Honoring Hayden White

Tribute by James Clifford, Distiguished Professor Emeritus

Tribute by Susan Leigh Foster, Distinguished Professor at UCLA

Remembrances Page

New York Times obituary

Santa Cruz Sentinel obituary

Remembering Hayden White

James Clifford

Temple Beth El, Santa Cruz, CA
March 9th 2018

I was Hayden’s junior sidekick in 1978 when we both arrived in Santa Cruz as the History of Consciousness Board’s first full-time faculty. The campus was in the midst of radical reorganization, and the program suffered from problems of continuity and faculty commitment. Histcon was anarchic in both bad and good ways—the good ways having to do with its extraordinary students: idealistic, original, unwilling to bow to authority. As the new Chairperson, Hayden brought essential stability and a fresh vision. There were widespread fears that he would initiate a reign of “high theory” and academic professionalism. But he didn’t impose an orthodoxy or a required curhriculum, and it was soon apparent that he valued the unruly multiplicity of Histcon.

He resisted pressure to come up with a less outrageous name. And he adopted as departmental logo… the sphynx.

Hayden understood that a program like Histcon had to be open and experimental. It could not be disciplined, from above. It would be composed of the always-changing interests of its members, held together by intellectual passion and human connections. “Loyalty to people,” he used to say, “not to institutions.”

Of course, by then he was a world-renowned scholar and critic. I won't try to sum up his many contributions to understanding historical thought and practice. As an intellectual, he characteristically combined radical openness with intellectual rigor (“anarcho-formalism” I used to call it). This attitude was exactly what a program like Histcon required. We needed to let a hundred flowers bloom without sliding into “anything goes” relativism. Good intellectual work, Hayden knew, could take many forms. There was no sovereign theory or inherently virtuous approach.

Around 1980, when our dynamic Dean, Helene Moglen, offered Histcon two senior positions, but only if they were feminist scholars, Hayden said “why not?” Feminist theory had not been a part of his own thinking. But he recognized an emerging field with exciting possibilities.

This openness was evident in Hayden’s academic advising. He directed dissertations from all over the intellectual and political map. To mention only a few from the early years: Sharon Traweek was doing fieldwork among Physicists. Susan Foster disentangled the forms of dance. Jose Rabasa did close readings of 16th Century conquest narratives in Mexico. Chela Sandoval explored “oppositional consciousness” in contemporary Third World Feminism.

Hayden seemed interested in everything and (intimidating to a younger colleague) to have read everything! The only qualities he couldn't stand were literal mindedness and sanctimoniousness.

He knew how to provoke. I’ll never forget the stunned silence that greeted his advice to our first pro-seminar in 1978. “In our line of work,” he informed the students, “You have to love reading more than anything—more than food, more than politics, more than sex…”

Our late colleague Jack Schaar introduced Histcon’s new Chair to the campus newspaper: “Hayden White is a man who likes to walk up to an idea…and punch it in the nose.”

Working with Hayden (and this went for faculty as well as students) wasn’t always comfortable. He would step on what you held sacred. And he could be wickedly accurate. But we discovered that If you stayed with him, stayed in the conversation (and he so loved conversation), he would do anything for you. Watching him work with students, I was always amazed by how much he took on, how generous he could be. An incredible energy…

And if he wasn’t always gentle, he was exciting. What an oral performer he was!

Hayden had a special magic: often after a conversation with him you would come away inspired, feeling better about yourself. I still don’t know how he did it. Maybe it was just his way of taking your confused contribution to the life of the mind seriously.

Looking back, I’m most grateful for the freedom and the security I found in Hayden’s Histcon. Permission to thrive. (I’ve heard Donna say much the same thing.) It was a place where we were free from disciplinary conservatism. We could experiment and take risks.

For forty years, Hayden would be a model of deep collegiality and, with Margaret, a true friend. When Judith and I looked for someone to marry us in our Westside backyard Hayden was the obvious choice. Wearing a white, three-piece suit, he rose to the occasion magnificently, and without a trace of irony.

His was an amazing energy--a kind of life-force that swept up those around him.

It’s hard to accept that this energy is now gone. But we all take some of it with us, and if we follow Hayden’s example, we’ll find ways to pass it on.

For Hayden White’s Memorial

Susan Leigh Foster, Distinguished Professor of Dance, UCLA
PhD – History of Consciousness, 1981

The first thing I want to say about Hayden is that he was an absolutely fabulous dancer. He was articulate, enormously sophisticated in terms of rhythmic phrasing, and he could throw weight into his lanky frame, so as to bust one move after another. His dancing was super sexy. This needs to be said.

When Hayden came to History of Consciousness as its first Chair, he inherited a wild assortment of students who were largely running the program themselves. The only thing he had going for him in terms of infrastructural support was the illustrious voice of Billie Harris who answered the phone every time --- “History of Consciousness.” How could that not be credible?

Hayden proceeded to establish many other and more far-reaching reasons to believe in the program, what it might represent and achieve. He set about constructing an atmosphere of curiosity, generosity, and openness towards all kinds of inquiries. He offered students an entirely new way to discuss their projects with one another and to forge interdisciplinary connections by focusing on how different theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches could illuminate their individual research interests. He invited numerous guest speakers whose presentations served as a forum for further discussion and community building.

Together with Margaret, he created a warm and welcoming environment for the students, hosting many parties and receptions, always with good food and “liquid methodology.” And all of this while also writing “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality”, among other essays.

Hayden was an enthusiastic and willing listener, and he was always up for a discussion. He was endlessly inventive in terms of responses to students’ work; he borrowed with gusto ideas or whole frameworks for analysis from one disciplinary inquiry and transplanted them into another in order to see what they might reveal, and he dazzled with his capacity to represent succinctly the positions of any European or American philosopher and theoretician. “Deconstruction,” he once said, “is the process of taking something apart carefully in order to see how it works.”

Throughout he cast strong light on the structurings of power, giving voice to the underdog, the marginalized, and that which had been suppressed, oppressed or occluded. In accepting his honorary doctoral degree from the Frei Universitaet in 2016, he reminisced about his earliest years as a student, revealing to the packed auditorium that as a first-grader he had been smitten by the sweet smell of the teacher and resolved then and there that if reading books could improve the smell of his surroundings then that is what he would do.

Hayden adhered to a politics of sharing, once off-handedly observing in a comment that I share with every student: “If you hold onto an idea, you’ll never have another; if you give ideas away, you’ll always have more.”

Returning to Hayden’s “bodily” passions – besides dancing he also loved to cook and to eat. It was my great good fortune to tour northern Italy with Hayden, Margaret, and Juliana, and as yet another aspect of the education I received from him, watched with astonishment as he looked up every one fork, two star Michelin ranked restaurant in the region and then organized a tour of cultural sites that would fit in with these dining options.

I have been in touch with so many scholars around the world since Hayden’s passing who are all reading and re-reading his texts as a way to celebrate his life. We are so lucky to have known him in many more ways as well.