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boundary 2 28.3 (2001) 19-60

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Postmodernism and Chinese History

Arif Dirlik

This essay considers questions raised by postmodernism with specific reference to issues in the historiography of China. If I spend more time working through questions of postmodernism than on the historiography of China, it is because the former demands considerable clarification before any evaluation of what it may imply for the study of Chinese history can be undertaken, for its effects have become visible only in the last few years. The few self-proclaimed efforts at writing postmodern histories of China have provoked an almost unthinking hostility among some historians, based mostly on a misunderstanding, if not a caricaturization, of what postmodern historiography might entail.1 To be fair, this hostility is provoked in [End Page 19] part by the advocates of these new approaches, who, taken by their own novelty, make exaggerated claims for postmodernist innovation that may be sustained only by their caricaturization of the historiography from which they would depart. But it is driven also by a conservative attachment to what is considered to be proper historical method, and an even more conservative urge to police disciplinary boundaries. We need to confront both the abuses of postmodern historiography and the abusive hostility it provokes; for the issues involved are too important to be lost in the mazes of what often seems to be little more than trivial professional politics. What is at issue, most fundamentally, is the relationship of history as discipline and epistemology to its broader cultural environment, whether in China or the United States, which are the locations of concern in this discussion.

Historicizing Postmodernism

“Postmodernism is an exasperating term,” Hans Bertens writes, because, “in the avalanche of articles and books that have made use of the term since the late 1950s, postmodernism has been applied at different levels of conceptual abstraction to a wide range of objects and phenomena in what we used to call reality.”2 Not only does the meaning assigned to the term differ from one artistic realm to another, Bertens suggests, but these meanings often point in conflicting directions, especially in the relationship of the postmodern to the modern. If the postmodern has generated its own intellectual and artistic styles, moreover, its domain has been enlarged also by the incorporation within the idea of the postmodern of intellectual developments that preceded, and owed little to, postmodernism as it emerged in the 1980s, which both defenders and critics have nevertheless come to attribute to postmodernism, adding further to the difficulty of distinguishing the postmodern from the modern. [End Page 20]

The varied and contradictory guises in which postmodernism appears rule out any easy definition of the term, suggesting instead that it is best grasped in the concrete historicities of discourses on the postmodern. How the postmodern appears in its relationship to history is discussed at some length below. Suffice it to say here that given the apparently antagonistic relationship between history and postmodernism, it is ironic that developments within historiography should have contributed both to the generation of postmodernism and the broadening of its scope. On the other hand, while postmodernism in its more extravagant guises appears to be inimical to history, it also has legitimized ways of thinking about the past that may rescue history from the teleologies of modernity and enrich our understanding of the past and its relationship to the present. The contradictory relationship between history and postmodernism is entangled in the cultural legacy of the 1960s, with its own blend of hope and disillusionment, which would produce both new departures in history and a radical questioning of the cultural and political meaning assigned to history under the regime of modernity.3

The relationship of the postmodern to the modern is highly ambiguous because, arguably, it is the modern that in its commitment to ceaseless change generates the postmodern in its self-realization, which by the very logic of modernity must be continually deferred. The postmodern, in other words, exists within the modern at every moment as its dialectical negation. But is it possible that there is a point at which...


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pp. 19-60
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Archived 2004
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