Hayden White's Critique of the Writing of History

by Wulf Kansteiner
Hayden White's Critique of the Writing of History
Wulf Kansteiner
History and Theory
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This essay analyzes the development of Hayden White's work from Metahistory to the present. It compares his approach to Roland Barthes's study of narrative and historical discourse in order to illustrate the differences between White's structuralist methods and poststructuralist forms of textual analysis. The author puts particular emphasis on the interdependence between the development of White's work and the criticism it has re- ceived during the last twenty years. Whereas historians have dismissed White's relativism, literary theorists and intellectual historians have criticized his formalist methods. White's attempts to counter these critiques have gone mostly unnoticed and have been unsuc- cessful in that they destabilized his original position without proposing a coherent alter- native. The question about adequate representations of Nazism, which White has recently addressed, highlights the theoretical problems which have not received enough attention by White or his critics.

Recently, in the pages of this journal, F. R. Ankersmit has developed a postmod- ernist perspective on the writing of history.' 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 simultane- ously supported and called into question by "the other" within the same disci- pline. Ankersmit also holds that the traditional dichotomy of language versus reality has become untenable. Language has acquired the same opacity as ob- jects 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 inter- sect the domain of the past."2 For Ankersmit, Hayden White is the foremost advocate and self-reflexive practitioner of postmodern historiography.

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.
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.
The enthusiasm with which critics like Ankersmit and Linda Hutcheon wel- come 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 Gin~burg.~

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 regard- less 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 dis- torted 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 reconstr~ction.~

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 simpli- fies the complex processes which take part in the production of narrative history. At least in contemporary history there exists a considerable indeterminacy be- tween 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 histor- ical 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. Subse- quently, I will trace the development of Hayden White's theory of historical writing from the publication of Metahistory (1973) to the pre~ent.~

In addition

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, Beiheft 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.
Carlo Ginzburg, "Checking the Evidence: The Judge and the Historian," Critical Inquiry 18 (1991), 79-92, quote from 84.
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 HistoricalRepresentation: Getting the Story Crooked (Madison, Wisc., 1989), especially chapter 8, "A Bedrock of Order: Hayden White's Linguistic
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 repre~entation.~ 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

Humanism" (first published in History and Theory, Beiheft 19 [1980], 1-29); and Paul A. Roth, "Hayden White and the Aesthetics of Historiography," History of the Human Sciences 5 (1992),


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' Dis- course," Comparative Criticism 3 (1981), 3-6, and Geoff Bennington and Robert Young, "Introduc- tion: 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.
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.
Roland Barthes, "To Write: An Intransitive Verb," in The Rustle of Language (New York, 1986), 11-21, essay first published in 1966.
topic and by implication exposed the illusions and conventions of historical ~riting.~

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 structur- alist project that Barthes himself had originally helped to define.'' 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."

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 ap- proaches. 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 hirn 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

9. [bid., 20.

S/Z, transl. Richard Miller [I9701 (New York, 1974). S/Z has been read both as a structur- alist 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.
Roland Barthes, "Style and Its Image," in Literary Style, ed. Seymour Chatman (London, 1971), 3-10.
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text [I9731 (New York, 1989).
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:ReJIections on Photography [I9801 (New York, 1991), 87.

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 se- mantic 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 sec- ondary 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 represen- tation 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 ap-

15. Hayden White, Metahistory, 29. For a detailed discussion of White's grid see Kellner, Language andHistoricalRepresentation,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 termi- nology, in particular on "story" and "plot" see Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (Chicago, 1984), 1, 161-174 and compare to Hayden White, "The Structure of Historical Narrative," Clio 1 (1972), 5-20.

16. Metahistory, 432.

pear 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."

White's epistemological relativism collapses philosophy of history and histori- ography. They only differ in that the former highlights the underlying epistemo- logical, 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. Historio- graphic and fictitious events are rendered meaningful through the same repre- sentational 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 systemati- cally 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 empha- sized 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 histor- ical writing.

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,l978).

White's first strategy consists in relating his categories of historical conscious- ness to Freud's ideas about the mechanisms of dreamwork and Piaget's transfor- mational 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 epistemo- logical 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 asecond strategy to counter his critics White seeks to establish an epistemo- logical 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 evi- dence 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 correla- tions between the structure of the historical record- in its unprocessed or pre- figured 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 (un- processed material, chronicle, final account). He again insists that all tropes are equally suited or unsuited to represent the primary material which he consis- tently 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 histori- ography, 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

rbid., 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.
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. rbid., 129.

interesting works of history negotiate between diverging tropological structures. These tensions might be best appreciated as deviations from the rules of

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 arbitrari- ness 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 de- velops a threefold matrix in which he positions himself halfway between the poststructuralists (represented by Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida) and the as- sumed position of the "normal" criti~/historian.~~

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 structure^.^^

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

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.
Hayden White, "The Absurdist Moment in Contemporary Literary Theory," in Tropics of Discourse, 261 -282.
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.

But White's dissociation of reality and representation carries the radical impli- cations of "absurdist" criticism. His insistence on the stability of the deep struc- tures 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 con- text 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 preconcep- tual 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 inte- grated 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 ~ignifies."~~

On the other hand, he proposes a definition of the historical fact which establishes a marginal but well defined space for the proce- dures of factual evidence. Through this move White can combine two seemingly contradictory steps. On the level of narrative structure he undercuts any tradi- tional 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.

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.

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 piit 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 unreal is ti^.^'

White claims that historiography succeeds in constituting the subject in this specific moral and political position due to its supposedly intermediary, "un- canny" 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 specu- lative 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 a~thorities.~~

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

Zbid., 40,43,45. See also Hayden White, "Historical Pluralism," CriticalZnquiry 12 (1986), 480-502, esp. 486-487.
White illustrates the conciliatory and domesticating capacities of history through the cau- sality 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.
Zbid., 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).
as in principle chaotic and allowed all kinds of coiltradictory and mutually exclusive interpretations. History was subordinated to rhetoric and openly polit- ical or confessional. The professionalization of historical studies in the nine- teenth century took the form of a narrow aestheticization for decidedly political ends. The philosophy of history brought forth by German idealism linked histor- ical 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 repre~entation.~~

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 narrati~es.~~

This aspect is very well demonstrated through the discrepancy between White's own style and his ideas about the characteristics of subversive writing.

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. Zbid., 75.
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-a-vis the materials being dealt with that can render it plausible." The Content of the Form, 164.
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.
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, three- fold epistemology. On the level of the single event/fact White retains an element of positivist stability which stands in contrast to the epistemological arbitrari- ness 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 meaning- lessness as a challenge to construct history in a politically and socially respon- sible 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

36. Zbid.,139-140.

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 ~entury.~'

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 contradiction^.^^ While he reaffirms the argument that "convention may limit the range of types of plot structures deemed suitable for the represen- tation 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 realisti- cally expect from hi~torians.~~

Through his latest interventions White has repositioned himself within the poststructuralist context, albeit in an ambivalent way. He now rejects the argu-

The following essays by Hayden White will be considered here: "The Rhetoric of Interpreta- tion," 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 TheNewHistoricism, 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.
White, "'Figuring the nature of the times deceased'," 34. See also "The Rhetoric of Interpreta- tion," 254-255.
White, "'Figuring the nature of the times deceased'," 27.
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.

ments of Barthes, Sande Cohen, Julia Kristeva, and Jean-Fran~ois 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 truthful- ness 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

Zbid., 39.
"The Fact of Modernism," AFI Lecture, UCLA April 8, 1992.
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 or argued in favor of the conception of historical truth as a collectively produced, intersubjectively valid epistemological Moreover, they have maintained that historians do not deal with unprocessed historical data. In their mind the source material contains the narrative rational- ization 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 ac~ount.~'

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 collabo- rators for his relativism, which critics have consistently interpreted as a combi- nation 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

Lawrence Stone, "Dry Heat, Cool Reason: Historians under Siege in England and France," TLS (January 3 1, 1992).
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.
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.
Andrew Ezergailis, "Review of Metahistory," Clio 5 (1976), 235-245, esp. 244; Amos Fun- kenstein, "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.
William H. Dray, On History and Philosophers of History (Leiden, 1989), 133-162, and William H. Dray, "Review of The Content of theForm," History and Theory 27 (1988), 282-287; see in particular Maurice Mandelbaum, "The Presuppositions of Metahistory," History and Theory, Beiheft 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.
Terry Eagleton, "Review of Tropics of Discourse," Notes and Queries 27 (1980), 478; Fred- eric 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.
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 frag- mented 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 per~isted.~'

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 histor- ical 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

Gossman, Between History and Literature, 303. See also Carlo Ginzburg, "Just One Wit- ness"; 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, Beiheft 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 Cul- tural History, ed. Lynn Hunt (Berkeley, 1989), 97-129; 122ff.
51. Robert F. Berkhofer, "The Challenge of Poetics."
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 andFiction: A Critical Approach to the French Enlightenment (Princeton, N.J., 1984); Linda Orr, Headless History: Nineteenth-Century French Historiography of theRevolution (Ithaca,

N.Y ., 1990); Nancy Struever, "Topics in History," History and Theory, Beiheft 19 (1980), 66-79; and in particular, Sande Cohen, Historical Culture.

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 di~cipline.~~

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 historian^.^' 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 gro~nding.~~

Others have tried to reformulate narratology as a theory of communication to emphasize the histor- ical and social context of narrative discourse which White had not sufficiently con~idered.~~

And even literary critics have criticized the relativist implications of White's thought, especially in the context of teaching literature and history.'O But in general White's work has become an important theoretical reference point for them in questions of history and narrativity."

Gearhart, The Open Boundary, 6 1-63; 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," 31 1, 316, 319-320. See also Noel Carroll, "Interpretation, History, and Narrative," 147-148.
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.

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, Beiheft 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), 1191-1 196.
58. James M. Mellard, Doing Tropology, 19-20, 32-34.
Didier Coste, Narrativeas Communication (Minneapolis, 1989). See especially the foreword by Wlad Godzich, ix-xvii and 15-17, 30-32.
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.
See for instance, Jonathan Culler, Framing thesign (Norman, Okla., 1988), 208-210; David Perkins, IsLiteraryHistoryPossible?(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.
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 fdstory which remained independent of' the predominant brands of discourse analysis in poststructuralism and decon- struction, as demanded by some of his colleagues in historiography and intellec- tual 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 iden- tified disturbing affinities between the representational tactics of right revi- sionism 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 partic- ular 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 conven- tional versions of the National Socialist past, the relationship between the dis- ciplinization of the historical consciousness in nineteenth-century historiog-

62. Peter De Bolla, "Disfiguring History," 56.

raphy and the rise of fascist politics in the 1930s' and the correlation between his own philosophy of history and a fascist understanding thereof. White ma- neuvers 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 termi- nology and arguments have at times obfuscated the issues and caused consider- able misunderstanding.

Thus, White considers the revisionists' claim that the Holocaust never hap- pened to be "as morally offensive as it is intellectually be~ildering."'~ 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 histori- ography which deals with the actual past and is based on stable epistemological ground. But more importantly, since they limit thir 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 presenta- tion of negative proof, however accurate or inaccurate it rnay be, always falls short of the meaningful narrative web which historians are expected to

At this stage, White attempts to keep the epistemology and ethics of represen- tation clearly separated. For him, the ethics of representation are negotiated

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," Comrnentary 70 (December, 1980), 31- 47; Roger Eatweli, "The Holocaust Denial: A Study in Propaganda Technique," in Neo-Fascisnz irz 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.
A similar lack of clarity is to be found in White's discnssion 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 ''Find Solution," argues that any historiographi(:al reprerentation 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 historiographicsl account in its immediate social framework.
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 conven- tional histories about the topic today or the Zionist interpretation of the Holo- caust in Israel, an example White himself refers to in The Content of the 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 dimen- sion 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

65. The Content of the Form, 80.

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 un- pleasant facts and their position in the accounts of that past which would be handed down to the next generati~n.~~

Under these circumstances the differences between factual and theoretical claims, or in White's terms, primary and sec- ondary 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 represen- tation of Nazism follows closely the methodological position outlined in White's 1989essay on the relationship between literary 'heory and historical ~riting.~' He repeats his assessment that historical representations display an inexpungible relativism because there is no necessary connection between the factual state- ments and the means of emplotment which are employed to craft the narrative. But he concludes that "[iln 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 Rei~h."~'

In light of the initial affirmation of his relativist position the apparent contradiction leaves the reader in a state of methodolog- ical 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, inap- propriate). One could furthermore interpret White's move towards the referen- tial 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.'"j9

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

67. Hayden White, "Historical Ernplotrnent and the Problem of Truth," in Probing the Limits, 37-53.

Ibid., 40.
Ibid., 52.
White's is one of few attempts to develop aphenomenology of historical thought and historical representation. It is equaled in scope only by Johann G. Droysen's Historik and Jorn Riisen's Grundziige 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.'" 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 oniy temporarily destabilized their professional self-image. For the theoretically inclined histo- rians 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 n~ethodology 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 poststructuralis~n and deconstruction. As a result White has been widely read but has also been placed outside the narrowly defined parameters of the respec- tive 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 formalisin 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 sysiem onto an ontological base and to incorporate the notion of a veto power of historical facts vis-a-vis certain emplotments. White is equally unconvincing when he argues for a corre- lation between modernist events and lnodernist 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 contradictioris have gone unnoticed. For the most part White's work has been considered as a r~lonoIiihic block, dismissed in its entirety. This also ex- plains 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

70. Joharln Cbstav Droysen, Historilc,ed. Peter keyh (Stuttgart, 1977);;om Xiisen's Grundziige einer Historik is in three volumes: Historische Vernunft: Die Grundla~en der Geschichlswis- scnschaft (Ciottingen, 1983); Rekonslruktion der Vergangenheit: Die Prinzipien der historischen Forschung (Gottingen, 1986); and Lebendigc Geschichte: Formen und Funktionen des historisct'len Wissens (Gottingen, 1989). See also Jorn Riisen, Zeit und Sinn: Strategier? hisiotischen Denkens (Frankfurt. 1990); Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, transl. Adrian Collins (Indianapolis, 1957).

received since IMetahistory, 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 Interpre- tation: Discipline and De-Sublimation." The narrative strategies which we em- ploy to make sense of our past evolve independently of the established protocols for gaining and asserting historical facts. This circumstance appiies to all historical representations but is most disturbing when considered in the context of the representation of Nazism.

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