The Content of the Form

Hayden White


White, Hayden. The Content of the Form. 1987. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987. Paperback: 9780801841156.


“Hayden White probes the notion of authority in art and literature and examines the problems of meaning—its production, distribution, and consumption—in different historical epochs. In the end, he suggests, the only meaning that history can have is the kind that a narrative imagination gives to it. The secret of the process by which consciousness invests history with meaning resides in 'the content of the form,' in the way our narrative capacities transform the present into a fulfillment of a past from which we would wish to have descended.”


I. Analysis

As an exploration of “Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation,” Hayden White’s The Content of the Form itself develops a surprising, though certainly appropriate, narrative of its own. Recognizing the “value of narrativity” early on, White brings to the fore the unique power of narrative for the representation of reality. Something about narrative lends itself to our representation of the real, or more specifically, the historical real. Having recognized this, however, White also recognizes the problem of narrative, that the apparent subjectivity of narrative is not conducive to the modern idea of history as a science. Yet, narrative is the ideal mode of representation in history. Intellectual history, it seems, is at an impasse. Through a survey of the various schools of thought in intellectual history, examinations of the political and ideological dimensions of narrative, and in-depth conversations with such critical thinkers as Foucault and Jameson, White’s narrative brings the idea of such to the breaking point. Especially in the chapter on Foucault, narrative seems nothing more than an empty construct emerging from the void, an exclusionary means of mediating power and desire. It is a bleak vision. But in Jameson, and then especially in Ricoeur, White sees a way out of the nihilistic despair represented by Foucault. Yes, narrative is constructed, but no, this does not deprive it of its validity or its truth. Indeed, this only makes the truth of narrative more significant. Particularly in Ricoeur, narrative finds its metaphysical redemption as the very structure of historicality itself, the reckoning of humanity with its being-in-time, its temporality, its finitude. Narrative lends itself to the representation of the past because narrative figures forward the continuity of the past with the present, its culmination in the now, thus affording the individual both a way of understanding the chaos of the world, and the freedom to act in it toward the future. However, this articulation of narrative still requires work, a work White sees most effectively accomplished through the semiological school of Saussure. If we are to explicate the complex of historical forces that impinges upon our present as necessity, we must employ the full range of semiological tools to uncover the past meanings that persist as traces in our present society, and so be able to identify more accurately how these traces influence our thought and action, and how also we might think and act differently.

II. Summary


In the Preface to The Content of the Form Hayden White lays out the basic premises of his thought, that narrative is a form, that narrative is not neutral, that narrative is a universal modality, and that narrative has a content preceding any particular instantiation of it. We see here White’s recognition of narrative as a sort of field of forces, an arena in which power is exercised, distributed, and mediated. As White will demonstrate in the following chapters, the form of narrative in history is intrinsically political, and in this way narrative is more than just reportage but a socially constructive function.

  1. “narrative is not merely a neutral discursive form” (ix).

  2. “narrative is revealed to be a particularly effective system of discursive meaning production by which individuals can be taught to live a distinctively “imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence,” that is to say, an unreal but meaningful relation to the social formations in which they are indentured to live out their lives and realize their destinies as social subjects” (x).

  3. “To conceive of narrative discourse in this way permits us to account for its universality as a cultural fact and for the interest that dominant social groups have not only in controlling what will pass for the authoritative myths of a given cultural formation but also in assuring the belief that social reality itself can be both lived and realistically comprehended as a story” (x).

  4. “narrative, far from being merely a form of discourse that can be filled with different contents, real or imaginary as the case may be, already possesses a content prior to any given actualization of it in speech or writing” (xi).

  5. This is the content of the form.

“The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”

In the first essay of The Concept of the Form, White explores the development of the narrative form in history. Looking at first the annal, then the chronicle, and lastly the modern history, White demonstrates the way in which narrative structures the historical consciousness by providing closure and thus coherence to the otherwise open and chaotic stream of events that we experience. In comparison to the annal or the chronicle, the narrative is a vastly superior form, which White recognizes. But as we see at the beginning of the chapter, narrative is also problematic, given that there is always a subjective element to the narrativization of reality. As we see through White’s discussion, this subjectivity is the product of the authority that validates the narrative, which is in turn a response to the ambiguity of real events with respect to meaning. Before narrative, events simply are. But when the historian seeks to explain, or even just understand, the past, the historian must necessarily interpret, and interpretation is a matter of closure and thus exclusion. One’s interpretation always supposes another, contradictory interpretation that must be overruled. Thus, in narrative, we see a moral universe established, in which the subjectivity of the author is displaced onto the state, the sociopolitical order, which then authorizes the narratives of history which ensure it perpetuation. Indeed, there is not even a need for history in the modern sense until the modern state comes into being; the two go hand in hand. Modern history is a narrativization of reality; narrativization is interpretation; interpretation requires authorization; authorization requires an authorizing body; and the authorizing body, in the modern period, is the state. Through White we see, then, that there are two levels, or two poles, to the issue of narrative: first of all, narrative provides a coherence to history that annals and chronicles do not; secondly, this coherence is necessary for the continuation of the state, authorizing the state while being authorized by it. This is the “content of the form,” the political project which motivates narrative historiography.

1) Narrative negotiates between the reality of events and the fiction of stories

  • Narrative is a “solution to ... the problem of how to translate knowing into telling” (1).

  • “narrative is a meta-code” (1).

  • Citing Barthes: “narrative ‘ceaselessly substitutes meaning for the straightforward copy of the events recounted’” (2).

  • Narrative is less “a form of representation than ... a manner of speaking about events” (2).

  • White identifies a tricky distinction that has been made between “discourse” and “narrative”: in discourse, the “‘subjectivity’ of the discourse is given by the presence, explicit or implicit, of an ‘ego’ who can be defined ‘only as the person who maintains the discourse,’” while in narrative “the ‘objectivity of narrative is defined by the absence of all reference to the narrator’” (3).

  • Citing Benveniste: in “narrativizing discourse” [...] “there is no longer a ‘narrator’” [...] “The events seem to tell themselves” (3).

  • This is problematic. In trying to remove the I that is a basic component of discourse, in trying to appear objective, history must hide the imaginary quality of its speaking: “real events should not speak, should not tell themselves. Real events should simply be; they can perfectly well serve as the referents of a discourse, can be spoken about, but they should not pose as the subjects of a narrative” (3). Narrative as discourse is subjective, ego-driven, and thus cannot be scientific (or at least some would say so).

  • Thus when “we wish to give to real events the form of story” we find ourselves up against this problem of “narrativization” (4).

2) Narrative gives structure to the reality of historical events

  • Historical narrative must respect the ‘reality’ of the events while also demonstrating this this reality “possess[es] a structure, an order of meaning, that [it] does not possess as mere sequence” (5).

  • Narrative is, in fact, essential to history, though it is problematic; it has been said that “Where there is no narrative ... there is no history” (5).

  • This is so the case, White argues, that “true” reality is “identified with ‘the real’ only insofar as it can be shown to possess the character of narrativity” (6). So what does narrative do that basic reportage, chronicle, does not?

  • Early histories, such as the Annals of Saint Gall that White examines, depict “a culture hovering on the brink of dissolution, a society of radical scarcity” (7). “All of the events are extreme, and the implicit criterion for selecting them for remembrance is their liminal nature” (7).

  • Before narrative, “Social events are apparently as incomprehensible as natural events” (7).

3) Narrative structure subordinates events in a hierarchy

  • With narrative, a ‘hypotactic’ dimension is added to the ‘paratactic’ dimension of chronology. Hypotaxis, ‘beneath-arrangement,’ gives a sequence a meaning, while parataxis, ‘beside-arrangement,’ gives a sequence its “realism” (8). Hypotaxis is subordinating; parataxis is coordinating. Hypotaxis corresponds with Jakobson’s metaphoric axis, ‘this or this or this’; parataxis corresponds with the metonymic axis, ‘this and this and this.’

  • White sees in the early annals a sort of conflation of the hypotactic and paratactic dimensions, wherein the hypotactic meaning is simply “in the sequence of the years” (9). The years themselves, as containers of events, are “reality” annalist.

  • But when the hypotactic dimension is freed from the paratactic, then the historian is able to “rank events in terms of their world-historical significance” (9). This “need or impulse to rank events ... makes a narrative representation of real events possible” (10).

4) Narrative conveys agency

  • In narrative history, the focus shifts from “qualities” to “agents” (10). The world is no longer that “in which things happen to people” but “one in which people do things” (10).

  • “narrative strains for the effect of having filled in all the gaps” (11), seeking to overcome our “nightmares about the destructive power of time” (11), to surmount “a world in which need is everywhere present, in which scarcity is the rule of existence, and in which all of the possible agencies of satisfaction are lacking or absent or exist under imminent threat of death” (11).

5) Agency is bestowed from a social centre

  • To do so, narrative must provide what is lacking in the annals. This is “a notion of a social center” (11). “Hegel was right when he opined that a genuinely historical account had to display not only a certain form, namely, the narrative, but also a certain content, namely, a politicosocial order” (11).

  • Citing Hegel: “it is only the state which first presents subject-matter that is not only adapted to the prose of History, but involves the production of such history in the very progress of its own being” (12).

  • For Hegel, the “reality that lends itself to narrative representation is the conflict between desire and the law. Where there is no rule of law, there can be neither a subject nor the kind of event that lends itself to narrative representation” (13).

  • Law “permits us to imagine how both ‘historicity’ and ‘narrativity’ are possible” (13).

  • “neither is possible without some notion of the legal subject that can serve as the agent, agency, and subject of historical narrative” (13).

  • Narrativity “presupposes the existence of a legal system against which or on behalf of which the typical agents of a narrative account militate” (13). Thus history “has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority” (13).

  • “historical self-consciousness ... is conceivable only in terms of its interest in law, legality, and legitimacy” (14). So, “every historical narrative has as its latent or manifest purpose the desire to moralize the events of which it treats” (14).

  • To moralize, one must “envision a set of events as belonging to the same order of meaning” (16). This requires “some metaphysical principle by which to translate difference [i.e. this moment is not this moment] into similarity [i.e. this moment goes with this moment]. In other words, it requires a “subject” common to all of the referents of the various sentences that register events as having occurred” (16).

  • We see, then, that when the hypotactic dimension is subsumed in the paratactic, there is no ordering dimension to link together the “chain[] of semantic metonymies” that constitutes the chronology of history (16). One needs both dimensions. The “sacral being” of Lord (God or King) provides the second dimension.

  • Thus, we see the chronicle develop, which takes as its focus “a central subject—the life of an individual, town, or region; some great undertaking ... or some institution” (16). This is the beginning of narrativity in history.

6) The introduction of a social centre brings the problem of authority to the fore

  • This is also, however, the beginning of the problem of narrativity, the decrease in “objectivity” due to the “self-conscious fashioning activity” of historical narrative (18).

  • Authority is incredibly important; “the truth claims of the narrative and indeed the very right to narrate hinge upon a certain relationship to authority per se” (19). Authority establishes the “moral principle in light of which” the historian can order and thus narrate the events of history (19).

  • The chronicle is still only a pseudonarrative, however. It does not have the closure necessary for a true narrative. There is an authority, a moral order, but the “end of the discourse does not cast its light back over the events originally recorded in order to redistribute the force of a meaning that was immanent in all of the events from the beginning. There is no justice, only force, or, rather, only an authority that presents itself as different kinds of forces” (20).

  • Narrative is thus concerned with justice, and justice is a matter of reading, of interpretation, and so “to qualify as historical, an event must be susceptible to at least two narrations of its occurrence. Unless at least two versions of the same set of events can be imagined, there is no reason for the historian to take upon himself the authority of giving the true account of what really happened” (20). When the moral order is threatened by some ‘force,’ the historian seeks to ‘reveal’ the ‘reality’ (and so ‘truth’) of the moral order in history, thus ‘authorizing’ its interpretation of events as ‘just.’

  • Historical discourse “makes the real desirable, makes the real into an object of desire, and does so by its imposition, upon events that are represented as real, of the formal coherency that stories possess” (21). The “reality represented in the historical narrative, in ‘speaking itself,’ speaks to us, summons us from afar” (21), and so interpellates us with the claim of the authority of the state.

7) Authority gives reality a moral meaning

  • Reality “wears the mask of a meaning” (21)

  • “Insofar as historical stories can be completed, can be given narrative closure, can be shown to have had a plot all along, they give to reality the odor of the ideal” (21).

  • The “plots” of history “are revealed for what they really are: images of that authority that summons us to participation in a moral universe that but for its story form, would have no appeal at all” (21).

  • “The demand for closure in the historical story is a demand, I suggest, for moral meaning, a demand that sequences of real events be assessed as to their significance as elements of a moral drama” (21).

  • A history “achieves narrative fullness by explicitly invoking the idea of a social system to serve as a fixed reference point by which the flow of ephemeral events can be endowed with specifically moral meaning” (22).

  • “The events that are actually recorded in the narrative appear to be real precisely insofar as they belong to an order of moral existence, just as they derive their meaning from their placement in this order” (23).

  • “Where, in any account of reality, narrativity is present, we can be sure that morality or a moralizing impulse is present too” (24).

  • Historians “have transformed narrativity from a manner of speaking into a paradigm of the form that reality itself displays to a “realistic” consciousness” (24).

  • “this value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary” (24).

“The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory”

In his second chapter, White sets about a few tasks. First of all, following after the argument of the previous essay, White raises the problem of narrative to the fore. If narrative is constructed, an “imaginary” representation of reality, how can it be valid? He then moves to discuss the various approaches to narrative in history that different schools of thought have undertaken, steadily working through their conclusions to draw out the idea of the essential constructedness of narrative. Narrative is constructed; yet, it is valid, it has truth. Finally, through the hermeneutic philosophy of Ricoeur, White argues for the validity of narrative as a function of human temporality, the way in which people mediate between the present and the past, and so also project a future. In this way, the logic of narrative is seen to be allegory, a symbolic “figuring” of events absent to us, a re-presenting of them, through which meaning is established.

  1. Though narrative has come to be the dominate mode of history, it is not so without contention. To the layperson, this may seem strange: “Narration is a manner of speaking as universal as language itself, and narrative is a mode of verbal representation so seemingly natural to human consciousness that to suggest that it is a problem might well appear pedantic” (26).

  2. Though narrative seems so natural, White holds that the critical stances that many have taken with regard to narrative are important.

  3. Narrative has been naturalized as a form because, as we have seen, the most productive mode of historiography is that which tells a story, and narrative is, by definition, suited to the task. And because the “content of historical stories is real events, events that really happened, rather than imaginary events, events invented by the narrator” (27), the form is validated as “true” of reality, insofar as the events it depicts really happened.

  4. In this way the narrative form of reality appears to be “found rather than constructed” (27).

  5. ‘Found’ narrative “adds nothing to the content of the representation; rather it is a simulacrum of the structure and processes of real events” (27). The “narrative is a mimesis,” an “accurate imitation” (27). Narrative is perceived to be intrinsic to reality.

  6. But as White demonstrated in the previous essay, narrative is not given, it is simply the most effective means to an end, which is the cohesion of the politicosocial order.

  7. There is, however, an “ambiguity” here: narrative “as only a form of discourse ... feature[es] the story as its content”; but narrative is “itself a content insofar as historical events [are] conceived to manifest themselves in reality as elements and aspects of stories” (28). We see here the excess of meaning Barthes identifies in myth.

  8. What White identifies here is that historical events are marked out as historical—they’re selected. There is a motivation in narrativity, a motivation which White identified previously, and which here, quoting Hegel, he identifies as “politics” (29). In fact, “politics” is “the precondition of the kind of interest in the past that informed historical consciousness and the pragmatic basis for the production and preservation of the kinds of records that made historical inquiry possible” (29).

  9. Thus, “for Hegel, the content (or referent) of the specifically historical discourse was not the real story of what happened but the peculiar relation between a public present and a past that a state endowed with a constitution made possible” (29).

  10. “It was the interest in a specifically political mode of human community that made a specifically historical mode of inquiry possible; and the political nature of this mode of community necessitated a narrative mode for its representation” (30).

  11. Thus, “nineteenth-century professional historiography can be regarded as ideological. For if ideology is the treatment of the form of a thing as a content or essence, nineteenth-century historiography is ideological precisely insofar as it takes the characteristic form of its discourse, the narrative, as a content, namely, narrativity, and treats “narrativity” as an essence shared by both discourses and sets of events alike” (30).

  12. White then moves to survey the various approaches to and criticisms of narrativity in history.

  13. The Annales criticised “narrative history [as] simply the history of past politics” (31).

  14. The Structuralists and Post-Structuralists claimed “that narrative was not only an instrument of ideology but the very paradigm of ideologizing discourse in general” (33). “history in general and narrativity specifically were merely representational practices by which society produced a human subject peculiarly adapted to the conditions of life in the modern” world (35). Meaning is “always constituted rather than found” (36).

  15. The Anglophone analytic philosophers defended narrative (38). The “communicative function” of language is stressed, over and against the “expressive” or “conative” dimensions (40). Thus, in narrative, “the correspondence of the “story” to the events it relates is established at the level of the conceptual content of the “message”” (41). “In the historical narrative, it is the content alone that has truth value. All else is ornament” (41).

  16. But discourses are not just for communication; they are also “apparatus[es] for the production of meaning” (42).

  17. Following this line of thinking, then, we see that “the narrative code is drawn from the performative domain of poiesis [making] rather than that of noesis [perceiving/knowing]” (42). Reality is made into narrative.

  18. White is careful to mention, however, that this “is not sufficient reason to deny to narrative history substantial truth value” (44). “In the historical narrative the systems of meaning production peculiar to a culture or society are tested against the capacity of any set of “real” events to yield to such systems” (44).

  19. In narrative history, then, we see a “continuation of the process of mapping the limit between the imaginary and the real which begins with the invention of fiction itself” (45). This is allegory, “saying one thing and meaning another” (45). The “truth” value of narrative history is in the correspondence of the “imaginary” form with the “real” form (45). The “‘truth’ of narrative form can display itself only indirectly” (46).

  20. The transition from “event” to “narrative” is one of “figuration,” “tropology,” or “transcodation” (47). “A narrative account is always a figurative account, an allegory” (48). In this way also the narrative is a “performance in language” (48), a making, a transformation.

  21. White concludes with a final approach to history, that of the hermeneutic philosophers Gadamer and Ricoeur: the “‘method’ of the historicogenetic sciences is hermeneutics, conceived less as decipherment than as ‘inter-pretation,’ literally ‘translation,’ a ‘carrying over’ of meanings from one discursive community to another” (49).

  22. For Ricoeur, this discursive community is built out of “human actions,” and so the “study of the past has as its proper aim the hermeneutic ‘understanding’ of human actions” (50). “Actions produce meanings by their consequences ... which become embodied in the institutions and conventions of given social formations. To understand historical actions, then, is to ‘grasp together,’ as parts of wholes that are ‘meaningful,’ the intentions motivating actions, the actions themselves, and their consequences as reflected in social and cultural contexts” (50).

  23. Ricoeur, then, sees plot, narrative, as “the crossing point of temporality and narrativity” (51). Ricoeur goes beyond the political motivation of narrative to the metaphysics of it. Indeed, “historicality is a structural mode or level of temporality itself” (51).

  24. Time has three “degrees of organization” (51); “within-time-ness,” “historicality,” and “deep temporality” (51). The first is present, the second is past-present, and the third is past-present-future. We see here the sort of distinction between firstness, secondness, and thirdness that Charles Sanders Peirce makes. Immediacy, relation, mediation.

  25. Historicality allows for “a continuity within a difference” (52). This is Heideggerian “repetition,” the “specific modality of the existence of events in “historicality,” as against their existence “in time” (52).

  26. This is why, White argues, Ricoeur “feels justified in holding ‘temporality to be that structure of existence that reaches language in narrativity and narrativity to be the language structure that has temporality as its ultimate referent’” (52).

  27. Narrative, for Ricoeur, is not an “icon,” an “explanation,” but a “symbol mediating between different universes of meaning by “configuring” the dialectic of their relationship in an image. This image is nothing other than the narrative itself, that “configuration” of events reported in the chronicle by the revelation of their “plot-like” nature” (52). Plot “‘symbolizes’ events by mediating between their status as existants ‘within time’ and their status as indicators of the ‘historicality’ in which these events participate” (52).

  28. “A historical narrative, then, can be said to be an allegorization of the experience of “within-time-ness,” the figurative meaning of which is the structure of temporality” (53).

  29. The future is “promise[d] ... because [historicality] finds a ‘sense’ in every relationship between past and present” (53). Indeed, history cannot be represented meaningfully without “symbolizing” it, because symbolization is that process by which absence is brought to presence, to use Gadamer’s language.

  30. Through all of this, White concludes that narrative is a legitimate practice. It is also necessary. Because “human events are or were products of human actions, and these actions have produced consequences that have the structure of texts—more specifically, the structure of narrative texts,” our understanding of them “depends upon our being able to reproduce the processes by which they were produced, that is, to narrativize these actions” (54).

“The Politics of Historical Interpretation: Discipline and De-Sublimation”

In this chapter White examines the way history as a discipline sublimates political authority, so as to invest the interpretive practice of history with the authority of objectivity, which then can validate the political system that authorizes it. This is the ideological bent of modern history. In constructing a narrative of the past, history is able to depict the present conditions of a society and state as “natural,” the “obvious” culmination of the events of history. But what White shows is that this sublimation of political authority also required a “de-sublimation” of the past, which is to say, the deemphasizing of the sublime aspect of history. History as sublime is history as chaos, a panoply of “sin and suffering” that cannot be easily rationalized, and so narrativized. But if history is a chaos, then the present authority cannot be depicted as natural. To this end, Kant’s aesthetics comes to shape historical understanding insofar as the beautiful—the object of the form of reason and judgment called taste—takes precedence over the sublime. The beautiful is order; the sublime is chaos—therefore, the sublime has no place in history. In conclusion, White argues that a return to the sublime is necessary if we are to articulate the visionary politics necessary to see a change in our present conditions of existence.

1) Interpretation is a politics that sublimates authority while validating itself through it

  • “The politics of interpretation should not be confused with interpretative practices that have politics itself as a specific object of interest” (58).

  • “The politics of interpretation ... arises in those interpretative practices that are ostensibly most remote from overtly political concerns, practices carried out under the aegis of a purely disinterested search for the truth” (58).

  • Contrary to politics, “the interpreter does not have recourse to ... the appeal to force as a means of resolving disputes and conflicts” (58).

  • “Interpretive conflicts reach a limit as specifically interpretative ones when political power or authority is invoked in order to resolve them” (58-59).

  • “interpretation is an activity that, in principle, stands over against political activity” (59).

  • But, “interpretation presupposes politics as one of the conditions of its possibility as a social activity” (59). “The purity of any interpretation can be measured only by the extent to which it succeeds in repressing any impulse to appeal to political authority in the course of earning its understanding or explanation of its subject matter” (59).

  • Thus we can see that interpretation and politics are in a sort of dialectical relationship with one another. Insofar as “understanding or explanation of its object[s] of interest” is a social task, requiring agreement, one can either negotiate or enforce a meaning—negotiating is the interpretive angle, while enforcing is the bare political angle. Both are political, because, as White writes, there is always a “politics of interpretation,” but this politics is to “effect [the] repression or to so sublimate the impulse to appeal to political authority as to transform it into an instrument of interpretation itself” (59). Force is only used when interpretation fails.

2) The sublimation of authority in interpretation leads to disciplinization

  • “In an age characterized by conflicts between representatives of a host of political positions, each of which attended by a “philosophy of history” or master narrative of the historical process, on the basis of which their claims to “realism” were in part authorized, it made eminently good sense to constitute a specifically historical discipline” (61).

  • The need for a politics or discipline of interpretation was precipitated by political instability. Disciplinizing history allowed political authority to be sublimated as interpretive authority through rules of study.

  • “The purpose of such a discipline would be simply to determine the “facts” of history, by which to assess the objectivity, veridicality, and realism of the philosophies of history that authorized the different political programs” (61).

  • The “study of history, considered as a recovery of the facts of the past, [became] a social desideratum [desirable] at once epistemologically necessary and political relevant” (61). If one could authorize the “truth” of a particular narrative, one could also authorize the “truth” of the state without recourse to force.

3) History had to be politicalized before it could be professionalized

  • “The politicalization of historical thinking was a virtual precondition of its own professionalization, the basis of its promotion to the status of a discipline worthy of being taught in the universities, and prerequisite of whatever “constructive” social function historical knowledge was thought to serve” (62).

  • History was, in Nietzsche’s terminology, “incorporated” (62).

  • The consequence of this political thinking, however, is that something must be “mark[ed] out for repression for those who wish to claim the authority of discipline itself for their learning” (63). Generally, what is repressed, in White’s view, is “utopian thinking” (63), because utopian thinking undermines the authority of the present state.

  • White is against revolution, but he argues that “one cannot seek to resolve differences of opinion by an appeal either to political values or to some criterion of what a properly disciplined historical knowledge consists of” (63). It is these “that are at issue” (63). So, the “problem lies ... not with philosophy of history, which is at least openly political, but with a conception of historical studies that purports to be above politics and at the same time rules out as unrealistic any political program or thought in the least tinged with utopianism” (63).

  • History as a discipline must authorize the present conditions.

4) The politicalization of history required it to be de-rhetoricized

  • As White has demonstrated in previous chapters, history is most effective as narrative. Narrative provides the closure necessary to understanding. But because narrative is an imaginative, fictional form, for historical narrative to ground a “real” political authority, it had to obscure its imaginative function. This function makes politics possible, because it orders the past toward the present conditions, but it also undermines the desired “objectivity” of the present conditions. If history can, as with Kant, be construed as “eudaemonism,” “terrorism,” or “farce,” then so too can the state. This cannot be so.

  • Because “the narratives produced by historians lend themselves to analysis in terms of their rhetorical topoi” (66), one topoi had to be isolated and marked out as ‘real.’ This was the “middle style of declamation,” the “deliberative mode,” “whatever currently passes for educated common sense” (66). The miraculous and the grotesque, associated with those imaginative topoi deemed too ‘fictional’ or ‘imaginative,’ were excluded from the discipline as ‘unhistorical.’

5) Historical discipline focuses on the beautiful and suppresses the sublime

  • The beautiful can be grasped by aesthetic judgment, consists in right proportion, in balance and order (all enlightenment ideologies). The sublime, however, is that which overawes, is disproportionate, imbalanced, and often chaotic, that raw power that induces amazement. The sublime effect is not conducive to ‘derhetoricized’ history, because the sublime can only really be expressed in those more ‘imaginative’ genres. So we find in historical discipline “aesthetic regulation” (68).

  • We see, then, in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, an effort “to exorcise the notion of the sublime from any apprehension of the historical process, so that the “beauty” of its “proper” development, which for him was given in the example of the “English constitution,” could be adequately comprehended” (68).

  • This movement went against the Romantic imagination which saw the sublime as a “necessary “complement” to the beautiful” (69).

6) The sublime captures something of history which beauty does not

  • Beauty authorizes order; the sublime explains chaos.

  • Citing Schiller: “We are aided by the pathetic spectacle of mankind wrestling with fate” (69).

  • Hegel, in his Philosophy of History, seeking to justify the state, saw the threat in such a view. White writes, the “sublimity of the spectacle of history had to be transcended if it was to serve as an object of knowledge and deprived of the terror it induced as a “panorama of sin and suffering”” (70).

  • In Kant, then, the “sublime is effectively cut free from the aesthetic faculty, which remains under the sway of judgments appropriate to the “beautiful,” in order to be relegated to the rule of the cognitive and moral faculties” (70).

  • “This aestheticism underwrites the conviction ... that historical studies are, after all, a branch of belles-lettres, a calling suitable for a kind of gentleman-scholar for whom “taste” serves as a guide to comprehension, and “style” as an index of achievement” (71).

  • “All this permits the historian to see some beauty, if not good, in everything human and to assume an Olympian calm in the face of any current social situation, however terrifying it may appear to anyone who lacks historical perspective” (71).

  • “It renders him receptive to a genial pluralism in matters epistemological, suspicious of anything smacking of reductionism, irritated with theory, disdainful of technical terminology or jargon, and contemptuous of any effort to discern the direction that the future development of his own society might take” (71).

7) Such a discipline of history makes visionary politics impossible

  • “In my view, the theorists of the sublime had correctly divined that whatever dignity and freedom human beings could lay claim to could come only by way of what Freud called a “reaction-formation” to an apperception of history’s meaninglessness” (72).

  • Modern “ideologies deprive history of the kind of meaninglessness that alone can goad living human beings to make their lives different for themselves and their children, which is to say, to endow their lives with a meaning for which they alone are fully responsible” (72).

8) History must engage with the sublime if it is to envision a different future

  • “Prior to the nineteenth century, history had been conceived as a spectacle of crimes, superstitions, errors, duplicities, and terrorisms that justified visionary recommendations for a politics that would place social processes on a new ground”

  • Citing Schiller: who “can refrain from paying homage with a shudder to the grim law of necessity” (74)?

  • “The domestication of historical thinking required that Romanticism be consigned to the category of well-meaning but ultimately irresponsible cultural movements which used history for only literary or poetic purposes” (74).

  • Visionary politics respond to “that spectacle of “moral anarchy” that Schiller perceived in “world history” and specified as a “sublime object”” (80).

  • Only those with “established political power and social authority” can “afford” a politics without vision (81). “For subordinant, emergent, or resisting groups, this recommendation—that they view history with the kind of “objectivity,” “modesty,” “realism,” and “social responsibility” that has characterized historical studies since their establishment as a professional discipline—can only appear as another aspect of the ideology they are indentured to oppose” (81).

  • “This opposition can be carried forward only on the basis of a conception of the historical record as being not a window through which the past “as it really was” can be apprehended but rather a wall that must broken [sic] through if the “terror of history” is to be directly confronted and the fear it induces dispelled” (82).

  • “Nothing is better suited to lead to a repetition of the past than a study of it that is either reverential or convincingly objective in the way that conventional historical studies tend to be” (82).

  • “And one of the things one learns from the study of history is that such study is never innocent, ideologically or otherwise, whether launched from the political perspective of the Left, the Right, or the Center” (82).

“Droysen’s Historik: Historical Writing as a Bourgeois Science”

Having established the value of narrativity, the function of narrativity, and the ideology of narrativity, White moves to elaborate how this ideology functions in itself. To this end, White examines Droysen’s Historik, which is shown to be the manual for bourgeois historical ideology. History in the bourgeois state is an ideological apparatus, the means by which individuals are interpellated with citizenship, with the collective ethical values of society. History enables the representation of the chaos of the past, the past that is absent, in its naturalized “traces,” those documents and monuments and social practices that have been handed down, that are given, in any society. In re-presenting these remains of the past in the present, the past is used as authorization for present conditions. But this requires a sleight of hand. Authorization requires an appeal to the realism of the past, but by definition the past is no longer present, and its realism must always be represented, interpreted, narrativized. So, ideology naturalizes the imaginary of historical narrative to make it appear “real.”

1) History is an ideological apparatus of the bourgeois state

  • In Droysen’s Historik, White argues, we see “nothing less than an explication of the theoretical principles of bourgeois ideology in its national-industrial phase. Thus envisaged, it can be viewed as a textbook for producing bourgeois ideology in the post-Revolutionary era” (86).

  • “It is in “in house” discourse, product of a discussion within the dominant class on how to give its own historically determinate existence the odor of ideality” (86).

  • “Droysen shows how a certain kind of “writing activity,” in this case the writing of history, can engender a certain kind of reading subject who will identify with the moral universe incarnated in “the Law” of a society organized politically as a nation-state and economically as a part of an international system of production and exchange” (86).

  • “Since Althusser, we have learned to think of ideology less as a distortion or false account of “reality” than as a certain practice of representation whose function is to create a specific kind of reading or viewing subject capable of inserting himself into the social system that is his historically given potential field of public activity” (86).

  • “It is obvious that any society, in order to sustain the practices that permit it to function in the interests of is dominant groups, must devise cultural strategies to promote the identification of its subjects with the moral and legal system that “authorizes” the society’s practices” (86-87).

  • “the ideological element in art, literature, or historiography consists of the projection of the kind of subjectivity that its viewers or readers must take on in order to experience it as art, as literature, as historiography” (87).

  • “Historiography is, by its very nature, the representational practice best suited to the production of the “law-abiding” citizen ... in its featuring of narrativity as a favored representational practice, it is especially well suited to the production of notions of continuity, wholeness, closure, and individuality that every “civilized” society wishes to see itself as incarnating, against the chaos of a merely “natural” way of life” (87).

  • “Such a subjectivity is prepared to adopt a specific morality as the criterion for endowing the events of history with whatever meaning they can be construed “objectively” to possess” (88).

  • “The purpose of the canonical representational practices of a given society, then, is to produce a subjectivity that will take this symbolic structure as the sole criterion for assessing the “realism” of any recommendation to act or think one way and not another” (88).

2) Historical reality is a myth—it presents itself as real, while in fact it is imaginary

  • I use here Roland Barthes’ concept of the myth as a “double system.” This jives with White’s conception of the historical past as ambiguous, “uncanny” (89)—the past is “both known and unknown, present and absent, familiar and alien, at one and the same time” (89).

  • The “past” is a “symbolic system” (89).

  • “historical representation permits the reader to give free reign to “the imaginary” while remaining bound to the constraints of a “symbolic system”” (89).

  • “historical representation can produce in the subject a sense of “the real” that can be used as a criterion for determining what shall count as “realistic” in his own present” (89).

  • “It is thus a necessary element in every modern ideology that, whether radical or reactionary, revolutionary or conservative, must have some criterion for “fixing” the subject within a given system of social praxis” (89).

3) History is thus a mode of existence and a mode of thinking

  • Droysen elaborates these as Systematik and Methodik, respectively (90).

  • The “historian’s discourse” is “a discursive event that differs in both form and content from other kinds of events ... by virtue of its status as a verbal performance” (90). In this way, “historical discourse has a content which we might call the aim or purpose of the discourse” [the motivation of the myth as Barthes would say] (90), which is the interpellation of the subject.

4) The most effective mode of representation to this end is the discussive mode

  • The discussive mode “is highest” for Droysen because “it explicitly addresses itself to the relevance that our knowledge of the past might have with respect to the social praxis of the society to which the writer or reader of history belongs” (91).

  • Historical events “are not given by the data themselves but are chosen by the historian—in response to imperatives more or less conscious in a given historian but immanent always in the current praxis that defines the historian’s social horizon” (91).

  • “The past, [Droysen] says, can be known only insofar as it has continued to exist in the present” (91).

  • The past is thus conceived of as “remains” which take “the form of documents and monuments, and as elements of social praxis inherited from the past in the form of conventions, ideas, institutions, beliefs, and so on” (91).

  • “Thus envisaged, every putative investigation of the past is and can only be a meditation on that part of the present that is really either a trace or a sublimation of some part of the past” (91).

  • So, the ““content” of present existence is the praxis of the society to which the individual belongs. This content appears as the product of a mediation between a past only vaguely known and a future only vaguely anticipated. This gives the “form” of a specifically historical existence, which is nothing other than the sense of the historicity of the present engendered by the intuition that we are at once continuous with our past and distinctively different from it” (92).

5) The ethical mode of interpretation is the standard for discussive representation

  • “It is ethical interpretation that closes the hermeneutic circle by which the part of the historical process is used to illuminate the whole, and the whole to illuminate the part; and it is this type of interpretation that underlies that mode of representation, the discussive, that alone can wed the form with the content of a discourse in order to make reflection on its referent to both knowledge and current social praxis” (93).

  • Ethics is subsumed by authority, must serve authority. Therefore, Droysen’s ideology is one of “mediated portrayal,” “based on a criterion, not of truth, but of plausibility, which has reference to the social practices of the historian’s own time, place, and circumstances” (93).

  • “The plausible is the distillate of the conflict between social restraints, introjected as the “symbolic system” of the culture to which we belong, on the one side, and the “imaginary,” acting under the impulsions of the libido and instincts, on the other” (94).

  • Such an ideology renders “plausibility” our “lived “reality”” (94).

  • Put another way, the ideological function of history delimits the capacity of individuals to act within the system as subjects of the state.

  • Thus the discussive-ethical mode of historical representation and interpretation most effectively “move[s] the reader out of a position as mere spectator of the human drama into that of a self-conscious representative of “the ethical powers”” (95).

6) In this way history unites individuals in their differences as a community

  • The “historical process is presented as a product of labor ... in which every individual ... every institution ... and every class ... has a necessary place and function in a universal dialectic of the “individual Ego” and the “general Ego.” ... The “material” ... of history is “the natural commonalities”; its forms ... are provided by the “ideal” and “practical” commonalities; its immediate cause, the “workers” ... which is “everyman” ... and its final cause, aim, or purpose, nothing but “history” itself and the consciousness thereof ... Thus, history is the “species notion” ... of humanity, “its knowledge of itself” ... and its “self-certainty”” (97).

  • “Droysen provides a secular equivalent of that theology of history that in its Augustinian form had, in his view, made possible the idea of freedom as a universal human value” (98).

7) The historical real is always constructed

  • “By vesting the concept of the historically real, not in a referent, but in “the ethical powers,” [Droysen] shows that he saw through the claims of the so-called human sciences which were beginning to take shape in his own time. The historically real is never given by naked “experience”; it is always already worked up and fashioned by a specific organization of experience, the praxis of the society from within which the picture of reality is conceptualized” (98).

  • If “history is not a science, then it must seen as part and parcel of the cultural superstructure of an age, as an activity that is more determined by than determinative of social praxis” (101).

  • Such history has “the effect of constituting an image of a current social praxis as the criterion of plausibility by reference to which any given institution, activity, thought, or even a life can be endowed with the aspect of “reality”” (102).

  • History thus has “the power to confer a kind of transcendental authority upon a given system of social praxis” (102). History becomes “the very incarnation of the law” (102).

8) This construction requires a sleight of hand

  • “The law is always arbitrary, being grounded as it is in the power of finite and limited groups rather than in some transcendental sphere of Being or some absolute Origin, as it always claims to be. What better substitute for this absolute ground than reality itself, but now identified with history rather than with God or Nature?” (102).

  • “Essential to this sleight of hand, however, is the necessity of hiding the fact that all history is the study, not of past events that are gone forever from perception, but rather of the “traces” of those events distilled into documents and monuments, on the one side, and the praxis of present social formations, on the other” (102).

  • “These “traces” are the raw materials of the historian’s discourse, rather than the events themselves. It is equally necessary for the historians to hide—especially from themselves—the fact that their own discourses are not reflections or mimetic reproductions of events but processings of these “traces” so as to endow them with “symbolic” significance—which means to gather them under the categories of the very same law of which both the historian and his readers are “subjects”” (102).

“Foucault’s Discourse: The Historiography of Anti-Humanism”

Though at first Foucault’s radical position seems opposed to White’s more measured approach, by the conclusion of this essay White’s interest in Foucault is obvious. Throughout The Content of the Form White explores “Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation” (as the sub-title reads), which we find to be a theme in Foucault’s work as well. But with Foucault, the ideological critique we begin to see in White’s chapter on Droysen is deepened. History as a narrative is not only constructed, but it emerges out of a void, a void which Foucault’s discourse returns us to in its elliptical and challenging style. Foucault is concerned with style and with play, with that surface that resists the constructed “depth” bestowed upon the “proper” and “lawful” by power. Where depth validates correct expressions of desire, Foucault lets desire run free of power, playing without fixing itself in a structure. As White tells us, there is no centre to Foucault’s discourse, and this is by design. In resisting the centre, the origin, and the narrative that would flow from it, Foucault challenges the entire basis of modern historiography, and thus opens up the conversation to those who were before excluded from the discourse of their communities.

1) Foucault’s historiography is concerned with discourse

  • Within the purview of White’s book, we could also refer to this discourse as narrative

  • Foucault’s “discourse begins where Nietzsche’s, in Ecce Homo, left off: in the perception of the “madness” of all “wisdom” and “folly” of all “knowledge”” (105).

  • There is “no center to Foucault’s discourse. It is all surface—and intended to be so” (105).

  • “Foucault resists the impulse to seek an origin or transcendental subject that would confer any specific meaning on existence. Foucault’s discourse is willfully superficial” (105).

  • This is to say that Foucault resists the very narrativizing or discursive quality of history that validates the present in terms of the past. The superficiality of his discourse contends with the authority that grounds all discourse.

2) Discourse manifests power

  • “The multifold operations of power are, in Foucault’s view, at once most manifest and most difficult to identify in what he takes to be the basis of cultural praxis in general, namely, discourse” (105).

  • Discourse is the term under which he gathers all of the forms and categories of cultural life, including, apparently, his own efforts to submit this life to criticism” (105).

  • But in Foucault’s discourse, being without center as it is, White sees the “the Indo-European root of this term (kers) and its Latinate form (dis-, “in different directions,” + currere, “to run”)” (105). Foucault endlessly circles and plays, resisting the grounding signification of narrative and origin.

  • Citing Foucault: “the theme of the origin, that promise of the return,” is the process “by which we avoid the difference of our present” (106).

3) Power regulates difference

  • Against power, Foucault is [White’s citation]: “trying to operate a decentering that leaves no privilege to any center ... it does not set out to be a recollection of the original or a memory of the truth. On the contrary, its task is to make differences ... it is continually making differentiations, it is a diagnosis” (107).

  • “This supreme antiteleologist resists the lure of any definitive ending, just as he delights in beginnings that open in “free play,” discoveries of paradoxes, and intimations of the folly underlying any “will to know”” (107).

  • Foucault “denies the authority that the distinction coherence/incoherence has enjoyed in Western thought since Plato. He seeks, not the “ground,” but rather the “space” within which this distinction arose” (108).

4) Foucault discourse challenges the discourse of power

  • It “unfolds seemingly without restraint, apparently without end” (108).

  • “Foucault denies the concreteness of the referent and rejects the notion that there is a reality that precedes discourse and reveals its face to a prediscursive “perception”” (108).

  • “Foucault sets the free play of his own discourse over against all authority. He aspires to a discourse that is free in a radical sense, a discourse that is self-dissolving of its own authority, a discourse that opens upon a “silence” in which only “things” exist in their irreducible difference, resisting every impulse to find a sameness uniting them all in any order whatsoever” (108-9).

  • The ““absence” at the heart of language Foucault takes to be evidence of “an absolute vacancy of being, which it is necessary to invest, master, and fill up ... by pure invention”” (110).

  • Simply, this absence is the arbitrariness of the connection between word and thing, the void or silence that precedes all discourse.

5) Power is about desire, desire is about power—discourse is about both

  • “What is always at work in discourse—as in everything else—is “desire and power,” but in order for the aims of desire and power to be realized, discourse must ignore its basis in them” (111).

  • “This is why discourse, at least since the rout of the Sophists by Plato, always unfolds in the service of the “will to truth”” (111).

  • Discourse “must mask from itself its service to desire and power, must indeed mask from itself the fact that it is itself a manifestation of the operations of these two forces” (112).

6) Discourse operates within constraints

  • Power and desire must be regulated. There are “external restraints” (112) that exclude the “improper” (112), and there are “internal restraints” (112) that rarefy the proper.

  • Thus we see again the axis: vertical subordination (metaphor; hypotaxis) and horizontal exclusion (metonymy; parataxis).

7) Discourse originates in a tropological space

  • “Since for Foucault all words have their origin in a “tropological space” in which the “sign” enjoys a “freedom . . . to alight” upon any aspect of the entity it is meant to signify, then the distinction between literal and figurative meanings goes by the board—except as an indication of the power of discourse to constitute “literality” through the application of a consistent rule of signification” (115).

  • The sign can “alight” at four different points: internal, adjacent, similar, or dissimilar (116).

  • Discourse, then, “undergoes a finite number of [] shifts” through the tropological forms: through metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony (117).

  • In this way, the points of contact between sign and thing, and the rhetorical tropes that determine them, are as follows: “resemblance (metaphor), adjacency (metonymy), essentiality (synecdoche), and ... doubling [duplicity] (irony)” (119).

  • With irony the discourse returns to the void, and that is where Foucault locates his own discourse.

  • Foucault is able to demonstrate the way “[k]knowledge in the human sciences [] no longer takes the form of the search for Similarities and Resemblances (as it did in the sixteenth century), Contiguities and Tables of Relationships (as it did in the Classical age), or Analogies and Successions (as it did in the nineteenth century), but rather Surfaces and Depths—generated by the return to consciousness of the nameless “silence” which underlies and makes possible the forms of all discourse, even that of “science” itself” (122).

8) The return to silence brings language to the fore

  • "”in our age, knowledge tends to take the form either of Formalizations or Interpretations and unfolds within an awareness of consciousness’s incapacity ever to locate its own origin and of language’s inability to reveal a subject” (122).

  • “This is why “the whole curiosity of our thought now resides in the question: What is language, and how can we find a way round it in order to make it appear in itself, in all its plenitude?”” (122).

  • Foucault desires a literature that ““gives prominence, in all their empirical vivacity, to the fundamental forms of finitude,” the most fundamental form of which is death ... This literature, which presses beyond madness to “that formless, mute, unsignifying region where language can find its freedom” ... signals the “disappearance of Discourse”” (122).

  • “The crucial change, or rather “mutation,” in the history of Western thought, Foucault contends in The Order of Things, is that which “situated language within interpretation,” charged words with the task of serving as transparent and unambiguous signs of “things” that made up “reality”” (123).

  • Foucault argues that the “leading “human sciences” ... privilege language and hence approach closer to the void in which discourse arises than did their earlier counterparts” (124).

9) This silence reveals the emptiness of the law

  • Before the emergence of “[m]odern legal systems” the law was force. “By its nature, torture taught that authority was based on force and showed by implication that the subject had a “right” to take the law into his own hands to answer force with force, if he had the power to do so” (128).

  • Modern law naturalizes itself— “the natural always conceals within it the aspect of a “norm,” so that any “law” supposedly derived from study of the natural can always be shown to be nothing more than a “rule” by which to define the “normal” and to justify the “disciplining” of those who deviate from the norm” (128).

  • In this way, the discourse of law constitutes a matrix of “power, desire, and knowledge” (129). Proper knowledge validates the “proper” expressions of power and desire in a society ruled by law. But this arbitrary rule, emerging from the void.

10) Sex epitomizes the intersection of power, desire, and knowledge

  • “Power” ... “is everywhere” (130). But “the principal characteristic of power is always to manifest itself in a discourse about something other; power can only be effective—and tolerated—when some part of it is hidden” (130). “Power, it seems, has a capacity of infinite displacement” (130).

  • “But sexuality is the place to grasp it most effectively, for the discourse on sexuality, actively promoted by the “apparatus of power” (dispositive du pouvoir) in modern Western society, gives access to the human body and, through the body, to the control of the group, the species, and finally “life” itself” (130).

  • “The true originality of Western society in world culture, we might conclude, consists in its recognition that the promotion and control of the various forms of sexuality offers the best means of “policing” society, of “disciplining” human beings, and even of turning their “perversions” to socially useful, that is, power-serving purposes” (131).

  • “the “science of sex” makes of this force [sex] the “secret,” not only of life, but of the “individual subject” as well” (132).

  • “Since sex provides access to the “life of the body and the life of the species,” it functions in these sciences as both “unique signifier” and “universal signified”” (133).

  • “Thus, the discourse on sexuality is shown simultaneously to reveal and to conceal the play of power in modern society and culture” (133).

11) Power, though hidden, rules

  • “Of course, [Foucault’s] real subject had always been power, but power specified, located in particular exchanges between words and things. Now the “void” out of which language was originally conceived to have spun its fictions has been filled. No void, but a plenum of force; not divine, but demonic. And the whole of culture, far from being that exercise of endless sublimation that humanism conceives to be the essence of our humanity, is revealed as nothing but repression. More or less killing, to be sure, but in the end nothing but destructive” (134).

“Getting Out of History: Jameson’s Redemption of Narrative”

The positioning of this chapter after the chapter on Foucault is significant. Having outlined the nihilism of Foucault’s stance, White approaches history from a different perspective, that of Frederic Jameson. In Foucault history is a discursive construct emerging from the void, a field of power intended to order desire at the expense of those other desires deemed “improper.” In Jameson, however, history is the present necessity of past contingency, the demand upon free agents to act, to work with or against the effects of actions carried out in the past by other free agents. Through Jameson’s Marxist eyes, history is not just an arbitrary construct but a real structure, a structure which can be explained in terms of narrative. Certainly, a narrative may be deemed more or less desirable, more or less accurate, by the critic, but that does not make it any more or less valid. Cultural narratives are, for Jameson, symbolic projections of a culture’s “form of life,” of the projects and actions of its constituents in response to the demands of necessity and desire.

1) Marxism, as a historical discipline, is concerned with plot

  • Marxists “study history in order to derive the laws of historical dynamics” (142).

  • Marxists seek to “uncover the “plot” of the whole human drama which renders its surface phenomena not only retrospectively understandable but productively meaningful as well” (142).

  • This is why, White argues, the scientific turn in Marxism has proven detrimental to the school—“Take the vision out of Marxism, and what remains is a timid historicism of the kind favored by liberals and the kind of accommodationist politics that utilitarians identify as the essence of politics itself” (143).

2) As Marxism became more scientific, vision was taken up by the artist and the critic

  • Here, the “authority of “culture” [] is to be distinguished from that of “society” precisely by the universal translatability of the forms of its products” (144)

  • This is where Jameson fits in.

3) Marxism, for Jameson, is precondition of textual intelligibility

  • Marxist theory becomes “something like an ultimate semantic precondition for the intelligibility of literary and cultural texts” (145).

  • For Jameson, literary texts (those which exhibit a sufficient complexity) have the “capacity to work up a certain knowledge ... of the conditions of their own production and render those conditions intelligible thereby” (145).

  • White sets about showing how this is so.

4) The text is a symbolization of three concentric semantic horizons

  • “The text, it seems, is to be apprehended as a “symbolization” of what Jameson refers to as three concentric frameworks which function as “distinct semantic horizons”” (145).

  • These are “political history,” “social context,” and “the sequence of modes of production and the succession and destiny of the various social formations” (145).

  • At the first level the text is “symbolic act” that is ““political” in nature” (145); at the second it is a “general “ideologeme”” (145); at the third it is “the ideology of form” (145-46).

  • Thus, a text is “rendered intelligible ... by [its] systematic insertion into a “history” that is conceived to be not only sequenced but also layered in such a way as to require different methods of analysis at the different levels on which it achieves the integrity of what is normally thought of as the “style” of the “period”” (146).

  • Though the text is inserted into history, this history is an “absent cause” (146) and is, therefore, constructed. How is this valid?

5) Historic contingency produces present necessity

  • Though we cannot access the events of history themselves, we are, nevertheless, influenced by their effects (their remains). The “machinery” of history is “nothing more consequent that [sic] Desire in conflict with Necessity” (146). As we saw in White’s examination of Droysen, law as a historical construct is developed to mediate this conflict.

  • So for Jameson “History is not a text” but does in fact have “a referent that is real” (147). “But the ultimate referent of history ... can be approached only be “passing through its prior textualizations” to the apperception of its function as what Althusser calls the “absent cause” of present social effects that we experience as “Necessity”” (147).

  • “History as ground and untranscendable horizon needs no particular theoretical justification: we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them” (147).

6) Recognizing the narrative structure of history consequently enables action

  • Necessity is “a product, not of our own, but rather of the actions of past human agents” (147-48). If we recognize this, then the past is not an explicable force but a collection of finite actions carried out by finite agents.

  • So for Jameson narrative is the tool by which the Marxist critic, such as himself, can explicate the past as a concurrence of human actions, the struggle of man for freedom and against the “alienating necessities” of his condition (148).

  • White argues that “Jameson goes so far as to conceive of narrative as a mode of consciousness that renders possible a kind of action specifically historical in nature” (149).

  • In this way there occurs a “seizing of a past by consciousness in such a way as to make of the present a fulfillment of the former’s promise rather than merely an effect of some prior ... cause” (149).

  • “narrativization sublimates necessity into a symbol of possible freedom” (149).

  • “every preent is at once a realization of projects performed by past human agents and a determination of a field of possible projects to be realized by living human agents in their future” (149).

  • Narrative in human culture allows people “to act as if they were a self-fashioning community rather than epiphenomena of impersonal “forces”” (149).

  • Narrative in this way is a “will[ing] backward” that enables people to “rearrange accounts of events ... to endow them with a different meaning” (150).

  • Jameson’s “visionary politics ... places emphasis on the actions of living human beings in choosing a past as the particular set of possibilities that they will labor to realize or fulfill in their own future” (151).

  • Far from Foucault’s nihilism, the constructed nature of narrative history enables choice and freedom, rather than undercutting it.

7) Human culture generates narratives; therefore, culture must be examined

  • Jameson concentrates on “master narratives” as “symbolic projections” of particular meanings onto history. Those of Western culture are “Greek fatalism, Christian redemptionism, bourgeois progressivism, and Marxist utopianism” (151). Each has a specific “mode[] of production” that is “present, dominant, or emergent” in the West, being “slave, feudal, capitalist, and socialist” (151), respectively.

  • Insofar as these narratives are “symbolic projections” in history, we can therefore read them as “codes” that “emit” certain “messages” or “conceptual content[s]” (152).

  • To examine culture, then, we must examine these textual-historical “codes.”

8) Jameson examines cultural codes with a four-fold framework

  • Jameson derives his framework from Louis Hjelmslev’s schema of form and content.

  • This schema corresponds to the “medieval fourfold distinctions among literal, figurative, moral, and anagogical ... meanings” (153). Jameson then “identifies” the literal with “referentiality,” the figurative with “codes,” the moral with “psychology,” and the anagogical with “political consciousness” (153).

  • So: expression of the form = literal = reference; substance of the form = figural = code; expression of the content = moral = psychology; substance of the content = anagogical = political consciousness.

  • This is the layering of the historical text, all the levels of meaning that must be explicated in different ways.

  • This is also why Jameson is so open to contrary points of view: to “historicize” (155), as is the task of Marxist, is to “come to terms with the sedimented residues of past “forms of life”” (155), and these “forms of life” can be discerned in this fourfold structure of the historical text.

  • So for Jameson, “historical epochs are not monolithically integrated social formations but, on the contrary, complex overlays of different modes of production that serve as the bases of different social groups and classes and, consequently, of their world-views” (156).

9) Forms of life or consciousness persist

  • As White has shown, remains of the past are always present in the future. In Jameson’s theory, these remains are past “forms of consciousness” and their persistence leads to the “conflicts” which are “experienced as “contradictions”” in “social life” (156).

  • The “literary classic” is that text which is complex enough to exhibit the full fourfold structure detailed above, and so captures the “form of life” of a given epoch, allowing one to reckon with ones “lived contradictions” through “intimations of their possible transcendence” (157).

  • Narrative is an ideal form for this task: it “serves as a paradigm of the kind of social movement by which a unity of meaning can be imposed upon the chaos of history” (157).

10) Forms of life are layered; therefore, the narratives that depict them are also layered

a. “It is not a matter of appealing to history as a way of deciding between conflicting interpretations of a literary text, as if this history were a seamless web and told only one story which could be invoked as a way of defining what is only fictive and what is real in a given literary representation of a form of life” (164).

b. For Jameson, the “literary artifact” is still a “work rather than a text” because the literary artifact condenses the complexity of a form of life in a way that other “texts” do not (165).

c. The “literary artifact” is therefore a “symbolic affirmation of a specific historical and class form of collective unity” (166).

d. As such, there is incredible value in such cultural artifacts, because they reveal the stories that give lives meaning.

“The Metaphysics of Narrativity: Time and Symbol in Ricoeur’s Philosophy of History”

With White’s chapter on Ricoeur we see the narrative arc of The Content of the Form coming to its conclusion. Having laid out the representative power of narrative, the problem of narrative, the constructed character of narrative, and the capacity for freedom revealed in the constructed character of narrative, White presents Ricoeur’s thought, which penetrates to the metaphysical grounds of narrative. Narrative is certainly constructed, but in its construction it is, in fact, a representation of a real structure, the temporality of human being. Historical narrative has a truth, therefore, in that it presents the truth of human being-in-time in textual form. Thus, beyond even the meaning Jameson imparts to narrative, that of the political consciousness and the form of life, Ricoeur is able to articulate the metaphysical form of life that grounds all others: the finitude of man. For White, then, his interest in narrative comes full circle. His interrogation of the problematic of narrative in history leads to the new metaphysics of time and narrative that Ricoeur elaborates. Narrative is the construct that reveals meaning in experience and the truth of human temoporality.

1) Historical narrative is an allegory of temporality

  • Against those who saw narrative as a corruption of history, Ricoeur’s demonstrates the deeper reality of “historical narrative as a kind of allegory of temporality, but an allegory of a special kind, namely, a true allegory” (171).

  • Historical narrative represents the “reality” of “being-in-time” (171).

  • His “overarching thesis” is that “temporality is “the structure of existence that reaches language in narrativity” and that narrativity is “the language structure that has temporality as its ultimate referent”” (171).

  • So, the “truth of narrative is based on a notion of the narrativistic nature of time itself” (171).

2) Historical events have a narrative structure

  • Natural events have no narrative, but historical events, Ricoeur argues, do (171).

  • Historical narratives, therefore, possess a “secondary referentiality” which is the “indirect reference to the “structure temporality” that gives to the events related in the story the aura of “historicality”” (172).

  • Historical narratives “effect a mediation between events and certain universally human “experiences of temporality”” (173).

  • Historical events exhibit this narrativity because they are caused by “human agents” who themselves act from the intentionality of a particular project (173). This intentionality, regardless of outcome, confers on historical events their meaning.

3) Historical narrative mirrors the structure of human action

  • Because historical events are caused by human action, the “creation of a historical narrative, then, is an action exactly like that by which historical events are created, but in the domain of “wording” rather than that of “working”” (174).

  • “By discerning the plots “prefigured” in historical actions by the agents that produced them and “configuring” them as sequences of events having the coherency of stories with a beginning, middle, and end, historians make explicit the meaning implicit in historical events themselves” (174).

  • “The historical past is populated above all by human beings, who, besides being acted on by “forces,” are acting with or against such forces for the realization of life projects that have all the drama and fascination, but also the meaning (Sinn), of the kinds of stories we encounter in myth, religious parable, and literary fiction” (175).

  • Both history and literature have the same “ultimate referent (Sinn) [in] the human experience of time or “the structures of temporality” (175).

4) Human being-in-time has three dimensions

  • These are seriality, historicality, and deep time

  • Seriality “is a mode or a level of organization of a life lived “within-time”” and its narrative form is the chronicle. This is “a first-order experience of temporality” (176-77).

  • The second order is historicality, wherein “events take on the aspect of elements of lived stories, with a discernible beginning, middle, and end” (177). The historical narrative captures this mode.

  • Deep time will be discussed briefly later.

5) Narrative performs meaning

  • “narrative discourse does not simply reflect or passively register a world already made; it works up the material given in perception and reflection, fashions it, and creates something new, in precisely the same way that human agents by their actions fashion distinctive forms of historical life out of the world they inherit as their past” (178).

  • “History has meaning because human actions produce meanings. These meanings are continuous over the generations of human time. This continuity, in turn, is felt in the human experience of time organized as future, past, and present rather than as mere serial consecution” (179).

6) The ultimate content of narrative is the structure of human time

  • The “ultimate content” of “historical stories and fictional stories” “is the same: the structures of human time” (180).

  • “There is nothing more real for human beings than the experience of temporality—and nothing more fateful, either for individuals or for whole civilizations. Thus, any narrative representation of human events is an enterprise of profound philosophical—one could even say anthropological—seriousness” (180).

  • Narrative is concerned with “the mystery of time” (180).

  • So, “every great historical narrative is an allegory of temporality” (181). Beneath the representation of events is this allegory.

  • “For Ricouer,” then, “the meaning of history resides in its aspect as a drama of the human effort to endow life with meaning,” an effort which “is carried out in the awareness of the corrosive power of time” (181). “In this respect, the symbolic content of narrative history, the content of its form, is the tragic vision itself” (181).

  • Historical discourse is, therefore, “a timeless drama, that of humanity at grips with the “experience of temporality”” (183).

  • White sees this as the reason “for the ferocity of all those struggles, between human beings and whole societies, for the authority to decide what history means, what it teaches, and what obligations it lays upon us all” (184).

  • And so “Ricoeur presses on” to the “deep temporality” that “has as its content the enigma of death and eternity, the ultimate mystery figurated in every manifestation of human consciousness” (184).

  • This notion “saves [Ricoeur’s] historical thinking from its most common temptation, that of irony [which we see in Foucault]” (184).

“The Context in the Text: Methodology and Ideology in Intellectual History”

This final essay of The Content of the Form doubles as both a conclusion, and a methodology for future historiography. Having explored the complexities of narrative discourse in history, and the progression of the debate through the work of various thinkers, White goes about sketching a framework for the semiological analysis of historical texts. Because history is layered, consisting of numerous intersecting fields of force and desire, the texts that are handed down as remains of history and as history are similarly layered. Thus, an archaeological method in the style of Foucault or Jameson is required, and Saussurean semiotics proves the ablest of tools for the job. But, against Foucault’s anti-humanist nihilism and Jameson’s Marxism, White demonstrates a different sensibility, that of the hermeneutic school (specifically that of Ricoeur), wherein narrative, though requiring critique, ultimately signifies, allegorizes, a deep structure of human being. Thus, the task of the intellectual historian for White is not just of political importance, as it is for Foucault and Jameson—though White is certainly interested in the political dimensions of discourse—but of human importance. Time makes a claim on us, and through The Content of the Form we see that, perhaps, an answer comes in the form of narrative.

1) The text-context relationship is at the centre of current debates in history

  • “Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Dilthey, and Freud” were the “older authorities” in “intellectual historiography” (185). “New models, represented by Benjamin, Gadamer, and Ricoeur, by Habermas, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and possibly J.L. Austin, appear to have moved to the center of the scene. They authorize new ways of looking at texts, of inscribing texts within “discourses” ... and of linking both texts and discourses to their contexts” (185).

  • “The text-context relationship, once an unexamined presupposition of historical investigation, has become a problem, not in the sense of being simply difficult to establish by the once vaunted “rules of evidence,” but rather in the sense of becoming “undecidable,” elusive, uncreditable” (186).

  • Even the “older authorities” must “be “deconstructed,” their “blindness” specified, and their places in the épistèmes of their epochs determined before they can enter the lists as possible models of historical reconstruction and analysis” (186).

  • “all texts are regarded as being equally shot through with ideological elements” (187).

2) Linguistics has taken the lead in the human sciences

  • “the field of linguistics is, in the humans sciences, the principal new field of investigation opened up in the twentieth century in the West” (188).

  • Linguistics “construe[s] the relation between language and the world” in “at least four ways” (189): manifestation, representation, symbolism, and sign system.

  • White believes the sign system, deriving from Saussure’s semiotics, is the most productive.

  • The “Saussurian theory of language as a sign system, the theory that stands at the basis of Structuralism and post-Structuralism [] offers, in my view, the best immediate prospects for a fruitful revision of the central problem of intellectual history, the problem of ideology” (190).

3) Ideology is the central problem of intellectual history

  • As White has shown repeatedly, ideology permeates history. He “call[s] ideology the central problem of intellectual history because intellectual history has to do with meaning, its production, distribution, consumption, so to speak, in different historical epochs” (190).

  • Only the semiological position can properly deal with ideology, because only semiology properly understands the relationship between form and content.

  • Semiology “permits us ... to regard ideology as a process by which different kinds of meaning are produced and reproduced by the establishment of a mental set towards the world in which certain sign systems are privileged as necessary, even natural, ways of recognizing a “meaning” in things and others are suppressed, ignored, or hidden in the very process of representing a world to consciousness” (192).

  • Because this representation is at issue, intellectual history must, therefore, concern itself with form, “style,” not in the “vacuous notion” of it but “rather as a dynamic process of overt and covert code shifting by which a specific subjectivity is called up and established in the reader, who is supposed to entertain this representation of the world as a realistic one in virtue of it congeniality to the imaginary relationship the subject bears to his own social and cultural situation” (193).

  • As an aside, this “would require ... detailed reference to the work of Jakobson, Benveniste, Eco, Barthes, and ... Lévi-Strauss, Althusser, Lacan” (193).

4) Semiology is the discipline best suited to the complexity of ideology

  • “The aim would be not to reduce all of these messages to a single, seemingly monolithic position that could be neatly condensed into an emblematic paraphrase, but rather to show the myriad different messages and different kinds of messages that the text emits. The aim would also be, however, to characterize the types of messages emitted in terms of the several codes in which they are cast and to map the relationships among the codes thus identified both as a hierarchy of codes and as a sequence of their elaboration, which would locate the text within a certain domain of the culture of the time of its production” (208).

  • “How, then, does a semiological approach to intellectual history contribute to the resolution of the specific problems arising in that field of inquiry?” (208).

  • “By directing our attention to reflection of things that appear in the text, a semiological approach to intellectual history fixes us directly before the process of meaning production that is the special subject of intellectual history conceived as a subfield of historical inquiry in general” (209).

  • Intellectual history can use semiology to reveal the “processes by which cultures produce the kinds of meaning systems that give to their practical activities the aspect of meaningfulness, or value” (209-10).

  • Simply put, semiology helps us to see how desire and power are mediated by culture, and thus how meaning is generated in the process.

  • “In saying that a given text represents a type of meaning production, we are not reducing the text to the status of an effect of some causal force conceived to be more basic than that of meaning production in general” (213). Rather, texts “condense[]” “life into the form” of text, and thus “transform[] that life into a symbol of the sociocultural processes of [its] own time and place as [] perceived” (213).

  • “This is not a reduction but a sublimation or transumption of meaning which is a possible response of human consciousness to its world everywhere and at all times” (213).

III. Critique

The concern I had with Barthes’ Mythologies, that he neglected what I referred to as the “banal” aspect of ideology, that all language is ideological [which, to respond to Dr. Shelvey’s comment, is maybe not that banal after all], is remedied in White. Indeed, White’s project is a Barthesian one, in that his “content of the form” truly does take up and respond to the problem of the “excess of meaning” that characterizes Barthes’ myth.

In Barthes, myth is a “second-order” signification in which the typically empty space of the signifier (the form) is filled with the meaning of a “first-order” signification (a sign) which is distorted by the signified (the concept). This distortion occurs because there is a “content” to the “form” of the signifier in the myth, and so there are at least two conceptual contents being communicated in a myth. This is a duplicity for Barthes, a sleight of hand, in that the concept of the myth appropriates the ‘real’ force of the “first-order” signification as a ground for its own validity, simultaneously hiding away the original meaning and using it for an alibi. The task of the critic then is to reveal this duplicity, “denominating” the myth as such.

Barthes does state that perhaps one of the most effective ways to challenge a myth is to do so with a counter-myth, but myth, as a function of meaning-regulation, is a natural form of signification for power, which is always concerned with its own preservation and conservation. This power, in Barthes’ day, is the bourgeois consciousness, culture, and institutions, and specifically the bourgeois right. So although Barthes’ would challenge the totalizing bourgeois myth, he places little stock in those myths of the left which could challenge it, because without institution, without authority, myth does not have the conception-transforming force that it would have otherwise, but with it, it becomes a tool of power and control.

If we step back from the ideological struggle for just a moment, however, stripping the myth, the content of the form, from any attachment it might have to any particular project, we can begin to see, as White does, that “the content of the form,” the ideology of language, is always present. There is no “degree zero” writing, as Barthes would have it (a position he would later depart from), because all writing, all language, is a symbolization, an idealization, and thus, to some degree, a distortion of reality. Our reality can never be perfectly represented in words, because reality is not given in words; words are simply the way in which we order reality. In White, then, we see that language is always a construct, that, as he says in his discussion of Foucault, discourse emerges from the “void.”

[Again, to respond to Dr. Shelvey, perhaps I was unkind to Barthes in arguing that his “degree zero” language is impossible, a myth itself, and in not recognizing the nuance with which he articulates the idea. Perhaps. But I do think White does a better job cutting through the polarizing debates that Barthes is so entangled in. I am very sympathetic to Barthes and his project, and I do believe his work is necessary and incredibly valuable, but sometimes distance helps one to see more clearly.]

White, then, takes the conversation further. He is deeply indebted to the likes of Barthes and Foucault, but in his understanding there is something missing from their thought. If language is pure arbitrariness, an empty form that we fill with our wills to desire and to power at the expense of others, what hope is there for change, for freedom? If language is nothing but the field of exchange, the mediation of force in the pursuit of desire, the regulation of propriety and impropriety, what hope do we have for any meaning other than that determined by the authorities that be? This is the question White engages with.

Being a historian, White naturally focuses on language in history, particularly narrative discourse as an implement of intellectual history. What White demonstrates, in the arbitrariness and constructedness of language, of narrative, is that there is a content unifying every motivation, every mythology, every ideology, that is imported into language. For White, following Ricoeur, this content is the being-in-time of the human creature, which is to say, our temporality. Narrative especially captures our experience of time, in that it both represents our continuity with the past in the present, and that it actively mediates between the past and present. So narrative is not just a discursive form but an essential human activity, the structure of reflection as it emerges in the gap between experience and thought. Narrative allows us to see the present as the culmination of the past, to order the past in such a way as to make sense of the present, and to plot a trajectory between the two that reaches into the future. Temporality, White argues, is the most real aspect of our existence as humans, and narrative is the way by which we come to terms with it.

The constructed nature of narrative then is not restrictive but liberating. We are not entirely determined by our pasts. Certainly the past acts on us as necessity, but narrative reveals the agency behind necessity, that the chaos and complexity of human events is, nevertheless, human, and that as humans ourselves we can also act, with or against the traces of our ancestors’ actions, to bring about the futures we envision. The ideological component of language, then, is more than the political agendas of those we disagree with; it is a basic mental faculty of future-oriented creatures. The ideology in language allows us to project our desires, and so predict a future of our own envisioning.

Now, as we saw in George Grant, this willing of the future is precisely the vice of modern man that Nietzsche so thoroughly dismantles. But White is not naïve. In his dialogue with Ricoeur, we hear also the echoes of Heidegger, that great reader of Nietzsche, whose own philosophy was made possible, largely, by Nietzsche’s devastating critique. There is a “deep temporality” beyond our historicality, a temporality that exists in recognition of eternity and death, the mystery that ultimately all of our actions and projects will terminate in. Following this, then, White goes beyond the deconstruction of all horizons, beyond the nihilism of critique and the fatalism of ideology, to the humanity that has been exposed over the course of the twentieth century. Again, White is not naïve—this is not a purity, an essence, but rather a kernel, a seed, a trace or remnant of a being destroyed (that is, man before Nietzsche) waiting to be planted and to be tended and to grow anew. The distinction between essence and seed is a subtle one, but important, especially for our understanding of White. So, against, or rather, in response to, the mystery of eternity and death, there is potentiality. It is the task of the critic and historian to ensure that this potential, this new growth, does not succumb to the sicknesses of the old, and perhaps it is for us to envision what this new growth might become.

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