts, promises and pledges of other townspeople. His occupation put him somewhere within the Dutch legal system. I, however, have always thought of him as being someone like myself, a historian. He was surrounded by stories, those he listened to and recorded, the hundreds he archived in a chest or trunk where they receded into the past.

Adriaen Janse van Ilpendam hanged himself on March 12, 1686. I wish I knew how it happened. This is not because of prurience, I think, but because I hope there was some comfort in the moment of his death, that it was not too terrible. Only one man that I know of, an early twentieth-century archivist, has puzzled over Janse’s suicide. He guessed that it was related to the English conquest of Janse’s home, New Netherland. Since he earned his livelihood by writing legal papers in Dutch, the demand that they be written in English moved him to his tragic decision.

The archivist was, I believe, correct. And perhaps he was right too in leaving the matter at that. I am still puzzled, however, at how it was that an imperial power’s designs for territorial acquisition, military invasion and occupation, visions of continental hegemony, how those forces met with and made a casualty of so small a life as Janse’s. England’s grand designs did not include his death. He was so incidental.

Janse’s life, which you will read about, was not a prelude to his suicide. Only later readers of his life would see it that way. It was a sequence of experiences. That, at least, is what we have to think after reading the records. And I have presented them for you in that way. Like his suicide, they are also mysterious happenings in a culture that is not ours, each a meetingplace of circumstance and structure, of particularities and generalities. Some were under his control; most were not. We can only ever know some of them. Puzzling over his experiences, I have come to think that no society, neither New Netherland before the English invasion of 1664 nor New York after it, makes it easy for someone to get along. Getting along in the New World in the seventeenth century was immensely difficult. Perhaps the difficulties were great enough to let us think that some people, some colonists like Adriaen Janse, would have been better off had they never come.

As we begin, I owe Adriaen Janse an apology. He never referred to himself as Adriaen Janse or Adriaen Janse van Ilpendam. He always wrote Adriaen van Ilpendam. You will see why. How he would otherwise tell a different story of himself from the one I tell, I don’t know. I do know that, like me, he would pull it together from fragments. He would draw on bits of memory, records, perhaps the oft-repeated anecdotes of others. He would shape it to suit his audience. Some facts or memories he would call upon if he were testifying in court. Others were good for yarning with friends. His selection would satisfy the occasion. I hope that in telling Janse’s story, I have judged the occasion of your reading about him correctly.

We are told that in any military adventure, the first casualty is truth. I think it is not. Janse is a reminder that the first casualties are people.

I wrote those words, just seven paragraphs. And I like what they are and what they do. But in reading them, I know that in a sense they are not just my words. They are there because I have received the gift of being able to write in these times—these times, if you will, of postmodernity. From somewhere, from some set of interpretive conditions, some background, surely from reading the performances of others and being the beneficiary of their creative imagination, I thought that, among other things, I could legitimately be a story-teller. I could find a voice for speaking to readers. I could disregard history as a medium offering information and, instead, do as a story-teller does, that is, embed the experiences of Adriaen Janse in my own life and thinking in order to ‘pass it on as experience to those listening’.20

I tried to write with honest respect for my readers. I tried, for example, to meet their ability to discern that a story written of Janse’s life would necessarily be constructed, that if the story were in his own hands it would be none the less constructed. His story would be like the narrative of an academic historian lecturing to students or that of a mother talking to a young child: it would fit a context and take a shape from it. Readers are not at all unsettled by a writer who is saying that there is no single or true perspective on a subject. Simply: there is Adriaen Janse in people’s memories, in court records, in anecdotes, in my story, in the stories of him that readers will themselves construct as they read along in the book. Such pluralism is acceptable today because it meets, as it seems to me, ‘our social and metaphysical reality’.21 I don’t think, in short, that undecidability disturbs readers.

We can, I think, credit readers with another kind of reading skill. Adriaen Janse was really the smallest of figures on any world scene. Yet the insignificance of his life reveals universal problems and meanings. This supposed insignificance needs to be addressed. As Nietzsche put it, in good history-writing ‘the simple is lost in the profound, and the profound in the simple’.22 Readers can catch the paradox of that as well. Forgive me if this begins to seem a bit patronising in regard to readers. The fact is we need legitimation for our questions, our research and our interpretations. The community gives this. It is readers who ‘bring … [this legitimacy] to meet the writer’.23

In Death of a Notary, I did not introduce theory or theoretical considerations. But who can think of words and narratives taking their shape from contexts without thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein and John Austin? Who can read the phrase, ‘his experiences … are also mysterious happenings in a culture that is not ours’, without simultaneously bringing to mind the cross-cultural studies of James Clifford and Clifford Geertz, Greg Dening and Marshall Sahlins, Homi Bhabha. Who can think of the constructed nature of the past without recalling the work of Michel Foucault, or think of history as an art form without conjuring the names of Hayden White and Arthur Danto, Michel de Certeau and Roland Barthes.

We need to be careful when speaking of postmodernity. We need to avoid the error that the great early twentieth-century scientist Alfred North Whitehead identified as ‘misplaced concreteness’. The conditions of our culture are continually changing. As much as postmodernity, processes such as globalisation, cosmopolitanism and hybridisation are much discussed now and will affect the way we perform our work. The aesthetic—or call it our cultural production—is always integrated into economic production. We don’t know, however, how the conditions of that relationship will change.24 The kind of knowledge that a future audience may construe as necessary may well be very different from that which satisfied the 1990s. It will still, however, be the task of creative imagination to discover what, in our own work, can ethically and responsibly meet that need.


1     F. Jameson, ‘Foreword’, in J. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1984, p. xviii.

2     F.R. Ankersmit, ‘Historiography and Postmodernism’, History and Theory: Studies in the Philosophy of History, vol. 28, no. 2, 1989, p. 144.

3     Ibid., pp. 148–49, my emphasis.

4     Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, pp. 81–82, my emphasis.

5     For Levinas, see R. Eaglestone, ‘The “Fine Risk” of History: Post-Structuralism, the Past, and the Work of Emmanuel Levinas’, Rethinking History, vol. 2, no. 3, 1998, pp. 313–20. Hans Kung accepts the validity of the term postmodernity, identifying modernity as Eurocentric, marked by a defunct belief in reason and progress, and enunciated within ‘a narrow nationalistic framework’. A Global Ethic for a Global Politics and Economics, trans. J. Bowden, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, p. 67.

6     S. Felman, ‘Benjamin’s Silence’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 25, no. 2, 1999, pp. 209–10, my emphasis.

7     Ibid., p. 210, quoting W. Benjamin, Paralipomènes et variantes des Thèses ‘Sur le concept de l’histoire’, in J. Monnoyer (ed.), Ecrits Français, Gallimard, Paris, 1991, p. 352.

8     Eaglestone, ‘The “Fine Risk” of History,’ p. 317, quoting Levinas, Difficult Freedom, trans. Saen Hand, Athlone, London, 1990, pp. 219, 319. Levinas’s main critique of totalities is in this statement: ‘Our responsibility for the other … interrupts totalising Western all-consuming reason’, p. 315, my emphasis.

9     G. Himmelfarb, ‘Review of James W. Caesar, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1997)’, Times Literary Supplement, no. 4996, 1999, p. 5.

10    J. Frow, Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmodernity, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997, p. 4.

11    C. Jencks, What Is Postmodernism?, Academy Editions, London, 1986, p. 35, quoting R. Krauss, ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, in H. Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Port Townsend, Washington, 1983, p. 39. For one of many commentators who accept the notion of a paradigm shift, see P. Portoghesi, quoted in L. Hutcheon, A Poetics for Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, Routledge, New York, 1988, p. 22.

12    I have in mind N.O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn., 1959, and Love’s Body, Random House, New York, 1966, but particularly H.V. White, ‘The Burden of History’, History and Theory, vol. 5, no. 2, 1966, pp. 111–34. This essay held the seeds of his magisterial work, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1973. Ankersmit calls this book ‘the most revolutionary book in philosophy of history over the past twenty-five years’, ‘Historiography’, p. 143.

13    Throughout A Poetics for Postmodernism, Hutcheon addresses the matter of problematising traditional certainties in disciplines such as history.

14    Hutcheon, A Poetics for Postmodernism, p. 14, quoting R. Rorty, ‘Deconstruction and Circumvention’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 11, no. 1, 1984, pp. 1–23.

15    See, for example, T. Brennan, At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1997.

16    Frow, Time and Commodity Culture, p. 11.

17    Jencks, in What Is Postmodernism?, points out that the impulse to reach out for a wider audience is itself a feature of postmodernity, p. 7

18    Ankersmit, ‘Historiography’, pp. 146–47, and see Jenks, What is Postmodernism?, p. 22.

19    Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1999.

20    Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, in his Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1969, p. 159, cited Felman, ‘Benjamin’s Silence’, p. 226, my emphasis.

21    Jencks, What Is Postmodernism?, p. 22.

22    F. Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, in Thoughts Out of Season, 5, Works, Russell & Russell, New York, 1964, p. 55.

23    Ankersmit, ‘Historiography’, p. 147, quoting J. Huizinga, De Taak der Cultuurgeschiedenis in J. Huizinga, Verzamelde Werken, vol. 7, H.D. Tjeenk, Haarlem, 1950, p. 72.

24    Frow, Time and Commodity Culture, p. 1.

Cite this chapter as: Merwick, Donna. 2009. ‘Postmodernity and the release of the creative imagination’. Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration, edited by Curthoys, Ann; McGrath, Ann. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 3.1–3.11.

© Copyright 2009 Donna Merwick All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission of the copyright owners. The fact that this book is published online does not mean that any part of it can be reproduced without first obtaining written permission: copyright laws do still apply. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University ePress:

Writing Histories: Imagination and Narration

   by Ann Curthoys and Ann Mcgrath