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Academic History Writing in Post-Truth Times: An Introduction

The lecture and seminar introduces into the new module. The lecture will first remind students of central claims made in Historiography I. We learned that since the Enlightenment Western history writing has been reflecting the debates over values and morals of the society and culture in which it was written. We also saw that many new methodologies and theories which proved fruitful for the development of the discipline were not ‘discovered’ by historians. Indeed, they were often actively ‘imported’ into the discipline from other disciplines (e.g. sociology, anthropology, semiotics and literary criticism or, more recently, evolutionary biology). We saw, that historians might claim to only passively ‘listen’ to the voices of the past and record them 'objectively' but they cannot avoid writing for an audience in their own present. Their writings therefore necessarily engage (wittingly or unwittingly) with the norms and values held dear (or being critiqued) by their respective readership.

This view of history writing as being empirical but ‘non-objective’ owes much to postmodern theories after WWII. Historiography I demonstrated that postmodern theorists aimed to undermine modernist history writing. Even the very notion of the historical ‘fact’ came under serious attack. By the 1990s poststructuralist thinking had conquered history departments all over the world to such an extent that some historians felt the urgent need to write 'in defence' of the discipline (such as the Oxford historian Sir Richard Evans).

Since then things have seriously calmed down. In fact, nobody seems to care any longer. Who would seriously start a fight over the question whether history is ‘true’ or a ‘fiction’ in a world run by social media and Donald Trump’s ‘fake news’? Everybody, including Sir Richard Evans seem to have to terms with the idea that ‘facts are constructed and that history writing is also a serious literary exercise (a claim that in the early 1990s would have started a ‘war’ in history departments).

This lecture offers some of the socio-cultural ‘context’ for the theoretical and methodological development in history writing since the 1990s. It necessarily has to engage with the political, social and economic history of neoliberalism. That is the world in which we live at the moment, and academic history writing since the 1990s does reflect neoliberal values and norms. Once again you are asked to put current developments in history writing into their specific socio-cultural ‘context’. However, this ‘context’ is your very own.


Seminar Readings

Rodgers, Daniel, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, Mass. 2011), Chapter 1: Loosing the Words of the Cold War; Chapter 2: The Rediscovery of the Market, Chapter 5: Gender and Certainty


Seminar Questions

How have neoliberal values such as individualism choice or identity affected Anglo-American history writing since the 1980s? Can you detect themes that reflect such values?

How does power work today?

Has poststructuralism, which emerged in 1970s France and took over anglo-american academia by the 1980s/90s, lost its influence today?

What is a ‘critical’ history writing today?

How have identity politics shaped history writing?

Where is ‘class’ in our contemporary global world?

What is the role of academic history in today's society?



Further Reading

Davies, William, The Happiness Industry (London, 2015).

Ibid., Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World (2018), Introduction

Hall, Stuart, and Martin Jacques, et al, Thaterism. A Tale Two Nations (Cambridge, 1988)

Hall, Stuart, ‘Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms’, Media, Culture, and Society: A Critical Reader, ed. Richard Collins et al. (Beverly Hills, 1986).

Pierre, Jon, and Peters, B. Guy, Governance, Politics and the State (Basingstoke, 2000)>

Pierson, Paul, Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagon, Thatcher, and the Politics of Retrenchment (Cambridge, 1994).