Realist histories? When form clashes with function

Historians often accuse linguistic-turn type theorizing à la Hayden White of doing away with the justifications for continuing to write histories. The rather naive interpretation is that if there is nothing in the record of the past to justify valuations in the present – no entailment, as Keith Jenkins nicely formulates it, between fact and value, between the past and emplotments of it – then there is no difference between history and fiction. In this article, I try to go beyond the polarized debate about whether history is fact or fiction not by rejecting textualist theory but by delving deeper into the theoretical assumptions made by parties on both sides of that debate. I consider two crucial but still largely neglected issues: the question of the artifice involved in constructing realistic representations and the limiting effects of the genre commitments that historians abide by in order to remain historians. Taken together, these considerations highlight a strong contradiction between the form and the function of history as presently conceived; a contradiction that manifests itself as what I present as the ‘materiality’ of the historical referent – the resistance that historians’ generic and institutional commitments create on the level of the text. I also briefly discuss some ways in which historians might make use of this materiality or resistance instead of domesticating it with purportedly realist forms.