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Hayden White, Traumatic Nationalism, and the Public Role of History

A. Dirk Moses
History and Theory
Vol. 44, No. 3 (Oct., 2005), pp. 311-332
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3590818
Page Count: 22
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Hayden White, Traumatic Nationalism, and the Public Role of History
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Abstract

This article argues that Hayden White's vision of historiography can be appropriated for the "public use of history" in many ethnic and nationalist conflicts today. That is, it can be used to provide the theoretical arguments that justify the instrumentalization of historical memory by nationalist elites in their sometimes genocidal struggles with their opponents. Historians so far have not adequately understood the implications or possible uses of White's historiography, and therefore to that extent his case remains unrefuted. In the event, White has anticipated and held his ground against possible counter-arguments. The only way to answer him is to ask the question that he poses of historians: what is the purpose of history for "life"? The essay argues that Max Weber's advice to scholars to pose difficult questions and demand clarity about the implications and consequences of specific commitments is morally more responsible than White's in the current climate of ethnic and national conflict. The historical is not opposed to the ethical, as White maintains; the historical is the ethical. Historians should engage in "strong evaluations" (Richard T. Vann) in the construction of "bridging" narratives between historical communities, rather than redemptive narratives of liberation that often entail zero-sum claims to contested land.

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