Windshuttle, Keith. The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past. San Francisco: Encountering Books, 1996.

Academia is not so different from politics: the naming of names still gathers a grinning ring. In Windshuttle's case, the ring would be nearly equatorial in circumference: if only he'd known some wrong-headed Chinese to bridge the gap between France and New Zealand! Windshuttle names, chapter by chapter, important and influential theorists of the 20th century and, chapter by chapter, objects. French theorists are the chief target, but anyone who assevers that 1) truth is ultimately unknowable 2) the historical past is inaccessible and 3) Western science is a questionable, socially circumscribed endeavor draws Windshuttle's ire.

Chapter One lines up the targeted schools of thought: cultural studies, new historicism, structuralism and semiotics, poststructuralism, postmodernism, Marxism, critical theory, postcolonialism and heterology. Briefly, then, cultural studies is a newish interdisciplinary field focused on social practices and relations. Cultural studies are steadily swallowing up other university resources and graduate students and Windshuttle sees history as the next Jonah to go. New Historicism, for instance, is the cultural studies land bridge by which literary critics have crossed into history. In New Historicism, as in many other schools of thought, all is text, and all texts -- fiction, broadsheets, chapbooks, poems, parades, oral histories, archival facts --are to be layered and pressed together in a frame of culture. (To carry that last metaphor a bit further, New Historicism works out if you're making paper, but it's not much use if you want ink and a pen as well.)

Structuralism and Marxism are both products of the nineteenth century, and both are overtly metanarratives: they posit rules, outcomes, systems. Marxism argued for specific historical outcomes, but these depended on inevitable (timeless) class struggle. Similarly, in structural linguistics, the metanarrative focuses on the synchronic (timeless) dimension of speech. (Ferdinand De Sausaurre's langue governs all of speech acts, and parole describes an individual speech act.) We are locked in language and texts: nothing can be known without the medium of language, and language, being an arbitrary system, refers only to itself, not to reality.

Poststructuralism carries structuralism farther, but incorporates the works of other philosophers. Jacques Derrida, that postructuralist deconstructivist icon, follows the thinking of not-quite-sufficiently-ex-Nazi Martin Heidegger. Foucault, the other leading poststructuralist light, gets his torch from Friederich Nietzsche, and traces out the play of power and knowledge, claiming that truth is simply the story of whomever is most powerful at the time. (e.g. the Chinese proverb "the winner is king; the loser is a bandit"). Nietzche and Heidegger and their heirs reject the universalist claims of 18th-century Western Enlightenment philosophy. Francoise Lyotard, a Parisian postructuralist, likewise rejects metanarratives (such as Marxism). His writing informs much of academic cultural studies in the 1980s. It is possible to be a Marxist and poststructuralist, as is Frederick Jameson, or a structuralist and Marxist, as was Louis Althusser, but most ex-Marxists (and the Marxist bloom is all but gone) call themselves critical theorists. In this school, Jurgen Habermas argues against postructuralist and postmoderists, and for something he envisions as "rational consensus." Nevertheless, Habermas also maintains that truth is consensus, and not something independent of the groups in debate about it.

Postcolonialism as championed by Edward Said, joined the fray against the Enlightenment somewhat after the West had used it conquer the world: postcolonialism highlights the voices lost to imperialism. Some postcolonialists, notably De Certeau, reject writing itself as a form of imperialist domination. (to my mind an impossibly precious intellectual stance.) So, too, divisions between present and past are problematic in so far as they eliminate, or repress, other voices. Heterology , a term that generally refers to a lack of correspondence between parts (disparate elements, disparate origins), is also used to describe and understand repressed voices. Heterologies are, in critical theory, "built upon a division between the body of knowledge that utters a discourse and the mute body that nourishes it," (qtd 35) But these repressed voices leave cracks, lacunae, and cannot be silenced or utterly elided.

Chapter Two is Windshuttle's answer to semiotics. Regarding the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, was it indeed the case that, as Tzvetan Todorov (Bulgarian Parisian)argues, Mexicans were hopelessly hampered by their ritual speech, by their semiotics? Were Mexicans unable to plan, to think, to adapt, to communicate about the future? Windshuttle cites Australian scholar Inga Clendinnen, who argues that Todorov hasn't examined the actual events carefully enough: the Aztecs could indeed adapt, and were not hampered unduly by religious preconceptions. Semiotics simply doesn't offer enough of an explanation. Clendinnen does argue that the Aztecs were unable to sufficiently alter warfare strategy -- especially the taking of live prisoners --to deal with long-range Spanish weaponry. Windshuttle himself argues that the traditional reasons cited for Spanish victory are sufficient. The weaponry, the horses, the battle-readiness of the Spanish, and the epidemic diseases they bore, more than made up for their small numbers. Maybe most important, says Windshuttle, was the Spanish expertise in rounding up allies. The Aztecs were hated and feared for their bloody rituals in the regions around, and the Spanish found local allies aplenty in their war. Finally, Windshuttle takes exception to Todorov's argument Europeans were responsible for an American holocaust and that Aztec cannibalistic rituals were similar to social and religious practices in Europe. Windshuttle points out that smallpox, which was indeed devastating, was no more Cortez's fault than subsequent European venereal diseases were Montezuma's fault. Furthermore, the religious practices of the Aztecs and the Europeans were not comparable -- and he gives enough gory detail to ensure that (modern Western) readers are horrified and repulsed by Aztec sacrificial rites. Comparing them to the Nazi state, Windshuttle argues that the Mexica were horrifyingly cruel and justly hated by their neighbors. Scholars who sympathize with their plight are making an ill-informed and "transparently insincere political gesture." (70).

Chapter Three covers structuralism and the ethnohistory of the Pacific. Why did the mutiny occur on the Bounty? Greg Dening (of the Melbourne School of postmodern anthropologists) argues that Bligh used "bad language" -- in other words, his ineptitude with the language of respect and the "theatrics of authority" inspired the mutiny. Windshuttle describes at some length the structure of Dening's book and the theoretical underpinnings (structuralist and poststructuralist) and takes issue with the "world-as-a-text/history-as-a-construct" claims. He points out that since Dening has done some new research on the frequency of flogging on shipboard to demonstrate the Bligh was not extraordinarily cruel, it makes little sense for Dening to argue that history is entirely a construct. But in Chapter Two Windshuttle has additional fish to fry, and the second half of the chapter serves up Marshal Sahlin's theories on the death of James Cook's death in Hawaii. Dening uses Sahlin's account of Hawaiian encounters to form a model for his argument about native encounters in Tahiti. Natives, he wishes to say, are bound by their language, and cannot respond to the unprecedented, the new in playful and creative ways. Windshuttle resists such a view as dismissive, racist. Likewise, relying of readings from Obeyesekere, he takes issue with Sahlin's model encounter: Cook's death was not an unfortunate example of cultural offense, but a simpler matter of self-defense. Theories miss the human motives, and both Sahlins and Dening are guilty of missing or misinterpreting facts in order to fit the theory. "Anyone who adopts structuralist theory or metholodolgy abrogates the claim to be working as a historian." (96) (of this, more later)

Chapter Four offers Windshuttle's reading of the founding of Australia. His target in this chapter is the poststructuralist Paul Carter. Calling his approach spatial history, Carter reworks Australian colonization, using "explorer's logic." Carter focuses on place-naming and discovery as it may have occurred in the explorer's own mind and experience; so Australia as a historical place is created by idiosyncratic naming. Carter contrasts Matthew Flinder's and James Cook's place-naming methods with Joseph Banks's practice of botanical naming. This contrast, by implication, extends to the whole imperialist project of naming objects to gain power over the world. Settlers, too, employed traveling logic, and not an imperialist naming logic, says Carter. Windshuttle disagrees, arguing that travelers were as likely to stay as wander, and takes particular issue with the idea that a name creates a place, or that "real" places don't exist if they haven't been named. (Essentially, Windshuttle's trees do make a noise when they fall, no matter who is there to hear them.) He claims that many place names were developed after settlers have lived in the places for a while, after a "feel" for the features of the place has emerged. Further, he argues that the "spatial historians," searching for lost convict voices, have simply failed to check the archives: there are letters, poems, songs, plays -- documents aplenty. Voices are not lost; they do not need to be resurrected from the lacunae in government journalists. Aboriginals, in contrast to convicts, do lack representation, and Carter suggests that an Aboriginal spatial history should be written. Windshuttle doubts that a spatial history will be of much use as a solid and accurate narrative history.

Foucault's influence is so substantial that his treatment is likewise extensive in Chapter 5. Windshuttle glosses Foucault's publication history (spanning almost 5 decades): Madness and Civilization (1961); The Birth of the Clinic (1963); The Order of Things (1966); The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969); Discipline and Punish (1975); The History of Sexuality (1976-79); Language, Counter-Memory, Practice (1977); Power/Knowledge (1980) and Foucault Live (1989). (132) Foucault's theories drew outsiders, prisoners, leftists, gays, left-leaning ex-Marxists: a Republican's nightmare parade. What did Foucault argue? The autonomy of the subject is an illusion (135); the unconscious mind directs (not free will or reason). Language is our primary means of knowing. Systems of thought are (in Kuhnian fashion) icommensurate; one replaces the other without necessarily building on it. Renaissance, Enlightenment, modern (or post-modern) thought cannot be compared to reality or to each other. Important to Foucault's thinking are the terms "archaeology" (digging into the unconscious rules of social formation) "episteme" (system of thought); "discourse" (common assumptions in related fields in a historically discrete time period); and "genealogy" (not context of the discourse, but the users of the discourse). Foucault suggests that historians should be activists.

In response, Windshuttle pauses to note the logical problem that most relativists overcome badly, if at all: "it is true that there are no truths." As a further preliminary, he objects to sloppiness in Foucault's thinking about the death of man - inconsistencies between articles and books; changes in ideas. These general charges are then laid to the account of specific works. Windshuttle covers Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic and Discipline and Punish, summing up these three books thus:

the histories of the institutions [Foucault] has studied - the mental asylum, the hospital and the prison - provide models for the general form of power held by the authorities who dominate modern society. The sciences that control these institutions - psychiatry, clinical medicine and criminology - have established an objectifying 'gaze,' an all-seeing eye that turns people into objects of study. This has permitted a shift in authority from the practice of laying down laws towards an increasing reliance on the mobilization of norms, or the enforcement of morality. Foucault's aim is to indicate that most aspects of modern life are, similarly, subject to the tyranny of the social sciences and the professional practices that derive from them.(160)

Opposed to Foucault's arguments in Madness and Civilization are the factual trends; Windshuttle says, following other historians, that the "great confinement" that happened in the 19th century rather than the 18th century. Other assertions about the status of the mad are likewise problematic. Foucault insists that surveillance and social transformation were the aim of the new government institutions in the 18th century. By contrast, Windshuttle says that the mad never were treated as "the other" (without rights, permanently alien). Further, (and contra Discipline and Punish), Windshuttle argues that while some penal codes for criminals and the insane did become more "physically humane" in the 18th century, at the same time the death penalty was more widely applied to more kinds of crimes. It was the 19th century which ushered in the end of corporal punishment and the late 19th century which saw the rise of the reform. Previously the code of justice was less likely to distinguish between types of criminals. Windshuttle ultimately dismisses Foucault as an interesting thinker but a fatally flawed historian: his numbers and dates are simply wrong.

Chapter 6 reviews Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and The Last Man. Fukuyama supports Hegelian history - one coherent evolutionary outlook - and further asserts that the important questions of history have been answered in liberal democracy. Fukuyama's central argument is that modern science gives direction to history; however, the economic modernization of nation-states does not necessarily engender a system of basic rights, the rule of law or democracy in popular sovereignty. Rather, the human conviction of self-worth, the need to be recognized with dignity and status, does engender a system like liberal democracy. These nation-states, recognizing each other's worth, generally eschew war. However, Fukuyama also believes that human beings will also eschew megalothymia - and strive only for comfort. Windshuttle argues these points in turn: first, there are still political alternatives to liberal capitalism which are being explored now: nationalism, religious fundamentalism, state corporatism, and creeping socialism. Second, who can tell if the end of the world is here? Windshuttle glosses Perry Anderson's response to Fukuyama; Anderson admired Fukuyama's synthesis of observation and theory but suggested that ferment lies ahead: the big global social inequalities have not truly been solved. Windshuttle, while agreeing that social inequalities may still need amelioration, finds Anderson's scenarios equally incredible and his arguments unconvincing because they are cut from the same Hegelian cloth. As an important aside, Windshuttle takes on the idea that no one can break free from his or her time, place, theoretical framework and ideology. If there were true, then doing research -finding new data - would be pointless. Windshuttle certainly agrees that sweeping historical theses are a product of their times, but such can and must be called into question by new research, by new data-driven narratives. Finally, he features John Keegan's newly compiled data, which suggests that Fukuyama's thesis about the importance of dignity and recognition are incorrect, at least in the case of the Huns and the Mongols. These groups didn't want civilization, learning, status or recognition. Rather, they "wanted the spoils of war without strings." (192) Robert Bartlett's study of Eastern Europe in the 11-13th centuries also proposes several alternatives to the Hegelian view of Dark Ages slave-elite interaction. Having dismissed Hegel, Windshuttle carries his argument against Heidegger somewhat further: Heidegger's Nazi connections and beliefs discredit his followers Baudrillard, Lyotard, Foucault, Lacan and Derrida because (1) they seemed to agree that history had come to an end with the end of European domination and (2) they all appear to have had contempt for the power and ideas of ordinary individuals. In his words, they indulged in "an unpleasant form of intellectual elitism." (200) The cheerful recounting of an end-of-the-world-hypperreality-leading-to-nowhere seems, to Windshuttle, just as much of a meta-narrative as any other, and paradoxically dependent for logic upon what it rejects.

History, claims Windshuttle in Chapter 7, straddles the humanities and social science, making its claim as a science in particular because it encourages the discovery of new truths-an accumulating body of knowledge. Currently, however, the process and production of knowledge is seem as more important that the knowledge itself. Windshuttle pauses to defend induction and discuss the scientific method - empirical observations and experiment - and its status in three fields: the sociology of science, the philosophy of science, and the field of hermeneutics.

First, addressing the sociology of science, Windshuttle reviews Kuhn's incommensurability thesis, shifting paradigms and makes mention of Bloor's and Collins's work on the sociological reasons new scientific theories and data are accepted (those reasons aside from truth claims). Foucault's episteme, he claims, is very similar to, and perhaps indebted to, Kuhn's paradigms. Second, continuing with the philosophy of science, he turns to Karl Popper's falsifiability thesis (one can never prove, only disprove; the most scientific statements, then, are those which allow the most avenues of disproof.) Popper appears to solve the problem of objectivity in inductive reasoning -- that is, if even the most modest of observations are undergirded by theory, how is it possible to be objective and theoretically neutral? Popper argues that all observations are theory-dependent, but suggests that this point is irrelevant because observations are only used to disprove, not to prove, theories. Windshuttle is dissatisfied with such a solution: in his estimation, Popper and his supporter Lakatos are unable to extricate science from the net of uncertainties using falsifiability. For example, falsifying observations need not necessarily be accepted by doubting or recalcitrant scientists. Furthermore, old scientific programs, standing in old paradigms, no longer making novel predictions, and therefore not "scientific" by Kuhnian or Popperian standards, are still sometimes referenced and revived in the service of new problems. Windshuttle singles out Paul Feyerabend, student of Popper and Lakatos, to launch his counter arguments. Feyerabend takes the relativity of science to its logical conclusion - why favor science over voodoo or magic? That astrology is a good predictor of events, that the world is only 4,000 years old, that spontaneous generation is a reliable system - and that these are merely different, not wrong, is a position "that no rational person should accept." (217) He then returns to Popper, and his concept of infinite regress: all established facts can be questioned into an infinite regression of questions. Even well-known events, such as Caesar's assassination, are on shaky ground. Nonsense, says Windshuttle. Apply the same process of uncertainty to JFK's assassination. Are well less certain that he is dead because each witness can be questioned and challenged? Windshuttle turns to Sydney philosopher David Stove to clarify his argument. Stove argues that Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend and Kuhn have elided logical proof with sociological practice, confusing "replaced" with "refuted." These are, and ought to be, different concepts. Accumulation happens because later scientists start with, and work on, past theories. Likewise, Windshuttle argues that observations are not really theory-laden. A view through a telescope shows, for instance, orbiting moons to anyone who looks at them - to anyone now, in the past, and at any time in the future. (This point strikes me as difficult to defend). Naming objects is not necessarily developing a theory about them. Finally, Windshuttle argues that historical corroboration is a question of probabilities about a finite (past and completed) world. Windshuttle has no particular appreciation for uncertainty: "[a]s I noted earlier, if we seriously entertained Popper's notion about the impossibility of observations providing us with historical knowledge, we would also have to agree that we can never know anything about society at all, including the most familiar of the everyday events that all of us experience. How could anyone ever have entertained such a ridiculous notion?" (226) We can know, for all sufficient purposes, historical facts. Having quickly toured the sociology and philosophy of science, he concludes with hermeneutics. He asserts the invalidity of Anthony Giddens's reflexivity thesis: knowledge of sociological studies does not invariably mean that those studies change one's activities or points of view.

Turning, then, to a defense of induction, Windshuttle argues that while generalizations made by inductive reasoning cannot logically be proven -- the fact that all known mammals have a circulatory system does not mean that there will never be such an animal - nevertheless inductive reasoning, when combined with probability theory-is sufficiently sound, and offers a reasonable alternative to radical skepticism.Windshuttle upholds narrative as the pre-eminent tool of the good scientist and good historian. Focused on facts, carried forward by causality in time, "narrative is a representation of reality." (241) History is never predictable -"contingency is the central principle of all historical explanations." (242). Again, evidence which forms narratives is discovered and constructed from the welter of debris left from the past. It is subject to discussion and debate but not subject to just any interpretation. The value of a discipline such as history is its clearly articulated method of study, "systematization of research methods and accretion of consistent findings." (247)

If great historians depend on narrative, then does narrative itself offer any critical structure? Chapter 7 contains Windshuttle's review of Simon Schama and Hayden White. Schama's indulgence in fiction is excoriated, even as his considerable talents are acknowledged. Windshuttle devotes some detail to White's "surface" and "deep" levels of narrative. At the surface are three types of explanation - emplotment, argument, ideology -- with four subtypes for each of the three categories, as follows:

Emplotment: romantic, tragic, comic, satirical
Argument: formist, mechanistic, organicist, contextualist;
Ideology: anarchist, radical, conservative, liberal.

Having offered these twelve categories, White gives the "deep" explanations in four irreducible tropes: metaphor, metonomy, synechdoche, and irony - these four drawn from Giambatista Vico's work. White gathered authors and ages into preferred types (e.g. 20th century - irony) and argues that ultimately, acceptable explanations are simply the moral or aesthetic tropes preferred by the current critics. Windshuttle, as might be expected, objects. Many great historians cannot be squarely pegged into one trope, and if a writer cannot be pegged into a single trope, then what is the good of the classification scheme? Windshuttle compares Hayden White to John Clive. Clive focuses on prose style, including paragraph transitions, the linking between large trends and local details, the selection of subjects, imagery, metaphor and the creation of suspense. Clive argues that great writers create for the reader a mental and moral universe with the impress of the author. Windshuttle only asks, then, that the methodologies of an historian be transparent and the arguments of the work be open to challenge. Windshuttle bemoans the lack of footnotes and erudition which characterized the past. Readers ought not be patronized or assumed to be impatient. Anyone who starts to read about the Civil War or the Roman Empire probably wants to, and is fully committed.

In his final chapter, Windshuttle returns to Cook. Noting that the famous Chinese taxonomy used as extraordinary evidence of differences in cultural thinking is a joke perpetrated by Borges (existing in no Chinese manuscript) Windshuttle argues that different taxonomies produced by different cultures are not evidence of different rationalities, but of different functional groups. (An apple would be placed differently on a food pyramid chart than it would on chart measuring ductility in fruit.) He proposes, with reference to Cook's arrival in Hawaii, that cultures can be shattered and changes rapidly. He repudiates the idea that non-Western cultures can be read in a "native" way via Western structuralism. In Windshuttle's book, cultural relativism is the last, imperialist, and most racist word. He rejects cultural relativism because it not only fails to account for existing power relations between first and third world, but also fails to hold accountable those responsible for the existing unequal power relations.

Narrative structure, inductive reasoning: these are the tools of the traditional historian. Generalizations and social laws are simply "not part of the historical approach." (17) His own theory of history is simply put:

One of the most important consequences of an empirical approach, therefore, is that history cannot be determined. The historical process is not moving inexorably in one direction or towards any goal or end; it has no hidden pattern or itinerary waiting to be discovered. The job of the historian is not to search for some theory that will reveal all, nor some teleology that will explain the purpose of things. Rather, it is to reconstruct the events of the past in their own terms. The reason that narrative is the most appropriate method through which to do this is because the historian is dealing in unique events, in the realm of the contingent. Such events never repeat themselves, but they are nonetheless dependent upon, contingent upon, every other event that came before. (195)

Contingency and probability are the two operating principles of Windshuttle's world, and they are best encased in narrative. Thus, any would-be historian using -- overtly using -- the generalizations of a particular school of thought is not a traditional historian. Although I am (personally) quite comfortable with suspicions about schools, Windshuttle's words bring to mind an amusing scene in Now Voyager in which a giddy daughter, larking around on her first sea cruise, is freezingly rebuked by her upper-crust Bostonian mother. "Try to remember we are hardly commercial travelers." Pointing to some post cards, she continues: "sit down; write something." In essence, snobbery isn't so much an argument as it is a position. Although Windshuttle's book is nothing but arguments, the feeling is somewhat the same: he seems to be in a position rather than a dialogue. In a way, the circle is closed before the book begins. Setting this objection aside, Windshuttle takes on some very influential thinkers, summing, responding, and engaging with the arguments presented. Although none of them are admitted as historians, they are at least opponents worthy of a fight.

I found many of Windshuttle's objections weighty. Most memorable is his rejection of relativity as a racist concept, and most convincing is his grasp of power inequities in New World encounters. Also convincing is his notion of history as a science of fact accretion and fact correction via research. Incommensurability doesn't really seem to be relevant when historians are compiling and comparing explanations. I agree: "replaced" is different than "refuted." Contingency and probability do make sense as the operative principles in narrative, and his argument is very clearly put in this regard. Finally, I enjoyed Windshuttle's courage, breadth, and passionate outrage. It isn't everyday that one reads a book rejecting most of the developments of the 20th century. Perhaps only a historian would try.