07 February, 2009

White and Momigliano

Hayden White spoke at the Courtauld on Wednesday night. Ken Clarke Lecture Theatre, a grand old room in pink, with white trim, like the inside of a wedding cake. A ghastly introduction from a fawning ex-student, not redeemed, but rather aggravated, by its kitschy, self-conscious irony. Hayden White is the king of irony. Then we clapped her off stage to make way for the master himself. White spoke for three quarters of an hour, with the utmost geniality, casually sweating references—Wittgenstein, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Vico, Hugh Blair, Cicero, Dante, Winckelmann, Gombrich, Oakeshott, er, Toni Morrison, and so on, not to mention plenty of Hayden White. At the end of it, none of us was any the wiser. He was supposed to be talking about 'Novelesque Histories', apparently the (rather radical) notion that novels can be history too. I mean, just think of Walter Scott—Hegel thought him a great historian! After an hour he apologised for having no slides: this was, remember, at the Courtauld Institute, and he was lecturing to most of a roomful of art history graduates. Then he remembered he had some, and wheeled out some pictures of webs spun by spiders on drugs: an internet meme over a decade old. Still, it got the laughs. White said it was supposed to be a metaphor for the way literary history works, but it was a better metaphor for his own maundering, barely-coherent presentation. White, it seemed to me, was still trading off Metahistory, a book which had a few worthwhile ideas when he published it in 1973, even if it has been grossly overrated, then and since. Now he is a charming and erudite drunk*, still enjoying a meal of thirty years past, clean out of ideas.


None of which would have been worth writing a post on, if I hadn't attended a lecture today by Oswyn Murray, its subject ostensibly being '[Arnaldo] Momigliano and the Eighteenth Century'. Now, Momigliano wrote a rather damning review of Metahistory in his 1981 article, 'The Rhetoric of History and the History of Rhetoric: on Hayden White's Tropes'. White's basic point had been—and still is, apparently—that historiography is a branch of rhetoric, and that the way one writes history is governed by the same sorts of rhetorical tropes as are found in oratory and fictional literature. Style becomes more important than truth: what could be more postmodern? Momigliano, the old-guard Warburg philologian, objected: what sense can we make of history if we forget that it centres on facts and problems? He wrote:
As the history of historiography is basically a study of individual historians, no student of the history of historiography does his work properly unless he is capable of telling me whether the historian or historians he has studied used the evidence in a satisfactory way.
Amélie Kuhrt, in the discussion after Murray's paper, described Momigliano's response to White as a moral distaste: the aim of historiography should be an ethical engagement with the problems of the past in relation to those of the present, not mere games with words and ideas, as White, the formalist, wanted to give us. Murray himself was more sympathetic to White. His paper, as charmingly delivered as White's, and with ten times the content, wanted to reconfigure Momigliano's map of narrative historiography in the Enlightenment. The old Italian, Murray observed, had paid too much attention to Gibbon, and scorned, to his own detriment, writers of literature: John Gast, for instance, or Walter Scott, who, as Murray pointed out, had been prized as a historian by Hegel and Carlyle. Novelists will tell you what colour trousers people wore, so to speak: and that was most important to the historian sniffing for clues.

What struck me was the contrast between White, American hero of the culture wars, and Murray, donnish, British, quietly authoritative. Both made the same point, or similar, and with the same example: the one rambling and blustering, bursting with comments on the Great Philosophers, the other excavating, methodically, a moment of history, letting the scholarship do its own talking, allowing the little to speak for the big. It has been a week to renew one's faith in the Murrays of the academic world.

* Not literally, of course. He may be, as well—but that is not what I meant.

[Update: Hayden White comments, here and on his own blog. Greg links. Steve sneers. Greg defends my honour. I respond to White. "Verstegan" defends my honour. Steve sneers again, with a dash of sanctimonious hypocrisy: my favourite kind! Thanks to all.]


Greg Afinogenov said...

Yes, you're right; postmodern and (effectively) American though I am, I can't help admiring British donnishness. But it's something Americans can never achieve--as Pound and Eliot discovered--so they have to settle for second-best. Otherwise all you get is a pastiche anyway.

I'd say, actually, that the soup of miscellaneous references is the most democratic and American of intellectualisms, moreso even than Dewey's gee-whiz style.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I did not mean to imply that Americans could not be great scholars in the traditional mode; nor even that there is no place for Whites as well as Murrays. But I prefer my democracy of cultural reference to be aimed at something: it did not even succeed, for me at least, as aesthetic-erudite fantasia.

Roth, Sr. said...

I don’t agree with GA on this. ‘Donnishness’ is an amalgam of qualities, which I have observed many Americans display. As I read CR he didn’t claim that Brits were uniquely ‘donnish’, merely that Murray was. Certainly, American academics can and do excavate methodically, and let serious exacting scholarship do its own talking, allowing the little to speak for the big. For example, I would hazard that the majority of really scholarly historians today are American – it may be different in some of the other humanities but this may reflect the current emptiness of so many of these ‘disciplines’ rather than a matter of nationality. Then there’s the matter of style – some Americans are indeed assertive and bombastic (and e.g., Brits are not?) but many others effortlessly exhibit caution and quiet authority; they can even do understatement.

On a different note, I can’t see that ‘the soup of miscellaneous references is the most democratic and American of intellectualisms’. A good soup comes from appropriately matched ingredients. But miscellany, or carelessness, is neither democratic nor obviously American. I write this from Paris, the home of vapid referencing and promiscuous parallels in matters intellectual; I’m about to return to the UK, to colleagues who think that these are the same as reflection and analysis. Of course, modern academics take ‘literature reviews’ to extremes, and most of their stuff is anyway either padding or an attempt to conceal the fact that they have nothing to say, but Americans have no monopoly on this. And none of this is ‘democratic’ – it’s just sloppy.

Greg Afinogenov said...

I've encountered very few American scholars who can assume the British tone of magisterial dignity without obviously straining themselves. I don't mean this as a reflection on the quality of their scholarship, per se; it's a matter of different rhetoric and style. (Americans put more of a premium on freshness and cleverness, I'd say.) But, of course, it's also a subjective judgment, so perhaps you Roths don't share my impressions. Non est disputandum.

I do stand by my assertion that miscellaneous cultural references are quintessentially democratic and American, at least as far as that kind of essentialism goes. First of all, the soup is essentially neutral with regard to the provenance of its references. The consummate master of this is Zizek, who isn't American but who is popular in America for precisely this reason: he can draw on Hitchcock as easily as Duns Scotus or whoever. The same goes for Umberto Eco. Second, the soup suggests a sociability of authors, a kind of ingratiating desire to bring them all together at the Rotary table. Judith Butler is a particularly good example of this. Finally, I think the soup is a fine example of upward mobility in intellectual thought: as soon as one has gained the ability to name-drop a sufficient number of authors, one opens the way to being a master intellectual who can then be name-dropped himself.

Conrad H. Roth said...

To be fair to Greg, Paris came to London by way of California and Yale, and White was part of the California contingent back in the 60s and 70s. Brits have always had academic faults, but the particular variety exhibited by White was introduced to the Anglophone world by Americans.

That said, few Brits really achieve magisterial dignity these days either; long gone are the Leavises and Auerbachs who could simply Pronounce, ex cathedra, and pronounce beautifully.

Perhaps the particular variety of referential smorgasbord offered by White in his paper might be both democratic--although he stuck mostly to the High--and sloppy.

James Ashley said...

I'd always been led to believe, based on an introduction to one of Cassirer's works, that it was the Weimar Germans who were the true masters of erudition and scholarship, the fruit of an educational system that hasn't been matched since.

Whatever happened to the legacy of Hannah Arendt, Cassirer, Horkheimer and the other exiles? I know that some of it ended up in Chicago, and some at the New School, but I haven't heard anything of it recently.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, the Warburg itself grew out of that scene. The legacy of the émigrés of that great generation has simply become assimilated by now, both into Britain and America.

hayden white said...

I posted this notice on my blog today, 2/11/09 Hayden White
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
The Wrath of Conrad H Roth
Anyone who would like to see an opinion of my work (and me as well) that is totally hostile can take a look at the Blogspot of one Conrad H. Roth (I gather that it is a nom de blog, rather than his real name) who in a recent post takes me to task for a speech (not, as he put it, "a paper") at the Courtauld Gallery on Feb 5. Roth takes me to task for being an old, sometimes charming and erudite, but ultimately garrulous, blustering and blathering "American," who is "clean out of ideas" and still dining out on my book of 1973 which had one or two (but overrated) ideas, etc. If I had known he was in the audience, I would have minded my manners more. I was not sufficiently "donnish" and "quietly authoritative" for him, but, of course, how could I have been? Sooooo American.
I had thought my job was to come and talk about how what I had to say about historical writing over the last few years bore upon some problems of contemporary art historical writing. I thought the audience seemed to like what I did, but then again I suppose that this too would have been evidence of its insufficiency. My dear, the people, and the noise . . .
By the way, Roth takes solace in noting the difference between Arnaldo Momigliano and me and speaks about a devastating attack by Momigliani on some of my early work. This is a misrepresentation. Momigliano's criticism of my theory of tropes and their use in historiography was respectful and friendly. It is true that he believed that "Dov'e la rettorica, non c'e la storia," but if he really believed that he would also have had to deny that the whole of historiography written prior to the 19th century (from Herodotus to Gibbon) was real historiography! Actually, Roth, like others who have commented on my exchange with Momigliano, overlooks the fact that Momigliano's turn against rhetoric in historical writing post-dates his expulsion from the Fascist Party in Italy--an expulsion he tried to resist. Why everyone forgets this fact about Momigliano's life or apparently resists acknowledgeing it because of Momigliano's subsequent exile and the suffereing of his family at the hands of the Fascists is strange, because, when one deals with Heidegger, it seems that one cannot not point out that since he belonged for a while to the Nazi Party, his philosophy must be "fascist" too. Of course, we all know that Momigliano was an ardent member of the fascist party because, like so many Italian Jews, he regarded it as primarily a party devoted to national(ist) reconstruction of an Italy torn apart by World War I. But his service to and work for the Enciclopedia. Italiana, under Giovanni Gentile, was hardly forced upon him. And his "authoritative" articles in the Enciclopedia italiana, on ancient Rome, can hardly be said to been in any sense "anti-fascist.." What does this have to say about his relation to rhetoric and its use in historical writing?

In any event, my lecture at the Courtauld was in defense of returning historical research from its pretentons to the status of a "science" .back to its service as branch of moral philosophy (in the service of what Michael Oakeshott called "the practical past" as against what he called "the historical past") on the grounds that a purely scientific or objective account of any set of facts can never be of any service to the "present." The idea of the "practical past" would turn historical inquiry to the service of reformist movements in historical thinking, such as postcolonialist and subaltern studies, feminist studies, gender studies, and so on. I am all in favor of leaving professional historians to do their work of excavating facts about specific parts of the past, and giving out information about this past that can never imply anything about how this information might relate to the efforts of present individuals and groups to derive some "knowledge" about human self-making. I claim that the modernist novel probes the practical past--of memory especially--in "poietic" ways and "presents" the knowledge gleaned therein in tropological ways. The reference is to modernist rhetorics, not that of Aristotle or indeed that of the Renaissance. Momigliano knew what I had in mind--we discussed it a number of times in personal meetings at Chicago and London--and he knew that I was not recommending a return to the "rhetoric of persuasion" in which the "worse cause is made the better," the rhetoric of Gorgias and Protagoras (although both of these have been unfairly maligned by the Platonist-Aristotelian party of later times) but was speaking of neo-rhetoric. He chose to set up the issue as a conflict between "fact" and "fiction" because he feared any kind of figurative usage in statements about "the real world." Whence his consistently disparaging remarks about G.B. Vico, often delivered in the same High Table tone as that feigned by "Conrad H. Roth."

Lily Roth said...

My dear Roth-readers,

I feel compelled to make a comment, as H. White's comment above seems to imply that Mr. Roth has a sneering, contemptuous attitude towards American academics in general.

Although I shall leave any specific intellectual arguments to my dear Mr. Roth, I feel obliged to mention what is probably already known to regular Roth-readers. Mr. Roth is by no means anti-American. His beloved wife (yours truly) is American, as is his mother. He has also lived some years in America (amongst at least some American academics). His mother and I are both very well educated, with arguably some academic pretensions. ;-)

From the charge of anti-Americanism, at least, I think he can be successfully defended. As an American living in London, I am frequently annoyed by knee-jerk anti-Americanism and am quite sensitive to it. I have academic degrees from both US and UK institutions and have experienced this type of intellectual bias (concerning "American" academics vs. "British" academics) myself. This is quite a different attitude froom Mr. Roth's occasional and rational remarks upon quite valid differences of style or fashion among American and British academics. Mr. Roth, whatever his faults may be, is not anti-American.

Mrs. Lily Roth

P.S. I do love White's blog title..."The Wrath of Roth" would be a great title for anything...particularly if you pronounce "wrath" the British way. Way cool.

chris miller said...

A recent example of highly rhetorical history would be "Mao - the Untold Story" by Jung Chang - where the writer's passionate disgust for her subject is blatant on every single page -- and yet --- she does seem to have introduced some serious questions regarding many important details of that cataclysmic period of Chinese history - and it certainly does serve as a cautionary tale.

The wise reader should be skeptical - but then, the wise reader should also be skeptical of prose even if it feels dispassionate. (that is - if the reader can stay awake while reading it)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks Chris; good to see you here again. I suppose in the case of the Mao biography, Chang's book can neatly balance against the hagiographies like Dick Wilson's.

Kevin S. said...

I almost forgot about this when I was looking again at your blog the other day.

"I do love White's blog title...'The Wrath of Roth" would be a great title for anything".

"Waxing [w]roth" would be even cleverer, I think.

John Cowan said...

Ingenue: "Mr. Epstein is waxing wroth!"

Groucho: "Tell Roth to wax Epstein for a while."

Conrad H. Roth said...

"I don't like the faimly Stein!
There is Gert, there is Ep, there is Ein.
Gert's writings are punk,
Ep's statues are junk,
Nor can anyone understand Ein."

Anonymous said...

This review could be replicated for White's appearance earlier tonight, in Manchester. Fawning ex-student a low point.