Author discusses new book on classics and misogyny

Author discusses her new book on classics and misogyny in the digital era.

New policies create risks for humanities at Danish universities


Plan would link number of university spots to labor market needs.

Essay on the death of Hayden White

As of this writing Thursday afternoon, just three notices of the Monday death of Hayden White have turned up in Google News -- and only one of them in English: a tribute posted to the website of Wesleyan University, where White directed the Center for the Humanities from 1973 to 1976.

The writer of that tribute, Michael S. Roth, who is Wesleyan’s president, also contributed a preface to White’s Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (1973) when Johns Hopkins University Press issued a 40th anniversary edition (slightly behind schedule in 2014). The appearance of that edition may be the most succinct index of White’s stature in the humanities; the book has remained in print all the while.

A professor emeritus of history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, White was also a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. And it's possible his name will ring a bell with some of Inside Higher Ed's older readers for his involvement in an important legal decision. In 1972, while a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, White sued L.A.’s chief of police “seeking to enjoin the alleged illegal expenditure of public funds in connection with the police department's conduct of covert intelligence gathering activities at UCLA,” as the California Supreme Court summed up the issue in its 1975 decision on the matter. White complained that members of the LAPD were registering as students and filing reports on class discussions, as well as joining university-recognized organizations, even though these investigations "pertain to no illegal activity or acts."

The state Supreme Court found merit in the complaint and reversed a lower court’s ruling in favor of the police. “In the course of classroom debate,” the decision read, “some thoughts will be hazarded only as the trial balloons of new theories. Yet such propositions, that are tentative only, will nevertheless be recorded by police officers, filtered through the minds of the listening informers, often incorrectly misstated to their superiors and sometimes maliciously distended. Only a brave soul would dare to express anything other than orthodoxy under such circumstances. But the classroom of the university should be a forum of free expression; its very function would largely be destroyed by the practices described in the complaint before us.”

Trained as a historian at the University of Michigan in the 1950s, White in his early work focused on medieval religion. “The Roman Catholic Church was something I knew absolutely nothing about when I went to college,” he said in an interview conducted in 2007. “I found it amazing that an institution based upon a miracle, which by definition cannot be comprehended except through faith, could sustain itself and dominate even the monarchs and the political powers for over a thousand years.”

By the late 1960s, White’s interests were following a decidedly interdisciplinary course. Commissioned to write a survey of 19th-century historiography, he did so with an eye to the crisis in the historical profession’s cultural authority he found expressed in literature. In Hedda Gabler, Ibsen has his tragic heroine express the special misery of being married to a historian: “You should just try it,” she says, “to hear nothing but the history of civilization, morning, noon, and night!” Likewise with poor Dorothea in Middlemarch, finding herself wedded to a scholar of ancient mythologies utterly indifferent to Rome (and to Dorothea herself) when they go there on honeymoon. Another two historians far along the path to total desiccation are the central characters in André Gide’s The Immoralist and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea -- though each is finally liberated through some variety of Nietzschean disdain for historical consciousness, at least in the form he saw it taking in modern Europe. It “promoted a debilitating voyeurism in men,” as White puts it, “made them feel that they were latecomers to a world in which everything worth doing had already been done …”

During the very period when historical study was establishing itself as a fully professionalized academic field, then -- one with aspirations to methodological rigor and positivist certainty as to its findings -- the discipline was in danger of becoming irrelevant, if not pernicious, as a force in society. White’s response to this intuition was, in effect, to double down on both historical consciousness and its critique. The notion that history could establish knowledge of the past in more or less the same sense that the physical and biological sciences were doing with the natural world had to give way to understanding that historiography is exactly what the name indicates: a kind of writing -- and one in which the standards for what counts as meaningful, cohesive and worthwhile are themselves the product of historical development.

Pursuing such a line of thought meant turning to sources outside history as a profession. The usual shorthand here is to say that White’s thinking converged with the work of structuralist and poststructuralist theorists in Europe -- and indeed, White published one of the earliest papers on Michel Foucault to appear in an Anglophone journal. But emphasizing the French connection seriously understates the distinctiveness of the conceptual tool kit he put together. To analyze the modes of storytelling historians found themselves using to narrate the past, he borrowed from Northrop Frye’s The Anatomy of Criticism. For insights into historians’ rhetorical patterns, he turned to Kenneth Burke’s classic essay “Four Master Tropes.” And White’s interest in the aesthetic dimension of historical writing, while owing something to Roland Barthes, seems to have been inspired by Italian philosophers (especially Giambattista Vico and Benedetto Croce) rather than Parisian semioticians.

The point of Metahistory was not to offer a master theory of history, or even to offer an alternative model for how historians should go about their business. In the last book White published during his lifetime, The Practical Past (Northwestern University Press, 2014), he paid tribute to the lasting effect on him of studying, as an undergraduate at Wayne State University, with “one of the great teachers of his generation, William J. Bossenbrook, who taught us that history was primarily a story of the clash of ideas, values, and dreams (rather than of bodies and machines only) … [and that] history must remain a mystery to be pondered, more than a puzzle to be solved.” The point of its study was not to establish the final, definitive word on a subject, but to ensure that the conversation remains lively. He liked to compare the historian's task to what the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides said about interpreting the Bible: since the creation was vast and complicated and the divine purposes beyond our understanding, the goal must be to increase the number of possible interpretations, not to decrease them.

A number of people have commented in online forums about how intimidating they found the prospect of studying the author of so renowned a work of scholarship -- only to find him unexpectedly warm and astonishingly unpresupposing. On Facebook, for example, Satya P. Mohanty, a professor of English at Cornell University, recalled White as “one of the most generous men I have encountered in the academy.”

In our discussion following my request for permission to quote him, Mohanty recounted participating in a seminar White conducted during a session of the School of Criticism and Theory in the late 1970s. Mohanty disagreed with White’s approach to Marx and was not shy about challenging it, despite his status as a second-year graduate student. “None of that ever mattered to Hayden,” Mohanty told me; there was “never a trace of condescension.” They were “definitely at odds with each other intellectually,” he says. “I wasn't just being pesky. He could probably see that it was a real debate.” They remained in touch across the years -- neither, it seems, getting the other to change his position.

As for the significance and influence of his work, especially his best-known book, White seems to have had a wry estimate of its importance. Metahistory "still sells a lot," he said around the time of its 20th anniversary. But, he added, "I don't think people really want to read it; it's an intimidatingly long book. It's very tiresome and repetitive. Most people who read it read some of the introduction and maybe read around a bit. But no one reads it through. By the way, I don't think that in order to have an effect, you must produce books that people want to read. It's the project that interests people and not so much a particular way of doing it. I think the gesture of the project is toward innovation and changing the way we think about history." That project will continue, even in his absence.

Editorial Tags: 
Image Caption: 
Hayden White
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Trump Picks Jon Parrish Peede to Lead NEH

Photo of Jon Parrish PeedePresident Trump on Friday nominated Jon Parrish Peede (right) to become chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Peede has worked at the NEH since April 2017, serving as senior deputy chairman. Since William D. Adams, an appointee of President Obama, stepped down as chairman in May, Peede has effectively been the senior person at the NEH.

In his first two budget proposals, Trump proposed eliminating the NEH, but Congress has rebuffed him.

Peede has experience in the humanities publishing world. He has served as publisher of Virginia Quarterly Review, at the University of Virginia; literature grants director at the National Endowment for the Arts; director of communications at Millsaps College; and an editor at Mercer University Press.

The National Humanities Alliance published an interview with Peede in October. In that interview, Peede said that he viewed the NEH as “a catalytic funder” that can encourage “institutional buy-in” and help start “new areas of the humanities.”

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Essay considers the film 'Black Panther,' the Florida high school killings and the limits of historical thinking

Some of the most interesting responses to Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther film come from Afrofuturists committed to imagining a world without Du Boisian double consciousness, without the burdens of history -- not fighting for liberation (because there was no slavery) but rather for infinite, yet-to-be-fantasized objectives. Charlotte M L Bailey, for example, focuses on the imagined architecture and technology featured in the film. Angela Watercutter at Wired also focuses on technology and design in the film's setting, Wakanda.

One of the best scholarly responses to the film has come from a philosopher arguing that as groundbreaking a film as Black Panther is, its weakness is its failure to imagine something better. Chris Lebron laments in Boston Review that the two “radical imaginings” offered by the film, “an immensely rich and flourishing advanced African nation that is sealed off from white colonialism and supremacy … and a few black Wakandans with a vision of global black solidarity who are determined to use Wakanda’s privilege to emancipate all black people,” cannot be reconciled without black-on-black bloodshed. Can something other than the choice between incarceration or death be imagined in Wakanda?

If humanists do one thing well, it is focus on the question “who are we?” But the more pressing question may be “what do we want?” The relationship between these two questions is more tenuous than humanists want to believe.

My questioning of the limitations of historical thinking was provoked by seeing Black Panther the same week as the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I am also struck by the leadership of the young student survivors insisting that something be done about gun violence in America. These students do not care about the past. They care about the future.

Is it possible to have too much focus on history? The immediate reaction to current events in the past few years by humanist scholars -- sociologists, historians and literary historians in particular -- has been to look to history to try to understand the present. Engaged and robust communities of historians have sprung up, notably the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), led by a group of smart and social media-savvy young historians, led by the extraordinary Keisha Blain of the University of Pittsburgh. Consider also the scholars engaged in the #Syllabus movement of the past few years, launched by Georgetown historian Marcia Chatelain in the wake of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

These passionate historians advocate for an educated citizenry, a historically aware citizenry, a citizenry well versed in the institutions and social structures of power that have made the world as it is. Their assumption is that knowledge of the past is critical for disrupting existing arrangements and effecting political change.

But is it working? What if historical thinking is not enough? What if an intense focus on human history is a preoccupation, keeping scholars from imagining a better future? What if more imagination is needed? More fantasy? How do we imagine a socially, politically and economically just future unfettered by past crimes of humanity?

And yet my National Humanities Center colleague Stephen G. Hall reminds me that “a significant component of Pan-Africanist thinking has been imagining better worlds. We only need look to Queen Nzingha, Yaa Asantewaa, Edward Blyden, Margaret Murray Washington, Amy Jacques Garvey, Claudia Tate, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” To be sure, history “done right” has much to offer if we look and look deeply. Hall notes that the female army of Wakanda is based on the Dahomey Amazons, “among the most feared warriors in Africa in the 19th century.”

But I turn from images of Wakandan women with spears to images of tearstained teenage faces in this world, protesting the fact so many people in America are armed and dangerous.

I am provoked to ask about the education system that produced the technologically savvy Shuri, an inventor, healer and design engineer who also happens to be the sister of Wakanda’s King T’Challa. How many Shuris are there in Wakanda? Who were her mentors? Where did she train?

More importantly, did Shuri go to school every day worrying about violence? Or was she able to simply focus on imagining solutions to technological challenges?

As a literary historian, my daily focus is on the past; my training and my methodologies involve finding, sifting and weighing evidence. But I am willing to acknowledge that students should be encouraged to balance historical thinking with critical imagining about the future. Listen to Sun Ra. Read Octavia Butler. Consider Future Studies. Political scientist Jim Dator’s homepage at the University of Hawaii is a good place to start.

In the meantime the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, organizing protests, marches and vigils in the coming weeks, are teaching all of us an important political lesson: change sometimes involves walking out of school, turning your back on past failures and insisting on something new.

Hollis Robbins is a 2017-2018 Tri-Delta Fellow at the National Humanities Center and a member of the humanities faculty of the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Newsletter Order: 
Diversity Newsletter publication date: 
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 
Email Teaser: 
‘Black Panther,’ History and the Future

History professors receive suspicious email, suspect right-wing campaign

Email, supposedly from high school student, to history professors across the country raises suspicions of a right-wing gotcha campaign against “liberal professors.”

Why "Game of Thrones" shouldn't be used in an effort to recruit future medievalists (essay)

In May, Olivia B. Waxman reported for Time magazine on a fall 2017 class to be taught at Harvard University. The class is called The Real Game of Thrones: From Modern Myths to Medieval Models and will be collaboratively taught by Sean Gilsdorf, a medieval historian, and Racha Kirakosian, a specialist in German studies and religion. Waxman’s short article is part of a veritable media avalanche readying us for the beginning of season seven of the successful HBO series July 16. After all, GoT airs in more than 170 countries, has won more Emmys than any other prime-time series and is simply “the world’s most popular show” ever.

With their field suffering from the significant downward drift in student interest for humanities disciplines in the last decade, some medievalists have been eager to embrace the exceptional popularity of GoT. This summer’s International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds in Great Britain, for example, featured a replica of the famous Iron Throne from the series. More seriously, in a 2015 report on a meeting about the career chances of young medievalists, Lisa Fagin Davis, the executive director of the Medieval Academy of America, summarized her colleagues’ (albeit anecdotal) claims that shows like GoT may well have increased undergraduate demand for medieval studies courses. Confident in the appeal of her area of specialty as well as her colleagues’ qualities as classroom teachers, she stated, “We all know that once we get them in the door, they will want to be medievalists.”

The instructors of the fall 2017 Harvard seminar, who are similarly outspoken about their class as a “recruitment tool” for medieval studies and the humanities, tell us what they intend to do once they have lured the undergraduates “in the door”: to demonstrate how the TV show “echoes and adapts, as well as distorts the history and culture of the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE.”

I have two objections to this approach: first of all, I don’t think that our most noble goal as educators should be the survival of our own discipline. Such an attitude may have been acceptable during the pioneer days of installing the humanities at the newly reformed universities of the late 19th century. And even then, the likes of Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche accused humanities scholars of “being of use only to themselves” while scholars of law, theology and medicine remained connected with the general public by producing judges, lawyers, priests and medical doctors. Today, we understand too much about the constructed nature of historical periods and academic disciplines not to realize that the Middle Ages may be, as Nancy Partner once aptly put it, an “amoebic construct justified by nothing firmer than the uneven thinning out and eventual demise of Roman provincial government in Western Europe for a beginning, and, at the other end, the self-congratulating pronouncements of a few Italian intellectuals” who maintained they “definitely wrote better Latin than anyone who had lived since Cicero.”

My second objection against turning GoT into a “gateway drug” for making future medievalists is that neither the TV show nor George R. R. Martin’s narrative is really situated in “the ‘medieval world’ of Eurasia from c. 400 to 1500 CE.” True, Martin has claimed that the fictional societies he created are “strongly grounded in history” and meant to serve as a corrective against what he calls the “Disneyland Middle Ages” abounding with “princes, princesses and knights in shining armor.” However, unlike the similarly gritty anti-Disney series The Last Kingdom (BBC, 2015) or Vikings (History, 2013), which fictionalize identifiable historical persons, eras, events and regions, GoT is completely devoid of such authenticating anchors. Instead, it offers a world that is self-contained, with its own geography, languages, cultures and distinct nonhistorical temporality -- a place entirely “neo,” so to speak. Rather than creating traditional kinds of historical authenticity and authority, it engages in a myriad of cultural references that have a vaguely medieval feel (by the way, I think it’s a premodern feel, because the show also echoes the Wars of the Roses and imperial Rome).

GoT, thus, presents a simulacrum of the medieval -- neither an original nor the copy of an original. The most prominent precursor for this “neo” world is, of course, the one created by J. R. R. Tolkien, whose characters, plots and themes, infused as they originally were by Tolkien’s own academic study of the Middle Ages, now independently and contingently populate thousands of computer games and other neomedievalist cultural productions.

If I am right about GoT’s neomedievalist core, applying the traditional methods of literary studies, folklore or history may not be particularly effective at helping students make sense of it. The Harvard instructors, for example, seem to place particular emphasis on demonstrating to their students the epistemological superiority of original medieval texts and artifacts. As one of them explains, “When I read medieval verse epics with my students, they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s like in Game of Thrones.’ No, if anything at all, it’s the other way around. Isn’t it partly our job [as professors] to use that interest and go deeper?”

Going deeper here means, in a troublingly originalist sense, that including GoT in a college classroom should serve to identify a contemporary production’s distinct sources and analogues in medieval history, literature, religion and legend. The goal of the serious medievalist seems to be to move swiftly from the reel to the real Middle Ages, to abandon the shadowy postmodern representations of medieval culture to focus on medieval culture’s own self-understandings. The latter, although of course also highly subjective, seem to offer more truth value by virtue of being “old” (and within the instructor’s area of expertise).

Please don’t get me wrong: I do not advocate against medievalists’ involvement in reading and critiquing GoT. Quite the opposite. And I do not advocate against reading GoT against the backdrop of medieval sources and analogues. However, that can only be the beginning. After all, none of the main causes advanced to account for GoT’s popularity (attractive world building, thriller-fiction pacing, complex characters, sexposition, bait-and-switch plot, escapist fantasy, intricate power play, clever play with archetypes, diverse female characters, guilt-free barbarism and violence, Sopranos-like family drama) is exclusively related to medieval culture.

Clearly, an impactful cultural phenomenon like GoT deserves to be read as a self-standing cultural artifact, not as a derivative of its potential medieval models or a pretext for sustaining an academic discipline. So far, too often, medievalists have shown a narrowly parasitic relationship with medievalist and neomedievalist cultural productions. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1983), Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale (2001), J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (1997-2007) or Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) were a) used mainly to show the continued relevance of medieval studies and b) subjected to the same binary academic reception: What’s authentic and nonauthentic; what distorts history, and what doesn’t?

Instead of such an uninspiring approach, we should rather ask, why do our societies continually seek to connect with their premodern roots, consciously or unconsciously? What imagined aspects of premodern culture continually attract reinvention, recreation, re-enactment and re-present-ation, and why? And how does the centuries-long reception of premodern texts drive the work of contemporary artists, writers and scholars? I predict that answering these more complex questions will better demonstrate the value the humanities add to a college education.

Richard Utz is professor and chair in the School of Literature, Media and Communication at Georgia Tech and Johann von Spix Visiting Professor at the University of Bamberg, Germany.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Disable left side advertisement?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Professor accused of raping disabled man sees her convictions overturned

Anna Stubblefield was a respected philosopher at Rutgers before she was accused and convicted of raping an intellectually and physically disabled man she’d promised to help communicate. Now she’s getting a retrial.

Modern Language Association taps Paula Krebs, dean at Bridgewater State and longtime humanities advocate, as new executive director


Modern Language Association taps Paula Krebs, dean at Bridgewater State and longtime humanities advocate, as new executive director.

NEH chairman steps down as White House renews call for eliminating agency

Humanities leaders had hoped to see William D. Adams, an Obama appointee, finish his term. The agency is among several targeted for elimination by the White House.


Subscribe to RSS - Humanities
Back to Top