Only Slightly Less Burdened

In case you were wondering, I’ve been fending off a
stalwart northeastern head cold.  That explains (no it doesn’t, yes it
does–okay, only partially) recent entries at EWM.  I’ve also been
buttoning down the canvas for a wild week ahead; the reading load has spiked (an
entire January Sunday getting to know Emig’s Web of Meaning), and, in
another course, I’m first into the fray as presenter of chapter one from White’s
Tropics of Discourse on Thursday morning.  Knees high, leading the
parade.  And so I’ve been prepping obsessively, combing over stuff I think
I mostly get. 

And since I felt apprehension throughout last semester
about bringing academic work into this blogspace, I’m turning over a new leaf
and issuing an exclusive early release of the summary that goes with that
presentation of White’s first chapter here, before it’s circulated anywhere
else.  And then I’m going to eat; after that: give two-thirds of the house
members free haircuts (that’d be me and Ph.).  I’d love feedback on the
summary, if you’re up for it.

Oh, and one other thing, dear blogosphere, I need a CCCC
room-share in SF.  The west coast swank-elite wants dang near 200 clams each
night, and for that, I can probably stay awake for three days.  But
seriously, low needs room-share, 50:50. NCTE used to offer a web-board for
practical matches such as the one I’m seeking; where is that now?  The only alternative is to re-draw the strapped personal budget for conference travel. Ideas? Folks known to be in the same bind?

White, c.1, "The Burden of History," Summary

White, Hayden. "The Burden of History." Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1978. 27-50.

In his
1966 essay, "The Burden of History," Hayden White
speaks of at least two burdens: the burden felt by the historian who works
awkwardly from the middle-space between the imaginative, creative arts and the
hard sciences, and the burden of history itself, bearing its conditionally drawn
lessons on contemporary thought and action (41). From the outset, White seeks to account for the domains of art and science which
have openly expressed contempt toward the historian’s enterprise because of its
soft methods, crude metaphors and ambiguous suppositions about the human
sciences (27). He cites a literary tradition that culminates with Joyce’s
Stephen Dedalus who, in Ulysses, refers to history as the "’nightmare’
from which Western man must awaken if humanity is to be served and saved" (31).
This Nietzschean disavowal (32) of concerns about establishing a record of the
past extends directly to the philosophical climate of post-WWI Europe, when,
though clashing in gross juxtaposition, Hitler’s nihilism and French
existentialism–figured primarily through Camus and Sartre–held similar views
toward the prospect of history-making: it was worthless. The inexplicable
surrounds of war-torn civilization pointed to history’s limited explanatory
power; as historians sought to account for what happened, their failure to
explain widespread destruction and atrocity was exposed (36). Only in rare
cases, such as the work of Norman Brown (39, 45), do we find historiography set
on sorting through the influence of "outmoded institutions, ideas, and values"
on the current "way of looking at the world" (39). Consequently, historians,
who, according to White, can be distinguished by their methods (42), deserve a
share of the credit for the proliferation of ahistorical attitudes;
accountability extends particularly from history’s privileging of a limited
range of artistic forms, such as the 19th century realist novel and, on the
other hand, the rigidly positivistic proofs associated with the physical
sciences–both of which mistakenly regard recorded history as an end in itself
(41). To correct this quandary, White contends that historians might rethink
their procedures in terms of the literary artist’s use of metaphor and the
scientist’s use of hypothesis, both of which are tentative, experimental schemes
used to guide ideas beyond tentative speculation (47). Resolved as such, the
historian could negotiate the truthful/imaginary binary (46), and, drawing upon
the orders valued by literary artists and scientists, the "historical account
could be treated as a heuristic rule which self-consciously eliminates
certain kinds of data from consideration as evidence
" (46, emphasis in
original). Furthermore, White argues that historians need to learn how to take
seriously and engage contemporaneously with the questions driving other fields.
He also urges reconsideration of narrative bias (43) toward "an awareness,"
conveyed by Hegel, Balzac and Tocqueville, "of how the past could be used to
effect an ethically responsible transition from the present to the future" (49),
underscored by "dynamic elements" (49) and "the essentially provisional
character of the metaphorical constructions" (50).

Burr-words: cultural palingenesis (41), hypostatized (48), Fabian tactic
(27), heuristic rule (46)


  1. Would it help to know that palingenesis can be distinguished from kenogenesis? No? Rats.

    It’s been a long time since I read White, but my guess is that cultural palingenesis refers to the cyclical nature of history (in that patterns repeat in different cultures across time and space) as opposed, perhaps, to an argument that each instance of culture/society is unique by virtue of its locality. Not that such localities couldn’t actually be unique, but rather that our resources for making sense of them involve those patterns–sort of a history making us as we make history?

  2. Oh, and Fabian tactic?

    Recall Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, the shrewd Roman general who was known as the Cunctator – the Delayer. He opposed the renowned Hannibal of Carthage not by a head-on bloody confrontational battle but by long, drawn-out delaying tactics and occasional sharp lightning flank attacks.

    Years and seeming procrastination and indecisiveness sapped Carthaginian morale and supply lines in the field and at home. Despite some victories, notably at Cannae in 216 B.C., Hannibal never was able to take Rome itself and was ultimately recalled by a weary Carthage. In the end, then, Fabius won through masterly wearing down his foe, even though he too was replaced with another general by a Rome similarly tired of lack of outright victory.

  3. Had to wait a while to see if you were going to contribute a burr-word trifecta, C. Much good on you for the clarifiers–on the mark in both cases, I think. I probably should cross-ref to be sure, but I think White suggests the problem of the historian’s complicit role in cultural palingenesis–unawares, un-self-critical, etc. And Fabian tactic is a method for confronting critics, something like slow cooked or Princeton basketball.

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