HAYDEN WHITE (AND THE CONTENT AND THE FORM AND EVERYONE ELSE) AT THE AHA

NANCY PARTNER

ABSTRACT

The special session at the January 1997 annual meeting of the American Historical Association honoring the achievement of Hayden White and examining the impact and influence of his work on the historical discipline was an enlightening experience, at least to this participant, in many more ways than had been planned or promised. The session itself, albeit fairly routine by the standard of such occasions, seemed to take on a metanarrative of its own as each of the speakers (not excluding the honoree who was present and participating) confidently spoke at length, proceeding from deep premises which bore no relation to any of the others. My own initial anticipation that this event would produce limited variations on a coherent theme—the impact of the linguistic turn and of narrative theory in particular on the practice and self-definition of academic history—turned gradually to rather disconcerted bemusement, especially when my turn came to listen to myself. My previous engagement to report on the AHA session in a paper for the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University became an opportunity to confide some of my freshest reactions to the event in a fairly small and very select audience. Narrating the ephemeral metanarrative I perceived as spinning itself out over the blunter facts of the AHA occasion, turned out to be the inner topic of my Wesleyan paper (this present essay), not excluding the mysterious impulses of the audience and the existential atmosphere of the never to be forgotten Princess Ballroom.

I had received the invitation to speak at the Humanities Center of Wesleyan University some weeks before the January meeting of the American Historical Association where I was going to read a paper at the session on the work of Hayden White organized by Richard Vann.* Since the choice of topic for this evening was entirely mine, I decided to do myself a favor and piggyback my Wesleyan paper on the AHA session—not by merely repeating that paper, which

*This paper was written for the occasion of a lecture and seminar at the Wesleyan University Humanities Center (17-18 February 1997) and was intended to reflect on the Hayden White session in its entirety at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York city on 4 January 1997. This account of my experience of the AHA session provoked some extremely interesting and characteristically sharp-witted discussion among Wesleyan faculty and Humanities Center visitors; I have not altered the paper I read to this very special audience, but their acute conversation has emphatically been “good to think with,” as we say.

and I guessed that he would contrast his latest conception of the direct historical experience with White’s ideas of linguistic mediation. certainly. We ran at least half an hour over our scheduled time with- . I was confident in the knowledge that. take enough notes. and then take copious notes on what everyone else had to say. the main attraction of the event. but by using the experience to report on the “state of the art” in metahistorical theory as It would emerge in the course of the proceedings at the conference. a substitute speaker was found at the conference with an erudite paper about Metahistory. Our event began promisingly on a note of personal drama. in any fatuous sense of a Whig history of theory. what I had in mind was what I provisionally planned to term a “critical taxonomy” of the state of the larger question of history as cultural artifact and as cultural practice. or White’s views on Foucault and the historicizing of the “self”—generally bringing narrative theory up to speed with postmodern critical debates. All I had to do was show up at the AHA. I was counting on questions raising the topic of postmodernism. The session itself. understood self-consciously or self-critically through the linguistic turn optic by historians themselves. Hayden White. and Frank Ankersmit (the other scheduled speaker) is always original and provocative. thanks to Dick Vann’s good planning. and a large enough one (maybe 150 people). injured himself ice-skating and was unable to travel to New York from the Netherlands where he lives. considered in its various parts.HAYDEN WHITE AT THE AHA 103 I had no intention of doing. no one would ask me anything at all. Not a progress report. bringing forward important matters without being self-important. That was the plot I intended to hold together all my material. All I had to do was listen. guaranteed interesting material with gross opportunism in a highly professional manner. I had never done anything quite like this before but it felt risk-free. This struck me as a singularly happy idea combining. which was perfect for my purpose. or identity politics and national narratives. I had no anxieties about encountering challenges to my own views. an unusual degree of coherence and intellectual focus was built into the structure of this session (so unlike all those shambling events at the AHA where speakers who might as well be from different planets huddle together under some tattered umbrella-rubric like “Crime and Cuisine in Premodern France and Poland: A Comparative Perspective”). read my own paper. with Hayden White there. we had attracted a noticeably “upscale” audience (an idea I leave to your competent imaginations to fill in). One of the participants. was going to have ample time to comment and reply as he chose. was quite good. all of the papers being on the announced subject. I knew ahead of time that Dick Vann was going to trace the influence of Hayden White through reviews and citations. Frank Ankersmit. as it did. It certainly met a fairly high professional standard for the AHA. and then come here and report on “where we are now” in historical theory. but amazingly. and she sportingly agreed to step in at the last minute. and of course the audience would supply whatever had been neglected. the honored guest-commentator handled the tricky pitfalls of tone and manner built into such occasions with good humor.

choosing to concentrate on The Content of The Form whose refinement of insight into narrative structure I consider much more salient and suggestive for historians. where is it “where we are now” in historical theory as an aspect of practice and consciousness? Don’t ask me. Dick Vann’s paper was a revelation and total surprise to me. I’m afraid that I’ve had to replace the high-concept “critical taxonomy” with something more like an autopsy report. My own paper occupied a certain middle distance in approach. and the like.104 NANCY PARTNER out people surreptitiously streaming out of the room. Casting as it did a shadow of unreality and grotesque humor over the occasion. as offered by Hayden White. subtle. and then routinely and grossly misunderstood. and historically pertinent formulations of his later essays in Tropics of Discourse and The Content of the Form remaining massively and impassively neglected. even now. is the short version of Dick Vann’s well-supported research on the White corpus. So . the pen I made sure would write. as an early provocative book which had done its work. and came away some two and a half hours later with a few illegible doodles on the margin of one page which I seem to have lost. with the far more nuanced. and that its core insights and mode of analysis are far from being exhausted in their potential uses. partly interpretive. Inadequately read. has had a pervasive impact in the historical discipline. but I declared myself convinced that narrative theory. genre analysis. I proceeded on the confident assumption that Hayden White’s work is important. or disconcerted is the more precise word. as it were. Maintaining a courteous and sympathetic tone (a diplomatic tour de force in the circumstances). I also proposed . rhetoric. Most notable is the fact that what minuscule attention White has been given by his fellow historians has been devoted entirely to Metahistory. little discussed. The three papers arrange themselves logically. rarely reviewed in journals read by historians. All went pretty well by an objective measure. . I went to that session as if to the first day of school with an entire new pad of paper. . especially for certain questions addressed to historical epistemology opened by postmodernism. is widely known. from empirical to philosophic analysis. Starting the session with the most empirical research paper. especially in the wake of the epistemological upheavals of semiotics and deconstruction. Dick Vann traced a relentless course of obscurity for all of Hayden White’s work among professional historians. I admit. I did note a certain persistent reluctance to pay serious attention to formal analysis among American academics who are endemically impatient with form. tropology. Dick Vann stated baldly and with complete supporting evidence that Hayden White’s work has had virtually no discernible influence on its most salient intended audience— historians—as measured by the only objective criteria we have: reviews and citations. and made me feel rather uneasy. infrequently cited. I ignored Metahistory entirely. about what I had come prepared to say. had somehow forced historians to acknowledge the superior potency of “textual intention” superseding the naive reading and writing strategies of authorial intention. Partly contextual.

Dominick LaCapra suggested that we might regard narrative as a neurotic compensatory reaction-formation. Marxist emplotment. neglecting utterly by that time to take any notes. all historians and cultural critics) are fully and unapologetically engaged. long-standing. as its deep premise. the audience restive. I think). or any other. or indeed any. for example.” (also his phrase. White began by proposing that his ideas not be regarded abstractly. And finally Michael Roth asked an actual question concerning the historian’s freedom to emplot events: namely. and he started the process by acknowledging his early fascination with structuralism and suggested that Metahistory resulted from his experiment with applying structuralism to nineteenth-century historical writing. She had written a densely reasoned argument based on a highly sophisticated encounter with Metahistory which assumed. albeit learned. was the most philosophical in method and presuppositions. that his work should be historicized.” his preferred term. say. the room was in demand. of his work on historiography remains obscure to me. or perhaps we shouldn’t. that White’s ideas are part of a living. (I hope they enjoyed it. and so we ended in the traditional tidal surge to the nearest bars. when or at what point in historical work the imposition of a plot. members of the American Historical Association. and continuing loyalty to Marxism which he regards as superior for its critique of social structures and for other reasons. I cannot begin to speculate on what all this self-devouring discourse sounded like to Hayden White who exhibited an imperturbable courtesy or perhaps resignation throughout. but rather. But he chose to devote the majority of his comments to variant restatements of his personal. or “situated. although I can’t say that the polite audience gave much sign of it. The only clear memory I retain of that part of the program is Dick Vann murmuring approval from his seat to my left. all of Hayden White’s Marxist thought remains obscure to me.HAYDEN WHITE AT THE AHA 105 a clever and amusingly pointed rereading of what I took to be a patently wellknown section from an essay in The Content of the Form which Dick Vann had just demonstrated might have been known by perhaps two people in the audience. who was in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship. She certainly spoke from a position which assumed that all contributions to this ongoing project of philosophic engagement with the foundational conditions of history are interesting and intelligible to the kind of people who might be. One person asked if the use of the first-person pronoun were acceptable historiographic practice. in its “moment of production. as we now say. In fact. but his practical decision to ignore all of it in his extended response struck me as a happy impulse. speech obliquely related to the proceedings which someone later confided to me comprised about 20% of the paper he was scheduled to read the next day. ongoing stream of intellectual life in which certain people (by implication. By this time (5:00 at least) we had run long past our schedule. is possible.) The third paper. An eminent foreign professor made a lengthy and mysterious. by a Polish graduate student. . although the relation of Marxist theory to all. Ewa Domanska. Just time enough remained for audience interventions to tie up any loose ends.

One problem that historians encounter in trying to think cogently about emplotment is having nothing useful to think about. well-known linear sequence but no particular story—with the tropological condensation required by “meaningfulness” and the “sense of an ending” (à la Frank Kermode) in its . in both their potential emplotments and the one I chose. the events themselves. Given the ordinariness and inconsequence of the episode “Hayden White at the AHA. use some criterion of selection that would allow me to produce the impression of sufficient fullness (the mimesis of real time) without reproducing the real-time twoand-one-half hours. not invented. verb tense. which makes thinking about alternate “plots” feel overstrained and unreal. not as if it proceeded whimsically or tendentiously from me alone. and emerged from. my little endeavor was to infuse a normally narrative-resistant event—the academic conference session which has its simple. and in the course of that narratio define a coherent idea or theme as the summary “meaning” of the conflated. my task was to emplot the materials. . that system of mostly unspecified but nonetheless specifiable permissions and denials (operating through syntax and semiotics via pronouns.). metaphor and other tropological shaping. So I suggest we consider the events I have just narrated. . So Hayden White never addressed the one question actually related to his work in narrative theory—but I would like to. I am not pretending to have done anything especially noteworthy or original here. in its performative aspects. and all the historical events we know about in common are always already firmly emplotted.” not imposed. Every narrative of an event has to be manipulated through the basic devices of selective inclusion. have one other first-hand witness. multiplex event and make my audience (you) aware of it as if it inhered in. [Note: the only version of the event most of you can know is the one I gave. Choices have to be made and basic decisions related to hypotaxis—giving or withholding priority to detail. as for a rather bad academic novel. In this case. as reliable or unreliable as myself.] Given that I had committed myself to narrating a certain public event of some modest complexity and finite duration. comparison and contrast. and so forth) which constitute “truth-claim” in prose. a convincing rendering of the meaning imminent in the event which I registered and recorded.106 NANCY PARTNER I have so often fantasized that the life of the mind.” (In contrast to parataxis in which all separate narrative elements are equal: A and B and C and D and then . bears a deep structural affinity to vaudeville. and then . aroused expectation and foreshadowing. And I had to do this within the implicit constraints of the protocol of historicity. I would. at least. Thinking abstractly about hypothetical sequence-structures for unknown events is not productive (at least not for historians). quotation. and at the Center for the Humanities. reference. just as Thucydides required. . . indicating relations of causal or temporal subordination—determine what a narrative is “about. but that is the case with all historical evidence at some level.” we (including myself) are better able to think freely about whether I was successful enough in my narrative strategy to make the plot I used feel “found.

or catachresis—is a problem. Portrait of a Lady? (Tragedy). or formulaic genre. I used the rudimentary but dependable device of thwarted or reversed expectation (alias: ironic outcome) to give expressive significance to my micro-narrative. In those senses. and it is often reduced to some causal or intentional sequence of events having an outcome that is precisely what was to be avoided. irony can easily be a trope of cheap effect. once an array of data can be configured into a unified subject. irony resides in the mind of the observer who sees the many ways in which human endeavor grinds blindly toward unforeseen and undesired ends which yet express and expose the dis- . In fact. my announced intention to discern in the proceedings some harmonious convergence of thought on its way (implicitly in a forward direction) toward some clearer resolution or refinement: the rather pretentious “critical taxonomy” of history as cultural artifact and self-conscious practice. isocolon. Irony is a trope of meaning expressed through verbal structure but without specified formal determinants. bad books. And it doesn’t much matter if you don’t think I was very successful. or condensation in the related terminology of dream interpretation] of the career of a unified protagonist: here. eliciting the conversational punctuation: How ironic! The presence of irony is often indicated by tone or expression that comments on and renders the literal meaning of words self-defeating or self-deflating. a world with institutions and rules. and a goal-oriented sequence of actions. metonymy. I think. I have also forced myself into a corner by invoking irony. inadequate lever for shifting the massive forces of malign reality. But what plot? Pilgrim’s Progress? (Comedy). but that is part of the reason that explicit narrative theory meets a pervasive resistance: it feels so “natural” to do or to register. the elements of a plot are in place. and metaphor. but White’s narrative theory as embodied in his books.HAYDEN WHITE AT THE AHA 107 sequence logic that are crucial to what we mean by emplotment. On a large scale. Irony—considered one of the major tropes because it is a large-scale figure of thought like synecdoche. and sounds so insultingly contrived (to both writer and reader/listener alike) when conceptually unpacked. Portrait of the Artist? (Romance). It always involves doubling of some sort. There seems to be no way to avoid a certain pretentiousness in discussing these simple maneuvers. the somewhat faux-naif narrator. in a kind of slow-motion pratfall of accumulating disappointments and reversals of expectation registered by myself. expressing two thoughts at the same time. I sketched in the initial wished-for plot of coherence. or acknowledges that human behavior is a poor. not exactly Hayden White himself. by regarding it as a summary episode [alias: the trope of synecdoche. in its progress through the definable world of academic history. not a small-scale ornament like anaphora. As we all know. The non-story of one more AHA session had to borrow its narrativity from an outside source. a projected shadow-structure against which the events I narrate acquire their meaning. but it doesn’t matter because its plot function was to serve as a counterpoint. That provisional structure resembles Romance. are often better to think with about these matters than idiosyncratic brilliant writing.

or any emplotment incarnates itself in and through the array of events “to be narrated?” Or to phrase this in the negative. the Marx brothers (a Marxism I subscribe to). “emplotment” is not a term derived from narrative theory but from the process of writing in prose. A choice was made (was it during Dick Vann’s paper? perhaps) but it did not feel like a choice but a recognition. I admit to a half-buried longing for the glamour of “vaudevillian” excess to manifest itself in the academic world I actually inhabit. by its own unfolding reality. and self-observation. Rather messy as tropes go. Described after the fact (which is the only metaphorical “place” from which description can take place) emplotment is a rationalizing and organizing activity which follows logically upon the collection and contemplation of the “events to be narrated. is also persistently colored by desire. And that is a substantive and important answer. “a Marxist. was Michael Roth’s canny question about “when” this. and a certain raw daring of self-exposure. however. any discussion of emplotment unavoidably suggests that authors do collect a mass of facts and then (in actual chronological sequence) consider what they mean in the set of relations we call narrative. Naturally enough I have never seen a vaudeville show but I associate such events with people like Jack Benny and Mae West. when do other potential choices get eliminated? If one is. And this may well explain in part my emplotment (the ironic pratfall) of the Hayden White session which I was only too willing to see as a prolonged semisane episode of imploding and self-satirizing intellectual intentions doing their acts—on a stage. even almost parodied. But at what point did I begin to conceive of this formulation? When did other formulations get discarded? I cannot remember. this virtually never happens. knowingness. not revulsion. and a certain kind of nervy and wild comedy. that my own thoughts about vaudeville in relation to aspects of academic life long predate the 1997 AHA meeting. a boldness and risk in life.” does one consciously and always think Marxist thoughts. In actuality. Therefore. although one of self-satire. In its primary meaning.108 NANCY PARTNER guises of other kinds of desire. It certainly works well enough for an intellectual event approached with some optimistic expectation that is systematically undermined. detachment. and that this recurring fantasy. with an imagined scoffer in the wings with a hooked stick.” So described. none of which describe academe. or are one’s thoughts and feelings merely always colored by whatever it is on a deeper level that makes one “a Marxist” in the first place? I admit. I think there is still a massive confusion over how and when the process of emplotment takes place. The narrativizing process is in action prior to and all during the “research. irony suits modern and postmodern attitudes of coolness. The question I wanted to address. as Hayden White insists of himself.” recognizing and recording what may count . the answer any author would honestly give. before an audience. with respect to the mind of the author. It has to be obvious that the process of reducing an event stretching in uninterrupted articulate speech over two-and-a-half hours to a very few pages involves severe condensation and tropological manipulation. for example.

That complicated behavior is where aspects of formulated adult mental life enter the process and modify its outcome. It is no wonder that the theory of such a complex behavior of origination and revision participates in a certain slippage. public constraints under a protocol for truth-claim. Anyone who has written any fiction (as I have privately. and also of originality. Emplotment seems to take place exactly at the meeting point where unconscious demands on reality confront disciplined recognitions of the larger contexts and constraints that control meaning—a point of frequent unpredictable slippages and lapses of control. The meta-historical process of analysis is an afterthe-fact dissection of mental events that must feel spontaneous. The actual mental experience of inventing words and gestures for non-existent characters is predominantly one of summoning those characters to mind and observing them. and self-generated while they are taking place. inevitable. and recording their lives. Nonfictional discovery is a process closely related to fictional invention—but subject to multiple. already well on their way toward larger configurations of meaning. At a certain basic level plots are made from the same materials and using the same processes of symbolization as dreams are constructed: and plots feel “found” in the same way that dreams feel “given. it comes in the form of “discovering what I think as I write it” or “by writing it. Everyone has experienced this. need I say. and would recommend to everyone interested in critical theory) knows the quite paradoxical feeling that fiction feels found. to enlightening or painful processes of rational correction or verification. I am describing the mental “place” where we think with what we have learned. and mental discipline. I felt that I would eventually have to introduce the explosive topic of fiction into a discussion of Hayden White’s purported influence on the historical discipline.” But both are made. and the kind of decisions we make when hovering between realism and verisimilitude. It is where narrative happens. In narrating the Hayden .” That common experience is our intuitive access to the mental fulcrum point between unconscious and conscious ideas.” and it never feels as if anything so artificial as emplotment is taking place—although it is. The classical rhetorical concept of inventio involves finding or discovering the specific contents of meaning. major differences. There are. to modification and self-criticism. and that underlies our modern sense of “invention” as searching the imagination for meaning. The issue here connected with my ironic plot for the AHA session is related to the occasional fictionality of reality. Fictional invention feels like discovery. than vaudeville fantasies) for conscious recuperation. The act of emplotment is synonymous with the finding of meaning in reality.HAYDEN WHITE AT THE AHA 109 as salient “facts. But emplotment never starts from a blank or amoebic state of unformed contemplation of discrete units of reality. virtually eavesdropping on them. penetration. of course. and thus reaches too far down into unconscious reservoirs of desire and fear (much deeper even. The act of apprehension of narratable elements involves very complex and deeply informed mental responses. The plots of truth-claim narratives are subject to a severe and extensive reality-check.

I would still be implicitly asking the audience to draw the significance of a ballroom where no one could dance. We are so adroit at these poetic registrations that life resolutely seems to imitate fiction. would I be going too far in the direction of a tropological fictionality if I described the Princess Ballroom as the material mirror-image frame for an event marked. from itself and from the speakers. confronted with its own faces and the distant enhanced sound of sentences read by speakers many of them couldn’t see. each four-feet square. trisecting the room. by intellectual frustration and the non-circulation of ideas? Even if I merely described the physical features of the room without comment. each of the eight columns is mirrored on its four sides. and perhaps 50 feet in diameter. Of course now I have to attempt it: this room called a ballroom was appropriately circular. the inert absorption of ideas into a deadening atmosphere of obsessional self-regard and false light? In terms of truth-claim narrative. with a raised platform in front of draped windows. as I perceived it. I purposely omitted any description of its location—a room in the Sheraton Hotel called the Princess Ballroom.110 NANCY PARTNER White session. Department of History McGill University . the room seemed to be in shadow. comprising eight columns. But no one would dare dance in this room. And so I conclude on this note of superadded irony: that the chief conscious decision I was aware of making in the course of constructing a narrative involved filtering actuality through a standard of verisimilitude derived from realist fiction and finding reality in need of repair. so that virtually every sight line in the room leads directly to a large mirrored surface. The audience was unavoidably segmented. Furthermore. the lectern light was dead. Verisimilitude demanded that I censor reality. the acoustics and the microphone were dull. I decided to omit that description precisely because the actual physical circumstances seemed to conspire with my ironic emplotment to frame it in a spatial metaphor so perfect that it struck me as too “novelistic” for truth-claim persuasion. one could look directly down the narrow channel of seats unobstructed by the mirrored columns or else look at oneself in a mirror. What to do with this wealth of actuality clamoring to be rendered as spatial metaphor of noncommunication. as the free circulation of even immaterial objects is thwarted by two rows of square columns. From the speakers’ platform. I actually found myself making the odd decision that actuality had not been subtle enough and that I wanted my ironic narratio modulated to a lower key. intellectual disconnection. The ceiling was low and made lower by immense crystal chandeliers which seemed to absorb the dim ambient light and multiply themselves in the mirrored columns.

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