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Metahistory
January 15, 2005 9:21 PM   Subscribe

Metahistory. A system of demystification of histories, historians, journalism, and journalists who claim to present things "as they are", while providing some brilliant methods for determining in what ways a given account lacks "complete objectivity" and how it can be seen as ultimately ideological.
posted by stbalbach (57 comments total)

 
I just read White's essays a few months ago and was blown away. He is great.
posted by josh at 9:31 PM on January 15, 2005


This page wouldn't have an "agenda", would it? 'Cuz it seems plenty of "conservatives" locate perfection anytime before 6008 years ago. Which is waaaaaaay before "the present".
posted by telstar at 9:36 PM on January 15, 2005


great post
posted by lucksmonday at 9:52 PM on January 15, 2005


I like Hayden White a lot, but this post is just a link to a short and poorly edited summary of a presentation given by a graduate student for some seminar. A cool post on Hayden White would have been great, but this isn't that post.

I haven't read Metahistory, but I am dubious that this chart means anything substantial. Conservatives use comedy and synecdoche more than liberals? That's a weird claim. I suppose it could be backed up with a large, random, and scientific survey of the literature, but somehow I doubt that White's done it. And the idea that these relationships are "best lent to one another" seems ridiculous. Metaphor is best used used by anarchists? Not having read the book, I can't criticize too much, but... wow.
posted by painquale at 10:09 PM on January 15, 2005


Nietzsche was an Anarchist historical philosopher? That'd be news to him and to every Nietzsche scholar I know, as well as most Anarchists. Really, that's as funny as putting Tocqueville and Marx in the same "lineage".

Some of Nietzsche's ideas add easily to Anarchism, yet some lead too easily to Mussolini (early 20th century Italy's foremost Nietzsche fan). How White can claim him for "our" side should make interesting reading; my own "tendency" within the movement has had to do some serious picking and choosing from his multifarious verbiage. (We're lucky that "inerrancy" is not part of our heritage.)
posted by davy at 10:12 PM on January 15, 2005


So, historians are biased. In other news, cats and dogs sometimes have trouble getting along.
posted by bingo at 10:12 PM on January 15, 2005


So, historians are biased. In other news, cats and dogs sometimes have trouble getting along.

White does go on to describe the different narrative patterns that historians use. Sorry but your comment is the equivalent, for me, of dismissing Jared Diamonds work as:

"So Geography and Resources are unfairly distributed around the world. In other news, cats and dogs sometimes have trouble getting along."

I dont mean to single you out but this "I'm so much hipper than you guys, I understood this premise as a child" is really annoying to me and brings down Metafilter. Yes, we all know and understand that historians are biased . Its obvious to us all. Whats being discussed here is the exposition and elaboration of that fact or rather the broader question of "When there is nothing truly objective how do we decide among competing subjective expositions?"

I think its always been true that History says as much about the present as about the past but its interesting to try to tease out the narrative cliches that are inherent to this particular time and seem much more obvious in historical retrospect.
posted by vacapinta at 10:28 PM on January 15, 2005


"So, historians are biased. In other news, cats and dogs sometimes have trouble getting along."

Yes, this recalls what is (to me) a notorious example of the occasional bloviation of someone who badly needs to learn their relative limitations. Someone on my college unofficial alumni list wrote that she would shortly "write a post explaining why 'objective history' isn't possible".

My response was "...to be followed by a debunking of the 'Santa Claus' myth?"

Christ. Yeah, okay, let me make this clear to everyone. Any representation of reality is necessarily limited by the mode of representation. If it were exactly like reality, it would be...reality. Furthermore, it should be obvious to anyone who's given this any thought at all that any form of "storytelling", even a dry recitation of facts, imposes its own set of constraints, inevitably creating lies by omission and commission both. Any narrative—that includes history and any kind of representational art—is subject to this form of "distortion" and much worse, as narratives created and understood by humans are almost invariably teleological and there's no good reason to assume that either reality or human history is teleological. This is even true in the hard sciences, though much less so (and intentionally less so).

That all this is true doesn't mean that truth doesn't exist. It does sort of make the question of "objective truth" something of a moot point from a practical position (at a certain level). Importantly, however, that this is the case doesn't require philosophical relativism in the strongest sense: it's entirely possible, and even from a pragmatic standpoint impossible to deny, that narratives can be compared to each other to determine relative relationships with an assumed "truth".

Rashômon exemplifies the difficulty of "truth"; not that we can say that it's equally possible that what really happened was that a cat shat in the woods and that's what everyone saw. I mean, c'mon.

So, yeah, historians are storytellers, part of a long line (in the west) going back to Homer. There is a (correct) sense that contemporary historians approach "truth" as we appreciate it better than Homer did. That's not to say that they're avoiding the pitfalls of telling stories. They're not because they are. The best historians tell the best stories. It has ever been thus.

On preview: "Whats being discussed here is the exposition and elaboration of that fact or rather the broader question of 'When there is nothing truly objective how do we decide among competing subjective expositions?'"

How we always have. The sense of profundity accompanying the awareness of these difficulties and the consideration of them is emblematic of an (intellectually) adolescent mind. Do you really think that the idea that descriptions of past events are subjective and conform to a variety of styles that relate to temperment is novel?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:41 PM on January 15, 2005


Count me in for Vacapinta's side.
posted by NickDouglas at 10:47 PM on January 15, 2005


Nietzsche was an Anarchist historical philosopher?

Doesn't mean he was actually an Anarchist. It is an archetypal metaphor, a type of classification system. See Astrology for example, people are not actually Bulls and Crabs.

painquale, what's funny is your critical comments actually support Whites model. I made a FPP telling a story using a certain type of narrative and you are rejecting that narrative because you assume things should be narrated in a different way (ie your contention about a short 3rd party summary of his ideas), which, looking at the chart probably puts you in the Hegalian-conservative-funny camp, since my post was clearly in the Liberal-Contextualist-Transcend camp (and this post is also very ironic).
posted by stbalbach at 11:00 PM on January 15, 2005


...(and this post is also very ironic)

Yes, congratulations. But welcome to the aughts, the nineties are over.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:03 PM on January 15, 2005


Quelle coincidence! Just before coming here I was reading Genius and Biographers: The Fictionalization of Evariste Galois: This article is an attempt to sift some of the facts of Galois's life from the embroidery. It will not be an entirely complete account and will assume the reader is familiar with the story, presumably through Bell's version. Because these authors have emphasized the end of Galois's life, I will do so here. As will become apparent, many of the statements just cited are at at worst nonsensical, or at best have no basis in the known facts. ...Those of you who prefer to bask in the warm orange glow of the unknown should stop now; the rest of you can carry on.. (PS: short Galois bio here)
posted by taz at 11:07 PM on January 15, 2005


Sorry but your comment is the equivalent, for me, of dismissing Jared Diamonds work as:

"So Geography and Resources are unfairly distributed around the world. In other news, cats and dogs sometimes have trouble getting along."


You are well within your rights to wrongly draw that equivalency. Getting specific about why white people's world hegemony didn't come about because of racial superiority is significantly more profound than drawing a grid to prove that all historians are biased.

I dont mean to single you out but this "I'm so much hipper than you guys, I understood this premise as a child" is really annoying to me and brings down Metafilter.

You have the right to be wrong about this too. I wouldn't say that I understood the premise as a child, and I hardly claim to be hip. But I don't think it's unreasonable to suppose that most people who finished high school have a passing acquaintance with historical and scholastic relativism. Of course, there would be nothing wrong with writing about this stuff to a less-educated audience, but that's clearly not what this guy is doing. He's trying to get all scholarly and sophisticated about a fairly simple and obvious idea, and the specifics he's coming up with to justify it are oddly more subjective than a lot of evidence that's already out there.

For example:

4. There are no grounds on which one is more ‘realistic’. This means that one being held as more ‘truthful’ than the others can only be seen as biases of the related establishment or author.

This is not true. There are many cases in which, given two historical accounts, one is more truthful than the other.

6. The best grounds for choosing are moralistic (‘we must help the poor’, or ‘history is doomed to repeat itself’) or aesthetic (telling a better story), not epistemological.

That's quite an arbitrary standard, and one that has already been responsible for a lot of historical inaccuracies.

This paper reads like a book report (and it looks like that's probably what it is) written by an excited western civ student about a book that he will think is a lot less profound in a few years. And in that sense, he will get a truer perspective on historical relativism.
posted by bingo at 11:14 PM on January 15, 2005


But welcome to the aughts, the nineties are over.
So what are you saying EB, irony is out? Where are we now on Whites chart? Let me guess: Synecdoche

synecdoche
n : substituting a more inclusive term for a less inclusive one or vice versa
posted by stbalbach at 11:19 PM on January 15, 2005


Maybe Metafilter's PageRank has maxed, but this badly-written essay is the first Google result for "Hayden White". So, the hell with him.
posted by nicwolff at 11:33 PM on January 15, 2005


Sorry, I'm being quite excessively grouchy and snarky, not to mention condescending. There's something about a few topics and the way most people approach them that rubs me so much the wrong way that I'm invariably an asshole about them and, usually, unrepentently so. I'll try to correct that; here being an example. However, I stand by my general point and, also, that there's a mid-level of philosophical awareness that is exactly the same as sophomorism that mistakes the beginnings of enlightenment with enlightmentment, cleverness for wisdom, truisms for truth.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:34 PM on January 15, 2005


Nicwolff: I'm not sure what your point is. What it seems to be doesn't make sense to me: that being the #1 Google result lends something credibility and implies quality? Surely you can't be claiming that.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:36 PM on January 15, 2005


(perches down with a parasol and some tea sandwiches, waiting with bright eyed anticipation for the mudwrestling between pomo relativists and those staunchly supporting the search for a "baseline truth scale." woo!)
posted by ifjuly at 11:37 PM on January 15, 2005


Um, well, on second-thought. That this is the case is the central assumption of pagerank, isn't it? :) And given that Google is the most trusted search engine, there must be something to that assumption. But it's certainly true that it's reliability is limited to certain knowledge domains. This is probably not one of them.

On preview: ifjuly, that's exactly the sort of thing that makes me the crankiest. What a waste of fucking time.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:39 PM on January 15, 2005


Here is one of the more readable links that comes up in that google search.
posted by bingo at 11:44 PM on January 15, 2005


Nice link, that. Good summary. I think a reasonably sophisticated (in the good way, but also a little bit in the bad way) historicism can be found in Tolstoy's War and Peace. Tolstoy believed that his narrative formed some sort of truthful historical whole; and it did, though not at all in the sense (I think) he thought it did. Indeed, when he lectures the reader on his theories of history, he's at his worst and becomes disposable.

On the other hand, in that book he presents Napolean's invasion of Russia in a very (relatively) broad context. He compellingly details both the grand and the mundane...and they cohere, even though they oughtn't. He tells us stories of people that, similarly, seem "organic" and true on both the immediate and long-term view. And, again, they oughtn't; not for the least that his characters are inconsistent, as real people often are (but literary characterrs rarely are).

In all this, I think, he approaches something most of us recognize as "truth". More true, in many ways, than most other accounts of the same events, time, and places. And yet...and yet...well, it's still a story. The metahistorians are right if they claim that history cannot be captured by a story. They're wrong, though, if they claim that interesting, valuable, and, most of all, appropriate portions of "history" can't be captured by a story. They're right if they're a corrective for blindered narratives that purport to be nearly complete "truths". They're wrong if they take their correctionism to the extreme where they're comitting the equal and opposite sin.

The areas of philosophical interest and discourse that makes me cranky are all of those that involve epistemology and its relationship to philosophical realism. The impulse—and natural and understandable, though neverertheless misleading—is to reconcile all for a "theory of everything". In this case, historicism, the discussion and arguments gravitate to a clash of what I consider naive relativism and naive realism. This is true, and a similar argument ensues, in discussions of science and the "nature of reality".

It's perhaps a reflection of my science/physics roots1, but physics' relativity provides a much better conceptual model for these things than most suppose. The naive relativists have wrongly appropriated relativity for their relativism and completely miss the point that SR and GR tell us a lot about a presumed reality...it's philosophically realist, not relativist. On the other hand, it, like QM, also tells us quite rigorously about what we cannot know, and the things we cannot simultaneously know, and what we can and cannot agree upon. If you take relativity as an example, you'll see that although two observers cannot in principle completely agree upon the truth of a single event, there's much they can agree upon. And, in practice, it's pretty clear which frame of reference is important to each observer. One frame of reference is appropriate for some purposes, another is appropriate for others.

What's missing in most of the philosophical discussions of these sorts of things is the simple pragmatism that makes it possible for contemporary physicists to not be running around arguing whose frame of reference is "more true". It's a mark against some philosophers that they don't have the same sense; and, much more often, all those who casually think about and discuss such topics as we're discussing here.

1) Although when discussing this kind of stuff with scientists, I'm often quickly dismissed as the worst sort of Kuhnian, a strong relativist. This is because I don't have patience with their naive realism and their dismissal of what are perfectly sensible ideas of Kuhn's. Not that this is true of all scientists, certainly. But many.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:29 AM on January 16, 2005


stbalbach: I made a FPP telling a story using a certain type of narrative and you are rejecting that narrative because you assume things should be narrated in a different way

So his little diagram is beyond reproof because it predicts any argument against it? No way - Hayden White himself wouldn't say that. Even if none is "objective" (whatever that means), not all ideas are equally correct - some ideas are better than others. Right?

White claims that comedy is best lent to the conservatives. I don't understand why this makes sense. Maybe White gives a reason for it in his book that wasn't in this little summary full of grammar mistakes, but I need some sort of argument in order to accept it. Just saying that my criticism can fall into one of White's categories, thus proving them, is utterly question begging.
posted by painquale at 12:34 AM on January 16, 2005


'Cuz it seems plenty of "conservatives" locate perfection anytime before 6008 years ago -telstar

theory and practice...conservatism is, by definition, trying to hold on to the present or near past. you're just confusing real conservatism with the radical fundementalists that claim the conservative parties today...

Some of Nietzsche's ideas add easily to Anarchism, yet some lead too easily to Mussolini - davy

theory and practice again. the reason anarchy runs into difficulty is that it has no safe-guards against abuse from supermen, hence it can (some say 'must') become fascism. but mussolini was also big into futurism, which is really just a violent, poetic form of anarchy. and the futurists adored nietzsche

and/or what stbalbach said....
posted by es_de_bah at 5:26 AM on January 16, 2005


I can't wait for this onanistic deconstruction of historians to become as passe as the idea that a particular historical account gives the objective truth. So much wasted intellectual energy.

Also, I always thought synecdoche and metanomy were the same thing.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:56 AM on January 16, 2005


Metonymy. I'm overly meta-cized.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:57 AM on January 16, 2005


Great comments, EB. As I read the linked essay/handout (whatever the fuck it's supposed to be), I was grimly contemplating the necessity of spending some of my valuable time exploding its smug pretensions, but you've saved me the time and trouble. I owe you.
posted by languagehat at 7:02 AM on January 16, 2005


Okay, first, Hayden White wrote "The Historical Text As Literary Artifact" in 1978. So no, EB, White's ideas are not "novel"; in fact, they're almost 30 years old. If you went to college anytime in the last 30 years--maybe even the last 40--it's pretty likely that you were secretly slipped some Hayden White, disguised as "the obvious." Certainly historians were pretty surprised by the idea in the 1970s, just as scientists were surprised by Kuhn in the 1960s. Ideas like this seem obvious because of people like White and Kuhn, but, amazingly, I know, they were not always so. I wonder how many history books you've read that were written in, say, the 1920s.

Hayden White's contribution isn't the realization that histories are only relatively true, EB. His contribution, specifically, is the idea of emplotment: that, when historians write histories, their histories are formed inevitably by conventions that are usually associated with literature, such as genre. His emphasis is not on "relativism" per se, it's on the kinds of data that we can mine from not just the content, but the style and form of historical writing. The air of "profundity" you cite belongs more to the handout in the link than to White himself.

This happens all the time: you drop someone like Hayden White into a discussion, and all of a sudden everyone pulls out their "realism" action figure and their "relativism" action figure and makes them fight. White was, of course, just as nuanced a thinker as you can be in a 500-word post on MeFi. His goal wasn't to abolish history as meaningless junk, but simply to help historians and readers understand what history was and how it worked so that it could be a more useful, better discipline. If you think that the point of White's work is "naive relativism" then you've either never read White or never been taught him properly. Hayden White is very pragmatic; he's trying to fine-tune the machine of history, which he perceives as being in disrepair. I think you're being naive about what it is that people like White believed when you make them out to be so simple-minded.

By taking what could be an interesting debate, and turning it into Realism Man vs. Relativism Man, you end up gutting an interesting conversation full of ideas. The point is that the "simple pragmatism" of the physicist is much harder for a historian or literary critic to utilize. In the sciences, the rules of the paradigm are obscure, but codified, which means that scientists are all on the same page together, even if they don't really understand what's on the page. In the humanities that's not the case: people are working in many different idioms or paradigms at once. Clarifying those paradigms is of immense value.

All I'm saying is: give the guy a chance, and at least take him seriously for a few minutes before you start in with the whup-ass. You're beating up on a caricature, not on Hayden White. This might be more fun and provoke some cheerleading, but it's not enlightening or useful. It's just playing with abstractions.
posted by josh at 7:41 AM on January 16, 2005


(Obviously, though I appreciate the post, it could've done a better job of providing context and information on White beyond that silly chart.)
posted by josh at 7:42 AM on January 16, 2005


From the headnote in my Norton Anthology of Theory and Crit.:

"Historians have objected to White's narrowing of history to language, while more poststructuralist-minded literary critics have taken issue with White's structuralist reductionism (only four master plots and tropes). Some critics argue that Frye's archetypal approach to narrative, which White relies on, is too simple, forcing all narratives willy-nilly into abstract and timeless structure without regard to how they might function in particular cultural contexts [ahem, realism man and relativist man]. Others contend that unlike most structuralists, White imagines plost as a quintessential expression of the historian's personal style and self. Despite these objections, White's skillful dismantling of the opposition between history and literature has paved the way for many productive studies in both fields."
posted by josh at 7:48 AM on January 16, 2005


And: If you want to see some pragmatism, you'll note that White's work has been very useful without being exactly right.

This is a great example of how a more nuanced idea of relativism and realism helps you make more use of the material that's out there. White is providing a versino of the discipline called history. It might not be exactly right, and it might have more or less to offer in different contexts than other versions of the discipline, but it is productive and useful even if it is not objectively true.
posted by josh at 7:51 AM on January 16, 2005


Thank you, Josh. You eloquently stated the most important problem with this whole debate.

While the model itself certainly is vulnerable to all sorts of criticism, it is essential to understand that what White is attempting to do is provide an analytic tool for better understanding various historical and theoretical narratives as, each, both the story of history and the story of the developing worldview which shaped it.

Such an endeavor absolutely presupposes an understanding of basic relativist arguments, and makes a valient, if faulty, attempt to create a way of doing constructive, pragmatic scholarship which doesn't simply ignore such 'adolescent' profundities because they happen to be inconvenient.
posted by milkman at 10:10 AM on January 16, 2005


This is a great thread. I have to say that I find White's models a little unsatisfying.

If anyone is interested in a very cogent refutation of White, I'd recommend Lubomir Dolezel's Heterocosmica. Dolezel constructs possible world models for historical fiction. It's not an easy read, but it is quite good.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 10:22 AM on January 16, 2005


On preview: ifjuly, that's exactly the sort of thing that makes me the crankiest. What a waste of fucking time.

sure, it can be amusing/fun to dismiss if you feel as you (and, upon reading your longer comment explaining your view) and i do--that it's comical to toe the line to ridiculous extremes in either camp, and much more useful to understand aspects of both sides add value to any approach of history. i think you're spot on with this:

The metahistorians are right if they claim that history cannot be captured by a story. They're wrong, though, if they claim that interesting, valuable, and, most of all, appropriate portions of "history" can't be captured by a story. They're right if they're a corrective for blindered narratives that purport to be nearly complete "truths". They're wrong if they take their correctionism to the extreme where they're comitting the equal and opposite sin.

especially the part about metahistorians being effective more as a "corrective" lens than as a fullout call to throw in the towel (ha, reminds me of the whole "postmodernism is selfdefeating" argument). i mean who the hell paints in such broad brush strokes?

(not directly related, but this is exactly how i feel about marxist approaches to critical theory as well. does appreciating such a mode mean i think i should dismiss all other approaches to reading literature? no. does it contribute one more layer--not a selfsufficient or allencompassing one, but an added and useful one nonetheless--to my understanding of the possibilities of literature? and does it help--again, not entirely on its own, but in one way at least--to keep lit analysis "honest" to some extent and rich? surely.)
posted by ifjuly at 10:32 AM on January 16, 2005


Me: "Nietzsche was an Anarchist historical philosopher?"

stbalbach: "Doesn't mean he was actually an Anarchist. It is an archetypal metaphor, a type of classification system. See Astrology for example, people are not actually Bulls and Crabs."

Obviously it doesn't mean he was an Anarchist; he plainly wasn't, and said so. I suspect I'll have to read the book (I see the University library has it) to find out what White's talking about, but what I'm talking about is how difficult it is for me to reconcile Nietzsche's thought with anything I'd recognize as Anarchist historical philosophy; I myself get more out of his views on relativism and morality (or perhaps I should say 'on the relativism of morality'). And unlike Astrology, people are not born having an Anarchist theory of anything, as Nietzsche did not have to live and think for 50 years to become a Libra.

And es de bah, I wonder how much Nietzsche you've actually read; most people who use the word Superman when talking about Nietzsche haven't read much by Nietzsche, and only a few things about him (which is why most Nietzsche-readers I've known avoid that word). As for your notion of what safeguards Anarchism has or doesn't, I doubt you've read much anarchist theory or analysis, and I doubt many people of the small number of people who know an "anarchist" know one who means by that something other than "Chaos is good as long as I run chaos!" and "I want to do whatever I want whenever I want, regardless." (Folks whose social circles regard reading Kropotkin as a necessity please raise your virtual hands; note mine would stay down.) As for the Futurists, I can't discuss them intelligently because what I read about them gave me the impression they were too adolescent to bother reading much by them (an "unfair bias" of the kind I view as an irreplaceable "labor-saving device").

Anyway, according to Amazon.com, it was published in 1975 and its full title is Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. That subtitle and to a lesser extent the date makes me even more curious.
posted by davy at 11:27 AM on January 16, 2005


There are many cases in which, given two historical accounts, one is more truthful than the other.

Absolutely. History may have several different "interpretations" but it cannot be addressed as postmodern relativist.
posted by nofundy at 11:40 AM on January 16, 2005


Thanks Josh. Most thoughtful and excellent comments.
posted by stbalbach at 12:39 PM on January 16, 2005


Against all odds, Josh manages to pull a derailed train back on track. Nice posts! I was hoping someone who knew something about White would make a comment.
posted by painquale at 12:48 PM on January 16, 2005


I think that when White calls Nietzsche an "historical anarchist" he means that Nietzsche does not have a teleological view of history; that is, unlike Marx, Hegel, and all traditional Christian historians, Nietzsche refuses to see history as a narrative with a beginning a middle and an end. This means that he sees no guiding force or mechanism 'behind' history, but only manifestations of "the will to power". Thus, history has no logical development or 'progress'. Rather, Nietzsche's historiography views history as a series of exertions of power.
White's conception of Nietzsche as philosophically and historiographically anarchistic (not a capital a) derives from N.'s refusal to give any epistemological privilege to the narratives of power and his efforts to look past those narratives to see them not as "truth", but as expressions of power.

An Anarchist historian (capital A) would probably fall into the liberal (anarchism is essentially liberalism extended to its utmost in the name of radical freedom) camp, or possibly into one of the types of historical emplotment that was left uncharted (e.g. apocalyptic).
posted by mokujin at 2:18 PM on January 16, 2005


I was very surprised to see that White took his model from Northrop Frye. I haven't read the Anatomy of Criticism and I haven't been anywhere near an English or Comp. Lit department in quite some time, but this seems like a very odd choice for a Marxist lit. critic to make. Obviously he has adapted it a good deal and taken out all/most/some of the seasonal/zodiacal stuff, but still? Maybe I will have to read that book too.
posted by mokujin at 2:31 PM on January 16, 2005


"I wonder how many history books you've read that were written in, say, the 1920s."

Ha! Boy, have you read me wrong.

I don't deny that White's ideas are useful, where appropriate. And I don't deny (nay, I asserted) that they're a good corrective to a (then) dominant opposing point of view.

What I do deny is that this stuff is deeply insightful. It's mostly obvious. It's always been obvious. Well, okay, it's not been obvious to many people; but those people have been blinded by whatever ideology dominates them. Sadly, White seems have spawned a bit of a new dominating (in some quarters) ideology. That's too bad.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:52 PM on January 16, 2005


Mokujin, I think I agree with your explanation of White's view of Nietzsche's view of history; I hadn't seen it put that way before, thanks. That's also my own view of history (I think of it as the default view for atheists actually), so if that reading of Nietzsche is correct glad then I'm glad ol' Freddy had the wisdom and foresight to proactively agree with me. Then White should have used another term, like, oh, "non-teleological". (Obviously he never read the Anarchism FAQ.)

As for my capitalization of "Anarchist", I was following the chart on the pointed-to page; that too was confusing. (But I hear I'm easily confused anyway.)

But I'm still gonna hafta read the damn book.
posted by davy at 4:18 PM on January 16, 2005


EB, I think I read you quite right. You're saying, "This is obvious, uninteresting, move along." In fact, what White is doing is moving along, making intelligent observations about how history is written. He's not sitting around, smoking the bong, feeling "the sense of profundity" of "an (intellectually) adolescent mind." I can see you getting that idea from the link in the post; what I'm saying is that White is not nearly as superficial and "adolescent" as you seem to think he is. He's actually a smart guy.

What I do deny is that this stuff is deeply insightful. It's mostly obvious. It's always been obvious. Well, okay, it's not been obvious to many people; but those people have been blinded by whatever ideology dominates them.

Again, White's point is not that ideology runs through history. His innovation is the idea that language and literature run through it as well. It's not that 'people are biased by ideology,' which, as you've said, has always been clear to anyone with a brain; it's that histories are shaped by linguistic and literary tropes, tropes that are not normally associated with history precisely because they are not ideological. These tropes operate at the level of language; White's approach grows out of structural linguistics. Having seen this, he then tries to isolate these tropes and come up with a systematic way of talking about them. He's not standing on the mountaintop with a megaphone, shouting, "I am PROFOUND." He's doing very specific kinds of work that are of value. This "profundity" thing is your own invention.

Sure, Hayden White is not Shakespeare or Einstein, but that doesn't make his work valueless or his conclusions obvious. The idea that a serious history textbook could be influenced by the genre of comedy or tragedy is interesting, and very different from your version of it, which is just that life is relative and people must get over it and move on. That's not what White is saying at all..
posted by josh at 4:25 PM on January 16, 2005


No, I meant you read me wrong in my background. :)
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:41 PM on January 16, 2005


Oh, also, you are actually reading me wrong in terms of my last comment. It's the folks who didn't/can't see the truth of White's basic idea that I claim are blinded by ideology. That is, their worldview requires an all-ecompassing and not-nuanced view of history.

"The idea that a serious history textbook could be influenced by the genre of comedy or tragedy is interesting, and very different from your version of it, which is just that life is relative and people must get over it and move on."

But that's not what I'm saying, at all. That a "serious history textbook" could be influenced by the genre of comedy or tragedy is obvious—to me, at least—for the reasons I've described. They are, as I've said, that any representation of reality is inevitably some form of storytelling, even physics. People tell stories in certain ways, for whatever reasons. There's no reason to belive that "serious history" is immune from this influence. My criticism is that this mostly a truism, an observation not to be pushed beyond its utility—particularly when it claims to be the only viable historicism.

As to my background: my experience with works on history starts with Homer and Thucydides. History has always been storytelling; the movement to a more rigorous and factual "serious history" (which I certainly am not criticizing) is a product of post-enlightenment determinism which embraced a naive realism about everything and, consequently, supposed that a very accurate objective history is possible. I think we should strive for such a thing (though "accurate" is, for me, a term best used in conjunction with "appropriate for a given purpose"); but the idea that we could ever avoid storytelling and its tropes was almost willfully ignorant or naive, a product of its times. On the other hand, the reactionary (or, to some, progressive) counterposition is, to me, equally naive.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:57 PM on January 16, 2005


EB, you've missed White's ideas. He isn't arguing that history is relative or that historical texts are literature. He didn't argue that history is storytelling or that a historical textbook could be treated as literature. Rather, he tried to show that history requires a larger conceptual framework (the "philosophy of history") to be understood properly. This has consequences for your own ideas. You may treat Homer and Thucydides as "history" but, according to White, you cannot appreciate the historical nature of their writing--literally, the way in which their writing is historical.

As for calling Nietzsche a "historical anarchist" it does makes a bit of sense in White's model. Not only did Nietzsche not possess a teleological view of history (as mokuljin points out), but he rejected the idea of "progress" in all its forms. This goes beyond mere teology; Nietzsche's own construction of "history" was deeply ahistorical. He rejected the essential notion of "past-as-guide"--that is, the idea that the past can "explain" (and thus constrict) the present. As he felt that history should not impose on the present, one might be forgiven him for labelling him a "historical anarchist."
posted by nixerman at 5:36 PM on January 16, 2005


My criticism is that this mostly a truism, an observation not to be pushed beyond its utility—particularly when it claims to be the only viable historicism.

Well, I suppose that this is where we disagree: I think you're attributing to Hayden White extreme views that he doesn't hold. I don't think he's pushing anything beyond its utility. I think you're pushing him beyond utility by pushing him, as it were, further to the left than he actually is. Hayden White isn't Jacques Derrida--he's actually a pretty conservative structuralist thinker. He draws heavily on Northrop Frye, for example, who is all about being useful and who started, in literary criticism, a push towards 'usefulness.' White's thinking is actually all about utility. He is trying to make historical writing--which, once its claim to objectivity is weakened, seems less useful--more valuable and useful by thinking about it more clearly.

Gibbon or Marx or today's histories are more useful when you can contextualize them and read them fully. You could read a history book as a list of events in chronological order, as a logical argument, as a logical argument shaped by rhetoric, or as a holistic cultural product of a historical moment of its own, a reading that includes all of the others. White's work tries to help us read history as a holistic cultural product, which is how you read history in the most useful way possible.

Ultimately, I'm just not sure where your objection lies, other than plain old crankiness and impatience with, essentially, the most radical possible kinds of post-structuralism, which is more extreme than what White espouses. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's a whole spectrum of thought about relativism in White's millieu, which is also the one in which I study, and that White lies pretty squarely in the middle of that spectrum. He is like the Wolfgang Iser of historical criticism. White is more 'liberal' than Frye, more 'conservative' than Derrida. He is interested in utility, he is not willfully naive. Rather than just repeating what you call a truism, he is trying to make it more specific, structured, investigative, useful.

To put in another way, everybody "knows" that history is a story, everyone has a bias, no retelling is the whole truth, etc., etc., blah, blah. It's an obvious truism. But, says Hayden White, accepting that it's true as a truism is different from actually looking into it seriously and thinking about it hard. You can never "fix" the problem of relativism--that would be naive--but you can take steps to approach it intelligently. His work is such a step.

Personally, this is something that I think is non-obvious about the ideas that literary theory, etc., tends to put on offer. It's very easy to be absolutist in this kind of area, and to think that the choice is between, say, Kant and Derrida, who Richard Rorty picks as his representatives in this fight. Doing this, you could easily lump Northrop Frye in with Kant and Hayden White in with Derrida. But there are plenty of people in the middle as well, Hayden White being actually a pretty prime example. I just think you're rushing to judgment a little too quickly--not to mention that all the thought 'in the middle' is pretty fascinating.
posted by josh at 5:58 PM on January 16, 2005


(Not to say that Derrida, et. al., aren't useful--but they aren't interested in it as much as White, I think, very sincerely is.)
posted by josh at 5:59 PM on January 16, 2005


nixerman is right on:

You may treat Homer and Thucydides as "history" but, according to White, you cannot appreciate the historical nature of their writing--literally, the way in which their writing is historical.

It might not be hard to imagine that the writing of Homer and Thucydides is a historical product—the fact, as it were, that it was written at a particular time and place. It's appreciating the way in which that writing is historical that's interesting. It's the difference between asserting a fact, and developing a critical apparatus that helps us to read more clearly. Until you've done the latter, you haven't really 'understood' the fact in question.
posted by josh at 6:11 PM on January 16, 2005


Nixerman said:
"[White] didn't argue that history is storytelling or that a historical textbook could be treated as literature. Rather, he tried to show that history requires a larger conceptual framework (the "philosophy of history") to be understood properly. This has consequences for your own ideas. You may treat Homer and Thucydides as "history" but, according to White, you cannot appreciate the historical nature of their writing--literally, the way in which their writing is historical."

I don't think this is quite correct. You are essentially making White responsible for what is called variously Historiography and the Philosophy of History. None of what you say is specific to White as Marxist and other historicist critics had been doing just these things for at least a hundred years prior to this book's publication. He is doing something very different in giving us a specifically literary framework with which to look at historical writing. He IS to some degree arguing for the interrelatedness/indistinguishability of history and literature. He makes this obvious by pointing out that historical writing employs the same figures and tropes as 'literary' writing and by applying a distinctly literary model (adapted from Frye) for the analysis of historical writing. This is what makes his argument radically different from previous analyses of history or historiography: he ignores the specific rational or scientific claims to 'objective truth' to concentrate on how historical writing is distinctly literary as demonstrated in its reliance on tropes, figures, and genre conventions.
posted by mokujin at 6:41 PM on January 16, 2005


mokujin, I think I disagree. Specifically, it's not clear to me that White argues that historical writing is literature or rather that it is structurally like literature. My understanding has always been that White didn't believe history was literature but rather that the mechanism--the way in which historical texts are historical texts--can be subjected to literary theory.

(And, um, no I didn't attribute the philosophy of history to White. Rather, I meant only that White wanted to show that all history couldn't be understood in itself but belonged to a greater conceptual framework.)
posted by nixerman at 8:23 PM on January 16, 2005


Nixerman wrote: "Specifically, it's not clear to me that White argues that historical writing is literature or rather that it is structurally like literature. "

Actually, this seems to me to be a basic premise of his work: history IS a literary form. Contrast what you wrote above with this quote from the original link referring to White's conception of the modes of historical writing:

"These modes are by nature 'poetic’, used to give historical events an ‘explanation’ and a ‘point’.  Strict chronicles are neither aesthetically nor ‘historically’ satisfying."

How could you more overtly conflate history and literature than that? Moreover, it seems to me that simply by employing terms and a structure of analysis taken from literary studies and applying them to historiography White is explicitly demonstrating that the supposed line between history and literature is already blurred. That is, if historical writing can be reasonably and rationally analyzed and explicated by the means and methods peculiar to the analysis and explication of 'literature', how can it ever be consistently demarcated from the so-called literary? When you take into account the writers he is actually talking about, Michelet, Gibbon etc, this becomes even more evident.
posted by mokujin at 9:31 PM on January 16, 2005


I think you're attributing to Hayden White extreme views that he doesn't hold.

josh: Read this and tell me it's not an extreme view:
"There are no grounds on which one is more ‘realistic’. This means that one being held as more ‘truthful’ than the others can only be seen as biases of the related establishment or author."

This is on the face of it a denial that there is any such thing as historical truth, and I don't see how you can get around it. How can this not mean that a "history" that, say, denies the Holocaust is just as valid as one that doesn't, the only difference being the "biases of the related establishment or author"? History is not just literature, no matter how many tropes and traditions you can compare.
posted by languagehat at 6:29 AM on January 17, 2005


Languagehat, my understanding is that Hayden White is talking about the literary analysis of 19th century historical literature, and about a very particular set of authors. In that context his statement can easily be meaningful without condoning or permitting bogus histories. Hayden White is not a philosopher or a philosopher of History or even a historian of philosophy, he is a literary critic doing a rhetorical analysis of historic literature. His claims are finite in their scope, and I think it is somewhat unfair to remove them from their context and treat them as broad proclamations of truth (or, in this case, the impossibility of same). What White is doing is sidestepping the issue of "the truth" entirely to look at the ways that historians make their own claims to truth. Take note of this:

"There do exist other possible emplotments, beyond the four already mentioned, such as Apocalyptic, Fascist, and Reactionary.  These, however, fundamentally differ from the four mentioned as “they do not regard it as necessary to establish the authority of their cognitive position on either rationalist or scientific ground.”

White is doing something very specific, and I think that by telescoping out to make claims about realism v. relativism you are losing the actual (somewhat interesting) particulars of his argument. Beyond that, I don't think that it is at all fair to say from this post of somebody's lecture notes that White has denied "that there is any such thing as historical truth".

The statements that you took out of context to suggest relativism were not meant to apply to reality, or even, necessarily, to all historical writing; rather, White is presenting a method for the critical study of 19th century written history. The claims quoted by stbalbach are enthusiastic editorializing by somebody (Joshua S. Walker) who read the book for a class and wanted to sensationally sum it up in his report about it.
posted by mokujin at 7:27 AM on January 17, 2005


OK, fair enough. But denial of historical truth is very popular these days (including on MetaFilter), and I'm sensitive to it. Sorry if I overreacted based on insufficient evidence. The subject of rhetorical analysis of historic literature is, of course, an interesting one.
posted by languagehat at 1:46 PM on January 17, 2005


Languagehat, part of what I was saying, but might have gotten lost in my verbosity, is that while I don't in a practical sense deny "historical truth" it is a valid (and obvious, I think) point that any attempt to represent historical truth his going to be constrained by these sort of, um, relativistic considerations. Maybe I'm not as smart and insightful as I think I am, but my view on this matter and the matter of representational art is summed up in my oft-repeated point that a completely accurate representation of something would be...that something. To completely represent reality would be to recreate reality. Something neither possible nor, really, desirable for most purposes (certainly not desirable, I think, for the purposes of art). Therefore, when we try to represent something that is/was "real", we are doing so both by necessity and (at least unconsciously) by design that is very similar to but ultimately distinct from accurately representing reality. If you avoid or disregard the extreme relativistic POV that you are (rightly) criticizing in White (assuming you're correct in identifying their existence in his theory), then you're still left with the valuable insight that any attempts to represent history are going to take a variety of forms that reflect some kind of inevitable subjectivity.

Well, that's a valuable insight but, still, I think it's an insight that any serious thinker must apprehend early in their development.

As to creating a system for an analysis of such a thing? Well, that may or may not be valuable. Its value is measured ultimately in its utility and, I think, its utility is likely limited by just how grandiose the system becomes. Grandiosity becomes ideology, a naive oversimplification of the universe that, often ironically, commits the same sorts of errors it's trying to correct.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:34 PM on January 17, 2005


But I don't think it's unreasonable to suppose that most people who finished high school have a passing acquaintance with historical and scholastic relativism.

Ha! How far away from high school are you exactly? Because I was one of those kids who took all advanced placement classes in high school and I didn't hear a thing about relativism, or get exposed to any of its ideas, until college and my anthropology classes. In fact, I took history courses in college that didn't have the least acknowledgement of relativism. So if you think the average high school class has any grounding in this "obvious" aspect of study, well, I think you're dead wrong.
posted by e^2 at 3:00 PM on January 19, 2005


In fact, I took history courses in college that didn't have the least acknowledgement of relativism.

Then those classes were shit. But it's more likely that you didn't understand that you were being taught relativism (or you don't understand it now). You may have, I admit, also gone to an absolutely piss-poor high school.
posted by bingo at 6:42 PM on January 19, 2005


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