Talk by visiting scholar Mark Hearn

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Tuesday 25th of September in HUM330 3-5pm:


Fashioning the fin de siècle: the figurative construction of historical periodization


Style and periodisation are closely related, jointly shaping the historical imagination.1

…it is by figuration that the historian virtually constitutes the subject of the discourse.2



The fin de siècle 1890-1914 was a period of anxious transition, as new technologies and industrial practices, the unprecedented and global scale of capitalist enterprise, destabilised familiar practices and ways of life.  New ideas stimulated resistance to change. Reaction to industrialisation recalled a romanticised past, and attracted interest in new forms of belief and spiritualism, such as Theosophy, that offered an alternative to rampant materialism. Reaction against rational, industrial progress also manifest in the artistic and design movements associated with the fin de siècle, such as Art Nouveau and Symbolism.

The analysis unfolds from an outline of significant characteristics of the fin de siècle, and addressing questions of historical style that may help to define the periodization and the nature of the fin de siècle. In History and Practice Ludmilla Jordanova argues that terms that define style – such as rococo and neoclassical - often constitute the imaginative construction of periodization, and reflect how definitions of style and periodization are inherently figurative descriptions, a deployment of metaphorical language to trigger an association of values in time. Hayden White argued that in historical narratives, ‘it is the types of figurative discourse that dictate the fundamental forms of the data to be studied…The implication is that historians constitute their subjects as possible objects of narrative representation by the very language they use to describe them.’3 The paper then explores the theme of time and periodization, including how representations of Romanticism by historians have helped shaped interpretations of the fin de siècle and its periodization, and the wider context of nineteenth and twentieth century modernity, of which the fin de siècle formed one of the discrete ‘time regimes’, which as Berber Bevernage and Chris Lorenz argue, require ‘further conceptual and empirical analysis.’4

While working from White’s conception, it is necessary to clarify that a figurative historical discourse is not necessarily ‘fictive’, drawing a distinction that White tended to assimilate. I also argue that historical discourses are not solely the preserve of historians. The figurative representation of the fin de siècle is a fundamentally historicized process, and has been engaged in by both historical actors and historians. The figurations of the fin de siècle began with an awareness of change by historical actors, who in turn drew from the past in order to plot a new future, and who either implicitly or explicitly periodized their experience as part of clarifying the movement into the future. Historians subsequently intervene and develop an ongoing process of figurative historicization and periodization, in part motivated by responding to similar dilemmas and forces that shaped the responses of historical actors; both historical actors and historians draw on history for present needs.


Dr. Mark Hearn,

Macquarie University.



1) Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice, (London: Hodder Arnold, 2006), p.109

2) Hayden White, ‘Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination’, in Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p.106.

3) Hayden White, ‘Historical Text as Literary Artifact’, in Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p.95

4) Berber Bevernage and Chris Lorenz, ‘Breaking up Time – Negotiating the Borders between Present, Past and Future. An Introduction’, in Breaking Up Time: Negotiating the Borders Between Present, Past and Future, ed. Chris Lorenz and Berber Bevernage (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), p.9.

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Last updated: 17.9.2018