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Friday 13 March 2020

Narrative - Fantasy of Realness (Hayden White)

Real events do not offer themselves as stories
Hayden White

I. Introduction

In the depths of academia there is a dispute over the reality of narrative, particularly as used in historical description. When historian Hayden White (1928-2018) made the claim that narrative is a fundamentally imaginative creation, this was in order to counter the pervasive view in the study of academic history that historical narrative reports were as accurate as scientific evidence. However, this argument also has wider implications for the later conception of the narrative-self, a creation of postmodern philosophy, that defines identity as being an individual's integration of their own internalised and evolving story into a structured sense of unity. In that there can be no connection drawn between fictions and real-lives. Thus, the conception of the narrative-self will be shown to be making a category error or, at best, to be a vague and banal method of self-description.

In this regard, certain unkind persons (who weren't even defending the position of narrative-self) have written of White's dismissal of all history, all narrative, as being solely fictional and therefore totally unreal. Characterising White's position as being describing all narrative as; a falsehood, a propaganda, a delusion if we believe it to reports anything 'true'. These persons then disregard the basis of White's claim as being in contradiction to the equally preposterous claim that certain (historical) narratives can be taken as objective fact, a literally absolute description of events as they really happened. However, perhaps these certain persons were only using the argument of White's to prove another point in a larger scale analysis of narrative as utilised by historians, psychologists, sociologists, linguists, and philosophers. Then, in this case, perhaps we should give these certain persons a break and instead look to fully realise the arguments of White and what they would actually have to say about narrative such as we story-tellers would wish it to say about life if we gave it the air and space to breathe as a theory (and the decency to interrogate it fairly when not otherwise occupied with writing an MA thesis).

II. White's conception of Narrative meta-codes
(from 'Being & Narrative', University of York MA dissertation by CGM)

White's formulation is concerned with historical writing as being interpretive and that this explication takes its form primarily as narrative. Narrative is by definition an imaginative construction in that the historian approaching historical events imposes an ideological perspective in trying to create an ordered plot. Narrative has this vital stance because it is what White (1987) calls a “meta-code, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of a shared reality can be transmitted.” (p.1) Our desire to impose narrative upon a report of events is so natural, so instinctive, that it is only the absence (or refusal) of narrative that creates problems.

White's characterisation of narrative as a kind of 'meta-code', that is, as the empirical grounding for all communication could be seen as an attempt to equate the apparent ubiquity of narrative with an innate human condition. The formulation of which is the basis for White's argument that narrative is a solution to the problem of fashioning human experience into a form of meaning that is fundamentally human rather than culturally dependent. White also echoes Barthes' dictum here that narrative: “is simply there like life itself... international, transhistorical, transcultural,” (Quoted in White 1987) narrative is, for White, the fundamental human experience of meaning.

However, it is an imposed meaning. Problems begin when the historian, for example, tries to give real events the form of a story. “It is because real events do not offer themselves as stories that their narrativization is so difficult.” (White 1987, p.4) That is, this attempt at creating a narrative coherence; one with 'closure', a defined start, and a coherent form, imposes a structure on the historical past that was not there before and as such is similar to the novelist's act of creation. For White history as it is lived, i.e. the present and our ongoing existence is merely an unrelated sequence of occurrences. Some things, for sure, do happen as a result of earlier actions, but more regularly the sense of our lives is currently 'hidden' from us. The activity of the narrative historian is no different from that of the literary fabulists. It is this that prompts White (1989) to say that, “the notion of a 'true' story is virtually a contradiction in terms. All stories are fictional.” (p.27) Historians may aspire to reproducing the reality of events but this absolute view is impossible, history must, in an attempt at communicable coherence, involve selection and therefore distortion and fictionalisation.

Historians, then, are naïve in their belief that their narratives could be 'copies' of real events past, White considers this to be a distortion as it involves selecting and filling in, a deviation from the perfect replica. The distinction between real and imaginary events presupposes this notion of reality that there is 'the true', i.e. something that only 'real' narratives can be said to possess. We might refer to this as being 'correct to the facts or events themselves' but such a perfect record could not be possible. Consider the historical recording of a famous battle, for example, for it to be factually true in regard of the event itself it would have to involve either an almost endless detailing of every perspective of all the participants or else it would have to involve an objectively true account that gave a complete view of the battle within a historical framework.

White's claim is based on the view of a perfect replica of events as being ultimately flawed, and yet this still seems to be his unobtainable goal. For if all stories fall into fictions as White contends, then this presumes that what the historian wants to do is give an exact mirror-image of events as they happened, that is, the perfect objective view. However, correct as this might be in describing the failings of absolute objectivity, this does not discount the work of serious historians who want to represent what historical events mean to our present day lives, that is, what the 'stories' of the past have to say about views of modern morality, politics and so forth.

III. Everyday storytelling and narrative

Indeed, although we could follow this line more and see where it leads, it is, I would suggest, dealing with a conception of narrative that is too 'specialist', too academic for the general audience. Now perhaps certain persons held a distinct form of narrativity that they wished to elucidate, but for today and for now what we are interested in are the snapshot real-life stories that people wish to share with others. Not least because the idea of Digital Storytelling has started to gain traction as community project in the minds of local government, charitable organisations, and (my point of interaction) public libraries. These various projects are all about supporting people to create stories of their life experiences to share with others, stories that are intended to "engage participants who were not digitally-confident, introducing them to online culture in a way that built skills and emphasised personal relevance." (Ainsley 2019)

At this point we might wish to note that our 'concerns' are those that are purely academic, as generally most people have very little regard for the 'truth' of any particular narrative, which is one of the reasons that I would suggest people are so susceptible to fake news. Still, I will leave this particular analysis for another day. They should be concerned nonetheless as it is evident that not interrogating the truthfulness (or otherwise) of a statement (be it political propaganda or otherwise) is not merely for the academics but that logical thinking should be a skill that all have. Another reason for philosophy to be taught at school and the earlier the better. Anyway.

What of the truth of our personal narratives? Might it be more likely that in the action of making a intimate story into a performative utterance that we find previously hidden aspects to this account that we had not investigated ourselves previously? I think that this is more likely the case (and bares out reports from various workers) than the possibility that someone might create a Walter Mitty fiction. And even if they were to do so then surely then this would be more 'harmful' to themselves than any public listener.

These individual anecdotes might well be a fictional as any story, but like other larger scale stories we as a society tell ourselves, there is also a 'truth' within them. The story of Love for example, and I say story here because although scientists will attempt to 'prove' the basis of love as a chemical reaction, this is not what it means to the sufferer. The sight of a loved one can be accurately (scientifically at any rate) described as electromagnetic radiation reflecting onto the cornea and this activating a recognition memory which in turn fires sex hormones and other neurochemicals, but this hardly even touches upon the human feelings that this means or rather this does not even come close to describing something understandable to another human being, it is a very remote representation that is almost alien to hear. The experience of life is not like a scientific process and although it may not be truly said to be in reality much like a story either (being in fact more chaotic and less definite) but it is graspable as a story and communicable also.

When we crave 'realness' in stories, what we mean is, I want this to be relatable to me, to engage with my impressions of whatever. The real in 'real life stories' isn't objective perhaps, but it was never meant to be and yet it is still real enough.

There are different sorts of stories of course, we've covered two here, personal-public narratives and 'intercultural' stories about human experience (the 'story' of Love) and there are many others to be investigated.

Next time: Social narrative as social control. When stories are used to instil an attitude or belief in the many (those who serve) by the few (those with power), thinking especially of the heroic romanticisation of war being used to drive those unwilling (by the thought of killing and potentially being killed) into fighting for their country.


Ainsley, M. What’s the story? An independent evaluation of the Digital Storytelling Residences, (Scottish Book Trust, 2019) Published Online.
White, H., Content of the Form, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987).
White, H., 'Figuring the nature of times deceased', in Future Literary Theory, Ed. by R. Cohen, (New York: Routledge, 1989).