Week 3: Narrative and Metanarrative



We started our session today by reading through a number of the Nietzsche quotes that you-all posted after our session last week, and the short essays that a few of you wrote in connection with those. We spent some time on Noelle’s post about Mariam Ghani, and also Taylor’s post about Do Ho Suh (and the question of doing “justice” to the past — as against being “objective”/“truthful”; Suh’s work left me thinking for a moment about medium — what might it be to represent the past not in words but in elaborate textile constructions), and finally, Jamie’s very interesting post on how “archives” now work (or will work?) in an era of profusion and technologically mediated preservation-of-the-all.

An anecdote on this last point — merely anecdotal. My maternal grandmother moved into an assisted living facility at the end of this past summer. This meant leaving a three-bedroom home in Larkspur, California, for a studio apartment in a senior residence center. En route, it was necessary to dispense with 92-years-worth of accumulated documentation — in a basic way the archive of her life, together with a considerable portion of the archive of her ancestors (not to mention her six children). I will spare you the details. But what most affected me as I reflected on the poignancy and psychological demands of such a transition was the very powerful feeling that, in a basic sort of way, the destruction/loss/forgetting of so much stuff need not really be a source of concern. After all, the totality of that multi-room (including the garage) repository could be rather speedily translated into a few thousand digital images — all of it could, without difficulty, go on my phone. I probably wouldn’t even notice the data-space. We could throw everything out while, in a certain sense, losing nothing. As I talked about this with my mother, I could feel the basic difference in our sensibilities around this question. I sensed a genuine generational gap. It is not that my mother didn’t “understand” that we could do this (she is perfectly literate in the armamentarium of digital technologies, and is as glued to her tablet as my nine-year-old), it is rather that this basic feeling — that basically everything can be serialized and made, in some basic way, a small spliced-in proliferating viral presence within the ever-expanding volume of data that one carries about on laptops and that continuously updates and reduplicates itself in various overlapping cloud storage archives — it’s simply not really available to her as a way of thinking about the past, the self, the present, and/or the future.

If all this is actually worth reflection, it may merit our attention in the context of that early discussion we had about the idea that changing archives of the past (and changing tools for accessing them) may imply/require changing conceptualizations of the historian’s “work.” You will recall, perhaps, my proposition: that as the full-text (and perhaps image?) searchable database of the past approaches homological conformity with the totality of the visual and textual production of those who have come before us, the business of making historical stories and/or arguments may come to resemble a process of “carving” in the all — a process of liberating, by free and precise gestures, particular forms from the manifold. I contrasted this with what I take to be the dominant methodological frame that has guided historical inquiry for most of the last two hundred years, to wit a “Spoor” model, wherein something like a principle of scarcity obliges the historian to thread narrative or argumentative linkages among discrete, isolated, and difficult-to-access archival “finds” (which must be approached as forensic singularities). Much as the value of some unique family heirloom (a silver spoon; a broach; a faded wedding invitation, still in its envelope) gains emotional power from its being a survivor against time, the archival singularities attain their privileged position in Spoor-model historiography because they have survived. Under conditions in which, in some sense, nothing does not survive, something other than survival is required to vignette some specific bit of detritus within the oblivion/omnipresence of the all.

To link all this to Metahistory seems suddenly, to me, not impossible. The relationship between narrative and path-making runs very deep. Our deepest story-forms are inextricable from trajectories of epic voyaging or romantic wandering. The Spoor-model of history, with its concern for tracing (as a tracker traces) fragments and signs into trajectories, seems essentially inextricable from storytelling (“look, first we see a broken branch here; then, a little further over there, do you see that flattened patch of grass?”). If this other kind of history-making that I am feeling my way toward describing — a form of history-making that approaches an archival plenum as the sculptor of legend approached the homogenous whole of the block of marble, seeing therein a form to be “liberated” therefrom — is anything, it may be a form of history-making that is fundamentally disconnected from “emplotment” in the sense Haden White invokes. The sculptor could, of course, tell the story of making the sculpture as a story of moves from point A to point B through the medium — which is to say, the sculpture could reconstruct the process of liberating that form as a “story.” However, such an account of the sculpture’s emergence would be significantly otiose — both with respect to the original vision of what was to be liberated, and with respect to the final object rolled out of the studio.

A slightly less vatic way of putting all this might be: Do historical practices that are reliant on excision/erasure/forgetting necessarily subject to the meta-historical problematic framed by White?

I am just not sure. And in part, I think it is very hard to say, because we have, as yet, a relatively depauperate ecology of historiographical modes suitable to the new archival condition. Or that is what I think, anyway.

I’m going to stay with this riff for another moment.

It seems to me that one important implication of our progress towards essentially “conformal” archives — archives that are co-extensive with the totality of what has been — is an increasing preoccupation with (fetishization of?) lacunae in the historical record. Whereas, under the previous dispensation, finding recoverable tidbits in the fragmentary residue of the past constituted the sacralizing/stabilizing work of the historian, under the new dispensation the localization of (potentially) significant aporias becomes, perhaps, an even more culturally significant operation.

If I’m right about this, I think it would go some way toward explaining certain features of paranoia-spectrum conspiracy theorizing that have become an increasingly important feature of collective life in the interwebs. Conspiracy theorizing is maybe best thought of as a kind of “interstitial historiography.” I have several things to say about all of this, but it would perhaps take us too far afield from this week’s reading. I’ll just say two things quickly. First, I just finished a new essay for Cabinet (it is still in edits) which is about the Chemtrails conspiracy theory. In that essay, I try to show the ways that conspiracy theorizing has become a new “tool” for approaching the past. I’ll post a draft of the piece here in case any of you have any thoughts (treat this as embargoed, since it is not out yet).

The second thing has to do with a historical form that, as far as I know, doesn’t really have a name as yet. I call it “Whitmanian” history, but this is probably unfair both to Whitman and to history. I am talking about a kind of historical work that locates a significant historical lacuna and then sets to the task of creating in that space a “history.” In one sense, this is a kind of fiction, since the “history” in question (probably) didn’t happen. But this is not quite historical fiction in the conventional sense either — since what characterizes “Whitmanian” history is an almost hysterical preoccupation with only making something in that historical lacunae that could have happened. And I don’t just mean that “could” in the minimal sense that “no element of the story defies reason.” I’m talking about a historical story that is nowhere and in no way contravened by the available sources that do exist. Which is to say, a historical story that must be capable of “connecting lovingly” with every historical adjacency. The phrase “connect lovingly” is Whitman’s, and it comes from that lovely, strange moment in “Starting from Paumanok” where the poet speaks to the past, and asks the historical forebears and precedents of his poetic work to “connect lovingly” with his own creation; there is an implication that his poem will return the embrace of all that which has come before. I have felt for some time that this expression captures something exquisite and counterintuitive about how past and present may be coordinated.

Perhaps another metaphor is in order: we talked a good deal last week about the language of “recovery.” Ordinary forms (the ones that so comfortably embrace the language of recovery) can perhaps be thought of as fishing expeditions. One surveys the past, there under the bridge. It is dark and deep. One tosses in one’s baited hook or, perhaps still more truthfully, dips one’s seine into the murk, yanking up various shimmering things. Whitmanian history, by contrast, would be better figured within this trope as something like scuba diving. It enters the medium and attempts to move around through the fragile forms, disturbing nothing, aspirationally of a piece with that which it would simultaneously investigate and tender. It wants to collect nothing, shoot nothing, hook nothing, net nothing; but it does seek, in slow and careful gestures, to get as close as possible to this fragile coral fan to move a delicate hand across the surface of the reef so swimmingly that the fish do not flee.

What sort of history work is this? It stands in some relation to the traditions of historicizing forgery that characterized certain tendencies in the early modern period, and it is not wholly at odds with the literary genre of the “Mystification” which emerged in the early nineteenth century. But my own sense is that this kind of historical labor is distinctive and may have an increasingly important role in the landscape of twenty-first-century historiography. I consider a lot of the work that I have done over the years with the “conjectural historiography” collective ESTAR(SER) to be experimentation with Whitmanian history.


Back to the actual seminar that we had. We talked about Hayden White. Much of this conversation focused on the concept of irony, and what it actually means that White identifies his own text as written in the ironic key. What does it mean to turn irony against itself in an effort to liberate historical practice from the prison of ironic emplotment?

Rather than attempt a play-by-play of our two-hour conversation, I am just going to pull out one moment that was affecting for me — simultaneously suggestive and clarificatory. I am referring to the moment when (and why did this happen? I cannot remember…) we were suddenly talking about what it might mean to “love” one’s subject matter. Or, to put it a different way, we found ourselves contemplating what a love relationship might mean in the context of a historian’s labor. For a moment this conversation swerved in the direction of so-called “affect theory.” There was a sort of “well there’s a lot of work on that” mood that got going for a moment. But then, a least as I remember it, we sort of pushed on that. Affect theory would seem to make a scrutinizable subject (to be examined dispassionately, with rigor, scientisically) out of “love,” but as will be immediately apparent to anyone who has been in love, love as a subject is notably different from the condition of loving (or being loved). Looked at from this perspective, it suddenly wasn’t so clear that the scholarly domain known as affect theory is actually “about” the thing we momentarily found ourselves considering.

History under conditions of love. I don’t know that it is possible. At least not under what I understand to be the operating conventions of the discipline. This is probably good in many ways. But it is not perfectly clear to me that it is not also very bad in some other ways that I am not certain I have yet figured out.

I can’t for the life of me remember how we got into that question from Hayden White (do any of you?), but it was definitely the moment that has stuck most firmly in my memory of the conversation.

[We got onto the topic because I pointed out that the hyper-rational categorization by rhetorical trope in Hayden White seems to me to be dancing around emotion as an organizing force–that sometimes history is simply written in a mood of sadness, or of joy, or of hope–and in academia the most acceptable mood is, of course, distant, detached skepticism.  I then asked what it would mean to write history in a mood of love, embracing that moment of connection with the mind of the other across time and space, when “it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours;” that feeling which draws many of us into history into the first place, and which we then do our best to bury under our “objective” analysis.  

I didn’t point it out in class, but this can also be notably gendered.  I often think of a review in my field which more or less accused the female author of the book in question of having a crush on her historical subjects.  (The exact quote was “dreamy infatuation.”)  Well, and why not?  If you don’t, on some level, love the people and ideas you’re spending years researching–if your heart doesn’t secretly flutter, contemplating them in all their strange and unique and inimitable self-hood, which existed only once and briefly in all of time, and is now gone–then what are you doing with all this time and effort?  What’s the point? – HL]

We also spent some time on the following two passages, which were signaled by you-all, but also have some spirited annotations in my copy:




After the break we talked about the Rings of Saturn. (I discovered, after class, that Disha wrote this interesting piece about the book; worth checking out). I myself am hugely impressed by the way Sebald’s strange and moody-meandering narrative effectively “activates” history. This was a revelation for me. A discovery. And I think it is something for all of us to reflect on. Jon has already invoked (above) the moment of most acute historical/historiographical self-consciousness in the text —specifically that moment of the narrator’s vertigo as he stands inside the panorama of the Battle of Waterloo:


A thought here (and I cannot remember if we got into this in class): I am persuaded that this moment is meant to be read against the celebrated Waterloo scene in the The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal’s epic and genre-defining work of historical fiction. In fact, the more I think about it the more the two scenes seem to want to be read against each other. I am not going to try and write that essay right here, but I am going to put in a link to Stendhal’s great scene here. Sebald’s positioning at the center of the panorama, as against Stendahl’s positioning at the periphery of the battlefield (the former contrived, bloodless, but sovereign; the other chaotic, comical, but immediate) is obviously meant to invoke/parody the project of historical writing per se. By situating this parotic insight in a simulacrum of Waterloo does Sebald intend tacitly to invoke a fiction writer’s power as a teller of truths concerning history that the formal historian is incapable of accessing?




After the Man Falls into the cyclical crisis of irony, we are forever doomed to live in sin. Only in realizing that the ironic mode is just one of many possible rhetorical modes a historian can employ, White argues, can we transcend the tragedy of irony. The stakes, broadly construed, lie in White’s claim that creating histories involves a series of judgments that are essentially aesthetic or moral. We cannot judge the success of a history on these criteria alone; nearly all possibilities are equally capable of buttressing good work.

Though White’s conclusions explicitly concern “nineteenth-century historical consciousness,” the stakes of Metahistory rely upon the framework’s universality, or near universality (xxii). If White’s framework fails to describe the histories which we produce, he cannot claim much about the choices that we make.

Insofar as White’s framework is descriptive, he tells us, the historians, what we have been doing all along. We have unwittingly been picking from his four fourfold categories: the modes of emplotment, argument, ideology, and metahistory. Since some combinations are internally inconsistent (and we would not pick them for reasons similar to why speakers do not use poor grammar in their native languages), there should be fewer than 24 possible combinations from which we can choose. As White’s Metahistory purportedly illuminates the choices that we have unconsciously (or pre-consciously) been making all along, the revelation that follows provides us with agency and choice: we can now knowingly choose our different modes.

Though he rarely makes this explicit, White’s framework is rooted Christian doctrine. He describes his narrative modes with respect to the Fall of Man; their fundamental differences regard whether or not we can achieve redemption after the fall, and how. His reliance on linear time makes his framework poorly suited to describe non-Western, and even non-Abrahamic, groups of people. And, White charges in as a kind of messiah, pulling the blankets off of our heads and endowing us with a new realm of consciousness.

White’s seemingly Christian and messianic status can be explained away by other means. The revelation could arise through a careful analysis of empirical data. Or maybe the internal tension of irony resolves itself dialectically, bringing us out of our intellectual immaturity. It seems that the latter is unlikely; White’s insistence that we transcend irony casts doubt on its synthetic potential.

Though White, unlike other messianic figures, does not sell himself as such, his “charisma” lies in his unspoken presence throughout Metahistory, not only as author but as specimen. Before measuring our own historical work up to White’s framework, he invites us to vivisect his own. As a specimen, we can use White’s Metahistory to contemplate the act of creating historical work more generally. It’s hard to say whether or not he “dies” during the procedure, but he has fallen prey to irony so that we don’t have to.


[later insert here:


Vivisecting White? I’ve been sitting with – perhaps waiting for the coming of – the messianic since JPO posted this, but it seems I can only resort to the ironic. So I typed up some thoughts on this and what I think Rings of Saturn might offer White’s vision of transcending irony. TS ]


Irony is important. It is indispensable for the sake of getting through life, as one would otherwise despair at the myriad of little problems and injustices we encounter every day. Or at least this is what I’ve been told by my Italian grandfather. Reading Hayden White’s Metahistory, irony seems to be of a somewhat more debatable utility, seeing as it lies at the heart of his understanding of the current predicament of the historical profession. In fact in his writing he goes as far as to argue that Irony ought to be seen as the main culprit in contemporary historians’ loss of a sense of purpose.

For White the ironic mode necessitates an unbridgeable distance between the historian and the past, making it an epistemological object to be studied in a vacuum rather than the tangible origin of our contemporary existence. This “historical” past is then a sterile past, one that can only serve as the playground of historians but has ceased to have any real societal, ethical or aesthetic import in the contemporary world. Being thus separated from the real concerns of present humanity, one needs not wonder that the number of undergraduate history majors wanes alongside the public interest in the historical profession.

White clearly has a bone to pick with historians writing ironically. Which makes his assertion that Metahistory is itself written in the ironic mode all the more interesting. What does White mean by this? And why would he write ironically if he believed that irony has had a overwhelmingly negative impact upon the historical profession as a whole?

Seeing as irony is notoriously hard to define, we ought to pay close attention to White’s attempts of doing so. Do we share his view that Irony is first and foremost meant to bring about a sense of disillusionment, going as far as to “dissolve all belief in the possibility of positive political action” (37)?  If yes, then how is the “self-conscious use of Metaphor in the interest of verbal self-negation” (36) capable of achieving such devastating results? And does the disillusion with the present state-of-affairs really preclude the possibility of political action? Taking political Satire as an obvious example, it would appear that it is precisely the ironic unveiling of the inadequacies of the status-quo which opens up spaces and avenues in which meaningful change can occur.

Seeing as I’ve already thrown enough questions on this page for the time being, I thought I would close with a quote from Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg. Here the idealized 19th century humanist Ludovico Settembrini, a character bearing a lot of resemblance to Benedetto Croce, warns the protagonist about irony, saying that “where it is not a straightforward and classic rhetorical tool, not capable of being misunderstood even for an instant by the healthy mind, it becomes slovenliness, a hurdle to civilization, a unclean flirt with stasis, ill-spirit and sin.”


Hayden White is certainly not the first philosopher who, in an attempt to make his work more accessible, was sucked into a debate which blurred the original important argument of his book. I am talking here on the “History as Literature” debates that were afflicted on the philosophy of history community in the past few decades. These debates, I argue, missed the real scandal in White’s book. White’s most important point, in my view, is not the argument about the necessary lingual and ‘narratical’ mediation between us and the past, but his claim that there are four different types of mediation and therefore History cannot be understood as ‘scientific’ project in the full sense of the term [see: Daston’s “Sciences of the Archive” for ideas about other models of science]. In the following sentences I will try to explain my argument, which hopefully will prevent us from taking, what I believe to be, the wrong turn in our discussion on Metahistory.

What is the big scandal about the History as Literature debates? What is at stake there? As I see it, the question is always the question of mediation and reference. The common view is that History is about things that really happened while fiction is about, well, fictive things. This claim is so porous, that I cannot even mention all of its problems here. The main point here, however, is that history, as a form of knowledge, pretends to have an unmediated access to its object, i.e. the past.  People who hold such a naïve positivist world-view tend to get very angry when other people remind them that between them and their object there was, there is, and always will be a language. Historians, and especially positivist historians, are not ready for compromises and are willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater. “If we cannot have a direct access to our object”, they say, “and we can only refer to it with/through language, in what sense we are better than those literary authors who use language to refer to non-existent things, god forbid. How then can we think of ourselves as knowledge producers and not as artists? How can we justify our place in the university – and our tenure – when we have no advantage over those cafes and galleries dwellers?” The point they miss in this argument is that it is not only them – the historians – that were deprived of a direct access to their object, they are at the same boat with the physicists, astronomers, and economists. All knowledge is a form of mediation, and all the objects of knowledge are referents of a scientific discourse of some sort.  Therefore, the interesting question is not whether or not the object of knowledge is mediated by language, but how exactly it is mediated. Culture – as Ernst Cassirer had taught us – is a set of different, “Symbolic Forms”, i.e. forms of mediation (and history, even academic history, is a cultural artifact).

Up until now, there is no scandal, and I believe that my “naïve positivist historians” are nothing but straw-men that help to make the “postmodernist” more scandalous then what it really is. But this is not White’s main argument. The main argument of the book, or at least the most interesting one, is that history has four, and only four, different forms of mediation. Not the mediation itself distinguishes between history and science, and even not the need to use more sophisticated narrative forms, but the fact that history has never chose its favorite form of mediation. This is serious, because due to the lack of common language (and common prefiguration, and emplotment) two historical accounts can be both incommensurable and ‘legitimate’. The lack of common language in history, White argues, is the main impediment in history’s attempt to self-fashion itself as a science. Therefore, history cannot think of itself as a project, in the same sense that physics is. It is not a common endeavor to achieve a specific – even if not well defined – goal, but more of an umbrella term that encompasses a set of cultural artifacts (historical work) and has very little normative authority upon them. In that sense, History is really a little bit like Literature.

Jon: In case anyone was curious about Sebald’s remarks on the paucity of sources describing the allied bombings of German cities in WWII (pp. 38–40), he later gave lectures on this theme that were published in a book translated as On the Natural History of Destruction. I once wrote a blurb on this text as a mediation on “the unexperienceable” that I copy below as a digression on what is curiously left out of or exceeds narrative:

“W. G. Sebald has noted that, in addition to the Shoah, the German experience of the war, dominated by the allied bombardment of dozens of German cities and the resultant deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, “never became an experience capable of public decipherment.” For Sebald, “an almost perfectly functioning mechanism of repression” led to “individual and collective amnesia” about the war and amounted to “self-censorship—a means of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms” (Sebald, 12, 10, 11). Accounts of the war exhibit “a curious blindness to experience” and seem “curiously untouched by the subject of their research,” leading Sebald to speculate that they “served primarily to sanitize or eliminate a kind of knowledge incompatible with any sense of normality” (Sebald, 20, 11). Cliché language in german war reportage such as “that fateful night” and “all hell was let loose” served “to cover up and neutralize experiences beyond our ability to comprehend” (Sebald, 25).35 Sebald invokes “[p]eople’s ability to forget what they do not want to know” and thus “to carry on as if nothing had happened” as a way of “preserving what is thought of as healthy human reason” and dealing with “experiences exceeding what is tolerable” (Sebald, 41, 42, 79). Sebald thus richly captures the denial and repression of the particularly catastrophic element of the war, the way it overturned a sense of normality by exceeding what was hitherto deemed conceivable and experienceable.”

Sebald on Waterloo (pp. 124–5 of The Rings of Saturn):


I found Sebald’s juxtaposition of history and experience in this vignette relevant to our discussion of Metahistory. To give a stab at linking our two texts: The theory of capital-H History Sebald critiques here could be easily ascribed to Hegel, who famously wrote that one could only write history from the end of history—i.e. his own time, with Napoleon having “enlightened” Europe—with the advantage of total retrospective knowledge. He was on top of the highest mountain looking down: there was nothing in the past he could not see and explain. White dismisses this positionality in his remark that reading a historian like Ranke is simply boring: there’s no productive tension, perhaps because experience and subjectivity are invisible from so high up. Sebald’s position at the center of the panorama places him on top of the same mountain: “We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was [wie es war].” He also steps out of voice here, speaking directly to a we.

Sebald brings in the issue of embodiment to disturb the monumentalist Hegelian picture by wondering if the mountain we stand upon is not in fact a “mountain of death,” a grave. Echoing Benjamin’s quip that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” it seems to me demonstrative of the method of the book as a whole that the final chapter on silk unearths the toil at silk looms resembling “instruments of torture or cages” hidden behind the beauty of the silk itself (283). The impression I was left with was much more sinister than what was raised in class: that “history consists of nothing but misfortune” (153) and, at the very end, that “our history…is nothing but a long account of calamities” to which the only appropriate response is “profound grief” (295). We may want to call this work Comedy because it rescues lost objects and persons from the dustbin of obscurity, but it also seems to insist on their deadness and the Tragic irreconcilability of man and nature. [J.Cat.]


Readings for the third week:

Hayden White, Metahistory

W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn