Emancipation from the Burden of History

Hayden White's friend and colleague James Clifford once described him as an “anarcho-formalist.” The formalism was more visible than the anarchism but no less important. White was not naive enough to believe that thinkers were free to imagine any damn thing they liked, thereby recreating the world according to their desires. As he saw it, thinking tended to fall into a narrow range of forms, tropes, narrative structures. As critical as he was of history’s pretensions to be an objective science, there was more than a bit of the scientist, even the mad scientist, in his investigation of thought's inescapable formality. History was also what produced the forms. In other words, White's formalism led him back to history as something objectively resistant to human purposes.

On Hayden White, 1928–2018

Hayden White, the theorist of history who died on March 5 at the age of 89, did not believe in endings. History, he famously argued, did not come with endings, middles, or beginnings. Left to itself, it was a chaos of meaningless particulars. Meaning is something we impose on those particulars.

In one of his most influential and characteristically fun-loving essays, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” (1980), White asked us to consider how history looked to a medieval annalist—which is not like history at all:

709. Hard winter. Duke Gottfried died.

710. Hard year and deficient in crops.

711.

712. Flood everywhere.

713.

714. Pippin, Mayor of the Palace, died.

715. 716. 717.

718. Charles devastated the Saxon with great destruction.

719.

To later historians, the year 718, when “Charles devastated the Saxon with great destruction,” signifies the Battle of Soissons, arguably the decisive battle in the consolidation of what was to become France. And to later historians, the item which ends the list—“732. Charles fought against the Saracens at Poitiers on Saturday”—is the Battle of Tours (or Poitiers), where the northward advance of Islamic invaders from Spain was stopped by Charles Martel, bastard son of Pepin (or Pippin). The Battle of Tours has been taken, rightly or wrongly, as the moment when Christianity’s future in Europe was saved. The event has been described as the single most decisive battle in the history of the world.

To medieval annalists, however, it was obviously no such thing. For them, a world-historical battle exists on the same plane as a spell of bad weather. A year with a flood looms no larger than a year in which nothing happened at all. A year passes. And then, as Monty Python might say, another year passes. Who knows where all this might be going, if anywhere? The list is full of gaps but devoid of explanations. Its only order is chronological, and there is no reason for the chronology not to go on forever.

White’s point is that the annal is immune to storytelling because it very properly does not presume the existence of a subject (a hero, a monastery, a city) that would be self-evidently important enough to justify gathering events around it, excluding some and playing up others, thereby carving meaning out of the flow and promising some sort of closure. Events without a subject are random. But subjects are just as artificial as endings. Who is to say who or what really matters? The annalist does not tell us the outcome of the battle in 732, but he does mention that it happened on a Saturday.

Is this bad history? Or is it truer to the chaos of the world than the good history we are used to?


Since the moment in 1973 when he stopped being the medieval historian he was trained as (his graduate thesis for the University of Michigan was on the papal schism of 1130) and published his theoretical masterpiece, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Hayden White has been a lightning-rod for critiques of “theory,” “postmodernism,” and “relativism.” Little of what has been said about him can be dismissed as out-and-out falsehood. But most of it misses the existential force of his writing and for that matter of his being in the world.

Born in Tennessee in 1928, White moved as a child to Detroit, where his father found work in an automobile factory and became a union organizer. He grew up with intimate knowledge of union struggles and corporate resistance, though he declined to mention his working-class background until the very end of his life, when neoliberalism’s assault on the working class made it too helpful to pass up. But if there is a thread running through all White’s work, it is, as they say, a red thread—the urgency of human emancipation. Emancipation from the burden of history, first of all. That was his Nietzschean message in Metahistory and after: you can tell better stories about yourself and your place in the world, and if you do, you will radically increase your chances of living a fuller life. White did not say that Hegel and Marx, two of the heroes of Metahistory, were closer to the historical facts; he praised them as mythmakers whose visions of history encouraged comedy and courage, as opposed to figures who tried to sound smart by virtue of their tragic pessimism and irony. While writing Metahistory, White was bringing a case against the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department for covert surveillance without reasonable suspicion of a crime. He won in the California Supreme Court. That too was an emancipatory act.1

After Metahistory, most of White’s intellectual accomplishments came in essayistic bursts about thinkers, writers, and issues that grabbed him, later collected in volumes like Tropics of Discourse (1978) and The Content of the Form (1987) and circulating freely and widely as pedagogically indispensable PDFs. His most visible achievement as an academic citizen was the program in the History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz, which he ran for many years. Hiring such brilliantly eccentric scholars as James Clifford, Donna Haraway, and Teresa de Lauretis and actively recruiting gay students and students of color—he claimed HistCon had a higher percentage of non-white students than any other humanities doctoral program anywhere—he helped build it (despite a dramatic scarcity of resources) into a unique haven for the study of topics too wacky and wonderful to find a home in conventional disciplines. On campus, he was legendary for nurturing projects he himself did not believe in, which required rigor as well as relativism.

His friend and colleague James Clifford once described White as an “anarcho-formalist.” The formalism was more visible than the anarchism but no less important. White was not naive enough to believe that thinkers were free to imagine any damn thing they liked, thereby recreating the world according to their desires. As he saw it, thinking tended to fall into a narrow range of forms, tropes, narrative structures. As critical as he was of history’s pretensions to be an objective science, there was more than a bit of the scientist, even the mad scientist, in his investigation of thought’s inescapable formality. History was also what produced the forms. In other words, White’s formalism led him back to history as something objectively resistant to human purposes.

If our grounds for preferring one interpretation of history over another can only be moral or aesthetic, as he argued in Metahistory, and if we only recognize narratives, or aesthetic forms, if they correspond to the moral values of our time and place, as he argued in “The Value of Narrativity,” then it is historical context that determines, after all, our moral and aesthetic choices. Freedom is not much use unless it knows what it’s up against.

White’s signature good cheer, like his equally characteristic impatience with sanctimony, may have had its source in an awareness that he himself was not more successful than other humans in avoiding self-contradiction. He took a highly ironic stance in the classroom, and did so in order to teach his students that his irony, and irony in general, might also be rejected. As much an existentialist as a structuralist, his ultimate commitment was to life, and in his writings he can expect a very long one.

  1. An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to White “single-handedly” bringing his case; in fact, he did so with the help of A.L. Wirin and Fred Okrand. We regret the error. 

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