The Content of the Form by Hayden White

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Synopsis

Hayden White probes the notion of authority in art and literature and examines the problems of meaning - its production, distribution, and consumption - in different historical epochs. In the end, he suggests, the only meaning that history can have is the kind that a narrative imagination gives to it. The secret of the process by which consciousness invests history with meaning resides in "the content of the form," in the way our narrative capacities transforms the present into a fulfillment of a past from which we would wish to have desceneded.
 

About Hayden White

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Educated at Wayne State University and the University of Michigan, White currently holds a university professorship in the department of the History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The author of many important books in the field of intellectual history, White is best-known for his work critiquing traditional historiography, which he has reconceptualized in the wake of structuralist and poststructuralist theory. In the nineteenth century, historians had begun to distance themselves from belles lettres by emulating a scientific model. By 1940, however, the scientific status of history was being questioned in some quarters. The French Annales School, for example, argued that histories were not scientific, objective, disinterested analysis and reportage but, rather, narratives constructed from an interested perspective, in which the selection and description of events, the constitution of causal networks, and even the delimiting of a temporal series by fixing beginning and end points for a process were all governed by ideology. It was possible, therefore, to have very different histories of the same time and place, depending on one's ideology---which might not even be held consciously (i.e., the historian might not be fully aware of the values and assumptions governing his or her writing). For those who accepted these notions, history began to look more like literature than social science. As such, it was subject to the same kind of rhetorical and narratological analyses that literature was, in addition to an ideological analysis. It was exactly this assumption that led to White's first and ground-breaking book on the narrative strategies of nineteenth-century history, Metahistory (1973). In it White draws on the work of structuralist narratologists, on Northrop Frye's proto-structuralist theory of archetypal literary modes, and on Kenneth Burke's theory of rhetorical figures to analyze the forms of various historical discourses and to link them with particular ideologies. He suggests that the plots of histories fall into one of four generic modes (romance, tragedy, comedy, or satire), each of which can be correlated with an ideological mode (anarchist, radical, conservative, or liberal), an argumentative mode (formist, mechanistic, organicist, or contextualist), and a tropological mode (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, or irony). According to White, these modes comprise the underlying "deep structure" of all histories, whose "surface structure" (the aesthetic, moral, and cognitive levels of plot, ideology, and explanation) is merely an arrangement of these more profound levels. White's later work in Tropics of Discourse (1978) and The Content of the Form (1987) further develops this poetics of historiography.
 
Published January 8, 1990 by Johns Hopkins University Press. 268 pages
Genres: History, Literature & Fiction. Non-fiction

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