Saturday, July 05, 2008

How do you remember?

John’s expatriate thoughts on July 4th have triggered some, albeit clearly less patriotic, associations of my own. They are related to things I've said earlier in the week - and of course they have to do with what I do (at least most of the time) for a living.

One of the ideas that currently seems to possess some popularity in a variety of disciplines – the cognitive sciences, philosophy and literary studies – is the notion that “we are our stories”. In other words, the way we perceive our lives – from everyday experiences to life-changing events – is shaped to a significant extent by the narrative forms in which we wrap up these events and experiences. In fact, so the story goes, without these narrative forms, we wouldn’t really have an identity at all. We need the coherence-creating sweep of narrative to make sense of who we are in time and space.

All this does not lack a certain plausibility or attractiveness. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that I increasingly feel a sense of unease vis-à-vis the idea that we are what we tell others/ourselves we are.

First of all, the notion that “all is stories” seems to lead into the poststructuralist abyss that there is no truth and/or reality. I know that this is not really what poststructuralist theory really maintains, but somehow this is the facile conclusion at which many of its adherents always seem to arrive. It's all stories, ergo there is no truth.

Or, as a character in Todd Solondz's film Storytelling (more on that below) puts it: "I don't know about what happened. But once you start writing, it all becomes fiction".

Secondly, the “we need stories” argument is a bit too feel-good for my liking, suggesting not only that the stories we tell are practically significant, but in fact that they have a positive psychological effect.

By contrast, my immediate association with storytelling is something less uplifting: ideology. Whenever I read that stories are good for us, I feel the urge to ask: where do these stories come from? Which intentions do they serve? What is the person telling me stories trying to do to me as he/she is letting me in on his/her adventures, exploits or woes? Rather than untainted truths, stories transport ideologies - or, to put it more bluntly, lies - be it the gossipy lies spread about colleagues in the (non-)professional contexts in which some of us work, be it historical untruths of the "We have always been at war with Eurasia" kind. While the stories themselves may be fiction, the political situation and the agents that bring them forth are not. Think of the current situation in Zimbabwe, which looks like a postmodern joke, but is in fact bloody serious.

The third source of my unease, however, is related to the fact that I simply fail to satisfy the narrative paradigm. Because, truthfully, I neither feel that I'm a particularly narrated personality, nor that I like telling stories (about) myself. My past comes to me in fleeting flashbacks, some pleasant, many others embarrassing or painful, and it takes some effort on my part to turn these brief glimpses and impressions into a coherent narrative. Usually I fail.

Because, really, I’m one hell of a lousy storyteller. I lack the theatricality, the ability to create suspense, the sense of timing that a storyteller needs. When I was little, my mother once (or more than once? Depends on the version of my story, I guess) referred to me in public as “the child who can’t tell jokes”. I can tell you that this particular skill hasn’t improved with age.

And whatever impression I might leave at this here blog, I’m kind of a quiet person in real life. I’m not chatty – only when I’m nervous, stressed and need to get something off me chest (which happens sometimes, but not often).

What is more, I’m not particularly attracted to natural storytellers (or those who believe that they are), whom I instinctively tend to find manipulative. I don't like to be reduced to a passive claqueur for the public performances of egomaniacs. Which is why I dislike this whole culture of narrative as it manifests itself in scandal-mongering talk shows about and intimate memoirs by vulgar people who apparently lack a sense of distance and discretion. Some things should remain left unsaid and not every kinky habit needs to be shared.

So I was glad, a few months ago, to stumble over an essay by Galen Strawson, provocatively named “Against Narrativity ” (in Ratio XVII [2004]). Strawson questions the current narrative dogma that I have sketched above, which he calls the “psychological Narrativity thesis”. One of the reasons why he challenges this thesis has to do with the ethical stipulation entwined with it, the idea, namely that only a narrated life is a fulfilled and moral life (this, Strawson calls the "ethical Narrativity thesis").

Strawson's defence of non-narrative people such as himself, i.e. people whose memories are episodic rather than narrated and chronological, is quite intricate and I will not comment on it in great detail. What I like about Strawson's argument is that he draws our attention to the undeniable self-importance that characterises many champions of the Narrativity thesis as it is usually applied. As he puts it: "... those who think in this way are motivated by a sense of their own importance or significance that is absent in other human beings" (436).

This is an impression I, too, have begun to have.

Note, however, that this criticism does not apply to the kind of storytelling represented by Hugh Lupton, a storyteller cited today in a post by Francis Sedgemore. For Lupton, myth, legends and folklore possess a very real truth value: "The function of myth is to tell the truth. Not the everyday truth that is the opposite of lying, but the truth that can’t be told any other way." I'm not talking about this kind of truth, which for want of a better term we might call "human universals", but the more pedestrian, individual myth-making that seem so characteristic of our egocentric age.

A less theoretical challenge to the Narrativity thesis can be found in Michael Frayn's 2002 novel Spies (a wonderful, wonderful book on this and other topics which I recommend wholeheartedly):
What I remember, when I examine my memory carefully, isn’t a narrative at all. It’s a collection of vivid particulars. Certain words spoken, certain objects glimpsed. Certain gestures and expressions. Certain moods, certain weathers, certain times of day and states of light. Certain individual moments, which seem to mean so much, but which mean in fact so little until he hidden links between them have been found (32).
The novel describes the narrator-protagonist’s attempt to retell an embarrassing and guilty period in his childhood, during which he caused (or helped cause) others great pain. Although this "confession" is done with a therapeutic aim ("I have a feeling that something, somewhere, has been left unresolved, that some secret thing in the air around me is still waiting to be discovered" [1]), the narrator is aware that his retrospective attempt at ordering his memories is a construct. And while it may bring out some of the "hidden links" of which he is not yet aware, his revelation is tainted by his unfulfillable desire for repentance.

In the end, the narrative told to make sense of his past only reveals how effectively stories can be used to veil what really happened. The narrator wishes to confess so as to repent, yet all we learn about him (and ourselves) is how human beings can use stories to defer repentance.

And this brings me back to Solondz's Storytelling, which is a viciously funny film about exactly that: how our many everyday stories help us to do just one thing - lie, lie, lie:


canada said...

Excellent post. I recently came to the same conclusions regarding personal narrative. I find such narrativity uninteresting and mostly dishonest; an activity I indulge in because I too am extremely nervous in company and self-conscious when writing.

I've more or less perfected my "performance" so that no one believes me when I confess to blowing a chatty smokescreen, though they seem to believe whatever else I tell or write them which strikes me as very odd.

Yesterday I wrote a response to your Independence Day post but deleted it thinking, "who the fuck cares?". I'm tempted to do it this time around but won't because I want to commiserate and thank you for cogently articulating and adding to my clarity on the issue.

Anonymous said...

...Need I add: despite the irony?

Francis Sedgemore said...

I think you need a term other than "human universals", given that many folk tales are designed to shed light on and celebrate the more mundane aspects of human existence. And some are based on a collection of "vivid particulars" linked together in the loosest of narrative structures.

I'm also uneasy with Strawson's counterposition of episodic and chronological. It might be helpful for me to read the essay in full. Do you have an electronic copy you could share?

The Wife said...

Thank you both for you comments, with a comment in return to Francis:

I don't think that "human universals" and "mundane aspects of human experience" necessarily exclude each other. Eating, hunting, mating, giving birth, dying, fighting, integrating the young, ousting the other ... these are all fairly everyday experiences, but absolutely universal with it, no?

And as to particulars: yes, I agree, and I suppose these local differences are what people find fascinating about folklore. But then again, when you look at these differences more closely - don't many of them (e.g. fertility rituals, carnival traditions, solstice celebrations) boil down to universal realities?


J. Carter Wood said...

Canada: I'm sad to hear that you deleted your response to my 4 July post. I, for one, would have cared.

I'm glad you resisted the temptation in responding to The Wife.

Thanks for coming by.

canada said...

Oops. Must remember to look at who is writing what here. One would think the obvious stylistic differences would be something of a clue...

Apologies to The Wife.

J. Carter Wood said...

No apologies necessary: we are a very collaborative venture.

Being confused for the other is, in some way, a compliment.

heather said...

Very enjoyable and thought-provoking post.
I'm not sure if what people mean by "narrative" -in terms of creating an ongoing sense of self - means the same thing as "narrative" - in the sense of a coherent developing story.
But I don't know much about the debates and would need to read something about it.

The Wife said...


Thanks for the comment. There's a huge body of work on narrative, be it textual or psychological, and it's a bit difficult to find a way in. The Strawson essay which I linked to in the post is a good point of departure because he mentions the most important names (Bruner, McIntyre, Dennett) which you could then follow up.


hysperia said...

I find psychological narrative terribly reductive. Most novels, other than "Ulysses" perhaps, cannot manage the vast number of narrative strands that comprise our lives without total loss of control. And I've not been abel to get through "Ulysses" either.
Rather than being a purely ego-driven enterprise, the making of narrative may be part of a drive to "make meaning" but to me, that is something similar to believing in the existence of a Divine Narrator". I don't and, in fact, I can't.
Even the best "textual narrators" are not telling stories of complete lives; occasionally, particularly vivid, compelling and RELATIVELY complex narratives may tell us something of ourselves or someone else or society etc. And can be of great value for that. But the "whole" of experience remains elusive or even mysterious. Perhaps it is in that way that postmodernist texts are more "truthful". And no less reflective of ideology. If narratives are implicitly deceitful, perhaps they are not less significant for that.

Love this blog, as I said to "The Husband" on an earlier post.