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MAY 23, 2007 · 10:38 PM

“The Historical Text as Literary Artifact”


–Hayden White
In “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” Hayden White, a historian in the field of literary criticism, clearly articulates
what “meta-history” is in attempt to help his readers better understand the epistemological status of historical
explanations, the form historical representations take, and history’s role in knowledge making. White argues historical
narratives are more closely linked with literature than the sciences not because historical narratives are fictional but
because historical narratives employ tropes (metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony) to configure historical events
in ways that the audience can relate to. Historians, White explains, “reemplot,” redescribe, or recode past events so
contemporary cultures can make sense of their past. Histories, then, are similar to fiction because figurative language is
used in both genres to help us come to know the actual by “contrasting it with or likening it to the imaginable;” thus both
historical narratives and fiction employ similar strategies in making sense of past events whether they are real or
imagined (98).
White’s arguments make an important contribution to historiography because his argument provides historians with a
means to develop a historical consciousness by helping them recognize the fictive elements in their historical narratives
(99). Preceding James Berlin, who argues we must be aware of the ideological underpinnings of any history we create,
Whites writes “this recognition would serve as a potent antidote to the tendency of historians to become captive of
ideological preconceptions which they do not recognize as such but honor as the ‘correct’ perception of “the way things
really are” (99). As White explains, the ideological is the fictive element in our own discourse; therefore, by becoming
aware of how they employ tropes, historians become cognizant of when they are making ideological moves. Although
White does not mention rhetoric, I would add that in the process, historians would also become aware of the rhetorical
elements in their histories. After all, when we become aware of the ideological moves we make in our discourse, we are
also becoming rhetorically savvy. Thus, while history may very well be closely aligned with literature, history is also
closely aligned with rhetoric. Although this point may seem obvious to us rhetoricians, do all historians think of their
work as rhetorical? How would histories be different if they did?
Linking history with literature is useful for rhetorical scholars in the sense that just as historians must develop a historical
consciousness, so too must all scholars within our field. White explains that “like literature, history progresses by the
production of classics, the nature of which is such that they cannot be disconfirmed or negated…and that it is their
nondisconfirmability that testifies to the essentially literary nature of historical classics” (89). As we all know, the ancient
rhetorical canon is strong and narrow. With the publishing of Reclaiming Rhetorica and Rhetoric Retold and other texts
such as Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks, the ancient rhetorical canon is slowly being expanded but by and large,
we know the history of our field through canonical texts. If we think of the canon as a grand narrative of the history of
rhetoric, what are the tropes at play that have guided the way we think about our discipline’s past? What mythos has been
created? What is imagined? What is real? What ideologies have been at play when these canonical texts have been
reproduced? These questions are important for us to ask and explore because as Kellnar reminds us, “we cannot have
reality, but we can claim it and we do claim it, with rhetoric” (36). Therefore, we do not actually know the reality of the
history of rhetoric even though the rhetorical canon makes a claim that we do. This “contrived sense of reality” is why we
must develop a historical consciousness of our own field. We must in White’s terms develop a metahistory of rhetoric so
we begin to acknowledge, recognize, and understand how and why our discipline’s history has been created the way it has,
who this historical narrative benefits, and who this historical narrative doesn’t.
Developing a metahistory of our field is also important because we need to be acutely aware that when we rewrite history,
we also rewrite the present. Atwill explains that canons, as well as theories and methodologies, “’incorporate’ the values of
a disciplinary community, reinforcing the community’s own referential status by reproducing its values and affirming its
practices” (104). Therefore, when we rewrite history, we incorporate contemporary values, which lead us to ask new
questions and develop new insights. These values, beliefs, questions, and insights guide our research and our
presentation of that history and thus lead to the creation of a new history, which in turn leads to a new understanding of
the present. As Berlin reminds us, when we write history, we also create our hopes and visions for the future; therefore,
by rewriting history, we also rewrite our future. Seen in this light, as rhetorical scholars, part of the historical
consciousness we must develop should focus on the kind of present and future we want to create for our discipline. We
must imagine how our discipline will change as we begin to add alternative histories to the canon? How has it already
changed? How do we want it to change? We must also ask what ideologies are at work in our field and our sense of
scholarly self that make us want and not want to add alternative histories to the already established canon, or give them
priority when we teach rhetoric—both of which would change both our present and our future. White’s argument is
important to rhetorical studies because it reminds even inspires us to ask such important questions…it helps us develop
our own historical consciousness both as a discipline and individual scholars.

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