Hayden White Road

A few reflections on day one and two of the three day Masterclass led by Professor Hayden White on 20th and 21st of February. Written by Michael Solda, a MA History of Ideas student at Birkbeck College.

Addressing a public audience, Professor Hayden White, true to his figuration as the anathema of ‘scientific’ historians, raised the question: what is wrong with mixing fiction with history? Don’t worry if you are without a quick answer, the question is rhetorical. The answer, of course, is nothing. But before we arrive somewhere without knowing how or where we are, let us not let ‘of course’ slip by unnoticed. ‘Of course’ is nothing other than to say being from or on a course. To recognize something as true-of-course is to situate oneself as part of the course. But we must ask, what course? Where have we been situated? And above us appears a sign: ‘Hayden White Road.’  So let us rephrase for the sake of transparency: the answer, on Hayden White Road, is that there is nothing wrong with mixing fiction and history when writing an account of a past event.

But it is a somewhat peculiar situation we have stumbled into. On the one hand, your narrator has elected to provide an account of day one and two of Professor White’s Masterclass. That is, to write a narrative of a past event whose content is concerned with the proper and improper ways of writing past events. Now, according to Professor White, there are two forms that an account of the past such as this can take. It could be a narrativized account that emplots points onto a pre-given narrative structure, such as beginning-middle-end, and, through this technique, convey a sense of continuity and coherency that is foreign to the event itself. This is what Professor White considers a historical account. On the other hand, an account can provide a narrative or telling of the past that permits the discontinuous, fractal and unstructured nature of the event to remain intact whilst narrated to the reader. The prized advantage of this method is that it provides the reader with an experience of the event rather than a superficial rationalization of it. By opting for irresolution and ambiguity, features characteristic of postmodern literature, the narrator of a past event can avoid the overdetermination characteristic of historical accounts. Professor White points to Saul Friedlander’s two volume work on the holocaust—the second volume, Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945, won the 2008 non-fiction Pulitzer—as an example of the success a narrative account of a past event can achieve when rescued from the scientific and objective pedantry of historians.

Returning to the question about which narrative should be employed to recount Hayden White’s Masterclass, it is clear that on Hayden White Road, to take the path offered by ‘traditional (‘scientific’) historians’ is to drastically assume a diverging path that leads to an illusory realm where the past event and its narrativized retelling are seen as homologous.

As we contemplate these options standing on Hayden White Road, a new consideration enters on the horizon. For in the lexicon of Professor White, this blog is a peculiarly ‘modern event’. A modern event is one whose appearance is unique to the historical period and its material conditions from which it has emerged. Consider the digital medium through which this text has been transferred and now appears on the screen before you—it is, undeniably, unique to our modern age. Realizing this, the reader of this blog is burdened with the responsibility of developing a new method if they wish to evaluate or narrate its appearance. When faced with this task, White turns to poetics for direction. In a poetic utterance, new rules are produced for the expression of an event; the dependency on what we think is, is replaced by the thought of what can be. Only through a poetic account can a modern event be properly narrated.

But there is an additional problem that the modern event poses. Not only is White concerned with how we can account for modern events, he is also concerned with how we can counter-act certain modern events. This is clear with his disrepute for historical accounts, which Professor White understands as the result of the professionalization of history in the nineteenth-century. This resulted in the scientific garbs donned by historians to, at least in part, distance and shun fiction’s claim to the past. With this transformation came the emergence of the historian as author of the past, in the double sense of the word author: both writer and authority. The alternative to the historical past of historians, according to White (building on an argument made by Oakeshott), is the account of the practical past. The practical past can serve to help us when we think, “what ought I/we do?” As Professor White is well aware, this is not a new position for history but rather a return to the seat it had once occupied. That is, Cicero’s notion of historia magistra vitae est (history is life’s teacher). The prescription Professor White advocates to counter-act historical discourse is for a narrative to convey the practical past by providing an experience of the past for the reader.

So if the illusory historical past is a departure from Hayden White Road, the practical past is, in one sense, its terminal. Moving away from the historian that judges whether something is real or fictitious, true or false, White proposes the historian (or any other teller of the past) adopt the role of a teacher. Along Hayden White Road, posted with the frequency of speed limits, are signs declaring: out with the judge and in with the teacher!

But we have to ask, are these roles so different? Does the judge not teach by how she judges and does the teacher not judge in how she teaches? If the judge appears more (falsely) absolute and if her judgements seem more (falsely) incontestable, is it not because she recognizes that she rules by precedent just as precedent rules over her?

Hayden White Road is certainly one that continually poses questions to its travellers. But it is up to its travellers to determine whether the questions posed and their assumed answers—true-of-course—correlate to their own experience. And perhaps more importantly, whether they correlate into their own experience.


One thought on “Hayden White Road

  1. Pingback: Thinking Historically: Professor Hayden White | Events Blog

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