hayden white fun

going to try to make this page for notes about deconstructionist historian hayden white i think. white is my new pet fixation so i want to have a home for his ideas as i understand them.

White, Hayden. Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.

white is famous in literary theory circles for his concept of emplotment. emplotment is the “endowment of a chronicle of events with a plot structure." the point of specifying emplotment rather than just narration is that emplotment is "carried out by discursive techniques that are more tropological than logical in nature” (20). that is, no historian just discovers history as such: “while events may occur in time, the chronological codes used to order them into specific temporal units are culture specific, not natural; and moreover, must be filled with their specific contents by the historian if he is to constitute them as phases of a continuous process of historical development” (21). emplotment is about how the narration of history requires selecting (specific, culturally determined) fictional techniques at the level of the event being described and at the level of the overarching narrative into which this event is being inserted or emplotted. this is a useful concept, imo, because it undoes any association of the historical with the neutral, the natural, or the given. "history, in the sense of both events and accounts of events, does not just happen but is made" (25).

white's preferred term for the study of the means available to the historian for shaping raw data into historical events is tropology, and he compartmentalizes tropes into four basic discursive functions: metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. the implication of tropological theory is that the study of literature is as important (if not more important) than the study of history, because "historical discourse utilizes structures of meaning-production found in their purest forms in literary fictions" (31). i'd certainly like to think so! while there might be an element of wish fulfillment in this, i do find very persuasive white's point that the principle structure used by the historian--i.e., narrative--develops first elsewhere.

if literature first shapes the stories that history can tell, white locates in modernist literature a sea change in the tropes of historical discourse. this is not because modernist literature supposedly destroys the model of the nineteenth-century realist novel with its stable characters, linear plots, and narrative resolutions. rather, modernist literature takes aim at history's most fundamental "building block": "the event as a basic unit of temporal occurence" (76). the modernist critique of the event is twofold: "the number of details identifiable in any singular event is potentially infinite; and ... the context of any singular event is infinitely extensive or at least is not objectively determinable" (80). in its critique of the event, modernism turns to "the intervals between" events--white cites woolf as an example here (87). white's claim here is higher stakes than it might seem, as he is arguing against the commonplace that the holocaust is a singular historical trauma which escapes narrative representation; white argues that the holocaust can only be construed this way if it is in fact already emplotted in a modernist form.

modernist tropes of emplotment rely on a "figural," rather than a "representative," relationship between discourse and its object. counterintuitively, white locates this figural logic in the work of the literary critic most strongly associated with representation, erich auerbach. a german philologist, auerbach wrote the book on representation with mimesis. in that book, auerbach extends the counter-enlightenment argument of philosopher giambattista vico that language and culture reflect the history of human community. white argues, however, that through the figural trope of fulfillment, auerbach "historicizes historicism" (109). fulfillment here is a christian trope: the idea of "a real event ... complete in itself and full its meaning at the moment of its happening but ... at the same time the bearer of a meaning ... revealed only in a different and equally complete event at a later time" (105). by figural realism, then, white means a simultaneity of present reference (a content) and teleological fulfillment (a form). later events supply earlier events with different meanings, just as when, in the eighteen brumaire, marx describes the 1848 french revolution's rhetoric of finishing the 1789 revolution. in this sense, figuration is the time of history--the history of history--and mimesis "the story of how western literature came to grasp historicity as humanity's distinctive mode of being in the world" (109).

white's archetypal example of figural realism is proust. proust's novel of consciousness is "an allegory of figuration itself", in effect an illustration of how emplotment happens (156). in this reading, proust's novel is less an object to be interpreted than the drama of interpretation itself: the emplotment plot. proust offers white an example of how modernist figuration is prior to, and places critical pressure on, the tropes of historical discourse. white's point is not that history is downstream from or only accessible through literature, but that the conflict over historical interpretation is articulated first in literature. contrary to vico's claim that we might read literature for the trace of history therein, then, white suggests that we already participate in literature whenever we contest the meaning of history in the present (as in, say, the 1619 project or michelle wright's critique thereof). we contest the meaning of history in the present whenever we act in such a way as to bring a prior historical event to completion or to emplot a historical event within a narrative. modernism is the discovery that the present figures the past in its image.

the payoff here, i guess, is that history is complicated and contested (which i don't think will be that controversial to anyone), that historical meaning can be changed by and through what we do in the present, that the plausibility of the stories and interpretations we apply to historical events depend on the literature in which tropes of emplotment first develop. this seems important because we live in a very philistine culture in which literature is either an insignificant entertainment or a didactic imitation of history. white's reversal--to see history as parasitic of literature--offers a justification for taking literature seriously in the present, and taking literature seriously as literature rather than as the shadow of history. as well, the way that history is narrated--what is allowed to be narrated, who is allowed to narrate it--remains a crucial terrain of struggle: see saidiya hartman's critique of the archive in wayward lives, beautiful experiments; or michel-rolph trouillot's critique of historical production in silencing the past. presentist pragmatism, which seems to me ascendent in the academy, misapprehends the present force of history, not in the conventional sense--past structures endure into the present--but in the figurative sense--history exists only in and through activity in the present.

tbc with other books/essay of white's as i read them