Historicism, Humanism, and Figural Causation: Reading Hayden White on Erich Auerbach

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In his essay, “Auerbach’s Literary History: Figural Causation and Modernist Historicism,” included in his 1999 book Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, Hayden White proposes, via a reading of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, an understanding of modern historicism structured by a network of figural relations of prefiguration and fulfillment. Although in his earlier work, such as Metahistory and Tropics of Discourse, White had considered the underlying tropological and narrative structure of historical writing, in this later essay, in my view, he takes a decisive step beyond what I take to be the skeptical, deconstructive nominalism of his earlier focus on historical writing, towards an ontological conception of historical agency intertwined in constitutive ways with processes of figuration.

Without giving up critical ground in his challenge to the privilege of historical writing as the objective, factual, and morally authoritative representation of past reality as “what really happened,” White fills in a gap that had previously remained enigmatic in his critique of historical discourse. If in his earlier works he demonstrated most powerfully the “literariness” of historical writing, exposing its tropological and narrative underpinnings, here he offers insight into the complementary reverse of that problematic: explicating , along with the figural grounding of historical discourse, the ineluctable “historicity” of figural discourse, which, as he reminds us, embraces both literary writing and written “history” as a distinctive genre and professional practice. Since “historicity” refers not simply to discourse, however, but also to human action and experience, and even to non-humanist structures of eventuality, givenness, contingency, and temporal change, White now opens a motivational link between discourse and human experience that previously appeared a product of irrational disposition or arbitrary choice.

Figuration and the relations between figures is the basic medium of historicizing thought and discourse because figuration is subject to historical change, to “epochalization.” We might note that “schema” and “epoch” have a common etymological root in the Greek verb echein (to hold, to be in a condition), with schema being a synonym for “figure” or “arrangement” and epochē meaning “cessation, pausing, holding back.” Figures are, so to speak, the “schemata” of any possible historical experience, while the tropological relations between historical “epochs” are articulated by the fluctuating events of sending and withholding that arrange figures within and across time. In experiencing their historical epoch and seeking to render that experience in writing, authors stand in a horizon of figures that are temporally disposed and that are relatively more or less “legible,” more or less available for appropriation and reapplication. This horizon of figures, with its variable regions of clarity and obscurity, is composed of multiple figurations of time: figures arriving from the past, to be fulfilled by the present writing; as the figural relation of the present writing to the experienced present (the figure of “context”); and in the “incompletion” of the present writing with respect to its possibility for its future “fulfillment,” its projective “prefiguration” of new meanings in a future that will appropriate this present as the past of a future present.

I will now consider some individual points in White’s arguments that call for further discussion. First is that White’s major concern in his Auerbach essay—in keeping with both Auerbach’s literary concerns with character and action, and with both Auerbach’s and White’s deep involvement with the historicist thought of Giambattista Vico—is with history as a product of human activity and thought.

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White writes that Auerbach formulates a notion of “figural causation,” distinguished from metaphysical and theological teleological causation as well as techno-scientific causation, that is definitive of historical worlds. Figural causation, White writes, “informs the process in which humanity makes itself through its unique capacity to fulfill the multiple figures in which and by which reality is at once represented as an object for contemplation and presented as a prize, a pretium, an object of desire worth of the human effort to comprehend and control it” (Figural Realism 88). And later in the essay, White underscores the separation of history and nature, with figural causation only pertaining to the former: “Unlike other natural things, which are related to one another only by material causality, historical things are related to one another as elements of structures of figuration (Figuralstrukturen)” (Figural Realism 99). White’s figural causation is a humanistic concept, both in the intellectual historical sense of arising from the secularizing tendencies of modernity in which human self-making and the unfolding of history were formulated as reciprocal processes, and in the philosophical sense of conceiving the world we experience as progressively more and more composed of historical entities and institutions, the inherited and newly made products of human thought and action.

Indeed, a certain political allegory might be attributed to White’s argument, via his explication of the historicizing trajectory of Auerbach’s chapters in Mimesis. Over the course of the book, White argues, Auerbach moves from the Aristotelian alignment of a hierarchy of literary genres with a social hierarchy, in which appropriate literary representations of reality derive from appropriate imitations of character and action according to the social scale of rank, to a democratizing, leveling, and mixing of both genre- and social rank-hierarchies. The trajectory of the Western pursuit of realism, Auerbach suggests and White underscores, is the modernistic condition of literary communism: “Thus, the various periods in the history of Western literary realism can be defined in terms of their characteristic mixtures of styles and of the extent to which they succeed in grasping the content of history as a social reality delivered from class division” (FR 98). Auerbach thus carries to a logical conclusion his roots in 18th- and 19th-century historicist thought, with a conception of the modernist horizon that combines, in a sense, Hegel’s vision of a supersession of art (a post-realism that fulfills the historical trajectory of all previous realisms) and Marx’s political vision of a supersession of class divisions in a universal, self-determining humanity.

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Yet as White suggests, Auerbach’s historicist conclusion stands in tension with the modernist object it refers to—specifically, the meta-historical, meta-figural perspective the modernist literary work brings to the progressive (however figuratively articulated) narrative of literary history Auerbach unfolds in Mimesis. “To be sure,” White writes, “Auerbach’s characterization of modernism’s principal stylistic and semantic features amounts to a claim that it has transcended nineteenth-century historicism” (FR 99). He goes on, however, to emphasize the—figural—continuity of this modernist historicism with nineteenth-century historicism: “But it seems to me that Auerbach interprets modernism as a further development of nineteenth-century realism, hence as a fulfillment of nineteenth-century realism’s identification of reality with history—and hence as further elaboration of the notion of history itself. What appears to be a rejection of history is a further elaboration of its nineteenth-century form, which now appears as a figure beginning to be fulfilled in mid-twentieth century. It is not history that is being rejected but the nineteenth-century form of it” (FR 99).

White seeks to recover the continuity of Auerbach’s account—and implicitly, his own continuity with Auerbach as metahistorian—across the modernist break by hypostatizing the proleptic trope of prefiguration and fulfillment that has, if we accept Auerbach’s view, structured a large span of literary tradition and, in the modern age, its literary historical reconstruction, and furthermore, by extension, much of the figural infrastructure of modern historical writing as such. But if the modernist break is not simply a matter of literary style, but rather a radical shift in the “epochal” structure of figuration, might it not be the case that we can no longer count on proleptic prefiguration/fulfillment to suture the fabric of tradition and history? What if the task of the modernist writers and artistic avant-gardes was, like Conrad’s would-be bomber Stevie in The Secret Agent, to explode the figural relations between past, present, and future, setting free the shards in anarchistic freedom–an event perspectivized by Conrad’s irony, which makes his bomber stumble and set off the bomb prematurely? Conrad’s irony, indeed, neither accepts the traditional figural relation to the past and future nor assumes it can be subsumed in a new age of a fully leveled, anarchic literary communism. Time appears in his exemplary novel as disruption, disruption of tradition on the one hand, and disruption of messianic plans to abolish it on the other. We might say that Conrad registers the crisis of that very historicist figuration that would allow us, like Auerbach and White, to see the modernist moment as a fulfillment of the nineteenth century. We need, Conrad implies, a new trope, one that we might characterize, following the lead of his plot, as the twentieth-century trope of temporal catachresis, which forcibly conjoins prematurity and belated disclosure of incompletion and unfulfillment. (In this regard, the signature events of the 20th century would be its major Communist revolutions, which happened “too early” in the “less-developed” country of Russia and China, sought violently to “catch up” or “leap forward,” and ended in extended stagnation and eventual collapse or, even more ironically, in the overheated form of Chinese authoritarian super-capitalism.) In this sense, Nietzsche anticipates the twentieth-century crisis with his notion of “untimeliness” (Unzeitgemässigkeit), which emphasizes the lack of accordance (gemäß), that is, the ability to assimilate and harmonize one’s writing figurally with “the age,” which in turn indexes the historical disappearance of any shared “measure” (Maß) between oneself and one’s time (or historical time in general). However, as the humanist reference of historicism, from Vico through Hegel to Auerbach and White, suggests, one of the targets of Nietzsche “unzeitgemässig” assault on historicism in his Untimely Meditations is Protagoras’s saying, explicated in practice by Nietzsche’s beloved Renaissance, that “man is the measure of all things.”

To return to the question of the figural ligatures between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through which White explores the new problematic of modernist historicism, we might give names and faces to the difficulty by asking, to what extent does the 19th-century historicist legacy of Hegel continue in the twentieth-century exasperations of historicism that characterize the thought of Heidegger, Benjamin, and Blanchot? As White notes, the mediation of context and text in Auerbach’s account is the domain of experience, which he conceives as historically mutable, but capable of being captivated in a kind of literary epochē and figurally expressed: “In his actual hermeneutic practice, Auerbach tends to present the text as a representation not so much of its social, political, and economic milieus as of its author’s experience of those milieus; and as such, the text appears or is presented as a fulfillment of a figure of this experience” (FR 92). This concept of experience, understood as the subjective mediation between text and context, or between two scales of figuration, also thus roots historicity in human agency: human beings produce history as a work on, and work of, figuration. Particularly in relation to the spread of planetary technology, however, when the accumulation of means and products of human making threatens to eclipse centuries-old notions of human thought, responsibility, and agency, such confidence in the “epochizing” power of human experience to “make history” (i.e., to articulate its figure) seems ever less justified. (Elsewhere in Figural Realism, notably, in his essay “The Modernist Event,” White deals with historical cases such as the Holocaust that pose a powerful challenge to the mediating role of communicable experience. In his late work The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot likewise offered a fraught treatment of the problem of historically representing the Holocaust; he strains the giving of an historical account between the original occurrence of an event that has never completely manifest itself, cannot thus be “experienced” in any full or authentic sense, and can consequently only be reconstructed incompletely, intermittently over time, out of fragments and fallibly interpretable gaps in the record.)

Walter Benjamin’s writings on the poetry of Baudelaire and the novels of Proust similarly draw the implications for historical thought of this mutation in the structure of modern experience. Benjamin related the transformation in “experience” variously to metropolitan urbanization, the rise of a fully commodified capitalist consumer society, the proliferation of information through technologically mediated communication, the development of mass political movements, and the mechanization of warfare. He characterized it as a shift from linguistically communicable experience embedded in typical habits and shared tradition (Erfahrung)—hence, mediated by the web of figuration—to the singular, subjective, often eccentric, inner “lived experience” (Erlebnis) of the psychological subject, which was a reactive response to intense stimuli and which resisted linguistic formulation, narrative figuration, and communicative transmission. As Benjamin suggests in a famous passage from his essay on the Russian short story writer Nikolai Leskov, “The Storyteller,” the modern author now experiences not a horizon of tradition dense with figures to be fulfilled and rewoven, but a shattered space from which the measured figures of time and space, life and death, and social typicality have been evacuated: “With the World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? What ten years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes mouth to mouth. And there was nothing remarkable about that. For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.” What was being challenged by the unleashed forces of technology, and equally, by the seemingly unbound power of elemental nature in the mud, rain, rats, lice, steel, and fire in the landscape of trench warfare, was the privilege of human language and figurative imagination in constituting and communicating “experience.” Deafening sounds, blinding flashes and profound darkness, stuttering rhythms and eerie silences, screams and gurgles, and groping movements through obscure passageways—caused by the violent ejections of machines, the agonies of shredded bodies, and harsh conditions of external nature–became the everyday “expressions” of the world of the trenches as much as any human stories, argumentation, conversations, and conventionalized gestures.

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It was now no longer just in the individual eccentricity of a singular antihumanist like Nietzsche that the uncanny sense of untimeliness, of Unzeitgemässigkeit, announced itself. Rather, it had become a collective, generational “experience,” a presentiment that the very ground of experience had been cut out from under them, casting them into a time radically out of joint and into the objective impossibility of finding any accordance with this time or any other, past or future. In this regard, we can view Auerbach’s attempt to resuture the broken thread of experience, binding the “untimely” human subject back into the fabric of transmissible figures and reweaving the tissue of historicity, as a utopian, but ultimately also conservative and ineffectively nostalgic gesture. Less, then, as White concludes, the figure of “a historical reality purged of the myths of such ‘grand narratives’ as fate, providence, Geist, progress, the dialectic, and even the myth of the final realization of realism itself” (FR 100), than a last myth of figuration itself as the disappearing trace of redemption, fulfilled in the at-last fully human figure of “experience,” which twentieth-century history would soon evacuate and leave in ruins.

(Quotes from Hayden White, “Auerbach’s Literary History: Figural Causation and Modernist Historicism,” in Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999; 87-100.)

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