Tropics of Discourse Review

Cover of Tropics of DiscourseHayden White’s Tropics of Discourse:¬†Essays in Cultural Criticism is a collection of 12 essays dealing primarily with narrative history, originally published in 1978. White predominantly approaches history from a perspective of literary criticism, but also grapples with the idea of history as science. White shows that historians often defend history as either science or art when convenient. He then points out this defense is not sufficient because it runs from the criticisms instead of addressing them.

In the first half of the book, White demonstrates that history is always an interpretation. To White, treating history as fact is misguided. In the fourth essay, “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination,” he suggests that instead of seeing histories that differ as contradictory and therefore less useful, we should see them as different perspectives that help us to make sense of a given time and place.

Essays seven and eight explore conceptions of “wildness” and how from this, the idea of the “noble savage” was formed and fetishized. These essays may prove helpful to my thesis because of the nature of the colonial project. For one, the “not yet” mentality the British held in regards to Indian self-rule seems to come directly from the idea of certain Indians as noble savages — noble yes, but savages all the same.

The next three essays deal more specifically with certain philosophers and their responses to one another. The final essay discusses literary criticism more broadly, claiming Absurdist Criticism is not only seizing its moment, but has been present all along. To be perfectly honest, these final four essays don’t have much applicable material for my thesis. Again, I’m reading selfishly here, so I read them mostly just to get a sense of what they said. And that’s fine. Reading selfishly is important in situations like these.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection of essays and will likely return to read it more closely when I (somehow, someway) have the time. Before that day comes, I’ll need to revisit the essay “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination.” I have a feeling it might feature in my thesis.