History in the world: Hayden White and the consumer of history

Although it is not an immediately obvious aspect of White's oeuvre, much of his theorizing is based on a particular conception of the reader of histories. For him, the reader is no longer a passive creature, simply the recipient of the historians' authoritative messages. Nor is the reader to be ignored by the historian. Rather, the reader is active to such an extent that historical writing - as White sees it - needs to be reformulated to suit this new readership. For White, readers are actively involved in a process of self-creation, to which end they use history. In other words, White holds (what I take to be) a Sartrean view of readers as individuals who are engaged with the world and embrace and pursue beliefs and goals of their own, even when under the influence of a historical text. While attributing such views to White is admittedly a projection from implicit assumptions underlying his theories, it is supported by the elusive political positions he oftentimes appears to occupy. White's underlying - and pervasive - emphasis on readers as capable of irony also informs his demand for new forms of historical writing. Alternative histories are needed not so much because the profession of history needs to change and perpetuate itself but because the demands of the society in which it is located (as well as the preferences of the individual consumers of academic history) reveal it to be an increasingly redundant practice in its conventional form. To arrive at a better understanding of White's overall conception of the role of history in the world, his epistemological scepticism needs to also be interpreted in these terms.