The Ironic Radical: On Hayden White’s “The Ethics of Narrative”

Michael S. Roth ponders Hayden White’s “The Ethics of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory, 1998–2007.”

The Ironic Radical: On Hayden White’s “The Ethics of Narrative”

The Ethics of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature, and Theory, 1998–2007 by Hayden White. Cornell University Press. 282 pages.

HAYDEN WHITE, who died in 2018, was perhaps the most important theorist of history since the 19th century. A 2022 anthology edited by Robert Doran, The Ethics of Narrative: Essays on History, Literature and Theory, 1998–2007, showcases his critical output from the turn of the century. From “The Burden of History” (1966) to the most recent pieces collected in this volume, one can see that White was a consistently intelligent and engaging postmodern advocate for thinking about history as a form of imaginative reconstruction that could either constrain people or inspire their liberation. 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. The idea of an “arc of history bending toward justice” is such a god, and the notion of a core, permanent identity is such an essence. Both Rorty and White were iconoclastic. 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.

The first of what will be two volumes of occasional pieces, The Ethics of Narrative collects 15 of White’s essays and lectures from his final two decades. Most of them are linked by a concern with how to translate an anti-foundationalist approach to history into ethical positions, or at least, as Judith Butler notes in the introduction, into ethical questions. How do the ways we conceive of history and agency create preconditions for practical judgements? How do these judgments in turn alter our perspective on what counts as progressive or reactionary historical change? Some of the essays are of the public intellectual sort, like his opining on patriotism or European identity. Others are rather academic reflections on the metaphysics of Western historiography or on symbols and allegories of temporality.

White never developed a “theory of history” in the traditional sense: that is, as I discussed originally in my 1988 essay for Political Theory, he didn’t seek to “pu[t] historical events together into a meaningful whole, nor [did] he provide a reasoned explanation of why this cannot be done.” He is a theorist of the writing of history. White is not so interested, say, in whether the history of the West is one of enlightenment and progress or one of racism and repetition. He is interested in how accounts of the past, be they Whiggish or Afro-pessimist, construct discrete events into stories that make sense to their readers. 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. Finally, he submits a formalist analysis of “historical writing that [challenges] the way we think about the possibilities of any theory of historical events.”

This concern with rhetoric and stories is everywhere present in The Ethics of Narrative, but what White almost never mentions there is the specific formalist conceptual undergirding of his magnum opus, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (1973). As I observed in the foreword to the 2014 edition of that book, he “reads his authors through the lens of literary theory, specifically theories of rhetoric and genre.” 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.

Although none of these authors worked exclusively with a single trope or genre, each of them had a preferred historical modality for representing the past. Most important, historical events don’t call for one genre or trope—none is more appropriate than another, a priori:

White rejected the idea that one genre or trope more accurately corresponded to what really happened in the past than another. Instead, he insisted that tropes were how writers prefigured the historical field—the past became available to us only through a poetic act of construction. Then writers made the past meaningful to readers by forming it into a [narrative]. Acts of emplotment fell into these four main genres.

Metahistory treats realism as a style among others, and likewise is agnostic about the relative merits of the philosophies of history it elucidates. White is not “concerned with the scientific validity of the various historical methodologies.” Instead,

White examines what Roland Barthes called the “reality effect” created by all historical writing. Different ways of creating this effect generate different sorts of plots and also different […] ideologies. The metahistorical element in all historical writing is the “precritical,” “deep structural content” of the writing. Sometimes White calls this the poetic figuration of the historical field. This content can always be understood through some combination of the four tropes, which White [seemed to think] exhaust[ed] the possibilities for representing the past in language.

The theory of tropes provides the critic with tools, but not for judging the validity or autonomy of historical understanding. Instead, White emphasizes the affinities of writing about history with writing in general. People tell stories about the past in specific situations with particular goals in mind, and the theorist of history can explore the possibilities available for (hi)story-telling.

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. He showed again and again that what passed for rational professional history writing was shot through with “mythic representations of reality unaware of their own mythicity.” 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. Historians, like all scholars working with narrative, think in metaphors of which they are often unaware themselves. These figures determine how we tell our stories about the past. As he observes, “thinking in figures always reveals as much about the writer as it does about a referent.”

The 15 essays in this collection return frequently to the ways in which our approach to history retroactively bestows anticipatory qualities on past events so that they seem to prefigure later ones. Christianity bestowed on the Hebrew Bible such anticipatory qualities, and historians in the West ever since have looked back on parts of the past as if they were pregnant with what was to come later. This is metaphor, not science, and White likes to note that “historical studies were professionalized without having gone through anything like a ‘scientific revolution.’” It was historical narrativization that won the day. In an incisive essay on totalitarianism, he emphasizes that “it is a peculiarity of the discipline of history that it needs no particular theoretical apparatus or philosophical foundation to justify the operations of its practitioners.” The stories do the work.

White underscores the importance of narrative because it “alone can capture the complex interplay of existential choice, engagement, aspiration and frustration, exaltation and defeat, intentionality and effectivity that the human subject of history lives rather than merely suffers.” Yet he is critical of the kinds of narratives historians tend to fall back on because they constrain our ability to imagine alternatives to the way things have been, and, more importantly, to the way things are. “[T]he principal social function of historical studies […] is to provide a basis for the belief that whatever is has good reasons for being what it is,” and professional, sober historians dismiss “as a utopian” any person “who wants things to be different than they in fact are.” Merely utopian.

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.” For the historian who would think otherwise, his work remains a potent provocation, an incitement to imagine another relationship to the past than that supplied by conventional historical narratives.

It is fitting that Saidiya Hartman was chosen to deliver the first Hayden White Distinguished Annual Lecture at UC Santa Cruz in 2021. Hartman’s idea of using the archive for “critical fabulation,” for escaping the conventional liberal narrative of emancipation, is, as she has noted, indebted to White’s critical work. “How might I,” she asks, “interrupt the traditional account, revise historical chronology, cast doubt on the progressive arc and telos of narrative, and blast open the time of slavery?” Hartman’s questions have inspired a generation of scholars in African American studies who want to “use the archive to create another order of statements, to produce a different account of what had happened and what might be possible.”

Hayden White would have, I trust, enjoyed the irony of seeing us bestow on his work the prefiguration of this new generation of radical scholars. Prefiguration, though, doesn’t have to be domestication. White encouraged us to free ourselves from the search for a foundation in the past, some form of authenticity grounded in our ancestors. We could, instead, make something new out of ourselves. The respect for continuity is a choice and not a scientific or ethical obligation. As he told the graduating class at Wesleyan University in 2014, “You can change your past and thereby give your future a direction quite different from what has been marked out for you by others.”

It may seem like a paradox, but by taking advantage of opportunities to build alternative futures, we reconfigure the meanings of our histories. This was the radical edge of his ethics of narrative, one that is as necessary today as it has ever been.


Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent book is The Student: A Short History, forthcoming in September from Yale University Press.

LARB Contributor

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are The Student: A Short History (forthcoming), Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses (2019), and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (2014).


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