Postmodernism, Social Science, and History: Returning to an Unfinished Agenda

Recognizing that the vogue of postmodernism has passed, Simon Susen seeks to assess whatever enduring impact it may have had on the social sciences, including historiography. Indeed, the postmodern turn, as he sees it, seems to have had particular implications for our understanding of the human relationship with history. After five exegetical chapters, in which he seems mostly sympathetic to postmodernism, Susen turns to often biting criticism in a subsequent chapter. He charges, most basically, that postmodernists miss the self-critical side of modernity and tend to overreact against aspects of modernism. That overreaction is evident especially in the postmodern preoccupation with textuality and discourse, which transforms sociology into cultural studies and historiography into a form of literature. But as Susen sees it, a comparable overreaction has been at work in the postmodern emphasis on new, “little” politics, concerned with identity and difference, at the expense of more traditional large-scale politics and attendant forms of radicalism. His assessment reflects the “emancipatory” political agenda he assigns to the social sciences. Partly because that agenda inevitably affects what he finds to embrace and what to criticize, aspects of his discussion prove one-sided. And he does not follow through on his suggestions that postmodernist insights entail a sort of inflation of history or historicity. Partly as a result, his treatment of “reason,” universal rights, and reality (including historiographical realism) betrays an inadequate grasp of the postmodern challenge—and opportunity. In the last analysis, Susen's understanding of the historical sources of postmodernism is simply too limited, but he usefully makes it clear that we have not put the postmodernist challenge behind us.