How would I go about analyzing White's ideas in "The Historical Text as Literary Artifact"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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White's text is a tough one and there are different paths which can be taken in order to analyze it.  I think that a starting point would be to outline some of his basic premises.  One such idea is that historians operate much like narrative writers.  White challenges the idea that there can be a completely objective historian, devoid of bias or a theoretical underpinning that details his narrative of history:  "Yet it is difficult to get an objective history of a scholarly discipline, because if the historian is himself a practitioner of it, he is likely to be a devotee of one or another of its sects and hence biased."  White makes the argument that the true focus of history should be to examine the "meta- history" that exists within the historical narrative.  White defines this as the ability to study the study of history:

It addresses itself to such questions as, What is the structure of a peculiarly historical Consciousness?  What is the epistemological status of historical explanations, as compared with other kinds of explanations that might be offered to account for the materials with which historians ordinarily deal?  What are the possible forms of historical representation and what are their bases?  What authority can historical accounts claim as contributions to a secure knowledge of reality in general and to the human sciences in particular?

For White, this becomes one of the critical ideas within the historical narrative and the metahistorical process that underwrites it.  For example, White suggests that historical events themselves have no real meaning to them. They are "value neutral," because they are perceived different by the people who experience them.  White argues this in the historical retelling of revolutions, which will look different to a person who is not in power than to one who is. Such an idea demonstrates how historical events themselves are "value neutral."  White argues that the way they are interpreted is reflective of the historian's bias or his own understanding.  For instance, he suggests that "historical situations are not inherently tragic, comic, or romantic.  They may all be inherently ironic, but they need not be emplotted that way.  All the historian needs to do to transform a tragic into a comic situation is to shift his point of view or change the scope of his perceptions."  This idea helps to illuminate one of White's critical point that the way in which history is understood and assembled might be just as intriguing, if not more, than the history, itself.  The ability to "make sense of sets of events in a number of different ways" is a critical point in White's analysis. This would have to be part of any analysis regarding White's text.

White feels that a major part of the analysis of history is to understand this "coding" of the historical narrative.  White believes that the historical narrative is not "a reproduction" of factual knowledge, but rather an interpretation of them, a coding of the process.  To understand this coding is to better understand history and the meta-narratives that frame it.  This construction is of vital important to Hayden's ideas:

As a symbolic structure, the historical narrative does not reproduce the events it describes; it tells us in what direction to think about the events and charges our thought about the events with different emotional valences.  The historical narrative does not image the thing it indicates; it calls to mind images of the things it indicates, in the same way that a metaphor does.

White's point is to understand history not as "unambiguous signs of events they report," but rather as symbolic structures, extended metaphors, that 'liken' the event reported in them to some form with which we have already become familiar in our literary culture."  The idea of seeing history as a reflection of this "extended metaphor" is another critical point to make in White's ideas.

In presenting any analysis of White's work, I think that being able to highlight the essential nature of the meta- narrative is critical.  White seeks to develop a broader and more reflective understanding of history in suggesting that the events and their compositional force are of equal importance.  Greater knowledge of history emerges when we stop seeing it as positivistic or absolutist, and see it in a similar light as the construction of the literary narrative.  The artifacts of literature reflect presuppositions and ideas that enable greater insight to emerge, something that White seeks to illuminate in his construction of history.

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