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Volodymyr Sklokin: Could you describe the main theoretical changes in today’s humanities? Do you think it is reasonable to speak about a paradigm shift or a paradigmatic gap, as Ewa Domańska, for example, maintains?

white-haydenHayden White: I am reluctant to deliver myself of judgments on such a large field of study and writing. The humanities are made up of large variety of practices which, for the most part, remain within the ambit of an Aristotelian world-view and which are more taken for granted than argued for in either a philosophical or a scientific manner.  However, although the categories used in humanities-research and thought are Aristotelian (utilizing categories such as “substance,” “action,” “passion,” telos, and the like, the Aristotelian world-picture has been drained of its own “substance.”  It is today little more than a kind of Western “common sense” made sophisticated by various gestures towards modern science (Newtonian) and modern concepts of the subject, language, and value. The economic basis of capitalist society and the social relations of production deriving therefrom have nothing in common with Aristotelian (or for that matter Christian) ideals.  And insofar as the humanities retain Aristotelian topics, themes, and categories for their organizing principles, they have become detached from their basis in reality and float-free, encouraging the most bizarre experiments in their more radically-inclined practitioners.  Thus, it is not so much a paradigm shift as a total breakdown. The humanities in general (history, philosophy, literary studies, art history, language studies—including semiotics and philology—a certain ethnography, “soft” social sciences) have lost their underlying unity as constituted in the early modern period by grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  Their sole social authority depends upon their aping of the social sciences or laying claim to some capacity to control “ideology.”  New disciplines have grown up to challenge the humanities: linguistics, communication studies, performance studies, media studies, and the like, and they seem to be flourishing in the universities. But the older humanities are hanging on by a thread. They now constitute the basis of an educational system intent on producing some version of the 19th century gentleman, utterly incapable of acting according to humanist (or gentlemanly) principles but conditioned to feel guilt when departing from or betraying them.  Is there a paradigm shift?  One might call it that if one could identify what we are shifting to as well as what we are shifting from.

VS: Herman Paul in his recent book on your philosophy of history proposes to call your approach to history a liberation historiography. Do you agree with this interpretation?

HW:  Well, I suppose it is meant to link me with something like “liberation theology” or a general kind of anarchism.  I do not myself practice a new historiography.  I am less interested in the fate of historical studies (since I regard it as a dogmatic system) than in the social role of studies of the past.   As we all know, the past can be experienced as a burden or as a legacy and usually as some combination of these.  I think that the way professional historians study the past nowadays—and I mean across the whole ideological spectrum—has nothing of a scientific character about it (and I do not mean by this a kind of “positivism”); I mean that it studies entities (events, processes, things, institutions, and the like) with ad hoc methods, impressionistically, and then tries to present findings as if they had been derived from or by some kind of systematic inquiry.  The past is a place of fantasy and a resource for the practical reason.  One can study it in many different ways of which the “historian’s” way is only one (or a cluster).  I am interested in having historians come clean and admit that their reasons for studying the past in the way they do are never scientific and seldom systematic.  I want to move professional historical studies back to the condition of amateurism and antiquarianism that it once occupied.  It is at best a minor discipline.  Disabling its authority and prestige (“history teaches” “let history judge” and so on) would be a boon to society.  As for liberation, it would be presumptuous of me to lay claim to that title. I am against dogmatism in any form.  I know that a number of young scholars in a number of fields have found my writing to be “liberating” in a number of ways.  I take this to mean that they wanted to study the past in good faith but found themselves hampered by rules and procedures that impeded rather than facilitated their quests for meaning.  I am pleased that the response to my work has not been to view it as a method or theory of how to study history, but rather as a way of demystifying or showing the context-relative value of all inquiries into the past.

VS: In contemporary Ukraine, and not only in Ukraine, many historians tend to see themselves as deconstructing myths and invented traditions. But you would counter, following Lévi-Strauss, that history itself is the myth of the West. Could you explain in greater detail what you mean by this assertion?

HW: When I quote Levi-Strauss’s saying, “History is the myth of the West,” I mean that “history” has the same social and cultural function in the West that myth is supposed to have in traditional cultures.  That is to say, history provides the same kind of  justification for foundationalist beliefs in the modern nation-state that myth provides for traditional and religiously-oriented social groupings.  Myth puts together things and values in such a way as to justify both traditional practices and innovative ones ,which is to say, myth smoothes out the contradictions and naturalizes the aporias of social existence.  And it does this by the same techniques and procedures of traditional, narrative history, that is to say, by narrativizing them.  Modern philosophy has had trouble trying to explain how a story can explain real-world events, conflicts, and processes that are experienced as “contradictory.” Narrativity allows us to distribute phenomena across different “levels” of integration and different phases of a temporality.  Then, by emplotment narration re-integrates levels and phases in such a way as to produce a more or less satisfying “meaning-effect.”  Myth does this too, but it makes no distinction between real and imaginary phenomena.  History rules out what appear to be  transcendental phenomena, thereby creating the idea of a “real” world characterized by immanence alone.  But the techniques of integration are the same in both cases.  Thus, when a Western historian purports to have “demystified” some version or idea of the past, what he or she has really done is recast the plot of a story admitting transcendence into the mode of immanence. But this immanence has no substance.  It is quite as imaginary as the transcendence it purported to have “deconstructed.”  This is why I prefer a “literary” to a “historical” presentation of the past or history.

VS: You are now working on a volume tentatively titled The Practical Past. Judging from the pieces you have already published on this theme, this notion of the “practical past ” is the meeting point of many of your fields of interest, both recent (such as modernist events, intransitive writing, figural realism) and old (ethical dimension of historiography, practical use of history). Could you tell us a little bit more about this volume?

HW:  I think that I might combine my answer to this question about the practical past with my answer to the next question, regarding the social role of historians. First, about the proposed book: it proposes that instead of continuing to try to protect historiography from charges of its ideologization or politicization, we recognize that people have different kinds of interest in the past, of which the interests that motivate historian are only one kind. Moreover, we might recognize that there are legitimate interests in the past that cannot be satisfied by the methods and presuppositions that govern professional historical inquiry. Psychoanalysis, biology (genetics, evolution theory), geology, anthropology, law and jurisprudence, archeology, the arts in general, and a host of other more practical activities would be cases in point. In fact, inquiries in memory—both individual and collective—are both legitimate activities and quite at odds with the kinds of knowledge that historians wish to produce. Why not admit that there are both interested and disinterested ways of relating to the past and admit that most of us in everyday life turn to the past for “practical” reasons.  By practical I mean both utilitarian and ethical.  Indeed, I think that “historically” people have turned to the study of the past primarily out of ethical concerns than more properly scientific interests.  In his second critique, Kant argued that practical reason had to do with the question: What should I do?  Those of us who remain unbelievers in religion and skeptical of all metaphysics but interested in “meaning” as well as “truth” (the two are not necessarily the same) are left with the study of “how to live together in time and space” as our principal resource.  “History” does not give us the only way of studying this phenomenon.  We might need a concept like “pastology” to indicate those interests in the human (and generally animal) past that “history” does not encompass.  

In other words, I am advocating the union of a metahistorical study of the past and its relation to any given present that would return what we used to call “history” to ethics, the law, jurisprudence, civility, and the social in general.  Let those who have only a “scientific” interest in the study of the past continue to do their work and continue to produce “disinterested” (scientific, objective, etc.) “data” in their usual ways.  But for those of us who study the human past as a domain of action and practice that might yield insights into “the human condition,” our best models might be the modern (and especially the modernist) novel, which takes as its subject-matter the conflict between individual desire and the needs of the collectivity as a productive, which is to say, “poietic” practice rather than as something given by the nature of the cosmos, nature, or nature’s God.

VS: In the article “The practical past” you contrast the practical past with the historical past and maintain that nowadays the former appears to be more interesting and useful for ordinary people than the latter. What should professional historians do to change this situation? Should the historian be both a social activist helping to struggle against injustice through his or her scholarly works as well as a public intellectual commenting on topical political and social problems?

HW: I don’t think that it is a matter of getting professional historians to change anything. They know what they are doing.  They do it well enough to please one another.  Why should they change?  Should historians be social activists?  Who am I to say?  I would merely point out that prior to the effort to transform historiography into a science, most historians served specific institutions or patrons or some political or religious aim or program.  I am speaking about historians in the West, from the time of Rome on, of course.  In my recent visits to China I was much struck by the ways in which Chinese intellectuals, including historians and social scientists, were trying to combine Maoist with Confucianist principles for the creation of a socially and political responsible knowledge.  After talking to them, I came away with the feeling that anyone could study history but the really difficult thing was to turn the knowledge one derived from the study of history into a knowledge that people living in the present could use for helping to answer the question: “What should I (we) do?”   That is not so much a political question (although it could be that) as, rather, a metapolitical question.  In our time, when politics has broken free of any imaginable restraint on what the state (or, what amounts to the same thing, the corporation) can do, we need a way of putting politics and corporate activity in some kind of perspective other than that sanctioned by the state and corporations themselves.  Art provides such a perspective.  

VS: Since the late 1960s, you have been criticizing the dominant academic historiography for its dogmatism, inability to provide moral orientation in the present, lack of poetic vision, philosophical self-reflexivity and engagements with the enigmas of human existence. Instead, you call for a more practical and ethically responsible historiography, which is preoccupied not so much with knowledge, as with meaning. So, could you list several historical works written in the last decades that most closely approach your ideal of history writing?

HW: Look, it is not up to me to criticize anyone or any institution for failing to do what I would prefer them to do. I view history or rather the course of socio-political development in the West from Rome to the present from a Marxist perspective, and my criticism of the historical profession in modern times stems from my conviction that it is part of the Superstructure of a Base dominated by the Capitalist mode of production and the social relations of production deriving therefrom.   The effects of capitalism on those parts of the world that serve as its resources (natural, human, market) have been disastrous, not to speak of the effects of modern industrial-technical-capitalist practices on the wellbeing of the Earth itself.  Capitalism, it turns out, is expert at producing waste, in fact, incorporates the principle of entropy as its dominant propulsive force.  It is destructive and self-destructive, based as it is on the principle of infinite growth of (the rate of) profit within the context of finite resources.  For me, the “history” of the world, or global history, is the story of the rise and expansion of an economic system which, in its very development, functions as a cancer on the human and earthly corpus which it purports to nourish by producing “wealth” out of “nothing.” The exposure of this cancer is an ethical duty for any scholar.  I would hope that historians would see their profession in this way, but –like all professions—historians are no better and no worse than the masters they serve: they may claim to deconstruct myths and expose lies, but their methods of doing so are hardly different from those of the mythmakers themselves.   The problem with historical studies is that they lack theoretical self-awareness.  By which I mean that, unlike real sciences and for that matter real poetry, they fail to take their own procedures as an object of theoretical self-examination.  If they did so, they would come to recognize that the “historical” way of studying the past is only one of many ways of studying it.

VS: Thank you very much for the interview.

Hayden White is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa-Cruz.

Volodymyr Sklokin is Assistant Professor at the International Solomon University (Kharkiv, Ukraine).