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February 28, 2005

Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism and History - J. C. D. Clark

Posted by David Womersley

Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism and History
by J. C. D. Clark
Pp. xiv + 336. London: Atlantic Books, 2003
Paperback, £14.99

Jonathan Clark is an historian of notable technical accomplishment. His most influential book, English Society 1688-1832 (revised and republished as English Society 1660-1832) caused a great stir when first published, because it appeared to offer a quite new way of thinking about, and describing what was important in, the English long eighteenth century. In the place of a period of waning patriarchalism, faltering religion, enfeebled monarchy, strengthening progress towards political reform and rising radicalism, Clark re-described England in the years between the Restoration and the Great Reform Bill as what he called an ancien régime state, firmly supported by the triple pillars of monarchy, aristocracy and church. This argument initially struck the world of eighteenth-century historiography like a comet, but with the passage of time the precise nature of Clark's achievement in that book has emerged into a clearer light.

It is now apparent that what Clark in fact did in English Society 1688-1832 was to perform a set of extremely sophisticated technical moves within the existing frameworks of argument about the English eighteenth century – frameworks created by the historians against whom he was taking aim. A thorough mastery of the secondary literature allowed Clark to turn the historiographical batteries planted by his opponents against their original crews. English Society derived its impressive energy, not so much from any particularly fresh or distinctive engagement with the primary materials of eighteenth-century English history, but rather from Clark's witheringly acute understanding of the techniques of academic guerilla warfare.

Our Shadowed Present reads like Clark's attempt to transform his notoriety within the world of academic history into a larger kind of celebrity. With one exception (the publication of his edition of Burke's Reflections by Stanford), Clark has up to now been published by Cambridge University Press. However, Our Shadowed Present has been brought out by a trade publisher – a change of conduit which surely signals a bid for a different kind of readership. The initial reviews were for the most part loud in their praise. But how successfully has Clark managed his transfer to a bigger stage – the stage of the Schamas, the Fergusons, the Starkeys?

Our Shadowed Present comprises an introduction and a brief conclusion which bracket seven chapters, all of which were commissioned as separate pieces for academic occasions, and three of which have been previously published. The chapters range in time from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present day, in geography from America to Germany, and are recognisably in the guerilla idiom of Clark's earlier work. So Our Shadowed Present is clearly a book of enormously wide scope. What holds it together? In the 'Introduction' Clark explains that it was (p. 29):

written under the shadow of an advancing enterprise in popular culture and academic history of which the author had, at the outset, no clear understanding. It is offered as the record of a series of responses to a generalized problem that only came into focus as my responses, and the responses of others, progressed.
What is that enterprise, and what is that problem? The problem is that, in Clark's opinion, over recent decades the inhabitants of the West have come ever more steadily to be separated from their past. They have tended to see the legacy of history as a constraint rather than a support, and Clark further contends that they have been encouraged down this amnesiac path (and here we move from the diagnosis of the problem to the indictment of the enterprise) by the congeries of recent schools of thought to which Clark applies the label 'postmodernism' (p. 2):
We still lack an accurate sense of what that wider movement is, and we lack a single term to identify it. Technically we might call it de-historicization, since it involves the foreshortening and even the discarding of the historical dimension. More generally we might call it presentism, since it is a privileging of the present that provides the movement with its attractive ideal.
The seven chapters of Our Shadowed Present each open and develop a different front in Clark's campaign against this malign force.

Notwithstanding this evocation of insidious threat, one might pause to ask some questions. For instance, is it in fact the case that people are ever more indifferent to the past? And is it in fact the case that 'postmodernism' entails a rejection of the historical? In answer to the first, we might remark that there appears to be a great public appetite for history (and that Clark could find a trade publisher for this book is good presumptive evidence of the fact). And when we reflect on the second question, we uncover a feature of Our Shadowed Present which shows its consanguinity with Clark's earlier work. For, although the term 'postmodernism' is brandished by Clark with great energy and frequency, of the maîtres penseurs whom we might think of as centrally postmodern, Derrida is mentioned only once (and then in a very miscellaneous list of philosophers and thinkers), Lyotard, de Man, Genette not at all. Moreover, there is no quotation from any of the works of these thinkers – or even citation of the titles of their works – with the single exception of a quotation from Lévi-Strauss's The Savage Mind (pp. 12-13); and the structuralist Lévi-Strauss can, by no stretch of either the imagination or terminology, be called a postmodern thinker. The notes, however, make fairly frequent reference to a number of undergraduate guides to postmodernism – works by Norris, Eagleton, John Ellis, Stuart Sim.

It would seem that Clark has not waded out very far into the sea of postmodernism, and perhaps the lofty words in his 'Preface' allude to this (p. x):

since postmodernism expresses an extreme subjectivism it lacks the clear boundaries that history needs and finds expression under other labels as well, notably post-structuralism and deconstructionism. Since they all collapse into a common solipsism, these schools’ claims to distinctness will be disregarded here.
Solipsism is à propos to Our Shadowed Present; but I'm not sure that it's the postmodernists who are evincing it. Nor will it do to write off the tensions and conflicts between the thinkers that Clark lumps together (for instance, Derrida and Foucault, who engaged in a long and passionate argument precisely about the relation of postmodern thought to the question of history) as simply "self-praise" (p. xi).

As used by Clark, 'postmodernism' is a reification used to besmirch certain thinkers and tendencies in modern thought for which he has no liking. It is also the wrapper placed around a miscellany of historical essays in the hope of giving them a broader appeal. This latter hope is touchingly misjudged. Clark's prose is precise, academic, oblique and clipped. It is almost entirely devoid of the vivid detail which is necessary to engage a popular readership. The 'Preface' ends on a note of tremendous mystery (p. xi):

. . . the successive worlds of the modernists and the postmodernists alike have been troubled by a wind of change that is hostile to them both: unnoticed, our weather-vanes have turned, and now point neither East nor West. Perceptive readers may therefore sense that at the intellectual centre of this book is a subject that seldom directly appears. They would not be wrong.
What does this mean? The allusion seems to be towards the subject of religion, perhaps also to political conservatism. Amen to both. But people are not to be argued into either religious faith or conservative attitudes by academic historical essays, no matter how great the technical accomplishment they show. If the cases for conservatism and religious belief – and, indeed, the case for the importance of a sense of historical connectedness – cannot be made more directly, more powerfully, and more attractively than they are in Our Shadowed Present, then there is no hope for any of them.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford.

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