Blogs > Cliopatria > Hayden White, move over

Mar 30, 2009

Hayden White, move over

As a historian who deals with very little literature (though still a fair few fictions) and who, if he must deal with the intellectual élite of his period, does so mainly so as to find whom they were bossing around, I do not have to deal too much with the so-called critical turn and post-modernist critical theory by which medieval studies, especially in the USA where literature forms a larger part of such courses, has been colonised. Its proponents would of course argue that `do not have to' is not the same as `shouldn't', and that all human knowledge is affected by some of what they have to say. And I'm open to that, I hope, because I'd rather be right than wrong when I talk about my material. Occasionally, however, as readers of A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe may have observed, some of what I am therefore asked to take seriously makes me irate. What I need is not so much more exposure to what this stuff can be made to do in medieval spheres (I know where to go for that) but a tool, with which to distinguish what is sane critique and what is useless froth. And thanks to one of our Cliopatria contributors I've found a good one.

A few posts ago at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe I highlighted the blog The Edge of the American West, familiar perhaps to Cliopatria readers. Most of its posts, I confess, are out of my range—I mean, had I but world enough and time, and so on, I would give them full attention and learn a lot but as it is I have to keep my Internet faff rationed. But, they are almost always very well written and I keep reading because occasionally it comes up with something I can use. Such a thing is this. You may—no, by now you must have come across the post-modernist idea that there is no such thing as a fact. This is justified by saying that, as all human information has to come to use and out of us through the filters of our own conceptions, preconceptions and prejudices, we can't step outside ourselves far enough to give anything but our own version of the truth; someone else may see it very differently. Nothing therefore can really be known, only asserted. Where I have seen this used most fiercely (a particularly virulent example here), it has usually been attributed to Hayden White and his book The Content of the Form, and obviously there is something in it.1 Perception is so limited. However, it seems to me a better argument for literature than for history. With literary criticism there is no sure recovery of the author's intent or lack of it; but with history, even though our texts are authored, biased, partial (in both senses), prejudiced, under-informed or all of the above, we have this single epistemological advantage that we are attempting to reach things that actually did happen. I mean, whether or not we can in fact know it, people in the past did things, and history's business is trying to recover, describe and understand them. In that sense we don't have to worry so much, because the object of our enquiry is genuine, and even if it cannot be reached exactly with our messy biochemical thinking apparatus, to say nothing of the experience of the other messy biochemical thinkboxes that the whole enterprise is based upon, we can get closer, and there is an idea of right and wrong in play that is not itself subjective, though its evaluation must be. And we can say things that there is no point denying are factual: Charlemagne was in Rome on Christmas Day 800, there was a Benedictine monastery at Cluny, the Dorset Inuit met Europeans in Greenland, and so on. (OK, the last one might be contested, but it sounds good.) So I do protest about this every now and then, and generally like to be ready to argue with it. But sometimes it is so well put that I can't argue effectively. I mean:

Consider the trained historian, intent on studying the sixteenth century. Before him are the analyzed sources—the `facts'—neatly arranged in cases. He begins thumbing the cards, reading the statements, taking in the facts. Doubtless he says to himself:—
This fact is unique, important because unique, causally connected; I will therefore set it aside to be wrought up into my final synthesis.

No such thing. As he goes over and over his cards, some aspects of the reality recorded there interest him more, others less; some are retained, others forgotten; some have power to start a new train of thought; some appear to be causally connected; some logically connected; some are without any perceptible connection of any sort. And the reason is simple: some facts strike the mind as interesting or suggestive, have a meaning of some sort, lead to some desirable end, because they associate themselves with ideas already in the mind; they fit in somehow to the ordered experience of the historian. This original synthesis ... is only half deliberate. It is accomplished almost automatically. The mind will select and discriminate from the very beginning.

I don't think I've ever seen the idea put so sharply and clearly. Is this why everyone cites Hayden White, because he's so irrefutable? Well, no, because this isn't he. He wrote in 1987 but this is from 1910, by a historian called Carl Becker.2 That's how old post-modernism is, is it? Actually, maybe not: note that he doesn't go to the end now popular where every viewpoint is as valid as any other because all are subjective. On the other hand, as you can tell from the above, I don't go there either. A friend of mine recently pointed me at a piece of Tom Stoppard, in which the point is made with cricket bats, verbally I assure you:

This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It's for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you've done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle... What we're trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might... travel... Now, what we've got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you'll drop the bat and dance about shouting 'Ouch!' with your hands stuck into your armpits. This [the cricket bat] isn't better because there's a conspiracy... It's better because it's better. You don't believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on.3

Becker's article was about engagement. He was saying that not only was true detachment plainly impossible, it was also undesirable for some sorts of history; there were some sorts of work for which caring about the subject deeply was not only an advantage, but absolutely necessary. I think that too is a strawman; nobody but paid researchers and journalists work on something about which they care nothing. Anyone doing serious research must be at least partly invested in their subject, or if they can still manage that kind of work without, they would be far better employed on something in which they were interested. The discussion of these points at Edge of the West is lengthy and far-reaching. But for me that isn't the point, so much as being able to cite something sensible for this point and avoid identifying myself with a school of thought of whose conclusions I want no part, because they undermine the idea of expertise and thus all our study. Becker's critique leaves us room to know things, and it is as far as this idea needs to be batted.

1. Hayden V. White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore 1987, repr. 1990).
2.Carl Łotus Becker,"Detachment and the Writing of History" in The Atlantic Monthly Vol. 106 (Washington Boston 1910), pp. 524-536, repr. in idem, Detachment and the Writing of History: essays and letters of Carl Ł. Becker, ed. Phil L. Snyder (Ithaca 1958), pp. 3-28.
3. Tom Stoppard, The Real Thing (London 1982), with thanks to said friend, who knows who he is.

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Jonathan Jarrett - 3/30/2009

Thankyou, I will correct. The digital version doesn't include the imprimatur...

Jonathan Jarrett - 3/30/2009

Yes, certainly, but my point is that that line is in the text you cite, not in my views. The only considerations at issue there are what the audience will read, not what the historian can generate, whereas I hope I've given room to both and so did Becker.

Jonathan Jarrett - 3/30/2009

Well, I don't think I am policing so much as saying, just as you do, that there is too far that we can go. Also, that I think I've found my limit, for the moment, and that it turns out to be an old one. But I do think that `neo-positivism', if that's really what I'm espousing, is better for history than is, say, nihilism, or indeed total deconstructivism, in the same way as a spade is better for digging potatoes than a pick-axe, or a cricket bat is better than a stick for... well, I said that bit already. I'm not sure what you're picking up on exactly?

Matthew Gabriele - 3/29/2009

But Jon, just because "the internet" (or perhaps, my undergraduates) adhere to a token, too-literal reading of postmodernism, does that mean (as Mr. Dresner says) we ought throw the baby out with the bathwater?

There is something to the linguistic turn in the historical profession. Yeah, people can go too far. But people can go too far in the opposite direction as well. Is neo-positivism so much better? Ought we police our disciplinary "boundaries" quite so rigidly?

Jonathan Dresner - 3/27/2009

That's a very narrow reading of the line, since "the men who live in it" write the histories as well as read them.

Andre Van Mayer - 3/27/2009

The Atlantic Monthly is in Washington now, but in 1910 it was in Boston.
(footnote 2)

Jonathan Jarrett - 3/27/2009

Is that quite the same thing, though? That seems to me to be an argument about the demands of the readership, not the essential limitations of the historical process.

Jonathan Jarrett - 3/27/2009

I absolutely agree that there is value in this sort of enquiry, which is why I get so annoyed with what seems to me to be valueless work that merely restates the epistemological problem as if it were a revelation.

As to the second question, let me try and fix on a point in the process of analysis. Dreams are a difficult example, because so transient; the only person who can interpret a dream direct is the dreamer, and it vanishes like fog as one becomes more awake, to say nothing of the distortion caused by memory as we try and anchor things in it (I know of this through the work cited in Patrick Geary's Phantoms of Remembrance but more modernist readers may know other instances.) Cultures are a bit more durable, but can only be interpreted direct by someone actually experiencing it (which has its own problems of objectivity versus involvement, but that would be another post, and one by an anthropologist ideally!). For anyone else to analyse a dream, or a culture, they have to use a report, at which point the substance of it is fixed (though it could obviously be supplemented, or eventually diminished). Be it oral, textual or digital, that establishes a cut-off, whereafter the process of interpretation operates on the report, not the original event or phenomenon. And this is, after all, what we do as historians, is interpret reports. We don't have access to the original events that we study, or else we'd be in a different field!

Jonathan Dresner - 3/26/2009

Well, early on she cites Sloan, from the first AHR: "History will not stay written. Every age demands a history written from its own standpoint - with reference to its own social conditions, its thought, its beliefs and its acquisitions - and thus comprehensible to the men who live in it."

You can read most of it here

Aaron Bady - 3/26/2009

"Tolerance" is too strong; I genuinely wonder to what extent, and where, this is still a problem, and am not at all sure I'm ready to call the dragon of vulgar postmodernism slain. So while I'm with you in spirit, I also think there's a lot of value in people like Hayden White, and we don't want to throw away the baby with the bathwater, as the cliche goes. Just because there are so many bad postmodernists out there (or so many bad deployments of those ideas) doesn't mean there isn't real value in that line of thought (as you pointed out!), nor does "post-modern" come close to capturing the breadth of it as an epistemological problem.

As for the second paragraph, I'll have to mull on it and see if I can make the point more persuasively some other way. But while I may "overstate the active agency of what are actually sources," I'm not convinced; a dream is already always a product of dream-work, the mind's interpretation of itself, and the definition of "culture" one gets from Geertz is a profoundly *active* one, not an inheritance from the past but a kind of play whose structure takes form from the necessity of making sense of the past and present. So I'm curious what you mean by "the sources say the same thing whoever reads them, even if different readers hear it differently." Can you say more specifically what sort of source you're thinking of?

Jonathan Jarrett - 3/26/2009

Also nice! But what does she cite? :-)

Jonathan Jarrett - 3/26/2009

I think I would have to respectfully disagree with you about the latter paragraph, though I'm grateful for the tolerance in the former; it may be a straw man in real academia but I have met it as an argument position 'on the Internet'.

The trouble with your dual sense of `interpretation' in the second paragraph, for me, is that `interpret' is definitely a transitive verb and I think it demands an active and conscious agent. I don't think cultures and dreams <em>intend</em> to interpret us, any more than a footprint interprets its source foot's owner or a computer crash interprets its system. `Representation', yes, I will buy; and I also see what I take to be your point, that these things are creations of consciousnesses and were therefore born out of the results of interpretation; but I think there is a tendency to overstate the active agency of what are actually sources. The creators may have had a plan, and certainly had interpretations, but despite the overused idea of being `in dialogue' with one's evidence the sources say the same thing whoever reads them, even if different readers hear it differently. I think interpretation in history remains user-side, not server-side.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/26/2009

"Historians, ancient and modern, have always known what postmodernism professes to have just discovered - that any work of history is vulnerable on three counts: the fallibility and deficiency of the historical record on which it is based; the fallibility and selectivity inherent in the writing of history; and the fallibility and subjectivity of the historian." -- Gertrude Himmelfarb, "Postmodernist History and the Flight from Fact" (1994), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 291.

Aaron Bady - 3/26/2009

That was a great piece, Jonathan.

I do have one quibble: how popular is the idea that "every viewpoint is as valid as any other because all are subjective"? This sounds to me a lot more like the way a certain strain of conservative describes the moral relativism of our godless youth/society/academia or whatever, and it always feels like a weak straw man argument, like using the fall of communism to disprove Marx. You weren't doing this, of course, but my sense is that the vulgar postmodernism of the eighties and nineties is, if still a toxin in the system, gradually getting filtered out of the bloodstream. Not sure who or what the kidneys are in this disgusting metaphor, but I guess my -- perhaps more sympathetic -- relationship to the whole phenomenon makes me feel less of a sense of urgency about it. Or maybe that simply reflects the sense of a literature person who does history, don't know. In any case, I do share your sense of relief at finding useful ways to talk about academic engagement outside of the straitjacket of a fantastic objectivity, and agree vis-a-vis the awesomeness of the EotAW folks.

My way of thinking about this, for what it's worth, is the amazing flexibility in the phrase "interpretation of": while the most logocentric conception of interpretation would reduce the act to a simple equation of this-means-this, the titles of books like Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and Geertz' The Interpretation of Culture implicitly argue that interpretation is both a thing one does *to* the material (how to interpret) and a thing the material itself does (the interpretation *of* those things), making it both an intrinsic quality and an effect of it's relationship with others. One doesn't, after all, merely interpret dreams and culture on an operating table, or if you do, you miss the point of why you do it; dreams and culture are, in these formulations, things we interpret because they are already always interpretations of *us.*