"The Swamps of Myth . . . and Empirical Fishing Lines": Historiography, Narrativity, and the "Here and Now" in Graham Swift's Waterland

By Berlatsky, Eric | Journal of Narrative Theory, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

"The Swamps of Myth . . . and Empirical Fishing Lines": Historiography, Narrativity, and the "Here and Now" in Graham Swift's Waterland


Berlatsky, Eric, Journal of Narrative Theory


In recent debates over the proper methods to be pursued by practicing historians, the elusive chimera known as postmodernism has been raised consistently as either the key to a new practice of history that would help historians reach their aesthetic and creative potential or as the dangerous relativism that would dissolve the discipline of History altogether.1 "Postmodernist historiography," or constructivist historicism, has a deep and pervasive tie to narrative and narrative theory, largely because its central figure, Hayden White, is deeply interested in the ways in which the narrative form has affected the possibility of material reference in historical discourse. While constructivist and relativist skepticism towards the possibility of historical objectivity predate White substantially,2 the focus on narrative as a central barrier to objective reference is most archetypically represented by White's work. Although there have been some amendments to White's early radical position, his initial narrativism remains a powerful influence upon postmodern historiography, and a source of contention. Narrativism, in brief, is the belief that no "meaning" is inherent to a collection of historical facts and events retained or selected from the past. Rather, the act of narration itself is responsible for any sense of meaning or causality that links historical events together. In his well-known essay, "The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality," Hayden White rates that value as nearly nonexistent. White asks: "What wish is enacted, what desire is gratified, by the fantasy that real events are properly represented when they can be shown to display the formal coherency of a story?" (8). His sly indication that narrative's capacity to represent reality is, in fact, merely a desire and a fantasy and not an actual possibility portrays a common, though contested, viewpoint that offers the form of narrative itself as falsification, not explanation.

White's configuration of history's relationship to narrative is part of a wider movement in the humanities, known conventionally as "the linguistic turn," and influenced heavily by the insights of French poststructuralism. The generalized viewpoint of poststructuralism and the linguistic turn have themselves become par for the theoretical course, even hegemonic, in recent decades, and it would be redundant to reiterate them fully here. On a basic level, however, it is perhaps sufficient to say that the linguistic turn emphasizes the ways in which reference to the object of the past (or even the present) is impossible, that all of our experiences of reality (and particularly of history) are mediated by language and discourse, which are always and everywhere value-laden and ideological. Central to this "turn" is a more detailed and elaborate focus on the mediation of reality, so much so that the reality itself is often cited as a mere articulation of its mediation. Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message" is merely the most pithy expression of this widespread belief, which I will explore a bit more fully below. From this perspective, White's focus on narrative as it relates to history may, in this sense, be tied to Derrida's focus on the impossibility of climbing "outside the text" into a world of transparent referentiality, or Foucault's notion of history as a web of power-oriented discourses. Lyotard's identification of the postmodern with the "withdrawal of the real," (79) along with his observation that "objective" discourses like science (and history) have been reduced to "language games" is perhaps the clearest and most oft-cited correlation of postmodernism with the linguistic turn.

It is not my purpose in this essay to disregard the central and important insights of poststructuralism, or for that matter narrativist history itself. Rather, I wish to look at how a focus on history and representation almost purely from the point of view of the linguistic turn has subtracted from our sense of the past as accessible and "present" to us, not merely via discourses and narrative but materially as well, in the form of the referent.

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