It ain't all bad
People love to moan about critical theory in history. One guy even managed to become Governor of the Virgins by complaining about it. What exactly are they complaining about? I think there are two things, one is people using history to put down various heroes or groups, Americans tend not to like it when you tell them that George Washington was Bad Actually, and British people don’t like hearing that Elizabeth I was Racist, Germans, on the other hand, love this sort of stuff. This is not really critical history - it’s perfectly possible to form a narrative which shows some person who is generally seen in a good light as bad without using any fancy French words.
The other type of critical history that people complain about it Critical History Proper. This is not merely where people say that the people you like are bad, it’s where they use a bunch of fancy French words to do it. The way they do this is by employing the sinister tools of Postmodernism.
We might say that all of history is about coming up with a narrative to piece together disparate facts. Lots of stuff happens, and in order to make sense of the world, we need to come up with some story to tie all these facts together. For example, lets say that we know that in AD 400, Britain was full of Welsh people and Romans, by AD 800, it was mostly full of Anglo-Saxons, we can see this from how language changed in the sources, and because the chronicles tell us it happened. Naturally, the story that jumps to mind is that the Anglo-Saxons came along and invaded and pushed the Welsh out of what became England. No doubt if you look closer at the facts, you can find a lot of evidence for this. As well as the stories we tell about the past, people in the past tell stories about themselves, the Anglo-Saxon chronicles are one example but of course almost anything you can think of is probably just as good of an example: manifest destiny, Romans thinking their society is in decline, the Allies in World War Two seeing themselves as triumphing over evil, etc etc.
Historians have always questioned these stories, it seems to me that what might be more unique about postmodernism is that it questions whether any story exists in the first place. Put in a milder form, we might say that stories tell us more about the story tellers than they do about their subjects. Clearly, if you question some story that is central to peoples’ identity, they’ll pay attention and get annoyed, hence critical history is associated with whinging people saying rude things about all your favourite countries.
Let us consider the most provocative of the stories that critical historians like to question: narratives of race. What would it mean to read that somebody was “black” in a source from 19th century America? If we were absolutely uncritical, maybe we would think they meant exactly the same thing that we mean now when we say black, this would obviously be a silly thing to do. Even the least critical reading would have to take some account of how language has changed. The ultracritical thing might be to see race as an entirely constructed narrative, we might even think we can’t tell anything from the use of the word, other than that the author has categorised someone as black. For the most part, this would be a silly thing to do, but it isn’t entirely implausible; ships involved in the slave trade, for example, were divided into ‘white’ and ‘black’, but black meant slave, so even if a sailor was black they would appear in accounts as white.
The real trouble with critical history is that it isn’t critical enough. Deconstructing social constructs like race is a very important part of history, it helps us understand what people in the past actually meant. However, historians have a very hard time separating themselves from modern narratives and ideas: the narrative of manifest destiny is deconstructed very easily; the categories of race that it might rely on are analysed in depth, but the historian then fails to reconsider their own modern narratives.
What was a story about Good Hardworking White Americans Settling Barbarous land and bringing Civilisation becomes a story of Evil Racist white Americans Invading Native American land and COMMITING GENOCIDE. This sort of thing fails to understand that our own narratives are just as constructed as those of the past. The other element that makes it bad history is that, if taken far enough, we can forget that people in the past Actually Believed the narratives that they used. They weren’t simply pretending to believe these things so they could have fun murdering people. If critical historians took their beliefs seriously, they would not apply modern ideas to the past so unCritically (geddit?) instead, they would take seriously the narratives of the past, even if they still take them apart in various ways. Probably, they would end up in a lot of trouble if they did this sort of thing and there would be all sorts of articles about how Dr X’s writings on the Holocaust are deeply anti-Semitic and Professor Y’s book about Spain’s Empire is very racist because they take seriously the idea that the people they are studying really believed their own narratives.
One other facet of this debate is that implicit in labelling something a ‘social construct’ or a narrative is that the thing is false. This is a deeply annoying habit, a social construct might be useless, it might conflict in some way with the underlying reality, but it is not automatically false anymore than a house is not really there because it was build rather than being discovered in nature. Myth making is an important way, probably the most important way, that societies are held together, a large part of this means that we have to impose some meaning onto the past. I don’t think anyone doesn’t do this, if they could they might make an excellent critical historian, but they would also be very lonely and very unpublished. For the most part, the debunking of old myths is really part of an effort, deliberate or not, to make a new myth which unites a different group in society, perhaps in direct opposition to those who subscribe to the old myth.