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RE: [XTalk] Deconstruction and doing history

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  • David C. Hindley
    ... historical work on the Shoa, so I will make my request more specific: Could someone name a major work on the Shoa that is written by a deconstructionist?
    Message 1 of 3 , Jun 2, 2001
      Brian McCarthy says:

      >>Deconstruction has been around now for quite some time, as has
      historical work on the Shoa, so I will make my request more specific:

      Could someone name a major work on the Shoa that is written by a

      Has anyone demonstrated, or even argued convincingly, that any major
      work on the Shoa would have been better if its author had espoused the
      deconstructionist mind-set and theory?

      My impression is that the decon--ists in practice consider their work
      as a substitute for doing history.

      Perhaps some working historians have quietly profited from their
      critique. I don't think either Yehuda Bauer or Peter Novick
      acknowledges doing so.

      In any case I am glad that they have not put their historical work on
      hold until they have swum the length of deconstruction's acid bath.<<

      To be honest, I do not want to be using any single example as a litmus
      test. The Holocaust (Shoa) is a deeply personal event for many who
      lived through it as well as the families of those affected by it in
      other ways.

      I engaged in a quick web search and think I am getting a feel for the
      position you have voiced. A March 1998 archive from the arch-theory
      list contained a thread that seemed to mirror your concern. Authors of
      various posts suggested that narrative deconstruction was being
      employed by some to deny the certainty of Holocaust events.

      I also found an essay by Diane Purkiss (_The Witch in History_)
      responding to a review of her book by Richard Evans (who wrote _In
      Defense of History_). From this (plus other links I looked at
      yesterday but could not find today) I get the impression that there
      are some historians, especially among Jews, who "are fond of pointing
      out that deconstruction�s leading American exponent was a Nazi
      sympathiser and anti-Semite during the war, indicating the dire
      political consequences of deconstruction�s challenge to traditional
      history. (Purkiss, P. 70)"

      The objection seems to hinge on a couple things: especially that Paul
      de Man, a well known poststructualist and narrative deconstructionist,
      wrote 170 articles for a Belgian collaborationist newspaper during
      WW2, including one that was explicitly anti-Semitic, and that
      Holocaust deniers have employed narrative deconstruction to try to
      undermine the claims of Holocaust survivors (and the recorders of
      archives) as well as lend legitimacy to their own explanation of

      Sometimes the Holocaust deniers' presentation mimics bona-fide
      historical scholarship so thoroughly that Evans complains the
      Holocaust deniers� "use of the scholarly apparatus of footnotes and
      references, and their insistence that they are telling the objective
      truth [as opposed, I suppose, to some sort of subjective
      agenda-influenced accounts of Holocaust activists], demonstrates in
      Purkiss�s view the �dire consequences� of such a scholarly apparatus,
      the bankruptcy of such a belief in objectivity and truth." (pp. 140-1)
      Keep in mind, though, that Purkiss took exception to this
      characterization of her position as being inaccurate, and connected
      the misrepresentation to Evans' "attempt to link postmodernism with
      Neo-Nazi Holocaust denial."

      So there appears to be a tendency on the part of Holocaust defenders
      (as opposed to deniers) to see narrative deconstructionist method as a
      threat to claims for the truth/reality of holocaust events. There is
      an undercurrent that also objects to the use of narrative
      deconstruction as an exegetical tool which allows feminists and others
      to read their specific issues into historical evidence, and it is
      suggested that feminists and Holocaust deniers are both trying to
      rewrite history in order to bring it in-line with their own agendas.
      The key difference, as I see it, between such exegetical use of
      narrative deconstruction (which is being used quite a bit in Biblical
      studies) and the analytical use of it in the study of historical
      sources (primary and secondary), is that excesses in its exegetical
      use do not negate its usefulness as an analytical tool for
      understanding historical narrative.

      The holocaust is directly mentioned only once in Munslow's book (pg
      97, with my previous quote from pg. 149 being an indirect reference).
      This reference in page 97 is in relation to Marxist constructionist
      historian Alex Callinicos's objection that deconstructionist White, by
      "Conceiving history as a fictive historical representation, where
      meaning derives from how it is written rather than according to the
      factual anchor of objectively discoverable and describable real
      events, suggests ... White has a skeptical and relativist (that is
      postmodern) North Atlantic bourgeois liberal agenda! White is thus not
      equipped to tell fact from fiction, or ... able to distance himself
      from 'nationalist historical mythologies', by which he <Callinicos>
      means White's treatment particularly of events like the Holocaust." I
      am not sure what this refers to, as the Holocaust is not mentioned at
      all in the index to _Metahistory_, so it probably relates to something
      in one of the two major collections of White's essays in print,
      neither of which I have on hand. Summarizing Callinico's position
      regarding deconstructionist White, Munslow says "In Callinicos's view,
      as well as that of other non-Marxist critics, White's formalism and
      relativism make him incapable of distinguishing truth from
      interpretation, and fact from fiction."

      So there are obviously critics of the historical deconstructionist
      approach. Even so, all historical approaches have strong and weak
      points (which Munslow steps through, one by one, as I'll indicate
      below), including the positions of reconstructionists (employing
      traditional empirical methods) and constructionists
      (reconstructionists aided by the heavy use social theory to fill in
      the blanks between points of evidence analyzed in the traditional
      empirical method). Munslow, to his credit, not only devotes two
      chapters to reconstructionist/constructionist and deconstructionist
      historical methods respectively, but also two more that ask what is
      wrong with each of those two basic approaches. In each chapter he
      devotes sections that discuss issues related to epistemology,
      evidence, and theories of history relevant to each positions,
      including their problems, and how these all relate to structural and
      poststructural narrative theory. Munslow's book is a true textbook,
      not a vanity book intended to expound the virtues of a favored

      BTW, I was drawn to take a look at narrative deconstruction (as it
      relates to historical investigation) for reasons very similar to those
      mentioned by Steve Black, and have reached quite similar conclusions
      about it. To be honest, I am not yet sure how to apply it to analysis
      of primary sources, but I definitely see its applicability for
      analyzing the secondary product of modern historians. Hayden White's
      methods are exceptionally well defined and based on the work of
      specialists (he defines them in the first 42 pages of _Metahistory_),
      and are not just his fuzzy hunches. He stands out in contrast to many
      others, so it does not bother me that any "fad" interest in his work
      has faded. That only means that serious use of his methods is what we
      can expect from now on, and I look forward to that.


      Dave Hindley
      Cleveland, Ohio, USA
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