Thursday, October 22, 2009

Position Paper # 13 Hayden White


History, A Result of Poetic Strategies

I will consider the Historical work as what is most manifestly is- that is to say, a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse that purports to be a model, or icon, of that past structure and processes in the interest of explaining what they were by representing them

-Hayden White (1973)

Hayden White, as a post-structuralist, believes that in fact reality is jus our language. What does that mean? In fact, our world is full of uncountable number of events and phenomena and to be described and what describes them is language. It seems to be quite wild idea that but is not deniable. In fact we use our language to record, arrange, organize analyze and recreate Historical events. So I could not oppose post-structuralism insisting language is essential to History.

Based on this concept, Hayden White says that History is in fact poetically constructed which means to say History is a result of different poetic and linguistic strategies that are employed to describe certain events in History. Therefore, History is narrative.

White begins his book “Metahistory” by distinguishing the following levels of conceptualization in the Historical work: (1) chronicle; (2) story; (3) mode of emplotment; (4) mode of argument; and (5) mode of ideological implication. (White 1973) White tries to show what processes historical account goes through.

First of all, the unprocessed or not organized data of historical record should be organized and arranged in sequence of the time this is what White call chronicle. Then chronicle is organized into a story by further arrangement of the event into components of a “spectacle” or process of happening, which is thought to possess a discernible beginning, middle and end. (White, 1973)

If we have gone through the processes stated above, we are now to decide what particular poetic strategies to describe a story. This stage or let us say structure is what White emphasizes in his book. It is where his emphasis on role of language and literary strategies in History clearly shown. And this is the process


Four Modes of Emplotment

White tries to propose structure of History which is linked to language and literacy. So in His book “Metahistory (1973)” he proposes Western literacy tradition prescribe four structures of emplotment or ways of fashioning events into a narrative; romance, tragedy, comedy and satire. (Marie Hughes Warrington, 2009) This is actually the process to reconstruct historical events understandable to people.

The Romance is fundamentally a drama of self-identification symbolized by the hero’s transcendence of the world of experience, his victory over it, and his final liberation from it- the sort of drama associated with the Grail legend or the story of the resurrection of Christ in Christian mythology. It is drama of the triumph of good over evil, of virtue over vice, of light over darkness. (White, 1973) The tragedy shows hero fails to resolve successfully problems. He cannot overcome the problems which he faces. The comedy is where temporary triumphs over adversity occur in the world by the protagonist by means of reconciliations or brief reconciliations. The satire is a tale of diruption208 in which ultimately death and the bad always wins. (Staloff, 1995)

Those four modes of explotment are used to offer audiences a well explained, so understandable Historical account. It is quite interesting for me that there can be various forms of account and analysis according to different people who take different literary or poetic strategies to describe a single event. For example, if we see Lincoln’s life in the view of romance, we will emphasize his great struggle to free slaves in America. However if we see it in the view of tragedy, we will emphasize the scene that he was assassinated by his opponent.

I agree with that those kinds of explotment can make more interesting and understandable Historical account anyway. However I would like to point out that putting Historical events and or stories into poetic reconstruction would distort their objectivity.

I believe that the most of Historical writings and accounts cannot avoid taking a narrative form. However, I would like to remind myself and narrativists that when we narrate Historical events and explain them such modes of explotment, we must not damage and distort objectivity of the events. History is true story. So for me, as a Historian, delivering truth is more important matter than making historical events interesting to audience.

Therefore, I would say that in narrating History we must be able to deliver not only insight and teachings based on our subjectiveness but also insights and teachings which are clearly object.


Modes of Argument

White also proposes four structures of argument: formism, organicism, mechanism and contextualism

Formalist tries to identify objects by classifying, labelling, categorizing: "any historiography in which the depiction of the variety, color, and vividness of the historical field is taken as the central aim of the work" (White, 1973)

For the organicist, explanation ‘must take the form of a synthesis in which each of the parts of the whole must be shown either to mirror the structure of the totality or to prefigure the form of either the end of the whole process or at least the latest phase of the process’ (ibid.). (Marie Hughes Warrington, 2009)

Contextualists believe that ideas and actions are best explained when they are placed in context or ‘colligated’. (Marie Hughes Warrington, 2009)

Mechanistic writers try to identify and match ‘causes’ and ‘effects’. (Marie Hughes Warrington, 2009) They try to find laws that govern the operations of human activities.

Among four modes of argument proposed by White, I prefer Contextualism. I believe that Collingwood’s a priori imagination can partially be sort of Contxtualism because a priori imagination is suggesting us to go into the event and think of what must happen and what the situation must be like. A priori imagination must be corresponding with historical context. It does not allow any sort of wild imaginations that are not regarding historical context. So as a person who agrees with Collingwood’s theory I would prefer the Contextualism among those modes of argument.


Mode of Ideological Implication

According to Hayden White, the ideological dimensions of a Historical account reflect the ethical element in the Historian’s assumption of a particular position on the question of the nature of Historical knowledge and implications that can be drawn from the study of past events for the understanding of present ones. (White, 1973)

White proposes four modes of ideological implication: Conservative that says History evolves; Liberal that says progression of social History is the result of changes in law and government; Radical believes that Utopia is imminent and must be effected by revolutionary means; and Anarchist believes that the state is corrupt and therefore it must be destroyed and a new community must be started. The main concern of four ideological implications is Social, and possibly political changes. Conservatives are more suspicious of programmatic transformation of the society another three are optimistic about the rapid transformation in society. The four mode of ideological implication can also be categorized into two: Scientific and Realistic. Conservative and Anarchist are quite realistic while Liberal and Radical claim to be scientific.

The categorization of ideological implication in History is quite interesting and I believe that it is a well analyzed work. We cannot deny that the most of Historical accounts implies specific ideologies of writers because every work has reflection of its writer’s idea, theory, interest etc.


Historical Style- Combination of Three Modes

Now, I would like to discuss the part which I am interested in most in Hayden’s work “Metahistory”. I am very much interested that Historical writings or accounts are structurally a combination of three modes that I have discusses above: Explotment, Argument and Ideological implications. And I would like to present a table of combination proposed by White:

Emplotment Argument Ideology
Romantic Formist Anarchist
Tragic Mechanistic Radical
Comic Organicist Conservative
Satirical Contextualist Liberal

I am just amazed by precise analysis of Hayden White on Historical writings and accounts and how the modes are combined to be structure of Historical work. I cannot say I agree with all that White discusses but what he discusses is probable.

I would like to admire his approach to Historical writing. No matter how much I agree or disagree with him, his idea that precisely suggests structure of Historical works is quite interesting. I would want to consider his work as unconventional and creative conception on History.


Marie Hughes Warrington (2009). 50 Key Thinker on History New York: Routlege

White, H. (1973). Metahistory: The historical imagination in nineteenth-century Europe.
Baltimore: John Hopkins University.

Staloff, D. (1995) The search for a meaningful past philosophies, theories, and
interpretations [Audiobook]. The Teaching Company.

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