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Keywords:

  • conventional history;
  • critique of history;
  • history as a language;
  • interdisciplinarity;
  • systemic value;
  • method

ABSTRACT

The critique of conventional historical writing has been emergent for a century—it is not the work of a few—and it has immense practical implications for Western society, perhaps especially in English-speaking countries. Involved are such issues as the decline of representation, the nature of causality, the definitions of identity or time or system, to name only a few. Conventional historians are quite right to consider this a challenge to everything they assume in order to do their work. The challenge is, why do that particular work at all? Understandably, historians have consolidated, especially in North America where empiricism and the English language prevail. But even there, and certainly elsewhere, and given the changes in knowledge and social order during the past century at least, the critique of conventional historical method is unavoidable. Too bad historians aren't doing more to help this effort, and by historians I don't mean the most of us who think constantly in terms of historical causality as we learned it from the nineteenth century and our teachers; by “historians” I mean the experts who continue to teach the young. A major roadblock to creative discussion is the fact that problems such as those just mentioned all exceed disciplinary boundaries, so investigation that does not follow suit cannot grasp the problem, much less respond to it creatively. Of course everyone is “for” interdisciplinary work, but most professional organizations, publications, and institutions do not encourage it, despite lip service to the contrary. Interdisciplinary work involves more than the splicing activity that is all too familiar in academic curricula. Crossing out of one's realm of “expertise” requires a kind of humility that does not always sort well with the kind of expertise fostered by professional organizations, publications, and institutions. And even the willing have trouble with the heady atmosphere outside the professional bubble. In such conditions key terms (“language,”“discourse,”“relativism,”“modernity,”“postmodernity,”“time,”“difference”) are pushed here and pushed there without gaining the focus that would lead to currency until finally the ostensible field of play resembles a gigantic traffic jam like the one that opens the film Fellini Roma. Discussion of these issues leads in the end to Borges and his story, ‘The Modesty of History,” from which the title of this essay is borrowed.