The Ironic Radical

Michael S. Roth

Los Angeles Review of Books


“Like his late-in-life Stanford colleague Richard Rorty, White was an ironic anti-foundationalist—a thinker eager to undermine the ways that we moderns have found new gods to worship or essences to piously respect”

“While the former tended to remind us that we didn’t need these new idols, the latter wanted us to smash them on the way to creating something radically new”

“How do the ways we conceive of history and agency create preconditions for practical judgements?”

“White is interested in verbal artifacts as rhetorical constructions, and he thinks hard about the elements that go into the texts that have been passed down to us”

“For him, four styles of “emplotting” historical events make different types of realism possible:

Romance in Michelet, Comedy in Ranke, Tragedy in Tocqueville, and Satire in Burckhardt. [In turn,] the philosophers of history privileged particular tropes, or figures of speech: Marx emphasized Metonymy and Synecdoche to organize the historical field, whereas Nietzsche relied on Metaphor, and Croce on Irony”

“In the 1990s and the early 2000s, White moved away from formalist analysis and a dependence on the four tropes. He wanted to avoid having a theoretical framework that claimed to work in all cases (a new foundation, as it were), but remained as committed as ever to the notion that when we make sense of the past, it is poetic prefiguration that counts, not just the weighing of empirical evidence”

“His point was not, pace Carlo Ginzburg, to deny the reality of any particular events, but to tease out how our representation of events depended on poetic, mythological, and rhetorical figures that enframed or emplotted them”

“This is the abiding core of White’s critical ethics, which aims to inspire the “liberation of the present” from what he called in 1966 “the burden of history.””

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