Wednesday, September 12, 2012

the mystics and the mechanists: obsession with narrative or discourse

Last year I pointed to the problem with discourse and narrative theory that placed it in a schema of mysticism and mechanism:

there are properly two main categories based upon the subjective and objective. In the former there are mystics who appeal to a subjective absolute human freedom through reason or through the conscience. In the former case the intentionalists can’t give satisfactory answers on the appearance of reason in a child nor its departure through mental illness or death. In the latter case the spiritualists talk about the eternal moral order in the subjective experience of the conscience. However, they do so as if different religions, moral orders, and revelations didn’t exist from culture to culture. These two are followed by the mechanists who are concerned with causes in relation to humans belonging to a certain genus or culture. With them the physicalists talk about humans as if they were animals and everything was evolutionary and no culture existed. The narrativists talk about culture, its propagation of roles and stereotypes, and the uniqueness of cultural difference as if culture always existed and had no body, or pre-verbal animal, which it was based upon.

I'm taking a class on narrative analysis and thought I'd share a reaction paper on the class readings

I can agree with some of Brunner’s statements: “stories are always told from a particular perspective… unmasking one perspective only reveals another… it is the awareness of alternative perspectives, not from the view from Olympus, that sets us free to create a properly pragmatic view of the Real” (23). However, I don’t know who would claim that he or she perfectly understands human nature and everyone’s motivations all the time.

His account lacks both a recognition of ideology and a recognition of psychology. Psychology he writes off as simply: “where patients must be helped to tell the right kinds of stories in order to get well” (11). His view of the self is post-modern in that he doesn’t appeal to human freedom through mystical claims but simply posits that there are “endless forms of narrative through which we construct (and maintain) a self”(14). I don’t see people employing endless forms of narrative about their self and, in general, I’d say that when we use words like confident, shy, vain, self-effacing, ambitious, etc. we are describing different motivations and attitudes of others that are stable.

Where narratives do matter most, in ideology, he is silent. If an individual’s feelings of self-esteem only came from their success in love or work, their fame or good reputation then there would be no ideology. Narratives in which one sees oneself as a man/woman, father/mother, or a religious person, patriot, reformer, defender, etc. and wants to be regarded as such by others is precisely the place in which ideology enters. Between the former ego ideals vs. the latter social ideals a very important dialectic exists that Brunner ignores for aesthetic musings. 

The key paragraph for me is as follows:

Michael Tomasello argues persuasively that what originally differentiated the human species from other primates was our extended capacity to read each other’s intentions and mental states- our capacity for intersubjectivity, or “mind-reading”. It is a pre-condition for our collective life in culture. I doubt such collective life would be possible were it not for our human capacity to organize and communicate experience in narrative form. For it is the conventionalization of narrative that converts individual experience into collective coin which can be circulated, as it were, on a base wider than a merely interpersonal one. Being able to read another’s mind need depend no longer on sharing some narrow ecological or interpersonal niche but, rather, on a common fund of myth, folktale, “common sense”. And given that folk narrative, like narrative generally, like culture itself, is organized around the dialectic of expectation-supporting norms and possibility-evoking transgressions, it is no surprise that story is the coin and currency of culture. 16

So Brunner takes Tomasello’s mind-reading capacity and, tacks onto it, with no argument, that collective life would not be possible without narrative. If he brought up some of the social ideals and group identities I would agree but he only brings up individual narratives. I certainly agree that people self-consciously imitate narratives. Umberto Eco defined semiotics as “a sign is anything that can be used to tell a lie”. Whether it is someone who is trying to look brave when they are scared or fake feeling in a relationship in which they don’t have any, or trying to represent themselves as “dignified and lordly” or as grappling with existential angst, etc. the inauthentic here only derives its referents from the authentic. Fake emotion requires the bodily signs of real emotion so that it can be imitated. Some people fully cry or sob, but some people get ‘choked up’ and we only see the sadness in their eyes and hear it in their voice. There isn’t one way of expressing emotion (except the universality of young children). Similarly, narratives of certain styles of being (dignified and lordly, angsty, etc.) take their model from real individuals and aren’t simply created ex-nihilo. To say that someone is self-consciously imitating or trying to affect this style means that there is a person who expresses these qualities in an authentic way and capable of producing new expressions of the style while the imposter/poseur/actor performs the clichés and the narrative that is known publically.

The next problem is that Brunner says that ‘mind reading’ can somehow be replaced by the narratives in myth, folk-tale, or common sense. Let’s take the example of ‘sour grapes’. To say someone has sour grapes is to say that they diminish the value of an object or skill because he can’t possess it or perform it well. This can be applied to someone who is vain and wants to be seen by others as not lacking. Such a judgment of someone is not provided by being familiar with the ‘cliché’ alone but requires good judgment. Brunner seems to mix up genre conventions in cultural works (stories, fables, etc.) with the common sense judgments of individual psychology. He writes: “Narrative, then, presents an ontological dilemma. Are stories real or imagined?” (23). This is tantamount to saying that we can’t make judgments about whether someone is confident, vain, shy, (etc.). Again, no one is infallible in making such judgments but certainly there are some people who are better at it then normal and show their understanding by predicting the behaviours of others.

Frank’s article is more subtle, but also less coherent. He wants to focus on the effects of stories rather than the underlying psychological/philosophical issues but his entire article is peppered with statements about these issues that often contradict one another.

As far as I can tell Frank’s base view of people is a bourgeois individualist view. He doesn’t think that people are social by nature but claims that “stories act to make life social” (20). He recognizes that stories can ‘mimetically’ reflect life but seems enamored with provocative statements from others about that it might be the other way around. The clear failing of his account is to recognize the already social nature of humans as well as both the natural and structural differences of power between them. For example, he mentions the Ilongot huntsmen who seek out experiences that can be told as stories and arrives at his position “stories often shape, rather than simply reflect, human conduct’ (22). However, he only gives so much value to stories and to the image because of his failure to talk about power differences between individuals. There is no psychological investigation of the Ilongot huntsmen. They are simply all ascribed the desire of seeking out stories as if there were no differences between them. Another similar problem is that it is the story, and art that has power “art’s effects on human minds depend on its power to compel attention” (27). If we take a song for example, many different people could sing it and there could be many different responses of the audience to the various singers. Frank, along with Brunner, completely ignore the dimension of individual differences of power (charisma, ability to inspire fear in others, and generally the ‘individual psychology’ Freud mentioned that separates the group leader from the herd). Frank occasionally brings up ‘letting the story breathe’ and points to the skill of the storyteller but it is clear that the power is in images and the story and humans can find out how to access it or impede it. The reverse of this, can be seen when someone who appreciates the charisma of the artist will say, ‘s/he can read (or sing) the phonebook and I’d be mesmerized’, or the soldier who say ‘I’d follow him to hell if he asked me’.   

So, again, rather than saying all Ilongot huntsmen look for stories, I’d say that individual hunters have motivations (i.e. vanity, looking for approval, etc.) that drive them to look for stories so they can be seen as having spiritual power or impress the elders or feel like it’s expected of them to fit in, etc.. In an identical way, some students at our school will go looking for inductions (feelings projected into them) from their patients but it’s never everyone and there are differences in motivation when it occurs.

Frank mentions the importance of telling children a story in a certain way (27), and the ‘performative’ aspect of the story-teller “anticipating the response of those how receive the story and shaping the story in anticipation of that response’ (40). However, this doesn’t lead him to notice differences of power between individuals (whether structural or characterlogical). Instead, by the end of the chapter he wants to anchor the story and image in “an inner demand or hunger for direct experience… inherently pleasurable acts of the sensory, muscular, and imaginative processes by which the embodiment is consummated” (44). Like Descartes’ pineal gland where the non-material mind is supposed to interact with/control the body, Frank simply points to “processes of embodiment” to explain the power of the story and image.

Although psychoanalysis or Marxism doesn’t have a fully systematized explanation of the inter-subjectivity through which the mind is created and through which different objects and commodities receive their power, presence, or ‘meaningfulness’ for people, I still believe it is much more instructive to try to make sense of the ideas there then to accept mystical and ideological positions just because they are easier to grasp. 

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