A defence of meta history: Hayden White Masterclass Day 3

This post was written by Guy Beckett, a research student in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology

The final day of Hayden White’s public masterclass began with a promise to “bring order to the wandering improvisation” of the previous two days. Considering ‘What’s wrong with mixing fact and fiction?’ White once more headed straight to the limits of the question, taking up the topic he and Carlo Ginzburg first debated in 1989 – how to write a history of the holocaust that rejects the closed narrative structure embedded by the Nazis (final solution). For White asking whether there are “any limits on the kinds of story that can responsibly be told” about the holocaust has become a way to consider the broadest questions about the writing of history. In the heyday of post-modernism this was a lively and crowded debate – a conference at the University of California in 1990 (collected in Probing the limits of representation, Nazism and the “final solution” (1992), edited by Saul Friedländer) brought White and Ginzburg face to face with major thinkers of the day such as Perry Anderson, Martin Jay, Dominick LaCapra and Geoffrey Hartman.

So why return to the topic at Birkbeck twenty years hence? In some ways perhaps this was a kind of exorcism, since Richard Evans was Professor of History here when he launched his direct attack on White. Evans aligned White with holocaust deniers, arguing that Hayden White’s “approach makes it impossible for him… to say that a Nazi or fascist interpretation of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ which conceded that it actually happened could be any less valid than any other interpretation.”(In Defence of History, 1997). However that was fifteen years ago and in the meantime the debate has cooled down. Indeed some younger historians have noticed that few historians are actually influenced by White.  Saul Friedländer has debated theory with White and writes influential historical work. The publication of volume two of his monumental history of Nazi Germany and the Jews (2007) thus gives White the perfect chance, late in his career, to show that meta history has been both influential and enabling. Perhaps, contra Evans, White’s interrogation of historiography enabled the history of the holocaust to be written rather than denied.

As might be expected White began his defence with a reiteration of his theory of historical emplotment, First launched forty years ago in Metahistory (1972), White’s theory aims to show that narrative history uses ready-made plot structures, which can be traced back through classic nineteenth century realism to ancient archetypes. It is questionable whether White’s readings of nineteenth century historiography really explain how twenty-first century historians actually write. However White suggested that nineteenth century plots are alive and well, arguing that Richard Evan’s three volume history of Germany (2004-8) was a typical “well-made story”, with a realist plot structure. He contrasted Evans’ plot with Friedländer’s “shifts” in narration, which he called “anti-narrativising” and modernist. Friedländer juxtaposes perspectives to create estrangement and counteract the domesticating tendencies of seamless explanations.

Examining Evans’ (favourable) review of The Years of Extermination in the New York Times, White asked why Evans called its plot “chronological”. White argued that the plot was far more subtly structured.  There are no protagonists, and instead of agency Friedländer’s history explores varieties of patience and suffering. Evans had misread what Friedländer was doing and that this misreading was symptomatic of the failure of historians more generally to understand that rhetorical choices are what give the discipline its ethical force. White views history as a replacement for metaphysics. For him the cognitive value of storytelling is that it puts morality into events. He made a convincing case that it is narrative which gives history its ethical force and that this is what distinguishes history from social sciences. He was far less clear about ethics and how a relativist historian determines what morality is needed to construct a good plot.

When he finished Professor Lucy Riall went back to the nagging question of influence – how does he help historians to actually write a different kind of history – literally “what do I do?” White answered that he was concerned not with how to write history but how to read it. Whilst extolling the virtues of narrative his own meta history is relentlessly analytic. Unlike Friedländer, White does not practise what he critiques. Instead White suggested young historians read Friedländer’s work as an exemplum, but it remained unclear whether an approach developed explicitly to handle the challenges of holocaust history could work as a model for historians dealing with less catastrophic events.


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