Use what works.

By Evan Meehan

Hayden White’s “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory” seeks to ascertain the value of narrative as a method for conveying historical thought.  Its important to consider the profundity of such a question before moving too far forward with the examination of White’s work.

Narrative is present in all facets of historical writing, so much so that it has mostly just been assumed to be a a part of what history is, and how history is conducted.  Yet this assumption rests on largely unexplored theoretical ground.  What White’s work explores is what the proper role of narrative is in history, and to establish a theoretical framework upon which narrative may be implemented.

Recognition of the Assumption of Narrative

White contends that the Annales school was the “most critical of narrative history,” writing that:

For them, narrative history was simply the history of past politics and, moreover, political history conceived as short-term, “dramatic” conflicts and crises which lend themselves to “novelistic” representations, of a more “literary” than a properly “scientific” kind. (White, 8)

Intriguingly, White contends that the Annales school’s position was as theoretically bereft as the use of narrative itself.  Here I am forced to wonder if White has not used the Annales school as a straw-man.  White regards the Annales position as simplistic and immature, essentially describing their dislike for it as one driven by a knee-jerk rejection of any historical methodologies that were connected to styles of history they disproved of.  Yet this feels inadequate.  Narrative history and political history had been close bedfellows and the Annales school’s rejection of political history stemmed from the rejection of the belief that the political elite held all of the historical power.  White reframes this rejection as a rejection of human agency as a historical force, but this strikes me as a flawed interpretation of their position.

The alternatives to narrative

Anytime one wants to establish the validity of a method a comparison to competing methods is worthwhile.  White engages in this analysis comparing narrative to dissertative writing as well as chronicles.  Dissertative writing is a fundamental part of the modern field of history, a fact that is somewhat revealed by the fact that historians write dissertations in order to receive their PhD’s and not narrations.  While narrative includes a sequence of events with explanation linking the former to latter through logical connections, dissertation examines the importance or meaning of an event.

Somewhat strangely White asserts that narrative does not fundamentally “[explain] more or even [explain] more fully than the chronicle (White 19).  This position is puzzling because chronicles only list events in chronological order and by definition do not include descriptions that link the events to one another.  Narrative on the other hand requires what White calls a “coherence criterion,” which amounts to a logical connection between events (White 17).

Theory only matters so much.  Do what works.

Ultimately White asserts that “It is the success of narrative in revealing the meaning, coherence, or significance of events that attests to the legitimacy of its practice in historiography” (White 30).  This admission has wide-reaching implications, essentially legitimizing non-narrative modes of discourse as so long as they are capable of coherently transmitting knowledge and truth.  This broad conclusion is timely because historians have entered into an era of the proliferation of new modes of discourse.

The Internet as a source of new, non-Narrative methods

Writing in 2005 Orville Vernon Burton noted, in his essay New American History, the developments of new forms of information transmission.  Burton was disappointed with the field of history’s reluctance to embrace these new mediums, and even feared that there existed a Catch-22 preventing it from happening:

Historians will not develop digital history technological skills because there is not a field of digital history to make those skills worthwhile, and the field of digital history will not develop because historians are not developing those technological skills. (Burton)

The passage of time has proven Burton’s fears to be unfounded, and while the field of digital history has not perhaps eclipsed traditional histories, its relevance and importance is undeniable.

A perfect example of the significance of digital history is the blog post by Dan Cohen entitled “The Ivory Tower and the Open Web.” Here, Cohen is using the internet as means of both disseminating his ideas as well as nearly simultaneously receiving feedback on his ideas.  Using Nate Silver’s various blogs as examples he demonstrates the concept of “[iterating] toward perfection” (Dan Cohen).  More than presenting an example of iterative improvements, Cohen’s post was updated in response to criticisms that were presented in the comment section of his blog post.

While Cohen’s post is a mix of disseratative and narrative writing, the subject of his analysis (Nate Silver) is most certainly not.  Silver’s statistical analyses arguably broke new ground as forms of discourse.  Thankfully, we as historians can tip our hats towards Hayden White’s earlier conclusions regarding discourse: if it works, use it.

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