01 June 2008

Hayden White, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, has been described as "perhaps the premier academic essayist of our times." Compulsory reading for graduate students throughout the humanities, his essays on historical representation and narrative discourse have strongly contributed to a "narrative turn" in the study of historical thought. The author of Metahistory (1973), Tropics of Discourse (1978), The Content of the Form (1987), and Figural Realism (1999), Professor White has also published recent essays on historical fiction, witness literature, and Holocaust representation.

On thursday, May the 29th, White was interviewed in public by Herman Paul, Lecturer in Historical Theory, and Ernst van Alphen, Professor of Literary Studies. They addressed the desire for utopian alternatives, that runs as a leitmotiv through White’s work, and the discursive articulation of this desire in (post)modernist historical writing.

Interesting to see was the contrast between White, an old charismatic erudite intellectual, and Paul, a young intelligent sharp scholar. It would not be an overstatement to say Paul was overshadowed by White, especially on a rhetorical level. Where Paul questioned while having critically read White's work, White answered evasively. Obviously Paul understood White's work better than White did himself according to White.

White's position on the historical discipline was an interesting one. He criticized historians for cutting the past off from the present and the future. A genealogy was a way of justifying the present. More poetically, you were born into a conversation and the conversation was not about you. The past was ever present. But this practical past was something different from the historical past [Oakeshott]. Historians had the authoritarian method of constructing a past which overpowered the practical past in what was to be remembered and what not. This Nietzschean-Foucauldian perspective on historical knowledge as power had its linguistic consequences.

White was asked why he did not write history as a poet or novellist. He answered he was brought up with the scientific method and was too old to change. Importantly, however, White stressed the literary character of the historical discipline. There was de facto not a great difference between an historical novel and a historical study, both were narrative expressions. White brought up the concept of the middle voice [verbum modi]. It was both active and passive. In the Greek world this voice still had a place in discourse, but it was lost to the scientific Western world. A verb like to promise myself was both active towards oneself and was passively endured. This dilemma of life was central to historical writing.


Ruben said...

"Historians had the authoritarian method of constructing a past which overpowered the practical past in what was to be remembered and what not."

I like the idea that historians should use their creative (literary) skills to contribute to the cultural debate of the past in the present. Every new interpretation is a new perspective.

But that shouldn't mean that anyone can say anything about the past. A historical novel is something different than a historical explanation, and some historical facts are simply too horrific to be interpreted in multiple ways.

Dirk said...

It is true that some historical facts are horrific. But Hayden White had an interesting vision on this. In case of the Holocaust, the authority of someone to speak about it is very prominent. There are the victims, the perpetrators, the bystanders. The Jews think they are the only ones to talk about what has been done to them. They are the moral witnesses. Of course, a historical event should not be hijacked by a group of people. Hayden White gave the example of him speaking and us listening. Why had we come to listen to him? What was his authority? The only thing he could come up with was that he was a very good speaker. If not, we would have been gone. Rhetorics seemed to be more important than argument, something the antithesis of White and Paul had made clear.

anirudh said...

Anirudh Deshpande

The language of knowledge is important not only to history but to all forms of knowledge, including the sciences. For example, its potential to become a trap of modernity in medicine is now too well to be reiterated here. Similarly there is no getting around the 'narrative' as the chief form of remembering and reconstructing knowledge, both of the past and present, and therefore of the future. As long as the past has a future, history as a link between the two will remain relevant. While it is true that good historians generally are good imaginative writers as well it should not be forgotten that they are political beings first and foremost. Hence the criticism of history should proceed from the linguistic turn and re-address the political question. In this context it is pertinent to ask historical theorists like White a simple question: what constitutes their politics and what kind of world do they want to build with the help of their de-constructive endeavors ? Its best not to forget what Marx wrote in the Theses on Feuerbach: hitherto the philosophers have interpreted the world, the point however is to change it. How does 'Metahistory' save us from the past and how does it make this world a better place to live in?

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