Hayden White for absolute beginners

1. From chronicle to story

The series of events (as recorded in chronicle or annal) is shaped into something with a beginning, a middle and an end. This, however, does not yet constitute history.

2. From story to history

To make a story intelligible and meaningful as history, historians (consciously or unconsciously) make it conform to their preferences. Moving from right to left on the table below, these preferences come under the headings of ideology (an influence that hardly needs to be elaborated); argument or explanation, which is the general model historians have about how historical 'units' (e.g. individual agents, ideas, trade figures, etc.: anything that can be isolated as a distinct entity in the historical field) are related to each other and to larger wholes; and emplotment, which is the literary genre into which the story falls.

Argument: The formist mode of argument sees individual historical units or entities as self-contained and relatively autonomous. The organicist mode assumes that individual units are determined by their place in a larger whole ('the whole is more than the sum of its parts') and by a common spirit (e.g. the Zeitgeist). The mechanistic mode looks for laws of cause and effect connecting historical phenomena. The contextualist mode relates units to each other against a common background or frame of reference.

Emplotment: Romance celebrates the triumph of the good after trials and tribulations. Comedy is socially integrative and celebrates the conservation of shared human values against the threat of disruption. Tragedy stresses the irreconcilable element of human affairs, and laments the loss of the good necessarily entailed when values collide. Satire sees only meaningless change in human life; human affairs display no pattern, and for the most part are governed by folly and chance.

White thinks that in principle any of the modes of emplotment can be combined with any of the modes of argument and any of the modes of ideology (thus in principle one could have a history written as mechanistic anarchist comedy). In practice, he believes that the different modes correlate as follows (i.e. romance tends to be formist and anarchist, etc.):

Mode of Emplotment      Mode of Argument or      Mode of Ideology						

Romance                 Formist (or              Anarchist                

Comedy                  Organicist               Conservative             

Tragedy                 Mechanistic              Radical                  

Satire                  Contextualist            Liberal                  

More important are two other claims of White's: Firstly, that all history written in the conventions established in the 19th century (and this means most historical writing up to the present day) defines itself by reference to these categories, i.e. that this set of options exhausts the possibilities of historical writing (or at least of conventional narrative history). This has the important corollary that there is no further, 'scientific' (wissenschaftlich), 'correct', neutral way of writing history which could be found outside this grid. Rather, historians are 'indentured to a choice' among these options, and cannot not choose. (Everyone has a theory, even those who don't think they have one; every history is a metahistory, and either states or implies a general view of the nature of history.) - Secondly, that within the grid, no one mode has a closer relation to truth than any other; thus a sequence of events can be narrated as a tragedy or as satire (farce) or romance (etc.), and there is no way of proving that one of these is the right way of narrating it.

3. Tropological pre-figuring: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, irony.

White thinks that the way the 'historical field' (a given set of events, developments, structures, agents etc.) takes shape in the historian's mind is ultimately determined at deep level, deeper than that on which the modes operate (which to some extent can be chosen and reflected upon consciously). Each person's mind is biased towards a certain way of making links between data: White borrows terms from rhetoric to describe these. (His use of these names is itself figurative; he doesn't necessarily mean that metaphorical minds use more metaphors than other people.) The metaphorical imagination makes connections by seeing likenesses; the metonymic, by making a part represent or stand in for any other part of a whole; the synecdochic, by making the part represent the whole. The ironic mind is sceptical about whether making connections is possible at all.

Whether you find this part of the theory useful depends on whether you think there is a need for a 'deep grammar' of historiography (along the lines of modern linguistics' deep grammar of sentences).

4. Anti-realism

How much of an anti-realist or relativist about historical truth is White? He does not (as I understand him) dispute that there are historical facts; chronicles and annals, in his scheme, provide just such raw material for historians to work up into their stories and histories. But he would nonetheless claim that appeal to the facts is not sufficient to validate or invalidate the large-scale imaginative constructions we call histories.

k.f. hilliard


29/01/97 11:22

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