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Encounter Magazine

Encounter Magazine uploaded by World of Good via Flickr

History is the study of past (and arguably present) ideas, objects, people and events. Scholars usually credit the Greek Heroditus (c. 484 BCE – c. 425 BCE) as the founder of historical writing.

History often involves a particular narrative style that categorizes and describes according to certain time periods and geographical limits. For instance, Lord Kenneth Clark‘s groundbreaking Civilization series for BBC TV pretty much ignored the achievements of ancient China and several other cultures. This is because history must be selective.

Clark was well aware of these shortcomings and, in his view, overcame them by insisting that the series be entitled: Civilization: A Personal View.

More recently, the presentation of history has been popularized by time-charts, point form outlines, multimedia and other innovative techniques which have expanded our definition of the “narrative.”

Feminists often say that history is biased by patriarchy. It’s written mostly by men about men or by men interpreting women’s experiences from a male perspective. Feminists also suggest that female writers of history often adopt a stereotypical male attitude (i.e. sexist).

One strategy that feminists have used to further their agenda is to call history “herstory.” This is an effective contemporary word play, but has been criticized for ignoring the etymology of the word history. The Greek word historia translates to “inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation.”¹

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault via Wikipedia (follow link for fair use rationale)

The French postodern thinker Michel Foucault argues that history is about the interpretation of not only discovered but often selected forms of knowledge. For Foucault, past events and items are often selected and interpreted to make them seem significant for the benefit of those with social power, while other events and items that would challenge their power are routinely ignored.

According to this view, history is a kind of collective myth. Or more correctly, it’s an ongoing struggle for legitimacy among several competing discourses (a popular term among postmoderns) of power. So in a nutshell, the cleverest myth-makers benefit most.

On the other hand, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung says that myth is history because it depicts mankind’s collective psychological past.

Two important points to consider with regard to the postmodern view are:

  1. Are the best mythmakers conscious of being such, or do they, perhaps, simply create and perpetuate relative “truths” out of ignorance.
  2. Not entirely unlike Karl Marx‘s  notion of false consciousness, postmoderns believe that prevailing social myths spread throughout a culture so that even those who don’t benefit will believe in and espouse those social “fictions,” as Foucault once put it. And some may believe in a culturally relative discourse which is actually harmful to them.

A good example for #2 would be gays and lesbians before the American Psychiatric Association voted in 1974 that homosexuality wasn’t a mental disorder.² Prior to that time, many gays and lesbians would no doubt have questioned why they were apparently “wrong,” blindly believing in the psychiatric biases of the day.

Related Posts » Archaeology, Counter-discourse, Dialectical Materialism, Forces of Production, Hegel (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich), Intercession, Jewish Mysticism, Joachim of Fiore, Language, Lévi-Strauss (Claude),  Moses and Monotheism, Myth, Nietzsche (Friedrich), Occam’s razor, Relations of Production, Scholarship, Sign

¹ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History

² Chuck Stewart, Homosexuality and the law: a dictionary, p. 41.

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