Thursday, March 24, 2005

Historical Humiliations

I went to see Hayden White speak. There are a million things to write after such a sentence, but I'll limit myself to summarizing one of his major arguments.

White advocates a style of history-writing that recreates not the factual information of the period but the feeling of living an impossible situation. He has become interested in the genre of the "Witness Narrative" and the "Testimonial," both of which genres, he argues, arise out of the Post-Holocaust interest in the ethical imperative of memory--as opposed to the scientific approach to the past. Diplomatically, he presents two texts as representative of the kind of phenomenological historiography in which he's interested: Primo Levi's memoires of his experiences in the camps, and Sebald's essay on the Natural History of Destruction (Luftkrige und Literatuer).

The emphasis is on historiography as evoking feeling. The neo-Marxist criticism is that feeling is easily coopted by ideology. The philosophical criticism is that feeling is another form of data that needs to be differentiated from documentary data. The conservative critcism is that feeling for inappropiate objects should be controlled.

And here's the real problem with Hayden White: if I'm any representative, the aestheticians and theoretists of rhetoric sat in the audience waiting for White to say anything useful ( or even remotely accurate) to them. It was a good time watching White play the precocious provocateur from an emeritus position, but so many questions were elided! If your major value is rhetoric and you are a historian, how can you so badly characterize the history of rhetoric as worthwhile up until 1650 or thereabouts and all wrong when you catch up with it again at around 1920? (Yes, I'm cranky because I've written about exactly what White didn't address.)

That said, the talent of scholars of his generation was to tear down what younger critics thought they knew and what they thought they were supposed to know. It was fun. At least my supervisor, unlike some other senior faculty in my department, stayed until the end of the talk.

[Update: I just realized that I forgot to address the title of this post. White answered one question about the use of resurrecting how it felt to live in a given past by claiming that one of the driving forces of a lot of contemporary struggles is an experience of, or a memory of, or a tradition of humiliation. A feeling of having been humilated, made less worthwhile as a human seems to trump many of the logical, realist, economic motivations that historians are used to studying. And when there is no way of understanding how this humiliation works and influences people to react, it's harder to address and defuse some of the wilder behaviors that can arise out of this feeling. White didn't mention specific cases, but I think everyone in the audience filled in some blanks...

I'm still a little confused about how histories that appeal more to the sensory and phenomenological imagination will translate into the kinds of knowledge that inform contemporary policy. Writing that works on the imagination and the empathetic faculties would seem to be based on the idea of changing people's worldview, rather than persuading their reason. And while as an artistic-type person I'm all for the power of the imagination, at some point I expect logic and reason to obtain.]


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