jueves, 25 de enero de 2007

Hayden White: the ironic poetics of late modernity

En diciembre de 1999 Hayden White viajó a Atenas, invitado a tomar parte en un debate sobre la actualidad de las obras griegas clásicas. Luego de ofrecer una lectura titulada "History as expectation and fulfillment" fue entrevistado por Angélica Koufou y Margarita Miliori. Esta entrevista fue publicada originalmente en Historein: a Review of the Past & Other Stories, vol.2, 2000, 14 p.

Angelica Koufou: You are considered as one of the major exponents of the linguistic turn. What is your personal view on its significance for the reorientation of historical thinking during the last decades?

Hayden White: In the first place I don't think it is correctly called the linguistic turn, because a semiotic or a structuralist approach to the study of cuIturaI and sociaI phenomena is more interested in discourse than in linguistics. Linguistics studies language phenomena only at the IeveI of the sentence, but discourse works at the IeveI of a number of sentences. Foucault, in reviving the notion of a discipline like History or Economics as a discourse was asking about the ways in which discursivity creates, projects a worId that can be then turned into an object of study. Take for example "the economic phenomenon". In one sense no one knows what an "economic phenomenon" might be, but discourse is what attempts to define things like that. Now, I think that peopIe characterized the so called linguistic turn in these terms because they thought that we, people like me, were trying to argue a Iinguistic determinism... Heidegger and people of that ilk had argued that the limits of one's world are the limits of one's language... But language and discourse are not the same thing. Discourse is a highly sophisticated, self-conscious use of language at a level more general than the sentence, and I think it had a very important impact upon the study of the human and social sciences. Because to consider these not as sciences, not even as disciplines, but as discourses allows you to understand why alternative interpretations of the same phenomena are possible. And this is what allows for one seeing that in the human and social sciences, indeed even in the natural sciences in large part, what you study is a product of the way you describe reality in discourse.
A.K.: So can we use a different name for the turn? Can we call it philosophical or metaphorical?

H.W.: Call it the discursive turn. Discourse was the object of study of rhetoric. Louis Mink, the philosopher, suggests that my work has contributed to something called the rhetorical turn. But that gives a false impression because it suggests that what one is doing is going back to a pre-modern conception of rhetoric; and we are not doing that. So you can call it the discursive turn; because what you do is treat these disciplines as discourses which create their own object of study by processes that we recognise as being grounded in language, but as being more rhetorical than, say, grammatical, in their articulation or elaboration.

A.K.: Your work appears to me as a synthesis of a semiotically oriented theory of meaning and of an Anglosaxonic philosophical tradition. Do you agree with this view?

H.W.: I suppose so, although I've always been more interested in German and Italian philosophy than British... But, I have an analytical interest much more than a synthetic interest... So, I never believed the Germans. That's why I was always attracted to Vico. Vico had an idea of the way in which you can create truth out of falsehood. You can have a mistaken notion of something, but the very fact that it is a notion gives you a basis on which to correct it. He talks about the way in which there is something called creative error: you make a guess of the way some aspect of the world is and on the basis of that guess you can enter into the world and then begin testing the idea of that world and create a truth out of it.

A.K.: What I was referring to by Anglosaxonic philosophical tradition was this branch of the American analytical philosophers like Arthur Danto, Louis Mink, Morton White...

H.W.: I like the way they write, because they are clear, and I try to write clearly rather than be precious. I mean I believe that there can be clear exposition of ideas. I would never try to write like Derrida for example, or even Foucault for that matter.

Margarita Miliori: Nobody would understand it except for the people who are already prepared to believe it. You can't preach with it you mean...

H.W.: Exactly. I think it creates mystification and in that respect I like that tradition of English philosophy that insists on plain speech for talking about very complicated issues. But also, you know, Arthur Danto and I went to school together, at the University, and we were both taught by the same teacher, who got us interested in the Philosophy of History.

A.K.: In what way did the debates which took place in History and Theory concerning the double nature of History affect the development of the discursive turn in the United States?

H.W.: Well, that probably connects with your asking me about people like Morton White and Arthur Danto. The British analytical philosophers raised the question about whether in history story-telling could be regarded as a cognitively legitimate form of explanation. The question is important, but only if one does not have ?ery simple minded notion of story-telling, such as that based upon the fable. And we all know that narrative is a very complex problem. That's why I turned to the French narratologists to talk about those kinds of issues. Everyone from Barthes to Genette, Greimas especially, even Propp and the Russian formalists seem to me to be much more insightful. British philosophy always tends to get back to very simple models, when they talk about such things as, for example, an ethical decision. The late Iris Murdoch once wrote that when the British philosophize, they will take very simple problems such as: "I promised my friend that I would go to play tennis with him; and then someone else called me and I decided I wanted to go with this other person; and I was put in a dilemma". She went onto say that the kind of dilemmas that interested her were not "do you go and play tennis and make your friend feel bad or not'" but rather "if you are serious about life, do you join the Communist Party or the Catholic Church?" The same thing was true of Analytical Philosophers' notions of story-telling. I mean, we tell stories desperately, in order to stay alive, as Scheherazade says; if she can keep the Sultan's interest she doesn't get her head cut off. And this is what happens in courts of law. There have been studies on the effects of narrative in law courts, when someone accused of a crime is defending themselves. It turns out that juries recognise a good story as against a bad one, I mean an effective story.

M.M.: A story that makes sense.

H.W.: So there is a lot of work that has been done on narrative, in psychotherapy, in legal discourse and in fields such as Anthropology. This makes narrative much more complicated than the British analytical philosophers, Morton White and people like that, could even have conceived of.

M.M.: Let's talk about the challenges historians face when reading your work in terms of their concepts of truth. You are not only suggesting that there isn't a formal distinction between fiction and history, but also that this is something that reflects deeper similarities in their respective systems of meaning production. Now, this has an impact on our concepts of historical truth. How would you define this impact?

H.W.: In the first place not all historians want to write narratives. Some historians are structuralist and they are interested in a description of a kind of a steady state, or of structures. Sometimes they get their effects by describing a social structure or a formation at one time and then leap ahead a century and say "here is what it looked like a century later"- and they don't try to narrativize the transition.

M.M.: They still have characters though. This unit, this structure they describe, it becomes the hero of a potential narrative.

H.W.: That's right. That was just by way of preface. I really believe that a historical account of anything has to feature narrative. If you don't have a narrative component I don't think it can qualify as a history, although it can qualify as sociology and many other things... So narrative is very important. Then the question arises concerning what notions of narrativity is the historian bringing to bear upon his work. And then another question arises: Are stories in the world or are they only in language? Louis Mink and I, he was a close friend before he died, we argued that there are no stories in real life. People may try to live their lives as if they were stories, but a story is something that exists only in language or in visual representations. And when you take a set of events and decide to say that its truth is revealed in a story, I think there is an important moment of transition that many historians are not aware of, because they think that if they just tell the facts they will fall into a story form. You see, narrative appears to be a natural way of speaking about the world. The story appears to be in the events. Does this answer your question?

M.M.: Yes, more or less... However, if people live their lives trying to interpret experiences, and if narrativity is pre-written, pre-textual, then it already bridges experience with writing, doesn't it? It is already a basis for referentiality.

H.W.: That is the argument of Ricoeur and David Carr and people like that, i.e. that cultural encodation leads people to make sense of their lives by trying to live them as if they were stories. Now, the question is where do they get the notion of story? They must get it from fairy tales and fables and things of this sort. But this is the Don Quixote problem! Don Quixote is trying to live in the chivalric tales. This is Bovarysme, Madame Bovary is trying to live her life as if it were a novel. And it doesn't work. This is the conviction of Cervantes and Flaubert. It doesn't work that way. And anyone who tries to live their life as if they were recapitulating a story is going to get into trouble. And a historian, for example, who tries to represent reality as if it had the kind of coherence that the well-found, rounded story does, is really lapsing into some kind of fictivism, fictionalism. I think that it is the kind of thing that Walter Benjamin criticized, when he said we must get away from the notion that we live in an epic, away from the model of the epic in talking about History... Because the epic is not concerned with the victims of social events. You know there are no poor people in Homer - except the one Thersites. There are only heroes and beautiful goddesses.

M.M.: Well, you can have narratives with anti-heroes.

H.W.: You don't have anti-narrative however in the classic. That comes with the novel. And that is what modernism does. Modernism de-narrativizes the novel. You can't say that Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway is a narrative, I mean it doesn't have narrative form.

A.K.: Mostly in The Content of the Form you seriously questioned narrative as a form of historical representation which imitates reality, thus sharing with post-structuralism a distrust to major narratives, Enlightenment politics e.t.c. And yet, you have always defended the cognitive role of narrative...

H.W.: The theoretical issue here has to do with whether narrative is a mode of language use or whether it is a "genre". You have narrative in many different genres, so this suggests that it is a mode of organising reality, or visions of reality that can appear in many different genres. For me, Levi Strauss and structuralism teach this: There is no such thing as a form that is not also a content. Every form, let's say the genre of the pastoral, or the genre of the tragic drama, can be filled with different contents. But you mustn't confuse those contents with the contents of the genre itself, which is already a kind of system of meaning-making. The genre provides you with formulas for making meaning, and in your description of the characters that are going to be in your story you can form them in such a way as to make the story a tragic story, a comic story or whatever. But the point is that the notion of the comic or of the tragic is already in the genre: The tragic tale, the tragic form is already a cognitive content about the meaning of the world. In the movies about the newspaper people they always say "Go and find the story, go and get the story". No, you have to make the story, a story has to be made. And you make it out of the materials, out of the facts. I always tell my students that the events are not the facts and the facts are not the meaning. That is to say, there are events; you can constitute them as facts; then you ask what is the meaning of the facts; and that is when you begin the work of emplotting and making stories.

A.K.: I see. However, it is stiII not absolutely clear to me what is your theoretical position towards the post-structuralist critique of narrative as an ideological instrument related to the model of the nineteenth century realist novel. Narrative, according to Barthes, is part of what he caIIed a "myth'" a buttress of the alienating fetishism of the real. I believe that in The Content of Form you are much more aligned to this critique, whereas in Figural Realism you are much more accepting towards narrative...

H.W.: Well, yes, look, the structuralists, Braudel and the Annales group, felt that narrative is itself ideological, that it's not a matter of a left socialist realist novel, or a modernist novel, but that the whole problem is narrativity (and that is where Barthes got the idea). They used against narrative the same argument that Brecht used against the classic theatre, i.e. the epic theatre: that the traditional theatre gives you a totaIIy false picture of the world just in the process of creating these beautiful creatures and putting them in these scenes of high drama, or tragedy or what have you. They mystify the world, they enchant the world rather than reveal it. Brecht's own theatre was meant to draw attention to the ways in which it was creating illusion, it tried to be a critique of illusion making. To be quite honest with you, my opinion on that matter has sort of vaciIIated, so you are quite right to pick that up. I think that modernist writing differs from pre-modernist writing by virtue of the fact that when it tells a story it draws attention to the fact that it's telling a story; it doesn't treat the story as something that is natural, something that is in things; it draws attention to the artificiality, and that seems to me to de-ideologize story-telling, or narrative. I don't think there are stories in reality and I think that people who try to live as if they are living in novels are in trouble; on the other hand people seem to need narrative coherence, so you have to ask what is the basis of this need, you have to be open to it. It's like... Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses, but then you have to ask why do people want this opiate?

M.M.: So ultimately you have to decide if people can live without narrative, if it is possible to give up narrativity...

H.W.: But also, who am I to decide that? I mean... "You should not be religious?"... Are you going to say that to someone whose life has been given meaning by religion, and also has become a very nice person rather than a mass-murderer because they believe in God?

M.M.: Further than that, would you also say that The Content of Form of the narrative, or rather the "referent" of its form, is the relationship between past and present? I mean is that the hidden meaning of the "allegory" of the narrative text?

H.W.: Of earliness and lateness, of temporality in other words... But you can't say that cosmic time is organized narrativistically. And you can't even say that in respect to earthly time... In fact we don't experience time; we experience the change of the seasons, we experience aging, and narrativity can give some sort of formal coherence to that experience. But this is fabulizing rather than fictionalizing. The fable is a form somewhere in-between fiction and fact.

M.M.: You have almost answered a question I meant to ask concerning Paul Ricoeur. I have always thought that your thought and the thought of Ricoeur shared a significant amount of common ground. Yet, in Figural Realism you appear to be opposed, even hostile to his views. What is exactly the problem with Ricoeur's "metaphysics"? I mean, what is the difference between your conception of narrative and his conception of an "allegory of temporality"?

H.W.: He has a theory of the metaphysics of time, which I don't have. As I said, I don't think we experience time, we experience various cultural constructions of temporality. We don't experience temporality in watching a clock, or even in watching the sun passing behind the hills during different times of the day. What we see are changing patterns of relationships between phenomena we are familiar with. These changing patterns we can call temporal; but we are only interested in them in so far as they represent processes of growth and degeneration...

M.M.: Then "growth" would be defined as one moment, and another moment, and our imposition upon their relationship...

H.W.: Yes, but I wouldn't call it "temporality".

M.M.: You call it, "synecdoche"!

H.W.: No, I call it aging! You are only interested in time in so far as it is having effects. Do you say that you age because time is passing? No, you say that you age because there are bodily processes.

M.M.: Yes, but since I am the same person now that I have aged, as I was before...

H.W.: Well, how do you know you are the same person? According to the Christian conception of conversion, you may look the same but you may be a completely different pshyche. On the other hand, when you look at a picture of yourself as a baby, it is not the same body...

M.M.: So, the existence of time is a matter of faith...

H.W.: Well, I wouldn't go that far because I don't have a metaphysics of time... on the other hand there are different ways of thinking about how you control temporality. For example, all these efforts to extend the life span by genetic engineering, to find the aging gene, these are all efforts to save the body, not to save time. You can't save time. Capitalism believes that time is money. But time is not money; money is money.

M.M.: I wonder if your effort to keep the whole discussion about narrative away from any sort of "metaphysics of temporality'" and to ground it firmly on the level of language stems from a desire to keep this discussion open to social and ethical concerns, especially of a political sort.

H.W.: Well, I would say on the level of discourse rather than on the level of language, because the study of language scientifically concentrates on what Saussure called langue, rather than parole. Parole is where the notion of discourse comes in, and this has to do with the experiences of different cultures in the organization of both notions of meaning and experience. But also, the point here is this: It is not Time that destroyed the Roman Empire, although that is a poetic conceit. There were people doing so... but you can metaphysicalize that process, I mean the shock of the decline of the Roman Empire. Why does something so noble, which lasted so long, why does it finally go under? And then you begin to melodramatize, it becomes the stuff of an opera. But I don't think it is tragic that the Roman Empire declined and fell, and it wasn't as if all the Romans died out and the Christians, the middle-ages people came along... no, there were continuations in the lines of descent of the people...

M.M.: So, to go back to Ricoeur, would you say that Ricoeur's conception of history and of human experience in general is tragic, while yours is ironic?

H.W.: His is certainly tragic; and mine is ironic. On the other hand, he comes out of Heidegger and he is concerned with the fact that we equate the experience of time with death. You cannot escape death; therefore you can't escape time; and philosophy is learning how to die well, it is learning how to meet death, either courageously or with resignation... I have a friend, an older woman, who says she is not worried about dying, she says nature will take care of that. People who think they can avoid death should join the Christian Church, because it promises them life atter death. I am with Pascal on that. If it makes them bear the suffering of this world more easily, then it's OK with me. Freud even took that view.

A.K.: Continuing from narrative to tropology, I would like to be devil's advocate. In your earlier work, especially in Tropics of Discourse, tropology appears to be not only a theory of discourse but also a theory of consciousness, on the basis that "consciousness is apprehendable in discourse". However in Figural Realism you suggest that "Tropology is a theory of discourse not of mind of consciousness'" and that "tropology has much to say about discourse but nothing about perception". I remember a passage from Tropics where the difference between Michelet and Tocqueville "resides in the tropological mode which each brought to his apprehension of the facts as they appeared in the documents". Can we talk about a "cognitive rhetoric" as Stephen Bann has suggested?

H.W.: Yes, I think you can. You were talking about my relationship to Ricoeur. Well, there are two things that Ricoeur claims he learned from me. One was the notion of emplotment. The other was the theory of tropology, which he sees as the only alternative to trying to set up a logic for talking about the differences between different levels of temporal experience. A tropology is necessary for talking about those aspects of reality that can't be talked about except in logical contradiction. By any sort of Western, critical rational thinking, if someone asserts the positive and the negative of the same predication, this is considered a contradiction, an inconsistency, a failing. In rhetoric a contradiction can be called a paradox, and a paradox is treated as a thing of beauty, not as a failure. So, tropology talks about the way we try to live our lives and make sense of the world; lives which are contradictory existentially and, therefore, are going to be described in contradiction cognitively. Tropology is a way of thinking about paralogical discourse - and even Aristotle recognizes this in the Rhetoric. The enthymeme is the basic unit of the rhetorical performance and it is treated as error or as incomplete syllogism by the logicians... But in rhetoric it is treated as a necessary device for persuasion. Now modern rhetorics is not interested in rhetoric as persuasion. It is interested in rhetoric as a theory of language use, and a theory of the way in which by language you impose meaning on the world, and upon yourself etc. So, if tropology is the basis of composition (dispositio, inventio), then you need a theory of the tropes, the figures of speech, in order to talk about how meaning can be imposed even in the face of what appears to be logical contradiction in what you say about the world. Hegel's dialecticallogic was meant to take account of the fact that you can't say, without existential inconsistency, "I love you; I hate you". There seems to be a contradiction. But only in logic; not in life.

A.K.: In this tropological schema you have introduced, is the replacement of logic with rhetoric connected with the liberation from what you call "the burden of history'" through the rhetorical - discursive selection of a tradition?

H.W.: I don't know, I suppose so, I am not sure. Could you amplify a bit more on the question?

A.K.: Well, is it Iighter for people to manage through rhetoric, to choose their past?

H.W.: I see what you mean. Really, this is a kind of an existentialist idea, that meaning is always imposed... there is no meaning in the world. There is no meaning in this flower! There is no meaning in this table!

M.M.: Well, if you really believe this, isn't this already a sort of meaning?

H.W.: No, what you are saying is that you can find meaning, and you can do it in many different ways, for example by finding pattern - this is the most primitive form... Astrology is based upon the idea that there are patterns in the constellations. Wherever you see pattern, you can apprehend meaning. Now, in a complex field of perception, the pattern isn't given. The description can impose pattern upon it. The trope of ekphrasis, the genre of the ekphrasis, descriptio provides a way of thinking about how you describe the world in such a way as to make it apprehendable. You describe a world and then that allows you to treat it as an object of analysis. But the description has to precede the analysis, and the description has to be done as figuration, unless you are using a purely quantitative language - mathematics.

M.M.: Yet, if the only thing you have to fall back on is these figures and if these are linguistic figures, then how can you avoid ending up with some sort of linguistic determinism?

H.W.: Because the world of figuration is very rich. It offers infinite possibilities of combination, of techniques of description. And it is constantly being expanded, it is not a limited array; it features invention. So I don't see it as limiting. Theories of tropology try to reduce the tropes to two, four, sixteen, but I believe what is important is the richness of our capacities for figuration... You see it is like Freud's problem of why do you fall in love with this woman rather than with all women.

M.M.: Choice?

H.W.: No, it is not a choice. You don't choose to fall in love!... Unless you are a very conniving woman...I've known girls who have actually said "I think I'm going to have a love affair, I think I'll fall in love this summer"- this seems to me very calculating. But, I'm talking about passionate attachment, and Freud raises the question: There are five women in my circle equally beautiful by any criteria you would say, quantitative or qualitative- they can fall into stereotypes perhaps of beauty and so forth, but I fall in love with this one. Why? It has something to do with the relationship between passion, the emotions and figuration: I see in this woman something I don't see in the others, and this something is a projection perhaps of infantile fixations, who knows what? But the result is that I apprehend the world as figures and stereotypes... I saw a crowd of people outside my hotel this morning, and thought "this is a demonstration, I will go and see what's happening". Because you told me there was going to be a demonstration... It turns out they are just a bunch of students, waiting for the bus! I had already projected it on to them. And of course, when I found out it was not a demonstration, then I thought "the truth is...". That is the reality effect. I think it is Proust who says that the truth effect has to do not only with perceiving something as it really is, but also with getting rid of an error.

M.M.: So, you need an error in order to construct a truth.

A.K.: Shall we bring the discussion back to the question of irony? Although you acknowledge yourself as an ironist, and although the whole conception of tropology is ironic, unlike other critics, you avoid recognizing irony as a master trope. Is it because you want to maintain a synchronical view of tropology escaping the danger of creating a closed determinist discourse? This is actually Kellner's view, but I agree with him.

H.W.: Yes I would say so, this is very well put. I haven't thought of putting it that way. Vico has the idea that irony is merely one of a number in a cycle, that irony always collapses in upon itself. Vico has the idea that irony is not a priviledged trope, but many modernists of course believe that irony is the basis...

A.K.: Hans Kellner, Stephen Bann...

H.W.: Oh, everyone. Ever since Romantic irony was discovered literature is seen as being launched from within an ironic perception. Because irony seems to be the most self-critical of all the tropes, inherently self-critical, inherently dialectic. And it may well be. But in point of fact the organism, the human organism, resists irony. The passions are not ironic. Irony is too intellectualist. It is necessary as a component, to be sure, to liberate us from our own illusions; but it can't serve the needs of the human organism, and this is what we have won our knowledge for.

M.M.: What then about the particular consequences of an ironic perception for history as a kind of knowledge? With Metahistory the historian's discipline reaches its ironic moment, since the historian becomes aware of the problems involved in his own particular language... In fact, anyone who tries to incorporate this sort of thinking into their work and still remain an historian faces these problems.

H.W.: Yes, and there is a lot of autobiographical element involved here in so far as I began as a sociaI scientist doing history. I was inspired by Max Weber and my work in medieval history was meant to apply Weberian concepts to problems of church leadership. But what I discovered was that I was naive in thinking that any given set of concepts could give one a kind of firm, definitive grasp of this past reality. Especially because it was past, and therefore no longer observable. Secondly because of the problems of evidence. But also thirdly because of the fact that we go to the past out of motives of desire and need, if we go to it at aII. Many young people don't see any interest in that. Some theorists beIieve the same. But it is one thing to say I am not going to do history, and it is another thing to say I will not go to the past. You can not avoid being interested in the past.

M.M.: Another probIem here concerns the relationship between an ironic perspective on history and praxis, especiaIIy political praxis. How can we still act - rather than just think- from within an ironic perspective in history?

H.W.: Again, this is existentialist. You regard especially politics as an acte gratuit, gratuitous action. I think that this is consistent with this late stage of modernization in which politics has been revealed to be nothing but an epiphenomenon of economic forces, capitalist modes of production and so forth. It is not as if politics or the political state has succeeded in being able to set any restrictions on the development of capitalism. In the cases where they tried they failed. So politics becomes now nothing but spectacle in my view. It's not true in every state of course -there are real political issues- but (in) politics understood as community making; everyone knows now that sociaI forces are more comprehensive, they are more global. Economic factors determine the possibilities of making communities, not some poIitical vision.

M.M.: Maybe we are not looking at the appropriate level of political unit, but things are still happening because people are doing them, to say that it's merely economic factors...

H.W.: I think you can be ironic intellectually and still believe in social construction, still believe in the effort to create communities. It is only the epic conception of politics that sees irony as making it impossible to do poIitics. It is Iike you have to be some Gandhi, or Stalin, or Lenin in order to do politics. I don't think we need that kind of passion. Politics can no longer be conceived as it was empiricaIIy in Athens, where the state or the community is made by great leaders, strategoi, generals and statesmen. Therefore irony is healthy, it is the equivalent of skepticism and it is absolutely necessary for seeing through the ideological. I think irony is humanizing, it should make people more humane, but there is a kind of malicious irony of course that destroys.

M.M.: Sarcasm.

H.W.: Yes. And that is not what I am talking about. Irony is a kind of seIf-consciousness as I understand it. I don't think it's against politics as community making. I think it's a good antidote to the wrong kind of politics. I don't know how many fascists or nazis were ironic. I suspect not many.

M.M.: Thinking of nazism... Throughout your work there is an obvious concern to relate what may be called a crisis of historical representation with the kind of events that are peculiar to our own, twentieth century historical experience. These events you describe as "modernist events'" What is a "modernist event" and what are the limits that it poses on representation?

H.W.: I think that these events are of a different scope, range and intensity from anything that was imaginable before the second industrial revolution - the invention of electricity, of the steam engine. It has to do with the fact that the number of people who have died of violent deaths, who have been put to death by their own governments, is over ninety million this century. And this is a very difficult fact to grasp. The Great Leap Forwards, the Cultural Revolution: thirty million Chinese killed. Stalinism... But these are just poIitical crimes. The destruction of the environment, warfare with atomic weapons, new kinds of diseases caused by industrialization, new illnesses. All these are what I call modernist events because they don't lend themselves to either analysis, or explanation by the inherited conventions of narrativization.

M.M.: There is no plot to emplot them in.

H.W.: Yes there is no plot because it is very difficult to attribute agency. Plot requires agency, narrative requires agency and this has been so since Aristotle defined tragedy as mimesis of an action, of a praxis, pragmata. By pragmata Aristotle meant the actions of great men. I don't think we have time for heroism anymore. So first we get rid of traditional kinds of narrative that are going to try to grasp the events. That is what I meant by a modernist event. But it seems to me that modernism, in Iiterature, in writing, in film, even in painting and architecture, responds to these new kinds of events in a way that an older realist tradition couldn't.
A.K.: Yes... In your recent work you seek for a solution to the problem of historical representation by opting for a modernist anti-narrative transition in historiography, similar to the transition from Iiterary realism to literary modernism. Do you believe that this modernist writing is a form of representation appropriate to traumatic historical experiences, to "anomalous" events?

H.W.: Yes, I think so. When you take the traditional realist novel, Balzac, or Oickens, the kinds of problems that he is dealing wjth may be painful and may arouse our sympathy, and we may be able to identify with the people. But for example it is very difficult, it is virtually impossible for me to identify with these pilots that were flying these flights over Kossovo at fifteen thousand feet in order to drop these electronic bombs - they seem like aliens to me. The CIA, they seem like monsters to me. I can't identify them with the traditional spy of the nineteenth or early twentieth century, or James Bond, or someone like that. They seem utterly inhuman, alien. The same thing is true for people like Stalin, or Mao for that matter, Hitler... These people do not fall within the categories that I recognize as defining the human.
M.M.: That may have been their appeal.

H.W.: It may very well be, but you see modernist art can deal with the monstrosity in the normal. One of the things people say about both Hitler and Stalin is that they were very banal men. But you get tremendous evil in the most banal people... How can you deal with that? Someone like Virginia Wolf can do it, showing among other things the inadequacy of ordinary, everyday language to represent those kinds of people, those kinds of events. So I think that what is often taken as experimental writing, is experiments in order to find modes of expression that will allow language to fix our attention on utterly new phenomena. Now, a historian must believe that new phenomena occur in every present. This is what makes a present different from a past. Why would you not also believe it possible that, at some points, new phenomena appear that are utterly unexpected? For example, when I see these experiments in genetic engineering - there is a whole new kind of monstrosity being born; or the penitentiary system throughout the world - we have over two million people in prison in the United States. Two million people locked up! And 60 or 70% are black, coloured...

A.K.: Does this lead to the complete abandonment of narrative and tropology?

H.W.: Well, of conventional narrative, yes. There is a misunderstanding possibly about narrative. A friend of mine, a historian, said, "well you said that Burckhardt doesn't give us a narrative. But he is narrating all the time!" I said, "yes, but he is not organizing the history of Europe in a narrative form, he doesn't narrativize it." Narrare means to speak and to know in Latin. But to narrativize is to organize phenomena aIong a temporal diachronic line and by their organization to suggest a meaning.

M.M.: In your essay on the modernist event in Figural Realism I was also very impressed with the idea of the documentary breaking down the event to the point that it makes no sense anymore. It reminded me of the idea of the ideal chronicler of Arthur Danto. It made me think that the problems with which a few theorists of history had been dealing with have become reaIIy visible today and that this makes it more urgent to re-access what is going on with history.

H.W.: I cited the documentary because it used to be thought that if you could get down to the microscopic depiction of events, you could see what they all added up to. What documentary film shows you is that if you slow it down, if you freeze a frame, if you do a close-up, this destroys meaning, it doesn't enhance meaning. What happened in this case of Rodney King is they showed the jury this film of his beating so many times that they couldn't register it anymore. And that is very interesting isn't it, that repetition up to a certain point gives the effect of traducing meaning, whereas if you keep on doing it, it loses all meaning. And the document is absolutely crucial of course to historians. History is based upon documentary record.

M.M.: But also on retrospective vision which is not there in the video documentary.

H.W.: Also retrospective vision, that's true, but you have to do it by way of the documents, you get to the past by way of the documents.

A.K.: Do you consider literary and cultural modernism, especially high modernism, as a part of the critique to modernity and if this is so, couldn't literary modernism be seen as a part, or a forerunner of postmodernism?

H.W.: I understand postmodernism in two senses. One, in the sense that Habermas and people like that use it, as an attack upon the program of modernization. But I am concerned with post-modernism as a cultural phenomenon, as something that does critique the modernist project, but at the same time criticizes the earlier generation of modernist writers, artists and so forth. Frederic Jameson, who writes best on this, increasingly suggests that we use not postmodernism but late modernism, to show the continuities between a modernist such as Brecht, and a post-modernist such as David Mammet in the theatre, or a modernist such as Gertrude Stein and a post-modernist such as Woody Allen. So he is suggesting that there are continuities, and that the relationship of post-modernism to modernism is a dialectical one, that it is a negative reaction to earlier forms of modernism. He makes the distinction by saying that the difference between modernism and post-modernism is the difference between parody and pastiche. That is interesting because it suggests that postmodemism, in the arts, in literature, etc is much more improvisational, much more bricolage, much less programmatic, much less anxious than the great modernists were about the past. Ezra Pound, Joyce, T.S Elliot were concerned about the loss of tradition. They thought they were living in a time when they could no longer have the resources of tradition at hand, so they had to re-invent. Postmodernists don't care.

M.M.: That would be similar to the difference between suffering from the lack of God, and accepting there is no God.

H.W.: That's right. It's Iike suffering from the lack of God, and then another generation grows up who doesn't care.

M.M.: But then that goes back to the romantics really.

H.W.: Well, yes but I think that romanticist modernism is quite different from its enlightenment, rationalist version; after all, romanticism is already a reaction to the enlightenment.

M.M.: So romanticism is like a figura that finds its fulfillment in the modernist and post-modernist critique of modernity...

H.W.: Yes. But I think it is very good of you to say it is like someone is suffering from the lack of God, and then another generation grows up who doesn't care. There is no experience of angst in postmodernism.

A.K.: WouId you see postmodernism as a study of how we historicize modernity, as a way of how History is embedded in relations of power, and if so, do you think that the discursive turn constitutes one of the components of postmodernism?

H.W.: Yes. And a good question to ask here is, "Is postmodernism post-discursive?" I think it is. And I think it can be seen in the interest that post-modernists have in discontinuous forms, in the fragment, which it shares with modernism, but, as ?I say, it doesn't have angst. 'All we have is fragments. So what?" It's like that building over there - just throw together anything...

M.M.: It's like a pile, rather than a building, it's like debris...

H.W.: Yes, debris is a good way of thinking about it. And incidentally, a proposito from history, there is a kind of postmodernist archaeology being practiced now, and art restoration and museum organization are quite different, from even the great modernist enterprise. Many postmodernist artists are against the museum, they are against the gallery space. They want their work to be in an informal space.
A.K.: That reminds me of Stephen Bann writing about the "ironic museum".

H.W.: Yes, that's right. There are a number already founded! There is one called the museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. It looks like a museum, but everything is a fake. This is part of the postmodernist ideology, you can't make a distinction between the original and the fake anymore. The fake has as much artistic integrity as the originaI, or the reproduction. You can have a aesthetics or a reproduction, an aesthetics which is centered upon photographic reproduction of the work of art. Now that's all different from literary modernism, which still has a notion of authenticity. Postmodernism doesn't have that.

A.K.: Jameson and Eagleton reproach postmodernism for this.

H.W.: That's right, these are all old fashioned guys, old fashioned Marxists. I mean, Marxism believes in authenticity too, doesn't it?

A.K.: Eagleton says that postmodernism took the form of modernism and emptied it of its content...

H.W.: Well, because there is no politics.

A.K.: In your article on Jameson, you argue that politics conceived in its 19th century parliamentary incarnations is valid no more.

H.W.: You see, Jameson does not believe that, he thinks that poIitics is still possible. He has to believe that because he has to beIieve that we can stir or guide society towards the RevoIution. I don't agree with him. I am too ironic to believe in Revolution.

A.K.: You mention him often in your work... in acknowIedgements and elsewhere.

H.W.: Yes, Jameson is a close friend. Oh, I enjoy it. I learn from Jameson. I think he is one of the most briIIiant writers, critics. Very difficult to comprehend, very difficult style, but he is certaintiy one of the most energetic and inventive cultural historians. I mean he writes on everything. On film, the third-world film, he has written a book on Brecht that just came out last year, before that he had a book on Adorno, he just works continuously and he is much more original than Eagleton in my view.

A.K.: His book on postmodernism, as the cultural logic of late capitalism has recently been translated in Greek.

H.W.: Oh, that's the leading book. Anyone who works on postmodernism has to deal with that book, and he has many interesting things to say about post-modernism, in anything from museums, design, postmodernist economics, postmodernist Marxism.

A.K.: Especially Marxists around the New Left Review are very scornful with regard to what they call post-Marxism.

H.W.: But both Eagleton and Jameson, they are the ones that represent the remainder of Marxist criticism in the English speaking world. Jameson is keeping it alive just by himself in America.

M.M.: He is a hero!

H.W.: Yes, he is really a kind of epic intellectual because he lives the intellectual life. And that means he does nothing but think these days.
A.K.: Let's think of the political dimensions of the academic debates on postmodernism. Patrick Joyce says that the radical assault of postmodernism towards logo-centric history provoked a reaction of the conservative academic community and Gertrude Himmelfarb has accused you of "producing an anarchic view of history". Do you think that the distrust towards its plans is due to political reasons?

H.W.: Of course, because it is true. Postmodernism does have a kind of anarchist strain, so what? Anarchism is against the state. I am against the state. I think that nowadays more problems are caused by the state than are solved by the state in world politics, so I am inclined to be sympathetic to any anarchist. But of course people like Gertrude Himmelfarb, she is the spokesperson for the right wing, for the conservatives, in the United States and she doesn't like it. And no Marxist would like it, even though Marxism is supposed to be against the state too.

A.K.: Patrick Joyce says that it seems there is a coalition between the New Right and the Old New Left.

H.W.: I think this is true. But this is exactly like what happened in the thirties when there was a coalition between the Right and the Stalinists against the liberals. Liberal politics, liberal ideology seems to promote a kind of anarchy of the market place, so you get Stalinists and conservatives ganging up on the liberals. I think that is true. But was Patrick Joyce defending the postmodernists?

A.K.: Yes. And he also speaks about a version of postmodernism "tamed" and appropriated by the system. Multiculturalism, for example, as a component of it may become harmless and sanitized, a part of the ruling system.

H.W.: I understand, but this happens in what Adorno calls the culture industry, with every movement. It gets very quickly processed. This is what electronic reproduction can do. Anything new on the social or cultural horizon, or on the political horizon for that matter, very quickly becomes a basis for designer jeans - clothing. Benetton, for example, is the perfect example of political leftism and high-fashion marketing. So I don't know how any political movement, or intellectual movement, or culturaI movement could protect itself from that. I think that what it has to do is expropriate the media. But that is difficult because the media is not like you can get on a street corner and give a speech. Taking over a television station takes a lot of money.

M.M.: Ah, that's what you mean by taking over. Because I kept thinking what is the difference between what you were saying and what is happening with Benetton... It is a matter of who controIs the process, I guess.

H.W.: Yes. Joyce thinks what happens with postmodernism is that it becomes commodified, and then they sell it. But so is true of Marxism, so is true of liberalism.

A.K.: He still believes that there is a very wild side which we must exploit.

H.W.: Well, I think he is right, everything from Andy Warhol on…You know modernism is always a favorite of politics of the left, even though the left, the Stalinist left rejected modernism.

A.K.: Thinking about "tamed" movements.. Richard Rorty in his recent work, Achieving our Country: Leftist thought in 20th Century America argues that multiculturalism disoriented the inteIIectuals from sociaI and political issues. Does he speak about "tamed" multiculturalism, is his argument in this book a turn towards the traditional left? I can't see where it points too

H.W.: Well, that book by Rorty is about how the left has lost its direction, and how it failed because people in the United States thought the left was unpatriotic, thought it was anti-American. Then he talks about multicuIturalism as a sort of feel-good politics, a sort of politics that makes you feel good if you have, say, a black friend, or an Albanian friend… But he doesn't think that it has much political clout. It is quite different from a coalition of different interest groups. But Achieving our Country is a very interesting text... Rorty's parents were very prominent communists and he grew up in a kind of communist atmosphere through the fifties. He has always been a Marxist. In the United States Marxism and pragmatism have always been very close, that's what distinguishes us from the philosophical Marxism of the European Continent. Rorty feels that the failure of the left had to do with its internationalism, that it frightened people by suggesting that the left would be international, cosmopolitan. He sees multiculturalism as another version of this, he thinks that then you lose a sense of national identity.

A.K.: Does he suggest that the left should be patriotic? Because his previous work in philosophy is much more interesting. He used to opt for antirepresentationalism, for a "postmodernist bourgeois liberaIism" as he calls it. Is his recent work something like a conservative turn?

H.W.: He says that it is pragmatic. He asks questions like what does the Left have to do in order to rebuild itself. For example, he criticized the women's movement for a similar kind of divisiveness. He argues that we must look for soIidarity, and there is something to what he says... He believes that many of these movements are self-aggrandizing, they don't really demonstrate an interest in the community at large, but only for a narrow range... But he also believes the United States has the possibiIity of being a leader in the formation of the modernist communities because of its weaIth. He says it couId afford a social state. And it could.

M.M.: Well, before we close this discussion... You have talked a lot yesterday in your lecture about WaIter Benjamin's writings. I meant to ask you a question about Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History, and especially about the image of the Angel of History wanting to go back and redeem the dead... But you seem more interested in other aspects of Benjamin's work...

H.W.: I think that those Theses on the Philosophy of History are inflated. If you start trying to unpack a figure like the Angel of History into its concepts - start asking why the Angel is going backward rather than going forward - then you allegorize, and what Benjamin is against is allegorization. Allegorization is a sign of sickness and of "flight from...". But since whatever we know about the past is a construction, this means that you can remake the past. Yet you can't remake it by using the conventional devices of historical analysis and representation, you can't remake it that way. That's why he argues that you must feature images rather than stories, that you must feature fragments rather than totalities, that you do not tell stories but you comment; you can cite; you can make up a whole history of nothing but quotations. And there are a number of other features that he recommends about how you destroy the myth, or illusion of continuity. He says continuity is the real catastrophe, not the break. Discontinuous history? Maybe some of the work of some of these micro-historians wouId be an example... But what is crucial for him is the idea of the diaIectical image. The dialectical image is a paradox. A paradoxical image would be that of the free slave, or a manly woman - the dialectical image is a contradiction in terms. This is what Iicenses someone like lesbian theorists to re-think history, to re-think literature. Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler in my country. These people in re-thinking gender they are reversing and inverting all the common pIaces that lead to a telling of a story about history that continues to promote the subordination of women to men.

M.M.: But it is Iike saying there is a continuum, Iike saying everything is connected diaIectically, so if you change one thing, the whole thing goes upside down, which is quite deterministic as well...

H.W.: Not quite... Because Benjamin uses the idea of fulfillment also. Fulfillment has to do with someone in the present choosing something in the past and fulfilling it by that choice in the present.

M.M.: Fulfilling it by choosing it. The choice itself is the fuIfillment.

H.W.: That's right. Fulfillment is not something that is teIeological, that goes on by itself...
M.M.: It is an inversion of teleology, really.

H.W.: It's a reversal.

M.M.: I actually find this figure-fulfillment relationship very useful for the analysis of all sorts of discourses that invoIve historical reference, Iike nationaIist discourse for exampIe.

H.W.: You can say that nationalist discourse in one sense is fictitious but in another sense it is real...

M.M.: It becomes reaI because people decide it is real... But this notion of figural causation features very prominently in your recent work. It seems that this figure-fulfillment schema answers a long-standing intellectual quest of yours concerning temporality, the relationship between past and present... I mean, it allows for a kind of structure, but with choice.

H.W.: Yes that's right. Like Jameson, my formation was in existentialism. As a young man I was completely swept into the Jean Paul Sartre world and Nietzsche.