Hayden White

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Phyllis Grosskurth (review date 1975)

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SOURCE: A review of Metahistory, in Canadian Historical Review, Vol. LVI, 1975, pp. 192–93.

[In the following review, Grosskurth offers a positive assessment of Metahistory, which she hails as a “deliberately provocative book.”]

Professor Hayden White of Wesleyan University is nothing if not bold. He has an amplitude of mind which does not quail before the expectation of offending the most formidable of foes. In an article published last year in History and Theory, ‘Foucault Decoded: Notes from Underground,’ he pointed out the delusions under which French structuralists were deceiving themselves. Undisturbed by the murmurs of irritation, he has now in effect taken on all historians in a large book, Metahistory, whose subtitle The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe is applicable only insofar as he analyzes the work of several major historians of the period to demonstrate that since the nineteenth century ‘most historians have affected a kind of wilful methodological naïvete.’ This provocative phrase he had already employed in an earlier article (‘The Burden of History,’ History and Theory, v, 2, 1966).

From the outset—and there is a long introductory section of his explanation of procedure—he undertakes to demonstrate that historians have inherited an unsystematic, unscientific approach, a flaw that could be rectified if they recognized the limitations of the ‘linguistic protocol’ they were actually employing. As White defines his book, it is a ‘history of historical consciousness in nineteenth-century Europe, but it is also meant to contribute to the current discussion of the problem of historical knowledge.’ History he defines as ‘a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse that purports to be a model, or icon, of past structures and processes in the interest of explaining what they were by representing them’ (Professor White is addicted to italics).

What in effect Metahistory is attempting to do is to create a methodology for history such as Northrop Frye provided for literary criticism in The Anatomy of Criticism—namely, to categorize and classify the types and conventions of particular literary forms. In sum, this suggests that White, like Croce, regards history as an art; but an art which should be regulated by exigent artistic laws. While most historians would probably agree with White's view that pluralistic approaches to art are desirable, it is likely that many of them would dispute his contention that language creates consciousness, a view compounded by the fact that the historian is dealing with events outside the consciousness of a particular individual. Here we encounter a chicken and egg dilemma.

In order to demonstrate his point, White analyzes the work of Hegel, Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Marx, Nietzsche, and Croce. Although he finds Croce the most attractive of these historians because of his aesthetic bias, he does not suggest that there has been progress in historical approaches, simply a variety of attitudes in which each figure has presented his vision of history in particular rhetorical terminology. Inevitably each stumbled into contradictions through ignorance of a consistent mode of language to represent his vision of the past. We can assume, then, that the great historians would have been greater still if only they had had a coherent terminology to describe what they were doing.

It is a bold, fascinating, and deliberately provocative book that White has written. ‘History,’ I heard a student once remark, ‘is a mystery.’ What would White say if confronted with such—probably to him—a dismissive and unsophisticated statement? The student presumably meant that history was an elusive past from which historians made excavations to extract some facts to which in turn they attributed a personal...

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significance. If I read him correctly, White would agree with the attitude that history can never be historiography or a quasi-science or that there is a single means of pouncing upon its elusiveness. Nevertheless, while he is prepared to accept such basic premises, at the same time he believes that historians can improve and enlarge their ‘discipline’ by frankly accepting the literary nature of their enterprise.

Metahistory is irritating and pretentious, and it may be that it has created more problems than it has solved. But if problems engender fresh attitudes to so-called ‘disciplines,’ so much the better.

Michael Ermarth (review date October 1975)

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SOURCE: A review of Metahistory, in American Historical Review, Vol. 80, No. 4, October, 1975, pp. 961–63.

[In the following review, Ermarth offers a positive assessment of Metahistory.]

Metahistory is a daring, ingenious, and sometimes bewildering tour de force. White has produced a profoundly original “critique of historical reason,” based not upon the usual fare of idealist metaphysics or the logic of predictive science but upon linguistics—a discipline that may become the novum organon of the twentieth century. The author presents a unified field theory of history, which takes its departure from the linguistic structures and figurative language implicit in the historical writing of the great practitioners—Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, Burckhardt—and theorists—Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Croce—of the “classical age” of history.

The novelty of the work lies not with its components but in their systematic combination and deft application to concrete issues. In fairness it must be said that White's style of exegesis is almost impossible to recapitulate in abbreviated form; one must see it at work. He acknowledges his debt to structuralism, the typology of explanations of Stephen Pepper, the literary criticism of Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye, Karl Mannheim's sociology of knowledge, and above all, Vico's “new science” and its vision of history as a cycle of consciousness rooted in poetic tropes and figures of speech. From this formidable arsenal White has fashioned a “poetic logic” of historical discourse that enables him to cut across (or below) the conventional categories and schools of historical thought.

The method is uniformly and unabashedly formal: White asserts that the historian confronts his data in a manner akin to that by which a grammarian approaches a new language. The historical work consists of various manifest and latent “levels of engagement”: esthetic, epistemological, and ethical—but all patently linguistic in nature. The historian must employ a mode of emplotment—Romantic, Tragic, Comic, or Satirical; a mode of explanation—Formist, Mechanistic, Organicist, or Contextualist; and a mode of “ideological implication”—Anarchist, Radical, Conservative, or Liberal. Internal affinities and homologies among these modes constitute the interpretive strategy or “style” of the work. The strategies can be reduced to four “linguistic protocols,” corresponding to Vico's four master tropes of Metaphor, Metonymy, Synecdoche, and Irony. These tropes provide the “deep grammar” of the historical account.

History is not a realistic transcription “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” but a linguistic construct (“verbal icon”) of figures of speech entailing vast but largely hidden assumptions. History is not mimesis but poesis. White's thesis plumbs the paradox implicit in the two senses of “literal” conveyed in the notion of a literal past: we must perforce think “in terms of our terms”—a self-evident but highly unsettling observation (White cites Nietzsche: “Our science is still the dupe of linguistic habit”). In delineating four different styles of realism, White shows that their standard of objectivity is defined by internal relations among the levels of engagement: there is no historical Ding an sich. Ranke's history is no more objective than Croce's, any more than the German language is “truer” than French; they are simply and irreducibly different systems of discourse.

White has taken considerable pains to avoid system-mongering, but his analysis suffers from a certain hardening of the categories. The solemnly upper-case concepts confer a somewhat vatic quality to the work. Although he admits that the best thinkers tended to mix their metaphors and figures, his tracing of homologies tends to assume an almost ritualistic predictability. We are not obliged to take at face value the historicist claims for the “diversity” and “individuality” of things, but in White's bal démasqué the surfaces get lost in the deeper paradigm. The tendency to see Irony lurking behind every post is sometimes more bothersome than illuminating. The resolution of dialectics into a trope—for example, in Marx's analysis of the riddle of money—is elegant but ultimately unpersuasive. White's occasionally arcane coinages—“motifically-encoded,” “de-ideologized,” “de-naming”—turn the latent level into plain archetypal murk. One might also be led to challenge his purely formal and ultimately reflexive model of language. To use the structuralist terms, historical discourse is parole as well as langue: it has semantic reference to an experienced world in addition to syntactic structure. “Discourse is not life”—as the structuralists never tire of reminding us—but that does not make it nonrecitative music or symbolist poetry. However falteringly or obliquely (that is, metaphorically), historical discourse concerns itself with real existence as well as formal coherence. One wonders at White's wholesale adoption of formalism, especially in light of his own careful treatment of the objections of Hegel and Croce to precisely this position.

White avows that his book is framed in the Ironic mode—appropriate to a discipline, and epoch, which has lost its customary certainties and “historical faith.” The reader cannot fail to recognize that his perspective is the residual outcome of the very doctrinal antagonisms toward which it is deployed. But there is a visionary as well as critical thrust to his thesis: after indicting academic historians for their “theoretical torpor” and complacent consensus model of historiography, he suggests that history, if conceived mythopoetically, can change the world as well as interpret it. There is a position “beyond Irony” that furnishes the grounds for a new historical consciousness liberated from its old habits and shibboleths. White has provided a comprehensive theoretical framework that transcends the cordon sanitaire between “history proper” and the various forms of philosophy of history. Despite a few dark and tight corners, this impressive synthesis casts a very new light.

Stanley Pierson (review date Spring 1978)

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SOURCE: A review of Metahistory, in Comparative Literature, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 178–81.

[In the following review, Pierson praises Metahistory as “a bold and imaginative book” and outlines the book’s key points of contention that will likely be debated by scholars.]

The discipline of history has remained relatively free from the close critical scrutiny which, in recent years, has been laying bare the metaphysical and methodological foundations of such neighboring disciplines as literary criticism, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and sociology. Significant inquiry into the nature of historical thinking has been confined largely to the pages of History and Theory and to works by philosophers—White, Dray, Mink, Gallie, Fain, and Danto. Serious self-scrutiny by historians has been limited to the important study by David Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, the works of George Iggers, and lighter efforts by Stuart Hughes and Peter Gay. Historians in general have shown little interest in investigating the nature of their craft and little awareness that many of their conventional forms of explanation have been called into question by major currents in modern thought. Historians have remained comparatively indifferent to fundamental philosophical issues despite the vital new perspectives on historical study which have been coming from the psychohistorians, the Marxists, cliometricians, and especially from the French “Annales” school.

Hayden White's Metahistory will make it difficult for historians to retain their philosophical innocence. White has attempted to clarify the nature of modern historical thinking, or the “received tradition,” by analyzing the work of major nineteenth-century historians—Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burkhardt—as well as the major “philosophers of history”—Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Croce. His treatment of these figures is designed, in part, to show that the distinction usually made by historians between those who do history and those who seek to interpret the whole of history and arrive at a grand synthesis, is false. Historical thinking, according to White, is inescapably philosophical and metaphysical. In their efforts to marshall “facts,” weave them into a meaningful pattern of narration, and discover underlying relationships, historians must rely on modes of thought which are not empirical; they adopt distinctive forms of argument and different types of emplotment and they make aesthetic and ethical judgments. Even more fundamental than these forms in the making of the historian's consciousness or “style,” White maintains, is a poetic act which “prefigures” the historical field and enables the historian to begin his work. This initiating act of imagination involves the adoption of one of four possible “linguistic protocols” or “tropes”—metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, or irony. On these “irreducible” linguistic foundations the structures of historical consciousness are built. The structures will differ according to the linguistic protocol adopted, for the protocols tend, because of certain “elective affinities,” to dictate the explanatory strategies the historian employs to tell his story.

White borrows from a philosopher, a literary critic, and a sociologist in distinguishing the explanatory strategies or the forms of argument, emplotment, and ideology used by historians. Stephen Pepper's fourfold theory of truth—Formism, Mechanism, Organicism, and Contextualism—provides the basic forms of argumentation; Northrop Frye's typology—Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire—makes up the basic modes of emplotment; Karl Mannheim's classification of social belief systems—Anarchism, Radicalism, Conservatism, and Liberalism—covers the range of ideological options. Beyond these direct influences on White's choice of categories one can recognize his debt to the “structuralists,” particularly Foucault and Lévi-Strauss, and to perspectives derived from Nietzsche, Marx, and Hegel. From these diverse sources White has constructed a complex and ingenious apparatus for analyzing historical writings.

Historians will encounter in Metahistory a terminology which is unfamiliar and rather intimidating. And they will leave to literary critics, linguists, and philosophers the task of assessing the ways in which White has developed his categories. But they will recognize that White's theory of the basic forms of historical thought has enabled him to offer fresh and illuminating interpretations of the historical thinkers with whom he deals. He displays a thorough command of their writings and if, at times, his categories take on a procrustean character, he recognizes that the greatest historical thinkers struggled to reconcile conflicting views of the historical process. His analyses of Marx and Tocqueville, in whom he sees a dialectical interplay between different tropes and differing modes of argument, emplotment, and ideology, are especially impressive.

Historians will quarrel with White's study in at least two ways. Many historians will not accept his claim that his “linguistic protocols” represent the irreducible foundation of historical thinking. The question here is not strictly speaking a historical question, but it has important methodological implications. To historians of a Marxist persuasion, or to those who believe that the social sciences provide the proper model for their discipline, White's insistence on the irreducibility of his tropes will appear to be a case of arrested analysis. They will reject the view that their “facts” are so largely the products of “tropes” or forms of consciousness and perhaps see in this feature of White's thought the antihistorical strain found in much of “structuralism.” These historians will argue that the changing modes of consciousness, including those of the historian, can be understood more fully by exploring their relationships with institutions or with shifting patterns of social and economic interests.

Many historians will also disagree with White's emplotment of modern historiographical development and the lesson he draws from it. White writes with a sense of mission; his book is informed by a desire to arouse the historical profession from its dogmatic slumber—a slumber which takes, paradoxically, the hyperconscious form of irony. He argues that historical thought during the nineteenth century moved beyond the Romantic, Tragic, and Comic postures which, in their various ways, conferred meaning and dignity on the human enterprise, to an ironic outlook. The ironic posture, according to White, arises out of a sense of the impossibility of establishing any common ground for historical understanding and results in skepticism and “moral agnosticism.” And while he concedes that none of the four basic “linguistic protocols” employed by historians can claim superiority in epistemological terms, White maintains that the historian can, and in fact should, make choices on ethical and aesthetic (or ideological) grounds. Indeed, he insists that the increased recognition of the ironic state of mind, to which his own study contributes, enables the historian to overcome it and renew the efforts of those nineteenth-century thinkers who sought guidance and inspiration from history.

One may accept White's claim that the dominant mode in modern historical consciousness is ironic without agreeing that such a mode necessarily destroys the capacity to judge and act in human affairs. Irony may function in various ways for the historian—as a means of reaching a relatively detached analysis, as a way of acknowledging the complexities and inescapable ambiguities of human development, or even as a mode of liberation from past institutions and belief systems. White's conception of the historian's consciousness is too simple to do justice to the ways in which the historian forms his values or relates his activities as a scholar to other aspects of life.

Moreover, White's call for ethical and aesthetic choice on the part of the historian is ambiguous. If he is simply pointing once more, as he does so effectively throughout his study, to the inescapable ideological element in historical writing and calling for greater self-consciousness on the part of the historian, few will object. But if, as seems more likely, he is offering an apology for the “engaged” historical writing which has become fashionable in recent years, and represents in fact an important qualification to his own generalization about the state of the discipline, many historians will disagree. They will be wary of premature commitments and be reluctant to abandon the effort to achieve broad perspectives which, for all the dangers of ironism, promise a wiser and perhaps a more compassionate view of the historical scene.

Still, White has given us a bold and imaginative book. At a time when much historical writing is occupied with narrow and trivial questions, he has challenged those in the discipline to consider anew the nature and purpose of their work. At the least White's study should bring historians to a new awareness of the forms of thought and imagination on which they rely. But Metahistory should also serve to remind historians of those perennial human concerns which make up the chief justification for their study.

Dominick LaCapra (review date December 1978)

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SOURCE: A review of Tropics of Discourse, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 93, No. 5, December, 1978, pp. 1037–43.

[In the following positive review of Tropics of Discourse, LaCapra provides a close analysis of White's theoretical assertions and directs constructive criticism toward problematic aspects of White's philosophical assumptions.]

No one writing in this country at the present time has done more to wake historians from their dogmatic slumber than has Hayden White. One cannot over-emphasize his importance for contemporary historiography in general and intellectual history in particular. In the recent past, intellectual history has departed from the rigorous if formalistic approach followed by Ernst Cassirer and Arthur O. Lovejoy. The result has often been its reduction to superficial contextual reportage of little interest to those in related disciplines. One might, without undue hyperbole, say that White's writings have helped to reopen the possibility of thought in intellectual history.

The collection of essays in Tropics of Discourse constitutes an invaluable supplement to White's masterwork of 1973, Metahistory, where he elaborated and applied the theory of tropes that serves as a leitmotif in the current volume. The range of the essays is ambitiously broad: problems of historiography and the related disciplines of literary criticism and philosophy; the notions of the wild man and the noble savage in Western thought; Vico; Foucault; structuralism and poststructuralism. The tense unity of the book is provided by the recurrent concern with interpretation in history and with the need for historians to become apprised of more modern, experimental developments in literature, literary criticism, and philosophy. White's far-ranging hermeneutic interests transcend disciplinary boundaries and his critical observations apply beyond professional historiography, for they address more traditional methods in related areas, e.g., in the writing of literary history. Indeed White often looks to literary criticism for interpretive methods that may illuminate problems in historiography. This gesture is altogether in keeping with his insistence upon the importance of the problem of language, of rhetoric, and of theoretical self-reflection in the writing of history. His purpose is to question the invidious distinction between those who write history and those who write about writing history—a distinction that functions to reinforce theoretical “know-nothingism” among historians.

Allowing for the necessary leaven of exaggeration in all committed polemic, one will find White's criticisms of powerful tendencies in the historical profession to be quite telling. The following pastiche of quotations gives some sense of the nature of his comments about the great commonplace book of conventional historiography:

The ‘proper historian,’ it is usually contended, seeks to explain what happened in the past by providing a precise and accurate reconstruction of the events reported in the documents (p. 52). History is perhaps the conservative discipline par excellence. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, most historians have affected a kind of willful methodological naiveté (p. 28). What is usually called the ‘training’ of the historian consists for the most part of study in a few languages, journeyman work in the archives, and the performance of a few set exercises to acquaint him with standard reference works and journals in his field. For the rest, a general experience of human affairs, reading in peripheral fields, self-discipline, and Sitzfleisch are all that are necessary (p. 40). Since the second half of the nineteenth century, history has become increasingly the refuge of all those ‘sane’ men who excel at finding the simple in the complex and the familiar in the strange (p. 30). It may well be that the most difficult task which the current generation of historians will be called upon to perform is to expose the historically conditioned character of the historical discipline, to preside over the dissolution of history's claim to autonomy among the disciplines, and to aid in the assimilation of history to a higher kind of intellectual inquiry which, because it is founded on an awareness of the similarities between art and science, rather than on their differences, can be properly designated as neither (p. 29).

In more specific form, White's critique is addressed both to positivism and to the unself-conscious employment of traditional narrative in the writing of history. The more elaborate positivistic understanding of science, in terms of causal “covering laws,” had little effect upon the practice of historians. But the attraction of a more loosely understood “scientific” model has been of paramount importance in contemporary historiography. The comprehension of history as art—art itself being equated with traditional narrative—is still very much alive, but it exists on sufferance in the shadow of the scientific ideal. White points out a number of highly significant similarities between scientific and narrative history as they are generally practiced. 1) Both are largely pre-modern in inspiration. The paradigm of science is late nineteenth-century, and that of art is the pre-Flaubertian novel. “When historians claim that history is a combination of science and art, they generally mean that it is a combination of late-nineteenth century social science and mid-nineteenth century art. … Historians continue to act as if they believed that the major, not to say the sole, purpose of art is to tell a story” (p. 43). 2) Both share a pre-critical conception of “facts” as the indubitable, atomistic base-line of history—the ultimate “givens” of an account. 3) Both reduce interpretation to marginal status, conceiving of it as a more-or-less plausible way of imaginatively filling in gaps in the historical record. For both, metahistory is much too speculative to live in the same neighborhood as “proper” history. 4) Both rely in relatively unreflective fashion on tropologically based sense-making structures—the one on schematic models and metonymic causal mechanisms and the other on the emplotment of events in a chronologically arranged story.

For White, the rigid opposition of history “proper” and metahistory obscures more than it illuminates. The distinctive criterion of metahistory for him is the attempt to make interpretive and explanatory strategies—which remain implicit in traditional historiography practiced as a craft—explicit, self-conscious, and subject to criticism. In this sense, his own approach is militantly metahistorical. Interpretation is not a necessary evil in the face of an historical record that is always too full (hence the need for selection) and too empty (hence the need for auxiliary hypotheses to stop gaps). Interpretation is at the heart of historiography, for it relates to the way in which language prefigures and informs the historical field. Historians should not attempt to escape the need for interpretation through an illusory “positivistic” purity or experience this need as an exile from objective truth. On the contrary, they should inquire into its nature, implications, and positive possibilities in the reconstruction of the past.

As White develops his own program for the understanding of history, however, certain difficulties arise. In putting forth the following sympathetic criticisms of White, I would stress that my intention is to bring out and even to force certain tensions that exist in his own writings. For I think that White's own relation to traditional historiography and, more generally, to traditional philosophical assumptions is at certain points not fully thought out.

White continues to write what he conceives of as a history of consciousness (rather than, let's say, a history of texts or of uses of language in various contexts). Language and discourse are seen predominantly as instruments or expressions of consciousness. “A discourse is itself a kind of model of the process of consciousness by which a given area of experience, originally apprehended as simply a field of phenomena demanding understanding, is assimilated by analogy to those areas of experience felt to be already understood as to their essential nature. … This process of understanding can only be tropological in nature, for what is involved in the rendering of the unfamiliar into the familiar is a troping that is generally figurative” (p. 5). This movement through the figurative toward the familiar is basic to White's own systematic effort in providing a theory of language in historiography. It is contested by the less predictable movement through which tropes move from the familiar to the unfamiliar—a process White recognizes and at times defends as necessary for renewal.

White's own systematic theory of language as an expression of consciousness is necessarily reductive of its object. It is much more indebted to Vico, Kant, and Hegel than it is to Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. (Indeed, the latter are interpreted at times quite negatively in the light of the former.) White's theory is also “constructivist” in that it affirms a “making” function of consciousness, identified with poiesis, in contrast to the “matching” function stressed by the mimetic epistemology common to positivism and traditional narrative. The title, Tropics of Discourse, itself refers to the pre-figurative and projective function of tropes in constituting a field of discourse. In articulating this function, White's metahistory becomes a metalanguage for historiography. The problem is that, in the systematic understanding he attempts to provide of figurative language, White assumes the mastery of “logocentric” philosophy over rhetoric. In other words, he writes from a position itself constituted and secured after an important battle has seemingly been won and without inquiring into the causus belli. In the process, he provides what Derrida would see as another version of White Mythology and Heidegger, as a subjectivist and voluntaristic distortion of the poetic.

For White, as for Vico, there are four Master Tropes (which function theoretically as masters of troping): metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. These tropes are presented as the origin or fundamental ground that structures discourse and gives rise to other discursive levels (emplotment, argument, and ideology). Modal patterns further coordinate the relationships among the primary tropes and the other typological levels of discourse. White's own thought is here close to a genetic structuralism. Although the tropes are originative and basic, they are nonetheless seen as informed by narrative and dialectical patterns in a directed process of “encodation.” Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are related to one another cyclically as beginning, middle, end and as identity, difference, higher identity. (Thus the traditional patterns, shown out through the front door, re-enter through the back.) Irony has a paradoxical position as both one trope among others and as a trope-killer that—coming at the end of an era—effects a generalized displacement of the “tropics of discourse.” White more than recognizes the importance of irony for any critical self-consciousness. But the primary sense of irony in White (especially in Metahistory) is what one might call epigonal irony—negative, decadent, dissolving, and destructive. This is the serious and even pious understanding of irony in Vico (although Vico himself is not without internal contestations on this, as on other counts). Given this understanding, one's ultimate goal must be to transcend irony with its cold and deadly effects. White even sees Nietzsche as attempting to transcend an ironic apprehension of the world in order to arrive at a restored metaphoric contact with reality that seems dangerously close to blind faith or mythologizing. But this very partial and largely misleading interpretation of Nietzsche is itself “prefigured” by White's own placement of irony in a narratively and dialectically informed cycle of the tropes. This placement of irony renders impossible a relationship between it and figuration that is repetitive, carnivalesque, contestatory, and affirmative—the relationship Nietzsche sought in his gaya scienza. It also renders White incapable of seeing the way in which Derrida's strategy of deconstruction and double inscription of traditional assumptions may be understood in the light of a “gay science” not reducible to Vico's “new science.”

In fact, the only serious lapse in the high level of argument in Tropics of Discourse is to be found in the last essay. “The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory.” Here figures as diverse as Poulet, Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida are lumped together, labelled absurdist, and discussed in a way that is at best caricatural. They have merely symptomatic significance as the most recent manifestation of Western self-doubt and the final blow-up of the modern crisis. White's harshest comments are reserved for Derrida who is presented as little more than an irresponsible “wild man.” The interesting problem, I think, is how a writer of White's intelligence and perspicacity could possibly have arrived at these analyses and conclusions. There is, of course, a point at which everyone feels inclined to become Horatius at the bridge. The question is where one locates that point. I would suggest that one way to see White's reaction is as a turn toward secure “sanity” and conventional irony in the face of the “other” who actually articulates things that are “inside” White himself—but an “other” whose articulation is perhaps too disconcerting or at least too alien in formulation to be recognizable. One need not be an awe-struck Derridean or blind to the excesses of mindless “derridoodling” to recognize Derrida's importance. Derrida has raised the problem of the text and renewed the problem of rhetoric in a manner that both acknowledges the desire for systematicity, as well as the importance of the classical tradition, and furnishes the basis for a critical response to them. (It is significant that White himself observes of Vico's “new science”: “The internal dynamics of the system represents a projection of the theory of the tropes and of the relationships between them that he took over entire from classical poetics” [p. 216].) Just as the romances of chivalry would have been more easily forgotten (or repressed) had it not been for Cervantes’ battles—both mock and real—so the assumptions and hopes of the metaphysical tradition would have been more peacefully laid to rest (or covertly resurrected, faute de mieux) had it not been for Derrida's contestation of them in both their ancient and modern forms. But Derrida's enterprise requires genuine respect for the tradition, which must be confronted in its most forceful expressions (or “inscriptions”)—even reinvigorated and made more engaging through “reinscription”—for the contest to be possible. Derrida has made it less plausible to indulge in a falsely complacent oblivion of classical forms in philosophy and poetics. Indeed, through a fruitful paradox, the “founding fathers” of the tradition have taken on renewed interest because of Derrida's critical inquiry into their work and its legacy.

Another reading of Derrida might have provided White with the means to investigate more fully certain of his own internal tensions. For the things Derrida discusses are inside White. They relate to the problem of the relationship among history, discourse, and the text. It is curious that White's own constructivist tendencies, which construe the tropes as the informing forces of a creative consciousness, lead him at times to lend credence to the idea of an unprocessed historical record. The record is presented as the inert object to be animated by the shaping mind of the historian. This gesture, however, simply reverses the positivistic mythology of a mimetic consciousness and substitutes for it an idealistic mythology which converts the former meaningful plenum of the “record” into dead matter or even a void, thereby giving rise to another avoidance of the problem of interplay between structure and play in the text and in one's relation to it. But, at other times, a second view emerges in White's own approach to this problem. Then White astutely notices the way in which the historical record is itself a text “always already” processed in a manner that makes the historian begin as situated in the context of more-or-less vital or exhausted traditions of discourse. The very notion of an unprocessed historical record may in this light be seen as a critical fiction. What we perceive as unprocessed is actually the chronicle level in historiography. The chronicle itself is, however, not a pure, primary “given.” It is derived through a critical process that attempts to disengage “facts” from their implication in story, plot, and myth. It is for this reason that chronicle may appear as both the most naive and the most ironically sophisticated level in historiography—why there may be a certain paradoxical resemblance between a medieval chronicler and Burckhardt (or, to switch genres, Beckett).

The latter understanding of the historical record contests any rigid categorical opposition between fact and fiction or between “matching” and “making” (“mirroring” and “lamping”) functions in the writing of history. In addition, it points to a notion of discourse as other than the projection of consciousness, and it raises the problem of the actual uses of language in the text—or rhetoric in a sense not reducible to the four Master Tropes but certainly involving the question of figurative language. This different understanding of discourse is formulated by White himself:

[Discourse] is both interpretive and preinterpretive; it is as much about the nature of interpretation itself as it is about the subject matter which is the manifest occasion of its own elaboration. … Precisely because it is aporetic, or ironic, with respect to its own adequacy, discourse cannot be governed by logic alone. Because it is always slipping the grasp of logic, constantly asking if logic is adequate to capture the essence of its subject matter, discourse tends toward metadiscursive reflexiveness.

(p. 4)

White tends to resist an understanding of the text as the scene, in writing and in life, where discourse in this sense takes place. Indeed, he identifies the text with the book and accuses Derrida of fetishizing or mystifying the text. Yet what he writes of Foucault's conception of the text could be applied to his own often dominant understanding of it: “The names of individuals that do appear are merely shorthand devices for designating the texts; and the texts are in turn less important than the macroscopic configurations of formalized consciousness that they represent” (p. 238). What one at times misses in White is an analysis of the way in which the formalized schemata and patterns he elicits actually function in texts. In Metahistory, there was a Procrustean tendency to see texts as embodiments of patterned variables or modal sets of tropes, emplotments, arguments, and ideologies. Yet, in the present work, he himself says something which would indicate that the tense interplay among elements in the language of the text should be a focal point of historical and critical investigation:

Now, in my view, any historian who simply described a set of facts in, let us say, metonymic terms and then went on to emplot its processes in the mode of tragedy and proceeded to explain those processes mechanistically, and finally drew explicit ideological implications from it—as most vulgar Marxists and materialistic determinists do—would not only be very uninteresting but could legitimately be labelled a doctrinaire thinker who had ‘bent the facts’ to fit a preconceived theory. The peculiar dialectic of historical discourse—and of other forms of discursive prose as well, perhaps even the novel—comes from the effort of the author to mediate between alternative modes of emplotment and explanation, which means, finally, mediating between alternative modes of language use or tropological strategies for originally describing a given field of phenomena and constituting it as a possible object of representation. … This aim of mediation, in turn, drives him [White is discussing Tocqueville here] toward the ironic recognition that any given linguistic protocol will obscure as much as it reveals about the reality it seeks to capture in an order of words. This aporia or sense of contradiction residing at the heart of language itself is present in all of the classic historians. It is this linguistic self-consciousness which distinguishes them from their mundane counterparts and followers, who think that language can serve as a perfectly transparent medium of representation and who think that if one can only find the right language for describing events, the meaning of the events will display itself to consciousness.

(p. 130)

The question raised in this passage is precisely that of the text. I think that White is right in believing that formalized schemata are necessary for interpretation. The problem is how one is to understand them and their relation to actual discourse and texts. In this respect, one has a great deal to learn from Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. The linkage of irony and aporia invariably evokes the threat of infinite regress in discourse. But this linkage is itself related to a negative understanding of irony, which is of course a threat. The more affirmatively contestatory understanding of irony might be related to the possibility of endless egress and renewal, which is implied in Nietzsche's notions of Heiterkeit and gay science. Indeed, one sign of the intellectual vigor of White's own work is that it stimulates this kind of contestation. Tropics of Discourse is a book that engages one on every page. It should be of immense interest to literary critics, historians, and philosophers.

Roland A. Champagne (review date Summer 1979)

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SOURCE: A review of Tropics of Discourse, in World Literature Today, Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer, 1979, p. 565.

[In the following review of Tropics of Discourse, Champagne commends White's insights into history's roots in storytelling.]

Addressed to the problem of whether historical writing can remain concerned with the past and with an objective view of facts, this collection of essays [Tropics of Discourse] presents history as a narrated story, a literary document with its origins in the human imagination. The title is based upon the etymology of “tropics” and “discourse” and is intent upon suggesting the “ways or manner” of “moving to and fro.” The methodology beyond the title assumes a prelogical area of experience, forgotten by the present-day scientific posture of history and revived in order to establish the tropological basis of history. A basic thesis is the acceptance of Kenneth Burke's proposition that there have been four “master tropes” governing civilized discourse since the Renaissance: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. This fourfold pattern is then discussed in various transformations from Piaget's child studies, through Freud's revelations about dreams, into E. P. Thompson's insights into the working-class consciousness.

Most of these essays have been independently published elsewhere. However, the introduction does tie them together with a perspective not always immediately obvious in such presentations as the two pieces on the “noble savage” and two others on Vico as a modern writer. The basic concern unifying the various studies is that, since the arts and sciences are now mutual handmaids, history is no longer an autonomous discipline. “History” must liberate the present moment from the burden given to it by ties to the past and tradition. Instead White's version of history is tasked with educating lessons about the nature of discontinuity and chaos in modern culture.

With his commentaries about Foucault, Derrida and other French writers presently speaking about the dissolution of literature (the “Absurdists”), White is indeed educating us about the innate discontinuity of culture. His position is that, since culture is a human product created by people, the very existence of that culture is dependent upon systems of signs and must perforce be disappointing. Despite this negative tone and a tendency to create his own terms for groups and movements, White gives us herein some valuable insights into the inherent determinism of the history of ideas because of its basis in human discourse. The arguments supporting Burke's four “major tropes” are an especially valuable contribution to the project of a “universal grammar” for all human discourse proposed by Barthes, Lotman, Todorov, Genette and others.

Richard King (review date Summer 1979)

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SOURCE: “The Problem of Reading,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1979, pp. 568–72.

[In the following excerpt, King offers a positive evaluation of Tropics of Discourse.]

It is increasingly apparent that our dominant model of theoretical self-understanding derives from linguistics and rhetoric. As in Saul Steinberg's whimsical sketches, we spin out a complexly dense fabric of sounds, letters, sentences, and paragraphs which constitute the possibility of individual and collective life. We discover ourselves in a text-world, “spoken” by a Discourse over which we have only illusory control. In the beginning was the Word, not man who is its concrete embodiment. We must decipher our world and ourselves as part of that world.

This cultural paradigm has been a while in the making. As Hayden White points out in Tropics of Discourse, Vico was perhaps the first modern thinker to understand the man-made world, i.e., culture, through a variety of rhetorical figures. Descartes, Vico's great adversary, sought to describe the physical world mathematically, an effort which reached its culmination in modern physics’ dissolution of matter into mathematical relationships. As the doctrine of the soul gave way to the problematics of the self, the solidity of personal identity disappeared into a complex web of interpersonal communications. From Hegel down to Sartre and the French Freudians, the self is understood as a relationship. The linguistic revolution initiated by Saussure led to the contemporary emphasis on semiotics, which takes everything as part of a sign-system. Where Jung discovered fixed archetypes, Levi-Strauss sees “mythemes,” bits of material which only have meaning in combination with other mythemes. There are no universal, transcultural symbols, only the combinatory mechanisms of the unconscious mind. Freud's psychoanalytic theory is now seen to be less concerned with the play of psychic forces than the translation of meaning.

If the world is understood as a text (or as analogous to a text), then the act of reading and the problem of interpretation become crucial. And it is a concern with this problem of reading which provides the common starting point for Hayden White and George Steiner in the works under review here. Both Tropics of Discourse and On Difficulty [by George Steiner] are collections of essays which elaborate upon their authors’ earlier, more authoritative works: in White's case, Metahistory; in Steiner's Extraterritorial and After Babel. Both men are well-read in contemporary thought, but neither is overly given to the hermetic, allusive, and self-regarding diction of much advanced thought issuing primarily from France. (Though Steiner can lapse into an arch mandarin prose at times.) Nor are they intellectual bullies. They can admit doubts, appear tentative, and present opposing positions without sneering.

The bulk of White's essays concern themselves with the problem of reading history. According to White, all discourse is tropistic. It works through figures of speech which, far from serving as decoration or “mere” rhetoric, constitute the field of facts and meanings themselves.

White's approach to historiography and the philosophy of history implies two crucial changes in our ways of thinking about these disciplines. First, and most obviously, every work of “straight” history implies a philosophy of history and vice versa. More interestingly, White insists on minimizing the difference between fiction and fact, works of the imagination and works of history. To White's way of thinking, most contemporary historiography is bad science and bad art, still operating with otiose notions of value-free science and naïve realism. There is no such thing as an “innocent eye,” no one “true” account of the past, no wie es eigentlich gewesen ist. A work of history has no truth-value in the strict sense, but must be judged on aesthetic and heuristic grounds. For historians work with certain standard modes of emplotment, explanation, ideology, and troping. What is said is synonymous with how it is said. One judges history according to its richness, coherence, density, and range of implication, description, and explanation. This is not to say that facts are unimportant or to be capriciously disregarded. But it is to say that what counts as a fact and what determines its “weight” are determined by the angle of vision which the historian brings to the data. Indeed, it is not clear whether the historian's framework is imposed upon or discovered in the empirical evidence.

Critics have already had a go at Metahistory where these views were developed in great detail through an analysis of 19th-century historians and philosophers of history. There White granted that the best, most satisfactory history was marked by tensions among the various modes of plotting, troping, ideological implication, and explanation and thus could be read in several ways. But why precisely these four categories and why does each break down into four parts? In Tropics of Discourse White suggests that the four master tropes—metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony—are psychogenetically grounded, and he advances a brief discussion of Piaget to bolster his point. According to White, what Piaget sees as the progressive unfolding of the mind from identity with the world to distantiation from it and from representation of it to self-consciousness matches his own four-fold schema of tropes. And harkening back to Vico, White suggests that cultural development can be understood in terms of this same progression. Presumably one should only accept White's theory as long as it seems useful, helpful in making sense of the world. But by anchoring his “tropology” in biological development, White asserts, albeit tentatively, a privileged position for his own efforts.

Whatever its difficulties, White's work in “reading” history is extraordinarily stimulating; and all historians, particularly those trained in this country, should be forced to confront it. Indeed, historians such as J. H. Hexter, Peter Gay, Gene Wise, and David Levin have dealt with some of these issues in their own work, though in a less sophisticated manner. This promises, one hopes, an added sophistication in the writing of history in the future. For, as White suggests, history-writing has yet to catch up with the 20th century. …

It is a larger irony of Steiner's thesis that precisely at the historical moment when serious reading of texts has become problematic, the culture's most advanced thinkers have begun to see the whole world as a Text. In the final essay in Tropics of Discourse White reflects on the structuralist critics’ refusal to elevate the printed text, particularly ones which have been taken to be classics of the culture, over any other semiotic system. This, he suggests, illustrates the “awareness of the arbitrary nature of the whole cultural enterprise and, a fortiori, of the critical enterprise.” Whatever their other differences, Steiner and White still believe in the text and thus, in a certain sense, in the possibilities of the survival of the culture.

Maurice Mandelbaum (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “The Presuppositions of Metahistory,” in History and Theory, Vol. XIX, No. 4, 1980, pp. 39–54.

[In the following essay, Mandelbaum examines the thesis of Metahistory and finds flaws in White's failure to differentiate between the work of historians and philosophers of history, as well as his misconception of historical data, reductive application of linguistic tropes, and acceptance of relativism.]

In the introductory chapter of his Metahistory, Hayden White explicitly sets forth the main presuppositions underlying that work. If one were to examine these presuppositions in the light of his other writings, one might uncover his reasons for accepting them. Such, however, is not my aim. I shall confine my discussion to certain of the views he explicitly embraces, selecting those which are basic to the aspects of Metahistory I especially wish to challenge.

As a point of entry into the closely articulated system of Metahistory, let me first mention the eight persons whom White has chosen as representing the various modes of historical consciousness with which he deals. Four of these he considers to have been the dominant historians of the classic period of nineteenth-century historiography; four he regards as the most important philosophers of history of that century. Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt are the historians chosen; Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Croce are the philosophers of history. To some extent, one may quarrel with these choices; this is a question to which I shall briefly return. What is initially noteworthy is not whom he has chosen, but the fact that historians and philosophers of history are treated together, a mode of treatment in direct opposition to the widespread assumption (held throughout the nineteenth century, and subsequently) that their aims and methods are not only fundamentally distinct, but are often opposed. His rejection of that view, and his account of what they have in common, is the first of his theses that I shall challenge. What lies behind that thesis is a particular view of what is most fundamental in the writing of history, and it is that view which I shall take as his first and perhaps most fundamental presupposition.

It is White's claim that “history proper” and “philosophies of history” grow out of a common root, differing only in emphasis, not in content: philosophers of history simply bring to the surface and systematically defend views that remain implicit in the works of historians (xi, 428). Unfortunately, White fails to specify with any degree of exactitude what he regards as the essential features in a philosophy of history.1 If (for the time being) we construe philosophies of history as being, essentially, nothing more than reflection on a significant portion of man's past in order to determine what “meaning,” if any, is to be discerned in it, then one might well say of Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt that each did have a philosophy of history. On the other hand, were one to choose any single work of theirs (with the possible exception of Burckhardt's posthumous Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen), and were one to consider its aim and its content, one would surely not regard it as similar in these respects to the works usually taken to be representative philosophies of history.

In order to understand what may have led White to overlook or to disregard this obvious point, and therefore to hold that there is no deep difference between historians and philosophers of history, one must consider what he took to be the determining factors in all forms of historical inquiry.2 He held that with the exception of those who are only concerned to write “monographs and archival reports” (ix), every historian creates a narrative verbal structure through selecting and arranging the primitive data contained in “the unprocessed historical records”; the elements in such a verbal structure are then arranged in a way that purports to represent and explain past processes; and, according to White, the manner in which these processes are represented reflects the historian's antecedent acceptance of one of four types of “metahistorical” paradigms. White's characterization of the nature of the four types of paradigm will concern us later. What is important to note here is that in labeling them “metahistorical,” White is emphasizing the fact that they are not derived from the data with which the historian works; rather, they are “interpretative strategies” which determine to which data he will attend, and in what ways he will envision the relations among them (428, 430). In short, the narrative structure which an historian creates will have been “prefigured” by the particular paradigm in terms of which he sees the historical world (30–31). Since it is White's contention that exactly the same basic paradigms are to be found in the works of historians and philosophers of history, he rejects the widely-held view that the dissimilarities between the two genres are more fundamental than are their similarities.

Before examining what led White to stress what he took to be the similarity between historians and philosophers of history, let us consider some of the respects in which they do in fact differ. In the first place, White fails to note that with the possible exception of some attempts to write universal histories, every historical inquiry is limited in scope, dealing with what is recognized to be only one segment or one aspect of human history. Most philosophers of history, on the other hand, have traditionally embarked on sweeping surveys of what they have regarded as the whole of the significant past, in an effort to establish some one basic principle of explanation which would render intelligible the course it had followed.3 Their purpose in doing so may be said to be an attempt to justify some particular evaluative attitudes toward various segments or elements in that history. One does not find even the most “philosophical” of historians committing himself to such a project. To be sure, as I have pointed out, one may say of various historians that “they have a philosophy of history,” in the sense that they more or less consistently evince certain underlying evaluative attitudes toward the materials with which they deal. To that extent, White is correct in what he claims concerning Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt. Nevertheless, it is implausible to hold that their works, taken either individually or as a whole, were written primarily for the sake of establishing the truth of a particular interpretation of the historical process; yet this is clearly what constitutes the aim of any philosophy of history. The immediate concern of historians may better be characterized in terms of attempts to understand and depict what happened at particular times and in particular places. Therefore, even though their works often reflect a definite and distinctive view of overall characteristics to be found in the historical process, these works are histories, not philosophies of history.

A second and related difference between historians and philosophers of history lies in the fact that every philosopher of history seeks to find a principle of explanation, or of interpretation, which illuminates every significant aspect of the historical process. No such belief has been characteristic of historians, at least not since the mid-eighteenth century. Instead, historians have generally come to regard it as essential to preserve flexibility when dealing with different times and different peoples, rather than to expect that there is some particular principle of explanation which is equally applicable to all. Furthermore, most are inclined to employ different modes of explanation to deal with different dimensions of social life, rather than using a single set of categories when explaining the nature and changes in, say, the economic, the political, and the intellectual aspects of a society's life. Any insistence on either or both of these forms of pluralism completely undermines the legitimacy of the kind of claim that every philosopher of history must make—namely, that there is some one principle which, when adequately grasped, serves to reveal the meaning of all essential aspects of human history. For this reason, if for no other, the presuppositions of historians and of philosophers of history are strikingly opposed.

A third point at which there are fundamental differences between the aims of an historian and of a philosopher of history lies in the latter's absolute commitment to the view that there is some discernible lesson, or “meaning,” in human history. Such a meaning is viewed as providing a way to assess the significance of various past events, to determine the attitude which should be adopted with respect to conflicts within the present, and to help envision what the future will ultimately bring. While philosophers of history have occasionally acknowledged that the meaning they attribute to history was derived from other sources, most have claimed that it arose directly out of an intensive study of the historical past. They have apparently also believed that the same meaning would be acknowledged by all who studied the past in equal depth and with equal intensity.

This claim has often been challenged by historians. They have argued that philosophers of history do not derive meaning from history, but attribute meaning to history as a way of justifying their own antecedent evaluative beliefs. Not only can historians cite instances in which this appears to have been true, but they can quite convincingly argue that the events of human history, taken as a whole, are far too complex and ambiguous to support the claim that there is any single meaning to be directly derived from them. A philosopher of history might possibly reply that there is no great difference in principle between this and what is involved in such interpretations of history as are to be found in Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt, each of whom had singled out certain forces or tendencies which they regarded as dominant factors in the historical field. However, any supposed parallel between these two endeavors does not hold. Historians such as Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt did not claim to have arrived at their understanding of these forces through a comprehensive survey of the whole past; instead, they had simply dipped successively into the historical stream at various points and were generalizing concerning significant resemblances which they found at these points.4 Thus, instead of claiming that there is some dominant pattern running through the process as a whole, determining how each of its elements will develop, they were singling out what they took to be the important common elements in various historical situations; it was with respect to their attitudes toward these elements that they may be said to have had “a philosophy of history.” This, however, only justifies characterizing them in a very loose sense as “philosophers of history.” Their situation exactly parallels that in which, after examining a practicing scientist's works, one might say that he has “a philosophy of science,” without thereby either asserting or implying that he is “a philosopher of science.”

As we have noted, what led White to blur the distinction between the works of historians and those of philosophers of history was his view that both reflect an acceptance of one or another metahistorical paradigm which serves to organize the primary data with which they are concerned. Having noted some points at which histories and philosophies of history are obviously different, I shall now consider this presupposition which led to White's attempt to bring them exceptionally close together.

In offering his account of what he termed “the levels of conceptualization” in an historical work, White took as his starting point the data contained in “the unprocessed historical record” (5). He identified these data as the primitive elements in the historical field. The historian, he held, must first arrange such data in temporal order, thus producing “a chronicle”; he must then connect them in a way that transforms this chronicle into “a story”; this is the beginning of the odyssey that leads to the production of an historical work. This, however, is surely not the way in which any present-day historian would actually work; nor would even the earliest of historians have done so. No historian is confronted at the outset of his inquiries with an unprocessed historical record, with a bank of data devoid of all order, to which he must impart whatever order it is to possess. Rather, every historian will, from the outset, be confronted not by raw data but by earlier accounts of the past; embedded within those accounts will be almost all the data with which he is to work. Data not included within one account, but included within another, will lead him to alter one or the other; he must in any case fit these accounts together to obtain a larger, more consistent, and presumably more accurate “story” than any which his predecessors had produced. Nor will all of the accounts of his predecessors appear to be connected: when they deal with different times and places, large gaps may appear between them. In order to fill such gaps, the historian must seek other accounts which will provide data that serve to connect what was previously unconnected; or he must, on his own initiative, seek out such data for himself. In either case, his awareness of the existence of gaps within what White termed “the historical record” conclusively shows that this record does not consist of unorganized raw data—data which are simply “there,” and which have no inherent connections with one another until the historian has impressed an order upon them.

It may perhaps be objected that this criticism of White is unfair: that his analysis of the levels of conceptualization which are present in an historical work was intended to be taken as a purely analytic account, and not an attempt to trace a series of successive steps by means of which any historical work has ever actually been created. Such may indeed have been White's intention, but it would in no way alter the point of the foregoing criticism. Analytically considered, what White designates as “the primitive elements” with which historians work, and which serve as their data, are documents, legends, records, and the remains of earlier human activities, or else they are prior accounts concerning the events under investigation. If an historian is to make use of such materials for historical purposes, he cannot regard them as if they were nothing but parchment, slabs of stone, or sheaves of paper; he must view them as relating to various kinds of human activities with which he is familiar through his own direct experience, supplemented by knowledge derived from what has been said by others. Thus, the most basic level on which historical data can be interpreted will be as meaningful elements embedded in an intelligible context. Therefore, from an analytic no less than from a genetic point of view, even the simplest data with which an historian works are not unconnected atomic elements which lack all intrinsic order. What to the historian are “data”—that is, what constitutes “the given” for him—possess connections among themselves which exist prior to, and independently of, the ways in which he subsequently comes to order them. It is for this reason that I reject the first of White's presuppositions.

Turning to a second basic presupposition in Metahistory, we find White assuming, without examining alternatives, that the order bestowed by the historian on his materials represents a poetic act (for example, x, 4, and 30). It appears as if he took this for granted simply because when one looks at an historical work as “what it most manifestly is,” one finds it to be “a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse” (2). In regarding an historical work in this light, and not considering what else it may also be, it is natural that White should turn to the theory of literature in order to identify the various metahistorical paradigms which, as he believes, control the work of historians. He finds such paradigms in four fundamental linguistic tropes. I shall not be concerned with the details of his use of these tropes, but I shall argue that White's approach leaves out of account what has generally—and, I think, rightly—been regarded as the basic intent of historical works: to discover, depict, and explain what has occurred in the past.

I wish first to take note of the fact that simply because every historical work is a verbal structure, and can be considered as such, it by no means follows that this provides the most basic level at which all of its structural aspects are to be understood. An eyewitness may, for example, give a narrative account of the sequence of events that led to an accident, a chemist may describe a series of experiments whereby he succeeded in disproving a previously held theory, a physician may trace the course of a patient's illness from its onset to his death, a traveler may tell us what befell him on his journeys before reaching his destination, and each of these would be a narrative, and would have the general structure which White (following Gallie and Danto) attributes to narratives.

To refuse to regard narratives of this sort as anything more than particular verbal structures would be capricious: as interpreted by a listener, the basic structure of each will be determined by the relationships among the events narrated, not by the manner of their narration. These relationships among the events may have been brought out clearly, or they may have been obscured in the telling, but they will have existed prior to the narration and will be independent of it. So, too, with historical works which, to some extent, these simple narrations resemble. Furthermore, White himself should not attempt to deny that the relationships depicted in an historical narrative exist prior to the act of narration, since that assumption was implicit in his characterization of an historical work. While every such work is, as he tells us, “a verbal structure in the form of narrative prose,” it is more than this, for it “purports to be a model, or icon, of past structures and processes in the interest of explaining what they were by representing them” (2). Therefore, unless there is absolutely no basis for the claim that historical narratives do represent past structures and processes, and serve as icons which represent relationships that actually obtained, much of their structure—like the structures of the simple narratives I have cited—is not attributable to the narrator but is already present within the elements with which he has chosen to deal.

There doubtless were many reasons why White failed to raise this possibility in his discussion, but he does not suggest what they were, and I shall not speculate concerning them. Instead, it may be more fruitful to inquire what there is in the nature of an historical work itself—totally apart from any of the traditional arguments in favor of historical relativism5—that might make it plausible for anyone to regard the narrator as entirely responsible for the structure of his narrative. One such feature seems to me to be the historian's freedom to define the subject-matter of his inquiry in almost any way that he chooses.

Every historical work represents a particular choice of subject-matter, and in choosing his subject-matter an historian is carving out a particular segment of the past from the stream of the historical process; the definition of what constitutes that particular segment—why it does not include either more or less than it does—can be viewed as a creative act on the part of the historian. To be sure, in some cases no genuinely creative act may be involved. For example, a run-of-the-mill historian who decides to write the history of a particular period may simply accept some conventional compartmentalization of the historical process, and work within that framework. In other cases, historians may be puzzled by problems that their predecessors failed to investigate, and their subject-matter will be defined by the particular residual problem that they have set out to solve. White would probably be inclined to place works such as these within the same general class to which “monographs and archival reports” belong; it was not with such examples that he was concerned. If, instead, one thinks of the great historians whose works he analyzed, one can see that it is entirely reasonable to regard their ways of envisioning their subject-matter as involving original, creative, expressive acts.

On White's analysis of these “precognitive,” “precritical,” poetic acts the whole argument of his Metahistory turns. He distinguishes three “narrative tactics” which all historians employ: an initial “emplotment,” an implied form of explanatory argument, and an evaluative, ideological component (7). All of these, White claims, are packed into the historian's original creative act. It is therefore that act which not only “prefigures” the general shape of an historical work but determines what kinds of relationships the historian will take into account in analyzing the events with which he deals (cf. 430). As White says of such acts, they are “constitutive of the structure that will subsequently be imaged in the verbal model offered by the historian as representation and explanation of ‘what really happened'” (31).

The various explanatory strategies which the historian can adopt are not, however, unlimited. White holds that each of the three aspects of an adopted strategy—the emplotment, explanatory argument, and ideological component—will assume one of four forms, and he relates these forms to the four fundamental linguistic tropes. He holds that the historian's use of one or another of these tropes represents the deepest level of the historical consciousness, and this is the level at which he seeks to analyze historical works (30–31). In doing so, he wishes to proceed in a purely “formalist” manner; as he says with respect to his method, “I will not try to decide whether a given historian's work is a better, or more correct, account of a specific set of events or segments of the historical process than some other historian's account of them; rather, I will seek to identify the structural components of these accounts” (3–4).

So long as he is dealing only with that particular structural component which he identifies as “emplotment,” his formalism raises no special difficulties. In fact, it is his analysis of this element which gives point and substance to his claim that in the historian's original way of envisioning his subject there is already prefigured the overall form that his account will ultimately take. With respect to emplotment, White follows Northrop Frye and distinguishes four forms: Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, and Satire. These terms are not used in order to characterize distinct literary styles, nor to identify the particular types of subject-matter which are present in the works thus emplotted; rather, each refers to a basic attitude on the part of the historian toward the subject-matter with which he is to deal. In Comedy, for example, what is prefigured is the reconciliation of antagonistic forces; in Satire, the attitude is one of irony. Such attitudes are inextricably involved in how the historian envisions his subject: how the beginning of the narrative is related to its end, and which details and what changes in fortune he will emphasize.

Whether White's assimilation of these four forms of emplotment to the four fundamental tropes of poetic discourse can withstand scrutiny is not a matter with which I am concerned: the four forms of emplotment, as White has characterized them, can be accepted independently of any relations they may bear to his theory of tropes. They constitute highly relevant aspects of an historian's work, and White has made an important and suggestive contribution to the theory of historiography in having called attention to them. This cannot, however, be said of his claim that the same linguistic tropes provide the best way to understand the forms of explanatory arguments historians employ, nor the role that ideological factors play in their works. As I shall now suggest, in these cases White's formalist “tropological” account breaks down.

First consider his attempt to reduce the various types of explanatory argument to a linguistic form. Borrowing from Stephen Pepper's World Hypotheses, White distinguishes four types of explanatory argument: Formist, Mechanistic, Organicist, Contextualist. Let us grant that this may be an adequate typology of four characteristically different modes of explanation; let us also grant the somewhat more dubious contention that different thinkers, regardless of the subject-matter with which they deal, tend to accept one of these four types, rejecting each of the others. It would still be necessary for White to show that such a bias is not derived from some specifically theoretical considerations, but actually depends upon the way in which linguistic forms give structure to the thought of various thinkers. I suggest that when this thesis is considered in relation to the history of ideas, it will be recognized as implausible. If, for example, one examines the thought of a mechanist of the seventeenth century, or of an organicist in the later eighteenth or the nineteenth century, one discovers reasons of a specifically historical and philosophical sort why—once having chosen the subject-matter with which he was to deal—such a thinker would view his field in terms of mechanistic or organicist models. For example, in order to account for the dominance of the mechanical explanatory model in the seventeenth century, one has to look to the development of the mechanical sciences in that period; to explain organicist models in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought, one must look to the anti-Newtonian views which developed out of various physical, biological, and specifically historical concerns with which the Newtonian model was unable to cope. To attribute such change to whatever linguistic modes may perhaps have been dominant in the period would almost surely be an example of the hysteron-protoron fallacy, a putting of the cart before the horse: insofar as one trope rather than another was in fact dominant within the period, it was more likely to have been a reflection of the thought of the period than an independent determinant in giving structure to that thought.

Consider also the ideological and ethical stance involved in the work of any historian. White uses the concept of “ideology” in a somewhat broader than usual sense, including beliefs concerning the nature and aims of a study of society, attitudes toward historical change, and beliefs as to when and where a social ideal has been, or might be, realized (24).6 Even when the concept is used in this extended sense, it is difficult to see how an historian's acceptance of one or another ideological stance can be clarified by relating it to one of the four linguistic tropes with which White's tropological approach is concerned. If one seeks to penetrate to what lies below the surface of the attitudes of the Anarchist, the Radical, the Conservative, or the Liberal (the four basic forms of ideology which White takes over from Mannheim), it would seem more fruitful to use other means than those provided by a linguistic analysis. In the first place, it is doubtful whether one can find any common properties determined in terms of linguistic models that would unite all who closely resemble one another in their ideologies. In the second place, it would seem imperative in any given case to try to understand the political and social situation to which the historian was exposed, and to consider his ideological stance not only with reference to it, but also in relation to those factors in his personal life which may have led him to view that situation as he did. It is surely far-fetched to interpret his view of the conflicts inherent in his own time, or his stance toward past and future, or his position regarding the possibility of creating a science of society, as if each of these were to follow from some linguistic predisposition on his part. White offers no arguments to dispel this disquietude: from the outset he has simply assumed that the structure of an historical work is to be treated as a literary structure, and that the four fundamental linguistic tropes provide the basic categories to be used in interpreting all linguistic structures.

The inflexibility of White's approach in nowhere more evident than in the manner in which he treats the history of nineteenth-century historiography. His tropological approach is fundamentally ahistorical: the possibility of organizing an historical account in terms of one of these tropes instead of another is not restricted to any one time or place, but is ever-present. Nevertheless, White attempts to trace a development in the dominant modes of historical thinking in the nineteenth century, moving from an Ironic realism in the Enlightenment through the postures of Romance, Tragedy, and Comedy, to emerge once again, at the end of the century, in a new mood of Irony which he identified with “the crisis of historicism.” He failed to establish this developmental schema through any broad-ranging examination of the various lines of development to be found in the historiography of the period. He paid no attention to the impact of nationalism on historiography, to the importance of Kulturgeschichte, to how, if at all, evolutionary theory in biology influenced historiography, to the rise of social evolutionism among legal historians and social anthropologists, or to the ways in which a sociological interest in “the masses” affected the consciousness of historians. Nor does one find any extended treatment of many of the foremost historians of the period, of Niebuhr or of Maitland, for example. In fact, one cannot escape the impression that the historians and philosophers of history White chose to discuss were selected primarily in terms of their diversity and because of the contrasts between them. Then, having reduced the number of classic nineteenth-century historians to four, and the number of philosophers of history in the same period to four, it was not a task of great difficulty to establish a relatively clear line of development within the period. What is not evident is that the same line of development would have been discernible had White included many more historians, or had he included Comte, John Stuart Mill, and Spencer along with Hegel and Marx among his philosophers of history, or Dilthey, Rickert, Troeltsch, and Spengler along with Nietzsche and Croce.

I come now to the third and last of the presuppositions I wish to discuss: White's acceptance of relativism. In a sense, this should not be identified as one of his presuppositions, since it is a necessary consequence of his formalistic, tropological approach. Yet, had he not initially been willing to accept relativism, independently of any argumentation for it, he would have been forced to raise the question of whether an historical work can be adequately interpreted solely as a linguistic structure. Consequently, one may regard White's relativism as a basic presupposition, and one which is no less fundamental than his reasons for treating historians and philosophers of history together, or his view that what gives an historical work its structure is not the result of a careful reconstruction of the past but a creative poetic act. Actually, these presuppositions are interlocking, and I find no others that are equally fundamental in his work.

In considering White's relativism, I shall once again refuse to speculate as to how it was that he may have come to accept it; instead, I shall ask to what extent his account of the historian's work legitimates it. The first point to note is that the four historians with whom White chose to deal were engaged in very different enterprises. There was relatively little overlap in the subject-matters with which they were concerned; where such overlap existed, the scale of their inquiries differed, and the particular facets of the events with which they were concerned also differed.7 Therefore, the question whether one of these accounts was “truer” or “more correct” than another would not naturally arise, and White was able to remain wholly within the confines of his formalistic approach. This permitted him to avoid any direct examination of the fundamental issue involved in debates concerning historical relativism: whether it is possible, even in principle, to say of one account that it is truer, or more nearly correct, or more adequate, than another. What took the place of any such direct examination was White's assumption that the structure of every historical account is dependent upon the form which the historian impresses upon his subject-matter. Since White found that different historians had distinctively different “styles,” and were therefore predisposed to use different ways of giving structure to that with which they dealt, he concluded that the only grounds on which one type of account could be given preference over another would be aesthetic or moral, rather than epistemological (xii).8

An entirely different situation would have arisen had he compared works concerned with the same subject-matter, which worked on the same scale, and with reference to the same aspects of that subject-matter. He would then have had to consider whether, in spite of differences in style, accounts which purported to represent the same events were congruent or incongruent, whether one or another had failed to consider certain types of data, and whether the inclusion of those data would have altered the representation of what had occurred.

To this, White might perhaps have answered that there was no need for him to enter into such discussions, since the original way in which an historian envisions any segment of the historical process will always be different from the way in which another historian does. That response, however, would be faulty in two respects. In the first place, even though White sometimes stressed the uniqueness of the structural elements in different historical works (for example, 5 and 29), the basis of his analysis lay in an acceptance of Vico's four linguistic tropes. He took these tropes to be recurrent and typical ways of organizing materials, not idiosyncratic characteristics of specific individuals. He identified the “style” of an historian with the particular combination of modes of emplotment, explanatory argument, and ideological stance which characterized that historian's work. Since, however, each of these modes derived from one or another of the four tropes, and since White acknowledged that not all of the numerically possible combinations were mutually compatible (29), the fundamental variations among historians in basic styles were limited. This is a fact which White explicitly recognized (31). Consequently, it should be both possible and meaningful for anyone examining the works of different historians to compare these works, so long as they resembled one another in their modes of emplotment, explanatory argument, and ideological implication. Since each such mode, according to White, serves to explain that which the historian is representing (2 and 7), one would think it possible to ask with respect to these works whether one of them is in some respects superior to another as a “model” or “icon” of the process represented. White makes no such comparisons, and obviously believed it illegitimate to try to make them (for example, xii, 3, 26–27, 432). The apparent justification for this completely relativistic commitment lay in his decision to treat an historical work solely as a linguistic structure, and so long as that point of view is strictly maintained, there is, of course, nothing against which to compare the two linguistic “models” to determine which is the more adequate representation. It was, then, his linguistic approach, and not ultimately a question of the uniqueness of each historical work, that served as justification for White's relativism.

His rejection of the possibility of comparing different historical accounts is also faulty in a second respect. It is simply not the case that the way in which one historian envisions any segment of the historical process will always be different from another historian's way. Many historians self-consciously set out to show that some account given by a predecessor is mistaken, and they attempt to produce data or arguments to establish their case. It is not that they are looking at the same segment of the past in a different way: they are contending that their predecessor misrepresented the process with which he claimed to be dealing. White failed to discuss inquiries of this sort since they were not typical of the aims and methods of the four historians whose works he had chosen as paradigms. It is even possible that he might be inclined to dismiss these and other problem-oriented types of inquiries as belonging to the class of “monographs and archival reports” (ix) or to “the kinds of disputes which arise on the reviewers’ pages of professional journals” (13). This, however, would be illegitimate, since among such inquiries there are many full-scale treatments of processes that had a long and complex history, such as those which have been concerned to establish the relations between the slavery question and the American Civil War. Taking into account the fact that historians frequently engage in controversies of this sort, and finding that in some cases a consensus develops out of such controversies, White's ready acceptance of relativism is surely inadequate as a characterization of the ways in which practicing historians often view the work in which they are engaged.

On the other hand, if one turns from historical inquiries to consider the works of philosophers of history, one finds that they are almost never in agreement, either with respect to their detailed interpretations or on matters of principle. Nothing on their part in any way corresponds to the responsibility historians accept to document any challenged statement; to their commitment not to exclude from consideration any evidence that may be relevant to the material at hand; and to their recognition of an obligation to consider the criticism of those who do not share their presuppositions, so long as these criticisms directly relate to the accounts they have given of what in fact occurred in the past. We do not find the same scruples in such philosophers of history as Hegel and Marx, who sought to establish a meaning in history through a survey of the past. Instead, they selected only certain aspects of the life of society as a basis for interpreting what was truly significant in that life. They also neglected large segments of the historical past as not belonging within the province of meaningful history. Finally, each tended to take his own interpretative presuppositions as absolute, and did not show either a willingness or an ability to find means of reconciling alternative points of view. Nor would the situation be radically altered were we to turn from those who attempt to sum up the total past in order to establish history's meaning, and consider only those who, like Croce and Nietzsche, considered themselves primarily as philosophic interpreters and critics of Western man's historical consciousness. Once again the scope of such inquiries tended to be severely limited, and the tenor of the arguments was so dogmatic that only those antecedently committed to similar philosophic presuppositions were likely to find themselves in agreement. Thus, in contrast to historical inquiries, different philosophies of history do not represent potentially compatible interpretations, nor complementary points of view. In fact, had there been as many philosophers of history as there have been historians, we would now find ourselves absolutely confounded by their babel of tongues. Because White—flying in the face of tradition—took philosophers of history to be at least as important as historians for any understanding of the historical consciousness, the wild disparities among their works tended to substantiate the relativism he was already inclined to accept.

As I have indicated, one of the basic reasons why White was so ready to accept relativism lay in the fact that he viewed every historical work as a linguistic entity whose structure wholly depended on the original poetic act which prefigured it. This, however, involved treating the statements that historians make as if they had no referents outside of their own work—as if some theory of the syntactics of poetry could supplant all questions concerning the semantics of everyday speech.9 I find it one of the oddities of Metahistory that in spite of its “linguistic” approach, it failed to include as part of its implicit theory of language any account of how languages function with respect to their referential uses. So long as this is left out of account, one wonders how the individual statements of any historian are to be understood. Some among them refer to past occurrences whose existence is only known through inferences drawn from surviving documents; but it is not to these documents themselves, but to what they indicate concerning the past, that the historian's statements actually refer. Others among their statements depend upon what had been written in earlier accounts, but here again the object of the historian's reference is not these accounts themselves, but is to the very same entities (or to similar entities) as those to which the earlier accounts had themselves referred. Only a person treating an historical account solely as a literary document would not immediately raise the issue of reference, and with it the question of historical truth. So long as that question is not raised, I am forced to wonder in what sense White can properly characterize an historical work as a model or icon purporting to represent past structures and processes and, in doing so, as being able to explain them.

I have confined myself to some of the issues involved in White's “metahistorical” thesis; I have wholly neglected questions raised by the subtitle of his book, The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Such questions might be of two sorts. One would involve an assessment of what occupies by far the largest portion of the book, White's interpretations of the thought of the individual historians and philosophers of history with whom he deals. The other would be a consideration of whether the book as a whole is adequate as “a history of historical consciousness in nineteenth-century Europe” (1). In spite of a high regard for several of White's interpretations of the individuals on whom he focused attention, I find (as I have suggested in passing) that his portrayal of the scope of historical thought in the nineteenth century was far too limited; I also find unconvincing his suggestions as to the general course of development that it followed. These, however, are specifically historical issues, and it would take another and quite different paper to discuss them.


  1. His closest approach to doing so, when speaking in his own voice, appears in his concluding chapter, where he identifies a philosophy of history as “a second order of consciousness in which [the philosopher of history] carries out his efforts to make sense of the historical process. [He] seeks not only to understand what happened in history but also to specify the criteria by which he can know when he has successfully grasped its meaning or significance” (428).

    The foregoing characterization covers both “critical” and “speculative” philosophies of history, as one would expect from White's linkage of Nietzsche and Croce with Hegel and Marx. Nevertheless, in most passages he explicitly refers to “speculative” philosophies of history, and he only rarely cites works that are characteristic of the extensive literature dealing with the problems of a “critical” philosophy of history.

    For my own view as to what constitutes a philosophy of history, which I presuppose in much that follows, see “Some Neglected Philosophic Problems Regarding History,” Journal of Philosophy 49 (1952), 317–329.

  2. For documentation of the following brief summary, cf. especially ix–xii, 2, 4–5, and 30–31.

  3. In this respect, so-called “universal histories” often resemble philosophies of history. Nevertheless, as one can see with both Ranke and Burckhardt, historians attempt to separate themselves from philosophers of history, holding that their primary concern is with the particular and concrete, and not with events merely insofar as they are viewed as exemplifying some particular principle of explanation. On this point, cf. Ranke, Ueber die Epochen der neueren Geschichte, ed., with a preface, by Alfred Dove (Leipzig, 1888), vii–xi and 6–7; Burckhardt, Force and Freedom: Reflections on History [translation of Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, ed. James Hastings Nichols] (New York, 1943), 80–82.

  4. A few philosophers of history, such as Reinhold Niebuhr, attempt to establish their positions in essentially the same way. On the difference between Niebuhr's approach and the dominant tradition among philosophers of history, cf. my article, “Some Neglected Philosophic Problems Regarding History,” cited above.

  5. As we shall see, White explicitly accepts relativism, but he does not arrive at it, nor defend it, on the basis of any of the traditional arguments for it. Instead, he derives support for it from his view that when different historians give structure to the historical field, they are viewing it in terms of different tropes.

  6. He tends to leave out of consideration the specific sense in which Marx and most subsequent analysts have usually used the concept of ideology.

  7. For a discussion of how the concepts of “scale” and “perspectives” relate to the issue of relativism, cf. my Anatomy of Historical Knowledge (Baltimore, 1977), especially 151–155.

  8. Here White's position differs markedly from that of Stephen Pepper, from whose doctrine of “root metaphors” he borrowed. Pepper held that the issues were fundamentally epistemological; he also believed that it is both possible and reasonable to make use of more than one of the four basic systems in our explanations. In this connection he said, “In practice, therefore, we shall want to be not rational but reasonable, and to seek, on the matter in question, the judgment supplied from each of these relatively adequate world theories. If there is some difference of judgment, we shall wish to make our decision with all these modes of evidence in mind, just as we should make any other decision where the evidence is conflicting” (World Hypotheses [Berkeley, 1942], 330–331).

  9. This is a point also made by Michael Ermarth in his generally favorable review of Metahistory (American Historical Review 80 [1975], 961–963).

Stephen Bann (review date 7 September 1987)

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SOURCE: “Hayden White and History,” in London Review of Books, September 7, 1987, pp. 17–18.

[In the following excerpt, Bann discusses the lasting significance of Metahistory and offers a positive assessment of The Content of the Form.]

In publishing his compendious work Metahistory in 1973, Hayden White gave currency both to a term and to a programme. His subtitle, The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, indicated the broad area of his investigations, but gave little sense of the radical originality of this programme, which was quite simply the re-examination of historiography in its written form. White had discovered a blind spot in the array of approaches to the recording of the past. While philosophers of history confined their attention to technical matters like causation, and historians of historiography elevated the individual historian at the expense of his text, the new metahistorian immersed himself willingly in the turbulent narratives of Ranke and Michelet, not to mention the discredited philosophies of history surviving from the 19th century. Using Vico's traditional battery of tropes, and Northrop Frye's more recent notion of ‘emplotment’ according to the patterns of tragedy and comedy, White justified his intuition that ‘style’ was not merely an incidental embellishment of 19th-century historical writing; it was possible to demonstrate textual patterns of a high degree of coherence and regularity which forged a connection between verbal or ‘poetic’ creativity and the overall world-view of particular philosophers and historians.

Defined this way, the lesson of Metahistory could be viewed quite differently by the various professional interests which held a stake in the study of historiography. Philosophers could turn their attention to the cognitive dimension of narrative form, and speculate on the particular grounds for the distinction between history and fiction. Historians of historiography could be redeemed (if they chose to be) from the debilitating exercise of compiling dossiers in the worst tradition of ‘history of ideas,’ and begin to come to terms with the intricacies of the historical text. Unfortunately, a third type of effect could also be credited to the influence of Metahistory: literary critics tired of tilling the exhausted soil of the 19th-century novel could discover an almost virgin territory awaiting them in the classics of historiography. This point is put pejoratively because Metahistory's reputation has indeed suffered, in retrospect, from the accusation that White attempted to assimilate historiography to literature, purely and simply. It were better, no doubt, that the great Leopold von Ranke remained honoured and unread than that the literary horde picked over metaphors and metonymies in the writings of the progenitor of modern historical method!

Hayden White himself, of course, had never encouraged this dissipation of the central problem of historiography, which always maintained its irreducible difference from the narratives of fiction. Since the publication of Metahistory, he has not chosen to compose another overarching synthesis of the historical production of a particular period. But he has continued to gnaw away at the issues which Metahistory raised, and in the process his ideas have acquired a penetrating force which is undeniable. A collection of essays brought together under the title Tropics of Discourse was published in 1978. Here was White refining and extending his grasp of the issues of narrative structure, particularly in the essay ‘The Historical Text as Literary Artifact’ (originally published the year after Metahistory), where the study of Frye and Collingwood was complemented by new insights from Peirce, Lévi-Strauss and Geoffrey Hartman. But the major part of this collection consisted of cultural criticism in the more general sense. The publication of The Content of the Form, with eight essays dating back over the Eighties, is therefore an important event. It shows that for a long period White has been unremittingly concerned with a revaluation of the concept of narrative in the contemporary context, and that the various different intellectual stimuli which he has received have all helped to focus his intense study of the subject.

In his Preface to the collection, White locates the main problem in a development which his own earlier writings may, ironically, have helped to accentuate: this is the modern historian's withdrawal of confidence in the protocol of narrative. ‘Many modern historians,’ he writes, ‘hold that narrative discourse, far from being a neutral medium for the representation of historical events and processes, is the very stuff of a mythical view of reality, a conceptual or pseudoconceptual “content” which, when used to represent real events, endows them with an illusory coherence and charges them with the kinds of meanings more characteristic of oneiric than of waking thought.’ In taking this attitude, White suggests, the modern historian is in effect reproducing a bias which has been implicit in the process of historical reconstruction since the pioneering achievement of Herodotus: he is subscribing to the belief that ‘history itself consists of a congeries of lived stories, individual and collective, and that the principal task of historians is to uncover these stories and to retell them in a narrative, the truth of which would reside in the correspondence of the story told to the story lived by real people in the past.’ The crucial difference between the modern and the traditional historian is that the latter happily engages in ‘stylistic embellishments’ to dress up the stories that he has found, while the former wishes to expose such writerly accretions as being superfluous to the real business of historical reconstruction. The modern historian (and by this White means typically the historian of the Annales School) wants to denounce the mythic character of narrative, while at the same time taking for granted the implicit ‘story’ which it is his task to bring to light.

Can narrative be disavowed in so disingenuous a way? White thinks not, and his argument is based on the contemporary theories of discourse and ideology for which Roland Barthes served as an eloquent spokesman. His first two essays consider, from different points of view, the question of the adequacy of particular narrative forms for historical explanation. There is a conventional distinction among historians between the ‘chronicle’ and the history proper, which amounts to claiming that chronicles are merely imperfect, undeveloped examples of historical analysis. Yet how valid is it to impose this kind of hierarchy upon two very different types of text? White takes as his central example in the first essay not even a chronicle, but the apparently vestigial and anonymous Annals of Saint Gall, where the only continuing thread of the discourse is the bare succession of years. Even here, he suggests, there is no warrant for the view that the annals are defective or meaningless. ‘The modern scholar seeks fullness and continuity in an order of events; the annalist has both in the sequence of years.’ This leads him, in the second essay, to assert that the fully-fledged narrative history of the modern period is neither more ‘literary’ than the chronicle, nor more exactly attuned to the purposes of explanation (though the former interpretation would occur most readily to a literary scholar, and the latter to a professional historian). Narrativisation works ‘by imposing a discursive form on the events that its own chronicle comprises by means that are poetic in nature.’ A quotation from Barthes comes in handy here. ‘Narrative does not show, does not imitate … [Its] function is not to “represent,” it is to constitute a spectacle.’

We are thus led back, throughout this study, to the social function of narrative history, which cannot be reduced to the terms of literary value, or scientific explanation. At the centre of White's project is a brilliantly original essay on ‘The Politics of Historical Interpretation’ which re-invokes Schiller's notion of the ‘historical sublime’ and suggests that a positive philosophy of history can only spring from ‘the pathetic spectacle of mankind wrestling with fate, the irresistible elusiveness of happiness,’ and other instances of sublime disorder noted by the poet. Just as Hegel subordinated the sublime to the beautiful, so both the followers of Marx and their bourgeois counterparts have collaborated in spite of themselves in reducing history to orderliness. ‘For this tradition, whatever “confusion” is displayed by the historical record is only a surface phenomenon: a product of lacunae in the documentary sources, of mistakes in ordering the archives …’ Thus the descendants of Marx and Ranke make common cause in an aestheticism which repudiates the ‘sublime,’ and what is abandoned by both camps is quite simply the prospect of Utopia.

Yet White's questioning of the orderliness with which prevalent historical narratives are framed does not lead him to a cognitive nihilism. Rather it leads him to a redoubled effort in scrutinising the texts of the past. As he explains in a concluding essay which is no doubt a prologue to further investigation, the shift of attention from the content of such texts to their formal properties is not merely a vacuous stylistic exercise. What needs to be examined is the ‘dynamic process of overt and covert code shifting by which a specific subjectivity is called up and established in the reader, who is supposed to entertain this representation of the world as a realistic one in virtue of its congeniality to the imaginary relationship the subject bears to his own social and cultural situation.’ The concrete results of such a project can already be foreseen in the acute analysis of The Education of Henry Adams, by way of Denis Brogan's 1961 introduction, with which White brings this essay, and the collection as a whole, to an end.

It is quite evident that The Content of the Form was written under the sign of Roland Barthes, whose essay on ‘The Discourse of History’ is a recurring point of reference. No less evidently, Post-Structuralism and the Question of History, with its three editors [Derek Attridge, Geoff Bennington, and Robert Young], and 11 contributors, goes under the sign of Jacques Derrida. The differences implicit in these two contemporary works which both deal broadly with ‘the question of history’ are very revealing. For White gives generous and full consideration to historical theorists whose concerns impinge upon his own: to Fredric Jameson, who still puts his faith in the ‘Marxist master narrative,’ to Ricoeur, who provides the philosophical arguments for seeing historical narratives as ‘allegories of temporality,’ and even to Foucault, who is accused of the failure to understand his own rhetorical strategies. By contrast, the contributors to the second volume choose to give themselves little room for manoeuvre. Hayden White is mentioned just in passing for his ‘refined rhetorical studies’; Jameson, together with Edward Said, is attacked for holding that Derrida's method leads to the avoidance of historical issues; Foucault is prised apart from Derrida despite the efforts of Frank Lentricchia to assimilate them to one another in their ‘understanding of history.’ In fact, the message of most of the contributors is unequivocal. Not only is it wrong to accuse Derrida of being (as Terry Eagleton puts it) ‘grossly unhistorical’: but it is virtually impossible to find any thinker whose method is adequately ‘historical’ in the way that Derrida's is.

Suresh Raval (review date Autumn 1987)

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SOURCE: “Recent Books on Narrative Theory: An Essay-Review,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 559–70.

[In the following excerpt, Raval offers a positive assessment of The Content of the Form.]

Contemporary narrative theory is concerned with the analysis of narrative discourse and narrativity in order to explain the many forms and structures of storytelling in world literature and their implications. It also focuses on possible relations existing among mythic, historical, and fictional narratives, and it reflects on the possibility and implications of reconceptualizing these relations for literary, cultural, and historiographic theory. The books under review here are too diverse to allow for an integrated account that would make possible a hierarchical or some other larger context in which to place precisely and without distortion the theory presented, or the theories criticized, by each of the books in relation to one another. My attempt in the limited space here is to identify some of the central threads in each book in order to remark rather generally and all too briefly on their usefulness to narrative theory. …

In Metahistory, Hayden White sought to elaborate the strategies of what he calls tropological analysis, and in Tropics of Discourse he sought to refine those strategies so as to show, for instance, by an analysis of E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, that even the most self-consciously antitheoretical historical study can be shown to deploy certain enabling tropological strategies that make possible, in this instance, Thompson's study as a coherent, intelligent, and defensible totality. Now, in his latest book, The Content of the Form, White seems to be less concerned with pressing the claims of a systematic tropological analysis than with radicalizing the essential metahistorical and poetic insights underlying his studies of historical narratives and historical theories. This radicalizing interest figures prominently in his discussions of the value of narrativity in realistic representation, the politics of interpretation in modern historiography, and narrativity in historical theory. His essays on Droysen, Foucault, Jameson, and Ricoeur are models of rhetorical and conceptual deconstruction that, although employing the resources of tropological analysis, are no longer concerned with identifying dominant tropes constituting the work of these writers. The final essay on The Education of Henry Adams is a splendid critical exercise combining the strategies of semiotics and ideological analysis.

White makes a threefold distinction among the chronicle of events, their explanation given in direct discourse as commentary, and the narrativization of the events provided by allegoresis, a process that enables a particular historical narrative to generate patterns of meaning not ascribable to a literal representation of facts in that narrative. Historical narrative, in other words, attempts a poetic troping of “facts” in order to endow them, in the very process of their description, with elements of the story form known as tragedy, romance, comedy, or farce, codes provided by Western literary culture. Consequently, what logical grounds there are for characterizing a historical narrative in terms of any one of these codes are provided by the logic of figuration White calls tropology. It is by probing the implications of these strategies that we can acquire a grasp of the process by which consciousness and narration enfigure specific past events into particular historical accounts invested with meaning and value.

One of the most interesting arguments I believe undergirds many of White's analyses is that the terms history and narrative are ambiguous and thus complicate all theoretical discussions of historiography. Just as history can mean an object of study and discourse about this object, narrative can mean a mode of discourse and the product resulting from the adoption of this mode of discourse. White criticizes analytic philosophers of historiography for bringing to their investigation the notion of explanation that rules out the importance of figurative discourse in the production of genuine knowledge. Their discussion fails to confront the process of narrativization by which a chronicle is transformed into a historical narrative. The book provides many superbly worked out illustrations to stress the point that it is important to pay attention to the narrative aspect of historical discourse, the story it tells about the events, and that it is misguided to dismiss the story a historical narrative tells about the events as mere adventitious and ornamental matter rather than an essential aspect of the discourse as a whole. The Content of the Form shows Hayden White at the top of his form, marshalling the resources of rhetoric, semiology, ideological analysis, and historiographic theory. Like Ricoeur's volumes on Time and Narrative, White's book is a major contribution to the current advances in interdisciplinary inquiry in the humanities. …

For all their extraordinary diversity in viewpoint, the books reviewed here all seem to underline the centrality of the act of interpretation, however different their particular emphases by which this act is to be carried out. Both Ricoeur and White are in agreement on the importance of the interpretive act in the sense of the hermeneutics of understanding as against the scientistic aspirations underlying the concept of explanation; and both underline the notion of emplotment, though Ricoeur explicates it by linking it with a notion of deep temporality of experience, and White explicates it by disclosing the operations of rhetorical and ideological elements or codes in narrative discourse and historical theory.

Ralph Flores (review date December 1987)

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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 102, No. 5, December, 1987, pp. 1191–196.

[In the following review of The Content of the Form, Flores provides an overview of White's conceptual assertions, which he then applies to examples of White's own stylistic phrases in the book.]

For most cultures, narratives are relatively unproblematic vehicles for transmitting honored traditions, and the critique or rejection of narrative (by recent historians, novelists, or theorists) may signal a cultural crisis of epochal proportions. In The Content of the Form Hayden White offers eight analytic essays on the work of several eminent theoreticians of narrative, work which both addresses and may contribute to such a crisis. Among the theoreticians are Paul Ricoeur, Johann G. Droysen, Frederic Jameson, Michel Foucault, and the French Annalistes. White is particularly sympathetic to the work of Paul Ricoeur (whose as yet unfinished Temps et Récit in several volumes he acclaims as our century's “most important synthesis of literary and historical theory) and to what he calls Jameson's “redemption of narrative” (170, 142). With considerable insight into their epistemological shortcomings, however, White is unable to give unqualified allegiance to either of these efforts. His main endeavor, which is separate from (but constantly indebted to) that of the specific theoreticians he discusses, is to think endlessly about “narrativity,” about how narratives work and what they might have to say.

In his opening essay White interestingly shows what narrativity accomplishes by examining the medieval German Annals of St. Gall. These Annals consist of a list of years followed by very brief entries for some (but not all) years: “709. Hard Winter. Duke Gottfried died. / 710. Hard year and deficient in crops. / 711. / 712. Flood everywhere” (6–7). Such a scheme, according to White, is merely chronological, offering no high or low points, no explanations. What the annalist does not consider (and what later writers would consider to be “missing” in his account of events) is the question of the social context, the authority of and threats to the legal and moral system in which he writes. In other words, for St. Gall there is nothing problematic about the reality or status of the events; they are simply listed. Richerus of Rheims, by contrast, seems to write his History of France (ca. 998) in order “to represent … an authority whose legitimacy hinged upon the establishment of ‘facts’ of a specialized historical order” (19). Here, then, is an instance of rhetorical and semiotic force in historical narrative, a force that White will repeatedly stress: “unless at least two versions of the same set of events can be imagined, there is no reason for the historian to take upon himself the authority of giving the true account of what really happened” (20). What “really happened” is in other words arguable. Indeed it is precisely the desire to prove a point that leads a historian to the believed assumption of neutral objectivity; the ideological agenda, to be most effective, is hidden. Historians are thus advocates or rhetoricians, even when claiming the opposite; for “the appeal of historical discourse … [is that] it makes the real desirable, makes the real into an object of desire, and does so by its imposition, upon events that are represented as real, of the formal coherency that stories possess” (21).

Having established this much, White in his next chapter is able to attack the naive view, still held by many, that “the form of the discourse, the narrative, adds nothing to the content of the representation; rather it is a simulacrum … of real events” (27). This naive paradigm is no longer widely accepted, and White lists several types of theoreticians who problematize such a paradigm: the Anglo-American analytic philosophers (who critically assess the “epistemic status” of narrative), the Annalistes (who would substitute “scientific” studies for ideologically-loaded narrative), the semiologists (who view narrative as one code among others), the hermeneuticists (who consider narrative as a verbal manifestation of “time-consciousness”). Making use of the work of these schools, White insists, against conventional historians, that historical discourse is always more than the “literal, truth-value” level with which most historians believe themselves to be concerned. Such historians contend that tropes are mere decorations, but White argues on the contrary that to omit the figurative element from an analysis of narrative “is to miss not only its aspect as allegory but also the performance” of chronicle being transformed into narrative (48).

The notion of “performance,” particularly of a communal sort, is developed by Paul Ricoeur (and closely parallels Vico's New Science): emplotment symbolically repeats and continues actions by past human agents who, in their actions, made worthy stories. There may thus be a making-doing-plotting-writing connection relevant to a number of disciplines. Quite relevant, too, may be White's fine analysis (in a chapter entitled “The Politics of Historical Interpretation”) of the relations between politics and aesthetics. White shows how “the sublime” in Kant and Edmund Burke posed dangers to historians (including Burke himself) and thus had to be domesticated or exorcised in the interests of “practical” political and educational projects. By the same token, the notion of history as “senseless” often was and is prelude to a predictably apocalyptic, if not always sublime, visionary discourse about the future. Is “senseless” history, broken by the sublime, any more or less preferable to history as “sense”? White's conclusion is that it is not:

One must face the fact that when it comes to apprehending the historical record, there are no grounds to be found in the historical record itself for preferring one way of construing its meaning over another. Nor can such grounds be found in any putative science of man, society, or culture. …


The term “grounds” here seems crucial, and if one notices the first phase of this passage, one might wonder how rigorous White will be in maintaining his thesis. For his work slips back into the assumption of some sort of grounds for historical tropology, and elsewhere, when he deals with Foucault, he begins by seeking—even while admitting the impossibility of the quest—for “the grounds for [Foucault's] point of view” (34).

White needs or assumes, let us venture, some sort of ground. Consider for instance his title concept, “the content of the form.” The form/content binary is a grounding concept in the history of metaphysics, and White's stress on this concept suggests a strong bias, despite disclaimers, in favor of traditional “history.” To be sure, White adds a twist to the dichotomy with his content-of-the-form formula, articulated in a respectful chapter on Droysen's Historik:

Droysen makes clear that he regards the content of the historian's discourse, not as the facts or events that comprise his manifest referent, but as his understanding of these facts and the moral implications he draws from their contemplation. … Droysen's analysis … allows us to speak of the ‘content of the form.’ …


Whether form and content be separated or taken together, however, the form/content concept itself is never put into question, and it enables White's readings to remain comfortably ensconced within the horizon of traditional “meaning.” “All the concepts,” Jacques Derrida has argued, “by means of which eidos or morphē have been translated or determined refer to the theme of presence. … Formality is whatever aspect of the thing in general presents itself, lets itself be seen, gives itself to be thought” (Margins of Philosophy, trans. A. Bass [Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982], p. 158). When White contends that the content is the form, he assumes its unproblematic intelligibility, its clear visibility. Indeed, in his endeavor of locating of tropes and emplotments, he is solidly traditional and in many ways Aristotelian.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that White's form/content formula is useful. What, we might then ask, is the content of the form of The Content of the Form? White's prose style, while clear and interesting, is cautious, humorless, and strictly academic. With regard to what is usually called “content,” White's essays, despite their devotion to history and culture in a wide context, are at no point formed or “informed” by, say, Eastern cultures, feminist, minority or third world historians or theorists. On a more specific level, White's style is marked by a number of telling phrases. Two in particular recur with great regularity. One is “proper” taken in conjunction with “history” as a “discipline”: “properly disciplined historical consciousness”; “discipline proper to itself”; “proper object of historical study”; “the socially responsible historian properly assumes”; “a historical discipline properly assessed”; “an appropriate performance in the discipline” (63, 64, 66, 71, 45, 188). The other phrase, or a version of it, usually follows a short list of names or ideas: “Lukács, Brecht, Benjamin, … and so on”; “Gissing, Conrad, Dreiser, and so forth”; “Machiavelli and Erasmus, and so forth”; “Comtean, Hegelian, Marxist, and so on”; “‘nature,’ ‘atoms,’ ‘genes’ and so forth” (143, 164, 187, 188, 187; also 112, 189, 194, 197, 204, 210). What might these stylistic turns have in common? What is the content of their forms? Granted that by “proper” White refers mostly (but not always; see p. 188) to the “discipline” as conceived by conventional historians, his repetition of the phrases betrays a certain fascination. He at any rate by no means favors a “history” or “discipline” which is much other than “proper,” but instead seems to argue for a discourse that, with some reservations, would not be far from that of Paul Ricoeur (interestingly, perhaps, White has not as yet worked out a theory of his own). The second phrase, “and so on,” or “and so forth,” is a gesture of easy totalization or casual categorization, a suggestion of something he assumes himself to hold in common with the reader (“you know what I mean”; or “that sort of thing”). It could also suggest, however, that some readers are excluded and that the writer has a right to be not only vague but at the same time classificatory. The space of “the proper” which White's text assumes, especially if we attend to what that very text says about the strategies of power (as style) could be construed as a space of arrogance and usurpation. The “and so on” phrase is a presumption of categories, and is one indication among others of a certain Aristotelianism; often White simply reprocesses categories (for instance Droysen's) rather than questioning the possibility or function of the categorizations.

Despite a concern with figuration, for instance, White rarely hesitates in classifying a given text according to some basic trope, genre, or emplotment; he rarely if ever notices the complexities of texts and his readings never lead to the sorts of aporia noted by Paul de Man (whose work, incidentally, despite its relevance to White's, is never mentioned). The commentary on Foucault is typical of much of White's work. As in Metahistory (1973), where White attempted to apply four basic master tropes, in conjunction with other categories, to the texts of several nineteenth-century historians, here he argues for a master trope by which to comprehend Foucault's texts. He offers no references to the extensive and often quite intelligent secondary material on Foucault, as if he wanted to “take on” Foucault's texts directly and to test out the master trope.

Foucault's work is at some distance from that of the other theorists in The Content of the Form, and there can be little doubt that White's tone is defensive or uneasy: Foucault's discourse is characterized by “capricious erudition, solemn disclosures …, aggressive redrawings of the map of cultural history” (107). The suggested tactic for reading such a text is as follows:

We will find a clue to the meaning of his discursive style in the rhetorical theory of tropes. … The authority of Foucault's discourse derives primarily from its style (rather than from its factual evidence or rigor of argument); … this style privileges the trope of catachresis. …


Note the unquestioned terms: “the meaning” (not meanings?); which “we” will “find”; “the rhetorical theory” (only one, namely “the” theory?); “derives”; “factual evidence” (earlier this was argued to be stylistic; here it is separated from “style”); “rigor of argument” (is rigor necessarily not stylistic?); and finally—the main insight—“catachresis.” But why catachresis? How have “we” decided upon it? Is it indeed Foucault's “dominant trope” (116)—assuming, that is, that he has one? Is it even (as many have wondered) a trope at all? Catachresis is also called, as White notes, abusio: the “abuse” of a trope, a metaphor with no “proper” level. Thus according to White “his own discourse stands as an abuse of everything for which ‘normal’ or ‘proper’ discourse stands” (115). But what, again, of White's style? Is it by comparison less abusive or more “proper”? If so, why “everything” or “his own”—as if to locate culpability or non-propriety? Why the repeated “stands”—as if to give the impression of intense conflict? We are told in an earlier part of the same sentence that “Foucault's style … displays a profusion of the various figures sanctioned by this trope, such as paradox, oxymoron, chiasmus, hysteron proteron, metalepsis, prolepsis, antonomasia, paronomasia, antiphrasis, hyperbole, litotes, irony, and so on” (115). Here is yet another “and so on”: the profusion must be extensive indeed, but at least the tropes have names and can be listed.

What White's list and the “and so on” fail to consider is that catachresis may be construed not only as a local abuse of tropes but as a subversion of tropology—indeed of “the” tropological system. If catachresis “sanctions” so many tropes (and our “and so on” leaves the question open), then perhaps it no longer “sanctions” anything. Indeed all tropes are to an indeterminate extent catachretic, unless “we” decide arbitrarily what is to count as the “proper”—or in this case as “the dominant trope.” The problem with such a decision, however, is its easy bypassing, in the interest of its own dominance, of the text's tropological complexity. What marks, after all, some of the most challenging texts, including Foucault's, is their very lack of a “dominant trope.” And to claim to “read” such a trope in the text is to fail, quite possibly, in the task of reading. It could be said, no doubt, that White is not a careful or close reader of texts. Long sections of his essays consist of paraphrases and summaries; even apart from that, he moves quickly among cited passages in order to establish or confirm some all too general thesis.

It is thus of some interest that in a concluding chapter he offers to read a text, The Education of Henry Adams, so as to demonstrate the shortcomings of a “‘content’-oriented method” (194). The semiological reading that emerges, however, is similar in crucial ways to the thematic readings it claims to displace. The method proposes to “provide a theoretically generated reading of this text, which would give an account for every element of it” (196), and the reading is recuperative: gaps in the narrative or shifts away from the narrative mode “themselves become meaningful as message” (204). White's semiology indeed shows how a text possesses something that is proper, or its own: the text “draws attention to … its own processes of meaning production and makes … [them] its own subject matter, its own ‘content'” (211). Perhaps most surprising about such a reading, explicitly modelled on Barthes’ S/Z (196), is that it is offered as though no critiques or refinements of structuralism had as yet appeared; curiously perhaps, what is lacking in this historian's essay (first published in 1982) is a sense that the heyday of structuralist semiotics may have passed, and that something, at least, might need to be said about that. Similarly, in an attempt to explain Ricoeur's notion of history as allegory, White cites Dante's distinction in the Convivio between poetic and theological allegory, concluding with respect to the allegorical status of the Commedia (on Charles Singleton's interpretation) that “something like this, I take it, is what Ricoeur is saying in his reflections on historical narrative” (183). But surely it is not “something like this”—unless, as with yet another “and so on,” we are willing to make do with a vague—and unhistorical—gesture.

White is of course under no obligation to provide a “sense of history” and on the contrary often debunks such a sense. The book, even so, is devoted to narrative theories and is sympathetic to notions of narrative as a socially significant force. Notice, then, that it would be nearly impossible to discern any sort of narrative or theoretical development in the essays in The Content of the Form; White's text seems to illustrate the very loss of narrative that it so articulately laments.

Giles Gunn (review date March 1988)

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SOURCE: “The Kingdoms of Theory and the New Historicism in America,” in Yale Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, March, 1988, pp. 207–36.

[In the following excerpt, Gunn discusses trends in contemporary historical theory and issues raised by White in The Content of the Form.]

Theory has become ubiquitous in literary and cultural studies, and it is sometimes difficult not to feel under siege. The study of verbal texts, like the study of cultural forms of almost any kind, has in many ways become a beleaguered enterprise in which the establishment of methodological and theoretical credentials now often takes precedence over all other intellectual procedures. “The aim of interpretation,” as E. D. Hirsch once termed it, is more often than not to validate the system of thought that presumably serves as its premises. No longer are texts, for example, or things that can be “read” as “texts,” always studied as intentional forms whose meaning can be inferred from a reconstruction of the putative conditions to which they are a response and the cognitive and affective associations to which they give rise; more and more they are being converted into “sites” for the testing of theories. What was once assumed to yield a “conflict of interpretations,” in Paul Ricoeur's phrase, has given way to something that looks more like a contest of concepts, where the object is not to see what can be learned from the debate but to determine how completely the terms of discussion can be subsumed within a single discourse. The text is in danger of being displaced not by context but by metacritical templates.

Such aggressions, even if exaggerated in their depiction, have proved daunting to interpretative traditionalists of almost every stripe. The omnivorousness of theory has taken on for many humanists the enormity of a moral offense, even of religious blasphemy. So much of what earlier generations of literary and cultural interpreters once held sacred about the integrity of the object under investigation—the object, to quote Matthew Arnold, “as in itself it really is”—is now felt by many to have been profaned by this new enculturation of theory or, worse, actually desecrated, and the victims are not just texts themselves but whole traditions, indeed the entire canon of Western literature. …

In other words, history, too, “writes off” as well as writes in or writes down the self. If some contemporary new historicists paid closer attention to the referential subtexts of their materials, to “the context in the text”—as Hayden White calls it in his important new book, The Content of the Form—rather than to the rhetorical tactics that often mask such matters, they might perceive, as White observes in a discussion of Paul Ricoeur, how the “historical” (or better, “historicality”) is a response or rejoinder to the tragedy of temporality. To historicize, as the better new historicists like Buell and Stephen Greenblatt have always acknowledged and as White confirms, is not to reinscribe the self in more “realistic” contexts so much as to show how those contexts are sedimented with past “forms of life” that once contributed to their realization but are now lost to us except through the text itself.

To historicize is thus to be brought up against all that the self is exposed to within time because of time—that is, to confront the odds, as Berthoff expressed earlier, against the self's continuance beyond time. No historicism, new or old, that does not acknowledge the ultimate pathos of this predicament—for example, in the social and political contexts of human resistance to it—deserves, on White's account, to be taken seriously. In addition, even if historicism is only another way of trying to get into as well as out of history, as White says of Fredric Jameson's “political unconscious,” no historicism that glosses over the different tactics of historicization by which we try to do so can be regarded as other than frivolous. There are real differences, in other words, between justifying what Mircea Eliade once called the “terror of history” in the name of the kind of anti-humanism with which Foucault, in his earlier writing, attacks the collusion between modern representations of historical discourse and the reconstitution of man as a field of study and, say, Ricoeur's attempt to uncover the deep structures that compel or at least control our need to render experience narratively in order to cope with the paradox it compels us to face but cannot help us wholly overcome: the paradox of temporality and its continuance, of time and eternity.

We are thus brought back to Bishop's paradox of our knowledge of experience as historical, as “flowing, and flown.” The hesitancy enforced by her comma registers the self's comprehension of the difference, a difference that makes all the difference. “Historicality,” “historicity,” “historicism,” White suggests in a book far too subtle for me to do it full justice here, all refer merely to one (or more) among a variety of discursive practices for defining the odds against us, and offer us another set of terms—what Kenneth Burke would call “critical coordinates”—for, at the very least, calculating our chances, and at the most, attempting to enhance them. But the real issue isn't what we calculate our chances to be—different critical systems furnish us with different sets of calculations—or whether we can improve our margin; the crucial issue is how we go about our calculations. It all boils down—here Poirier and Berthoff oddly agree with White, Jameson, and Ricoeur—to a question of something like virtue, that is, to the “expense of spirit,” to use Blackmur's phrase, that is being wagered in the process. Those works of literature that raise the stakes to the highest levels of cultural risk before making such measurements, and then make them in the face of formal and conceptual obstacles that would normally be conceived to thwart, or at least to threaten, their success, we call classics. “What the classic achieves,” White says with the help of certain formulations from Jameson, “is an instantiation of the human capacity to endow lived contradictions with intimations of their possible transcendence.”

Thus White is prepared to claim that what distinguishes the classic at any given time from all other similar works with which it might be compared is not the universal truths that it is sensed to contain about, say, the “human condition,” but the models it provides for investigating the “human condition” and other such matters, both within the text and beyond it, when the “human condition,” and the procedures for investigating it, have been rendered particularly problematic or hazardous. Hence the literary classic furnishes a particular opportunity for the expression of virtue, “not because (or only because),” to quote White again, the classic's “meaning-content is universally valid or authoritative (for that is manifestly impossible; in any event, it is a profoundly unhistorical way of looking at anything), but because it gives us insight into a process that is universal and definitive of human species-being in general, the production of meaning.” But it does so, White insists with Poirier, no less than with Jameson and Ricoeur, in its own way. The difference between literary texts and all others is a function of their ability “to work up a certain knowledge (not merely a certain intuition) of the conditions of their own production and render those conditions intelligible.”

It is this knowledge of literary texts not only as products of meaning but also as processes and models for producing it that is now at issue in the kingdoms of theory. How do we obtain such knowledge? Why does such knowledge matter? What does such knowledge do to our previous conceptions of literature? White's answer to this last question may not be the only answer, but it nicely converges with Poirier's thinking as well as with Jameson's, with Graff's as with Buell's and Ricoeur's:

Insofar as art and literature, across whatever local differences in their contents occasioned by their production in concrete historical conditions, not only instantiate the human capacity for imagining a better world but also, in the universality of the forms that they utilize for the representation of vision itself, actually provide us with models or paradigms of all creative productivity of a specifically human sort, they claim an authority different in kind from that claimed by both science and politics.

Thanks to the interventions of recent theory, the critical issue that the institutions of literary study in America can no longer gloss or repress, as they once did, is what that authority amounts to, and what sorts of empowerment it makes possible.

Jeremy Tambling (review date June 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 2, June, 1988, pp. 192–94.

[In the following review, Tambling finds shortcomings in The Content of the Form.]

In this compilation of essays from 1979 onward [The Content of the Form], Hayden White engages four recurrent themes, though they are not set out as such: the relationship between history and narrative, the relationship between historical and fictional narrative, the place that interpretation has within the writing of history, and the Nietzschean theme of the uses and disadvantages of history for life, considering, predominantly, its political and ideological uses. The essays include four on specific theorists—Michel Foucault, Fredric Jameson, Paul Ricoeur, and the post-Hegelian Droysen—and four on questions involving textuality, narrativity, and history.

The essays on Jameson and Ricoeur declare White's belief in narrativized history—narrative considered, in Jameson's Political Unconscious, to offer something utopian, a possibility of moving forward out of our present discontents. Literature attests to “the reality of the desire for redemption” and provides “justification for the vision of its possible realization” (p. 144). Jameson adheres to a Lukacsian model—a realist text with firm narrative form. White would agree with Jameson that there can be an understanding of events outside the framing of ideology, that, as Jameson says, “History is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise,” that it “needs no particular theoretical justification: we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them” (quoted on p. 147). Nietzsche might call this a reactive statement, coming from the exploited objects of history rather than from the exploiters who make and suppress history. Although White's position establishes history as a site of conflict, it does not help to establish a sense of the past outside the text, where it can be appealed to. Indeed, by the end of White's essay the point seems almost conceded, as history appears to be (again as in Jameson, though one might also cite Stephen Dedalus) “one White, as there is in Jameson, of the alternative: of postmodernism, of Lyotard's “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Utopian possibilities there remain unexplored, and White appears almost antimodernist in his belief in narrative—however aware he might be of Barthes's arguments on the force of ideology underlying the nineteenth-century realist narrative text.

If History embodies ideological struggle, a necessary question for White is “to what is the historian responsible, or rather, to what should one be responsible?” (p. 188), considering how even the events of the Holocaust have been doubted by “revisionist” historians (pp. 76–82). But the discussion of further implications remains inconclusive here (like much of the book, written as it is in stiffly dignified, rather dulled, safe prose) as White wrestles (contra Jameson) with the issue of nontextual history and history—even of the Holocaust—as perhaps “morally domesticating” (p. 78). The point recapitulates an interesting discussion (pp. 68–75) on the articulation of the beautiful and sublime with history in Burke and Schiller or Hegel, showing that the erasure of the “sublime” as a way of understanding reduces history to a succession of well-ordered, comprehensive processes that serve to blunt the radical or horrifying edge of events, to soften the visionary element needed in radical politics. Thus while he argues that history's professionalization entraps, White also sees historical thinking as a function of the political unconscious. He yokes to Jameson's notion a sense of the power of narrative, following Ricoeur: “a meaningful life is one that aspires to the coherency of a story with a plot” (p. 173), for a plot “imposes a meaning on the events that make up its story level” (p. 20).

In arguing that narrative rises when an interpretation of events is contested (p. 19), White underestimates writings such as the eighth-century Annals of Saint Gall (pp. 6–11). Here the citation of events and dates, with gaps going against certain years in which “nothing happened” (p. 11), is taken as an absence of narrative representation. When it originally appeared, White's position was rightly disputed by Marilyn Robinson Waldman, using Islamic historiography.1 The main problem is that White's thesis about narrative function fails to account for non-Eurocentric models. But how would a feminist history—also an apparent record of silence—read, on White's basis? Such a question opens up the kind of issues addressed by Derrida against Foucault's attempt in Madness and Civilization to write the archaeology of the silence of the “mad.” Derrida makes problematic Foucault's narrative text, seeing it as itself oppressive, a voice from the point of a dominant ideology. White does not point this out in his reading of Foucault. Meanwhile, deconstruction, like feminism and psychoanalysis, is ready to trouble White's rather assured sense of mainline history. White hardly refers to Derrida, and then not in contexts that suggest the power of the play of the text. He thus misses the whole issue of the failure of interpretation to stay still, to preserve its monologic character.

White's limitation is linked with his voluntaristic sense of the subject's relation to ideology. Such a relation involves “a specific kind of reading … subject capable of inserting himself into the social system that is his historically given potential field of public activity” (p. 86; my italics). White takes his account of ideology from Jameson (p. 232, n. 14), whose reading of Althusser nevertheless reduces it to “a kind of false consciousness.”2

But it is unnecessary to bring back all Althusser to see that White's account of ideology, involuntarily positioning the subject, results in a consideration of discourse that frames and creates the subject, making the split between narrative representation and the real event nontenable. Assuming the possession of choice of narrative method or guiding trope—the “alternative ways that one might legitimately write different accounts of the same set of historical events” (p. 88)—also assumes the free subject, i.e., the ideal historian, one not caught within a discursive formation. It emphasizes what White called the “Kantian element in my thought,”3 seriously limiting any use a historian could put to poststructuralism, and very seriously underestimating discourse theory.


  1. “‘The Otherwise Unnoteworthy Year 711’: A Reply to Hayden White,” CritI, 7 (1981): 784–92.

  2. To use Jerry Aline Flieger's term (in “The Prison House of Ideology,” Diacritics, 12 [1982]: 54). Flieger's article appeared with White's essay in an issue of Diacritics that was devoted to Jameson. To agree with Flieger's position (or with that of Terry Eagleton, who also appeared in this issue) is to suggest that ideology in White reduces to a system of beliefs that obtain in a given society—beliefs that may be dispelled in the name of a purer historicism.

  3. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 22.

David S. Gross (review date Summer 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, p. 516.

[In the following review of The Content of the Form, Gross commends White's insightful ideas, but suggests that his “dense” and “formidable” prose may limit his audience.]

Hayden White begins “Foucault's Discourse: The Historiography of Anti-Humanism,” the longest of the eight substantial essays in The Content of the Form, with the observation that the work of Michel Foucault “is extraordinarily difficult to deal with in any short account.” The same is certainly true of White's own work. White describes his book as “some of the work I have done over the last seven years in historiography and theory of narrative and on the problem of representation in the human sciences.” The essays are sophisticated theoretically, informed throughout by contemporary continental critics and philosophers. Like Foucault, Ricoeur, Jameson—some of the writers discussed at length here—White's own writing can be rather formidable, so dense as to be almost impenetrable. Certainly a problem in his book is that the practitioners of the dominant positivist, empiricist, antitheoretical school of historiography with whom he wants to argue are not likely to read very far, to listen to much of his argument.

That is a shame, because White connects many different insights of modern critical theory in ways which illuminate both historical practice and the practice of the historian. White is usually seen as a “formalist,” and indeed one way of characterizing The Content of the Form, like his earlier work, is in terms of the attention paid to the form as opposed to the content in historical narratives. White seeks consistently to foreground the effects, the constitutive character, of discourse itself. Thus his typical rhetorical or tropological analysis.

White is concerned here with “systems of meaning production” in culture, with the function of any discursive information, as it is produced and interpreted in any given context. Of all the thinkers whose work he considers, White seems to agree most with Foucault; he sums up that thinker's position as follows: “What is always at work in discourse—as in everything else—is ‘desire and power.’” White agrees, and he argues persuasively that the discourse of knowledge, of education, always masks its relations to power and presents itself as dealing only with neutral, objective truth. A central function of the discipline of history, according to White, has been to discipline desire, to banish from historical narration radical discontent with the present and commitment to a fundamentally different future. Throughout his book White uses his familiarity and facility with modern theory to demystify notions of transparency or objectivity in intellectual discourse and to fix our attention squarely on the process of meaning production in all its complex and contradictory unfolding.

William H. Dray (review date October 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in History and Theory, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, October, 1988, pp. 282–87.

[In the following review of The Content of the Form, Dray commends White's book, but objects to his view of history as political propaganda.]

This book brings together eight of White's essays published between 1979 and 1985, all concerned in one way or another with theory of narrative and the problem of representation in the human sciences. It is thus a sequel to, or an updating of, his reflections on the same range of topics in Tropics of Discourse, and earlier in Metahistory. Four of the essays deal directly with problems raised by the nature of narrative: its epistemic authority, its cultural function, and its general social significance. The other four approach the same issues more obliquely through discussions of the work of Droysen, Foucault, Jameson, and Ricoeur. Only three of the papers have been substantially revised. For readers familiar with White's earlier work the collection offers few surprises. It does, however, provide welcome elaboration on a number of controversial points, a few changes of emphasis, and even an occasional retraction; and its more serene tone suggests the increasing satisfaction of a daring and original, if also highly syncretistic, thinker with the intellectual habitation he has been constructing over a number of years. The general impression one gets is nevertheless one of being made privy, not to a finished system, but to work still enthusiastically in progress; and even those who find themselves with serious reservations about much of what White has to say may take considerable pleasure in being swept up, if only momentarily, in the intellectual currents through which he navigates with such elan.

As might be expected with a group of essays written at different times and for different purposes, there are some overlaps in content, some incongruities of style, and more issues addressed than can conveniently be noted in a short review. Of special interest are a lengthy discussion of annals as an historiographical form in its own right, to be contrasted with chronicle as well as with narrative proper, and an exploration of the different approaches to the question of narrative legitimacy taken by Annales historians, certain analytic philosophers of history, linguistic theorists holding structuralist and post-structuralist views, philosophers with an interest in hermeneutics, and traditional historians who see narrative as essentially a craft. Much to be welcomed also is White's probing, yet respectful, critique of Ricoeur's attempt to ground narrative in human time-consciousness—here he is at his best as an interpreter of another's text. The central thrust of the book, however, like that of much of White's previous work, is the elaboration and defense of an extreme constructionist view of narrative in historical writing, the real function of which, he insists, is moral and political, not epistemological, and certainly not representational. This central position—although it may seem ungrateful to say it of a book which is so wonderfully well-informed, always thought-provoking, and frequently illuminating—seems to me to be frustratingly underargued.

A recurring problem is White's tendency, when his constructionist thesis is put in question, to let rhetoric rather than logical argument assume too much of the burden of its defense. “What wish is enacted, what desire is gratified, by the fantasy that real events are properly represented when they can be shown to display the formal coherency of a story?” he asks early in “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” (4)—as if the explanation of someone's holding such a belief were alone problematic, not the claim that the belief is in fact a fantastic one to hold. That history “may be” meaningless is “a possibility that should never be ruled out,” he cautions us in “The Politics of Historical Interpretation” (82)—going on then at other points simply to take the realization of this possibility for granted. Transitions are too easily made from what certain considerations allegedly lead one to “suspect” to what can be taken undoubtedly to be the case; the idea that the real world could, like narrative, exhibit a coherent structure is repeatedly written off as “illusion”; and sheer paradox is treated as almost magically supportive, as when a social attitude is said to be “present” in a narrative “by virtue of its absence.” White's penchant for rather figurative modes of expression also makes it difficult at times to elicit a clear structure of argument from what he has to say. Nor is he above occasionally caricaturing the realist position he wishes to attack, as when he interprets the notion of events speaking for themselves as implying that, like the mythical column of Memnon, they actually give tongue (3).

Any sober assessment of White's case for claiming that narrative cannot represent reality must look carefully at what, in his view, does succeed in representing it. The contrast which he sometimes seems to have in mind is between offering full-blown narrative and merely reporting discrete events—perhaps with all the cultural, or even human, significance strained out of them, as seems implied by his remark that “a refusal of narrative indicates an absence or refusal of meaning itself” (2). More characteristically, non-representational narrative is set over against representational annals or chronicle. In fact, in conceding the claims of realism with regard to the latter, White considerably undermines the case for denying a representative function to narrative; for he admits that it incorporates these simpler forms. In any case, reports of discrete historical events seldom strain away all the human meaning of what is said to have happened, even annals, as illustrated by White himself, containing humanly meaningful claims like “Hard year, deficient in crops.” This makes it implausible to claim, as White sometimes seems to do, that narratives go “beyond” reality merely because they typically express distinctively human perspectives, for example, value judgments. Clearly, for him, the allegedly non-representational character of narratives must be traced to features making possible a contrast with annals and chronicles. The feature he most emphasizes in this connection is their displaying “closure”: a beginning-middle-end structure. By contrast, he says, chronicles simply terminate; and annals do not even record continuities capable of termination except in the sense of being structured by a continuous series of dates.

Why does White believe that closure opens an impassable gulf between the way the world—the human world—was, and the way narratives represent it? A consideration which he seems to think relevant is that no sequence of real events “actually comes to an end” (23), it following that “real events do not offer themselves as stories” (4). The way the objection is put, however, surely begs the question. It is true that the events which we might normally refer to collectively as the First World War do not come to an end in the sense that the end of the war is the end of the world; things go on happening. The point, however, is that none of these further happenings can be regarded as further events of the war. The sequence of events which it would make sense to regard as constitutive of the First World War does come to an end. Is that because to conceive events as First-World-War-constituting is to “impose” upon them (White's term) an interpretive concept which simply expresses the historian's “poetic” judgment? Are events rendered “imaginary” (again White's own term) by being brought under colligatory concepts which, like “First World War,” ensure their being considered from a standpoint that takes account of their human meaning and value? Even if this were conceded, it could not be the point White really wants to make, since it would leave unsupported his contention that it is closure as a formal feature of narration that opens a hiatus between events as narrated and a real historical past. It would trace the problem for realism not to narratives’ (necessary) form but to its (accidental) content. Some attention by White to beginning-middle-end structures in natural history might have been salutary in this connection, since he seems generally to assume that the study of nature is free from the problems supposedly raised for realism by the employment of narrative in human history. But more attention to some kinds of human history might also have been useful. A history of the bow and arrow as an implement of warfare, for example, or of the stagecoach as a means of transportation, would require closure as much as, say, a history of a revolution-turned-farce (White's example). It would be a good deal harder to discern the role of “poetic” judgment in its determination, however.

White's overdependence on rhetoric shows itself in many other ways: for example, in remarks he makes about the connection between narrative and politics. He does make it clear, in criticizing the “jejune” way narrative was rejected by Annales historians, that he doesn't think that writing narrative commits historians also to writing political history. Where Annales historians apparently envisaged a necessary connection between the two types of enterprise, White sees only an historical one. Yet he insists that narrative, as such, has a political function—that, by virtue of its very form, it is bound up with the support of authority. Indeed, he goes so far as to say at one point that narrative history “is, by its very nature, the representational practice best suited to the production of the ‘law-abiding’ citizen” (82), this apparently because it necessarily searches out continuity and wholeness in a subject matter. From an author who concedes that Marx, for example, wrote narrative history, neither the aim nor the actual effect of which was the encouragement of political and social quietism, this is surely a far-fetched judgment, which might have seemed less tempting if the question had been asked: “Continuity and wholeness of what?” But White does not always take the position that narrative is by its very nature conservative in the ordinary political sense of the term. He sometimes contends only that its aim is always to shore up some authority or other: in the case of professional history, perhaps only the authority of the discipline. Since he explicitly links the idea of the political with that of power, and even of force (58–59), he might easily be taken here as having in mind a literally coercive, professional use of narrative paradigms. In a concessive footnote, however, he observes that all this may be interpreted “metaphorically” (225). In the end, not much seems to be left of his stress upon narration as a political enterprise beyond the idea that typical historical narratives express, and thus may help to entrench, the systems of values (conservative or otherwise) held by those who construct them. Why it seemed necessary to make such heavy weather with the idea of “the politics of narrativity” in order finally to make such a widely accepted point is not easy to see.

White is to be admired for the breadth of his interest and for his willingness to range across diverse authors, traditions, and disciplines, driven, it seems, by a genuine belief that something of value may be learned from all of them. Not all those to whom he pays compliment in this way, however, will be satisfied with the use he makes of their work; and analytical philosophers of history, in particular, may well feel that, both on particular points of doctrine and in matters of philosophical technique, White does not always learn from them what they intended to teach. For example, although he gives the impression of wishing to give due consideration to well-known analytical discussions of the logical structure of explanation in history, the view of such explanation which he generally incorporates without argument into his own broader theory of narrative understanding is the crudest version of the nomological theory. To cite a single instance, when he lists what he considers the chief structural features of narrativity, he includes “necessary connection” (6)—as if Morton White's conception of explanatory narrative as, ideally, the tracing of a causal chain had been the only paradigm of connectedness to emerge from four decades of dispute. Those familiar with recent analytical writings on narrative will also be puzzled by the friendliness shown by White towards a retrospective “narratological” (150) idea of causation, derived from Jameson, and discussed as if some such idea were an obvious product of the emphasis placed on hindsight by analytical narrativists like Danto and Mink. The idea of retrospective significance is easy enough to grasp, with its implication that the actual significance of a past event, and not just people's judgments about it, may change with the passage of time. But is White here suggesting that narrative historians should accept the idea of past causal relations similarly changing with time? If so, a good deal more needs to be said about how precisely such an idea can coherently be entertained.

The need for more extensive analysis may also be illustrated by White's claim that a narrative which really conveys understanding must show a story's ending to have been “immanent” (20) in its beginning. If all this means is that a narrative account may, from the outset, draw attention to a significance that events will attain with the passage of time, and which, by courtesy of hindsight, both narrator and reader may know in advance, no objection need be raised beyond impatience with a rather misleading mode of expression. But if it means that a fully satisfactory narrative must represent its beginning in such a way that its ending can be seen to follow from it necessarily, two senses in which an ending may be said to be “necessary” need to be clearly contrasted: that of causal inevitability, given certain antecedent conditions, and that of accomplished and therefore unchangeable fact (even if belonging to a future that is now past). Greater willingness to employ analytical modes of argument might also have discouraged White from claiming that the “ideological” nature of narrative history is to be discovered both by studying what historians have written and by analyzing the character of narrativity. For if its possessing such a nature is a conceptual truth of narratology, what room is there for asking whether it is an empirical fact?

What will give most of White's critics pause, however, is less what he says on such points of detail than the position he appears to take on the central issue of the book. He comes very close indeed to claiming that everything in an historical narrative that goes beyond sheer chronicle (or even, perhaps, beyond the mere statement of discrete facts) is somehow “invented” (ix) by the historian. In resisting such a view, there is no need to argue that, on the contrary, everything is “read off” past reality, veridical narrative simply recording what was originally perceived, as it was perceived, if not by the historian, then at least by the historical agents. Indeed, White himself would seem to concede more to historical realism than he should when, in contrasting full-blown narrative with mere chronicle, he sometimes allows that chronicle, unlike narrative, does convey what is or might have been perceived. Neither in chronicling nor in narrating, however, is it the historian's job to add something invented to something perceived; it is to think about something perceived with a view to discovering forms which it exemplifies. Since there is no analogue of this in the construction of fictional narrative, it is difficult to understand White's insistence that narrative history and fiction can no more be contrasted with respect to their content than they can with respect to their form (27).

In constantly emphasizing the supposedly poetic rather than factual nature of narrative emplotment in history, White seems to want to represent the historical imagination as free—as having “the facts” very much at its disposal. According to him, for example, “any given set of real events can be emplotted in a number of ways,” no sequence of such events “is intrinsically tragic, comic, farcical, and so on” (44). As in previous writings, candor nevertheless forces him to admit that it may not be possible to emplot a given series of events in just any way at all. He even speaks at one point of the need for “testing” emplotments. Without a good deal more on what he thinks such testing would consist in, however, and a much more extensive analysis of narrative form itself than is offered in the present book, White is all too easily read as holding that historians can emplot the past pretty much as they like. They can have better or worse reasons for emplotting as they do, but since these, ex hypothesi, cannot be theoretical reasons, they must be practical, that is, “ideological,” ones. What White offers in the end is a version of the pragmatic theory of history, the awful consequences of which he honestly, if somewhat chillingly, accepts in a remark he makes about a Zionist interpretation of the Holocaust. The truth of such an interpretation, he says, “consists in its effectiveness in justifying a wide range of current Israeli political policies.” Such a reduction of history to the status of political propaganda ought surely to be resisted, no matter how worthy the cause ostensibly served. White's book, for all its many merits, offers too few resources for resisting it.

Dominick LaCapra (review date October 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in American Historical Review, Vol. 93, No. 4, October, 1988, pp. 1007–08.

[In the following review, LaCapra offers a positive assessment of The Content of the Form.]

The present book might be considered the third part of a trilogy whose two earlier installments were Metahistory (1973) and Tropics of Discourse (1978). Metahistory took the form of a systematic treatise that laid down the principles for Hayden White's poetics of historiography. Tropics of Discourse was a collection of essays that played significant variations on those thematic principles. The Content of the Form is another collection of essays in which still further and at times more significant variations are in evidence.

The essay may be the best form with which to investigate the complex, controverted methodological and theoretical bases of historiography. In any case White is clearly a master of this form. In the present collection he examines such important topics as the value of narrativity in the representation of reality, the role of narrative in contemporary historical theory, the political dimensions of historical interpretation, Johann Gustav Droysen's Historik, Michel Foucault's discursive style, Fredric Jameson's Marxist rehabilitation of narrative, Paul Ricoeur's metaphysics of narrativity, and the general issue of method and ideology in intellectual history. The essays, written over the last seven years, have all appeared elsewhere, but it is extremely valuable to have them assembled between the covers of one book. One hopes that a paperback edition will soon appear to make the book more available for use in courses.

Narrative is the obvious leitmotif of these essays, but it is complemented and supplemented by a strong concern for ideological and political dimensions of historical inquiry. White's role has been central in focusing attention on the problem of narrative in historiography and literary criticism, and he has provided one of the most influential and provocative theories of narrative in contemporary thought. It is impossible to do justice to the richness of White's reflections in a short review. I would simply indicate what would seem to be some significant developments or even departures with reference to his earlier views.

In partial contrast to his well-known earlier emphasis on the conditioning if not determining role of tropes, White's recent insistence on the axial role of ideology in the writing of history is especially prominent in his essay on Droysen, which is subtitled “Historical Writing as a Bourgeois Science.” Somewhat ironically, White praises Droysen's Historik as being “unique among nineteenth-century tracts on historical thinking inasmuch as it openly embraces this ideological function as an aim or purpose” (p. 88). The ideological function in question, which “dominant social groups will … favor,” is the fundamentally legitimating one of producing a reading subject who is imbued with the mentality of a “law-abiding” citizen. Thus, White focuses attention on the problem of the kind of reading subject a form of discourse may be argued to produce. Historiography—at least historiography of a conventional sort—is for White particularly adapted to the production of the “law-abiding” citizen “because in its featuring of narrativity as a favored institutional practice, it is especially well suited to the production of notions of continuity, wholeness, closure, and individuality that every ‘civilized’ society wishes to see itself as incarnating, against the chaos of a merely ‘natural’ way of life” (p. 87). When this ideological function becomes covert or is simply institutionalized in the operating assumptions of a profession, it becomes less open to question and more insidious than it was in Droysen. The obvious issue White leaves to his readers is that of the extent to which historiography in our own time embodies the ideological function that he has analyzed with the aid of Louis Althusser's conception of ideology as crucial in the production of a certain kind of society, particularly in and through the role of conventional narrative.

White's discussion of Ricoeur's recent work on narrative may be challenged as an interpretation of Ricoeur. But it is significant for what it indicates about mutations in White's own views. Earlier, White, in rather familiar “existential” terms, conceived of a sharp divide between “life” and “narrative” whereby life itself was considered to be intrinsically chaotic and meaningless while narrative was viewed as a purely fictive reconstruction that endowed life with meaning and value. The historical record was taken to be an unprocessed datum more or less analogous to life itself.

In his discussion of Ricoeur, White emphasizes precisely what diverges from the conception of the relation between life and narrative White himself at one time espoused, and by implication he indicates the general but differential role of ideology as a mediating force. Now narrative codes, which are in White's conception favored conduits for ideology, are seen to be common to both life and discourse, and “actions are in effect lived narrativizations” (p. 54). A focus of attention is “transcoding,” a process whereby overdetermined complexities are introduced into a specific text or artifact. Conversely, a chronicle, which may seem to be close to a mere reflection of the unprocessed documentary record, is itself a product of representational procedures that are now argued to be protonarrative in nature. Hence, White tends to stress the continuity between elements that he earlier saw in terms of a sharp dichotomy. He also becomes more nuanced and more urgent in stressing the role of ideological forces in the way we represent the past. Particularly forceful (and controversial) is “The Politics of Historical Interpretation,” in which he treats the problem of representations of the Holocaust in terms of the role of ideological or political constraints and commitments.

One may argue with certain of White's emphases and specific interpretations. But he has clearly made significant advances in laying a foundation for a better understanding of the intricate interaction between narrative representation and what it purports to represent in both history and literature. Although he may at times both exaggerate the role of the narrative imagination in history and underemphasize the way certain approaches to narrative may contest as well as convey ideologies, White has enabled us to appreciate better not only the significant place narrative indeed has but also the broader network of ideological forces in which it is implicated. More generally, he has helped raise historiography to a point where it may enter more fully as a critical “voice” in the contemporary debate over discursive and interpretive issues of interdisciplinary importance.

Brook Thomas (review date Winter 1989)

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SOURCE: “Narrative Questions,” in Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 22, No. 2, Winter, 1989, pp. 247–49.

[In the following review of The Content of the Form, Thomas finds shortcomings in White's rhetorical style and habit of positing significant questions that he has not fully resolved and cannot adequately answer.]

Although a historian, or perhaps because he is a historian, Hayden White has gained authority with literary critics, especially students of the novel, because his explorations into the relationship between narrative and historical representation have forced them to reconsider traditionally accepted distinctions between literary and historical discourse. Indeed, his work has been most consistently praised for its capacity to force historians and literary scholars alike to consider important questions. The Content of the Form is topical in that it touches on many prominent questions that shape current critical squabbles. The book consists of eight essays, four on specific topics and four on individuals, three contemporary figures (Foucault, Jameson, and Ricoeur) and the nineteenth-century historian Johann Gustav Droysen. White's main concern remains narrative and historical representation, but he also takes up questions about the politics of interpretation, questions about what constitutes a classic in intellectual history, and questions about the relation between text and context. The questions he raises about historiography should speak not only to historians but to those intent on rewriting literary history by making them more self-conscious about their own narrative strategies.

Questions abound in White's work. His answers, unfortunately, are not as satisfactory as we would expect from a scholar with his reputation. I'll focus on one example of interest to readers of Novel. In the essay on Droysen and “The Politics of Historical Interpretation” White provocatively combines a Foucauldian analysis of disciplines with a Barthean notion that realism supports bourgeois ideology in order to link the nineteenth-century's “disciplinization” of historical studies with the rise of realistic discourse. This occurs because “historical reflection is disciplined to understand history in such a way” that “it is removed from any connection with a visionary politics and consigned to a service that will always be antiutopian in nature” (73). Providing “nothing less than an explication of the theoretical principles of bourgeois ideology in its national-industrial phase” (86), Droysen's Historik offers a case study in “realist” ideology.

For Droysen, White argues, history becomes a science when it can produce a “realistic” representation of facts, realism being determined by the “criterion, not of truth, but of plausibility” (93). The realism produced by the disciplinization of history “promotes a feeling of satisfaction for ‘things as they are’ in any given ‘present’ by showing that whatever they are, they have their necessary reasons for being this way and not another” (98). White goes on to declare that “the authority of this model of discourse is surely what underlies the assertions made by a host of nineteenth-century realistic novelists, of which Balzac and Flaubert were foremost, that they were writing ‘history’ in their novels. It was the historical discourse that they emulated that made them ‘realistic’ in their own eyes” (101).

What, then, are we to make of White's argument in the same essay that “Art and literature become ‘revolutionary’ or at least socially threatening, not when they set forth specific doctrines of revolt or depict sympathetically revolutionary subjects, but precisely when they project—as Flaubert did in Madame Bovary—a reading subject alienated from the social system of which the prospective reader is a member” (87)? How can Flaubert be so “revolutionary” when he emulates realism, which according to White is a “writing activity” that engenders a “reading subject who will identify with the moral universe incarnated in ‘the Law'” (86) of bourgeois society?

It is possible to explain this seeming contradiction, but not if one retains White's formalist assumptions that make an inevitable link between realism and bourgeois ideology. Further, White does not even seem aware of the potential contradiction he has raised. For instance, after summarizing Barthes’ argument about realism's ideology, he concludes, “This seems plausible to me” (81), a statement that would seem to undercut itself given White's connection between realism and the criterion of plausibility.

But perhaps I am asking too much. Maybe all we can ask of a critic is that he raise important questions. Indeed, in the last essay of Tropics of Discourse, White distinguishes between Absurdist critics (Foucault, Barthes, Derrida) and Normal critics (most others). His final paragraph lists a series of questions and concludes, “The Absurdist critics ask these questions, and in asking them, put the Normal critics in the position of having to provide answers which they themselves cannot imagine.” In The Content of the Form, the raising of questions becomes part of White's style. Three essays end with questions; three other with implied questions. The humility implied by this rhetoric of questioning is, however, at odds with another noticeable aspect of White's style—a rhetoric of finality. Relentlessly bombarded by “must,” “only,” “always,” “never,” I begin to suspect that all too often White's rhetoric of questioning is actually a device for presenting rhetorical questions. For instance, look at the use of “always” and “finally” in this concluding question: “Is it not possible that the question of narrative in any discussion of historical theory is always finally about the function of the imagination in the production of a specifically human truth” (57)?

I might be nit-picking by looking closely at White's style, but he invites such scrutiny. “No more vexed—and mystifying—notion appears in the theory of historical writing than that of the historian's ‘style'” (227, n. 19). The tension between White's styles of questioning and authoritarian assertion is, I think, a symptom of a historical dilemma facing critics today. On the one hand, we recognize and even celebrate “the death of the great ‘master narratives'” (xi). On the other, we feel compelled to display our mastery over a field of knowledge, in White's case, a mastery over theories of narrative. This need to display mastery over the field of theory, which Paul de Man argued resists such mastery, too often produces awkward moments like the following. “For all of these [Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault]—as well as for Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva—history in general and narrativity specifically were merely representational practices by which society produced a human subject peculiarly adapted to the conditions of life in the modern Rechtsstaat. Their arguments on behalf of this view are too complex to be represented here, but …” (35; my emphasis except for Rechtsstaat).

If the need to assert mastery over the field of theory manifests itself in White's style, the fear of master narratives manifests itself in the form of the book. As is increasingly the case in the field of theory, White's book is a collection of essays. Rather than presenting a sustained elaboration of a central thesis as in Metahistory, White presents us with a variety of attempts to try out ideas. The tentative form of the essay allows White to suggest a number of provocative possibilities. The problem, however, has to do with the tentative nature of the collection as a whole, for it puts on display a critic trying out ideas before he has taken the proper time to integrate them with past assumptions. White's early work drew first upon Northrop Frye and then French semiotics. That influence, especially the latter, remains. As my citations indicate, he seems to share Barthes’ almost anarchistic distrust of narrative. Frequently, we hear about narrative “imposing” a formal coherence on events that are represented as real. But in parts of The Content of the Form White has, belatedly, seriously engaged the competing tradition of phenomenological hermeneutics. He is especially taken with Ricoeur. If in one essay he finds Barthes’ position “plausible,” in another he declares that Ricoeur's “seems right to me” (183). Thus, creeping into White's discourse are phrases that challenge the notion that narrative is merely a code imposing form upon history that may be “meaningless ‘in itself'” (82). Instead, White entertains the possibility that “It is the success of narrative in revealing the meaning, coherence, or significance of events that attests to the legitimacy of its practice in historiography” (54, my emphasis).

From my point of view, White's engagement with Ricoeur is welcome, and I recommend his essay on Ricoeur. What is not welcome is a collection of essays in which the tensions between White's earlier assumptions and what seem to be new ones are merely set before us rather than systematically pursued. My dissatisfaction is reinforced by White's attempt to define a classic in the last essay. Using The Education of Henry Adams as an example, he relies on his earlier semiotic model to declare that for intellectual history a text is important insofar as it “fixes us directly before the process of meaning production” (209). So, whereas some critics have faulted The Education's narrative gaps, its switching of codes, its hesitancies and duplicities, White argues that such “flaws” make it a classic by drawing attention to its own processes of meaning production and making “of these processes its own subject matter, its own ‘content'” (211).

Developed this far, White's definition, which emphasizes the number of a text's codes and levels of encodation (42), reminds me of what a freshman composition student once told me. Having never been taught the notion of a thesis, she had been instructed that the best essay was one that packed in the most ideas. What is missing in White's definition is something to which Henry Adams paid great attention. Conscious of the impossibility of his task—to “mix narrative and didactic purpose and style”—Adams, nonetheless, believed that “the form is never arbitrary” and struggled to get the form of his Education right. That impossible struggle to find the proper form to weave together competing codes has evoked various labels in contemporary criticism. Paul de Man called it “rigor,” Bakhtin the “artistic” rendering of heteroglossia. Without it, The Content of the Form has its share of codes, switching of codes, and gaps, but it will not, I think, despite suggestive moments, achieve classical status.

Richard H. King (review date April 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1, April, 1989, p. 180.

[In the following review, King offers a positive assessment of The Content of the Form.]

Over the last twenty years the philosophy of history has seen a radical shift in focus. No longer is the main point of contention whether history is a science; now it is whether and to what extent history and fiction are more alike than they are different from each other. The person most responsible for this is Hayden White, beginning with his magisterial Metahistory (1974) and continuing in his first collection of essays, Tropics of Discourse (1978).

The Content of the Form also collects essays written by White since the appearance of Tropics and it also takes as its concern the problem of history's relationship on the one hand to “reality” and on the other hand to “fictionality.” But if not an entirely new departure, it represents a narrowing of focus and a fresh emphasis on White's part. Put succinctly, White has moved away from his elaborate and sometimes too schematic categorizations of tropes, plots, ideological positions and world-views and now emphasizes the act/fact of narrativity in history and implicitly all non-fiction. Secondly, his most powerful essays in The Content of the Form address the question of the political and social, i.e. ideological, implications of the act of constructing narratives altogether. Indeed, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” and “The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation” are “masterful” in the genuine meaning of that term. They demand reading—and rereading—not because one agrees with everything White offers, but because he has a knack for asking the profoundly right question and raising the cogent issue.

Shorn of all qualification, White's position seems to be grounded in the following claims. First, contrary to Paul Ricoeur's work, to which White devotes a careful and respectful essay, White claims that we construct narratives for rather than finding them in events. Secondly, a given political and social order is maintained precisely by being narrativized. Indeed, it is from within a dominant narrative that we acquire the form of “individual” subjectivity needed to maintain that order. Narratives do not reflect reality so much as they establish the condition of its possibility. Finally, though less clearly, White seems to share what is ultimately a Romantic view that it is art rather than science or history that “instantiates the human capacity for imagining a better world”—a view congenial to followers of the Frankfurt School and in a strange way to the American New Critics as well.

White's work can be challenged on many points but this book confirms that it should not be ignored, particularly by historians.

Pamela McCallum (review date Summer 1989)

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SOURCE: “Narrative and History,” in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 538–39.

[In the following review, McCallum offers a positive assessment of The Content of the Form.]

No one who has read Hayden White's two previous books—Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe and Tropics of Discourse—can doubt his contribution to the reconceptualization of history. In Metahistory White drew on the formulations of narrative tropes in the literary theories of Northrop Frye and Kenneth Burke to examine the discursive strategies which underpinned a series of nineteenth-century histories by such divergent writers as Carlyle, Michelet, Marx, and Ranke. Tropics of Discourse expanded and extended these investigations into an engagement with the post-structuralist theories of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. White's new book, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, brings together a number of essays which are generally thematized around the problem of narrativity in the writing of history. It both re-engages his previous work and takes up the ongoing debates about the status of historical discourse.

According to White, the study of historiographical narration is a particularly crucial area for investigation because the writing of history will inevitably generate tension or conflict between the imaginative coherence of the storytelling form and the disparate fragmentation of historical contingencies. ‘It is here,’ he comments, ‘that our desire for the imaginary, the possible, must contest with the imperatives of the real, the actual.’ Thus, for White, these tensions can be located in even such rudimentary forms of historical narration as The Annals of St. Gall, an account of the eighth century. To a modern reader the annalist's cryptic notions of a world of scarcity, floods, famine, wars—‘Hard year and deficient in crops’ is the entry for 710—seem hardly to comprise a narration of history. No connections are drawn, no explanations given, no characters delineated. However, in White's analysis, the coherence of the narrative inheres in the succession of dates: the list of the years, anno domini, designates, over and against the earthly world of deprivation, a time filled with the promise of Christ's second coming. The narrative which White discovers within The Annals of St. Gall is the conflict between the suffering of life on earth (the ‘events’ recorded by the annalist) and the promise of spiritual fulfilment (the ‘desire’ implied by anno domini).

Seen in this way, there can be no resolution between the narrative which the historian creates and the occurrences which are narrated. As White puts it in a striking formulation, ‘this value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary.’ The content, then, will always exist in, at best, an uneasy compromise with the form. Indeed, in White's view, the ideology of nineteenth-century historiography is to be situated in the refusal to acknowledge such a gap, in the claim that narrativity is implicit in both events and discourse. He therefore welcomes the increasing self-consciousness about the ‘tissue of ambiguities and equivocations’ in which history and its narration are inevitably entangled. The Content of the Form offers no solution but rather tries to think through the implications of the various discursive strategies presented by narratives of history.

One of the most suggestive and intriguing chapters of the book is White's analysis of Fredric Jameson's provocative study, The Political Unconscious. As he views it, Jameson's book (and, indeed, the whole of his oeuvre) is an attempt to restore to Marxism the utopian vision which had been gradually eroded by the pressures towards more ‘scientific’ and ‘economistic’ theories in the twentieth century. What The Political Unconscious emphasizes is the secret longing for a collective, transindividual moment which lies inscribed in the unconscious of narrative. In such a formulation, Jameson can be seen to articulate a contradiction between narrative and history that is strikingly similar to the tensions White describes in the opening chapters of The Content of the Form: narrative is a space in which human desire for a coherence or plenitude, for an imaginative resistance to the contingencies of history, can be constructed and represented. It may be that White's reading of Jameson places too much stress on the visionary, utopian dimension of his thought. For it seems to me that Jameson, like the annalist of St Gall, has always been all too aware of history's ‘force of circumstance’ which limits and restricts human desire. Still here, as elsewhere throughout The Content of the Form, White offers insightful reflections on the problems of narration and history. Those readers who are already familiar with his writings will welcome the opportunity to engage the essays presented here; others will find it a useful introduction to what is unquestionably a significant body of work in contemporary narrative theory.

Terry Engebretsen (review date Fall 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of The Content of the Form, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 377–79.

[In the following positive review, Engebretsen summarizes White's theoretical analysis and assertions in The Content of the Form. ]

The eight essays in this book will be familiar to White's readers, since all have appeared previously. Together, however, they provide more than a convenient collection of White's recent writing; they continue the argument developed in Tropics of Discourse and applied so successfully in Metahistory that history (and the human sciences generally) is thoroughly rhetorical. Rather than stylistic embellishment, the rhetorical code we employ is indistinguishable from our interpretation of events. But these essays focus the issues more particularly. The typologies of trope, emplotment, argument, and ideology from the earlier works here give way to the argument that “narrative, far from being merely a form of discourse that can be filled with different contents … already possesses a content prior to any given actualization of it in speech or writing.” That prior content turns out to be ideological. White quotes Hegel approvingly on the connections between politics and nineteenth-century narrative history: “It is the state that first presents a subject matter that not only is adapted to the prose of history but involves the production of such history in the very progress of its own being.” These essays illustrate the connection between narrative history and ideology—particularly nineteenth-century bourgeois ideology—and also examine the role of narrative and ideology in the work of three major contemporary theorists.

The first three essays in the collection demonstrate the political significance of narrative in the writing of history. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” examines the biases that have led modern historians to treat both annals and chronicles as deficient, pre-historical forms of historical writing because they fail to achieve narrativity. White argues that both annals and chronicles reflect radically different world views from the world view shaping nineteenth-century historiography. The reason historians have not detected the “plot” in the annals or chronicles is that neither form focuses on the growth and development of the state. In the annals the mysterious forces of nature, the droughts, the floods, the harvests, count for as much as foreign invasions and the deaths of princes. Only the orderly march of years gives the annals coherence, and only Christ's return at the end of time can provide closure for the annalist. The chronicles, in which events are given a clear plot, fail to provide narrative closure because they fail to provide a moral judgment on the events. Only narrative history, with the state as its reference point, gives narrative closure to the events.

Though earlier historical writing has been judged deficient in so far as it lacks narrativity, the status of narrative in contemporary historiography is by no means clear. In “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” White traces the outlines of the debate. Members of the Annales school reject narrative—seen as novelistic, dramatizing and, therefore, pre-scientific—for the “scientific” analysis of long-range political, demographic, and economic trends. Semiotic theorists see narrative as merely one code among a number of possible codes that might be deployed in a discourse. Analytical philosophers, especially Paul Ricoeur, have sought to establish the “epistemic” value of narrative. Questions about the role of narrative in historical studies may be, White notes, “about the function of imagination in the production of a specifically human truth.” For White, narrative is a source of legitimate knowledge of the world.

But if narrative is a source of knowledge, it is not a neutral source. In “The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation,” White demonstrates the specific ideological content of historical narrative and the role of narrative in allowing history to achieve the status of a discipline. The discipline of history arose to assess the claims of radical and reactionary ideologies by evaluating the philosophies of history that justified them. First, however, history had to separate from rhetoric since, as a branch of rhetoric, history could be made to bear any interpretation wit could devise. To effect this separation, historians imposed stylistic limitations on the imagination: the aesthetic of the sublime was excluded in favor of the aesthetic of the beautiful. Narrative eliminated the mysterious and the uncontrollable from history. Since, White argues, utopian ideologies of both the left and right require a sublime view of history, the disciplinization of history had already neutralized them; sublime interpretations appear unrealistic, and “realistic” interpretations are anti-utopian. Even Marxism, so far as it relies on an understandable, orderly philosophy of history, is no more utopian than its bourgeois counterpart.

Having clearly established the epistemological value and ideological content of the narrative form, White turns, in the next four essays, to theorists who confront the problem of narrative in history. The article on Droysen continues the argument advanced in the previous essay by providing a careful analysis of the theory of historical practice Droysen offered in Historik (1858). Alone among the great nineteenth-century theorists, Droysen argued that historical writing not only constructed the historical record but also was shaped profoundly by present concerns. More important, Droysen's analysis of historical narrative led him to recognize that historical discourse served an ideological function, inserting “readers within the circle of moral conceptions” that impelled them “to affirm this circle of moral conceptions as the reality that they could offend only at the risk of their ‘humanity.’”

For contemporary theorists whose political purposes are at odds with bourgeois values, the theory and practice of narrative history have once again become a problem. White begins his discussion of the problem of narrative in contemporary theory with an essay on Foucault. “Foucault's Discourse” provides a companion piece to White's earlier essay on Foucault, “Foucault Decoded: Notes from Underground.” In that earlier essay, White analyzed Foucault's characterization of the four epistèmes. Each epistème can, White shows, be characterized by one dominant tropological strategy, and the development from the seventeenth century (a development characterized by a series of ruptures rather than by smooth progress) as a move from metaphor, through metonymy and synecdoche, to irony. In the essay included here, White analyzes the figurative strategy that characterizes Foucault's own discourse. Rather than emplotting his histories as conventional narratives, Foucault structures his discourse by catachresis. This analysis of Foucault's style is important for two reasons. First, the style is intimately related to the stories Foucault's histories present. Second, style is the only ground of authority that Foucault has not rejected, according to White.

“Getting Out of History: Jameson's Redemption of Narrative” demonstrates how Jameson's analysis of narrativity, together with the interpretative model he proposed in “On Interpretation,” the introduction to The Political Unconscious, help to heal the split in Marxist theory between the scientific Marxists, whose goal is to explain history, and the visionary Marxists, whose concern is to transform the future. As scientific Marxism has gained the ascendancy, the utopian side of Marxism has been left to artists and critics. But scientific history can only illuminate the necessity that governs the present. Narrative returns to history its utopian and moral power by adding to mechanical causation another level of causation—the present as fulfillment of the potential of the past and as potential for future fulfillment. In addition, by relating events to the larger master narrative (in this case, the Marxist philosophy of history), narrative endows history with moral meaning as part of the struggle to wrest a realm of freedom from the realm of necessity. The breakdown of narrative, then, signals a culture's exhaustion, its attempt to repress politics. White admires Jameson's theory and his “strong” readings of texts charting the decline of the bourgeois world view, yet White questions Jameson's master narrative. The Marxist narrative provides a way into history (from false history to a true one). But the history Jameson recommends, and the return to politics it implies, may, White suggests, be outdated. Rather than returning to narrative history and politics, we may need to escape from them. Narrative history and classical, bourgeois politics are still intimately connected, and perhaps both need to be transcended.

The essays on major theorists culminate in White's essay on Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative. Ricoeur's “magisterial” work provides the first theory of historical narrative that takes into account the variety and complexity of narrative while providing a detailed argument for the epistemological value of narrative. For Ricoeur, narrative is a “true allegory” of temporality. Human intentionality causes individuals to strive to give their lives meaning by giving them the coherence of a plot, and the historian's narrative is meaningful because it mirrors the productive activity of human agents. In this respect it is different from fictional narrative which is the product of “imaginative freedom.” But all narrative, both historical and fictional, reflects the human experience of temporality and symbolically suggests that the human experience of time is essentially tragic. Eventually, as his plan for the work demonstrates, Ricoeur will go on to argue that historical narrative provides an allegory of “deep temporality,” our experience of the link between death and eternity.

The collection's final essay can be seen as a practical application of the arguments developed earlier in the work, although this essay deals less explicitly than the others with the problems of narrative. In this essay White demonstrates how a semiotic reading of the codes and the code shifts within a text provides one way of handling the major methodological problems in intellectual history. Currently, intellectual history is beset by three interrelated theoretical problems: the breakdown of the text-context relationship, the breakdown of the distinction between the classic and the merely documentary text, and the breakdown of the distinction between the transparent and the ideological text. Using as an example The Education of Henry Adams, White suggests the ways a careful semiotic reading can illuminate the text and then argues that this careful semiotic analysis provides a response to the methodological problems he has outlined. The classic text continues to fascinate us because it shows clearly the human attempt to produce meaning. And by focusing on the use of semiotic codes and code shifts within the text's narrative, White argues that the historical and ideological contexts are made a part of the text.

Individually, the eight essays in this book offer much to the reader: analyses of major theorists like Jameson and Ricoeur, a perceptive reading of The Education of Henry Adams, and insights into the history of narrative in historical writing. Together they build a convincing argument that narrative history (as well as the rejection of narrative in historical writing) is ideological; the choice to emplot an historical account as a narrative becomes itself a significant part of the content of the historical interpretation. Once again, White has convincingly demonstrated the connection between contemporary theory and historical practice, reminding his readers that the structure and style of the historian are not neutral vehicles for conveying an objective content. The Content of the Form makes an important contribution to contemporary historiography. Even readers unwilling to accept White's central argument should find this work well worth reading.

Ann Rigney (review date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “Narrativity and Historical Representation,” in Poetics Today, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 591–605.

[In the following excerpt, Rigney examines questions of narrativity in The Content of the Form and concludes that White's historiographic interpretation does not sustain a persuasive argument.]

In an exuberant passage written in 1966, Roland Barthes celebrated the universality of narrative (le récit). Narrative may be manifested in any number of different forms, he wrote, and may be communicated through any number of different media (film, painting, theatre), but it is to be found in every culture, at every period, in every place: “international, transhistorique, transculturel, le récit est là, comme la vie” (1977 [1966]: 8). The recognition that “narrative” is a cultural phenomenon extending far beyond the realm of literary genres opens up exciting prospects for narratological exploration. But the price of such narratological expansionism may be a corresponding difficulty in defining the specific object of study. If narrative is as pervasive as human life itself, then where does one draw the line between what belongs to the phenomenon “narrative” and what does not? …

Hayden White, author of Metahistory, 1973, and Tropics of Discourse (1978), is the theorist who has done more, perhaps, than anyone else within the English-speaking world to stimulate the narrativist recognition that historical representation, since it takes place through language, is always a semiotic activity and not merely a reproductive one (see Ankersmit 1986). With the Rankean myth as his principal opponent, he has argued forcefully and successfully that historical works are not mirrors held up to reality, but “verbal artifacts” which generate new meanings (White 1978: 122). A key figure bridging two disciplines, White has helped to open up history-writing as a field of discursive studies. At the same time, he has undoubtedly played an important role in what Berkhofer (1988) calls the “challenge of poetics to (normal) historical practice,” contributing to the greater awareness shown by present-day historians of language's role in the writing of history and in the constitution of the primary record (see, e.g., LaCapra 1985; Struever 1985).

Central to White's approach to historical works as “verbal artifacts” is his controversial claim in Metahistory that historical interpretation is always “tropologically” grounded in one of the four principal tropes (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, or irony). But another important aspect of his approach is its concern with the semiotic function of narrative structures or, more precisely, of “modes of emplotment.” White has argued that nineteenth-century historians, in representing chronologically related events, gave them the aspect of stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, and furthermore, shaped them into one of the four master plots which, according to Frye, are dominant in our literary culture (tragedy, comedy, romance, satire). It is this question of narrative form which has taken center stage in White's most recent collection of essays: The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation.

The eight essays making up this collection reflect the evolution in White's thinking over the past ten years and his response to theoretical developments in both historiography and literary studies. Some of the essays are reviews of particular works (e.g., Ricoeur's Temps et récit, 1983–85, or Jameson's The Political Unconscious, 1981); others take the form of a critical introduction to a particular theorist (e.g., Droysen or Foucault) or to a theoretical debate (“The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory”); still others are original discussions of particular theoretical issues (“The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” and “The Politics of Historical Interpretation”). The dialogic form of many of the essays makes it difficult to disentangle White's own standpoint from that of the other theorists whose work he is considering, and not much has been done to streamline the different essays for republication in book form. As a result, it is difficult to outline a single argument or thesis in the book as a whole, and the reader is sometimes left to struggle with shifts of terminology and perspective.

But what undoubtedly links the different essays together is a recurring concern with the nature and, above all, the ideological function of narrative form in the representation of historical processes. As White explains in his preface, he starts from the fact that historical works are “semiological apparatuses” (p. x) and that narrative representation offers particular means for the production of meaning. He goes on to suggest, furthermore, that narrative offers a particularly effective means for the production of ideology; in other words, that when narrative is used in the writing of history, it is not only a way to produce meaning of a specifically social kind, but it also has a particular rhetorical force that guarantees the individual subject's acceptance of that meaning. It is this specifically ideological function of narrative which White sets out to investigate under the umbrella title, “the content of the form” (p. xi). Adapting Althusser's definition of ideology and invoking the authority of semiological theories of discourse (especially Kristeva's), White proposes that narrative is

a particularly effective system of discursive meaning production by which individuals can be taught to live a distinctively “imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence,” that is to say, an unreal but meaningful relation to the social formations in which they are indentured to live out their lives and realize their destinies as social subjects.

(P. x)

In thus proposing that there is a privileged link between the use of narrative in historical representation and the production of ideology, White places enormous weight on the “content of the form” of narrative communication. As initially formulated in the preface, then, his proposal raises a number of related questions to which the rest of the book could be expected to provide an answer: (1) How does narrative in general, and historical narrative in particular, function as a system of meaning production? (2) If narrative is a “particularly effective means” for the production of ideology, then how is this effect to be explained, that is, on the basis of its subject matter, the form of the content, the form of the representation, or a combination of all of these? (3) To what extent is this effect endemic to the use of narrative as such, or to what extent is it bound up with the application of narrative conventions to the representation of real events of collective significance? (4) Are all narrative histories necessarily effective in the same way or to the same extent? (5) If so, then what alternatives, if any, are open to historians?

Echoing a number of other theorists (notably, Mink 1978), White insists that events in themselves are “meaningless” and without structure, that they “do not offer themselves as stories” (p. 4) which naturally form coherent, temporal wholes with a beginning, middle, and end. Instead, he argues, the same set of events may be emplotted in any number of ways, depending on the repertoire of story types available to the historian (p. 44). If a partnership between “narrative” and “historiography” is inevitable, then, this cannot be due to the “story-like” nature of the events which are the historian's object; any such partnership would seem to spring from the conventions of historiographical discourse or from what White sees as our natural “impulse to narrate” (p. 1). Yet, if we have a natural impulse to narrate, the evidence presented by White also suggests that this narrative impulse has not always been exercised in relation to real events or put to the service of the historiographical function (a function which White, along with Ricoeur, seems to link to our making sense of temporality). For, in the opening essay, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” some alternative modes for making sense of temporal experience are considered: namely, the annals and chronicles which preceded the development of modern narrative history (“history proper”). In the same essay and in the following one, White also briefly refers to certain modern historians and modern “annalists” who have looked for other alternatives and “refused narrative” (p. 2).

Although White thus seems to suggest that alternatives to narrative were possible in the past and are theoretically possible in the future, he is generally not very clear on the real nature of the choices open to the historian. And at least part of the problem lies in the uncertainty surrounding White's central category, “narrative.” As White uses it, the term's meaning seems to range from the very general and inclusive to the very specific: from meaning production in general (“a refusal of narrative indicates an absence or refusal of meaning itself” [p. 2]), to the representation of a well-made story (see p. 24), to the representation of a well-made story emplotted according to one of the master plots or story types (see p. 44). The uncertainties surrounding the term “narrative” can perhaps best be illustrated by his treatment of those historians who “refused” narrative:

Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Huizinga, and Braudel, to mention only the most notable masters of modern historiography, refused narrative in certain of their historiographical works, presumably on the assumption that the meaning of the events with which they wished to deal did not lend itself to representation in the narrative mode. They refused to tell a story about the past, or rather, they did not tell a story with well-marked beginning, middle, and end phases; they did not impose upon the processes that interested them the form that we normally associate with storytelling. While they certainly narrated their accounts of the reality that they perceived, or thought they perceived, to exist within or behind the evidence they had examined, they did not narrativize that reality, did not impose upon it the form of a story. And their example permits us to distinguish between a historical discourse that narrates and a discourse that narrativizes, between a discourse that openly adopts a perspective that looks out on the world and reports it and a discourse that feigns to make the world speak itself and speak itself as a story.

(p. 2)

What are the defining boundaries of “narrative” here? Although Tocqueville et al. are introduced as examples of those who rejected “narrative,” the actual object of their refusal—and hence the nature of narrative—becomes less and less clear in the subsequent elaboration of this idea. In refusing narrative, these historians refused “to tell a story” or, more specifically, to tell “a story with well-marked beginning, middle, and end.” In fact, White goes on, they did “narrate,” but they did not “narrativize”; that is to say, they did not feign “to make the world speak itself and speak itself as a story.” The conclusion which this passage suggests to me is that if all historical representations are narratives, then some are more narrative than others; in other words, that the “narrativity” of certain texts might be conceived of in quantitative terms according to the degree to which they are dominated by those features considered typical of fully formed “narrativizing” narratives: a well-made story (i.e., a set of closely connected events forming a temporal whole with a well-marked beginning and end), presented as if “telling itself” without the mediation of a retrospective narrator. White himself, however, does not explicitly draw these conclusions, with the result that his discussion leaves those historical works which do not tend towards a maximum degree of narrativity hanging in a sort of theoretical limbo, between narrative and non-narrative. Leaving Tocqueville et al. on the periphery of his discussion, White's general consideration of historical representation is centered on the way historians have catered to our persistent desire to have real events seem to take the form of stories: “to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary” (p. 24). This desire, he suggests, was institutionalized in the ideals of nineteenth-century professional historiography, where a maximum degree of narrativity came to function paradoxically as a sign of the realism of a representation and of the “discipline” of the historian; where narrative order served to reassure the public and distract it from the sublime contemplation of historical meaninglessness.

By insisting that events are in reality meaningless, White stimulates reflection on the means through which events can actually be invested with an imaginary coherence. How is the desire to have real events display coherence, integrity, and closure actually realized in the practice of representation? The coherence is “put there by narrative techniques,” White writes (p. 21), pointing the way toward research into how those narrative techniques function in practice. (It would also be interesting to know the extent to which the choice of topic is important in this production of coherence.) White's argument further stimulates reflection on the question of whether real events can ever actually be invested with the same degree of developmental coherence that we are accustomed to find in the imaginary events of fictional narratives, at least of the traditional kind. White himself acknowledges the fact that the historian, unlike the fiction writer, is constrained by his claim to speak with the “authority of reality itself” (p. 20); yet his general treatment of narrative representation leaves one with the impression that the historian can quite freely impose his own structure on events, without much resistance either from the events themselves or from rival historians. At one point, he does make the interesting suggestion that historians “test” historical reality against the ability of traditional plot genres to give form to them (p. 44), but he does not elaborate on the way in which this “testing” is actually perceptible in the final communicative product or “semiological apparatus.”

In practice, White's primary concerns are less with the specific discursive means through which real events are invested with coherence and meaning for a reader than with the ideological and rhetorical function of that coherence once it has been achieved or approximated. In addressing this topic, White takes into account not only the specificity of historical discourse as a representation of real (vs. imaginary) events, but also its socializing function as a representation of the collective heritage, however broadly or narrowly defined: “our history.” His discussion of Droysen's Historik is of particular interest in this regard, in that it shows a nineteenth-century historian self-consciously reflecting on the socializing function of historical representation and its role in the education of citizens. That historical representation does fulfill an important socializing function has been recognized by other theorists (Lübbe 1979; De Certeau 1982: 23; Rüsen 1987: 89); the originality of White's contribution lies in his attempt to link this socializing function to the narrativity of the representation: more precisely, to what he sees as narrative's moralizing function and its rhetorical appeal.

Provocatively reinterpreting a traditional issue in historiography, White explains the emergence of “proper” narrative history from annals and chronicles not as a function of an increasingly complex awareness of time (Topolski 1987), or as a topological change (Scholes and Kellogg 1966: 210f.), but as a function of the development of both the modern state and the belief in the existence of a central collective subject with a continuous past, present, and future. But why should this ideological change have led to the adoption of narrative? In a leap-frogging argument (which he himself presents more as “an enabling presupposition” than as something verifiable or falsifiable [p. 13]), White suggests (a) that the choice of narrative form for the representation of collective history was motivated by the need to resolve disputes over authority within the state, since (b) it may be impossible to separate narrative from questions of legitimacy: “The reality that lends itself to narrative representation is the conflict between desire and the law. Where there is no rule of law, there can be neither a subject nor the kind of event that lends itself to narrative representation” (pp. 12–13).

This sweeping historical hypothesis implies a definition of narrative according to the nature of its story content (the conflict between desire and law) and not merely according to the form of its content (a coherent set of events with a beginning and an end). And it is on the basis of this story content that White goes on to propose that the desire to narrativize in history-writing stems from the desire to “moralize” reality, “that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine” (p. 14). The rhetorical appeal of narrativized/moralized reality is then explained by reference to its formal coherence and closure: we are willing to participate as social beings in a reality which seems so ordered.

All of this is highly suggestive, but also highly generalized and abstract, more thought provoking than actually persuasive. What precisely are we to understand, for example, by narrative “closure” and by the “moralization of reality”? To be sure, a historical narrative could close with the resolution of a conflict and the establishment of a new moral order; but a narrative “closure” might also signal the tragic failure of a particular moral order to come to power. And in that case, the narrative resolution could presumably lead to a sense of dissatisfaction with the actual course of events rather than to a willingness to participate in the “coherent” moral order which they established. In other words, White's “enabling presupposition” would need to be followed up by a more detailed consideration of the different possible relations of continuity and/or discontinuity between the past reality that is represented and the present social realities to which the historian's reading public belongs. A useful starting point here might be Jörn Rüsen's (1987) typology of historical narratives (traditional, exemplary, critical, genetical), classified according to the way they function in constituting latter-day social identities and in upholding or criticizing the existing order.

In considering the “appeal” of narrativity in historical representation, White refers almost exclusively to the imaginary coherence with which events are invested. This seems an overly formalistic approach—an impression reinforced by his assertion that a reader will have grasped the meaning of a historical narrative when s/he recognizes the genre to which its plot belongs (p. 43). Although coherence and approximation to literary models may indeed be appealing to the reader of a historical work, it would be interesting to consider other possible explanations for the rhetorical force of narrative representations. Narrativity, for example, may facilitate persuasion by encouraging a reader to suspend his or her critical disbelief in expectation of a story's outcome; or, if indeed narrative always involves a conflict between desire and law, it may also provoke the reader's empathy with particular actorial subjects. Turning away from the question of narrative form as such, it would also be interesting to consider the appeal of other aspects of historical representation—its aura of authenticity, for example. The fact that it focuses on the everyday life of “real-life” individuals is surely one of the reasons for the popular success of a work like Montaillou, where otherwise the story line is not very dominant and where the presence of the latter-day narrator is foregrounded (see Ankersmit 1989: 30–35; Bann 1981: 381–82).

The Content of the Form explores the seductions of narrativity for historians and their public and, in doing so, points to the social stakes involved in our understanding of the forms and functions of narrative. But, even more immediately, White's work points to the need to clarify the basic concepts on which such an understanding can be based. Do all representations of “sequences of nonrandomly connected events” involve the production of “well-made stories” or of “plots”? Do all plots involve a conflict between desire and law, or, to recall Scholes, do they involve issues of human value? Do all plots fit into one of four types? Or do all of the above simply represent features which are characteristic of fully formed narratives, but which may or may not be exploited in particular instances? If White is correct in attributing so much power to narrative, then it becomes all the more urgent to understand its particular semiotic mechanisms. In that way, we could also more clearly identify its limits and hence the nature of the choices open to the historian.

To write a history is necessarily to produce meaning: events may be meaningless, but a “meaningless” historical representation is a contradiction in terms. In their production of meaning, however, have historians no option but to feign “to make the world … speak itself as a story”? Although White explores the seductions of narrativity in historical representation, he is much less clear or assertive about the critical alternatives to it: his work is modelled on nineteenth-century historiography and tends to consider modern experiments negatively in terms of a refusal or a failure to narrativize reality. Yet, recent historiographical practices (and eighteenth-century ones) show that it is in fact possible to write histories with a lesser degree of narrativity, histories which may engage the critical faculties of the reader and not merely appeal to an uncritical desire for imaginary coherence.


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———. The Reality Effect in the Writing of History: The Dynamics of Historiographical Topology (Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen) 1989.

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Barthes, Roland, et al. “Introduction à l'analyse structurale des récits,” in Poétique du récit, 7–57 (Paris: Seuil) 1977 [1966].

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Chatman, Seymour. “What Novels Can Do That Films Can't (and Vice Versa),” in On Narrative, edited by W. J. T. Mitchell, 117–36 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1981.

De Certeau, Michel. “L'Histoire, science et fiction,” in La Philosophie de l'histoire et la pratique historienne d'aujourd'hui/Philosophy of History and Contemporary Historiography, edited by David Carr et al., 19–39 (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press) 1982.

Furet, François. L'Atelier de l'histoire (Paris: Flammarion) 1982.

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Lübbe, Hermann. “Zur Identitätspräsentationsfunktion der Historie,” in Identität, edited by O. Marquard and K. Stierle, 277–92. Poetik und Hermeneutik 8 (Munich: Wilhelm Fink) 1979.

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———. Semiotics and Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press) 1982.

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L. B. Cebik (essay date Spring 1992)

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SOURCE: “Fiction and History: A Common Core?,” in International Studies in Philosophy, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 47–63

[In the following essay, Cebik examines the philosophical basis for conflating historical writing and literary fiction, as suggested by White's theoretical model of historical discourse and typological schema.]

In the last decade, a fad has swept across philosophic discussion of narrative discourse. In boldest terms, the fad consists of treating historical and fictional narrative on a par. Each has equal standing before the bar of human knowledge; each has equal if not identical epistemic standing.

The fad has many roots. Deconstruction's casual dismissal of the text releases every set of narrative sentences for subjective interpretation by the reader, making every act of reading one of artistic creation also. Ricoeur attempted to show the “precedence of our narrative understanding in the epistemological order” in his reconstruction of narrative into a metaphysics of time.1 Whether or not he merely follows the leads of the structuralistic movement or responds to a longer standing impulse stemming from Bergson we may leave to another day's speculation.


In this country, the chief proponent of equating historical and fictional narrative has been Hayden White, the father of a significant school of vociferous offspring. Relying upon the same structuralistic heritage as Ricoeur and the deconstructionists, e.g., Jakobson, Halle, Levi-Strauss, and Lacan, White reaches in his own style the same result. This result has not been overtly intentional, since White has placed numerous disclaimers into his essays. In the Metahistory, White separates fiction from history via the inability to distinguish in fiction between chronicle and story, a fundamental distinction for White in history. Oddly, this distinction appears in merely a footnote.2 In Tropics of Discourse, White elevates the distinction to a place in the text.3

Still, the basic thrust of White's efforts rests on a willful insistence upon treating the historical text as a literary artifact and as that alone.4 He dismisses differences in a sentence, e.g., “I wish to grant at the outset that historical events differ from fictional events in the ways that it has been conventional to characterize their differences since Aristotle.”5 Having granted this much, White then proceeds to his main thesis, one underlying the earlier Metahistory and the later essays as well:

Viewed simply as verbal artifacts histories and novels are indistinguishable from one another. We cannot easily distinguish between them on formal grounds unless we approach them with specific preconceptions about the kinds of truths that each is supposed to deal in. But the aim of the writer of a novel must be the same as that of a writer of a history. Both wish to provide a verbal image of “reality.”6

This little passage contains a good bit of mischief. On the surface, we find a claim of total indistinguishability immediately qualified by a disclaimer that the distinction is simply not easily made. More significantly, we encounter seemingly illicit activities contained in trying to distinguish between novels and histories: namely, that we must approach them with certain preconceptions.

Disregarding for the moment White's view of the type of preconceptions with which we must approach histories and novels, we can surely ask whether the need to approach such narratives with preconceptions is illicit or inappropriate in any way. Bruce Waters long ago wrestled with similar questions, writing before the ascendancy of the structuralists and their jargon, but after the ascendancy of the positivists and their jargon. He concluded that “It is possible [by political and other means] completely to fictionize history,” for example, to make Sartoris rather than Forrest the Confederate cavalry leader at Shiloh. “In history,” wrote Waters, “we can never get beyond assent.”7 Therefore, to see history as in principle different from fiction is to come to history with something in mind: for Waters, a theory or philosophy of history, for White a preconception.

We may grant that both White and Waters have recognized the rapids of having both fiction and history in the mainstream of narrative discourse. Because they are indistinguishable as verbally and visually similar linguistic products, only our approach to a given product makes the difference between them. Indeed, it is not implausible to suggest that at root we do not discover that a work is fiction or that it is history; instead, we decide that question as we approach a work. A book's dust cover may in some cases prompt us. In other cases, we may scrutinize the contents and compare them with much that we learn from other sources. The decision is not arbitrary; neither is it always easy. However, a preponderance of evidence may compel a certain decision. The evidence that a work is history, however, is not identical with the evidence for the history it contains. In the former case, we are deciding between two categorizations for a narrative; in the latter, we are determining the truth or falseness of the history's statements (among other matters).

However we come to decide whether a work is history or fiction, we decide much more than a label. We decide in fact the entire cluster of questions we can pose to the narrative. Some questions we may ask of both fictional and historical narratives. Is it well written? What metaphors occur? Does the narrative hang together with proper connectives? Other questions befit one or the other but not both types of narratives. As Macdonald noted in the 60s, “nothing can count as evidence in favor of a fictional story. And what no fact can confirm none can disconfirm, either.”8 Therefore, confirmation of the events of the story is an illicit question to pose to fictional narratives, although it remains central to history. In contrast, we may ask whether the characters of a novel achieve verisimilitude, although the same question put to a history would likely only hide an ironic criticism.

Given this much alone, we are in a position to question the next step of White's argument, namely that we approach fictional and historical narratives with specific preconceptions about the kinds of truths in which each is supposed to deal. In The Content of the Form, White tried to do away with this part of his formula by transferring his focus from truth to reality. Real events “offered as the proper content of historical discourse” are real “not because they occurred but because, first, they were remembered and, second, they are capable of finding a place in a chronologically ordered sequence.” Fiction, by contrast, has no chronology (or was not remembered) and is thus incapable of yielding both a chronological and a narrative version of the same set of events.9

This evasive maneuver, fueled by the time-worn appeal to a chronology and to memory, allows Waters’ potential falsification of history to alter reality. However, the point has seeming weight only so far as we exclude the possibility of there being evidence for the occurrence of events, along with methods for the evaluation of evidence. To date, Collingwood has perhaps explicated best the relationship of questions, evidence, and answers.10 Claims as to the reality of events are, of course, no more than claims to the effect that they occurred, claims requiring (upon demand or dispute) an array of acceptable evidence. Histories, therefore, necessarily deal in questions of truths, however difficult they may be to answer satisfactorily.

In contrast, fictional sentences necessarily presuppose truths, but not as questions.11 Fictional sentences have sense just because they are instances of generalizations whose truth is not in question relative to the fictional text. Thus, for history it is correct to say that it should deal in truth, where “should” indicates that there is an activity to perform. We cannot say the same for fiction, for its relationship to truth is not an activity, in just the manner that presupposing is not an action, but a logical condition of action.

To be involved in or with truth is not at all the same as being involved in the production of “a verbal image of ‘reality.’” In fact, it is questionable whether the writer of history or the writer of fiction can be correctly described as providing a verbal image at all, let alone one of reality. Certainly, it is hardly ever if at all the intention of either kind of writer to provide verbal images except as matters of style enter into their project. Either may say or think, one imagines, that a writer wishes to choose precisely the right words to create a vivid and unforgettable image of what they are presenting. But that is but one possible thought among many. Their respective projects are not limited by style or to style. White's description of creating a narrative would, by contrast, precisely limit both tasks to matters of style.

The history writer reports, records, interprets and argues, among other things. The story he tells, if he chooses to tell what he tells as a story, is not an image of reality; it is reality. In so far as we are dealing here not with an artifact, but with a human activity, the historian tells us not an image of what happened, but simply what happened. The fiction writer creates his characters and his story. Whether either constitutes a reality is one of the writer's options. Likewise, that we take his work as an image of reality—or of unreality—is one of our options as readers. We may argue with a historian. We may also willfully refuse to believe him or her. But we do not have such options with the fiction writer, even though he or she may write with varying degrees of believability. Moreover, a historian who writes what we take to be unbelievable is not a bad stylist or bad storyteller; he or she has said something we cannot accept as true.

Any accurate description, then, of either history or of fiction cannot survive solely at the level of the literary artifact. This conclusion does not deny any of the stylistic or rhetorical facets White has found in 19th century histories. Instead it affirms that these facets are just that: facets and not the entirety of the work. History cannot be taken as solely a literary artifact except as philosophy or metahistory may restrict themselves to ignorance. The ignorance is not merely whether certain historical facts, findings, and techniques are correct. There must also be ignorance of whether we may have history at all. Then, and only then, would it be the case that we merely tell stories, we merely narrate, and this just to impress at one or another level the hearer or reader.

Both history and fiction, as narratives in a world that recognizes both kinds, are complexes of activities that defy on pain of senseless distortion such restrictive description. As such, they require treatment as activities, not as a collection of literary artifacts. Perhaps the structuralist and post-structuralist turn of thought has failed to realize what other philosophical approaches to language have realized for decades: language is not everything, and language artifacts are even less.


To take White to task so for his excesses would seem almost fatuous, for he is easy pickings in the stream of counterargument. After all, he is predominantly a historian and not a philosopher given to care in phrasing arguments. Excepting his influence, all this analysis would be otiose did it not reveal a worthier thesis to examine, one presupposed by the passage in question. If history and fiction as literary artifacts are indistinguishable, if they purport to present verbal images of “reality,” and if they have equal epistemic status, why the reduction of history to fiction rather than an equivalent reduction of fiction to history?

White explained the direction of his choice in the Preface to Metahistory and has not changed his central view since:

… I have been forced to postulate a deep level of consciousness on which a historical thinker chooses conceptual strategies by which to explain or represent his data. On this level, I believe, the historian performs an essentially poetic act, in which he prefigures the historical field and constitutes it as a domain upon which to bring to bear the specific theories he will use to explain “what is really happening” in it.

White expands this theme by noting that the prefigurative act is poetic because it is precognitive and precritical in the historian's consciousness, because it is constitutive of the structure of the emergent history, and because it is constitutive of the concepts used to identify objects and relationships.12 The most interesting question here is where we may root the idea that such prefiguring is in fact a poetic act. The answer—or an answer—lies in White's adoption of a Nietzschean perspective.

Nietzsche is neither the ultimate nor the proximate source of White's poetization of narrative prefiguration. The idea grows throughout the 19th century, with roots in both German and English Romanticism. Closer to White, as he generously recounts in an extensive footnote, Jakobson, Benveniste, and others collapse distinctions that would leave poetry distinguished from other rhetorical modes of discourse under a unifying collection of “poetic tropes.”13 Neither ultimate nor proximate, Nietzsche nevertheless serves as a focal source. He enunciates a view which—as interpreted by White and others—captures the core of the thesis in question. If Nietzsche is wrong, then so too are his followers and successors who would subsume the epistemic under the artistic or aesthetic.

White's analysis of Nietzsche in the Metahistory indeed foretells much of his own perspective on history. White sees Nietzsche has having changed the linguistic rules of the historiographic game through a critique of its artistic component. The goal is for history to become once more an art.14

To Nietzsche the form, meaning, and content of all science and all religion were aesthetic in origin, products of a human need to flee from reality into a dream, to impose order on experience in the absence of any substantive meaning or content. He held all “truths” to be perversions of the original aesthetic impulse …15

What is needed by Nietzsche, as filtered through the eyes of White, is an art aware of its metaphysical purpose, which is not to imitate nature, but to supplement it and overcome it.16 Even the impulse behind philosophy is an aesthetic one; that is, it has its origins in the desire to impose form on the world.17

Where White draws a line distinguishing himself from Nietzsche is in the German's attempt to release aesthetic sensibility from morality and wed it to the will. Thereby, claims White, we turn “life itself away from that knowledge of the world without which it cannot produce anything of practical benefit to anyone.”18 Instead, White envisions historians freed to conceptualize history “in whatever modality of consciousness is most consistent with their own moral and aesthetic aspirations.”19 However, if the foundation of all constructs, including historical constructs, is aesthetic, then moral freedom and whimsy are indistinguishable. Moreover, if the motivation for dream creation is escape from reality, then all histories are rebellious or revolutionary in the senses developed by Camus in The Rebel, or they are mere fantasies. Despite these consequences, White views without variance the construction of prefiguring conceptual structures for historical narratives as sheerly aesthetic, poetic, artistic: a function of some deeper consciousness of the historian.

Calling the prefiguring of narrative structure a function of a deeper consciousness presents problems of its own. As literary artifacts, histories (and narrative fictions) have structures of event presentation and connection that we may say the narrative presupposes. But as earlier noted, presuppositions are logical conditions of making sense; they are not necessarily the product of conscious (or unconscious) effort. Only if, like Nietzsche, we view them as functions of will do we make them products of individual thought and activity. It is in this context that Nietzsche posed the following question: “Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?”20 From here it is an easy step to the declaration that “the falseness of a judgment is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgment. …21

As a figure of speech, Nietzsche's counterpoise of “untruth” to “truth” might be interpreted as merely neutralizing the entire category of “truth” from applicability to foundational preconceptions. If this is all Nietzsche is after, then the point is unexceptionable. For Nietzsche to be wrong, we must take his remarks very literally, so literally that epistemic consequences flow from his remarks. White reads him just this way.

However, prefiguring or imposing form upon nature or history occurs at a level that logically precedes the actual investigation of nature or history. The level is indicated in the mode of criticism White applies to it: it results in benefit or detriment for humankind or human individuals. There are no methods of investigation, no possible evidence to tell us that a given formulation is true or false. If “truth” applies at all, it is at best in the Heideggerian sense of truths of Alethera, which have no opposition of falsity.

What Nietzsche—and Heidegger, for that matter—are wrestling with here is a way to formulate the notion of fundamental constructs that inform perception itself, let alone description and explanation. Depending upon whom one reads, we have greater or lesser freedom in creating these constructs. For the problem at hand, the philosophic difficulty stems from calling these constructs art. They are not fictions in the way that a novel about outer space or dragons is a fiction. They are not stories just to the degree they may be able to establish and limit the shape stories may have. They are not poetry just to the degree that they defy being set aside like poetry. They are not truth, untruth, or falseness just to the degree they may determine what propositions can possibly qualify as being true or false.

In short, preconceptual constructions of this order are and can be neither art nor nonart: they logically precede the distinction. Nietzsche's and White's importation of the language of art, the aesthetic, and rhetoric to this level of preconceptual construction is as misleading as Heidegger's attempt to preserve the language of truth within the same arena. Preconceptual constructions are neither truth nor untruth, neither fictions nor nonfictions. If in fact Nietzsche viewed them as art, then he was as trapped in his own metaphor as all those who have followed him, White included.

Dropping the terms “art,” “aesthetic,” and “poetry” from the category labels for preconceptual constructs carries with it the elision of innumerable implications drawn almost strictly from those terms. The reality-forming function of such constructs does not carry over into fictional narratives just because they also happen to be artistic fictions. The question of whether novels or other narrative fictions have any necessary reality-forming functions remains open to be settled on its own ground.

Likewise, the question of history's epistemic status remains its own and not tied to the fortunes of fictional narrative. It is neither prima facie true nor reflectively evident that “the aim of the writer of a novel must be the same as that of a writer of a history.”22 The respective aims of each type of writer may be—and usually are—as complex as the particular projects which engage them. All that remains true of both of them is that they employ narrative.

The ultimate confusion, common to White and Ricoeur, that produces a morass of misconception lies in thinking that all elements of narrative form are preconceptual constructions. Constructions many may be, but hardly preconceptual. What is preconceptual—or more correctly presupposed by any narrative construction—is narrative discourse and its requirements for simultaneous temporal and content relations built into sentential structures. To say this, however, is no more than to say that the logic of narrative discourse is presupposed by any actual narrative discourse.

In contrast, to the very extent that we can analyze narrative forms into rhetorical types—whether or not we agree with White's particular list—we can also consciously and rationally choose the rhetorical form for our narrative. That possibility makes the selection of rhetorical form, if not purposive, at least functional.

Functionality subjects rhetorical form to criteria, not of truth, but of evaluation and judgment. We may evaluate a narrative form relative to its content as effective, adequate, complete, and cogent to any degree from negligibly to wholly so. We may judge narrative forms as good or bad, as right or wrong for us as individuals, as communities, as a people. What we can choose, evaluate, and judge according to function we can also teach others how to use. Choosing a narrative form, then, is not either preconceptual or aesthetic in the requisite sense precisely because it is functional and therefore can be purposive.

Indeed, White's Nietzsche can call the imposition of order aesthetic in origin only if he can postulate a prearticulate—and indeed, prenarrative—activity of conjuring informed worlds. Although Nietzsche's attempt to relate Homeric epic poetry to dreaming suggests that at least early on he may have believed such a view,23 it explains virtually nothing in narrative literature. As Macdonald noted, “Like the content of dreams, the objects of fiction may presuppose, but do not compete with, those of ordinary life. Unlike those of dreams, however, they are deliberately contrived.”24 Not only may the objects of fiction be deliberately contrived, so too may be the rhetorical structures. Contrarily, the impulse to dream, to order reality in sleep pleasantly or otherwise, is not aesthetic. It simply is, if it is an impulse at all.25

More recently, White has tried to avoid the language he coined in Metahistory, opting instead to “dissolve the distinction between realistic and fictional discourses” by dropping ontological presumptions about their respective “referents.” White now prefers to adhere to the body of semiological theory that encloses language within a “systematic substitution of signifieds (conceptual contents),” thereby yielding a “system of meaning production” so that individuals can live in an imaginary—an “unreal but meaningful”—relation to “their real conditions of existence.”26 No less self-contradictory than his earlier formulations—in this case, with respect to whatever may be real—White's new foundational statement simply transfers the problem of vacuous contrast to different terms.

First, it will not do to substitute “realistic” for “historical” in naming types of discourse, since the realistic is the feigned, and this label prejudices the case before any justification for the label begins. Second, and more significantly, terms like “imaginary” and “unreal” become as illicit as the term “aesthetic.” A theory that eliminates any possible justification for calling something real equally loses reason for terming anything unreal. Likewise, without grounds for determining that something is nonimaginary, we cannot warrant any claim that something is imaginary. Meaningful relations “to social formations” generally require that we be able to sort out, however imperfectly, the erroneous from the correct, the real from the feigned, the natural from the imaginary. Thus, White's socialized individuals either live inherently meaningless lives or the terms of the theory carry nothing of their everyday content into their theoretic employment. At the theoretic or foundational level, activity is no more imaginary than it is aesthetic or poetic.

In the end, White's three reasons for labeling so-called prefigurative acts poetic turn out to be reasons for nothing at all. To the degree that such acts are preconceptual—constitutive of concepts used to identify objects and relationships—they can be neither conscious nor aesthetic, and to the degree they are aesthetic, they cannot be preconceptual. Even if some aspects of the imposition of rhetorical form are also constitutive of the emergent history, the process is one of overt selection and not precognitive constitution: it is a thoroughly conscious, functional, and often purposeful act. At this level, White's four quartets of historical rhetoric reduce to a simple heuristic typology, useful but devoid of profound theory.


The fad of equating history and fiction as rhetorical and therefore artistic, poetic, or imaginative enterprises flounders upon the simple bad habit of tossing everything not susceptible of truth into the barrel of art and the barrenness of the aesthetic. That practice only gives art and the aesthetic a bad name, if not a like smell. The number of things and activities unrelated to truth is legion. Most are not art. Most are not metaphysical. Most are important, or at least interesting. Some are useful to boot. The rhetoric of narrative falls somewhere within the latter categories on this list.

Free of the bias to split our world into things susceptible of truth and those not susceptible of truth, we may take a quite different view of the various ways of looking at narrative. The following outline represents one sort of prolegomena to future narrative theory. It is not the only sort; rather, this particular outline serves the present purpose of trying better to understand the role of the preconceptual and the presuppositional in several of the facets of narrative. To that end, we may employ the language of types, perhaps even of Weberian ideal types.

Initially, we may constitute fiction and history as two types along a continuum of types in a methodological typing of narratives. Within the methodological typing of narrative arise many of the considerations regarding truth that we have had occasion to note in reviewing White's conflation of the rhetorical and the epistemic. However, methodology includes many more problems: for example, the nature and justification of historical constructs and the nature and use of conceptual evidence in history and in fiction.27 The huge range of historical constructs from the level of the assertion of the ordinary facts to the level of what Ankersmit calls narratios begs for a common methodological language that transcends the simple idea of true statements and leans more toward Dewey's notion of warranted assertability.28 Similarly, the question of “conceptual evidence,” a phrase coined by Danto, is only partially concerned with the truth of our claims; it is equally, if not more significantly, concerned with the use of such evidence in both history and fiction.29

By treating paradigmatic history and paradigmatic fiction as types on a continuum, we achieve the ability to eliminate false methodological problems occasioned by mixed types. Historical fiction, such as War and Peace, and fictionalized history, such as I, Claudius have proper places on the continuum. We cannot view them merely as extensions of fiction on the simplistic grounds that they employ the findings of history and contribute nothing to the ongoing doing of history. Indeed, writing such an intermediate type of work may involve doing history as much as it involves the creation of a fiction. Only a superiority complex that might deny merit to the contributions made by amateur and local historians would also deny the label of doing history to certain activities of those we call novelists. Methodologically, such disputes are irrelevant.

As noted earlier, the methodological distinction between history and fiction consists in the collection of sensible questions we may bring to the work—either as an activity in which we are engaged or as a product which we read. Collingwood noticed that, although we may raise questions about certain questions in the course of questioning (relative presuppositions), questioning others (absolute presuppositions) ends the inquiry by putting its sense in jeopardy.30 The decision to treat a work as history or as fiction can be conscious and for reason, but relative to that decision, the collection of questions constituting historical and literary inquiries is presupposed as one condition of making the decision sensible, as an absolute presupposition of the decision. Only in the process of actual inquiry may we sensibly question the questions we put to history or to fiction, for only then have we the possible means of answering them in terms of better questions for which we can have evidence. We still have far to go in sorting out the methodological presuppositions of narrative.

One advantage of calling this typology methodological rather than epistemic is that the label places questions of truth and knowledge within the framework of the activities that go into producing historical and fictional narratives. Giving priority to questions of truth and knowledge, on the other hand, has often bent the practices of both history and fiction to the requirements of a preset theory. Thus arose the unnecessary concerns for history's inability to meet correspondence requirements for truth and equally otiose concerns that somehow fictional narrative might be a form of lying. Many such spurious anxieties disappear when one gives priority to the nature of the activity.

We may also typologically distinguish argumentative forms of narrative or arguments within narrative, as most notably did Dray.31 The argumentative typology treats the narrative as a vehicle of explanation. Dray inherited the attempt to transform all written history into disguised or overt attempts to explain why events occurred by subsuming them under general laws, however loosely or probabilistically they might be formulated. His rejoinder, often misinterpreted as an anti-covering-law bias, was to expand the number of types of explanations making use of the narrative form.

Among Dray's types were explanations showing the rationale of actions, explanations showing how events could have occurred contrary to first appearance, and explanations of what events were or amounted to as an exercise in “colligation.” Passmore expanded the list of explanatory types—at least for “everyday life”—and argued that such explanatory types occurred in history more usually than covering law explanations.32 The function of an explanation, on Passmore's ordinary language account, is to clear up a puzzlement. An explanation can only occur, therefore, if a puzzlement—a question of a certain order—preexists the account, and the account succeeds if the puzzlement disappears. The type of explanation required corresponds to the nature of the puzzlement involved.

At first sight, any explanatory typology seems fit only for historical narratives. First, as Collingwood and many others have noted, history begins with questions—at least one, but usually more. History answers questions—puzzlements, if one likes—by adducing evidence from among the relics of the past. Second, the requisite puzzlement presumes logically that one already knows something of what happened, enough to raise the puzzle in the first place. Indeed, philosophical questions concerning explanation have largely focused upon the presuppositions of historical explanations and the situations that call for an explanation of one sort or another.

First sight yields an illusion. Historical narrative is not the narrative of historians, but any narrative utilizing the methods of question, evidence, and answer to settle puzzlements. When a Sidney Sheldon apprentices himself for three years to learn the life and ways of Italian sculptors in preparation for his novel on Michelangelo, his efforts constitute an explanatory investigation (within limitations of sculpting in the modern era) to answer the puzzle of what life would have been like for the Renaissance artist. How Sheldon presented his findings departs from the norm for historical writings, but then his work never pretended unto Library of Congress cataloging with history books.

Likewise, we may mistakenly treat mixed narratives as excessively historical. Many early readers of Malraux's La condition humaine treated the work as principally historical, down to the existence of his characters. Only later did we discover that Malraux's involvement in Chinese revolutionary movements in the 1920s did not extend to the details of the Shanghai insurrection: he had not even visited the city when he wrote the novel. The historicity of a novel's details is open to questions for which evidence may permit an answer. Malraux's novel, so it turns out, was not a historical explanation for the insurrection's failure. Nonetheless it may well be an explanation of the mentalities of revolutionaries.

Besides showing the relevance of explanatory types throughout the methodological spectrum, the examples also demonstrate the distinction between typologies. Although there may be no absolute separation between the methodological and explanatory typologies, one may deal with explanatory types without necessarily addressing matters of methodology or of rhetoric. Moreover, truth is significant only within certain types of explanations: it fails to be a fundamental concern or presupposition of explanatory narrative in general. The criteria for explanations include accuracy, adequacy, and relevance; and truth is but a part of one of them (accuracy).33 The consequences of the explanatory typology thus do not compete with those of methodology.


We may also, as did White, distinguish rhetorical types among narratives without ever invoking the distinction between history and fiction. We may overlook that distinction simply because the typology we are addressing is not methodological. As was the case with the explanatory typology, a rhetorical typology does not compete with the methodological.

White wishes to think, however, that the rhetorical typology competes with the explanatory. He characterizes emplotment, formal argument, and ideological implication as modes of “explanation.” It turns out, nonetheless, that emplotment simply identifies “a story of a particular kind.”34 Argumentation consists not in actual modes of argumentation, but favoring certain sorts of narrative connectives among the many sorts to be found. Indeed, only White's mechanistic (cause-effect), organicist (teleological), and contextualist (colligatory) modes specify types of connectives. If no one type dominates over others, White calls the work “formist.”35 Dray and others have enumerated far more connectives than White envisions, and the formist catch-all cannot do justice to them.

Ideological implication, to the degree that it is ideological, also fails to meet the explanatory requirement of answering to a puzzlement. In fact, a narrative (or other piece of writing) becomes ideological only after any puzzles have been solved. White's own account of Marx's “grammar” illustrates the point unambiguously. If Marx had a puzzle about the nature of human existence, then—according to White—he solved it out of pieces that were not historical. Rather, they were elements of the human condition: “the impulse to satisfy needs,” “the capacity to reproduce,” and “the constitution of modes of production.”36 Only thereafter does White's Marx write his “histories” through these principles. His histories show these principles in action: the essence of ideological writing or, less kindly, propaganda.

None of these criticism invalidate White's categories as rhetorical types. They only reduce their scope from an overarching and all-encompassing theory of historical and fictional narrative to simply one among many typologies applicable to narrative. Whether the well-worn derivative quartet of category quartets provides the best set of ideal types for the analysis of rhetorical functions is open to question, just as are the types within the other typologies.

Without the excess baggage of preconceptual and precritical deep poetic consciousness at work, the rhetorical typology has some promise of showing what is presupposed by each identifiable type. Rhetoric's constitutive function of concept selection with respect to object identity and relationship characterization does not require appeal to poetry.37 Instead, it requires attention—as noted earlier—to function, purpose, and achievement.

Moreover, not everything constitutive is either preconceptual or presuppositional. Some constitutive matters concern simply the formative rules of an enterprise.38 Unlike formal games, such as baseball and chess, many human activities have no rule books. Nonetheless, we can explicate rules that govern activities, or as Rawls calls them, practices. Indeed, without the practice of baseball, one may throw a ball, run, etc., but one may not balk or steal a base.39 The act of stealing a base or balking presupposes the rules that constitute the practice (or game) of baseball, but the game or practice does not presuppose a particular set of rules. To enter the game is to enter the rule-governed practice which, in part, gives sense to the very language within which we describe objects, events, and relations. Just as we may consciously and for reason decide to enter a game of baseball, so we may consciously and for reason enter into the task of creating a tragic, mechanistic, radical narrative (even if we do not know these particular type-words).

What gives the enterprise an air of unconscious (or deep conscious) choice is that on occasion, we may give this aspect of the work no thought at all. We just write our narrative and the result turns out to be tragic, mechanistic, and radical. No recourse to hidden consciousness is required by such situations. Such narratives may emerge because over the directions that each category represents, they are the only directions one has habitually used, that one has been taught, or that one knows. Alternatively, the subject matter itself might suggest them, or our theoretical commitments might dictate them.

In what sense, then, do the rules of rhetoric prefigure the resultant narrative? Were all narratives the consequence of active, rational, strategic decisions, then prefiguration would constitute a temporal term. Since they are not, White resorts to an appeal to the deep consciousness of the narrativist to perform a poetic act. Of course, no act at all is required (even if one may on occasion be performed because such an act is possible). Rather, the elements of prefiguration are no more than the rules presupposed by the nature of the particular type of narrative one writes, that is, the rules regarding emplotment, preferred connective, and (if any) ideological implication. Whether we intend to write or have already written a narrative showing how past events led up to the present situation, the rules specify the use of narrative connectives such as “cause-effect,” “forcing,” “influencing,” “prompting,” “reacting to,” and a host of others.40

To the degree that we can adduce and formulate the rules for making narratives with certain functions, we cannot classify such rules as preconceptual, but only as presupposed. The preconceptual indicates a level of formative operation that determines the logic of concepts and conceptions. To see with Marx the human being or human society as essentially economic alters what it is to be human and social. Any analysis of the change presumes (or discovers) a premarxian concept of what is human and what is social and also tracks the alterations necessitated by Marx's works (and by postmarxian writings as well). Such an analysis may be historical in the sense of tracing the significant changes in the ways in which we use these concepts and find them meaningful before and after Marx. Equally, such an analysis in the heat of debating Marx may also serve to provide reasons for favoring adoption or rejection of the proposed changes. Sometimes we make changes in concepts by working out the implications of proposals that do not seem initially conceptual, as in the continuing western social unrest that accompanies the development of what follows from declaring all men or humans to be equal. As well, we emplace such changes through convincing rhetoric, the sanction of “science,” and the refusal to consider any other foundational principles, as did Marx in his writings and debates. 1989 events in China suggest that we may even enforce a narrative account by social ad baculum measures. To the degree that any such account may include conceptual proposals, an enforced proposal may revise the very way in which we conceive experience itself. Missionaries backed by soldiers showed remarkable success in making for some the inconceivable believable.


What emerges most clearly from this examination of narrativist fallacies is that, contrary to White, the prefiguring of a narrative is not a matter of deep consciousness or even unconsciousness. Nor is it necessarily a poetic act—nor even an act. Shaping a narrative may be simply (but not merely) the process of making strategic decisions about choosing the narrative form that will best accomplish the purpose of the narrative. Whether or not chosen, the very act of writing a narrative presupposes (within the rhetorical typology) rules of emplotment, connection, and implication. Except for cases of conceptual or conceptualization proposals, none of this activity need occur at a preconceptual level.

If anything, structuralist linguistics obscures the merits of the rhetorical typology by shifting attention to unnecessary special appeals. We gain nothing in appreciating the artistry of Michelet by subsuming all of history under the aesthetic. Perhaps we may even lose a good bit, as we confuse the power to convince readers alogically, i.e., rhetorically, with the aesthetic, which includes much that is mundane and not designed to convince. As with history, only the rarest of art has ever succeeded in altering the way that even some people see and experience the world.

Moreover, tropic theory and typology has and requires other than artistic or aesthetic grounds for determining the success of its ventures, especially in the realm of tracking the history of literary and historical styles. Nothing in linguistic theory can decide among the various typological foundations for portraying the sweep and shifts of style, foundations which include Jakobson's diadic metaphoric-metonymic poles, White's more kantian preference for quartets, or Brady's more hegelian triadic and dialectical scheme.41 Independently of each other, White and Brady adopt their larger collections of basic tropes for their power to overcome anomalies of fit created by a mere dualism. Contrary to normal applications of fundamental theory, structuralist poetics and philosophy of history find that the successful fit of tropic categories with the facts of literary and historical style (respectively) provides the criteria for selecting and evaluating theoretic foundations.

In the end, one common core to history and to fiction, as they are often but not exclusively written, is narrative discourse. Without recourse to confusions between history and fiction, especially with respect to their epistemic status, the typologies suggested here largely correct some of the errors inherent in White's misentropic treatment of narrative's rhetoric. One fears, however, that fads of theory—like common colds—run their course in their own time. The best cure may not be therapy but patience.


  1. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. 2, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1985, p. 7. See White's appreciation of Ricoeur in his essay “The Metaphysics of Narrativity” in The Content of the Form, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 169–184.

  2. Hayden White, Metahistory, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973, p. 6.

  3. Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, p. 82.

  4. Ibid., pp. 81–100.

  5. Ibid., p. 121.

  6. Ibid., p. 122.

  7. Bruce Waters, “The Past and the Historical Past,” The Journal of Philosophy 52, 1955, pp. 266–269.

  8. Margaret Macdonald, “The Language of Fiction,” in Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics, ed. F. Tillman and S. Cahn, New York, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1969, p. 622.

  9. White, The Content of the Form, p. 20.

  10. See my “Collingwood: Action, Re-enactment, and Evidence,” The Philosophical Forum, 2, 1970, pp. 68–89, for a review of Collingwood's ruminations on questions, evidence, and answers in history.

  11. See my Fictional Narrative and Truth, Lanham, MD, University Press of America, 1984, especially pp. 111–126.

  12. White, Metahistory, p. x. See also White's more extensive remarks on pp. 30–31.

  13. Ibid., pp. 31–33, n. 13.

  14. Ibid., pp. 277 and 279.

  15. Ibid., p. 332.

  16. Ibid., p. 343.

  17. Ibid., p. 368.

  18. Ibid., p. 374.

  19. Ibid., p. 434.

  20. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. W. Kaufmann, New York, Vintage Books, 1966, Paragraph 1.

  21. Ibid., Para. 4.

  22. White, Tropics of Discourse, p. 122.

  23. For example see Nietzsche's remark, “At this stage artistic urges are satisfied directly, on the one hand through the imagery of dreams. … ; on the other hand, through an ecstatic reality …” The Birth of Tragedy, trans. F. Golffing, Garden City, NY, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956, p. 24.

  24. Macdonald, “The Language of Fiction,” p. 625. White's own attempt to deal with differences between everyday or historical treatments of objects and stories and of fictional counterparts is too weak to require noting within the text. He bases his remarks on the distinction between a historian “finding” stories and a fiction writer “inventing” stories. Then he notes how much “invention” plays a role in the historian's attempt to tell a story. If one begins with a silly distinction, such as that between finding and inventing, of course the result can get no further. Metahistory, pp. 6–7.

  25. Curiously, for White's Nietzsche (although perhaps not Nietzsche's Nietzsche), the dream urge is functional (“a human need to flee from reality”) and not free. And freedom from function remained to Nietzsche's day a prerequisite for the artistic and the aesthetic.

  26. White, The Content of the Form, p. x.

  27. For remarks on the former problem, see my “Understanding Narrative Theory,” History and Theory, 25, 1986, pp. 65–70; and on the latter question, see Fictional Narrative and Truth, pp. 116–119.

  28. See John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1938, pp. 3–22.

  29. Arthur Danto, Analytical Philosophy of History, Cambridge, The University Press, 1965), pp. 122–123.

  30. R. G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1940, p. 31. See also my Concepts, Events, and History, Washington, D.C., The University Press of America, 1978, pp. 87–88.

  31. See William Dray, Laws and Explanation in History, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1957, especially Chapters V and VI, as well as Chapter 2 of his Philosophy of History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, 1964, for a summary of his work to 1964. Note his remarks on explanatory and descriptive histories, pp. 29–32, and compare them to Frank Ankersmit's idea of a narratio in Narrative Logic, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1983. See also Dray's “Colligation Under Appropriate Conceptions” in Substance and Form in History, ed. L. Pompa and W. Dray, Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh Press, 1981, pp. 156–170.

  32. John Passmore, “Explanations in Everyday Life, in Science, and in History,” in Studies in the Philosophy of History, ed. G. Nadel, New York, Harper and Row, Publishers, 1965, pp. 17–18.

  33. Michael Scriven, “Truisms as the Grounds for Historical Explanations,” in Theories of History, ed. P. Gardiner, New York, The Free Press, 1959, p. 446. Accuracy involves many things in addition to truth.

  34. Metahistory, p. 12.

  35. Ibid., pp. 14–21.

  36. Ibid., pp. 297–299.

  37. Ibid., p. 31.

  38. The notion of constitutive rules, of course, owes to the work of Rawls, “Two Concepts of Rules,” The Philosophical Review, 64 (1955), pp. 25–29) and Searle (“How to Derive ‘Ought’ from ‘Is',” The Philosophical Review, 73 1964, pp. 55–56).

  39. Rawls, “Two Concepts of Rules,” p. 25.

  40. Mercifully, the rhetoricians of history do not, as did the covering law theorists, try to reduce all narrative connections to causes and effects. Unmercifully, they subject us to the monotony of metonymy.

  41. Compare the justifications for altering Jakobson's dualism in White, Ibid., pp. 32–33 (plus the preceding pages devoted to quartets of differing levels of “explanatory affect.”) and in Patrick Brady, Structuralist Perspectives in Criticism of Fiction. Berne, Peter Lang, 1978, pp. 105–106. Despite their interests in differing literatures and centuries, the explanation for differences between the White and Brady schemes lie elsewhere. Whether or not White's more synchronic orientation toward the 19th century as a sort of unit and Brady's diachronic interests in the movements within 18th century literature hold the key to their respective kantian and hegelian perspectives is beyond the scope of this essay to decide. However, it is of interest to note that Brady does not reject the Jakobson dualism for the purposes of criticizing individual works, but only for the sake of placing the Rococo (contra Durand) between Baroque Classicism and Romanticism in a temporal schema of “affirmation/negation/reversal.” Compare Ibid., pp. 100–101.

Wulf Kansteiner (essay date October 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10827

SOURCE: “Hayden White's Critique of the Writing of History,” in History and Theory, Vol. 32, No. 3, October, 1993, pp. 273–95.

[In the following essay, Kansteiner examines the development of White's theoretical perspective, methodology, and postulations in Metahistory, Tropics of Discourse, and The Content of the Form, while discussing the critical reception of White's work among historians and literary theorists. ]


Recently, in the pages of this journal, F. R. Ankersmit has developed a postmodernist perspective on the writing of history.1 He argues that history always displays some postmodern characteristics because it is based on unsolvable paradoxes. Despite the claim to one single truth, historical writing only arises from the competition between different versions of the past which are simultaneously supported and called into question by “the other” within the same discipline. Ankersmit also holds that the traditional dichotomy of language versus reality has become untenable. Language has acquired the same opacity as objects in reality which themselves have become more and more language-like. Because of this convergence, historiography assumes a fundamentally aesthetic character based on the interplay between different codes “which nowhere intersect the domain of the past.”2 For Ankersmit, Hayden White is the foremost advocate and self-reflexive practitioner of postmodern historiography.

The enthusiasm with which critics like Ankersmit and Linda Hutcheon welcome the advent of postmodern historiography in White's writing has remained in stark contrast to the determined criticism his approach has received from many historians, most recently from Carlo Ginzburg.3 Ginzburg argues that White's work suffers from a debilitating moral dilemma caused by the conflation of the categories of historical truth and political effectiveness. He holds that because of his relativist position White is forced to sanction any historical representation as truthful which legitimizes favored political positions regardless of its factual accuracy. For Ginzburg, White's arguments echo the ruthless pragmatics of fascist politics; they deprive him of any recourse to the rules of evidence as safeguards against distortions of the past, fascist or otherwise. Against White's methodological skepticism Ginzburg insists that the referential dimension of historiographical discourse can be brought under control through diligent textual criticism. “Evidence,” he writes, “could be compared to a distorted glass.” Therefore, “the analysis of its inherent distortions (the codes according to which it has been constructed and/or it must be perceived)” can yield an accurate historical reconstruction.4

To my mind both approaches miss the focal point of White's work. Ginzburg's fails to differentiate between moral and epistemological relativism, and it simplifies the complex processes which take part in the production of narrative history. At least in contemporary history there exists a considerable indeterminacy between different types of historical knowledge, a widely agreed upon repertoire of factual knowledge on the one hand and different narrative accounts written from incompatible theoretical and political positions on the other. But Ginzburg and others have pointed to an important practical problem which White cannot solve: How can we write history successfully, for example, effectively displace unwanted emplotments of the past, without recourse to the concept of historical truth?

Ankersmit, on the other hand, has mistakenly counted White among the postmodern critics. At least until recently White's has remained a structuralist project, the displacement of meaning from the level of referentiality to a level of secondary signification, in this case the underlying narrative structures of historical discourse. As a comparison, and especially in order to illustrate this last point, I will first analyze Barthes's critique of historical discourse. Subsequently, I will trace the development of Hayden White's theory of historical writing from the publication of Metahistory (1973) to the present.5 In addition to a detailed critique I offer an outline of the reception of his work among historians and literary critics. Both groups have responded to and influenced White's interdisciplinary project. Finally, in the last part of the paper I focus on the question of the historiographical representation of Nazism which White has recently addressed and which allows clarification of some shortcomings in his approach.


In his essay “The Discourse of History” published in 1967, Barthes offers a structuralist critique of the representational strategies which sustain the illusion of a direct link between past reality and its historiographical representation.6 Barthes argues that the transparency effect is primarily based on the absence of any signs of the author in the text. Thus the textual form appears to be immediately related to the extradiscursive referent. This impersonal style diverts attention from the limits of the specific textual perspective and produces the paradox that the historical fact which exists only as discourse is treated as a phenomenon of the nondiscursive domain of the real. For Barthes, historical narratives are merely imaginary elaborations, webs of signifiers and signifieds projected onto the referent, the structures of which move between the two possible extremes of metaphorical and metonymic style.7

On the basis of this critique Barthes urges us to rethink the relationship between fiction and history. Both forms of discourse are affected by what he termed on another occasion the “totalitarian ideology of the referent.”8 He strives to keep the discursive and non-discursive strictly apart and therefore welcomes a development in fiction which repositions the agent of writing and expands the discursive space at the expense of the illusory instance of realistic representation. He relates this form of what he calls “intransitive writing” to modernist fiction which has reintroduced the question of language as a literary topic and by implication exposed the illusions and conventions of historical writing.9

At the beginning of the 1970s Barthes radicalized his position with regard to the possibility of a systematic study of language. The turning point is commonly associated with the publication of S/Z which helped to undermine the structuralist project that Barthes himself had originally helped to define.10 Barthes tries to show now that an analysis of literary and historiographical texts would reveal the multiple codes involved in their construction; each transcription, presented in the respective metalanguage of rhetoric, linguistics, hermeneutics, and so on, contains its own conceptual framework that enables and authorizes a specific approach. Thus any interpretation implies a process of infinite regress which, with each step, presents another discursive form but never pinpoints a final content (signified), let alone a distinct referent. Moreover, due to the reversal of conceptual content and discursive form with each translation, it is impossible consistently to differentiate between systems of form and systems of content.11

The poststructuralist turn in Barthes's thinking was superseded by a return to questions of the constitution of the subject and referentiality in language and photography in light of the earlier structuralist and poststructuralist approaches. In The Pleasure of the Text Barthes tries to think towards a materialist account of reading which privileges the body as an authentic resonance board of experience, discursive and non-discursive alike.12 Finally, in photography he claims to have found a medium that at times dissolves the distance between the referent and the spectator, a form of writing encoded by nature that attests to the facticity of past objects.13

With one exception,14 Barthes's name is surprisingly absent from Metahistory; indeed, in 1976 White criticized him among others for fetishizing the text and thus undermining all meaningful criticism. But since the beginning of the 1980s he has referred to Barthes favorably, especially in order to support and focus his own relativist critique of historical knowledge. For both critics the question of the referent comes to the forefront at a later point in their careers. But while Barthes in his later writings combines and juxtaposes different protocols of meaning production—referential, structuralist, and poststructuralist—White has consistently favored a structuralist approach emphasizing the primacy of secondary signification in historical writing. Only recently has he altered his method, arguing that the language of modernism and postmodernism has to be understood as a response to the events which characterize our century, in particular the extermination of the Jews of Europe.


In Metahistory White proposes a systematic study of the figurative aspects in historiographical writing in order to reveal the preconceptual layers of historical consciousness within the very structure of the historiographical text. He argues for the primacy of four distinct tropes of consciousness which are intrinsic to our language and guide the various stages of the historian's work, from the initial research to the final text. White characterizes these four modes of historical consciousness through the different figures of speech which organize the semantic dimensions of the respective tropes. Metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony represent the basic categories which predetermine the secondary, conceptual level of the historian's representational framework. On this secondary level White identifies three modes of explanation which are embodied in the narrative techniques, the formal argumentation, and the ethical position developed in historiographical discourse. Each of these subcategories tends to correlate with the underlying dominant trope of the respective work of history. Thus, White's analytical grid comprises sixteen positions on four levels which to his mind suffice to grasp the essential attributes of any given study and individual style.15

White uses this model to analyze the evolution of historiographical style. He assumes a cyclical development through the different tropes which successively fail to establish their exclusive claim to realistic representation. White argues that average academic writing stays within the parameters delineated by the respective dominant trope. He is most interested in the texts which exemplify the margin between two tropes, the classics of historiography and philosophy of history which prepare the shift from one dominant trope to the next and negotiate between diverging explanatory strategies and different concepts of reality.16

For White, the competitive relationship between different modes of representation attests to the non-scientific or proto-scientific nature of the discipline of history. Without a generally agreed upon linguistic protocol, historiography always generates a variety of mutually exclusive historical accounts which appear equally plausible from a metahistorical perspective. He argues that there are no limits inherent to the historical record which reduce the interpretative choices of the historian for the interpretation of past events. Any such limits are strictly structural and heuristic.17

White's epistemological relativism collapses philosophy of history and historiography. They only differ in that the former highlights the underlying epistemological, aesthetic, or political principles which determine the generation of the text, whereas the latter displays them in the implicit structure of “realistic” narratives. Similarly, White converges fiction and historiography. Historiographic and fictitious events are rendered meaningful through the same representational strategies which insert the single event into an overarching narrative structure. Thus White strives to sever any link between the reality of past events and their semantic position within the historiographical text.18

Metahistory displays a strong didactic agenda. White hoped that in systematically mapping out all possible explanatory combinations, he would provide historians with a manual of tropology. Thus he could reveal the epistemological arbitrariness of any figurative preferences and make historians aware of their commitment to preconceptual prefigurations of their subject matter. He argued that on the basis of this insight they could rethink their representational choices in light of their political and aesthetic commitments. He also hoped that they would overcome the limitations of the ironic trope which dominates current historical writing.


Historians, especially intellectual historians, occasionally praised White's case studies of nineteenth-century historiography and philosophy of history but in general they firmly rejected his methodology because of its relativist stance. In his work following Metahistory, in part published in Tropics of Discourse, White sought to answer and contain this criticism in two ways.19 First, he emphasized the stability of the deep structures of human consciousness which suggest the possibility of developing a consistent and reliable representation not of reality itself but of the human mind's perspective on reality. Second, White tried rather unsuccessfully to argue a middle ground between the position of the “normal” historian and the more radical representatives of poststructuralist thought by incorporating the notion of historical proof into his theory of historical writing.

White's first strategy consists in relating his categories of historical consciousness to Freud's ideas about the mechanisms of dreamwork and Piaget's transformational patterns of conceptual thought. Thus, he plays with the idea of raising the theory of tropes to the level of an ontogenetic category which is reflected in the structure of language. Viewed from this perspective, tropology reveals the strategies at our disposal in any attempt to relate self to other problematical domains of experience. But White pulls back from a universal phenomenology. He wants this homology understood only as a convention in the discourse about consciousness. Unfortunately, he does not elaborate further on the historical dimension of this convention, and therefore we learn little about the epistemological status of this aggregate total vision of the world which could be developed once the transformational patterns between different tropes and paradigms have been found.20

As a second strategy to counter his critics White seeks to establish an epistemological middle ground which integrates the dichotomies of proof and figuration, fact and fiction. He allows that the data may resist representation in a given mode and therefore require a different tropological structure. He argues that the representational framework is simultaneously imposed and found in the historical record and consequently asks historians to abide by the rules of evidence and to abandon any metaphor which insufficiently reflects the data at hand.21

These arguments represent an important departure from White's position outlined in Metahistory. White seems to imply now that there are some correlations between the structure of the historical record—in its unprocessed or prefigured form—and the structure of historiographical discourse. But these ideas remain rather vague and in other passages of Tropics of Discourse White denies any such interdependence between the three conceptual levels he identifies (unprocessed material, chronicle, final account). He again insists that all tropes are equally suited or unsuited to represent the primary material which he consistently describes as unstructured and chaotic.22

At times these inconsistencies lead to obvious contradictions between the different texts collected in Tropics of Discourse. At one point White proposes the criterion of logical consistency to differentiate between good and bad historiography, while he simultaneously argues that the historian who stays within the same tropological framework through all explanatory levels of his discourse might be accurately termed a doctrinaire thinker who “‘bends the facts’ to fit a preconceived theory.”23 Moreover, White still acknowledges that the most interesting works of history negotiate between diverging tropological structures. These tensions might be best appreciated as deviations from the rules of logic.24

The shortcomings of White's attempt to establish a twofold methodology for the study and assessment of historical writing become most apparent when he discusses critics who share many of his presuppositions about the arbitrariness of the historical record and the importance of figurative aspects in scientific discourse, but who assume a more radical position with regard to the self-referentiality of language. In the essay on Foucault, and especially in the polemic about the “absurdist moment” in contemporary literary criticism, White develops a threefold matrix in which he positions himself halfway between the poststructuralists (represented by Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida) and the assumed position of the “normal” critic/historian.25 In White's view, the latter trust in an unproblematic relationship between reality and representation where language serves as a transparent medium to express the meaning inherent in any past or present facts. The perceived order in the world is reflected in the ordered system of language which evolves in direct dependence on changes in reality. White contrasts this naive position with the hypercritical perspective of poststructuralism which, in his mind, proves equally one-dimensional because it combines the assumption of an utterly meaningless existence with the belief in the total arbitrariness of any sign system. For White, this position reflects a fetishization of the text and is caused by a refusal to leave the text's surface in search for its underlying structures.26

White aims at a compromise between these two positions when he combines the presupposition of a manifest chaos in the primary material with the notion of stable and well-structured parameters of human consciousness as expressed in his theory of tropology. White finds the presumed opacity of language less troublesome because he trusts the relative stability of the tropological structures of consciousness. He argues that, on the one hand, we have to come to terms with an inexpungible element of relativity in every discursive field which has not reached a consensus about its legitimate representational techniques. But, on the other hand, any conceptual representation qua representation assumes one or several of the tropes as its guiding principle(s) which ensure the text's communicability and internal cohesion.27

But White's dissociation of reality and representation carries the radical implications of “absurdist” criticism. His insistence on the stability of the deep structures of human consciousness and his attempts to think through the notion of an independent faculty of perception which could help to differentiate between accurate and inaccurate histories remain too vague and inconsistent in the context of his radical critique of historical discourse. Thus, in the end it remains unclear which conceptual transformation introduces the inexpungible relativism into the final historical account. Should the tropes be considered as preconceptual figures of thought which already determine the initial processing of the material, or are they more adequately described as master concepts which only guide the writing process proper, the actual emplotting of the facts?28

While the essays presented in Tropics of Discourse do not present an integrated revision of White's original methodology, they introduce a new theme which has become an important aspect of his most recent work. White in part rejects consistently stylized histories because they fail to acknowledge the initial arbitrariness found on the level of the unprocessed data. Thus he introduces the notion of negative transparency which requires historians never to exclude completely undecidability from their writing, thereby attesting to the possibility of alternative emplotments.


The Content of the Form includes essays published between 1979 and 1985. The volume presents a twofold shift in White's theory. On the one hand he radicalizes his critique of the discipline of history and comes closer to the position of the poststructuralists whose “absurdist” stance he dismissed in Tropics of Discourse. White himself now regards language as “simply another among those things that populate the human world, but more specifically a sign system, that is, a code bearing no necessary, or ‘motivated,’ relation to that which it signifies.”29 On the other hand, he proposes a definition of the historical fact which establishes a marginal but well defined space for the procedures of factual evidence. Through this move White can combine two seemingly contradictory steps. On the level of narrative structure he undercuts any traditional epistemology. The selection and development of the representational code is in principle an arbitrary decision independent of the primary material at hand and in practice immediately dependent on the social context of text production. On the level of factual representation he integrates but at the same time marginalizes the concern of historians for independent epistemological categories according to which the factual accuracy of any given account can be measured.

The unresolved discussion about the relationship between the real and the imaginary which characterized Tropics of Discourse is now more clearly defined under the supremacy of the latter and put in more precise terminology. White differentiates between the primary and secondary referent of historical writing. The former refers to the past events, the latter to the vision of reality upheld by the conceptual repertoire which is used to incorporate the facts into meaningful narratives. He holds that questions of adequate and truthful representation between contending versions of the past can only be resolved on the level of the singular existential statement. But White points out that history proper only starts when the established facts are fabricated into full-scale narratives for purely presentist concerns.30

In the two essays “The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation” and “Droysen's Historik: Historical Writing as a Bourgeois Science,” White formulates his most radical critique of historical discourse. First he describes the inherent conservatism of history. Since historiography claims to deal with the real its methods of representation legitimate a specific standard for the conceptualization of reality, past and present alike. Thus, White argues, historiography serves to project a type of subjectivity on the audience which accepts the formal structures of the text as the sole criterion of “the real” and almost by definition undercuts radical politics as unrealistic.31

White claims that historiography succeeds in constituting the subject in this specific moral and political position due to its supposedly intermediary, “uncanny” position between the possible and the imaginary. Distinct from the “possible” which is the realm of science, and the “imaginary” which is the referent for art and literature, history deals in the “plausible,” the verisimilar. The plausible, according to White, is the result of the conflict between the current social constraints expressed in the totality of the symbolic system of a given society on the one hand, and the imaginary, set into being by libido and instincts, on the other. Therefore, White argues, the “plausible” is in a sense more real for the individual than the truth of science because it relates its desires to the social context and offers a compromise which allows safe orientation and positioning. Thus, White concludes, historiography is empirical and speculative at the same time, but its ultimate referent remains the social practice of the citizen who negotiates his or her own position with regard to social authorities.32

In a second step, White historicizes and narrativizes his concept of history in his reflections on the origins of historiography as an academic discipline. He argues that the premodern version of historical studies viewed past reality as in principle chaotic and allowed all kinds of contradictory and mutually exclusive interpretations. History was subordinated to rhetoric and openly political or confessional. The professionalization of historical studies in the nineteenth century took the form of a narrow aestheticization for decidedly political ends. The philosophy of history brought forth by German idealism linked historical studies to the aesthetics of the beautiful and facilitated the conceptualization of history as an independent discipline. White argues that for the first time the past appeared a priori as a well-formed entity which could be revealed by the historian through the application of the rules of evidence. This domestication restricted history to the mode of the middle style and excluded all kinds of religious and irrational events from the historical sphere proper. The matters of the state became the reference point for history, thereby limiting the spectrum of potential facts. For White, only the deideologization of historical studies through the exclusion of the sublime transformed history into a discipline and an efficient political tool.33

Ultimately, White charges, the discipline of history as it developed in the nineteenth century was based on a dangerous misrepresentation, an untruth of projecting order where none is to be found. Therefore, he urges historians to recognize the sublimity of reality in order to induce a shift in emphasis from the factual basis of historiography to the conceptual and political implications of the structural format of representation.34 But the paradigmatic shift from the control of the data as proof to the control of the conceptual strategies which White proposes could itself be considered a more efficient, self-reflexive suppression of the sublime, a further disciplinization of history based on an awareness of the responsibilities and potentials involved in the manipulation of the representational framework. In this respect, White's structuralism only projects the referential illusion onto the secondary level of signification, the structures of historical narratives.35

This aspect is very well demonstrated through the discrepancy between White's own style and his ideas about the characteristics of subversive writing. White holds that any discursive practice becomes potentially destabilizing with regard to the status quo not through its allegiance to doctrines of revolt but through the projection of a subject position which alienates the audience from identification with its social context. He points out that Foucault's aim of the reversed style which cancels itself in its articulation could be understood as an intensification of diegetic pleasure dissolving in the moment of gratification, a veritable return of the sublime.36 Or to put it differently: the idea of the reversed style is based on the insight that in cases in which the structures of knowledge and language form the main concern of the text (primary referent), it is crucial to destabilize these assumptions through the mode of representation (secondary referent) in order to prevent an unproblematic resubjectification of the audience. This strategy destabilizes the very dichotomy of primary versus secondary referent, and practices a continuum of form and content instead. White himself stays within the limits of academic writing trying to delineate and fix a subject position within the parameters of narratology. In this he differs most distinctly from the theorists/practitioners of postmodernism who—as I have tried to show for Barthes—attempt to juxtapose a number of different epistemologies in such way that none of them appears as a privileged repository of the truth.

The different essays in The Content of the Form propose an intricate, threefold epistemology. On the level of the single event/fact White retains an element of positivist stability which stands in contrast to the epistemological arbitrariness that he posits on a second level, the level of the conceptual framework of the historical writing. But on a third level, a higher level of reflexivity, White introduces a new criterion for accuracy in historical writing, albeit in a negative form. He tends to be most appreciative of historians or theoreticians who acknowledge the chaos of the primary historical field and take this meaninglessness as a challenge to construct history in a politically and socially responsible fashion without completely erasing the traces of this construction in their texts. In this view too much transparency as to the chaotic nature of the past leads to the fallacy of deconstruction, the celebration of meaninglessness for its own sake, while too little skepticism about the possibility of referential certainty gives rise to the illusions of positivist historiography.


In recent years White has focused more on narrativity in literature and on problems of literary criticism. This is in part a reaction to the increased interest his work has received among literary critics. White has responded to their criticism and tried to reformulate the relationship between fact and figuration as a continuous space framed by the two extremes of factual and fictional speech. In this context he has reconsidered the relationship between historical events and their representation. He argues that literary modernism (exemplified in the writing of authors like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce) and its more recent counterpart postmodernism have to be understood as responses to and the source of the most truthful and accurate representational techniques for such typically modernist events as the Holocaust, the two World Wars, and other catastrophes of the twentieth century.37

But White's reconceptualization of the relationship of literal and figurative speech, referential and non-referential language, and factual and fictional prose which he now defines as “the poles of a linguistic continuum between which speech must move in the articulation of any discourse” sometimes runs into obvious contradictions.38 While he reaffirms the argument that “convention may limit the range of types of plot structures deemed suitable for the representation of the types of events being dealt with,”39 he argues at the same time “that the choice of a farcical style, for the representation of some kinds of historical events would constitute, not only a lapse in taste, but also a distortion of the truth about them.”40 Apparently, the relationship between event and story includes now an aspect of necessity which undermines White's earlier relativism.

In fact, White argues that modernist literature has thus far provided the only adequate representation of the particular modern experience of life through such stylistic innovations as the abandonment of one authoritative point of view, the recovery of the middle voice, and the general predominance of a tone of doubt and questioning. This new correlation between a historical period and its paradigmatic sense of representation has succeeded the earlier homology between nineteenth-century realism and its historical context. Therefore, White criticizes historians who adhere to anachronistic, nineteenth-century forms of representation and their subsequent failure to participate in the task of making sense of our contemporary experiences—which is the only help we can realistically expect from historians.41

Through his latest interventions White has repositioned himself within the poststructuralist context, albeit in an ambivalent way. He now rejects the arguments of Barthes, Sande Cohen, Julia Kristeva, and Jean-François Lyotard who have problematized the use of narrative for its inherent ideological and disintellective function. White argues for the redemption of narrative on the ground that narrative as much as language is a cultural universal whose truthfulness can only be assessed within its specific social context. “Therefore,” he concludes, “it is absurd to suppose that, because a historical discourse is cast in the mode of narrative, it must be mythical, fictional, substantially imaginary or otherwise ‘unrealistic’ in what it tells us about the world.”42 This dissociation of historical and imaginary discourse, the very combination White used in The Content of the Form to characterize the middle style of historical writing, indicates a turning point in his thought. But while on the one hand defending narrative as a possible form of knowledge—and in this respect rejecting the postmodern critique—White argues on the other hand that the conventional historical narrative is an anachronistic form of knowledge: “It seems to me that the kinds of anti-narrative non-stories produced by literary modernism [and postmodernism] offer the only prospect for adequate representation of the kind of unnatural events that mark our era and distinguish it absolutely from all of the ‘history’ that has come before it.”43

White's decision to introduce a more dialectical element into his structuralist methodology implies a renegotiation of the status of the fact with regard to the plot structures of the historical text. Once the strict separation of the two levels is canceled, his earlier radical epistemological relativism is undermined. The proposed continuum can be interpreted all the way towards the pole of factual accuracy. Thus the possibility of representational transparency, shown out the front door, returns through the back. When White reconceptualizes the relationship between text and reality as a multi-dimensional, processual unfolding under both discursive and non-discursive restrictions he reduces his control over his own subject matter, the structure of historical consciousness.


The sometimes surprising developments in White's work have in part been a response to his critics. So a proper understanding of them requires examining responses to his thought. Roughly three groups have to be considered here: historians, intellectual historians and historiographers, and literary critics.

For the average historian White's name symbolizes the use of unnecessary theoretical jargon, a debilitating relativism, and the denial of evidence and the possibility of realistic representation in history. Historians have thus rarely taken notice of the development of White's thought, be it his defense against the charge of relativism, his radical structuralist critique of the 1980s, or his most recent attempts to introduce a more flexible terminology and to rethink the question of referentiality. A typical assessment of White from this side is the following from Lawrence Stone: “I agree in denouncing the appalling corruption of style in the writing of history by social science jargon and linguistic and grammatical obfuscation. I also agree that we should fight to preserve from the attacks by extreme relativists, from Hayden White to Derrida, the hard-won professional expertise in the study of evidence that was worked out in the late nineteenth century.”44 So historians have insisted on past reality as the first cause of their writing,45 or argued in favor of the conception of historical truth as a collectively produced, intersubjectively valid epistemological category.46 Moreover, they have maintained that historians do not deal with unprocessed historical data. In their mind the source material contains the narrative rationalization of past agents which represents one relevant version of the past and which through the hindsight and the questions of the historian can be rendered into a historically relevant and truthful account.47 Philosophers of history and Marxist critics have in general followed the historians’ critique, albeit for different reasons. The former have insisted on the differences between history and philosophy of history,48 while the latter have dismissed White's idealism, in their eyes presented in the ideological mode of academic liberal humanism.49

White has been most harshly criticized by historians and even former collaborators for his relativism, which critics have consistently interpreted as a combination of epistemological and moral relativism. Lionel Gossman has expressed this concern very succinctly: “I am now concerned that the current tendency to conflate ‘historical’ and ‘fictional’ narrative and the new emphasis on the ‘poetics’ of history … may be promoting a facile and irresponsible relativism which will leave many who espouse it defenseless before the most dangerous myths and ideologies, incapable of justifying any stand.”50 This reaction shows that White has struck a widely held, sensitive consensus about the political and social functions of historical writing: the task to render justice and to provide political orientation on the grounds of facticity. The charge of relativism has limited his practical influence among historians, and at times unified a fragmented discipline against White's critique. But it has also kept the interest in his work alive; in twenty years the “challenge of poetics to (normal) historical practice” has persisted.51

That few scholars have imitated White is in part to be explained by the characteristic of his approach. White's original and idiosyncratic methodology defies imitation.52 The historians who have taken up his challenge, mostly in the fields of historiography and intellectual history, are among his most astute critics.53 Three points of criticism stand out in this context. First is the claim that White has built his critique on some basic assumptions which he shares with “normal” historians but which he cannot take for granted. The traditional dichotomy of scientific versus non-scientific discourse which allows White to posit the non-scientificity and relativism of historical discourse has become questionable in light of the development in the history and sociology of science since Kuhn. Similar reservations have been brought forth regarding White's distinction between literal and figurative language. Second, critics have attacked the rigidity of White's formalism, emphasizing the plurality of forms in historical writing against his assumption of dominant tropes. They have insisted on the dynamic interaction between text and context, writer and audience to replace White's image of the historian who can independently choose his method once he is aware of the system of tropes. Last, they admonished in particular the lack of any historical dimension in White's analysis of narrative discourse.54 In particular they have criticized the ahistoricity of placing tropology firmly in the realm of the “real,” as a science of history which guarantees the stability of the discipline.55 The disregard for the context of historical writing and its historical dimension has been attributed to White's adherence to the “imperialist criticism” of deconstruction which led him to reduce rhetoric to style and over-emphasize the self-referentiality of the text.56

Literary critics have found the same shortcomings in White's work as have the theoretically interested historians.57 But here the application of his method has been more diverse and fruitful. White's tropology has been transformed into a phenomenology of tropes, first proposed by White himself in Tropics of Discourse, to improve its epistemological grounding.58 Others have tried to reformulate narratology as a theory of communication to emphasize the historical and social context of narrative discourse which White had not sufficiently considered.59 And even literary critics have criticized the relativist implications of White's thought, especially in the context of teaching literature and history.60 But in general White's work has become an important theoretical reference point for them in questions of history and narrativity.61

We can now see more clearly the importance of the dialogue between White and his critics for the development of his thought. Its twists and turns can be understood in part as White's attempt to revise his approach in the light of the criticism it has received. Through the late 1970s White was still interested in a more substantial and productive debate with “normal” historians. Therefore he responded to their concerns about inadequate epistemological grounding and the relativistic implications of tropology. In addition, he sought to establish a method for the analysis of narrative history which remained independent of the predominant brands of discourse analysis in poststructuralism and deconstruction, as demanded by some of his colleagues in historiography and intellectual history. In the early 1980s White radicalized his critique and opened it to broader questions of narrativity, possibly because of historians’ lack of interest and the growing responses from literary critics. These criticisms have in turn contributed to general concern about the difficulties of responding effectively to right-wing political challenges by means of structuralist, poststructuralist, or deconstructive reading techniques, especially because some critics have identified disturbing affinities between the representational tactics of right revisionism and postmodernism. So recently White has tried less successfully to integrate two opposing demands in the theoretical community, to develop a more flexible repertoire for the analysis of history which avoids the shortcomings of structuralism but at the same time does not offer any support to projects of historical revisionism. Through this effort White inadvertently destabilized his original critique of historical writing.

The close reading of White's work shows that he has still not found a repertoire for textual analysis which proceeds in a historically responsible way, that is, lives up to our concept of historical truth and satisfies our theoretical expectations. As Peter De Bolla put it, “We lack a technology of reading in the past, in, not against history, which would enable us to locate specifically historical textualities, and allow us to follow the transformation of discourses over time and between cultures and societies. The overwhelming tendency of the powerful presentist reading technology is to reduce all history to the present.”62


The strength and weaknesses in White's approach reveal themselves with particular clarity in two essays he has written about the historiography of Nazism. In the first, “The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation,” included in The Content of the Form, White proposes some provocative thoughts about the characteristics of the revisionist and the conventional versions of the National Socialist past, the relationship between the disciplinization of the historical consciousness in nineteenth-century historiography and the rise of fascist politics in the 1930s, and the correlation between his own philosophy of history and a fascist understanding thereof. White maneuvers very carefully on these grounds because he does not want to destabilize a political position which he in principle supports, although it might be based on illusory epistemological assumptions. The resulting arbitrariness in his terminology and arguments have at times obfuscated the issues and caused considerable misunderstanding.

Thus, White considers the revisionists’ claim that the Holocaust never happened to be “as morally offensive as it is intellectually bewildering.”63 The latter judgment results from his endorsement of historiographical methodology on the microlevel of the single event. The former marks White's fundamental rejection of the revisionists’ political ends. But his overall argument implies that the political danger of revisionism has been exaggerated. In trying to deny the facts of the “Final Solution,” revisionists question the only aspect of historiography which deals with the actual past and is based on stable epistemological ground. But more importantly, since they limit their endeavor to the question of facticity, especially to an attempt to deny established facts, they fail to recognize the main purpose of historiography in that they take the pretenses of historians at face value. Revisionists remain marginal because the presentation of negative proof, however accurate or inaccurate it may be, always falls short of the meaningful narrative web which historians are expected to produce.64

At this stage, White attempts to keep the epistemology and ethics of representation clearly separated. For him, the ethics of representation are negotiated exclusively on the conceptual level and depend only on the intellectual and political context. But it follows from this that a Nazi version of the history of the “Final Solution” which acknowledges the facts would have under certain conditions (for example, a revival of Nazism) the same validity as our conventional histories about the topic today or the Zionist interpretation of the Holocaust in Israel, an example White himself refers to in The Content of the Form.65 All of them would represent in their respective contexts morally responsible reactions to the meaninglessness of history not refutable on the grounds of any rules of evidence.

Finally, White speculates that the success and very existence of the volatile fascist ideologies of the twentieth century are at least in part to be explained through the disciplinization and covert politicization of historical consciousness in the last century. From his perspective the ideologies of fascist regimes appear as a backlash against the overly ambitious attempts to establish historiography as a bourgeois science in the powerful disguise of a value-free discipline. White finds himself in partial agreement with this fascist notion of history because he reads it as proof of the indeterminacy of the primary historical field and a recognition of the discontinuity between the ethical and epistemological dimension of historical consciousness. This implies that the real shortcoming of our desublimated historiography lies in its failure to take the political challenge of fascism seriously, inventing a version of the past which could be equally effective but morally responsible rather than vainly pretending to counteract fascism with representations of “the true past.”

White's tragic account of the suppression of the sublime and the development of history as a discipline raises many questions which have remained highly controversial. How important are fascist ideologies for the success of fascism, and how significant is their notion of history for their ideology? What is the relationship between philosophers and philosophies, which have been utilized or implicated in fascism and the nature of fascist politics, especially the politics of extermination? But for our purposes it is more important that White never elaborates how to develop liberal counterhistories which refrain from utilizing the appeal of the real in their attempt to design a politically effective response to the historical vision of Nazism.

But White's interventions helped to expose the frail epistemological basis of the postwar consensus about the exceptionality of Nazism and its crimes in today's social context. Thus, he preempted the most recent developments in the historiography of the Nazi period in particular in Germany by redirecting our attention towards a more serious kind of revisionism which leaves the facts of the matter intact but repositions the phenomenon of Nazism and fascism within the overall history of the twentieth century. Ultimately, such revisions which were brought forth during the Historikerstreit may prove more damaging than a mere denial of National Socialist crimes. But even this conclusion needs further qualification. As Henry Rousso has recently shown in his study of the representation of Vichy and the German occupation in postwar France, the Faurisson affair occurred at a moment when Jewish memories of the war period resurfaced and French society was arguing about the recovery of such unpleasant facts and their position in the accounts of that past which would be handed down to the next generation.66 Under these circumstances the differences between factual and theoretical claims, or in White's terms, primary and secondary referent, are more difficult to ascertain because the repressed facts and voices retain an immediate emotional and political value that will fade only with time. In such a historical moment a denial of the unpleasant past, including its very basic factual record, might indeed adversely affect the constitution of its history. At least for a short period the facts, their emplotment, and their political meaning seem inextricably linked.

The second essay in which White addresses the problem of a truthful representation of Nazism follows closely the methodological position outlined in White's 1989 essay on the relationship between literary theory and historical writing.67 He repeats his assessment that historical representations display an inexpungible relativism because there is no necessary connection between the factual statements and the means of emplotment which are employed to craft the narrative. But he concludes that “[i]n the case of an emplotment of the events of the Third Reich in a ‘comic’ or ‘pastoral’ mode, we would be eminently justified in appealing to ‘the facts’ in order to dismiss it from the lists of ‘competing narratives’ of the Third Reich.”68 In light of the initial affirmation of his relativist position the apparent contradiction leaves the reader in a state of methodological uncertainty. One can interpret the term “the facts” in quotation marks as a reference to the current scholarly consensus which assumes the story form of tragedy inherent in the factual record of the Nazi period and therefore rejects any comic emplotment as improper in the sense of untruthful (or better, inappropriate). One could furthermore interpret White's move towards the referential pole within the earlier proposed continuum of figural and literal discourse as implicit support for the political and moral agenda in Holocaust studies. However, while this might please historians, it considerably weakens White's argument in favor of an inexpungible relativism in historical writing.

This revision is paralleled in White's return to the theme of a new type of discursive transparency manifest in the language of modernism. As we have seen, White assumes now that the representational framework has changed in response to events like the “Final Solution, total war, nuclear contamination, mass starvation and ecological suicide.”69


White's is one of few attempts to develop a phenomenology of historical thought and historical representation. It is equaled in scope only by Johann G. Droysen's Historik and Jörn Rüsen's Grundzüge einer Historik and shares with Nietzsche's The Use and Abuse of History the hope to lay the foundation for a new, creative, life-serving historiography.70 In this White so far has had little success. Few historians have followed his appeal and even fewer have applied his methods. Among historians whose texts he has analyzed he has been most influential as a negative foil. These historians have considered his work the most tangible manifestation of a vaguely perceived postmodern challenge. White's insight into the narrative structures of historical discourse has only temporarily destabilized their professional self-image. For the theoretically inclined historians who have studied White as a representative of the new intellectual history and the literary critics who have been interested in his theory of narrativity, the methodology proposed in Metahistory soon appeared outdated. Both groups have grown more and more suspicious of any closed theoretical system and have preferred the more flexible and self-reflexive discursive modes of poststructuralism and deconstruction. As a result White has been widely read but has also been placed outside the narrowly defined parameters of the respective academic disciplines. The two most frequent criticisms of White's work—its relativism and formalism—mark the respective borders and illustrate White's peculiar position within American academe.

The different strategies that White has employed to counter the charges of relativism and formalism have been unsuccessful because they have destabilized his original critique without delineating any consistent new critical position. This applies to his attempts to graft the tropological system onto an ontological base and to incorporate the notion of a veto power of historical facts vis-à-vis certain emplotments. White is equally unconvincing when he argues for a correlation between modernist events and modernist representations and when he tries to introduce a more flexible dialectical element in his structuralist approach to the study of narrative. It is most remarkable, however, that these revisions and contradictions have gone unnoticed. For the most part White's work has been considered as a monolithic block, dismissed in its entirety. This also explains why there have been few productive debates about Metahistory since it was first published twenty years ago.

What is most clearly missing in White's work is a systematic revision of his critique of the writing of history in light of the criticism his approach has received since Metahistory, focusing especially on the modes of emplotment which characterize historical writing in the twentieth century. Thus far neither White nor his critics have been able convincingly to refute the argument that White developed most succinctly in his essay “The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation.” The narrative strategies which we employ to make sense of our past evolve independently of the established protocols for gaining and asserting historical facts. This circumstance applies to all historical representations but is most disturbing when considered in the context of the representation of Nazism.


  1. F. R. Ankersmit, “Historiography and Postmodernism,” History and Theory 28 (1989), 137–153; Perez Zagorin's critique and Ankersmit's reply in History and Theory 29 (1990), 263–296; compare to Peter De Bolla, “Disfiguring History,” Diacritics (Winter 1986), 49–57.

  2. Ankersmit, “Historiography and Postmodernism,” 145. Ankersmit concludes his essay with the conciliatory statement “I am not saying that historical truth and reliability are of no importance or are even obstacles on the road to a more meaningful historiography” (152). This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the notion that the language of historiography never intersects with the past.

  3. Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York, 1988), 15, 96, 121, 143; F. R. Ankersmit, “The Dilemma of Contemporary Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of History” in Knowing and Telling History: The Anglo-Saxon Debate (History and Theory 25 [1986]), 1–27. Carlo Ginzburg, “Just One Witness” in Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution,” ed. Saul Friedlander (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 82–96.

  4. Carlo Ginzburg, “Checking the Evidence: The Judge and the Historian,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1991), 79–92, quote from 84.

  5. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973). For an analysis of White's earlier work in comparison to Metahistory and subsequent publications, see Hans Kellner, Language and Historical Representation: Getting the Story Crooked (Madison, Wisc., 1989), especially chapter 8, “A Bedrock of Order: Hayden White's Linguistic Humanism” (first published in History and Theory 19 [1980], 1–29); and Paul A. Roth, “Hayden White and the Aesthetics of Historiography,” History of the Human Sciences 5 (1992), 17–35.

  6. Roland Barthes, “The Discourse of History,” in Comparative Criticism 3 (1981), 7–20. For a contextualization of “The Discourse of History” see Stephen Bann, “Introduction: Barthes’ Discourse,” Comparative Criticism 3 (1981), 3–6, and Geoff Bennington and Robert Young, “Introduction: Posing the Question,” in Post-structuralism and the Question of History, ed. Derek Attridge, Goeff Bennington, and Robert Young (Cambridge, Eng., 1987), 1–11. For further discussion and application of Barthes's concepts see Stephen Bann, The Inventions of History: Essays on the Representation of the Past (Manchester, Eng., 1990), 40, 57–60.

  7. In 1962 in “The Imagination of the Sign” included in A Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag (New York, 1982), 211–217, Barthes had proposed a different, tripartite analysis of the sign. Here he differentiates between the internal relation between signifier and signified which he calls symbolic and the two external relations between the sign and its context, the paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations. For further discussion see James M. Mellard, Doing Tropology: Analysis of Narrative Discourse (Urbana, Ill., 1987), 4–6.

  8. Roland Barthes, “To Write: An Intransitive Verb,” in The Rustle of Language (New York, 1986), 11–21, essay first published in 1966.

  9. Ibid., 20.

  10. S/Z, transl. Richard Miller [1970] (New York, 1974). S/Z has been read both as a structuralist and poststructuralist work of criticism; see Jonathan Culler, Barthes, 2nd ed. (London, 1990), 88, and Mary Bittner Wiseman The Ecstasies of Roland Barthes (New York, 1989), 41, 95–97.

  11. Roland Barthes, “Style and Its Image,” in Literary Style, ed. Seymour Chatman (London, 1971), 3–10.

  12. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text [1973] (New York, 1989).

  13. White, Metahistory, 3, #4.

  14. “Photography never lies: or rather, it can lie as to the meaning of things, being by nature tendentious, never as to its existence.” Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography [1980] (New York, 1991), 87.

  15. Hayden White, Metahistory, 29. For a detailed discussion of White's grid see Kellner, Language and Historical Representation, 221–225, and David Konstan, “The Function of Narrative in Hayden White's Metahistory,Clio 11 (1981), 65–78; for a comparative analysis of White's tropology see Wallace Martin, “Floating an Issue of Tropes,” Diacritics 12 (1982), 75–83, esp. 77, and compare to Donald Ostrowski, “A Metahistorical Analysis: Hayden White and Four Narratives of Russian History,” Clio 19 (1990), 215–236, esp. 236, and Robert F. Berkhofer, “The Challenge of Poetics to (Normal) Historical Practice,” Poetics Today 9 (1988), 435–452. On White's terminology, in particular on “story” and “plot” see Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (Chicago, 1984), I, 161–174 and compare to Hayden White, “The Structure of Historical Narrative,” Clio 1 (1972), 5–20.

  16. Metahistory, 432.

  17. Ibid., 4, 20, 26. Like Barthes, White uses the difference between chronicles and histories to support his argument. On the level of the chronicle, historians select different facts because they apply incompatible criteria to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant data. But only the second level of historical conceptualization, the casting of the events in proper stories, produces radical incompatibility because each event assumes a specific meaning through its position within the overall textual structure. Barthes, “The Discourse of History,” 15; White, Metahistory, 5–7.

  18. White, Metahistory, x, 427.

  19. Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore, 1978).

  20. Ibid., 6, 12–13, 19, 22, 117. See also White's arguments in favor of a general theory of language in literary criticism in “The Problem of Change in Literary History,” New Literary History 7 (1975), 97–111, esp. 106.

  21. Hayden White argues here for a “continuity between error and truth.” Tropics of Discourse, 21; compare to 1, 47, 97 and Hayden White, “Ethnological ‘Lie’ and Mythical ‘Truth,’” Diacritics (Spring 1978), 2–9, esp. 8.

  22. Tropics of Discourse, 84.

  23. Ibid., 129.

  24. In a similar passage White seeks to separate historiography from propaganda and ideology, while his own objective to have historians decide on their representational techniques with regard to their aesthetic and political preferences might itself pass as an apt definition of propagandistic writing in the absence of clear standards of historical truth. Tropics of Discourse, 99.

  25. Hayden White, “The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory,” in Tropics of Discourse, 261–282.

  26. Ibid., 263, 278, 280–281. See also Hayden White, “Criticism as Cultural Politics,” Diacritics (Fall 1976), 8–13, esp. 10.

  27. This is true even for those texts which systematically frustrate the reader's tropological expectations. They gain coherence through the negation of the standard tropological practices. But to White this gesture of irony remains within the overall scope of figurative language as one of the four basic attitudes towards representation. To include their writings in his tropological scheme White reduces the texts of such “sectarian” and hermetic critics as Foucault and Derrida to the figure of irony which he identifies as the deep structure of their texts. Tropics of Discourse, 255, 259, 267.

  28. Dominick LaCapra argues that the “absurdist” critics “actually articulate things that are ‘inside’ White himself.” Rethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Language (Ithaca, 1983), 78.

  29. Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore, 1987), 189.

  30. Ibid., 40, 43, 45. See also Hayden White, “Historical Pluralism,” Critical Inquiry 12 (1986), 480–502, esp. 486–487.

  31. White illustrates the conciliatory and domesticating capacities of history through the causality principle which explains and justifies the status quo. To subscribe to the rules of history always implies that one assumes good reasons for things to be the way they are. The Content of the Form, 57, 85.

  32. Ibid., 87, 89, 93. This radical critique of the discipline of history has been further developed by Sande Cohen, Historical Culture: On the Recoding of an Academic Discipline (Berkeley, 1987).

  33. White, The Content of the Form, 66–67, 72. White concedes that this type of historical consciousness might be the single most important reason for the relative success of the concept of social responsibility in Western democracies. But at the same time the suppression of the sublime, based on the illusion that we partake in a well-formed historical process, opens a dangerous void in the very moment that this illusion loses its power of conviction. White argues that fascism could be understood as a reaction formation, which imposes a meaning on past and present reality in the moment of a general legitimation crisis, as a negative recuperation of the sublime which acknowledges and exploits the meaninglessness of history. Therefore from White's perspective, fascist politics cannot be resisted by insisting on the proper historiographical methodology. Rather, we have to take the apparent meaninglessness of history as a challenge for the construction of a more humane vision of history. Ibid., 75.

  34. White's text on this point is worth quoting: “If you are going to ‘go to history,’ you had better have a pretty good notion as to whether it is hospitable to the values you carry into it. This is the function of theory in general—that is to say, to provide justification of a stance vis-à-vis the materials being dealt with that can render it plausible.” The Content of the Form, 164.

  35. Therefore Sande Cohen has argued that White's critique of historical writing has to be understood not as an attack but a new justification, a specific recoding of historical thinking. Sande Cohen, Historical Culture, 81–87.

  36. Ibid., 139–140.

  37. The following essays by Hayden White will be considered here: “The Rhetoric of Interpretation,” Poetics Today 9 (1988), 253–279; “Introduction” to the issue of the Stanford Literature Review on “History and Memory in European Romanticism” (6; 1989), 5–14; “New Historicism: A Comment” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York, 1989), 293–302; “‘Figuring the nature of the times deceased’: Literary Theory and Historical Writing,” in The Future of Literary Theory, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York, 1989), 19–43: “Historical Emplotment and the Question of Truth” in Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution,” ed. Saul Friedlander (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 37–53; “Writing in the Middle Voice,” in Writing, Schrift, Ecriture, ed. Hans Gumbrecht (forthcoming); “The Fact of Modernism: The Fading of the Historical Event,” AFI lecture delivered at UCLA on April 8, 1992.

  38. White, “‘Figuring the nature of the times deceased,’” 34. See also “The Rhetoric of Interpretation,” 254–255.

  39. White, “‘Figuring the nature of the times deceased,’” 27.

  40. Ibid., 30.

  41. Ibid., 43. When White stresses the interdependencies and correlations between twentieth-century events and modern representational techniques in opposition to earlier forms of historical knowledge, we are led to conclude that there existed a similar causal relationship between nineteenth-century events and the contemporary historiographical repertoire.

  42. Ibid., 39.

  43. “The Fact of Modernism,” AFI Lecture, UCLA April 8, 1992.

  44. Lawrence Stone, “Dry Heat, Cool Reason: Historians under Siege in England and France,” TLS (January 31, 1992).

  45. Michael Ermarth, “Review of Metahistory,American Historical Review 80 (1975), 961–963; Adrian Kuzminski, “A New Science,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 18 (1976), 129–143, esp. 140; Christopher Browning, “German Memory, Judicial Interrogation, and Historical Reconstruction: Writing Perpetrator History from Postwar Testimony” in Friedlander, ed., Probing the Limits, 22–36, esp. 31–32. For a contextualization of White within the American historical profession, see in particular Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, Eng., 1988), 599–607.

  46. Martin Jay, “Of Plots, Witnesses, and Judgements” in Probing the Limits, 97–107; see also Lionel Gossman, Between History and Literature (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 316–320.

  47. Andrew Ezergailis, “Review of Metahistory,Clio 5 (1976), 235–245, esp. 244; Amos Funkenstein, “History, Counterhistory, Narrative” in Probing the Limits, 66–81, 66; this point has been argued in detail by Leon Pompa, “Narrative Form, Significance and Historical Knowledge” in La philosophie de l'histoire et la pratique historienne d'aujourd'hui, ed. David Carr (Ottawa, 1982), 143–157. See also Noel Carroll, “Interpretation, History, and Narrative,” Monist 73 (1990), 134–166, esp. 143, 161.

  48. William H. Dray, On History and Philosophers of History (Leiden, 1989), 133–162, and William H. Dray, “Review of The Content of the Form,History and Theory 27 (1988), 282–287; see in particular Maurice Mandelbaum, “The Presuppositions of Metahistory,History and Theory 19 (1980), 39–54; compare to Louis Mink, “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument” in The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding, ed. Robert H. Canary and Henry Kozicki (Madison, Wisc., 1978), 129–141, esp. 140, where he explicitly supports White.

  49. Terry Eagleton, “Review of Tropics of Discourse,Notes and Queries 27 (1980), 478; Frederic Jameson, “Figural Relativism, or the Poetics of Historiography” Diacritics (Spring 1976), 2–9; 6, 9. See in addition Perry Anderson, “On Emplotment: Two Kinds of Ruin,” in Probing the Limits, 54–65, esp. 63.

  50. Gossman, Between History and Literature, 303. See also Carlo Ginzburg, “Just One Witness”; Arnaldo Momigliano, “The Rhetoric of History and the History of Rhetoric: On Hayden White's Tropes,” Comparative Criticism 3 (1981), 259–268, esp. 261–262; Arnaldo Momigliano, “Biblical and Classical Studies: Simple Reflections upon Historical Method,” Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa 11 (1981), 25–32; Eugene Golob, “The Irony of Nihilism,” History and Theory 19 (1980), 55–65, esp. 65; and William H. Dray, “Review of The Content of the Form,” 287; and most recently Russell Jacoby, “A New Intellectual History?” American Historical Review 97 (1992), 405–424. See in addition Lloyd S. Kramer, “Literature, Criticism, and Historical Imagination: The Literary Challenge of Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra” in The New Cultural History, ed. Lynn Hunt (Berkeley, 1989), 97–129; 122ff.

  51. Robert F. Berkhofer, “The Challenge of Poetics.”

  52. William M. Johnston, “Review of Tropics of Discourse,Journal of Modern History 52 (1980), 122–124, 122.

  53. See esp. Stephen Bann, The Clothing of Clio: A Study of the Representation of History in Nineteenth-Century Britain and France (Cambridge, Eng., 1984); Stephen Bann, The Inventions of History; Stephen Bann, “Towards a Critical Historiography,” Philosophy 56 (1981), 365–385; Hans Kellner, Language and Historical Representation; Suzanne Gearhart, The Open Boundary of History and Fiction: A Critical Approach to the French Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J., 1984); Linda Orr, Headless History: Nineteenth-Century French Historiography of the Revolution (Ithaca, N.Y., 1990); Nancy Struever, “Topics in History,” History and Theory 19 (1980), 66–79; and in particular, Sande Cohen, Historical Culture.

  54. Gearhart, The Open Boundary, 61–63; Wilda Anderson, “Dispensing with the Fixed Point: Scientific Law as Historical Event,” History and Theory 22 (1983), 264–277. Kellner, Language and Historical Representation, 212, 219; Paul A. Roth, “Hayden White and Historiography,” 17. Lionel Gossman takes this as an opportunity to base the rationality of history on complex, and as yet not fully understood, intersubjective criteria for evidence and reasoning that facilitate a high degree of accountability in historical practice. Gossman, “The Rationality of History,” 311, 316, 319–320. See also Noel Carroll, “Interpretation, History, and Narrative,” 147–148.

  55. Struever, “Topics in History,” 67; Gossman, “The Rationality of History,” 286; Gearhart, The Open Boundary, 18; Dominick LaCapra, “A Poetics of Historiography,” 76–77. See also Brian Vickers, In Defense of Rhetoric (Oxford, 1989), 441–442.

  56. Nancy S. Struever, “Topics in History,” esp. 66–67 and 75–76.

  57. On the problematic position of irony in White's tropology and its reductive and idealistic elements see David Carroll, “On Tropology: The Forms of History,” Diacritics (Fall 1976), 58–64, and Stanley Pierson, “Review of Metahistory,Comparative Literature 30 (1978), 178–181. On irony in White compare to Philip Pomper, “Typologies and Cycles in Intellectual History,” History and Theory 19 (1980), 30–38; John S. Nelson, “Review of Metahistory,History and Theory 14 (1975), 74–91; Gearhart, “Open Boundaries,” 62. On the problematic epistemological grounding of White's tropes and a critique of White's academic style, see Ralph Flores, “Review of The Content of the Form,MLN 102 (1987), 1191–1196.

  58. James M. Mellard, Doing Tropology, 19–20, 32–34.

  59. Didier Coste, Narrative as Communication (Minneapolis, 1989). See especially the foreword by Wlad Godzich, ix–xvii and 15–17, 30–32.

  60. Christopher Norris argued recently that such approaches might leave the students without defense against right-wing revisionist historians who could create “a massively falsified consensus, brought about by the misreading or manipulative use of evidence, the suppression of crucial facts and the creation of a certain selective amnesia in those whose memory might otherwise go far enough back.” Christopher Norris, Deconstruction and the Interests of Theory (Norman, Okla., 1989), 16.

  61. See for instance, Jonathan Culler, Framing the Sign (Norman, Okla., 1988), 208–210; David Perkins, Is Literary History Possible? (Baltimore, 1992), 11, 34, 42, 108, 125; Herbert Lindenberger, The History in Literature: On Value, Genre, Institution (New York, 1990), 17, 221, 234. Renewed interest in narrative structures and especially plot structures among literary theorists might also further the reception of White's work. See Ruth Ronen, “Paradigm Shift in Plot Models: An Outline of the History of Narratology,” Poetics Today 11 (1990), 817–842.

  62. Peter De Bolla, “Disfiguring History,” 56.

  63. Ibid., 76. In respect to Nazism the term revisionism refers to a group of writers who doubt the event of the “Final Solution.” They argue that functioning gas chambers never existed in any of the Nazi camps and that the evidence for their existence was fabricated by the Allies after the war. Their position is commonly identified with Robert Faurisson, who received considerable public attention when the French daily Le Monde published one of his programmatic texts in December 1978. On the Faurisson affair and revisionism see Pierre Vidal-Naquet, “A Paper Eichmann?” Democracy (April, 1981), 67–95; Nadine Fresco, “The Denial of the Dead,” Dissent (Fall 1981), 467–483; Lucy Dawidowicz, “Lies about the Holocaust.” Commentary 70 (December, 1980), 31–47; Roger Eatwell, “The Holocaust Denial: A Study in Propaganda Technique,” in Neo-Fascism in Europe, ed. Luciano Cheles (London, 1991), 120–146; and especially, Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), 151–169.

  64. A similar lack of clarity is to be found in White's discussion of the difference between a lie and an untruth in historical discourse. Based on his differentiation between singular existential statements and larger narrative constructions, he first defines the difference between a lie and an untruth. The former represents a denial of the historiographical facts whereas the latter applies to cases where historians draw “false conclusions from reflections on events whose reality remains attestable on the level of ‘positive’ historical inquiry” (The Content of the Form, 78). But he immediately destabilizes the definition of untruth and, with reference to the Zionist interpretation of the “Final Solution,” argues that any historiographical representation gains legitimacy and purpose from its compatibility with its political and conceptual context. Therefore he finds it misleading to talk about truth, which implies an underlying stable epistemology, when all one can attest to is the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of any given historiographical account in its immediate social framework.

  65. The Content of the Form, 80.

  66. Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome, 156–157.

  67. Hayden White, “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” in Probing the Limits, 37–53.

  68. Ibid., 40.

  69. Ibid., 52.

  70. Johann Gustav Droysen, Historik, ed. Peter Leyh (Stuttgart, 1977); Jörn Rüsen's Grundzüge einer Historik is in three volumes: Historische Vernunft: Die Grundlagen der Geschichtswissenschaft (Göttingen, 1983); Rekonstruktion der Vergangenheit: Die Prinzipien der historischen Forschung (Göttingen, 1986); and Lebendige Geschichte: Formen und Funktionen des historischen Wissens (Göttingen, 1989). See also Jörn Rüsen, Zeit und Sinn: Strategien historischen Denkens (Frankfurt, 1990); Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, transl. Adrian Collins (Indianapolis, 1957).

Wulf Kansteiner (essay date January 1996)

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SOURCE: “Searching for an Audience: The Historical Profession in the Media Age—A Comment on Arthur Marwick and Hayden White,” in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 31, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 215–19.

[In the following essay, Kansteiner discusses the different historiographic perspectives of Marwick and White, and suggests that a new historiographic approach is needed to deal with questions raised by popular visual media, notably films and documentaries.]

The exchange of arguments between Arthur Marwick and Hayden White, published in recent issues of this Journal, is certainly not remarkable for having introduced new perspectives into the debate about the relationship between academic historiographical practice, postmodern theory, and the possibility or threat of a vaguely conceived postmodern historiography. During the two decades that historians and critics have discussed these issues, little progress in terms of clarification and mutual enlightenment has been made. Most of the exchanges are noteworthy for their polemics and imprecise terminology, in the present case as pronounced as ever.1 Obviously, any short interjection cannot displace these frustrating continuities of twenty years. Nevertheless, I would like to offer a new perspective on one of the issues under debate, a perspective which leads away from the history/fiction dichotomy and its discursive focus and raises the question of the representation of the past in different media.

The intensity of past and present debates about postmodernism and academic history suggests powerful motives, one of which is the concern for the integrity of the discipline as reflected in the works of future historians. For Marwick and many other critics of poststructuralist anti-epistemology, the responsibility for teaching the next generation of historians is one of the touchstones of their critique. Marwick shares this concern with theoreticians like Christopher Norris and Lionel Gossman, who have qualified their support for postmodern theories and White's structuralist critique of historical writing in light of their teaching experiences and responsibilities.2 Considering that there are few history departments which give credence to poststructuralism as a historiographical tool, it is improbable that the next generation of historians will be markedly influenced by postmodern theory. But the concern with the discipline's future reflects a more serious problem. In my opinion, the polemics about postmodern historiography are partly fuelled by a growing awareness of the social and political insignificance of historical scholarship in contemporary Western societies. Since the end of the second world war, the social task of orienting society and especially its élites vis-à-vis the past has passed from the historical profession to other ways of imagining the past, most importantly to the electronic media. In this sense, I would like to challenge what Marwick repeatedly argues in his piece and what he considers common ground, that is, that we ‘only know the human past through the works of historians’ (JCH, January 1995, p. 28, see also pp. 8, 9, 11, 12, 29).

Unfortunately for us historians, few members of contemporary Western societies derive information about the past from sources based upon or compatible with professional historical scholarship. From our perspective the discipline of history might ‘fulfil a necessary social function'—as Marwick puts it—(p. 9) but today it is hardly a popular one. More than ever before, ‘society's need to understand particular aspects of the human past’ (p. 8) is met by visual media, such as television, the tabloids, and historical museums, which are not rivalled by scholarship's widespread but not necessarily popular nor influential derivative, the textbook. Unlike textbooks, media representations of the past are mostly produced without the involvement of historians and they distribute information about the past in ways incompatible with academic, discursively-fixed scholarship. These sources might not provide what Marwick calls ‘serious knowledge’ of the past (p. 11). They might be closer to ‘family gossip, old photographs, folk memories, old buildings, museums, pageants’ which Marwick lists as non-professional sources of historical information (p. 11). He mistakenly assumes, however, that these sources merely attest to the existence of the past. In their own way they provide interpretations and orientation, especially if we add the electronic media to the list. I want to illustrate this point by referring to an example which I witnessed recently.

During the first half of 1995, German society was swept up in a wave of anniversary festivities which commemorated the end of the second world war fifty years ago, mostly in terms of the liberating effect of this event on German society but at times also mourning the defeat of the German army and state. In the wake of this media outpouring, a generation of Germans who had had, thus far, little exposure to the history of nazi Germany—being too young to remember media events like ‘Holocaust’ and the debates surrounding it—were confronted for the first time with images of the liberation of the camps, the German capitulation, and the immediate postwar period. Few of these representations in documentaries, TV films, and movies can live up to scholarly standards and all of them function on levels outside the scope of even the most popular history books.

In their attempts to assemble material for the current anniversaries, TV journalists sometimes consulted historians for prestigious projects—a co-operation which often ends in frustration—but most of the time their choices of how to represent the end of Nazism was determined by what historians would consider unfortunate factors, i.e. by what material is easily available in the station's archives, what copyrights the station holds at the moment, how many minutes and seconds are available in the evening broadcast, and what might be efficient ways of beating the competition in the ratings. As a result, the audience was often faced with the type of representations of the past which Marwick has rightly rejected for historians: simplistic, imprecise, abstract, metaphorical language combined with highly suggestive footage. Thus, for instance, the undue emphasis on Hitler's last days in the bunker, which have been the focus of many media stories during the commemorations, is certainly not a reflection of the historical discipline's most important or most recent achievements.3 Even more importantly, the many shows combined have assumed a life of their own. The sombre, at times listless faces of the German politicians who reflected upon the liberation of the camps in official, live broadcast ceremonies between January and April 1995, lit up when they commemorated 8 May in carefully crafted, tentatively optimistic speeches.4 In the same period, the gruesome images of the camps gave way to films about the peace celebrations which invariably ended with references to the imminent economic miracle. Although we still know very little about historical identity formation and the dynamics of collective memory—topics which have only recently begun to interest historians—I assume that these simple but powerful stories, produced collectively by the media within a period of less than six months, are very influential for the development of the historical consciousness of teenagers growing up in Germany today.

From this vantage point, the polemics between Marwick and White mark the differences between a particular kind of intellectual history and a particular, more widely-practised type of social history, both of which are located well within the parameters of the academic tradition for the study and representation of the past. Marwick's and White's concern for the future audience and social relevance of historical scholarship which, I suggest, has influenced the letter and the spirit of their exchange, has to be met by other strategies than ‘history as usual'—as proposed by Marwick—or the development of modernist historical writing in the tradition of literary modernism—which White favours. Rather, the growing insignificance of traditional historiography indicates the need to focus on different, in practical and theoretical terms more challenging questions, for instance on the problem of bridging the gap between scholarly historical narratives and the kind of sweeping, imprecise, visually-based narratives about the past that find the interest of larger audiences; or on the problem of how scholarly protocols for the writing of truthful histories can be transferred to visual media, that is, how histories can be responsibly narrated in images. Such projects would entail an understanding of the metaphysics and metahistories of the media and in this respect would make use of some of the more productive aspects of the discussions on postmodern historiography. Such projects are also more pressing and rewarding than attempts to unravel the intricacies of the discursive protocols of two relatively closely associated ways of doing history and providing historical knowledge, especially if these attempts are partly triggered by concerns about the discipline's marginality. Finally, they might help us ‘to conceive a way of doing history to meet the needs of our audiences’ (White [‘Response to Arthur Marwick’], JCH, April 1995, p. 244), or to find them in the first place.


  1. The most recent in a long line of debates features a conventionally polemic critique of the perceived postmodern threat followed by an unusually thoughtful response. See K. Barkin, ‘Bismarck in a Postmodern World,’ German Studies Review, 28, 2 (May 1995), 241–51, and M. Geyer/K. H. Jarausch, ‘Great Men and Postmodern Ruptures: Overcoming the “Belatedness” of German Historiography,’ German Studies Review, 28, 2 (May 1995), 253–73.

  2. For Norris's and Gossman's critique of White and the general reception of White's work see W. Kansteiner, ‘Hayden White's Critique of the Writing of History,’ History and Theory, 32 (1993), 273–95, esp. 286–90. The question of teaching and graduate training in history is also an important reference point in the above-cited exchange between Barkin and Geyer/Jarausch. See especially Geyer/Jarausch, op. cit., 254–5 and 257–9.

  3. The focus on Hitler was particularly apparent in two documentaries aired by the two German national public television stations, the ARD and the ZDF, on 23 April 1995. From a historiographical perspective the ZDF's ‘Hitlers Ende: Was geschah im Führerbunker?’ (23/4/95) and the ARD's more critical ‘Hitler und die Deutschen’ (23/4/95) still compare favourably with the few shows broadcast by the commercial stations; see, for instance, RTL's ‘Nachtjournal Spezial: Die Stunde Null: Hitlers Ende—Deutschlands Anfang’ (30/4/95 and 7/5/95). See also the cover story of Der Spiegel of 3/4/1995 entitled ‘Hitlers letzte Tage.’

  4. In this respect, it is revealing to compare the official ceremony of the Federal Republic on 8 May which was broadcast live on a national public television station (ARD ‘Staatsakt der Bundesrepublik Deutschland,’ 8/5/95) with the numerous ceremonies broadcast on the occasion of the liberation of the camps, most of which were aired live only on regional channels of the public broadcasting network of the ARD; see, for example, Hessen 3, ‘Gedenkveranstaltung live aus Ravensbrück,’ 23/4/95, and MDR, ‘Buchenwald—50 Jahre danach live,’ 9/4/95.

Geoffrey Roberts (essay date January 1996)

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SOURCE: “Narrative History as a Way of Life,” in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 31, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 221–28.

[In the following essay, Roberts examines the opposing theoretical positions of White and Arthur Marwick and defends Marwick's perspective of narrative history.]

Hayden White writes [in the essay ‘Response to Arthur Marwick,’]: ‘Historians have systematically built into their notion of their discipline hostility or at least a blindness to theory and the kind of issues that philosophers have raised about the kind of knowledge they have produced.’1 His explanation for this blindness seems to be in terms of a set of personal failings shared by historians: their simplistic assertion that only empirical research really matters; their mistaken belief that understanding what historians do is a matter of practical knowledge available only to fellow professionals; their inability to theorize their own discourse and the suppression of the philosophical dimensions of their craft and discipline.

Such attitudes are indeed widespread among historians. But I want to suggest a much more profound reason for the anti-theoretical tradition in history: most historians feel no need for a self-conscious, separate and distinct theoretical analysis of their discipline because the dominant discourse of knowledge in history is coterminous with the common sense discourse of modern everyday life. As John Passmore has argued: ‘For the most part … there is nothing much to say about historical explanation; nothing that cannot be said about explanation in everyday life. … No wonder historians are often puzzled to know what philosophers are fussing about!’2

‘Narrative’ historians like myself, and most other historians,3 work mainly within the framework of a human action account of the past.4 History is viewed as a field of human action and action as the result of individual and collective reasoning in particular circumstances under the impact of a variety of social, political, economic, ideological and cultural influences (themselves contexts of action composed of and created by other human agents). The task of historians is to reconstruct the reasons for past actions. They do this by reference to surviving evidence of past human thinking, whose meaning they interpret in connection with decisions and action. This human action approach to the study of history emphasizes the freedom of individuals to act, the importance of reconstructing what happened from the actor's point of view, and the role of accident, miscalculation and unintended consequences in shaping historical outcomes.

Involved here, too, is what some writers call a philosophical anthropology of humanity: the view that human beings have certain properties, powers and predispositions. Arising out of these is the rational-purposive and self-reflective nature of human action and its intentional and intelligible character. The intelligibility of action and its expression in language—its reason-based, linguistic character—makes it possible to interpret and communicate the meaning of action.5

In narrative history the results of research are written up in the form of stories about connected sequences of thought and action. These narratives of action will include various descriptions relevant to the story, may include political and moral judgments about what happened, and, possibly, generalizations about past actions which ascribe to them meanings and patterns relevant to contemporary concerns. But the explanatory content of the story will be some reason-giving account of why past actors did what they did. The validity of this kind of account of the past rests on its correspondence with the direct and indirect evidence of the perceptions, motivations, goals, calculations and intentions which result in specific decisions and actions.6

The idea that people do things for a reason, that their individual and collective actions are the stuff of history and that it is possible to construct an evidence-based account of why past actors acted as they did is, for most of us, plain common sense. It is a set of assumptions that harmonizes with our intuition of what the world is like, corresponds with our own experience as historical actors, and forms the basis of our interaction with other human beings.

Narrative historians have been successfully practising their craft for generations, producing, within the terms of reason-giving human action accounts, an accumulation of grounded knowledge. Internal coherence and practical success, however, is no guarantee of validity and the neglect of deeper philosophical scrutiny leaves the field open to alternative (usually obfuscatory and confusing) conceptions of the nature of history. The assumptions underlying narrative history require elaboration and argument beyond the common sense propositions outlined above.

Contrary to the impression given by some philosophers and social scientists, a large and sophisticated set of theoretical resources are available to narrative historians wishing to defend their craft. These resources include:

1. The debates on individualism in the social sciences. Of particular interest to historians are efforts to validate an ontological individualism. The claim that what happens in the human world is the result of action, that the agency of action is the individual, and that while action may be constrained and influenced in various ways individuals are free to choose is of critical importance to narrative historians.7

2. The Collingwood school in the philosophy of history which seeks in various ways to defend and elaborate Collingwood's argument in The Idea of History that history is the history of human thought and action and that the accurate recovery of thought-action in the present is possible.8

3. The discussion among philosophers of the concept of action. Narrative histories rest on reason-giving explanations. For these to be valid, action must be volitional and intentional and intentions connected to reasons.9

4. The efforts of sociologists, particularly those working within the hermeneutic tradition, to produce a theory of action which links rational and individual action to its social dimension and context and provides an account of continuity and change in diverse human societies.10

5. The phenomenological account of the identity of form and content in narrative reconstructions of past action. Narrative historians tell stories about the past because human beings are narrative creatures and action is narrative in character. The narrative character of human existence arises out of the character of human consciousness and language.11 The stories told by historians (if they are good enough) correspond to those that have been played out and lived in the past. The idea that there is a correspondence between narrative and life has been brilliantly explored by some of White's philosopher colleagues who provide a coherent alternative to his view that historians produce the narratives that they do out of linguistic necessity. Their critique of White is far more effective than Marwick's polemics and denunciations—and far more useful to historians seeking a philosophical underpinning of what they do by instinct, tradition and common sense.12

Where does Marwick stand on the human action account of history? Although he lays claim to a defence of the ‘historical’ approach, at times his views seem more in tune with some kind of quasi-social scientific approach. For example, in his article he comments:

Postmodernists … show no familiarity with the modes of explanation historians actually use, which certainly do not concentrate exclusively on the actions of individuals, but involve a varying balance, depending on topic and focus, between short-term human agency, contingency and convergence, and longer-term structural, ideological and institutional movements and constraints.13

What Marwick seems to be endorsing here is a weak version of the ‘structuration’ or ‘social scientific realist’ approach popular among some sociologists.14 The basic concept of history informing this view is that what happens in the human world is the result of a combination of agency (human action/will) and autonomous conditioning, constraining and enabling forces and structures. The truth and usefulness of this concept of history rests ultimately on a set of ontological and epistemological claims—that the human world is like this, that it consists of two different kinds of objects (individual and social), and can be known and shown to be so. In other words, it requires validation by reference to a set of metaphysical assumptions which run counter to those of narrative history. Assuming that he could overcome his disdain for anything smacking of the metaphysical, would Marwick be prepared to defend an agency-structure account of history? The answer, on balance of the evidence, is no. In Marwick's The Nature of History one can find similar statements to that quoted above, but these are counter-balanced by a clear appreciation of the past as a site of human thoughts, activities and products, by his view that ‘in a very profound sense, what happens is the consequence of the actions of individuals,’ and his final reminder in the book that structural and ideological ‘forces’ ‘are in fact created by the activities of multitudes of human beings.’15

Reclaiming Marwick for History is not, of course, the end of the discussion with the structurationists,16 or anyone else for that matter, but it is necessary in order to clarify what the argument between historians and their opponents is really all about. In the article, and in his other writings on the nature of historical knowledge, Marwick, as I understand him, seeks to defend a traditional approach to the study of the past. He does this, firstly, by explaining and defending the research practices of historians and, secondly, by attempting to puncture the theoretical pretensions of White & co. Almost all of what Marwick has to say I, as a historian, agree and identify with. But missing from Marwick's account is the crucial dimension of a presentation and exploration of the metaphysical basis of historical practise. Like anyone else, historians have reasons for the kind of research they conduct and the type of statements and truth-claims they make. The historical approach is not in opposition to the metaphysical approach: the historical approach is as metaphysical as that of any other discipline. The fact that historians prefer to practise their metaphysics rather than talk about them does not mean they cannot and should not be discussed and defended.


  1. H. White, ‘Response to Arthur Marwick,’ Journal of Contemporary History 30, 2 (April 1995), 244.

  2. J. Passmore, ‘Explanation in Everyday Life, in Science, and in History,’ History and Theory, 2, 2 (1962), 122, 123.

  3. The purest narrative history is to be found in the works of traditional diplomatic and political historians, but narrative accounts are to be found in every field of the discipline. Indeed, even in the writings of historians explicitly hostile to the traditionalist view espoused here one often finds a crucial, defining narrative component (e.g. Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes, London 1994). This is because practically all historians share a common interest in human actors and their impact on the world and admit the importance of the connection between belief and action.

  4. The most sustained defence of a human action approach to history may be found in the works of Geoffrey Elton: The Practice of History (Sydney 1967), Political History: Principles and Practice (London 1970), Which Road the Past? Two Views of History (with R. W. Fogel Yale 1983), and Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study (Cambridge 1991). A less well-known, but equally important, and more philosophically rigorous, advocate of the human action approach (albeit on methodological rather than substantive grounds) is the British International Relations specialist Charles Reynolds: Theory and Explanation in International Politics (London 1973), Modes of Imperialism (London 1981), The Politics of War (London 1989) and The World of States (London 1992). Noteworthy here, too, is a detectable drift in the social sciences towards the human action approach long defended by historians. See, e.g., the contributions by Vayda, McCay, Eghenter and Searle in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 21, 3 (September 1991).

  5. To sustain the formulation about language in this paragraph would require a further argument that words have determinate meaning in relation to things, actions and ideas and that this meaning can be exchanged by speakers. The postmodernist—deconstructionist alternative—that words have meaning only in relation to other words and meaning is, therefore, ambiguous and ungraspable—is criticized by, among others, the Marxist theoretician A. Callinicos, Against Modernism (London 1989).

  6. The notion of causality deployed here is that of reasons as causes. There are, of course, alternative conceptions of causality in history, most of them based on the notion that causation in human affairs is, in some sense, akin to that in nature. For the reasons as causes argument see, e.g., W. H. Dray, Philosophy of History (Prentice-Hall 1964); D. M. Taylor, Explanation and Meaning (Cambridge 1970); and A. R. Louch, Explanation and Human Action (Oxford 1966). To my mind the most useful discussion of causes in history remains Elton, Political History, chap. 4.

  7. For a thorough and highly enlightening review of the relevant debates see R. Bhargava, Individualism in Social Science (Oxford 1992). While the author reveals the power of ontological, as opposed to other forms of individualism, he himself ultimately rejects it in favour of what he calls contextualism, i.e. a weak variation of the claim that there are some things in the human world irreducible to individuals.

  8. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford 1961). On the Collingwood school see F. R. Ankersmit, ‘The Dilemma of Contemporary Anglo-Saxon Philosophy of History,’ History and Theory, 25, 1986, and other contributors in the same issue. Important contributions/commentaries in this tradition include: R. Martin, Historical Explanation (Cornell 1977); W. H. Dray, Laws and Explanation in History (London 1957); G. H. von Wright, Explanation and Understanding (Cornell 1971); L. J. Goldstein, ‘Collingwood's Theory of Historical Knowing,’ History and Theory, IX, 1, 1970, Historical Knowing (Austin 1976) and ‘Collingwood on the Constitution of the Historical Past’ in M. Krausz (ed.), Critical Essays on the Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood (Oxford 1972); P. Q. Hirst, ‘Collingwood, Relativism and the Purposes of History’ in his Marxism and Historical Writing (London 1985); L. O. Mink, ‘Collingwood's Dialectic of History,’ History and Theory, 7, 1, 1968; A. Donagan, ‘Historical Explanation: The Popper-Hempel Theory Reconsidered,’ History and Theory, 4, 1, 1964 and W. B. Gallie, ‘The Historical Understanding,’ History and Theory, 3, 2, 1964.

  9. For a review of these debates see C. J. Moya, The Philosophy of Action (London 1990). Moya's conclusions are commensurate with the commonsense, practical concept of intentional action utilized by historians. The debate on free will is also relevant here. For a summary of that discussion see D. J. O'Connor, Free Will (London 1971) and, for a relevant pro-free will case, J. R. Lucas, The Freedom of the Will (Oxford 1970). I am aware that here are raised issues of unintentional action, of the unconscious, and the role of emotion as well as reason in human affairs.

  10. Of particular interest is Jürgen Habermas's The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols (London 1989). Habermas's views are summarized by J. Bohman, New Philosophy of Social Science (London 1991), who also reviews other sociological theories of action. An alternative account of action is that proposed by various rational-choice theorists, whose starting-point are the models of economic behaviour developed by neo-classical economic theory. Their views are ably summarized and criticized by B. Hindess, Choice, Rationality and Social Theory (London 1988).

  11. In relation to this point see Paul Hirst's summary of the views of Julian Jaynes in ‘The Evolution of Consciousness: Identity and Personality in Historical Perspective,’ Economy and Society, 23, 1 (February 1994).

  12. See David Carr's Time, Narrative, and History (Indiana 1986) and ‘Narrative and the Real World: An Argument for Continuity,’ History and Theory, vol. 15, 1986, and Frederick Olafson The Dialectic of Action (Chicago 1979) and ‘Narrative History and the Concept of Action,’ History and Theory, 9, 3, 1970. Also: W. H. Dray, ‘Narrative and Historical Realism’ in his On History and Philosophers of History (New York 1989) and A. P. Norman, ‘Telling It Like It Was: Historical Narratives on Their Own Terms,’ History and Theory, vol. 30 1991. An important, recent contributor to this argument is M. C. Lemon, The Discipline of History and the History of Thought (London 1995). Hayden White is obviously aware of this alternative view of historical discourse—that it is driven by the nature of human action, experience, and thought—but he never seems to confront and criticize it directly. This is true, for example, of the essays published in The Content of the Form (Baltimore 1987), including the one on the work of Paul Ricoeur, who espouses a version of the narrative is life argument.

  13. A. Marwick, ‘Two Approaches to Historical Study: The Metaphysical (Including “Postmodernism”) and the Historical,’ Journal of Contemporary History, 30, 1 (January 1995), 16.

  14. See A. Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory (London 1979) espec. chap. 2, ‘Agency, Structure’; R. Bhaskar, The Possibility of Naturalism (Brighton 1979); A. Sayer, Method in Social Science: A Realist Approach (London 1992); L. Doyal and R. Harris, Empiricism, Explanation and Rationality (London 1986); and A. Callinicos, Making History (London 1987). Giddens's particular approach is defended and elaborated by the historian W. H. Sewell: ‘A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation,’ American Journal of Sociology, 98, 1 (July 1992) and ‘How Classes are Made: Critical Reflections on E. P. Thompson's Theory of Working-Class Formation’ in H. J. Kaye and K. McClelland, E. P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives (London 1990).

  15. A. Marwick, The Nature of History (3rd edn, London 1989). The quotes are from pp. 247 and 381.

  16. See my ‘Agency and Structure in the New History of the Stalinist Terror: An Individualist View’ (forthcoming)—a critique of structuration in the context of a historical case study.

Nancy Partner (essay date December 1997)

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SOURCE: “Hayden White (And the Content and the Form and Everyone Else) at the AHA,” in History and Theory, Vol. 36, No. 4, December, 1997, pp. 102–10.

[In the following essay, Partner relates her observations and experiences during a January 1997 meeting of the American Historical Association devoted to the subject of Hayden White.]

I had received the invitation to speak at the Humanities Center of Wesleyan University some weeks before the January meeting of the American Historical Association where I was going to read a paper at the session on the work of Hayden White organized by Richard Vann.1 Since the choice of topic for this evening was entirely mine, I decided to do myself a favor and piggyback my Wesleyan paper on the AHA session—not by merely repeating that paper, which I had no intention of doing, but by using the experience to report on the “state of the art” in metahistorical theory as it would emerge in the course of the proceedings at the conference. This struck me as a singularly happy idea combining, as it did, guaranteed interesting material with gross opportunism in a highly professional manner. All I had to do was show up at the AHA, read my own paper, and then take copious notes on what everyone else had to say. I had never done anything quite like this before but it felt risk-free. I knew ahead of time that Dick Vann was going to trace the influence of Hayden White through reviews and citations, which was perfect for my purpose; and Frank Ankersmit (the other scheduled speaker) is always original and provocative, and I guessed that he would contrast his latest conception of the direct historical experience with White's ideas of linguistic mediation. Hayden White, the main attraction of the event, was going to have ample time to comment and reply as he chose, and of course the audience would supply whatever had been neglected. I was counting on questions raising the topic of postmodernism, or identity politics and national narratives, or White's views on Foucault and the historicizing of the “self”—generally bringing narrative theory up to speed with postmodern critical debates. I had no anxieties about encountering challenges to my own views; with Hayden White there, no one would ask me anything at all. I was confident in the knowledge that, thanks to Dick Vann's good planning, an unusual degree of coherence and intellectual focus was built into the structure of this session (so unlike all those shambling events at the AHA where speakers who might as well be from different planets huddle together under some tattered umbrella-rubric like “Crime and Cuisine in Premodern France and Poland: A Comparative Perspective”). All I had to do was listen, take enough notes, and then come here and report on “where we are now” in historical theory. That was the plot I intended to hold together all my material. Not a progress report, certainly, in any fatuous sense of a Whig history of theory; what I had in mind was what I provisionally planned to term a “critical taxonomy” of the state of the larger question of history as cultural artifact and as cultural practice, understood self-consciously or self-critically through the linguistic turn optic by historians themselves.

Our event began promisingly on a note of personal drama. One of the participants, Frank Ankersmit, injured himself ice-skating and was unable to travel to New York from the Netherlands where he lives; but amazingly, a substitute speaker was found at the conference with an erudite paper about Metahistory, and she sportingly agreed to step in at the last minute. The session itself, considered in its various parts, was quite good. It certainly met a fairly high professional standard for the AHA, all of the papers being on the announced subject; the honored guest-commentator handled the tricky pitfalls of tone and manner built into such occasions with good humor, bringing forward important matters without being self-important; we had attracted a noticeably “upscale” audience (an idea I leave to your competent imaginations to fill in), and a large enough one (maybe 150 people). We ran at least half an hour over our scheduled time without people surreptitiously streaming out of the room. All went pretty well by an objective measure.

So … where is it “where we are now” in historical theory as an aspect of practice and consciousness? Don't ask me. I went to that session as if to the first day of school with an entire new pad of paper, the pen I made sure would write, and came away some two and a half hours later with a few illegible doodles on the margin of one page which I seem to have lost. I'm afraid that I've had to replace the high-concept “critical taxonomy” with something more like an autopsy report.

The three papers arrange themselves logically, from empirical to philosophic analysis. Starting the session with the most empirical research paper, Dick Vann stated baldly and with complete supporting evidence that Hayden White's work had had virtually no discernible influence on its most salient intended audience—historians—as measured by the only objective criteria we have: reviews and citations. Maintaining a courteous and sympathetic tone (a diplomatic tour de force in the circumstances), Dick Vann traced a relentless course of obscurity for all of Hayden White's work among professional historians. Inadequately read, rarely reviewed in journals read by historians, infrequently cited, little discussed, and then routinely and grossly misunderstood, is the short version of Dick Vann's well-supported research on the White corpus. Most notable is the fact that what minuscule attention White has been given by his fellow historians has been devoted entirely to Metahistory, even now, with the far more nuanced, subtle, and historically pertinent formulations of his later essays in Tropics of Discourse and The Content of the Form remaining massively and impassively neglected. Casting as it did a shadow of unreality and grotesque humor over the occasion, Dick Vann's paper was a revelation and total surprise to me, I admit, and made me feel rather uneasy, or disconcerted is the more precise word, about what I had come prepared to say.

My own paper occupied a certain middle distance in approach. Partly contextual, partly interpretive, I proceeded on the confident assumption that Hayden White's work is important, is widely known, has had a pervasive impact in the historical discipline, and that its core insights and mode of analysis are far from being exhausted in their potential uses, especially for certain questions addressed to historical epistemology opened by postmodernism. I ignored Metahistory entirely, as an early provocative book which had done its work, as it were, choosing to concentrate on The Content of the Form whose refinement of insight into narrative structure I consider much more salient and suggestive for historians, especially in the wake of the epistemological upheavals of semiotics and deconstruction. I did note a certain persistent reluctance to pay serious attention to formal analysis among American academics who are endemically impatient with form, genre analysis, rhetoric, tropology, and the like, but I declared myself convinced that narrative theory, as offered by Hayden White, had somehow forced historians to acknowledge the superior potency of “textual intention” superseding the naive reading and writing strategies of authorial intention. I also proposed a clever and amusingly pointed rereading of what I took to be a patently well-known section from an essay in The Content of the Form which Dick Vann had just demonstrated might have been known by perhaps two people in the audience. (I hope they enjoyed it.)

The third paper, by a Polish graduate student, Ewa Domańska, who was in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, was the most philosophical in method and presuppositions. She had written a densely reasoned argument based on a highly sophisticated encounter with Metahistory which assumed, as its deep premise, that White's ideas are part of a living, ongoing stream of intellectual life in which certain people (by implication, all historians and cultural critics) are fully and unapologetically engaged. She certainly spoke from a position which assumed that all contributions to this ongoing project of philosophic engagement with the foundational conditions of history are interesting and intelligible to the kind of people who might be, say, members of the American Historical Association, although I can't say that the polite audience gave much sign of it.

I cannot begin to speculate on what all this self-devouring discourse sounded like to Hayden White who exhibited an imperturbable courtesy or perhaps resignation throughout, but his practical decision to ignore all of it in his extended response struck me as a happy impulse. White began by proposing that his ideas not be regarded abstractly, but rather, that his work should be historicized, as we now say, or “situated,” his preferred term, in its “moment of production” (also his phrase, I think), and he started the process by acknowledging his early fascination with structuralism and suggested that Metahistory resulted from his experiment with applying structuralism to nineteenth-century historical writing. But he chose to devote the majority of his comments to variant restatements of his personal, long-standing, and continuing loyalty to Marxism which he regards as superior for its critique of social structures and for other reasons, although the relation of Marxist theory to all, or indeed any, of his work on historiography remains obscure to me. In fact, neglecting utterly by that time to take any notes, all of Hayden White's Marxist thought remains obscure to me. The only clear memory I retain of that part of the program is Dick Vann murmuring approval from his seat to my left.

Just time enough remained for audience interventions to tie up any loose ends. One person asked if the use of the first-person pronoun were acceptable historiographic practice. An eminent foreign professor made a lengthy and mysterious, albeit learned, speech obliquely related to the proceedings which someone later confided to me comprised about 20٪ of the paper he was scheduled to read the next day. Dominick LaCapra suggested that we might regard narrative as a neurotic compensatory reaction-formation, or perhaps we shouldn't. And finally Michael Roth asked an actual question concerning the historian's freedom to emplot events: namely, when or at what point in historical work the imposition of a plot, Marxist emplotment, for example, or any other, is possible. By this time (5:00 at least) we had run long past our schedule, the room was in demand, the audience restive, and so we ended in the traditional tidal surge to the nearest bars. I have so often fantasized that the life of the mind, in its performative aspects, bears a deep structural affinity to vaudeville.

So Hayden White never addressed the one question actually related to his work in narrative theory—but I would like to. One problem that historians encounter in trying to think cogently about emplotment is having nothing useful to think about. Thinking abstractly about hypothetical sequence-structures for unknown events is not productive (at least not for historians), and all the historical events we know about in common are always already firmly emplotted, which makes thinking about alternate “plots” feel overstrained and unreal. So I suggest we consider the events I have just narrated, in both their potential emplotments and the one I chose. Given the ordinariness and inconsequence of the episode “Hayden White at the AHA,” we (including myself) are better able to think freely about whether I was successful enough in my narrative strategy to make the plot I used feel “found,” not imposed, a convincing rendering of the meaning immanent in the event which I registered and recorded, not invented, as for a rather bad academic novel. [Note: the only version of the event most of you can know is the one I gave, but that is the case with all historical evidence at some level, and at the Center for the Humanities, I would, at least, have one other first-hand witness, as reliable or unreliable as myself, just as Thucydides required.]

Given that I had committed myself to narrating a certain public event of some modest complexity and finite duration, my task was to emplot the materials, use some criterion of selection that would allow me to produce the impression of sufficient fullness (the mimesis of real time) without reproducing the real-time two-and-one-half hours, and in the course of that narratio define a coherent idea or theme as the summary “meaning” of the conflated, multiplex event and make my audience (you) aware of it as if it inhered in, and emerged from, the events themselves, not as if it proceeded whimsically or tendentiously from me alone. And I had to do this within the implicit constraints of the protocol of historicity, that system of mostly unspecified but nonetheless specifiable permissions and denials (operating through syntax and semiotics via pronouns, verb tense, quotation, reference, and so forth) which constitute “truth-claim” in prose. I am not pretending to have done anything especially noteworthy or original here. Every narrative of an event has to be manipulated through the basic devices of selective inclusion, aroused expectation and foreshadowing, comparison and contrast, metaphor and other tropological shaping. Choices have to be made and basic decisions related to hypotaxis—giving or withholding priority to detail, indicating relations of causal or temporal subordination—determine what a narrative is “about.” (In contrast to parataxis in which all separate narrative elements are equal: A and B and C and D and then … and then …).

In this case, my little endeavor was to infuse a normally narrative-resistant event—the academic conference session which has its simple, well-known linear sequence but no particular story—with the tropological condensation required by “meaningfulness” and the “sense of an ending” (à la Frank Kermode) in its sequence logic that are crucial to what we mean by emplotment. And it doesn't much matter if you don't think I was very successful. In fact, bad books, or formulaic genres, are often better to think with about these matters than idiosyncratic brilliant writing. The non-story of one more AHA session had to borrow its narrativity from an outside source, by regarding it as a summary episode [alias: the trope of synecdoche, or condensation in the related terminology of dream interpretation] of the career of a unified protagonist: here, not exactly Hayden White himself, but White's narrative theory as embodied in his books, in its progress through the definable world of academic history. As we all know, once an array of data can be configured into a unified subject, a world with institutions and rules, and a goal-oriented sequence of actions, the elements of a plot are in place. But what plot? Pilgrim's Progress? (Comedy); Portrait of the Artist? (Romance); Portrait of a Lady? (Tragedy).

I used the rudimentary but dependable device of thwarted or reversed expectation (alias: ironic outcome) to give expressive significance to my micro-narrative. I sketched in the initial wished-for plot of coherence, my announced intention to discern in the proceedings some harmonious convergence of thought on its way (implicitly in a forward direction) toward some clearer resolution or refinement: the rather pretentious “critical taxonomy” of history as cultural artifact and self-conscious practice. That provisional structure resembles Romance, I think, but it doesn't matter because its plot function was to serve as a counterpoint, a projected shadow-structure against which the events I narrate acquire their meaning, in a kind of slow-motion pratfall of accumulating disappointments and reversals of expectation registered by myself, the somewhat faux-naif narrator. There seems to be no way to avoid a certain pretentiousness in discussing these simple maneuvers, but that is part of the reason that explicit narrative theory meets a pervasive resistance: it feels so “natural” to do or to register, and sounds so insultingly contrived (to both writer and reader/listener alike) when conceptually unpacked.

I have also forced myself into a corner by invoking irony. Irony—considered one of the major tropes because it is a large-scale figure of thought like synecdoche, metonymy, and metaphor, not a small-scale ornament like anaphora, isocolon, or catachresis—is a problem. Irony is a trope of meaning expressed through verbal structure but without specified formal determinants. It always involves doubling of some sort, expressing two thoughts at the same time; and it is often reduced to some causal or intentional sequence of events having an outcome that is precisely what was to be avoided, eliciting the conversational punctuation: How ironic! The presence of irony is often indicated by tone or expression that comments on and renders the literal meaning of words self-defeating or self-deflating, or acknowledges that human behavior is a poor, inadequate lever for shifting the massive forces of malign reality. In those senses, irony can easily be a trope of cheap effect. On a large scale, irony resides in the mind of the observer who sees the many ways in which human endeavor grinds blindly toward unforeseen and undesired ends which yet express and expose the disguises of other kinds of desire. Rather messy as tropes go, irony suits modern and postmodern attitudes of coolness, knowingness, detachment, and self-observation. It certainly works well enough for an intellectual event approached with some optimistic expectation that is systematically undermined, even almost parodied, by its own unfolding reality.

The question I wanted to address, however, was Michael Roth's canny question about “when” this, or any, emplotment incarnates itself in and through the array of events “to be narrated?” Or to phrase this in the negative, with respect to the mind of the author, when do other potential choices get eliminated? If one is, as Hayden White insists of himself, “a Marxist,” does one consciously and always think Marxist thoughts, or are one's thoughts and feelings merely always colored by whatever it is on a deeper level that makes one “a Marxist” in the first place? I admit, for example, that my own thoughts about vaudeville in relation to aspects of academic life long predate the 1997 AHA meeting, and that this recurring fantasy, although one of self-satire, is also persistently colored by desire, not revulsion. Naturally enough I have never seen a vaudeville show but I associate such events with people like Jack Benny and Mae West, the Marx brothers (a Marxism I subscribe to), and a certain raw daring of self-exposure, a boldness and risk in life, and a certain kind of nervy and wild comedy, none of which describe academe. Therefore, I admit to a half-buried longing for the glamour of “vaudevillian” excess to manifest itself in the academic world I actually inhabit. And this may well explain in part my emplotment (the ironic pratfall) of the Hayden White session which I was only too willing to see as a prolonged semi-sane episode of imploding and self-satirizing intellectual intentions doing their acts—on a stage, before an audience, with an imagined scoffer in the wings with a hooked stick.

But at what point did I begin to conceive of this formulation? When did other formulations get discarded? I cannot remember. And that is a substantive and important answer, the answer any author would honestly give. A choice was made (was it during Dick Vann's paper? perhaps) but it did not feel like a choice but a recognition. It has to be obvious that the process of reducing an event stretching in uninterrupted articulate speech over two-and-a-half hours to a very few pages involves severe condensation and tropological manipulation. In its primary meaning, “emplotment” is not a term derived from narrative theory but from the process of writing in prose. I think there is still a massive confusion over how and when the process of emplotment takes place. Described after the fact (which is the only metaphorical “place” from which description can take place) emplotment is a rationalizing and organizing activity which follows logically upon the collection and contemplation of the “events to be narrated.” So described, any discussion of emplotment unavoidably suggests that authors do collect a mass of facts and then (in actual chronological sequence) consider what they mean in the set of relations we call narrative.

In actuality, this virtually never happens. The narrativizing process is in action prior to and all during the “research,” recognizing and recording what may count as salient “facts,” and it never feels as if anything so artificial as emplotment is taking place—although it is. The metahistorical process of analysis is an after-the-fact dissection of mental events that must feel spontaneous, inevitable, and self-generated while they are taking place. The act of emplotment is synonymous with the finding of meaning in reality, and thus reaches too far down into unconscious reservoirs of desire and fear (much deeper even, need I say, than vaudeville fantasies) for conscious recuperation. At a certain basic level plots are made from the same materials and using the same processes of symbolization as dreams are constructed: and plots feel “found” in the same way that dreams feel “given.” But both are made.

There are, of course, major differences. The plots of truth-claim narratives are subject to a severe and extensive reality-check, to modification and self-criticism, to enlightening or painful processes of rational correction or verification. That complicated behavior is where aspects of formulated adult mental life enter the process and modify its outcome. But emplotment never starts from a blank or amoebic state of unformed contemplation of discrete units of reality. The act of apprehension of narratable elements involves very complex and deeply informed mental responses, already well on their way toward larger configurations of meaning. Emplotment seems to take place exactly at the meeting point where unconscious demands on reality confront disciplined recognitions of the larger contexts and constraints that control meaning—a point of frequent unpredictable slippages and lapses of control, and also of originality, penetration, and mental discipline. I am describing the mental “place” where we think with what we have learned. Everyone has experienced this; it comes in the form of “discovering what I think as I write it” or “by writing it.” That common experience is our intuitive access to the mental fulcrum point between unconscious and conscious ideas. It is where narrative happens.

Anyone who has written any fiction (as I have privately, and would recommend to everyone interested in critical theory) knows the quite paradoxical feeling that fiction feels found. The actual mental experience of inventing words and gestures for non-existent characters is predominantly one of summoning those characters to mind and observing them, virtually eavesdropping on them, and recording their lives. Fictional invention feels like discovery. The classical rhetorical concept of inventio involves finding or discovering the specific contents of meaning, and that underlies our modern sense of “invention” as searching the imagination for meaning. Nonfictional discovery is a process closely related to fictional invention—but subject to multiple, public constraints under a protocol for truth-claim. It is no wonder that the theory of such a complex behavior of origination and revision participates in a certain slippage.

I felt that I would eventually have to introduce the explosive topic of fiction into a discussion of Hayden White's purported influence on the historical discipline. The issue here connected with my ironic plot for the AHA session is related to the occasional fictionality of reality, and the kind of decisions we make when hovering between realism and verisimilitude. In narrating the Hayden White session, I purposely omitted any description of its location—a room in the Sheraton Hotel called the Princess Ballroom. I decided to omit that description precisely because the actual physical circumstances seemed to conspire with my ironic emplotment to frame it in a spatial metaphor so perfect that it struck me as too “novelistic” for truth-claim persuasion.

Of course now I have to attempt it: this room called a ballroom was appropriately circular, and perhaps 50 feet in diameter, with a raised platform in front of draped windows. But no one would dare dance in this room, as the free circulation of even immaterial objects is thwarted by two rows of square columns, comprising eight columns, each four-feet square, trisecting the room. Furthermore, each of the eight columns is mirrored on its four sides, so that virtually every sight line in the room leads directly to a large mirrored surface. The ceiling was low and made lower by immense crystal chandeliers which seemed to absorb the dim ambient light and multiply themselves in the mirrored columns. From the speakers’ platform, one could look directly down the narrow channel of seats unobstructed by the mirrored columns or else look at oneself in a mirror; the acoustics and the microphone were dull; the lectern light was dead; the room seemed to be in shadow. The audience was unavoidably segmented, from itself and from the speakers, confronted with its own faces and the distant enhanced sound of sentences read by speakers many of them couldn't see.

What to do with this wealth of actuality clamoring to be rendered as spatial metaphor of noncommunication, intellectual disconnection, the inert absorption of ideas into a deadening atmosphere of obsessional self-regard and false light? In terms of truth-claim narrative, would I be going too far in the direction of a tropological fictionality if I described the Princess Ballroom as the material mirror-image frame for an event marked, as I perceived it, by intellectual frustration and the non-circulation of ideas? Even if I merely described the physical features of the room without comment, I would still be implicitly asking the audience to draw the significance of a ballroom where no one could dance. We are so adroit at these poetic registrations that life resolutely seems to imitate fiction. I actually found myself making the odd decision that actuality had not been subtle enough and that I wanted my ironic narratio modulated to a lower key. Verisimilitude demanded that I censor reality. And so I conclude on this note of superadded irony: that the chief conscious decision I was aware of making in the course of constructing a narrative involved filtering actuality through a standard of verisimilitude derived from realist fiction and finding reality in need of repair.


  1. This paper was written for the occasion of a lecture and seminar at the Wesleyan University Humanities Center (17–18 February 1997) and was intended to reflect on the Hayden White session in its entirety at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City on 4 January 1997. This account of my experience of the AHA session provoked some extremely interesting and characteristically sharp-witted discussion among Wesleyan faculty and Humanities Center visitors: I have not altered the paper I read to this very special audience, but their acute conversation has emphatically been “good to think with,” as we say.

Richard T. Vann (essay date May 1998)

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SOURCE: “The Reception of Hayden White,” in History and Theory, Vol. 37, No. 2, May, 1998, pp. 143–61.

[In the following essay, Vann provides a quantitative analysis of White's critical reception among professional historians and discusses aspects of White's work that have drawn criticism, notably his terminology and alleged relativism.]

The publication in 1973 of Hayden White's Metahistory, Brian Fay has recently written, marked a decisive turn in philosophical thinking about history.1 White might demur that he has no “philosophy of history,” since he, notoriously, has bracketed considerations of historical knowledge, as he has bracketed treatments of the referentiality of language. More plausibly, he might repeat his argument that there is no essential difference between history and metahistory; thus all practicing historians—and White still practices occasionally—have a philosophy of history whether they know it or not. However this may be, Louis Mink, writing only a few weeks after the publication of Metahistory, declared it was “the book around which all reflective historians must reorganize their thoughts on history.”2

A quarter century later, we can see to what extent Mink's mandate has been heeded. White's challenge to conventional academic history, however, was not confined to Metahistory, though it is the work most often quoted. He fired off his first salvo in “The Burden of History” (1966)3 and as late as 19924 was still expanding on and in fact changing some of his views. White is perhaps the premier academic essayist of our times, and he uses essays in the fashion of Montaigne, the inventor of the genre—to try things out no less than to inform and to provoke. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore, 1978) reprints “The Burden of History” and eleven other essays, some—like “The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea” and “The Noble Savage Theme as Fetish”—more or less unrelated to the theory of historical writing, and some contemporary with and closely related to Metahistory. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” one of three most often cited articles, is the best short statement of the theoretical import of Metahistory; but in the introduction which White wrote for the collection, he gives intimations of moving beyond the stance he offered there. In particular, the moral stance of existential humanism, so marked in “The Burden of History” and still implicit in Metahistory,5 seems to have receded, and while there is still much about tropes and narrative, there are now also discussions of narrativity and of discourse. These become more important in the eight essays republished in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore, 1987), of which the first three and the eighth are entirely devoted to theoretical issues in historiography. (The other four, theoretically informed to be sure, are devoted to Droysen, Jameson, Ricoeur, and Foucault.)6 In this collection the fruits of a decade of reflection since Metahistory are presented, with new emphasis, in particular, falling on the ideological and political import of historical narratives and on what White called “the historical sublime.”

Apparently not all White's essays turned out to his satisfaction, since some were omitted from the collections. One of these, however, “The Problem of Change in Literary History,”7 has had a long afterlife. And he has continued to publish, with undiminished energy, since 1987, although there has not been a third volume of collected essays.8

White's oeuvre is thus various and extensive, so any consideration of the reception of his work raises the prior and insistent question: “Which White?” Although (I would argue) he is generally free of the cruder sorts of inconsistency and incoherence, his thought has always been on the move. Furthermore, in stating his basic positions in a number of different contexts and to different implied readers, he has avoided repeating himself verbatim, with the consequence that various formulations of these positions—and not always cautious ones—have appeared. White has given much less attention to this than have his would-be exegetes, as he almost invariably declines invitations to explain what he meant by a given passage and as a rule does not defend against attacks on his views (or what are taken to be his views).

One way to study the reception of Hayden White is to make a quantitative study of the reactions, by historians—reflective or otherwise—and others, to the various pieces which White has written about historiography and the theory of history over the past thirty-odd years. My Rezeptionsgeschichte is based on citations of these works in the journals listed in the Social Science Citation Index and the Arts and Humanities Citation Index for the period 1973 to 1993.9 This essay reports on those citations, suggests what they can tell us about White's work, and concludes with some of the important and still unresolved questions which White has raised.

To be truly comprehensive such a study would have to include all the comments made about White in books, but this is not feasible. There is of course no way to discover what views, if any, were held by people who never cited or wrote about him. This has not prevented several writers from characterizing such views. Most of them say that White has persuaded only a few eccentric historians. Amusingly, it is social-science-oriented historians, who should be most wary of venturing generalizations unsupported by comprehensive survey research, who are willing to say, as does Eric H. Monkkonen, “I suspect that only the tiniest handful of historians would concur” with White.10 Only Hans Kellner detected the “enthusiastic reception Metahistory has had among many historians.”11 It is a good deal easier to find such comments as that the book is “irritating and pretentious” and amounts to “a systematic denuding of the historical consciousness” which constitutes “the most damaging undertaking ever performed by a historian on his profession.”12

Nobody has attempted to estimate how many philosophers or literary critics White has persuaded. It seems clear, though, that the sample constituted by references in journals must overstate the extent and favorability of responses to White's work, at least among historians and literary scholars. These are much more likely to make reference to works they generally approve of, whereas philosophers do their jobs by criticizing the views of those they cite.

There are well over a thousand citations of White's work in philosophy of history in those twenty years. That averages over fifty a year; but the series starts very small (only one in 1974, and still only eighteen in 1978) and rises to close to a hundred per year in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Carl Schorske has pointed out that Metahistory “generated” no fewer than fourteen articles just in History and Theory, and a Beiheft as well.13 Although this work was mentioned more often in History and Theory than in any other journal, yet, as might be expected from such a large number of citations, the diversity of journals in which the work of White has been cited is extraordinary. Clio and, more recently, the American Historical Review are the obvious ones, but also ELH,ESQ, and MLN,Arcadia,Belfagor,Chasqui, and Fabula,Paragraph,Poetica,Salmagundi,Semeia, and Semiotica—not to forget Crane Bag,Sur, and Neophilologicus. There are quite a few comments in German (into which all three of White's books have been translated),14 Italian (the first language into which Metahistory was translated), and Spanish (also based on a Spanish translation of Metahistory). There are also a few in Dutch, Russian, Portuguese, and—thanks to the indefatigable Paul Ricoeur—in French, into which none of White's books has been translated. The array includes journals in administration science, anthropology, art history, biography, communications, film studies, geography, law, psychoanalysis, and theater. But to arrange the journals by discipline is misleading, not only because there are so many comments on White's work in journals of general interest (like Partisan Review) but also because the writers are seldom readily classifiable by their own disciplines. In fact it was usually necessary to look them up in various academic directories in order to find out in which departments they were officially rostered. Philosophers conversant with literature, the occasional historian interested in philosophy, and—especially—literary scholars disposing, or purporting to dispose of, all these fields were the ones who found reason to draw on White's writings. Furthermore, scholars interested in White have shown a tendency to migrate from one department to another—as indeed White himself did. The out-migration from history departments has been particularly noticeable; a tabulation of commentators by discipline would look somewhat different if Hans Kellner, who has written more about White than has anyone else, is classified as a historian—as he started out being—or as a professor of English—as he now is.

A diachronic analysis reveals which disciplines confronted White's work, and when. There were, by my count, seventeen reviews of Metahistory, half of them in such eminently respectable journals as the American,Canadian, and Pacific Historical Review,History, and the Journal of Modern History, as well as interdisciplinary journals with a substantial historical content like Clio,Comparative Studies in Society and History, and History and Theory.15 On the other hand, there were fewer than half as many reviews of Tropics of Discourse, and these appeared in MLN,Nineteenth-Century French Studies,Virginia Quarterly Review,Notes & Queries,Southern Review, and Contemporary Sociology. The Journal of Modern History was the only historical journal to review it (in a joint review with a book called Culture as Polyphony: An Essay on the Nature of Paradigms, which the reviewer judged as the more important of the two books).16The Content of the Form was more widely reviewed, but once again, in such serials as British Journal of Aesthetics,Yale Review,University of Toronto Quarterly,Political Theory,Modern Languages Quarterly,Novel, and Partisan Review. The only historical journals to review it were the American Historical Review and (bundling it with several other books) the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Historians took a particularly active part in the early response to Metahistory. About forty percent of the earliest notices of it and the early articles were made by historians, who were most of the earlier reviewers; but as these works began to attract the attention of others, especially literary scholars, the relative and even the absolute numbers of mentions by historians began to decline. Over all, fewer than fifteen percent of the comments on White that I found were made by historians, while the majority were made by literary scholars—more in English, as might be expected, but a surprising number in Spanish and German.

The purely statistical picture, then, would suggest that some historians read Metahistory and some of the earlier articles and found occasions to refer to them, but few indeed devoted the same attention to Tropics of Discourse or The Content of the Form. They would have had little opportunity to hear of these books, since there were so few reviews in professional journals. White became much less of a presence in historical circles, regularly preferring to attend Modern Language Association conventions rather than those of the American Historical Association (these used to be held at the same time). In 1987 Allan Megill referred to him as “something close to a bête noire within the [historical] discipline”; in later years some people began to refer to him as “outside of the profession” or as a “literary critic.”17

German historians were less inclined to excommunicate White, and once his three books were translated, a number of them wrote appreciatively about him. Even an English historian, Antony Easthope, acknowledged that discussions of the “linguistic turn,” largely owing to White's “magisterial intervention,” had begun there.18 Easthope's article is primarily about an old article by Lawrence Stone called “The Inflation of Honours.” This reading of Stone informed by White dramatizes how abstract the discussion of his views has become in the almost complete absence of any historically informed participants. If historians have missed out on White's work, it has also missed historians.

The statistically inclined may wonder whether my figure for the declining, indeed almost disappearing, percentage of historians citing White is not in part a statistical artifact. Since there are so many more literary scholars than historians, there are that many more people “at risk,” as statisticians say, of having read and cited White. I cannot think of any statistical technique to eliminate this possibility, but neither can I think of a plausible argument that what the statistics suggest is not real. The work of Hayden White has had a remarkable influence outside the profession, making him perhaps the most widely quoted historian of our time. But historians have almost entirely tuned out, especially historians in the United States (if it were not for the interest in White in the German historical profession from the late 1980s, the anemic figures for historians would have been even more unimpressive). Furthermore, even when American historians have quoted White in the last few years, they are still quoting Metahistory, rather than the essays which make up Tropics of Discourse and especially The Content of the Form. And within Metahistory, they are disproportionately attracted to those bits which discuss the great nineteenth-century historians.

Except for those who take particular pleasure in tabulations or catalogues, the main interest in surveying the reception of Hayden White is observing the variety not just of responses, but of borrowings, adaptations, and attempted paraphrases. The first review of Metahistory enunciated a position, if not an argument, that recurred frequently in the observations of historians.19 Its author was Gordon Leff, the author of The Tyranny of Concepts (University, Ala., 1969). Leff begins, a bit surprisingly, by saying that “few would now dispute” that there is an “indispensable metahistorical foundation in all historical thinking.” He identifies the novelty and interest of the book as White's location of this, beyond any particular ideological standpoint, “in the very linguistic or poetic image which ‘prefigures’ all conceptualization.” Historical discourse thus “owes its modes to the particular linguistic imagery in which historical events are initially depicted.” This sentence is not free of difficulties, but we may assume that “linguistic imagery” is a translation of “tropes” and that the “initial depiction” here is that of historians rather than the evidence about the events with which they must work.20 Leff here avoids a common tendency to emphasize White's adaptation of Northrop Frye's four plot-types, often to the exclusion of his more radical view of the underlying tropes. Leff then gives his critique: “the historical reader” will find in confronting White's treatment of actual nineteenth-century historians that “latent skepticism” will likely “turn to manifest disbelief.” The problem is that White has taken a good idea “beyond what most historians would regard as its legitimate limits” and “reduced history to a species of poetics or linguistics.” Even as a formal analysis, he concludes, Metahistory leaves out too much, “not least the criteria which govern historical knowledge and what is peculiar to it.”

It would be unfair to demand substantiation of these claims from a short book review, but its rhetorical moves do require some notice. The most obvious is the invocation of “the historical reader” and “most historians” as authoritative. Then there is the reference to the unspecified supplement that history has which species of “poetics” and “linguistics” do not. White's application of the word “poetic” to historical thought, as we shall see, caused considerable offense; Leff is however unusual in claiming that history was thus “reduced” to poetics (rather than poetry). It is perfectly fair to note that White has omitted reference to “criteria governing historical knowledge”—and apparently only historical knowledge. However, even supposing that White or anyone else knows exactly what these are, his manifest purpose was to understand the great historical works of the nineteenth century not as bundles of truth claims (many of which have long since been falsified) but as books still worth reading, having “died into art.”

Two other early reviewers, John Clive and Peter Burke, added a count to historians’ indictments of White: obscurity. It is very unlikely that these were the only ones who had difficulty understanding Metahistory; but Burke went so far as to claim that White was writing “like his heroes Vico and Frye [!] … in what is very nearly a private language.”21 Clive complained that its style “lacks lucidity and elegance to a degree” and calls its frequent neologisms “monstrosities.”22 What is remarkable in Clive's review, however, is its openness to White's case. Whereas Burke had asserted that for White “the historical work” was “essentially the same as a work of fiction, in that it is a verbal structure which represents reality,” Clive warned against too rash a rejection of the book's principal thesis, that “what is crucial to works of history, no less than works of fiction, is the mode of ‘emplotment’ chosen by the author,” which in turn depends on the prefigurative language—once again the word “trope” is avoided—that historians “bring to facts and events as they seek them out, that is, before they even begin the task of casting them into a finished narrative.” This is surely a better account of White's thesis than that offered either by Leff or Burke. Clive goes on to make more concessions: that historians have to use language to relate the results of research; that there is a relationship (perhaps partly unconscious) between form and content; and even that “ordinary as well as great historians” are “quite capable of presenting ‘the same events’ not only from different ideological points of view but also from different literary modes—as for example, tragically or ironically.” Other than treatments by historians who were White's students, this is probably the most sympathetic account he received from his fellow professionals.

We may admire Clive's generosity while wondering whether he had either time or space in a timely short book review to spot some of the tensions and difficulties in Metahistory—tensions and difficulties which historians, as well as philosophers and literary critics, began to investigate. The most problematic areas were White's view of the tropes and his conception of facts and events, which led Louis Mink to characterize his position as “the New Rhetorical Relativism.”23

One reason why early reviewers may have avoided using the word “tropes” is they did not understand what they were. If so, they had plenty of company. Scholars as well acquainted with literary theory as Fredric Jameson and Dominick LaCapra confessed themselves uncertain about how “deep” in consciousness the tropes are; their relationship to emplotments, modes of argument, and ideological implications; and whether they form any necessary historical or logical sequence. Others wondered whether the tropes are really analytically distinguishable. Metonymy and synecdoche, for example, can slide into one another,24 and both can be seen as species of metaphor. Irony always threatens to burst any bounds and become a “super-trope,” either engulfing the others or undercutting the entire typology.25 John Nelson has argued that tropes as White saw them were not mere linguistic figures (as most early reviewers assumed) but modes of consciousness. If this is so, are they attitudes or artifacts of psychology? Moods—in both the grammatical and psychological sense of this word? Directions of imagination? Or are they overtly tied to actions (and thus not entirely distinguishable from ideologies)?26

No one doubts that whatever their depth, tropes as White conceives them are deeper than emplotments, modes of explanation, and ideological implications. It was not clear to his readers, however, whether the tropes operate largely or entirely unconsciously. If not, is it appropriate to characterize them as forming a “deep structure”? If so, how can White's emancipatory program, urging the historian to act as a “free artist”27 and choose some trope other than irony, be implemented?

White's version of a Fourfold Path allows sixty-four possible combinations; but some have an “elective affinity” with one another and others appear unfeasible. It appears to be impossible to deduce the operative trope from the mode of emplotment, which may indeed be the most superficial level of a historical text.28 The reason for this is that only the least imaginative historians (such as Ranke) line up everything according to the elective affinities. It is apparently the element of tension introduced by discordant elements which accounts for the literary power of the greatest historical texts; but inevitably this makes any claim about the relationships among them, or the priority of the tropes, tenuous. This is curiously illustrated by an attempted “empirical” test of tropology by Daniel Ostrowski in respect of four Russian historians.29 Ostrowski had great difficulty with the tropes, since “the rhetorical devices do not provide any clue to the trope.” He nevertheless succeeds by lining up the tropes with their “elective affinities” in showing that the theory “works” for three of the four historians “tested.”30

Inevitably, historically minded critics were tempted to speculate, as did Fredric Jameson, about what “mechanisms of historical selection” assure that some combinations of elements in his combinatoire, but not all, come into existence.31 Such speculations seem to be authorized when White presents what look for all the world like historical explanations for developments in nineteenth-century historiography, especially the effect of the professionalization of history. He also traces a cycle of tropes from eighteenth-century irony (with Gibbon as chief representative), through metonymy (Marx), metaphor (Nietzsche), and finally irony again (Croce). While philosophers exemplify the succession of tropes (except for synecdoche, for which no representative was found worthy), the historians are treated in terms of emplotments: Michelet (Romance), Ranke (Comedy), Tocqueville (Tragedy), and Burckhardt (Satire). These are hard to array in neat chronological order, since Ranke was born three years before Michelet, but both were writing a decade before Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America was written some twenty-five years before the publication of Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. White's decision not to present the historians in terms of their determining tropes further complicates the question how they are related to emplotments, explanation, and ideology.

Another, eventually more fruitful, approach to explaining the tropes was suggested by historian Philip Pomper. Pomper, surveying the uncertainties surrounding the choice and succession of tropes, argued that White must have had an implicit psychological theory accounting for the occurrence (or recurrence) of tropes. If this trope were to be made explicit, he suggested, it would be found to rest on the trope of irony.32 White never denied that his own stance was ironic, but he did suggest a psychological version of the origin and succession of tropes. The theory he adapts is Piaget's account of the stages of the intellectual development of children. Vico, Rousseau, and Nietzsche, he reminds us, felt that a kind of “poetic logic” was typical of children and “primitive” people. In the first year and a half of life, Piaget asserted, infants have a sensorimotor existence which, although it could not be characterized as metaphorical thinking, nevertheless constituted “living of the mode of similitude.” After this “metaphorical” experience, the developing child conceives the world successively in ways which could be seen as metonymical, then synecdochic, and finally reaches the stage of rational thought, which is inevitably ironic. “If Piaget has provided an ontogenetic base for this pattern” of the succession of tropes, White concludes, “he adds another more positivistic confirmation of its archetypal nature.” But, lest White be thought to be seeking positivistic support for his position, he quickly adds that he only claims for it “the force of a convention in the discourse about consciousness and, secondarily, the discourse about discourse itself, in the modern Western tradition.”33 And this is the last systematic word he has to say about tropes.

The other set of claims by White, about what “facts,” “events,” and “data” mean in historical discourse, although obviously related to the theory of tropes, could more readily be understood, and attacked, by analytical philosophy, whether wielded by historians or philosophers. Some quickly noted that a presupposition of Metahistory is that what White once called the “raw” or “unprocessed” historical record bore a striking resemblance to the “powder of facts” which Langlois and Seignobos in the heyday of positivism called upon the historian to fit to the laws governing them—unless sociologists had to do this job for them.34 White, while rejecting the positivist program for endowing this absurd welter of facts with meaning, was just as convinced that “the historical record” had no meaning in itself. However, one of the first reviews of Metahistory already suggested that White was thus treating the “data” of history—a word which he does frequently use, in spite of its being a translation of “givens”—as analogous to those of science. But, says Andrew Ezergailis, the data of history have already been “touched by the purposes of men [and women].” Even though these purposes sometimes miscarry, so that history is littered with the unintended consequences of actions, Ezergailis regards these purposes as already “prefiguring” the data.35 This rather cryptic statement foreshadows much more developed arguments by David Carr and Paul Ricoeur.

A similar point was made by Dominick LaCapra, who drew attention to White's “at times” lending credence to the idea of an unprocessed historical record presented as “an inert object to be animated by the shaping mind of the historian.” This, he claims, ignores the degree to which the historical record is already processed and simply substitutes an idealistic event for a positive one.36 Eugene O. Golob remarked that one of White's most notorious contentions, that different historians can stress different aspects of “the same historical field” or the “same set or sequence of events,” suggests a quasi-positivist sense of events “out there” to be “observed” by the historian.37

These criticisms come from quite different philosophical stances. Golob chides White for not having sufficiently attended to the philosophy of R. G. Collingwood; LaCapra believes that in Tropics of Discourse White was repressing knowledge of discoveries by Derrida which were actually “inside” him.38 Carr and Ricoeur (and perhaps Ezergailis) write from a phenomenological standpoint. From yet another, and in some ways opposite, position Alfred Louch argued for the existence of historical “facts” independent of any discourse or theory about them or of any narrative presentation of them. These would seem to be the very facts “out there” which other critics detected as a lingering vestige of positivism in White's thought. For Louch, however, White is a consistent believer that historical “facts” are shaped by the structure of historical discourse and thus historical writing is not to be judged by its representation but by its “form of execution.”39 For White, the importance of the tropes is that through them the historian “prefigures the historical field” and decides what shall count as facts. But, Louch objects, this is to conclude that “facts are theory-dependent because our theory makes it clear what counts as relevant evidence.” However this doesn't account for the existence of the fact or evidence. He illustrates the point as follows: “If we are working on a murder and have a theory about the gun involved, and then find the gun, it counts as evidence because of the theory, but doesn't exist because of the theory. ‘Pass the salt’ doesn't bring a salt-cellar into existence, nor is passing the pepper just a linguistic error.”40

On a certain level this seems undeniable, and White would surely not be so daft as to deny it. He might have made it clearer that he does not suppose any such silly thing. But—leaving aside the obvious consideration that guns and saltcellars pose different hermeneutic challenges than the texts historians usually have to deal with—Louch starts his analysis at a point when a murder investigation has already been decided upon (inadvertently making a perfect connection between narrativization and power). White can afford to stop his analysis at that point, because his interest is in what makes historians decide what sort of investigation they are embarked upon; and Louch cannot claim that seeing guns always implies murder investigations.

The most under-analyzed term White uses is “event.” Although he talks about “the same set of events” ensconced in different narrative accounts of them, he does not clarify what he means by “event.” Louis Mink asks what an event is: “A horse throws a shoe, which cannot be nailed on quickly enough, and a kingdom is lost. Are both of these ‘events’? Is the Renaissance an ‘event’? Are there basic or unit events, which cannot be divided into smaller events?” He goes on to recapitulate Arthur Danto's point that “we cannot refer to events as such, but only to events under a description.41 But if this is so, it is hard to see how historians could be equally well-warranted in writing about the very same “event” in different ways. White is apparently saying that there are indefinitely many ways of redescribing events, but he has not produced any argument that there is a substrate of unit or basic events that can exhibit some sort of sameness no matter how variously they are redescribed.

I know of no example where more than one account has ever been offered of exactly the same set of events—no matter how events are conceived. Ann Rigney has offered an analysis of various historical treatments of what she defines as a single event—Louis XVI's flight to Varennes in 1791. Aware of Mink's treatment of this topic, she notes how different historians have included more or less detail (about “events” that made up the larger event). Though events could figure in different stories, there was no consensus on the redescription of even this one “event”; and the historians were constrained not only by the evidence, but also, importantly, by what previous historians had said about the subject. This makes the likelihood of historians emplotting differently the same set of events even more remote.42

Few historians would be surprised by this outcome; but most would also wish for some escape from the relativistic conclusions that White draws. The problem with his position is that although there may be indefinitely many redescriptions of events, how do we determine the criteria for discrimination among them—an activity in which historians frequently engage? But the problem for the historical realist, or the advocate of “faithfulness to the facts” as a criterion, is how to defend the position that there is only one accurate description or redescription of events and only one way to select all the pertinent evidence and exclude everything else. The problem of the historian's selectivity, and its relationship to the issue of objectivity, has been curiously neglected in the philosophical literature.43 If he had done nothing else, White would be notable for the boldness with which he thrust this to the center of his work.

The years after the appearance of Tropics of Discourse in 1978 saw the remarkable extension of White's influence far beyond the relatively small number of historians, philosophers, and literary critics who had quickly recognized its importance. In the years from 1973 to 1980 serious critiques predominated; from that time onward White's turn towards narrativity and his demonstration of the features shared by histories and novels were picked up by hundreds of literary critics and others interested in what became a veritable “narrative turn” in the human sciences. A good many of these references were extremely superficial; Metahistory, in particular, would be listed among “works cited” in a bibliography at the end of an article—but it wasn't. Quite a few of his readers evidently were introduced to Northrop Frye's plot-types and Kenneth Burke's and Vico's tropes through White. The titles of his articles were mixed up (granted, many do sound similar); his first name was misspelled (Haydn being my favorite); and more seriously, he was characterized both as a structuralist and a post-structuralist and put into the same bed as all those “absurdist” critics he had criticized in the last essay of Tropics of Discourse.

There is an undercurrent of satisfaction among White's literary readers to see history among the mighty cast down from their seats. Its epistemological privileges and scientific pretensions seemed to be exposed; literature's truth claims were at last taken as seriously as those of history. Some, it is true, were peeved that historians had to be recognized as imaginative and the literary artist put on the same footing as the grubber in the archives. However the overwhelming impression from these hundreds of citations is that students of the novel in many languages—and to a much lesser extent, of the theater—found White's work comprehensible, provocative, and useful. For everyone whose attitude towards Metahistory seems to have been “Here is a book about narratives that I ought to show people that I know about” there were several who gave evidence of thoughtful reading and judicious appropriation. And even the namedroppers, on the periphery of White's influence, testify to the degree to which his work had become a cultural icon (except of course to historians).

Much of the interest in White's later work has focused on two essays in The Content of the Form: “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” and “The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation.” The first, in spite of its title, gave rise to renewed charges that White does not believe in a “real” past or “real events.”44 The second placed such an emphasis on the political or ideological import of narrative form, without providing any foundation for rejecting any interpretation, that White was attacked for licensing odious interpretations of history, and condemned for inattentiveness to the relationship of emplotment and truth in historiography.

White's discussion of the referentiality of historical narratives led some readers to concur with Gabrielle Spiegel that he, like Barthes and Frank Kermode, “sees historical narrative as intrinsically no different than fictional narrative, except in its pretense to objectivity and referentiality.”45 This was not White's position in 1975, when he wrote that “historical discourse should be viewed as a sign system which points in two directions simultaneously: first, toward the set of events it purports to describe and second, toward the generic story form to which it tacitly likens the set in order to disclose its formal coherence. …”46 A year later he was even more explicit, beginning “The Fictions of Factual Representation” by granting that historical events differ from fictional events “in the ways that it has been conventional to characterize their differences since Aristotle.”47 As for the reality of the past, of course there is no conclusive answer to Bertrand Russell's famous argument that the cosmos might have come into existence five minutes ago, complete with fossils and yesterday's copy of The Times; however this is an argument that only solipsists could love. But the “real past” cannot be known to be such by unmediated acquaintance; “in any narrative account of real events … these events are real not because they occurred but because, first, they were remembered and second, they are capable of finding a place in a chronologically ordered sequence.”48 Had White inserted “just” after “not” in this sentence, it would have been a truism. We could never have any evidence of something nobody remembered (at least long enough to write down something about it) and in a historical narrative there must be at least an implicit chronological sequence. However, as it stands the sentence leaves open the possibility that an event need not have occurred to figure in a historical narrative.

This raises again the specter of textual or linguistic determinism (or else utter relativism) which White in his early work usually tried to guard against. In “Historical Pluralism” (1986) White sketches a “pantextualist pluralist” position in which “the whole problem of truth is set aside in favor of a view of historical representation which leaves it virtually indistinguishable from fiction.” Characterizations such as “virtually indistinguishable from fiction” readily slide into the position that there is no difference at all; but White takes pains to deny that he is saying that certain “events”—like English Romanticism!—never occurred; their occurrence is “hardly to be doubted.” However, he argues, “specifically historical inquiry is born less of the necessity to establish that events occurred than of the desire to determine what certain events might mean for a given group.”49 For “events” like English Romanticism, this is surely true, but not for all investigations. Yet despite his lack of interest in the question of how historians might establish that events occurred, White has never abandoned the view that the contents of historical narratives are as much invented as found (which also means as much found as invented). And the more obvious the fact thrown in the face of the relativist—“You surely can't deny that John Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963?”—the more weight falls on the meaning of that event for different groups.

“The Value of Narrativity” is the most often cited of all White's essays. It afforded a splendid introduction to narratology while at the same time staking out a provocative set of propositions. It also left many questions for historians to think about. How is the ideological production effected by narrative—the central theme of Content of the Form—achieved? (By subject matter? By the form of the content, or the content of the form? By the form of the representation? Or all of these?) Are all narrative histories equally effective? If not, what grounds are there for preferring one to another—a judgment historians make all the time? How do systems of meaning production in historical narratives get “tested against the capacity of any set of ‘real’ events to yield to such systems”?50 White's attitude towards these questions, however, seems to be “Quod scripsi, scripsi”; his interests have moved on.

His critics, however, have not. To them White's emphasis on the real elements in historical narratives—shouldn't it be 90٪ found and only 10٪ invented?—and indeed his growing suspicion about narrativizing could assume alarming implications in the light of what White was saying about the ideological and moral import of historical interpretation. Narrativizing, he argues, is necessarily associated with the exercise of political power and inherently moralizes historical discourse.

In a complex and unusually adventurous argument, White draws out the political implications of much of his previous work. Part of the “Politics of Historical Interpretation” is, among other things, a historical explanation of what happened to historical thought once history was naturalized in the academy. The politics of this “disciplinization” consisted of a “set of negatives” operating to repress any sort of utopian thinking and thereby any revolutionary politics, of either Left or Right, insofar as it made any claim to authority from a knowledge of history. (It goes without saying that rhetoric was also repressed in the disciplinizing process.51)

In terms of eighteenth-century aesthetics, this development represented the suppression of the “sublime” in the interests of the “beautiful.” The “beautiful,” in historiography, is the construction of histories so well emplotted that they give intellectual satisfaction and aesthetic pleasure to the reader. The “sublime” is the point of view towards history which Schiller describes as arising from contemplation of “the uncertain anarchy of the moral world.” He evokes “the terrifying spectacle of change which destroys everything and creates it anew, and destroys again” and “the pathetic spectacle of mankind wrestling with fate, the irresistible elusiveness of happiness, confidence betrayed, unrighteousness triumphant and innocence laid low; of these history supplies ample instances, and tragic art imitates them before our eyes.”52 Evidently only tragic art is capable of representing the historical sublime. For White the sublime is the sheer meaninglessness of history, and any historiography that deprives history of that meaninglessness—whether Marxist or bourgeois—deprives history “of the kind of meaninglessness that alone can goad living human beings to make their lives different for themselves and their children, which is to say, to endow their lives with a meaning for which they alone are fully responsible.”53

Here again is the Nietzschean White. It is often overlooked, he says, “that the conviction that one can make sense of history stands on the same level of epistemic plausibility as the conviction that it makes no sense whatsoever.” Now if each conviction is equally plausible, should commitment to one be simply left to a coin toss, or to a choice that can only be arbitrary? A visionary politics, which White obviously prefers, “can proceed only on the latter conviction.”54

At this point White takes the argument further, confronting the hardest challenge historians could pose against his theories: Nazism and its politics of genocide as “a crucial test case for determining the ways in which any human or social science may construe its ‘social responsibilities’ as a discipline productive of a certain kind of knowledge.” He admits that ideas of historical sublimity like those of Schiller and Nietzsche are conventionally associated with fascist regimes—with philosophers like Heidegger and Gentile and the “intuitions of Hitler and Mussolini.” But this should not lead to rejecting it through guilt by association, since “[o]ne must face the fact that … there are no grounds to be found in the historical record itself for preferring one way of construing its meaning over another.”55

White then proceeds to state the questions about formalism and relativism which some of his critics were quick to pose.56 How, for one, to counter the “revisionist” argument that the Holocaust never occurred—“a claim … as morally offensive as it is intellectually bewildering [because the “revisionists” used all the apparatus of historical scholarship]”? Despite the claims of Pierre Vidal-Naquet, not by following the same “rules of historical method” that the “revisionists” ostentatiously imitate, nor by stigmatizing as an “untruth” rather than a lie the “quite scandalous exploitation” of the Holocaust that Vidal-Naquet attributes to Zionist ideologists, who represent the Holocaust as the inevitable result of living in the Diaspora, thus claiming that its victims would have become Israeli citizens. Vidal-Naquet calls this an “untruth” instead of a lie because it leaves the “reality” of the Holocaust intact. White defends it as true as a historical conception, because it justifies policies conceived by Israelis as crucial to their security and even survival. Who is to say that the “totalitarian, not to say fascist, aspects of Israeli treatment of Palestinians on the West Bank” is a result of a distorted conception of Jewish or European history? It is a morally responsible response to the meaninglessness of history, just as an effective Palestinian political response, entailing a new interpretation of their history, would be equally morally responsible.57

Would it, however, be morally responsible (rather than offensive) to impute a meaning to history that justified Nazi racial politics and found the Holocaust either desirable or nonexistent? The essay concludes without offering more than a hint of what the answer might be. Conventional academic history is whacked again; the alternative to it, which “seems plausible” to White, is a refusal to attempt a narrativist mode for the representation of its—history's?—truth. Such an approach might recuperate the “historical sublime” and conceive the historical record “not as a window through which the past ‘as it really was’ can be apprehended but rather a wall that must [be] broken through if the “terror of history” is to be directly confronted and the fear it induces dispelled.”58

What source of terror lurks behind this wall? Why would it be easier to confront and overcome without any knowledge which we might gain from the historical record? The rhetorical questions and metaphors which crowd the last page and a half of this essay suggest an argument in the embryonic stage of formulation, not to mention substantiation. Suggestive as they are, it is scarcely surprising that they would hardly satisfy those who demanded firmer grounds from which to refute the “revisionists.” These demands amount to the most recent episode in the reception of Hayden White—not because they raised any new arguments or ones not anticipated by White himself, but because they elicited from him, for the first time, reflection on the relationship between emplotment and historical truth.

This, however, was carried out with his usual élan. Those who stopped reading after the fourth page of his essay “Emplotment and Truth” would note that he had added pastoral and farce to the possible emplotments, and that “We would be eminently justified” in rejecting a pastoral or comic emplotment of the events of the Third Reich by “appealing to ‘the facts’ in order to dismiss it from the list of ‘competing narratives.’”59 To that extent they would be justified in speaking of a retraction of some of his previous claims. White however seems to have little interest in this issue, which is soon dropped. His chief effort is to evaluate the position that the Holocaust cannot be represented in a narrative at all, or only in a narrative which somehow totally avoided figurative language. He recasts the problem, using works by Barthes and Derrida, as a question of what voice historians’ prose should use in writing about such events; and he argues that it is not impossible to make a realistic representation of them, if it is a modernist realism employing a “middle voice” (neither active or passive), and requiring a narrative without a narrator of objective facts, not taking any viewpoint outside the events it describes, exhibiting a tone of doubt about the interpretation of events seemingly described, open to a wide variety of literary devices (like interior monologues) and reconceiving conventional notions of time so that, for example, events can be seen not as successive episodes of a story, but as random occurrences. Such a modernism “is still concerned to represent reality ‘realistically,’ and it still identifies reality with history. But the history which modernism confronts is not the history envisaged by nineteenth-century realism. And that is because the social order which is the subject of this history has undergone a radical transformation. …”60 This is hardly the “realism” that realists are seeking; for White it is both very new and very old. He is now clearly trying out a post-modernist idea; yet this is much of what he called for twenty-six years earlier in “The Burden of History.”

So the question “Which White?” remains salient in the story of his reception. Historians who read him may find little that assists them in the practice of their everyday “craft.” Extracting from him—or imposing upon him—a systematic philosophy of history is impossible, and it may seem that he is only ushering the flies into new fly-bottles. His forte is fecundity, not fixity, of thought; as Stephen Bann has written, “White's techniques of analysis are not beyond criticism; indeed their fertility in generating argument and counter-argument must be held to be strongly in their favour.”61 But nobody looking back at what was available to the “reflective historian” in 1973 can miss the great sea-change which White, more than anybody else, has created. One measure of White's impact can be seen in two statements. In 1980 John Cannon, editor of The Historian at Work (London, 1980), recommended Herbert Butterfield's The Whig Interpretation of History as “perhaps the best introduction to modern historiography.”62 And an eminent philosopher of history, Leon Goldstein, could discuss history purely in epistemological terms; all that mattered was for historians to find out what happened. After they had done that, all that remained was the unproblematic process of “writing up.” If nobody, even in England, could write that way today, we have Hayden White to thank.


  1. Editorial introduction to Contemporary History and Theory: The Linguistic Turn and Beyond, ed. Brian Fay, Philip Pomper, and Richard T. Vann (forthcoming from Blackwell).

  2. Historical Understanding, ed. Brian Fay, Eugene O. Golob, and Richard T. Vann (Ithaca, 1987), 22.

  3. In History and Theory 5 (1966), 111–134.

  4. Most notably in “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth,” in Probing the Limits of Representation, ed. Saul Friedländer (Cambridge, Mass., 1992), 37–53, in part a response to Carlo Ginzburg, “Just One Witness,” in ibid., especially 88–94. See also Ginzburg, “Ekphrasis and Quotation,” Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 50 (1988), 4.

  5. Hans Kellner was especially perceptive to detect this in Metahistory; see his “A Bedrock of Order: Hayden White's Linguistic Humanism,” History and Theory 19 (1980), 1–29.

  6. White's two essays on Foucault, “Foucault Decoded: Notes from Underground,” History and Theory 12 (1973), 23–54 (reprinted in Tropics) and “Foucault's Discourse: The Historiography of Anti-Humanism,” in Structuralism and Since: From Lévi Strauss to Derrida, ed. John Sturrock (Oxford, 1979), 81–115 (expanded and reprinted in Content) have been frequently cited. Allan Megill credits him with the major role in introducing Foucault to American historians, with a review of Surveiller et punir in the American Historical Review in 1977 (“The Reception of Foucault by Historians,” Journal of the History of Ideas 48 [1987], 127). Judging from the influence of these articles, the same might be said for large sections of the American academy generally. It must be said that White provides a rather idiosyncratic view of Foucault.

  7. New Literary History 7 (1975), 97–111. Other essays which failed to make the cut are “The Structure of Historical Narrative,” Clio 1 (1972), 5–20; “The Tasks of Intellectual History,” The Monist 58 (1969), 606–630; “The Politics of Contemporary Philosophy of History,” Clio 3 (1973), 35–53 (with critique by W.H. Dray, ibid., 53–76); “The Problem of Style in Realistic Representation: Marx and Flaubert,” in The Concept of Style, ed. Berel Lang (Philadelphia, 1979), 213–229; (with Frank Manuel), “Rhetoric and History,” in Theories of History: Papers of the Clark Library Seminar, ed. Peter Reill (Los Angeles, 1978), 1–25; and “Historical Pluralism,” Critical Inquiry 12 (1986), 480–493.

  8. Among these later essays are “The Rhetoric of Interpretation,” Poetics Today 9 (1988), 253–279; “New Historicism: A Comment,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (New York, 1989), 293–302; “‘Figuring the Nature of the Times Deceased’: Literary Theory and Historical Writing,” in The Future of Literary Theory, ed. Ralph Cohen (New York, 1989), 19–43; “The Metaphysics of Narrativity: Time and Symbol in Ricoeur's Philosophy of History,” in On Paul Ricoeur, ed. David C. Wood (London, 1991); “Emplotment and Truth,” in Probing the Limits of Representation, ed. Friedländer; and “Writing in the Middle Voice,” in Schrift, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Karl Ludwig Pfeiffer (Munich, 1993). Some of these are considered in Wolf Kansteiner, “Hayden White's Critique of the Writing of History,” History and Theory 32 (1993), 273–295.

  9. The SSCI began publication in 1973, the year in which Metahistory was published; the AHCI in 1976. For historical articles there is considerable but unfortunately not perfect overlap in the coverage of the two indexes, so both must be utilized. The terminal date, 1993, is somewhat arbitrary, but assures that all journals cited are accessible. Coverage of foreign-language journals in AHCI and especially SSCI is incomplete, but has steadily improved in more recent years.

  10. “The Challenge of Quantitative History,” Historical Methods 17 (1984), 86–94. But then the proposition with which so few would concur is “There is no difference between history and fiction.” Monkkonen goes on to note that “in the philosophical literature, only a handful have actually put forth a counter-argument.” The view he attributes to White could much more appropriately be located in Barthes; but, bizarrely, Monkkonen does not believe that Barthes questions “the epistemological belief of the historian.”

  11. Kellner, “White's Linguistic Humanism,” 13.

  12. Phyllis Grosskurth, review of Metahistory in Canadian Historical Review 56 (1975), 193; Andrew Ezergailis, review of Metahistory in Clio 5 (Winter 1976), 240. Grosskurth was not totally hostile, although she believed that White wished to impose “exigent artistic laws” on historical writing, while Ezergailis, who called the work a tour de force, was on the whole favorable.

  13. “History and the Study of Culture,” New Literary History 21 (Winter, 1990), 417; (reprinted in History and … : Histories within the Human Sciences, ed. Ralph Cohen and Michael S. Roth [Charlottesville, Va., 1995], 382–395).

  14. A peculiarity of the German reception of White is that his books were not translated in the order in which they originally appeared; the order was Auch Dichtet Klio oder die Fiktion des Faktischen (Stuttgart, 1986) followed by Die Bedeutung der Form: Erzählstrukturen in der Geschichtsschreibung (Frankfurt am Main, 1990) and finally Metahistory: Die historische Einbildungskraft im 19. Jahrhundert in Europa (Frankfurt am Main, 1991).

  15. Metahistory (in its German translation) was reviewed as late as 1991 in Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft, which was the official East German historical periodical. Although it had been mentioned in previous articles in that journal while it was directed by the Marxist East German academic establishment, this lengthy and fair-minded review is one small indicator of glasnost in the former DDR.

  16. Journal of Modern History 52 (1980), 124.

  17. Megill, “Reception of Foucault,” 127.

  18. “Romancing the Stone: History-Writing and Rhetoric,” Social History 18 (1993), 235–249.

  19. Review of Metahistory in Pacific Historical Review 43 (1974), 598–600.

  20. Another difficulty is the ambiguity of “initially depicted.” As Arthur Danto usefully reminds us, historical events always come to us already “under some description.” This would make the “initial depiction” reside in the sources, rather than in the historian's poetic imagination.

  21. Review of Metahistory in History 60 (1975), 83.

  22. Review of Metahistory in Journal of Modern History 47 (1975), 642–43. Sometimes yesterday's monstrosity quickly becomes acceptable, like White's coinage “emplotment.”

  23. “Philosophy and Theory of History,” in International Handbook of Historical Studies, ed. Georg Iggers and Harold T. Parker (Westbrook, Conn., 1979), 25.

  24. Kenneth Burke, one of the two authors most influential in White's thinking about tropes, acknowledges this difficulty (A Grammar of Motives [1945] [Berkeley, 1969], 503), cited in David Carroll, “On Tropology: The Forms of History” [a review of Metahistory], Diacritics 6 (Fall 1976), 58–64.

  25. The best discussion of these issues is Hans Kellner, “The Inflatable Trope as Narrative Theory: Structures or Allegory,” Diacritics (Spring 1981), 14–28.

  26. See John S. Nelson, “Tropal History and the Social Sciences: Reflections on [Nancy] Struever's Remarks,” History and Theory 19 (1980), 80–101. Struever's essay was “Topics in History,” ibid., 66–79.

  27. Metahistory, 372.

  28. Carroll, “On Tropology” argues that the four levels are nested as follows: first emplotment, then mode of explanation, by which the historian explains in a deductive-nomological argument what the point of the emplotment is. Then comes ideological implication, which combines elements of the first two. The tropes are on the deepest level.

  29. “A Metatheoretical Analysis: Hayden White and Four Narratives of ‘Russian’ History,” Clio 19 (1990), 215–235. Ostrowski thinks it a “lapse” in the response to White's book that nobody had tried such an empirical test before.

  30. Ibid., 227. The four historians include Richard Pipes and the “Short Course” of the Soviet Communist Party.

  31. “Figural Relativism, or the Poetics of Historiography [review of Metahistory],” Diacritics 6 (1976), 2–9.

  32. “Typologies and Cycles in Intellectual History,” History and Theory 19 (1980), 30–38.

  33. “Introduction,” Tropics, 7–13. White acknowledges that Piaget “would not appreciate being put in this line of thinking.”

  34. The reference to the “raw, unprocessed” record is from “Structure of Historical Narrative.”

  35. Review of Metahistory in Clio, 245.

  36. Review of Tropics,MLN 93 (1978), 1037–1043, especially 1042.

  37. “The Irony of Nihilism,” History and Theory 19 (1980), 55–68. He refers to Metahistory, 274.

  38. LaCapra refers specifically to the essay “The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory,” which criticizes—he says “caricatures”—the thought of Georges Poulet, Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida.

  39. “The Discourse of Subversion,” Humanities in Society 2 (1979), 34.

  40. Idem.

  41. Historical Understanding, 23.

  42. “Toward Varennes,” New Literary History 18 (1986), 77–98, especially 87.

  43. An exception is the remarkable article by J.L. Gorman, “Objectivity and Truth in History,” Inquiry 17 (1974), 373–397.

  44. L. B. Cebik in “Fiction and History: A Common Core?” International Studies in Philosophy 24 (1992), 47–63 treats this as White's true position, disregarding all his qualifications and disclaimers. The article is a tirade against White.

  45. “Social Change and Literary Language: The Textualization of the Past in Thirteenth-Century Old French Historiography,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 17 (1987), 139 n. 2.

  46. Tropics, 106.

  47. Ibid., 121.

  48. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” in Content, 20.

  49. “Historical Pluralism,” Critical Inquiry 12 (1986), 484–487.

  50. “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” in The Content of the Form, 44. Several of the questions I have asked are pointed out by Ann Rigney in her excellent “Narrativity and Historical Representation,” Poetics Today 12 (1991), 591–605.

  51. “Politics of Historical Interpretation,” Content, 62–63.

  52. Quoted in ibid., 68–69.

  53. Ibid., 72. It is curious that children seem to be capable of inheriting the meanings for which their parents “alone are fully responsible.”

  54. Ibid., 73. In fn. 12 to this article (p. 227) White “registers” an item of personal belief: that revolutions “always misfire” (an apparent covering law) and that in advanced industrial societies, they are likely only to strengthen oppressive powers. The “socially responsible” interpreter, he continues, “can do two things: (1) expose the fictitious nature of any political program based on an appeal to what ‘history’ supposedly teaches and (2) remain adamantly ‘utopian’ in any criticism of political ‘realism.’” Commenting on a shorter version of this paper (and others) at the AHA meeting in New York in January 1997 White declared himself a Marxist (perhaps utopian after 1989)—certainly a moral commitment rather than an endorsement of the Marxian master historical narrative.

  55. Ibid., 74–76.

  56. Besides Ginzburg (fn. 4) see Aviezer Tucker, “A Theory of Historiography as a Pre-Science,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 24 (1993), 656, fn. 48 and Gregory F. Goekjian, “Genocide and Historical Desire,” Semiotica 83 (1991), 212–215. Jean-François Lyotard raises the ante in this debate by concluding, after a discussion of “revisionist” historians, that the historian “must then break with the monopoly over history granted to the cognitive regimen of phrases, and he must venture forth by lending his ear to what is not presentable under the rules of knowledge. … [Auschwitz's] name marks the confines wherein historical knowledge sees its competence impugned.” (“The Differend, the Referent, and the Proper Name,” Diacritics 14 [1984], 4–14.)

  57. Content, 80.

  58. Ibid., 80–81.

  59. “Emplotment and Truth,” 40.

  60. Ibid., 50–51.

  61. “Towards a Critical Historiography: Recent Work in Philosophy of History,” Philosophy 56 (1981), 370.

  62. Cited by Bann, ibid., 367.

Philippe Carrard (review date Winter 2000)

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SOURCE: A review of Figural Realism, in Clio, Vol. 29, No. 2, Winter, 2000, pp. 229–32.

[In the following review, Carrard provides an overview of the topics addressed by White in Figural Realism. Carrard expresses disapproval over White's decision to forego a unifying prefatory essay in the volume.]

Figural Realism collects essays written by Hayden White between 1988 and 1997, that is, after the publication of The Content of the Form in 1987. The oxymoronic title points to two of White's most basic theses: namely, that figurative language refers to reality “as faithfully and much more effectively than any putatively literalist idiom or mode of discourse might do” (vii); and, conversely, that seemingly “realistic” modes of representation like historiography include elements of “literariness” (ix), as they are grounded in the “four general types of trope” comprised of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (11). Let us recall that White's “tropes” differ from the “figures” of traditional rhetoric insofar as they do not pertain to the linguistic surface of texts. When Marcel Proust, in a passage that White comments on at length in chapter 7 of Figural Realism, describes the drops of water that become suspended at the top of a fountain in the Guermantes's garden as a “nuage humide” (literally: a wet cloud) (129), he connects two different realms through a metaphor in the “traditional” sense, substituting one phrase for another according to a technique he himself explains (and celebrates) in a famous section of “Le temps retrouvé.” For White, in contrast, “tropes” are among the models that provide texts with a configuration in their deep structures. Therefore, “tropology” does not concern itself with individual utterances; it focuses on ways of associating words and thoughts with one another “across an entire discourse,” allowing the critic to characterize the structure of that discourse “as a whole” in rhetorical terms (11). Thus—to return to the same example—White does not seek to identify the numerous figures of speech that Proust uses in his description of the fountain. Emphasizing the turns from one tropological “type” to the other, he argues that the passage unfolds in four successive stages, “cast respectively in the modes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony” (131).

Several of the essays in Figural Realism proceed along the same lines, advancing the view that tropes shape all discourses, whether they are referential or fictional. Chapter 1 thus argues for the relevance of literary theory to the analysis of the historiography, which—being written according to rhetorical conventions just like literature is—can no longer be regarded as an “unproblematical, neutral container of a content supposedly given in its entirety by a reality that lies beyond its confines” (25). Chapters 3 and 5 explore the notion of “context” in literary history and literary theory, showing how scholars (e.g., the new historicists, to whom White devotes an extensive analysis in chapter 3) have turned to history for the “kind of knowledge” it is supposed to provide (64), only to discover that there is not one but a “variety” of historical approaches (66). Focused on The Interpretation of Dreams, chapter 6 submits that Freud has “reinvented, rediscovered, or simply recalled” the theory of tropes found in nineteenth-century rhetoric (124), contributing a “terminology” for characterizing the moves of nonlogical thinking as well as a “psychology” of figurative discourse (125). As for the chapter on A la recherche du temps perdu, it demonstrates that rhetoric and narrative can have a theoretical function, Proust, at any rate, adopting them to “interpret” (141) things as diverse as sexual preference, social attitudes, social class, and works of art.

For the readers who have followed White's output since Metahistory (1973), the most provocative among the essays in Figural Realism are probably the ones in which White tests his conceptual apparatus in unfamiliar territories. Chapter 2, for example, is to my knowledge the only text in which White considers the representations of the Holocaust in historiography and literature. Addressing the issue of “truth” in those representations, White asks whether some styles, forms, or genres are more suited to the facts than others, and whether specific tropes or plots must be excluded because of the very nature of the subject. According to him, the Holocaust is not “any more unrepresentable than any other event in human history” (42), but archival and aesthetic constraints restrict the way(s) that it can be described. Thus, it is illegitimate to emplot it in a “comic” or “pastoral” mode, if that plot is presented as “literal” (rather than “figurative”), and as “inherent” in the facts (rather than “imposed” upon them) (30). On the other hand, there is nothing wrong about setting forth the Shoah in those modes, if the goal is to make a “metacritical comment not so much on the facts as on the versions of the facts emplotted in a comic or pastoral way” (30). White thus praises Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986) for casting the Holocaust in the medium of the comic book and in a mode of “bitter satire” (31). Indeed, by mixing a low genre with events of the utmost significance, Spiegelman successfully challenges the idea that a “serious theme … demands a noble genre” (31), and he manages to raise “all the crucial issues” regarding the limits of representation in general, of the representation of real, traumatic events in particular (32). The last chapter in Figural Realism, “Form, Reference, and Ideology in Musical Discourse,” takes White even further away from his turf. A long comment about the papers edited by Steven Paul Scher as Music and Text: Critical Inquiries (1992), it deals with the relations between musicology and literary theory. White, to be sure, claims no expertise in the area of music, and he presents the essay as a “test case for assessing the critical grasp that discourse theory might provide for cultural critics working at the interface of two or more disciplines” (197). But he asks interesting layman's questions, for instance, while discussing a paper by Ruth Solie, whether it is documented that “major always denoted positive and minor negative,” or at least “was presumed to have been apprehensible as such,” at the time when Schumann composed his Frauenliebe songs (161). More generally, he brilliantly assesses the difficulties confronting “efforts to construe musical works on the analogy to literary texts,” also showing how attempts to relate both of these to their historical context(s)—White here returns to (for him) more familiar grounds—require “a full theorization of what is meant by history itself” (175).

In his preface, White signals that he intended to write a long introduction relating the essays in Figural Realism to one another as well as to essays he published earlier, but that he soon gave up, leaving the texts to “stand by themselves” (vi). Readers certainly can understand how attempts at synthesis might “bore” (as White puts it) even their authors (vi). They can also understand how theorists are now wary of “totalizing systems of thought” that privilege the whole at the expenses of the parts (viii). Yet they may still regret the absence of a preamble of some sort, in which White would if not defend the wholeness and coherence of his system, at least self-consciously define his current positions and look back at certain aspects of his work. To take just one example, it would be intriguing to see how White responds to the critics who challenge his thesis of the nondifferentiation between fictional and historical discourses from a formalist perspective. Indeed, White has made a specialty of refuting the views of the critics who oppose his conception of historiography as a “literary artifact” (the title of a chapter in Tropics of Discourse) in the name of “realism,” and he again devotes several pages (13–16) to answering those critics’ renewed attacks. Yet he does not engage with the theorists who—like Dorrit Cohn—argue that if fiction and historiography are both literary constructs, they do include textual features that unquestionably set them apart (Cohn's The Distinction of Fiction appeared like Figural Realism in 1999, but Cohn has been publishing on the subject since the early 1980s). As a friendly amendment to White's preface, we might thus add that there is nothing rhetorically or epistemologically objectionable to the fact that established scholars should periodically revisit—and reassess—their past productions. Such metacritical considerations, moreover, are not necessarily “boring.” Whether the reader is familiar with the author or just interested in the issues, they may be among the most inspiring elements of a study.

Allan Megill (review date September 2000)

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SOURCE: A review of Figural Realism, in Journal of Modern History, Vol. 72, No. 3, September, 2000, pp. 777–78.

[In the following review of Figural Realism, Megill finds flaws in White's rhetorical approach and the interpretative “multiplicity” of his historical perspective.]

Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect is the fourth book by Hayden White in a series that began with the raw, ungainly, and brilliantly suggestive Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973). Taken together, White's books and essays have done much to alter the theory of history. Although his focus on trope and narrative is far from what most historians are interested in, they are all aware of his work. This does not mean that it has been carefully read, but it does mean that in some slightly perverse way it now registers as part of the discipline's “cultural capital,” getting cited in such otherwise unlikely contexts as American Historical Association presidential addresses. Who would have figured it in 1973? But it seems to be so, and perhaps in retrospect it is not surprising.

Most of the essays in Figural Realism will be of only marginal interest to most historians, although parts of the book ought to be of interest at some level to all. White's preoccupations in the collection are heavily literary. The book is best approached if one sees it for what it mainly is—an attempt to make sense of literary modernism's apprehension of history. Of least interest for historians are chapters 6, 7, and 8. Chapters 6 and 7 analyze, respectively, Freud's theory of the dream-work and a passage from Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe, in the light of the four “master tropes” of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony; chapter 8 reflects on the applicability (or not) of literary theory to music. More interesting for historians is chapter 1, “Literary Theory and Historical Writing,” which amounts to an excellent brief overview and defense of White's approach to the theory of history. Chapter 2, “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth in Historical Representation,” is the one essay in this collection that many historians will already be familiar with: it was originally published in Saul Friedlander's collection, Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the Final Solution (Cambridge, Mass., 1992). Here White discusses the problem of how the Holocaust is to be represented in language. Chapter 3 discusses formalist and contextualist strategies of explanation. Chapter 4 explores the alleged tendency of literary modernism to “derealize” the notion of the singular, specific event, which, White suggests, melts away under the combined pressure of modernist narrative techniques and a surfeit of documentation. Chapter 5 brilliantly discusses Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946), which White regards as an exemplification of a specifically modernist historicism.

I shall content myself with making two general points. The first has to do with White's nimbleness and daring (some would say foolhardiness). Time and again White has undertaken to investigate intellectual objects and materials lying far beyond any technical field of competence that he might claim. He is able to do so because he has mastered a nontechnical field of expertise: he is a rhetorician, in the classical sense of a person who has learned how to produce speech that is appropriate to every particular occasion. The rhetorician holds in mind sets of rhetorical commonplaces or topoi (e.g., the master tropes) that are potentially available to be brought to bear on whatever matter lies at hand. The rhetorician also generally does not reject but, instead, works within the conceptual framework of the audience that he or she is addressing. Thus the distinction between formalism and contextualism in chapter 3 came from conference organizers. In chapter 4 White begins with a “commonplace” of contemporary literary criticism, namely, that modernism dissolves away the event. In chapter 6 psychoanalysis is never questioned. And so on. With his topoi and with his willingness to meet his audiences far more than halfway, White is able to speak fluently and interestingly on an astonishingly wide variety of matters.

This way of proceeding has both defects and virtues. On the one hand, rhetorical topoi do seem to embody an inherited wisdom: at any rate, one is quite often surprised at how much they actually do illuminate the objects and discourses to which they are applied. One can also learn from exploring the discursive structure of positions without questioning the positions themselves. On the other hand, one is here engaged in the pursuit of something close to what Giambattista Vico called “vulgar wisdom” (in the sense of “common” or “popular” wisdom). Admittedly, White's vulgar wisdom is often the wisdom of modernist intellectuals, but it is still “vulgar” in the sense that the question of its validity is more or less self-consciously held in abeyance. Thus White proceeds as if the formalist/contextualist distinction were adequate, as if what modernists say about the dissolution of the event were true, and as if Freud's theory of the dream-work actually holds up under empirical scrutiny. White sometimes expresses reservations about these conceptions, but he does not throw them out, because if he did that the speech-generating machine would grind to a halt.

My second point has to do less with White's project than with historiography. White sees historiography itself as an embodiment of vulgar wisdom. Another way of putting this is to say that White is concerned with historiography in its interpretive aspect (and with its descriptive and explanatory aspects insofar as they are matters of interpretation). He leaves aside the argumentative or justificatory aspect, whereby historians, engaging in extended dialectical debate, seek to infer to the best descriptions or explanations. At one point White notes offhandedly that “the precise nature of the relation between arguments and narrativizations in histories is unclear” (p. 182, n. 1). White is interested in the narrativizations (or interpretations) of the past that we offer from the perspective of our constantly changing present perspectives. These narrativizations are multiple, for they involve a continual and potentially infinite “retroactive re-alignment of the Past,” to use Arthur Danto's phrase (Analytical Philosophy of History [New York, 1965], p. 168). White helps us to see both the possibility and the interest of the multiplicity. But on both epistemological and ethical grounds such multiplicity also needs to be winnowed down. One of the roles of the historian (which White, in his sunny optimism and sublime exuberance, is not much interested in exploring) is to engage in such a winnowing.

Noël Carroll (review date October 2000)

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SOURCE: “Tropology and Narration,” in History and Theory, Vol. 39, No. 3, October, 2000, pp. 396–404.

[In the following review of Figural Realism, Carroll explores the shortcomings in White's application of tropes to narrative history and objects to the suggestion that historical writing is essentially indistinguishable from literary fiction.]

Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect by Hayden White is a selection of his articles published between 1988 and 1996. Like his previous, frequently cited anthologies—Tropics of Discourse and The Content of the Form—it is primarily concerned with narrative and figural discourse (or tropes), especially as the latter appear in unexpected places, such as historiography. As in his other writing, Figural Realism shows White to be a person of great learning, at ease with the classics—of literature, history, and much else—as well as conversant with current debates within that interdisciplinary animal referred to as Theory (with a capital “T”).

After a very brief but extremely polemical Preface (more on that anon), White begins Figural Realism with an essay entitled “Literary Theory and Historical Writing.” This essay is probably the one that will attract the most interest from philosophers of history. In it, White sounds his oft-rehearsed leitmotif: inasmuch as history (historical writing in contrast to historical research) is a distinctive kind of written discourse, literary theory is relevant to the theory and practice of historiography and the philosophy of history. That is, history (history writing) is first and foremost a verbal artifact and, therefore, an apt object of scrutiny from the perspective of literary theory. Perhaps predictably for readers familiar with White's work, the dimension of literary theory that most preoccupies him is tropology, the study of figurative discourse (or figuration).

Given White's commitment to the notion that historical writing is, in important respects, both representational and figurative, and given his additional belief that the tropological nature of history entails that any event is susceptible to different forms of emplotment, White is particularly interested in certain claims about narrating the Holocaust, notably: that the Holocaust is unrepresentable, that it must be narrated literally (not figuratively or aesthetically), and that there should be one and only one narrative of it. Thus, in his second article—“Historical Emplotments and the Problem of the Truth in Historical Representation”—he critically examines these claims about the historical representation of the Holocaust. At the same time that he challenges these allegations, he also concedes that the Holocaust may confront the historian with special problems and, in order to solve them, he recommends that historians might negotiate them by adopting the literary form of the modernist antinarrative.

The modernist antinarrative also makes an appearance in the fourth article of the book, “The Modernist Event,” where White suggests that the appropriate literary form for treating the unique, unprecedented events of our times (so-called “modernist events,” such as the Holocaust) is the modernist antinarrative. Indeed, one comes away from Figural Realism with the impression that White is convinced that historical writing should catch up with the advanced techniques of twentieth-century fictional writing. Thus, Figural Realism is not only committed to the relevance of literary theory to history writing, but also to the relevance of the practice of literature itself to history.

The third chapter—“Formalist and Contextualist Strategies in Historical Explanation”—seems to me to be primarily concerned with New Historicism whose achievement White locates in its advancement of a cultural or historical poetics (61). That is, for instance, by juxtaposing information from arcane legal procedures with canonical plays, the New Historicist breaks with, revises, or weakens the prevailing ways of thinking about the historical record creatively in a way such that the emergent, contingent, exotic, abject or uncanny aspects of the historical record are disclosed (61). Insofar as the New Historicists are poetic (in the sense of creative), one surmises that White is favorably disposed to them as an example of scholars who make history writing more explicitly like literary writing (in a very broad construal of that term).

New Historicism, of course, is primarily a creature of literary history; and White is interested in exploring the relevance of the writing of literary history for the writing of history in general. Consequently, he includes a chapter entitled “Auerbach's Literary History” in which he interrogates Auerbach's concept of this practice, as exemplified by his masterpiece Mimesis. White argues that what is distinctively historicist and modernist about Auerbach's approach is the idea of figural causation (particularly the narrative of prefiguration and fulfillment), which White believes has ramifications not only for literary history but for history in general (87).

In “Freud's Tropology of Dreaming,” White unravels the relation between Freud's account of the transformative processes of the dreamwork—condensation, displacement, representation, and secondary revision—to the various tropes used by rhetoricians to catalogue the articulation of figurative language. White argues, persuasively I think, that Freud, in this case, rediscovered or reinvented neoclassical tropology in order to theorize the dreamwork, though, White points out, whereas tropes function generally to clarify thought in figurative discourse, their function in the dreamwork is to disguise it.

“Narrative, Description and Tropology in Proust” performs a very close reading of a segment of Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe—the scene of Marcel's interpretation of Robert's fountain. White is interested in this interlude for two related reasons: for what it reveals about the relation of interpretation in general to tropology (maybe unsurprisingly, he contends that interpretation, like narrative and interpretation-as-narrative, is tropological or tropic through and through); and for what it indicates about the ways in which tropes are concatenated in texts (how one trope leads to, yields to, or is connected to antecedent and subsequent tropes).

White rounds off the volume with “Form, Reference, and Ideology in Musical Discourse.” In this article, White comments as an outsider (a nonmusicologist) on a series of papers by music theorists that explore the narrative dimension of music. The connection between this essay and the rest of the book is, of course, narrative, and White undoubtedly was invited to play the role of commentator here because, as a recognized narratologist, he is well-placed to assess the strengths and weaknesses of attempts to import narrative concepts to the study of music.

Though White, it seems to me, is usefully critical and reserved about many of the tendencies in the new musicology, nevertheless, I think that he is still not critical enough, especially when it comes to attempts to attribute a narrative dimension to pure instrumental or absolute music. For if we are speaking of pure instrumental music, there is the continuing issue of whether it makes sense to call music discourse, let alone narrative discourse. Unfortunately, White seems to presume uncritically that it does and as a result many of his claims in this chapter involving pure instrumental music appear simply to beg the most vexing theoretical question in this domain of inquiry.

As already indicated, “Literary Theory and Historical Writing” is probably the essay in the volume of greatest interest to philosophers of history. There White advances the view that history does not have a distinctive method, but rather is a distinctive kind of written discourse (1). It is an assertion that he iterates several times in this volume. Nevertheless, he does not really account adequately for what he believes is distinctive about historical writing, since, though he alludes to tropes and figures repeatedly, he also suggests that figuration is a feature of all discourse (17). So we are unfortunately left with the question of why White believes that historical writing is a distinctive mode of writing.

Surely White is right that most historical exposition is verbal and that, therefore, literary analysis might be pertinent to it. Nevertheless, the phrase White uses is “literary theory.” If this conjures up images of contemporary literary theory in readers’ minds, however, they are bound to be disappointed, since the literary apparatus to which White most frequently resorts is the tropology of neoclassical rhetoricians (which some might claim is less a theory than an arguably messy, though pragmatically serviceable, descriptive taxonomy). This, of course, is not really a problem, because everyone should be willing to admit that historical writing often involves figures of speech, such as metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, and irony. Were that White's claim, it would be unexceptionable.

However, the use of figures of speech or tropes in historical writing portends larger epistemological issues for White. The language of a historian is not, on his view, a transparent container, nor is the historian's use of tropes a neutral, dispensable form of ornamentation that can be paraphrased away without remainder. Tropes contribute to the content of historical writing—hence, White's notion of the content of form. White believes that tropes have content because he associates them with narrative structures.

Though White does not discuss the connection here at great length, readers familiar with his other writings will recall that the relevant narrative structures are of the order of comedy, tragedy, romance, epic, and so on. Since it makes an integral difference to the content (the meaning) of a piece of historical writing whether it emplots a sequence of events as a tragedy or as a farce, if we consider the structure of historical narration to be intimately connected to the historian's choice of tropes, then tropes contribute to the content of historical narratives.

Despite the fact that, to my mind, White has never satisfactorily spelt out in compelling detail the nature of the connection of tropes to narrative structure, nor shown that all historical narratives are, necessarily, tropological in form, the epistemological work he wishes these controversial presuppositions to do is quite clear. If historical narratives are inescapably tropic, if the choice of tropes renders the shape of any historical narrative figurative, and if said figuration is part of the content of a historical narrative, then there is a dimension of meaningful content in historical texts that remains to be assessed after all the fact-stating sentences in the historical discourse have been evaluated atomistically for their literal truth content. But how are we to assess this additional content?

Not, according to White, in terms of literal truth, since the relevant content in question is allegedly always figurative. Thus, White suggests we might think of this dimension of the narrative history as being true in the way that metaphors are true, where it is understood that so-called metaphorical truths and literal truths are assessed differently from the epistemic point of view (6–9). In this regard, historical narratives would be evaluated in the standard, literal way with respect to their fact-stating sentences and by the criteria of metaphorical truth with respect to their emplotment.

This epistemic ploy, however, is not conclusive, since White has failed to scotch the still defensible view, first broached by Aristotle, that metaphors are just abbreviated similes, and, therefore, amenable, once expanded, to the same literal standards of truth that other fact-stating utterances are. Of course, White may be able to refute this view of metaphor, but, as of now, the burden of proof belongs to him, if he wants to continue using this epistemological gambit.

Another suggestion that White makes is that the putatively special kind of truth that pertains to the tropological content of historical narratives might be understood on the model of fictional truth (9–13). That is, we typically believe that fictions can disclose truths about the world, though not literal truths, since fictions are made up. At the same time, historical writing and fictional writing share many of the same tropological and narrative structures. So might we not say that in virtue of these shared devices that history has a fictional dimension—that the distinction between literal history and fiction is not as implacable as members of the AHA suppose—and that histories, as well as being, in part, literally true, are also, in part, fictionally true, that is, true in the way that fictions are true of the world?

White does not attempt to deconstruct utterly the boundary between the literal and the fictional with respect to historical writing, though he does suggest that historical writing has an inexpungible fictional dimension in virtue of its tropic structures, whose content is best assessed in the way that we assess what might be called fictional truth.

Many historians will be unhappy to learn that their writing is fictional, even if White attempts to console them epistemologically by reassuring them that fictions can tell us about the world. I share their misgivings. Moreover, I do not think that they should be swayed by White's argument, since I think that it rests on a mistaken view of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, the category to which historical writing belongs.

White appears to assume that since historical writing and fictional writing share tropological devices and narrative structures, one is entitled to say that history writing, or a dimension thereof, is fictional. This, in turn, presupposes that the way in which one distinguishes fiction is in terms of its formal devices and structures. But this is a view that has been abandoned by philosophers of fiction for the simple reason that, as White himself believes, fictions and nonfictions can share formal and narrative features. For example, the same point-of-view editing structure used in narrative fiction films can be used in a documentary film without compromising the nonfiction status of the documentary film.

What distinguishes fiction from nonfiction, according to theorists like Kendall Walton and Gregory Currie, is the intended stance that the author mandates the audience to take toward the propositional content of his discourse. With nonfiction, the author intends the reader to believe the propositional content of the discourse; with fiction, the author merely intends the reader to imagine or to entertain the propositional content of the work. Historians, it is fair to say, intend the audience to believe the content of their work—to believe that it applies to the historical past—and in that sense their writing is squarely nonfictional, even if it shares certain formal expositional structures with fictional writing. The realist political historian who projects a tragic viewpoint toward the history of the Balkans is not writing fiction in this sense, no matter how fond he might be of synecdoches, because he intends readers to believe literally the content of his discourse. Unless White can undermine this sort of approach to the identification of fiction, he is not warranted in asserting that history writing, or a dimension thereof, is fictional and, therefore, to be assessed in terms of a different epistemic standard than that appropriate to all literal nonfictions.

White's tropological/fictional approach to historical writing is well known and has, as one would expect, garnered its share of criticism. In “Literary History and Historical Writing” White addresses a number of those criticisms, some more successfully than others. Possibly the most threatening charge leveled at White is that his position is self-refuting. That is, White appears to believe that all discourse is tropological. Consequently, the critic suggests, White's own metahistorical discourse must be tropological. White appears to concede as much (17–18), but then goes on to respond that this is not a problem because it does not detract from the seriousness of a discourse that it has tropological features. The possession of figuration, and even of figurative content, does not, White insists, imply frivolousness.

True enough. But nevertheless I think that White has missed the point of his critic here. I take the critic to be charging that if White's theory is tropological in the way he concedes, then it is fictional. If it is fictional, then we are not intended to believe it. But surely White wants us to believe his theory. Therefore, his concessions are self-undermining. To protest, as White does, that his theories are serious—perhaps serious fiction—is simply to change the subject. For if they are fictional, then they are not presented as objects to be believed. But since, presumably, White intends them to be believed, then he does not intend them to be fictional. This is, I think, the trap in which White's critic wishes to ensnare him, and I do not see that White's invocation of seriousness sets him free of it.

Throughout White's writings, he seems to presuppose that all the plot structures or narrative connectives used in historical writing are figurative; that is why he attributes a metaphorical and/or fictional aspect to history writing, alleging that it is not straightforwardly reducible to assessment in terms of literal truth. I have never been convinced by this generalization. Rather, it seems to me that most often (typically) the narrative connectives in historical writings involve causal networks—though not necessarily fully deterministic ones—such as lines of influence, agent causation, and so on (which can be assessed in terms of a straightforward, literal conception of truth). Thus I, at least, do not feel the pressure White does to arrive at some alternative standard of truth for the assessment of the narrative linkages in historical writing.

White takes up the issue of literal causation versus figurative causation in his essay “Auerbach's Literary History.” For White, Auerbach's history of Western literature has the form of a prefiguration narrative. Just as theologians once found prefigurations of Christ in the Old Testament Adam, so, White maintains, Auerbach finds prefigurations of later developments in Western literature in earlier ones. Thus, it is the trope of similarity—metaphor—that supplies the connective tissue in Auerbach's story. For that reason, White dubs this connective “figural causation,” which contrasts with literal causation, since, for example, there need be no really significant genetic link between the prefiguring events or persons and the prefigured ones; the former may anticipate the latter without playing any literal role in the latter's actual causal history.

Whether White's interpretation of Auerbach is correct is, I conjecture, of less interest to readers of this journal than his notion of figural causation. How extensive is it and how important is it for the practice of historical writing, not only literary history, but history in general? Undeniably, some histories secure coherence tropically in the way that White suggests—by unifying their subjects by means of the narrative figure of prefiguration/fulfillment. But I suspect that most modern historians would be wary of narratives told this way, unless a line of influence can be traced between the earlier events and persons and the later ones.

Moreover, if a line of influence can be traced between, say, one author and an earlier one, then we are not dealing with figural causation, but with literal causation. That is, the work of the earlier author is a causal condition, though not a fully deterministic one, for the work of the later author. Furthermore, if we distinguish narratives of influence from prefigurative narratives, my guess is that the incidence of prefigurative narratives (and the accompanying reliance on figural causation), though perhaps not totally negligible, is not widely pervasive either in the practice of contemporary history writing, literary or otherwise.

Of course, one apparent deviation from my maybe overly confident estimate here is the tendency of history writers to analogize one period with another—to say things like the 1990s are just like the 1890s. Is this a matter of figural causation? One reason not to think so is that historians who speak this way often do so with the unstated presupposition that the similarities they note are underwritten by causal regularities, laws, tendencies, or probabilities.

That is, the events or periods in question are similar because they are thought to be subject to similar causal processes, and the comparison between them is warranted since the genesis and outcome of the earlier events and periods may illuminate causally the direction of the evolving events at a later time. This does not show a commitment to figural causation, but an attempt at a familiar type of causal explanation, rooted in the faith that we can glean some causal regularities—though not necessarily laws—in the historical process. But even if this faith were ill-advised, such attempts are not thereby matters of figural causation, but rather, at worst, misguided, though literal, essays in causal explanation.

My objections in this case are based on my sense of the contemporary practice of history writing. But in Figural Realism, White is not just concerned to limn that practice; he also wants to change it. He not only argues that history writing is already literary, in ways generally unacknowledged by practitioners, but that they should become self-consciously literary and avail themselves energetically of the strategies of modernist fiction writers. For example, he recommends that the most effective way for history writers to grapple with the supposedly unprecedented events of the twentieth century is to embrace the techniques of the modernist antinarrative.

Though I admit that the events of the twentieth century are often different from events of earlier times—frequently due to the hyper-organization and interconnectedness afforded by modern developments (for example, totalitarianism, globalization—including global war—and so on)—I do worry that uniqueness claims for modern times may be exaggerated. But even if White is right that we are today confronted by events of a different and historically distinctive order than anything confronted by past epochs, I still find troublesome his recommendation of the modernist antinarrative as the solution to the problem of how to represent modern events.

My primary reservation has to do with my feeling that White has not really given us much of an idea of what a modernist antinarrative historical text would be like. Almost all his examples are fictional, including not only literature and film, but also the cartoon novel Maus. But it is difficult for the historian to take up White's programmatic suggestion without concrete historical exemplars. The only example that White mentions that seems to approach historical writing is Primo Levi's Il Sistema periodico, but unfortunately White does not say enough about it to provide a working historian with an instructive model. Thus, White's advice for historians of our times is pretty thin and airy. One wonders whether White would count the recent Reagan biography Dutch as the sort of narrative that he has in mind, since it, like modernist writing, blurs the distinction between fiction and fact. But that, of course, would hardly be a rousing testimonial for White's program.

White does propose that we might think of Auerbach's Mimesis as a modernist text because Auerbach himself suggests that his method approximates Virginia Woolf's (100). However, White recognizes that at the manifest level of technique Mimesis does not satisfy even Auerbach's own list of modernist strategies. So even if Mimesis is truly a modernist text, it provides little guidance for the working historian in search of a new mode of writing.

White's own writing in Figural Realism is often dense. I think the reason for this is his preoccupation with tropology. He is out to find tropes everywhere. But in order to do this, his conception of figuration is rather loose. It can apply literally to figures of speech, though unfortunately White does not define them rigorously and, as a result, sometimes his application of the category of one figure rather than another seems arbitrary. Moreover, the notion of figures or tropes can be extended metaphorically (or associatively) to narrative structures and to modes of thought. Indeed, some figures can be used to explain other figures. Thus, at the level of writing, the reader, or, at least, this reader is often confused by the unmarked, shifting senses of how one is to understand White's central concepts.

This may also be a case, to steal one of White's favorite themes, where form becomes a matter of content. Because White's use of the notion of tropes is so slippery, it is no accident that he can pile up so many examples. But this then raises the question of whether the extent of troping he finds in historical discourse isn't really a function of the slackness of his category. In that case, White's discovery of troping in unexpected places is not as surprising as a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It is more like the magician moving the hat from one hand to the other.

Finally, some comment on White's Preface is in order. It is very short and it has the flavor of a “Here-I-Stand” manifesto. A number of White's pronouncements seem predicated on giving the faint of heart, like me, the jitters. Three especially stand out. First, White maintains that there is no active thought outside of theory; “to think that one can think outside of theory is a delusion” (viii). I can only think (actively) that White must have a pretty inflated idea of what counts as a theory. I thought that my car wouldn't start this morning, but I had no theory. Second, White contends that theory puts in abeyance the distinction between true and false, fact and fiction (viii). This hardly seems (dare I say it) true of scientific theory, most philosophical theory, social-scientific theory, and so on; White can't be advancing an empirical generalization. Also, as far as fact and fiction go, theoretical physicists are not likely to invite Arthur C. Clark to deliver a technical paper on plasma dynamics anytime in the near future.

Of course, if theories are not evaluated in terms of truth and falsity (or truth indicativeness and falsity indicativeness), how are they to be assessed? White suggests the criterion for evaluating theories should be their utility in promoting the moral and political aims, goals, and ends of the human species at large (viii–ix). Not only do I wonder how this will be done without considerations of truth and falsity, but I fear it mires White in the same kind of problems that bedevil classical utilitarians, namely, how can anyone conceivably perform these utility calculations?

Since these rather incendiary assertions do not seem to me to play a major or even explicit role in the essays that follow, I don't imagine that there is much point in making a big deal about them. Maybe the Preface is just White's way of getting unadventurous folks like me to sit up and take notice. Perhaps, following White's preferred mode of exegesis, we should read the Preface tropologically. It certainly sounds like hyperbole, and, I, at least, hope that it may be irony.

Jeffrey J. Folks (review date Fall 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881

SOURCE: A review of Figural Realism, in College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall, 2000, p. 171.

[In the following review, Folks regards Figural Realism as “an eloquent effort” in defense of poststructuralism.]

Building upon his previous studies Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) and Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978), White's latest book, Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, is an eloquent effort to defend an earlier tradition of poststructuralism that has come to seem less and less relevant to the social and historical issues that occupy contemporary critical practice. Drawing on the mid-century criticism of Auerbach, Barthes, Derrida, de Man, and Ricoeur and aligning himself with modernist literary culture, White defends a perspective that has been challenged by New Historical, neo-Marxist, and social agenda critics.

From a historicist perspective, a major difficulty with poststructuralist theory lies in its inability to make distinctions between historical events which, in and of themselves, are significant and those which are not, and in its obscuring of the grounds for historical causation and development. For those who attempt to understand the astounding scale of human destruction in the Holocaust, for example, does that event's “meaning” rest only in its incomprehensibility, or does its meaning lie in the literal events themselves? In attempting to refute the arguments of those, such as Berel Lang and George Steiner, who regard the Holocaust in the terms of realist historiography, as an event that requires our scrupulous attention to literal truth, White resorts to a familiar poststructuralist argument, but one that seems inadequate in a discussion of historical events of such a great order. Since the historical event itself can only be expressed in language, its “reality” is linguistic rather than literal, and thus only a figural presentation of historical events—no matter how “real” they may seem—can add to our understanding of history. The aesthetic or intellectual value of such “figural realism” rests in its self-conscious and inventive use of form and language rather than in its probing of the “reasons” for historical events. For example, White posits as “much more critically self-conscious” a work like Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale “which presents the event of the Holocaust in the medium of the (black and white) comic book and in a mode of bitter satire” (31–32). Maus exemplifies “the modernist version of the realist project,” that is, a questioning, obscuring, or rejecting of the grounds of “objective reality” and obliterating of a sense of purposeful or “linear” development of historical chronology (40).

Maus may or may not be more self-conscious than historical accounts and memoirs by Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and a host of others, but the weakness of White's position follows directly from the assumption that, given the absence of meaning and order within experiential reality, only narrative that in its form embodies this absence is significant. Narrative that “only” adds to our knowledge of facts or which proposes causes for historical events fails White's standard of self-consciousness; narrative that achieves a self-conscious level is meaningful, even if, as a realistic account, it is trite or highly speculative (as is Oliver Stone's JFK, a film White finds more appropriate to our postmodern sensibilities than nineteenth and twentieth century works of classic realism).

White's most detailed application of tropological theory occurs in a chapter on “Narrative, Description, and Tropology in Proust.” Focusing on a paragraph from Sodome et Gomorrhe in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, White attempts to demonstrate that “all genuinely interpretative discourse” involves a “play” of tropological figures and “an allegorization of the act of interpreting itself” (128). The paragraph in question describes (but in describing also interprets the surrounding text) the fountain by Hubert Robert in the Guermantes's palace garden. Proust's description of the fountain is an interpretive narrative that affords a reading of proxemic events in the narrative and that views these events, as White would have it, as a “chaotic and senseless … stream of life” (135). At the end of this chapter White discloses that all narrative emplotments must be understood as having a single intention: “the meaning of which is nothing but the process of linguistic figuration itself” (144).

It should be stressed that limitation of narrative meaning to the play of four classical tropes (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony) amounts not only to a method of productive reading but also to a restriction of reading: even as it clarifies the tropological basis of narrative emplotment, it closes off the reading of narrative as primarily referential or manifestly historical. It is important to consider further just what, in the practice of figural reading, has been excluded from discussion—just what sorts of “meaning” are left out: in essence, all readings that would discover order or purpose, rather than devastation and confusion, in ordinary existence. In an piquant coda to his reading of the fountain passage, White notes Proust's recognition (in his insertion of the figure of Hubert Robert, the painter and architect whose fascination with ruins occasioned the nickname “Robert des ruines”) of the inherent condition of “ruin” of experiential reality—“its impression of solidity and beauty and its real nature as a chaos as senseless as” the fountain itself (146). This reading of the fountain passage seems a remote and melancholy characterization, but one that is mirrored in the essays in White's new book.


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