Faculty Reading Group: Transitions

On page 117, in the essay entitled “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination,” we read the following:

But if my hypothesis is correct, there can be no such thing as a non-relativistic representation of historical reality, inasmuch as every account of the past is mediated by the language-mode in which the historian casts his original description of the historical field prior to any analysis, explanation, or interpretation he may offer of it.

We read this classic Hayden White piece (originally published in History and Theory, Vol. 14/4 Beiheft 14: Essays on Historicism [1975]: 48-67) in a faculty reading group in our Department last Friday, that met for the first time, during lunch. I’ve not read the essay for years; yes, I first went looking for what I’d previously underlined in my copy of the book but the above sentence jumped out at me for the first time (to be honest, it was only when a colleague quoted it during our discussion, which made me flip through some pages looking for it). For, as I later elaborated, in agreement with another colleague who detected some curious ambiguity in White’s essay, this sentence nicely captures his place as a transitional figure.

For at least with some of us who have been influenced by his work, reading that sentence now seems to be just a little unsatisfactory since it reads as oddly conservative, and thus not nearly as radical as it likely read forty years ago.In our discussion, Freud came to my mind, as a great example of such a transitional figure — for breaks with past assumptions and habits are never absolute, inasmuch as those old (or what, from a later point of view, we come to call “past” and “old”…) assumptions and habits constituted the necessary conditions of thought and action at the time. But change does happen, of course, for who knows what all reasons (intention, maybe, but surely by accident as well), yet despite the novelty we can still see the trace of the old if we look in the right places. So yes, Freud, when compared to many of his predecessors, is a good example of this newer thing we now call functionalism: scholars intent on putting the scientific method to work determining the purpose and effects of things empirical, such as his patients’ reports from the couch. But in the midst of all this newly developing psychoanalytic rigor, we find in his work a classic origins tale (of the so-called primal horde), a story far more at home with the late nineteenth-century Intellectualists (think of E. B. Tylor spinning a yarn about so-called noble savages having dreams) than a twentieth-century functionalist.

But I don’t think Freud is to be criticized for this since the preoccupation with ahistorical origins could be read as an inevitable survival (as those early anthropologists might have named it), whereby it is made clear that the people who write texts are themselves contingent social actors, creating novelty while situated in specific settings not of their making. What makes a scholar like Freud interesting, then, is that from out of a common, inherited situation he was able to say something different and thereby allow us to think new thoughts about such things as anxiety and socialization. And doing so from within a world that bore all the marks of its time.

Which brings me back to White’s essay.

What I found curious in that sentence was the use of the word “correct,” as in:

But if my hypothesis is correct,

For, taking seriously what I’ve learned from reading White (i.e., with the benefit of forty years of other peoples’ further thinking on the topic of the past and how we talk about it), I would have thought that he’d place his argument in the realm of persuasion and not truth. For there is considerable distance between the above and:

But if my hypothesis is persuasive,…

In fact, why not just call it a claim?

But it’s the distance from 1975 to today that probably allows some to talk rather differently about so-called facts (i.e., historical reality) and their subsequent representation (I’m now thinking of the rest of the above quotation), let alone the apparent correspondence between a hypothesis and the actual (i.e., testable) truth of the matter. Thus, it’s an effect of that distance that some might now read his text as unsatisfying.

For although there is hardly agreement on this matter today, there are those who — deeply influenced by White and the critical historiographical traditional that follows him — would now see this very distinction (between facts and their representation) as highly problematic, and thus those who would part ways with anyone interested in multiplying different narratives about the past so as to create what they’d portray as a better or more adequate picture of it (a common enough motive today, as we also discussed the other day, for many who tackle writing histories of what we term marginalized or silenced groups). Instead, some might now argue that an external reality, called the past, or some notion of a more or less sufficiently whole or inclusive picture of it, are nothing but rhetorical claims of current social actors who use such words as “the past” or “the big picture” (aka: let a thousand flowers bloom…) as tactical tropes that can accomplish contemporary interests — such as legitimizing this or that inasmuch as it can be placed in an apparently direct lineage with something currently seen to have been authoritative.

Perhaps just as I have plotted a supposed tradition flowing to us today from White’s work…?

Or just as I have posited a gap between some real yet removed situation in 1975 and today…?

(This self-reflexivity can be a bitch sometimes.)

I recall a professor who once asked me, at a public talk that I gave at Canadian university some years ago, what the truth conditions of my lecture were; he was trying to corner me, as I recall, to show that, sooner or later, we were all interested in matters of truth. Yes, he was a philosopher of religion. I replied that my lecture had nothing to do with truth but was, instead, an exercise in persuasive rhetoric — as was his use of the category truth, in fact.

The distance between our positions was rather significant, to say the least.

There’s surely applications of all this to analyzing today’s political climate in the U.S., what with talk of alternative facts now going around. We touched on that in the reading group too. Leslie Dorrough Smith recently wrote a post elsewhere that also comes to mind, where she concluded as follows:

This is an approach that we can entertain today but it is one that, I think, would not be at home with earlier readings of that 1975 essay’s once radical recommendations.

So White, not unlike Freud and many others, strikes me as a crucial transitional figure — as my colleague said, despite his reputation today, there’s something oddly realist about that early essay, at least when we read it now; for the reduction of historical reality to rhetoric, for which some more radical theorists of the past would today argue, is not what we find in this chapter. Instead — and despite where some readers took his early critique — it seems to be more of a call for us to be careful, vigilant (as another colleague described it), for how we, as scholars, talk about the past, assuming all along that there is indeed a past worth talking about.

For after all, if language is understood not as constituting the world but, instead, as mediating it (as phrased in that opening quote), then there’s got to be something tangible out there, beyond or prior to language, that we’re putting into words.

But what if we instead think of language as constitutive…?

As for next month’s reading? It’s the introduction from: