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Notes on “The Poetics of History”

Metahistory (1973) is a remarkably prescient text. One of my projects this summer was getting to know Hayden White and I thought I might share some of the notes I took on the introductory chapter to his best known book. What brought me to the work initially was my interest in history and memory studies. Although the author’s intent is to address historians, Metahistory can be read as a comprehensive framework for thinking about how anthropologists construct representations through ethnography or how a community comes to relate to its past through the composition of historical narratives.

With the author’s focus on poetics it’s easy to see the connections to Writing Culture (1986). It’s kind of amazing really, to read this early seventies work that references all the same theorists anthropology starts talking about fifteen years down the road. White’s work contrasts with Writing Culture by virtue of being anchored to old school structuralism (my pet theory). White seems to have anticipated a lot of the later theory, only Metahistory is a much clearer read.

White is offering us a theory of theory that teaches us how to read for rhetoric in social science. Metahistory is about the problem of historical knowledge and White sees himself as working towards a theory of the structure of historical thought. This is a uniquely modern/ post-modern problem. In antiquity the question of what it means to think historically was debated by philosophers under the assumption that “unambiguous answers could be provided for them.” But, of course, theory since the ‘60s has concluded that “definitive answers may not be possible.”

One particularly popular and persuasive theory of history, which might be dubbed the literary critique of power, can be summarized as follows:

The historical consciousness on which Western man has prided himself since the beginning of the nineteenth century may be little more that a theoretical basis for the ideological position from which Western civilization views its relationship not only to cultures and civilizations preceding it but also those contemporary with it in time.

In contrast to this White offers his own perspective of poetics, with its focus on issues of representation and realism:

I will consider the historical work as what it most manifestly is – that is to say, a verbal structure in the form of a narrative prose discourse that purports to be a model, or icon, of past structures and processes in the interest of explaining what they were by representing them.

In an extended footnote he name checks Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946) as his role model, for raising “the whole question of the ‘fictive’ representation of ‘reality.’”

So White’s objective is not to discover the most correct approach to historical study. We’re not chasing authenticity here, but looking at synchronic patterns that can be found within the set of historical literatures. Who is right and who is wrong is besides the point because we’re looking at their rhetoric in order to draw conclusions about the role of literary technique in structuring the way we think about the past (what White calls the “explanatory effect” of history).

In my view, the whole discussion of the nature of ‘realism’ in literature flounders in the failure to assess critically what a genuinely ‘historical’ conception of ‘reality’ consists of. The usual tactic is to set the ‘historical’ over against the ‘mythical’, as if the former were genuinely empirical and the latter were nothing but conceptual, and then to locate the realm of the fictive between the two poles. Literature is then viewed as being more or less realistic, depending upon the ratio of empirical to conceptual elements contained within it.

“The Theory of the Historical Work”
How is it that historians manage to explain anything at all? Like us anthropologists they work their magic by telling stories. White says that by composing stories about sets of events they are “motifically encoded” and are now transformed into a “completed diachronic process.” But as scholars of history we can interrogate them as if they were a synchronic structure.

White reminds us that when he brings critical theory to a reading of history that it cannot be equivalent to literary critique of fiction in that “historical works are made up of events that exist outside the consciousness of the writer.” It’s about things that are, in some sense, real and the historian’s challenge is to represent reality through narrative. Whereas the novelist creates from the imagination, “the historian confronts a veritable chaos of events already constituted, out of which he must choose the elements of the story he would like to tell.” Just a hop skip and a jump, and we’re talking about ethnography.

In the sections that follow I will outline White’s three explanatory strategies: explanation by emplotment, explanation by formal argument, and explanation by ideological implication. Then in two concluding sections White attempts to synthesize these strategies into different “styles” that are associated with competing political agendas.

“Explanation by Emplotment”
White tells us that, “Emplotment is the way by which a sequence of events fashioned into a story is gradually revealed to be a story of a particular kind.” Among the ‘particular kinds of stories’ White identifies are Romance, Tragedy, Comedy, and Satire. Although White does go into detail about the specific qualities of each of these genres, it is not the case that writers consciously select them based on their individual virtues. He writes, “Historians in general, however critical they are of their sources, tend to be naïve storytellers.”

I found his description of the different plot types to be very interesting for my research, especially the history-as-tragedy and history-as-comedy. Both of these forms really resonate with representational themes in American Indian studies.

More evidence of the prescience of Metahistory: the undercurrent of doubt and Nieztche that comes with the study of poetics. His description of Satire, reminded me of cultural anthropology too, in the way we take pleasure in mocking the civilized. “Like philosophy itself, Satire ‘paints its gray on gray’ in the awareness of its own inadequacy as an image of reality. It therefore prepares consciousness for its repudiation of all sophisticated conceptualizations of the world.”

Here’s a precis of the four types. Brilliant stuff, this:

Tragedy and Satire are modes of emplotment which are consonant with the interest of those historians who perceive behind or within the welter of events contained in the chronicle an ongoing structure of relationships or an eternal return of the Same in the Different. Romance and Comedy stress the emergence of new forces or conditions out of processes that appear at first glance either to be changeless in their essence or to be changing only in their phenomenal forms. But each of these archetypal plot structures has its implication for the cognitive operations by which the historian seeks to ‘explain’ what was ‘really happening’ during the process of which it provides an image of its true form.

“Explanation by Formal Argument”
I’ve mentioned in past blogs how, as an undergrad, one text that had a profound effect on me was Clifford’s Predicament of Culture. The same semester, the same professor gave me Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives which became another touchstone text for me through grad school. So it was a treat to see Burke (lit crit I had actually read!!) pop up among all the hyper-literate references White was name checking.

An explanation that uses formal argument is one that explains, “what happens in the story by invoking principles of combination which serve as putative laws of historical explanation,” or utilizing some other, “putatively universal law of causal relationships.” This type marks protoscientific history and our classic example here would be Marxist super-structure/base type explanations.

Just as there were four genres of emplotment, White goes on to develop four paradigms of argument. Borrowed, he tells us, from Stephen C Pepper, World Hypothesis. (Maybe this means something to you? I have not read it.) The four arguments types are: Formist, Organicist, Mechanistic, and Contextualist.

The Formist argument is like a cabinet of curiosity in that it features the aesthetic arrangement of unique, precious things. “The uniqueness of the different agents, agencies, and acts which make up the ‘events’ to be explained is central to one’s inquiries, not the ‘ground’ or ‘scene’ against which these entities rise.”

Formism is essentially ‘dispersive’ in the analytical operations it carries out on the data, rather than ‘integrative,’… tends to be wide in ‘scope’ … such historians usually make up for the vacuity of their generalizations by the vividness of their reconstructions of particular agents, agencies, and acts represented in their narratives.

The Organicist argument sounds anthropological in a Boasian kind of way. It seeks, “To see individual entities as components of processes which aggregate into wholes.” Here White ranks the nationalists and Hegel. The Organicist eschews the search for universal laws and focuses instead on the folk, the nation, and the culture.

An Organicist argument is one in which the “consolidation or crystallization, out of a set of apparently dispersed events, of some integrated entity whose importance is greater than that of any of the individual entities analyzed or described in the course of the narrative.”

The Mechanistic argument is inclined to be “reductive rather than synthetic,” and it is here we find scientific history.

To put the matter in Kenneth Burke’s terms, Mechanism is inclined to view the ‘acts’ of the ’agents’ inhabiting the historical field as manifestations of extrahistorical ‘agencies’… the search for the causal laws that determine the outcomes of processes discovered in the historical field… He considers individual entities to be less important as evidence than the classes of phenomena to which they can be shown to belong.

The Contextualist argument also seems very anthropological. Explanations are found “by the revelation of the specific relationships they bore to other events occurring in their circumambient historical space… the aim of explanation is to identify the ‘threads’ that link the individual or institution under study to its specious sociocultural ‘present’.”

Contextualism seeks to avoid both the radically dispersive tendency of Formism and the abstractive tendencies of Organicism and Mechanism. It strives instead for a relative integration of the phenomena discerned in finite provinces of historical occurrence in terms of ‘trends.’

And, if the historian who is inclined toward Contextualism would aggregate the various periods he has studied into a comprehensive view of the whole historical process, he must move outside the Contextualist framework – toward either a Mechanistic reduction of the data in terms of the ‘timeless’ laws that are presumed to govern them or an Organicist synthesis of those data in terms of the ‘principles’ that are presumed to reveal the telos toward which the whole process is tending over the long haul.

For White real history, what is accepted and expected by professional historians, is Formist and Contextualist, while works that are better described as philosophy of history tend to be either Organicist or Mechanistic. Moreover the professional historians reject the philosophy of history clique for precisely this reason. White concludes that behind this move are ethical and ideological choices.

Here these choices seem to be framed as history-from-the-right versus history-from-the-left:

Commitment to a particular form of knowledge predetermines the kinds of generalizations one can make about the present world, the kinds of knowledge one can have of it, and hence the kinds of projects one can legitimately conceive for changing that present or for maintaining it in its present form indefinitely.

“Explanation by Ideological Implication”
Throwing down the political gauntlet makes for a smooth segue into White’s examination of ideological explanations. The role played by ideology in a historical account reflects, “the ethical element in the historian’s assumption of a particular position on the question of the nature of historical knowledge.”

Following Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (hadn’t read that one either), White outlines four basic ideological positions: Anarchism, Conservatism, Radicalism, and Liberalism. In a foot note, White states that Mannheim also included Fascism. He writes, “The four basic ideological positions identified by Mannheim, however, represent value systems that claim the authority of “reason,” “science,” or “realism.”

Every ideology attaches itself to a specific idea of history, we can read this in how they express their desire for social change, what they think is the optimal pace for that social change, and the temporal orientation of their political utopias. We can now use these criteria as means to read a history in order to determine what its ideological implications are.

All ideologies take the prospect of change seriously:

This is what accounts for their shared interest in history and their concern to provide a historical justification for their programs… It is the value accorded to the current social establishment, however, that accounts for their different conceptions of both the form of historical evolution and the form that historical knowledge must take.

White is not advocating for one ideology or another. Nor does he presume that there is some extra-ideological ground from which he could pass judgment on the ideology of others. Primarily his interest is to show how ideological considerations enter into historical accounts.

The questioning of the place of ethics in realist representation are strongly echoed in Anthropology as Cultural Critique (1986):

I consider the ethical moment of a historical work to be reflected in the mode of ideological implication by which an aesthetic perception (the emplotment) and a cognitive operation (the argument) can be combined so as to derive prescriptive statements from what may appear to be purely descriptive or analytical ones.

This one final long quote about ideology makes me think deeply about the politics of representation in settler narratives about American Indians, a genre which frequently constructs an apology for conquest out of the myth of the American melting pot:

…the kind of feeling engendered in the audience of a drama that has achieved a definitive Comic resolution of all the apparently tragic conflicts within it. The tone of voice is accommodationist, the mood is optimistic, and the ideological implications are Conservative, inasmuch as one can legitimately conclude from a history thus construed that one inhabits the best of possible historical worlds, or at least the best that one can ‘realistically’ hope for.

“The Problem of Historiographical Styles”
Now it’s time to put it all together. White moves to synthesize his poetic analysis into what he calls “historiographical styles” that represent particular combinations of emplotment argument and ideological implication. I found this passage to be less useful than others.

White claims that there are “elective affinities” among the various modes he has described that may be used in concert for explanatory effect, although it’s not necessary that the different pieces be arranged in this way.


I told you it was old school structuralism.

“The Theory of Tropes”
And now for some more Kenneth Burke, only by way of Levi-Strauss and Roman Jackobson. This section in particular has some very long footnotes that are full of interesting citations. Here’s the one’s that I pulled:

  • Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, pp.205-44
  • Jackobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Style and Language, Sebeok ed.
  • “The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles,” in Fundamentals of Language, Jackobson and Halle ed.
  • Lacan, “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious,” in Structuralism, Ehrmann ed.
  • Benveniste, “Remarks on the Function of Language in Freudian Theory,” in Problems of General Linguistics.
  • Vico, “Poetic Wisdom,” in The New Science of Giambattista Vico

White comments on the problems of using figurative language in the social sciences and how they differ from those of, say, physics which is presumed not to have figurative language at all:

What formal terminological systems, such as those devised for denoting the data of physics, envisage is the elimination of figurative usage altogether, the construction of perfect “schemata” of words in which nothing “unexpected” appears in the designation of the objects of study… The fundamental problem of “realistic” representation of those areas of experience not terminologically disciplined in the way that physics is, is to provide an adequate schema of words for representing the schema of thoughts which it takes to be the truth about reality.

If you don’t have your copy of A Grammar of Motives handy, I will remind you that Burke’s four tropes are metaphor, metonymy, synechdoche, and irony.

Irony, Metonymy, and Synecdoche are kinds of Metaphor, but they differ from one another in the kinds of reductions or integrations they effect on the literal level of their meanings and by the kinds of illuminations they aim at on the figurative level. Metaphor is essentially representational, Metonymy is reductionist, Synecdoche is integrative, and Irony is negationl.

More evidence of Metahistory‘s prescience: metonymy goes on to become a very hot concept for the postmodernists and poststructuralists. It’s very interesting to see it getting defined so thoroughly here:

In Metonymy, phenomena are implicitly apprehended as bearing relationships to one another in the modality of part-part relations, on the basis of which one can effect a reduction of one of the parts to the status of an aspect or function of the other… an agent-act relationship… or a cause-effect relationship… the phenomenal world can be populated with a host of agents and agencies that are presumed to exist behind it… The ‘part’ of experience which is apprehended as an ‘effect’ is related to that ‘part’ which is apprehended as ‘cause’ in the manner of a reduction.

Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are for White all “naïve” and against this he posits Irony as “sentimental” because it is self-conscious. As a discipline that relies so heavily on self-reflection its easy to spot cultural anthropology intimate connection to rhetorical Irony:

It has been suggested that irony is essentially dialectical, inasmuch as it represents a self-conscious use of Metaphor in the interests of verbal self-negation. The basic figurative tactic of irony is catachresis (literally “misuse”), the manifestly absurd Metaphor designed to inspire Ironic second thoughts about the nature of the thing characterized or the inadequacy of the characterization itself. The rhetorical figure of aporia (literally “doubt”, in which the author signals in advance a real or feigned disbelief in the truth of his own statements, could be considered the favored stylistic device of Ironic language.

It is therefore ‘dialectical,’ as Kenneth Burke has noted, though not so much in its apprehension of the process of the world as in its apprehension of the capacity of language to obscure more than it clarifies… They appear to signal the ascent of thought in a given area of inquiry to a level of self-consciousness on which a genuinely ‘enlightened’ – that is to say self critical – conceptualization of the world and its processes has become possible.

No wonder this sounds so familiar! White’s definition of Irony describes the anthropological ideal of Writing Culture, “It is, in short, a model of the linguistic protocol in which skepticism in thought and relativism in ethics are conventionally expressed”.

When you put it that way, skeptical in thought and relative in ethic doesn’t sound so bad, actually.

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Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

2 thoughts on “Notes on “The Poetics of History”

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    John McCreery says:

    Matt, what a lovely trip down memory lane. Serendipitously, I am at the moment reading Ted Polhemus’ BOOM!- A Baby Boomer Memoir, 1947-2000, one of whose central themes is that the Boomers were sure that they had invented sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, while even the particular forms they claimed for themselves could be easily traced to ancestors a decade or more earlier than the sixties. I am reminded of the interview with Clifford Geertz in MacFarlane’s ancestors series, in which Geertz explains that when he introduced the idea of interpretation and worrying about the writing to anthropology he was only bringing to anthropology what he had learned as an undergraduate English major.

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    Edwin Schmitt says:

    You might give the introduction to Ankersmit’s History and Tropology http://www.amazon.com/History-Tropology-Rise-Fall-Metaphor/dp/0520080459 a quick read, it does an excellent job of reviewing White’s contribution to historical theory within the context of the linguistic turn.

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