Hayden White

In Dread of Derrida

By guest contributor Jonathon Catlin

According to Ethan Kleinberg, historians are still living in fear of the specter of deconstruction; their attempted exorcisms have failed. In Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (2017), Kleinberg fruitfully “conjures” this spirit so that historians might finally confront it and incorporate its strategies for representing elusive pasts. A panel of historians recently discussed the book at New York University, including Kleinberg (Wesleyan), Joan Wallach Scott (Institute for Advanced Study), Carol Gluck (Columbia), and Stefanos Geroulanos (NYU), moderated by Zvi Ben-Dor Benite (NYU). A recording of the lively two-hour exchange is available at the bottom of this post.

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Left to Right: Profs Geroulanos, Gluck, Kleinberg, and Scott

History’s ghost story goes back some decades. Hayden White’s Metahistory roiled the profession in 1974 by effectively translating the “linguistic turn” of the French deconstruction into historical terms: historical narratives are no less “emplotted” in genres like romance and comedy, and hence no less unstable, than literary ones. White sparked fierce debate, notably about the limits of representing the Holocaust, which took place alongside probes into the ethics of those of deconstruction’s heroes with ties to Nazism, including Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man. The intensity of these battles was arguably a product of hatred for one theorist in particular: Jacques Derrida, whose work forms the backbone of Kleinberg’s book. Yet despite decades of scholarship undermining the nineteenth-century, Rankean foundations of the historical discipline, the regime of what Kleinberg calls “ontological realism” apparently still reigns. His book is not simply the latest in a long line of criticism of such work, but rather a manifesto for a positive theory of historical writing that employs deconstruction’s linguistic and epistemological insights.

This timely intervention took place, as Scott remarked, “in a moment when the death of theory has been triumphantly proclaimed, and indeed celebrated, and when many historians have turned with relief to accumulating big data, or simply telling evidence-based stories about an unproblematic past.” She lamented that

the self-reflexive moment and the epistemological challenge associated with names like Foucault, Irigaray, Derrida, and Lacan—all those dangerous French theorists who integrated the very ground on which we stood—reality, truth, experience, language, the body—that moment is said to be past, a wrong turn taken; thankfully we’re now on the right course.

Scott praised Kleinberg’s book for haunting precisely this sense of “triumphalism.”

Kleinberg began his remarks with a disappointed but unsurprised reflection that most historians still operate under the spell of what he calls “ontological realism.” This methodology is defined by the attempt to recover historical events, which, insofar as they are observable, become “fixed and immutable.” This elides the difference between the “real” past and history (writing about the past), unwittingly taking “the map of the past,” or historical representation, as the past itself. It implicitly operates as if the past is a singular and discrete object available for objective retrieval. While such historians may admit their own uncertainty about events, they nevertheless insist that the events really happened in a certain way; the task is only to excavate them ever more exactly.

This dogmatism reigns despite decades of deconstructive criticism from the likes of White, Frank Ankersmit, and Dominick LaCapra in the pages of journals like History and Theory (of which Kleinberg is executive editor), which has immeasurably sharpened the self-consciousness of historical writing. In his 1984 History and Criticism, LaCapra railed against the “archival fetishism” then evident in social history, whereby the archive became “more than the repository of traces of the past which may be used in its inferential reconstruction” and took on the quality of “a stand-in for the past that brings the mystified experience of the thing itself” (p. 92, n. 17). If historians had read their Derrida, however, they would know that the past inscribed in writing “is ‘always already’ lost for the historian.” Scott similarly wrote in a 1991 Critical Inquiry essay: “Experience is at once always already an interpretation and is in need of interpretation.” As she cited from Kleinberg’s book, meaning is produced by reading a text, not released from it or simply reflected. Every text, no matter how documentary, is a “site of contestation and struggle” (15).

Kleinberg’s intervention is to remind us that this erosion of objectivity is not just a tragic story of decline into relativism, for a deconstructive approach also frees historians from the shackles of objectivism, opening up new sources and methodologies. White famously concluded in Metahistory that there were at the end of the day no “objective” or “scientific” reasons to prefer one way of telling a story to another, but only “moral or aesthetic ones” (434). With the acceptance of what White called the “Ironic” mode, which refused to privilege certain accounts of the past as definitive, also came a new freedom and self-consciousness. Kleinberg similarly revamps White’s Crocean conclusion that “all history is contemporary history,” reminding us that our present social and political preoccupations determine which voices we seek out and allow to speak in our work. We can never tell the authoritative history of a subject, but only construct a possible history of it.

Kleinberg relays the upside of deconstructive history more convincingly than White ever did: Opening up history beyond ontological realism makes room for “alternative pasts” to enter through the “present absences” in historiography. Contrary to historians’ best intentions, the hold of ontological positivism perversely closes out and renders illegible voices that do not fit with the dominant paradigm, who are marginalized to obscurity by the authority of each self-enclosed narrative. Hence making some voices legible too often makes others illegible, for example E. P. Thompson foregrounding the working class only to sideline women. The alternative is a porous account that allows itself to be penetrated by alterity and unsettled by the ghosts it has excluded. The latent ontology of holding onto some “real,” to the exclusion of others, would thus give way to a hauntology (Derrida’s play on the ambiguous sound of the French ontologie) whereby the text acknowledges and allows in present absences. Whereas for Kleinberg Foucault has been “tamed” by the historical discipline, this Derridean metaphor remains unsettling. Reinhart Koselleck’s notion of “non-simultaneity” (Ungleichzeitgkeit) further informs Kleinberg’s view of “hauntology as a theory of multiple temporalities and multiple pasts that all converge, or at least could converge, on the present,” that is, on the historian in the act of writing about the past (133).

Kleinberg fixates on the metaphor of the ghost because it represents the liminal in-between of absent presences and present absences. Ghosts are unsettling because they obey no chronology, flitting between past and present, history and dream. Yet deconstructive hauntology stands to enrich narratives because destabilized stories become porous to previously excluded voices. In his response, Geroulanos pressed Kleinberg to consider several alternative monster metaphors: ghosts who tell lies, not bringing back the past “as it really was” but making up alternative claims; and the in-between figure of the zombie, the undead past that has not passed.

Even in the theory-friendly halls of NYU, Kleinberg was met with some of the same suspicion and opposition White was decades ago. While all respondents conceded the theoretical import of Kleinberg’s argument, the question remained how to write such a history in practice. Preempting this question, Kleinberg’s conclusion includes a preview of a parallel book he has been writing on the Talmudic lectures Emmanuel Levinas presented in postwar Paris. He hopes to enact what Derrida called a “double session.” The first half of the book provides a secular intellectual history of how Levinas, prompted by the Holocaust, shifted from Heidegger to Talmud; but the second half tells this history from the perspective of revelation, inspired by “Levinas’s own counterhistorical claim that divine and ethical meaning transcends time,” telling a religious counter-narrative to the standard secular one. Scott praised the way Kleinberg’s two narratives provide two positive accounts that nonetheless unsettle one another. Kleinberg writes: “The two sessions pull at each other, creating cracks in any one homogenous history, through which portions of the heterogeneous and polysemic past that haunts history can rise and be activated.” This “dislodging” and “irruptive” method “marks an irreducible and generative multiplicity” of alternate histories (149). Active haunting prevents Kleinberg’s method from devolving into mere perspectivism; each narrative actively throws the other into question, unsettling its authority.

A further decentering methodology Kleinberg proposed was breaking through the “analog ceiling” of print scholarship into the digital realm. Gluck emphasized how digital or cyber-history has the freedom to be more associative than chronological, interrupting texts with links, alternative accounts, and media. Thus far, however, digital history, shackled by big data and “neoempiricism,” has largely remained in the grip of ontological realism, producing linear narratives. Still, there was some consensus that these technologies might enable new deconstructive approaches. In this sense, Kleinberg writes, “Metahistory came too soon, arriving before the platforms and media that would allow us to explore the alternative narrative possibilities that were at our ready disposal” (117).

Listening to Kleinberg, I thought of a recent experimental book by Yair Mintzker, The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew (2017). It tells the story of the death of Joseph Oppenheimer, the villain of the infamous Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss (1940) produced at the behest of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Mintzker was inspired by the narrative model of the film Rashomon (1950), which Geroulanos elaborated in some depth. Director Akira Kurosawa famously presents four different and conflicting accounts of how a samurai traveling through a wooded grove ends up murdered, from the perspectives of his wife, the bandit they encounter, a bystander, and the samurai himself speaking through a medium. Mintzker’s narrative choice is not postmodern fancy, but in this case a historiographical necessity. Because Oppenheimer, as a Jew, was not entitled to give testimony in his own trial, the only extant accounts available come from four similarly self-interested and conflictual sources: a judge, a convert, a Jew, and a writer. Mintzker’s work would seem to demonstrate the viability of Kleinbergian hauntology well outside twentieth-century intellectual history.

Kleinberg mused in closing: “If there’s one thing I want to do…it’s to take this book and maybe scare historians a little bit, and other people who think about the past. To make them uncomfortable, in the end, I hope, in a productive way.” Whether historians will welcome this unsettling remains to be seen, for as with White the cards remain stacked against theory. Yet our present anxiety about living in a “post-truth era” might just provide the necessary pressure for historians to recognize the ghosts that haunt the interminable task of engaging the past.


Jonathon Catlin is a PhD student in History at Princeton University. He works on intellectual responses to catastrophe in German and Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.



Croce between Hughes & White

by contributing editor Eric Brandom

The AHA met in Denver this past weekend. What follows is not a conference report, although there was much worthy of that. It is, rather, a response of sorts to two of the events I attended there in the form of a reflection on two classic works of intellectual history—H. Stuart Hughes’s Consciousness and Society and Hayden White’s Metahistory—that were discussed at these events. The very different books both assign great importance to Benedetto Croce, and treat him at some length as part of a much broader argument.

The problem of objectivity in social science occupies the heart of Hughes’s 1958 Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought, 1890-1930. The book is rich, wide-ranging, and combines durable typologizing with uncommon subtlety. The narrative runs something as follows. In the middle of the 19th century, positivism reigned supreme, and positivists were certain that the social world could be known and perhaps even acted upon just as could the natural world. Such knowledge turned out to be at once elusive and unsatisfying. In the later part of the century, many thinkers in parallel staged a “revolt against positivism.” The positivism they attacked was often a caricature. For Hughes, the most enduring thinkers to emerge from this moment were those that felt deeply within themselves the pathos of the age, the wrenching pain of relativism, but also remained faithful to the core rationalist project of Enlightenment that had issued in the now-bankrupt positivism. Many proved to be all too willing to give up the egalitarian and democratic bent of the Enlightenment mindset when its notion of science proved unequal to social reality. Hughes’s story is partly one of the generation of 1890, but also of the encounter of this generation with the war in 1914, and the shards of what had come before that survived into the 1920s. This generation, Hughes writes,

had passed their youth at the climax of the Enlightenment—and simultaneously had inaugurated its most probing critique…their own psychological security—their confidence in such unstated assumptions as humane behavior and intellectual integrity—had given them the inner strength to inaugurate an unprecedented examination of conscience…The philosophies of urbane doubt—skepticism, pragmatism, pluralism—held no terrors for them (Hughes 426).

Their younger brothers (and here we indeed are speaking entirely about men) did seem to be terrified of these things, and Hughes identifies his period as one of experimentation and permissiveness between two ages of dogmatism.

Hughes identifies three figures as the geniuses of the age: Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Benedetto Croce. He explicitly writes about the problems and the figures he does because they have relevance in his own time, because the United States in the 1950s had not lost the orientation in social thought then established. Although Hughes doesn’t put it quite this way, as I read him, he believes that Weber more than anyone else posed rightly the central problems of value and objectivity and so provides a sort of standard—and leads into midcentury American social science; that Freud probed more deeply into the individual human psyche than ever before and is therefore an indispensable methodological tool, for instance for understanding Weber’s personality; and that Croce, who first formulated what Hughes takes to be the social science objections to Marxism, provides essential orientation for the historian in pursuing historical work.

Croce’s career can be schematized in terms of his three best-known slogans or positions: first, that history is to be subsumed under the category of art; second that all history is contemporary history; third that history is the story of liberty. This last is the title given in English translation to his 1938 La storia come pensiero e come azione, in which he defends what he describes as “absolute historicism.” Each of these slogans has a certain initial appeal. Yet Hughes’ description of the experience of reading Croce rings true:

Croce’s prose is limpid; it has the rare charm of sounding like the voice of common sense…With irresistible persuasiveness Croce carries his readers along with him. As we come to the end of a chapter we are both captivated and convinced. But when we subject the same pages to more careful analytical scrutiny, we find ourselves no longer so sure…we are driven to ask ourselves in despair: exactly what has Croce said anyway? (Hughes 223)

Indeed for Hughes the problem with Croce was that perhaps just because he in the end assimilated everything into the category of history, he never successfully came to terms with the non-rational character of value. Thus, “the ultimate irony of Croce’s thinking” is that “what starts as a rationalist theory terminates in a kind of mysticism” (Hughes 227). Hughes indicts Croce finally for a certain detachment, what has often been describes as an Olympian equanimity, “in brief, he lacked a sense of tragedy” (Hughes 229).

Irony and tragedy are key terms in White’s Metahistory, which appeared just 15 years after Hughes’ book. White uses the tools of structuralist literary criticism to examine what he calls the “deep structure” of the 19th century European historical imagination. The introduction establishes a system of interpretive categories: master rhetorical tropes, narrative or emplotment, explanatory or argumentative strategies, and modes of ideological implication. Just as, for Hughes, the truly enduring thinkers are those who struggled mightily with a deep contradiction, so for White those texts that remain alive to us are the result of internal struggle. Together with the centrality of rhetorical categories, White has taken on a theory of literary excellence: the best works struggle to synthesize incompatible modes. We as readers may continue to return to Michelet, but not to Ranke: “we admire the achievement of the latter, but we respond directly and sympathetically to the agon of the former” (White 191). White describes the larger goal of his book as an overcoming, through Irony, of the Ironic mode that is the origin of “the skepticism and pessimism of so much of contemporary historical thinking.” In so doing, “the way will have been partially cleared for the reconstitution of history as a form of intellectual activity which is at once poetic, scientific, and philosophical in its concerns—as it was during history’s golden age in the nineteenth century” (White xii).

The final chapter is on Benedetto Croce, regarded by White as “the most talented historian of all the philosophers of history of the century” (White 378). The first pages of the chapter recapitulate the path so far. After Nietzsche, “it remained only for a philosopher of history to reflect on this severed condition of historical consciousness and to conclude that historical knowledge itself was nothing but the existential projection of the Ironic mode to complete the cycle of possible historical attitudes in the philosophy of history…The problem would then be: how could one live with a history explained and emplotted in the Ironic mode without falling into that condition of despair which Nietzsche had warded off only by a retreat into irrationalism?” (White 378). Thus White must end with Croce because the task he believes Croce to have shouldered was just the one that White sees himself as taking up.

And Croce evidently failed. Looking over the first major phase of Croce’s work, from the 1893 programmatic essay reducing history to a subcategory of art, then the tetralogy of books from 1902-1917 making up his “Philosophy of Spirit,” White notes the central place occupied by history as a category. White goes on to object that “Croce consistently presupposed the absolute adequacy of his own “Philosophy of Spirit” for the spiritual needs of his age,” and that “he looked out at contending systems and back to preceding ones with that same Ironic gaze which the great cynics have shared with the great fanatics.” In short, Croce could not regard himself with ironic detachment (White 379). Despite his claims to have constituted “ethico-political” history, “in aestheticizing history, Croce de-ethicized it” (White 401).

White’s final judgment on Croce is withering. Croce’s liberalism, indeed his whole system of philosophy and history “was a sublimate of his generation’s awareness of the passing of an age, the Age of Europe, of humanism, and of that combination of aristocratic and bourgeois values which gave to the ruling groups of nineteenth-century Europe their distinctive life style” (White 423). History as contemporary history indeed. If White’s approach is narratological, it has frequently been pointed out that his chapters are nonetheless biographical. The chapter on Croce is no exception, indeed in the end the facts of Croce’s biography are adduced as evidence (not, White says, that more is needed) to show in good Marxist fashion that his work derives from his class position. White finds “the social equivalents of Croce’s main abstract philosophical categories: the principle of Life was nothing but a sublimation of aristocratic heroism; that of Death was nothing more than the bourgeois acceptance of practical exigency. The interplay of the two constituted Croce’s conception of culture, and the story of that interplay was his idea of history” (White 425)

The gambit of Metahistory, of course, is also to aestheticize history. White does not want to repeat Croce in emptying it of ethical content, if indeed we agree with him that this is what Croce did, and one can surely argue about his conduct under fascism. Rather, by being yet more self-conscious than Croce, White wants to pull the teeth of Irony itself and with liberatory intent:

Historians and philosophers of history will then be freed to conceptualize history, to perceive its contents, and to construct narrative accounts of its processes in whatever modality of consciousness is most consistent with their own moral and aesthetic aspirations. And historical consciousness will stand open to the re-establishment of its links with the great poetic, scientific, and philosophical concerns which inspired the classic practitioners and theorists of its golden age in the nineteenth century (White 434).

Hughes’s criticisms of Croce may be turned on White’s own attempt to overcome Croce. Like Croce his vision of what the writing of history might be seems impossibly encompassing. Beginning with art, White brackets the objectivity that so concerned Hughes and ends in historiography as freedom. White sets out with a rational formalist (although not a formist) account of historical thought and his book issues if not exactly in mysticism, in a therapeutic for historians.

Practical Past, Runaway Future

by guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

In his latest book and recent articles, Hayden White puts the almost-forgotten notion of the “practical past” back on the scholarly agenda, and right at the center of debates within the field of philosophy of history. By reviving the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s distinction between the “historical past” and the “practical past,” White argues that embracing the latter will help to restore the public reputation of history.white the practical past cover

By “history,” White means more than just historical writing and the academic discipline of history. He characterizes the “practical past” several times as a general societal attitude, in contrast to the discipline’s attachment to the historical past. However, I would like to read White as someone who is attentive to the necessary intertwining of “history” understood as a general sense of the course of events and as academic historical writing. In such a reading, a call for the embrace of the practical past would serve the same purpose as the call of The History Manifesto: to bring historical studies into contact with the most pressing concerns of our times, and to do so in a way that would enable historians and the discipline to be instrumental in shaping future action. Whereas The History Manifesto wishes to accomplish the task by turning to long-term thinking, in The Practical Past White argues that we should tell stories in which the past is living in the present, because these stories can serve as practical guides to future action.

In White’s view, the problem remains that the discipline of history is engaged instead in what Oakeshott called the historical past: “a dead past” that is “for itself alone.” Although I sharply disagree with White on this, I have to concede that his argument does not hinge upon such agreement. His point is that the desired public relevance of history lies in its capacity to tell practical stories in which the past is still with us, and by which we might go forward.

White’s turn to the practical past has already attracted a great deal of feedback. Some of this is positive, like that from White’s biographer, Herman Paul, who thinks that the notion of practical past is perfectly consistent with White’s overall humanism and an ideal of history that facilitates social action. More critical voices, like Chris Lorenz, note that the entire distinction between historical and practical past is based on a positivistic tradition that White thereby upholds. More is to come when the International Network for Theory of History devotes its second conference to the issue of the practical past. It will be held next year in Brazil under the title “The Practical Past: on the advantages and disadvantages of history for life.”

Given this wide impact, it is important to ask the question whether the notion of the practical past (and, for that matter, The History Manifesto) is a feasible and appropriate link between historical studies and our wider societal, cultural and political concerns. The answer I would like to give to this question is, unfortunately, anything but affirmative. The practical past is more of the problem than the solution: the notion of history that underlies White’s suggestion is precisely what has lost its relevance to recent societal concerns. In an article forthcoming in the European Review of History, I offer a detailed argument supporting this claim, but within the confines of a blog post I will focus on the essentials.

In the most general terms, the practical past fails to engage with the very concerns to which it wishes to connect. The feasibility of a conceptual framework for bridging past, present and future hinges on whether it can make sense of the future prospects we presently have. But the future prospects we presently have can best be called unprecedented changes: those entailed in the concept of the Anthropocene, in the prospect of a “technological singularity” and “intelligence explosion,” in nanotechnology, or in the practice of bioengineering and human enhancement.

Many of these may strike you as science fiction, but what matters is not whether we will actually witness, say, a technological singularity, when machines of our creation begin to make even more intelligent machines and thus suddenly outperform us. What matters is that this is the prospect of the future we have—not only at the cinema, but also at laboratories and university departments. Our notion of history—in the sense that White uses it, as both the course of events and as historical writing—does not depend solely on our retrospective stance. It derives from the way we configure the relationship between the past, the present and the future. If our future prospects qualitatively change, our notion of history, including history understood as historical writing, has to change with it if we wish it to survive.

Thus, the problem with White’s practical past (and with The History Manifesto) is that it is based on a notion of history that cannot make sense of our future prospect of unprecedented changes. For the practical past, based on a deep temporal continuity and on the continuity of human experience, has to bow down before a change that does not unfold or evolve from a past state of affairs (and this, I believe is precisely what Dipesh Chakrabarty finds so disturbingly challenging in the notion of the Anthropocene). The practical past is able to conceptualize only that sort of change and notion of history which White ponders in his book: the change during which a substance retains its identity, and a history in which a subject retains its identity while undergoing changes in appearance. What it cannot conceptualize is a change in which what was previously regarded as a subject that retains its self-identity through all changes (that is, humanity, on the largest scale) disappears or gets replaced by another subject that comes to existence without unfolding from the past. What the practical past can conceptualize is, for instance, the process of nation building; what it cannot conceptualize is unprecedented change.

In order to answer the question of how historical studies could regain its instrumentality in shaping our lives, we should first have an answer to the question of what sort of concerns we have and what sort of future life we envision. Before we could demand a role for history in shaping future action and wider societal concerns, we should consider what our societal concerns demand from our notion of history.

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology. His research revolves around the interrelated efforts to devise a quasi-substantive philosophy of history to account for history understood as the course of events, and to frame a critical philosophy of history that reconciles the linguistic and non-linguistic dimensions of history understood as historical writing.