Hayden White and History

Stephen Bann

  • The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation by Hayden White
    Johns Hopkins, 248 pp, £20.80, May 1987, ISBN 0 8018 2937 2
  • Post-Structuralism and the Question of History edited by Derek Attridge, Geoff Bennington and Robert Young
    Cambridge, 292 pp, £27.50, February 1987, ISBN 0 521 32759 8

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 19th-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, 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.

It is difficult to know where exactly this leaves us. All of the contributors to this volume write well, within the terms of their objectives. But the attention is only really kindled when an author lights upon some nontextual, non-philosophical referent, as when Mark Cousins compares historical scholarship to jurisprudence, or Jonathan Culler discusses the institutional bases of the American university, as compared with its British counterpart. Yet there is one uproarious contribution, in which William Pietz contrives to put humour as well as considerable insight into his discussion of ‘the phonograph in Africa’. Last in the book, and embellished with a charming illustration, this piece turns out to be a clever application to 19th-century colonial history of Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘schizo-analysis’: despite the invocation of Derridean phonocentrism, this must be regarded as the one that got away.