Friday, April 29, 2005

Some of my notes from Hayden White's 4/21 talk in Ghent

The title of White's plenary at the Rhetoric, Politics, Ethics conference was "Historicality as a Trope of Political Discourse." I wrote down a few, probably not very helpful, notes about what he had to say:

White said that rhetoric "used to be the theory of the political uses of language." He felt that the separation of history from rhetoric [or rhetoric from history?], which was meant to make history into a science, "deprived it [history] of sources of invention and of literary sensibility" (rough quote). History as science separated history from philosophy and detaching history from rhetoric "deprived it of a theory of composition", which gave rise to the myth that history is found in materials, not the writing of it. White also spoke of the "domestication of historical sensibility" and of the current belief that historical empirical details give rise to the form as well as the content of history. [Some of these ideas remind me of White's The Content of the Form, which I've been reading lately.]

White cited Hume's Essays Moral and Political, where Hume argued that the relationship between ethics and politics couldn't be dealt with conceptually because of the separation of "is" from "ought" [that you can't get from statements about what is to ethical statements about what ought to be]. But, said White, Hume didn't see that rhetoric "is precisely the discourse that examines the anomolies [? can't read my handwriting] of trying" to bring together "is" and "ought." White described rhetoric as a "theory of trope" or "tropology", which he characterized as how "turns" are used to move "from statements of fact to statements of 'ought'" (and not just from the literal to the figurative).

White characterized rhetoric, ethics, and politics in a humorous formula:
  • rhetoric=what can I say?
  • ethics=what should I do?
  • politics=what can I get away with?
He obviously said a lot more than this (including a long quote from Hobbes, who accused the ancient writers as producing in readers a "tyrranophobia--the fear of being strongly governed"), but my notes aren't clear enough for me to be able to figure out how to put them together here.

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