Within our culture, here in the anglophone West, in England, history – and especially history as a professional academic discipline and as an edifying discourse – is still generally regarded as ‘a good thing’. We really cannot, so the familiar story goes, live our lives uninformed by our own personal history and the history of the social formation to which we ‘belong’. To live outside of history – to live without memory (and in this construal these two ontologically quite distinct concepts are invariably conflated) – would be to suffer a form of debilitating amnesia. Without previous reference points our personal and public lives would be without – or at least without much – direction, point, rhyme or reason. But with history, with our stories about ‘the past’ and with our own personal recollections intact, we can locate ourselves securely, stitching ourselves into networks of previous significance and so imagine what we might, with luck, become. And the study of history – of this kind of history – brings with it other

important benefits. The fact that people similar – though not identical – to us walked and talked where we walk and talk means that, despite our multifarious historical differences from them, we can all be made sense of by invoking a common humanity so as to help develop what are proposed as being

common, essential values. Values of toleration, of empathy, of sympathy; values lending weight to all manner of ‘understandings’ and, on occasion, to justifiable outrage. Here is a shared discourse, then, for both comparison and compassion that helps produce – as it shuttles back and forth between the present and the past (the ‘before now’) – the construction of what are our own composite and mobile identities, but identities all the same. And even more particularly, more locally as it were, here in England now, history is deemed essential at the ‘benchmarked’ level of generic aptitudes, attitudes and skills. Here, ‘doing history’ can help develop our stiff-upper-lipped commitment to objectivity, fairness and ‘truth at the end of enquiry’. Here we can refine – through methodological practices and the application of an empirically grounded reason hopefully unsullied by too much theory – those ethically informed habits of mind which, sharpened (as they say) on the whetstone of historiographical debate, help us to become reflexive practitioners and responsible professional colleagues, paragons, in fact, of humane, liberal virtue. Of course there have been and there still are various well-recognised pro-

blems with all of the above. Some historians and some theorists, for example, have and still do insist on studying their ’past’ for themselves and on their terms rather than on the past’s own terms. Others have tried to insert deconstructive variants of scepticism and relativism into an otherwise objectivist discipline that has tried to resist them as best it could and with some success, recuperating these phenomena through the valorisation (in the case of scepticism) of proper scholarly caution and (in the case of relativism) a wistful, peer-approved pluralism. Accordingly, these sometime irritants suitably neutered, the benefits of a relatively unconcerned historical consciousness are still considered obvious. Here the discipline of history presents itself both within universities and across those extramural media that saturate our culture and which we meet everyday in our televisual virtualities and in the street, as selfevidently worthwhile; I mean, how could we possibly survive without history? And yet, of course, we should be suspicious of all of this. For when any

kind of thinking establishes itself as the doxa, when it trips right across a social formation, when its naturalness and its knowledge claims are quite literally taken for granted, are hegemonic, then we can confidently say that we are in the presence of an insidious political ideology. Now, I have to admit that I am constantly surprised at the residual

strength of what is so obviously an example of special pleading when this type of history manages to pass off its peculiar practices as of a universal kind, not least because we all ‘know’ that no discipline, no discourse, can fail to express the particular interests that empower and inform it, and that such interests rest on no establishable, universal foundations. When so many of us are aware that, while the ‘before now’ has many things in it, two of the things it has never contained are ‘the past’ or ‘history’ (such that the desire to ‘go back to the past’ or to ‘find a history’ is to mistake mere figures of speech for ‘the real thing’), then the fact that these linguistic entities are still assumed to actually ‘be out there’ seems incredible. And again, when so many of us are

aware that histories are literary artefacts made possible only if the ‘before now’ is itself textualised so opening it up to countless readings – and when we recognise that such readings can never exhaust the textual resources available – then we can only listen in amazement to objectivist-talk and truthtalk. And whilst it is indeed the case that historians’ writings demonstrably contain cognitive, empirical and thus epistemologically renderable entities (the evidential facts, the corroborated singular statement, the description) as texts irreducible to these sometime checkable parts, then histories qua histories are impossible to definitively demarcate from fiction and myth such that, once again, one can only watch in amazement as academic historians try to turn their fabular tales into something that has the status of an epistemology. Now, it seems to me that there is already enough in these early tip-of-the-

iceberg remarks to begin to problematicise the doxa beyond the usual suspects of scepticism and relativism. And yet it seems fairly obvious – otherwise the doxa wouldn’t still be the doxa – that these sorts of objections, at least on the surface, can simply be ignored, shrugged off. Somehow, these criticisms seem not to really matter very much; the show still goes on much as before, such that we might have to make a suggestion to account for this. And so it will be my suggestion, my argument, that what we are facing here is the phenomenon of disavowal. For when academic historians are aware – albeit dimly perhaps – of these

more penetrating problematicisations beyond recuperation yet choose to ignore them, when they decide, consciously or semi-consciously, to go about their practices as if such ‘theoretical’ objections do not concern them, then we are inevitably talking about avoidance, about a constitutive disavowal. That is to say, that when it is abundantly clear that history as a genre of literature is necessarily the product of rhetorical figures and devices, when its realism is unavoidably the realism of the figure, then what defines academic history and shapes it as an empirical, epistemologically striving discipline is precisely its reluctance to face these facts. Academic history thus constitutes itself in denial. To forget to remember and to work the presence of figural language in all histories which by definition mark them from beginning to end – indeed, which creates the very idea of a ‘historical beginning and end’ (for ‘actuality’ knows of no such things) is thus an act of repression, a repression that has structurally locked up within it (otherwise it would not be repression) its unfailing return – the return of the repressed which, again being impossible for history to raise to full recognition since to do so may signal its ruination, haunts it, in some cases this spectre taking on such a magnitude that attitudes towards it become neurotic, pathological. This attitude is obvious, I think, in the anti-postmodern texts (for it is

postmodernism that I am beginning to talk about here) of such historians as Geoffrey Elton and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Arthur Marwick and Keith Windschuttle, while, in more nuanced ways, it patterns the work of such people as Lawrence Stone, Willie Thompson, Martin Bunzl, C.B. McCullagh, Bryan Palmer, Richard Evans, Mary Fulbrook et al. These are the producers of

writings that are all – to a greater or lesser extent – obsessive, a concern for ‘history’ sometimes spiralling into fantasies that postmodernism unrestrained might lead us to have to fight the Second World War all over again to concerns about the very future (in another universalising gesture) of culture and civilisation ‘as such’. And so I think – to draw these preliminary remarks together – that today,

modernist, epistemologically striving academic history is facing various postmodern articulations that do indeed threaten its future – this is what its defender’s defence attests to – and that these articulations are a good thing! And so, to briefly develop a medical metaphor myself, it might be useful to think of previous criticisms of academic history that have lived under the names of scepticism and relativism as criticisms that can be fairly easily lived with, accommodated. These were and are analogous, if you like, to varieties of the common cold or to a minor tummy-bug. Modernist academic historians – like you and I with reference to those minor ailments – have got used to these, have built up a certain immunity against them such that they can be recuperated back so as to strengthen the ‘discipline of history’ by allowing them to become positive features: here, in welcoming diverse viewpoints, new perspectives and multi-levelled readings, history can flaunt its open and tolerant attitude towards possible contamination as it folds these potential ‘problems’ into a benign, well-inoculated pluralism. But the criticisms emanating from postmodernism with its notions of, say,

the aporia, undecidability, incommensurability, the differend, the event, the figure, the trace, difference, the symbolic, anamnesis, and so on, are not of that kind. These are not components of a critique which leaves the old history intact though now more wary of some of its claims, but shows how the history we have is constituted by refusing to acknowledge an excess which ensures, without exception, that all historical representations are failed representations. These names are not equivalent to the common cold but are more like uncontrollable viruses which carry with them intimations of fatality. And this, the lethal potentiality of postmodernism, is what history must – on pain of death – disavow. So, modernist disavowals and postmodern reminders – words in the title of this

paper – are the things I now want to develop in a way which treats the possible end of academic history not as a sad lament or a cause for alarm but as a form of liberation, a kind of life after death. Simply put, my argument will be that postmodern ways of dealing with the ‘before now’ – if you want to bother with it at all – embody new ways of being healthy, new ways of putting a spring in one’s step. And to help me think some of this through, I want to draw on various writings by Jean-François Lyotard as someone who – hopefully without too much ‘distortion’ – can be made relevant to my own arguments here. In the Foreword to the English edition of The Postmodern Explained to Chil-

dren (Lyotard 1992, p. 7), the translators pose the question: ‘What would happen if thought no longer had a childhood?’ Their answer, which is also

Lyotard’s answer, is that there would be an acceptance of conformity, a deadening of thought, and that it is postmodernism that, contrariwise, insists that what thought has to do is to:

Set out without knowing its destination … leave itself open to the unfamiliarity of whatever may occur to it, and make [up] rules in the absence of rules. The [resultant] postmodern text will [thus] be in advance of itself: it will be writing written in the what will have been of the future anterior [verb].