“The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” –Hayden White

In “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” Hayden White, a historian in the field of literary criticism, clearly articulates what “meta-history” is in attempt to help his readers better understand the epistemological status of historical explanations, the form historical representations take, and history’s role in knowledge making. White argues historical narratives are more closely linked with literature than the sciences not because historical narratives are fictional but because historical narratives employ tropes (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony) to configure historical events in ways that the audience can relate to. Historians, White explains, “reemplot,” redescribe, or recode past events so contemporary cultures can make sense of their past. Histories, then, are similar to fiction because figurative language is used in both genres to help us come to know the actual by “contrasting it with or likening it to the imaginable;” thus both historical narratives and fiction employ similar strategies in making sense of past events whether they are real or imagined (98).
White’s arguments make an important contribution to historiography because his argument provides historians with a means to develop a historical consciousness by helping them recognize the fictive elements in their historical narratives (99). Preceding James Berlin, who argues we must be aware of the ideological underpinnings of any history we create, Whites writes “this recognition would serve as a potent antidote to the tendency of historians to become captive of ideological preconceptions which they do not recognize as such but honor as the ‘correct’ perception of “the way things really are” (99). As White explains, the ideological is the fictive element in our own discourse; therefore, by becoming aware of how they employ tropes, historians become cognizant of when they are making ideological moves. Although White does not mention rhetoric, I would add that in the process, historians would also become aware of the rhetorical elements in their histories. After all, when we become aware of the ideological moves we make in our discourse, we are also becoming rhetorically savvy. Thus, while history may very well be closely aligned with literature, history is also closely aligned with rhetoric. Although this point may seem obvious to us rhetoricians, do all historians think of their work as rhetorical? How would histories be different if they did?
Linking history with literature is useful for rhetorical scholars in the sense that just as historians must develop a historical consciousness, so too must all scholars within our field. White explains that “like literature, history progresses by the production of classics, the nature of which is such that they cannot be disconfirmed or negated…and that it is their nondisconfirmability that testifies to the essentially literary nature of historical classics” (89). As we all know, the ancient rhetorical canon is strong and narrow. With the publishing of Reclaiming Rhetorica and Rhetoric Retold and other texts such as Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks, the ancient rhetorical canon is slowly being expanded but by and large, we know the history of our field through canonical texts. If we think of the canon as a grand narrative of the history of rhetoric, what are the tropes at play that have guided the way we think about our discipline’s past? What mythos has been created? What is imagined? What is real? What ideologies have been at play when these canonical texts have been reproduced? These questions are important for us to ask and explore because as Kellnar reminds us, “we cannot have reality, but we can claim it and we do claim it, with rhetoric” (36). Therefore, we do not actually know the reality of the history of rhetoric even though the rhetorical canon makes a claim that we do. This “contrived sense of reality” is why we must develop a historical consciousness of our own field. We must in White’s terms develop a metahistory of rhetoric so we begin to acknowledge, recognize, and understand how and why our discipline’s history has been created the way it has, who this historical narrative benefits, and who this historical narrative doesn’t.
Developing a metahistory of our field is also important because we need to be acutely aware that when we rewrite history, we also rewrite the present. Atwill explains that canons, as well as theories and methodologies, “’incorporate’ the values of a disciplinary community, reinforcing the community’s own referential status by reproducing its values and affirming its practices” (104). Therefore, when we rewrite history, we incorporate contemporary values, which lead us to ask new questions and develop new insights. These values, beliefs, questions, and insights guide our research and our presentation of that history and thus lead to the creation of a new history, which in turn leads to a new understanding of the present. As Berlin reminds us, when we write history, we also create our hopes and visions for the future; therefore, by rewriting history, we also rewrite our future. Seen in this light, as rhetorical scholars, part of the historical consciousness we must develop should focus on the kind of present and future we want to create for our discipline. We must imagine how our discipline will change as we begin to add alternative histories to the canon? How has it already changed? How do we want it to change? We must also ask what ideologies are at work in our field and our sense of scholarly self that make us want and not want to add alternative histories to the already established canon, or give them priority when we teach rhetoric—both of which would change both our present and our future. White’s argument is important to rhetorical studies because it reminds even inspires us to ask such important questions…it helps us develop our own historical consciousness both as a discipline and individual scholars.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to ““The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” –Hayden White

  1. Asking which ideological inform our discipline is important… Several of the readings position social construction as the epistemological given – but the Bruffee work they return to is years ago. What is given now?
    Some ideas –
    – speaking “with” instead of “for”? (and general attention to transnational feminism?)
    – aspirations to lives as “public intellectuals”?
    – “recovery” of oppressed/suppressed voices and rhetorics?
    But then again – these ideas might just represent my Utopian vision for our discourse/field…

  2. thz r bst ntce of Hyden white for intelligent studnts………..so u may use thm…..

  3. Chance Campbell

    What are the first and last pages White’s article within the source you used for this post? It is hard to find the points in the text you cite– I have a different text. Thanks!

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