Problems of History & Relativism


An:   Gender List,

Von: William Osborne, INTERNET:

Datum: 06.06.00, 17:14

Empf:   Problems of Relativism & History



I've been thinking about the interesting problem put forth by Philip Brett

and Eva Rieger concerning the "animus" that shapes relationships to moral

and cultural issues such as the Holocaust or the Vienna Philharmonic's

exclusion of women and people of color.


Post-Modernism's attempts to question the authority of knowledge and the

dissemination power and privilege have been invaluable to feminists.  The

work of ethnologists such as Ellen Koskoff, for example, have been helpful

in my discussions of the Vienna Philharmonic's views on issues such as

maternity leave.  Unresolvable problems arise, however, when I attempt to

apply Post-Modernism's relativization of truth to the Philharmonic's racism

or sexism.  And this relativism is even more difficult to apply to the

women's orchestra in Auschwitz, which was the thread that brought on Eva

Rieger's harsh criticism of me as a righteous essentialist who does not

consider the "gray areas" of these issues.  (Gray areas whose existence she

seems unable to substantiate.)  How can we not express deep moral

indignation at the Holocaust or the Vienna Philharmonic's egregious sexism

and racism? 


Questions such as these are addressed by the distinguished historian

Gertrude Himmelfarb in her book __On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely

Thoughts on Culture and Society__ (New York: Vintage 1995) which

deconstructs literary and historical deconstructionism.[1]  She diagnoses

postmodernism's possible role in a "demise of liberalism" and a "deadly

resurgence of nationalism"--two problems very applicable to the Vienna

Philharmonic and Austria's current political situation.   And most

importantly for our discussion, she shows how postmodern thought has

enabled people to trivialize the Holocaust.  The crisis of postmodernism

derives from the fact that relativizations of truth fall apart when dealing

with genocide.  There are few if any "gray areas" in the Holocaust.

Expressions of absolute moral indignation at such an unimaginable crime

cross all cultural boundaries and will never become redundant.  


Himmelfarb makes it clear that if we relativize or problematize the

Holocaust we ultimately risk aestheticizing or fictionalizing it.  (This

was certainly the danger of the recent VPO Mauthausen concert.) And if we

relativize the Vienna Philharmonic's chauvinism we help open the doors of

irrationality that proved fertile ground for National Socialism.  In fact,

this is already being done in ways that are slowly becoming perceptible.

The irony couldn't be more complete.  Those who would create a blanket

deconstruction of binary thought, themselves reduce the world to

"Post-Modernist-Truth" while all else becomes merely "culturally

conditioned righteousness."


One postmodernist historian, Jane Caplan, raises this problem, only to

confess that she cannot resolve it:


"To put it bluntly, what can one usefully say about National Socialism as

an ideology or a political movement and regime via theories that appear to

discount rationality as a mode of explanation, that resist the claims of

truth, relativize and disseminate power, cannot assign responsibility

clearly, and do not privilege (one) truth or morality over (multiple)

interpretation?   It is one thing to embrace poststructuralism and

postmodernism, to disseminate power, to decenter subjects, and all in all

let a hundred kinds of meaning contend, when __Bleak House__ or philology

or even the archeology of knowledge are the issue.  But should the rules of

contention be different when it is a question, not simply of History, but

of a recent history of lives, deaths, and suffering, and the concept of a

justice that seeks to draw some meaningful relation between these?"[2] 


This also summarizes a problem musicologists and artists confront.  It is

well and fine to theorize that Beethoven's Ninth is a metaphor for rape, or

to suggest Madonna's chameleon character is a clever way of decentering

authority, but when we begin to speak about the women's orchestra in

Auschwitz, or the bigotry of orchestras such as in Vienna, Berlin, Dresden,

Leipzig and Prague we are no longer dealing in abstractions.  We are

addressing real and current human suffering.  Truth becomes far less



Virtually every aspect of the VPO controversy has occupied the Internet for

five years, and yet Eva Rieger has never addressed a single post to the

issue. This is especially notable since sexism in orchestras strongly

affects Germany.  Now she suggests we relativize the women's orchestra in

Auschwitz and the Vienna Philharmonic with shades of gray. This would only

service a flight from reality.


William Osborne


[1]  I should note that I view much of Himmelfarb’s work vary warily, and even with distaste, because she is closely associated with the neo-conservative movement.

[2]  Jane Caplan, "Postmodernism, Poststructuralism, and Deconstruction:

Notes for Historians,"  __Central European History__, September/December

1989, pp. 274,278.