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James Phelan

Narrative, Volume 13, Number 3, October 2005, pp. 205-210 (Article)

Published by The Ohio State University Press

DOI: 10.1353/nar.2005.0022

For additional information about this article


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Editor’s Column



This issue contains a provocative dialogue between George Butte and Paul John
Eakin about Eakin’s essay in the May 2004 issue, “What Are We Reading When We
Read Autobiography?” At stake in the dialogue are (1) our understanding of the roles
of authorial agency and of deep subjectivity (one’s knowledge that one knows that
one knows) in the construction of autobiography; and (2) ideas about the relation be-
tween the disciplines of neurobiology (which Eakin draws heavily upon) and narra-
tology. Since Butte and Eakin both do a good job of articulating their positions, I will
just point you to their debate and invite you to adjudicate it on your own.
My interest here is in a feature of Eakin’s argument that Butte doesn’t directly
address and that I want to link to the general narrative turn that many disciplines
have taken in recent years: the narrative identity thesis, or, in Eakin’s words, “the
idea that what we are could be said to be a story of some kind” (307). Eakin is both
attracted to and somewhat skeptical of this thesis: he sees “many reasons to believe”
it (124), even as he labels it “counterintuitive and even extravagant” (121) and “sur-
prising” (124). This double response motivates both his question, “what are we read-
ing when we read autobiography?,” and his turn to the work of the neurobiologist
Antonio Damasio for some help in answering it. Eakin combines Damasio’s findings
and speculations about the neurobiological bases of the self with his own extensive
experience as a student of autobiography to advance two provocative claims: “(1)
that ‘self’ content might be distributed throughout an I-narrative and not merely con-
tained in the I-characters and I-narrators where the conventions of autobiographical
discourse condition us to look for it; and (2) that ‘self’ is not only reported but per-
formed, certainly by the autobiographer as she writes and perhaps to a surprising de-
gree by the reader as he reads” (311).

NARRATIVE, Vol. 13, No. 3 (October 2005)

Copyright 2005 by The Ohio State University
206 Editor’s Column

Eakin shows that these claims and the narrative identity thesis are fully compat-
ible, but I believe he stops short of demonstrating that they are mutually entailed. In
other words, while the claims and the thesis may be interdependent, it is also possi-
ble that the claims can be true and the thesis untrue and vice versa. I make this point
not to launch further commentary on Eakin’s suggestive essay but rather to highlight
the narrative identity thesis itself. The thesis is a noteworthy phenomenon within the
broader narrative turn because it is an instance of what I call “narrative imperialism,”
the impulse by students of narrative to claim more and more territory, more and more
power for our object of study and our ways of studying it. This expansionist impulse
is natural—it follows from our enthusiasm for our object—and it is often well-
founded: in many cases, narrative and narrative theory help enrich the new territory.
But, like other colonizing projects, narrative imperialism can have negative conse-
quences both for the colonized and the colonizer. Narrative imperialism can lead us
to devalue existing insights from the colonized disciplines. It can stretch the concept
of narrative to the point that we lose sight of what is distinctive about it. And it can
lead us to oversimplify some of the phenomena it seeks to explain.
Eakin of course is far from alone in advancing the narrative identity thesis; he
begins the original article with an epigraph from Oliver Sacks claiming that “each of
us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ and that this narrative is us, our identities” (121).
Jerome Bruner has written that the “self is a perpetually rewritten story . . . and that
in the end we become the autobiographical narratives we tell about our lives” (15).
And to cite just one more of many possible examples, Terry Castle used her plenary
address at the 2005 Narrative Conference in Louisville to exemplify the thesis; she
analyzed the list of songs on her iPod and the photographs from her computer’s
screensaver as telling the story of her identity.
It is to Eakin’s credit that he remarks on the surprising and counterintuitive na-
ture of the idea that the self is a narrative. When an extravagant position becomes a
commonplace, we often stop paying attention to what is extraordinary about it (yeah,
yeah, the emperor has a beautiful wardrobe) until someone comes along and gives it
a good debunking (what are you talking about? the only item in the emperor’s
wardrobe is his birthday suit!). Of course the self-appointed debunker sometimes
not only fails to dislodge the position he opposes but also renews his audience’s
awareness of what is remarkable about it (think the Pharisees v. Jesus in the New
Testament). Galen Strawson, in an essay published after Eakin’s called “Anti-Narra-
tivity,” has rather gleefully taken on the role of Debunker for the narrative identity
thesis. I want to take a close look at Strawson’s argument in order to explain why I
think his debunking is successful and then I want to offer some thoughts about the
relation between the narrative identity thesis and narrative imperialism.1
Strawson identifies two distinct but related claims associated with the self-as-
narrative position—a “psychological narrativity thesis” such as we find in Sacks,
Bruner, and others; and an “ethical narrativity thesis” such as we find in Alasdair
MacIntyre’s After Virtue, a thesis asserting that developing an awareness of our nar-
rative identity is inseparable from our efforts to live a good life. Strawson points out
that the two theses can have four possible relations to the truth: the psychological
thesis is true but the ethical one false; the psychological thesis is false and the ethical
one true; both theses are true; and both are false. Characterizing the third position as
Who’s Here 207

the current orthodoxy, he argues vigorously for the fourth, contending that the psy-
chological thesis is false and the ethical thesis is pernicious. Strawson’s key moves
are to claim that he is unable to link his sense of self with a narrative and that this in-
ability makes him neither unique nor less of a person.
Strawson does not deny the possibility that those who advocate the psychologi-
cal thesis actually experience their own selfhood as a narrative. But he does accuse
them of mistakenly assuming that “if it’s true for me, it must be true for everyone.”
Strawson elaborates his “different strokes for different folks” view by distinguishing
between Diachronics, who see the self as continuous over time (“something that was
there in the past and that will be there in the future,” [429]), and Episodics, who see
the self as discontinuous over time (the self here in the present is not the same self
that was here in the past or that will be here in the future), though they recognize that
these different selves are all part of the same human being who has persisted over
time. Strawson views these attitudes not as a binary but as existing along a spectrum,
and he identifies himself as a strong Episodic.2
For a clearer idea of the Episodic perspective, consider this passage from
Michael Frayn’s Whitbread Award winning 2002 novel, Spies. The adult narrator,
Stephen Wheatley, is describing his childhood self.

This is what I see as I look at it [the old neighborhood] now. But is that the way
he sees it at his age? I mean the awkward boy who lives in that unkempt house
between the Hardiments and the Pinchers—Stephen Wheatley, the one with the
stick-out ears and the too-short grey flannel school shirt hanging out of the too-
long grey flannel school shorts. I watch him emerge from the warped front door,
still cramming food into his mouth from tea. Everything about him is in various
shades of grey. . . because he’s entirely monochrome, and he’s monochrome be-
cause this is how I recognize him now, from the old black-and-white snaps I
have of him at home, that my grandchildren laugh at in disbelief when I tell
them it’s me. I share their incredulity. I shouldn’t have the slightest idea what
Stephen Wheatley looks like if it weren’t for the snaps, or ever guess that he and
I were related if it weren’t for the name on the back. (10)

Wheatley the narrator knows that young Stephen is the boy he used to be, but he
feels so utterly separate from that boy that as narrator he refers to him in the third per-
son. Even the one reference to young Stephen as “me” (necessary for Frayn to let his
audience know the connection between the two Stephen Wheatleys) is not to the boy
that he re-sees in his imagination. Instead it is to the boy in the snapshots, which have
persisted through time in a way that young Stephen’s self has not. And this one refer-
ence to his young Stephen in the first person singular is immediately followed by the
narrator’s expression of incredulity that he and the boy are at all connected. For the
Episodic narrator, the self that he is now is discontinuous with the self that he was then.
Although it would be possible to argue that in the course of the novel Frayn
ends up moving Wheatley from this initial Episodic mode to a Diachronic one, such
an argument itself depends on, and thus underlines the usefulness of, Strawson’s
distinction. This interpretive argument could weaken the distinction only if it
could be seen as evidence for a larger case that the Episodic mode always and
208 Editor’s Column

inevitably evolves into a Diachronic mode. And Strawson’s own testimony about his
relation to his past, present, and future selves stands as a strong bulwark against such
an argument: “I have a past, like any human being, and I know perfectly well that I
have a past. I have a respectable amount of factual knowledge about it, and I also re-
member some of my past experiences ‘from the inside’ as the philosophers say. And
yet I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a nar-
rative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in
my past. Nor do I have a great deal of concern for any future” (433).
Strawson’s claims that he is Episodic and that Episodics fall within the normal
range of homo sapiens effectively cuts off most avenues for refutation. Those who
want to maintain the self-as-narrative position can say that Strawson’s characteriza-
tion of himself is mistaken, that he has a narrative identity that he is not really aware
of (perhaps it’s a meta-narrative: Strawson is the man who tells himself he has no
narrative identity), or they can say that he is more limited by his Episodic identity
than Diachronics with a narrative identity. The first rejoinder, as Strawson himself
notes, results in a stand-off. Basic beliefs are being articulated on each side, and ev-
idence in support of those beliefs (e.g., Strawson’s claim that his self-understanding
does not have a narrative form) is doubted by the other side, primarily because it
conflicts with those beliefs. But counter assertion is not refutation, and Strawson’s
case against the psychological thesis remains a formidable one.3
The second potential rejoinder concedes Strawson’s argument about the psycho-
logical narrativity thesis and falls back on the ethical thesis: those whose self-under-
standings do take a narrative form live a fuller, sounder life. Strawson anticipates this
rejoinder by going on the offensive. “The Narrative tendency to look for story or narra-
tive coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding: to a
just, general, practically real sense, implicit or explicit, of one’s nature” (447). He cites
evidence in memory research that “every studied conscious recall of past events brings
an alteration” (447). Hence, “the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you
risk moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being” (447).
Since Strawson has argued earlier in his essay that revising one’s narrative over
time does not necessarily mean that one will distort the past, he is guilty of at least
some inconsistency here. More significantly, he fails to make the more convincing
move of tying his conclusions about the psychological thesis to an argument against
the ethical thesis. Such a move would go like this: Just as the difference between Di-
achronics and Episodics does not correspond to a difference between more human
and less human, the difference between having a narrative understanding of one’s
self and having a non- or even anti-narrative understanding of one’s self does not
correspond to a difference between an ethically superior and an ethically inferior ap-
proach to one’s life. Neither view is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for an
ethically positive relation to one’s life, if only because such a relation involves so
much more than self-understanding. Furthermore, once we establish the Diachronic
and the Episodic modes as two valid approaches to self-understanding, then the ar-
gument that either approach leads to a superior ethical position itself becomes ethi-
cally suspect. On what ethical ground can one stand to assert that equally valid
approaches to self-understanding have unequal ethical consequences?
Although I want to revise Strawson’s case about the ethical thesis in this way, I
Who’s Here 209

find his overall effort to debunk the narrative identity thesis to be both effective and
salutary. Indeed, I’d like to pursue some further consequences of his argument by
doing what I’ll bet anyone who has read this far is also doing: thinking about my
own place along the Episodic-Diachronic continuum.
I would like to say that I am a Diachronic with a strong narrative identity who is
persuaded by Strawson, because then my assessment could be separated from my own
self-understanding. But I must confess that I am an Episodic, albeit an Episodic who is
a recovering Diachronic. In my youth (well before I read Henry James’s “The Beast in
the Jungle”), I had the not uncommon Diachronic faith that the events of my life were
preparing me to fulfill a great destiny. A few experiences of life’s random violence dis-
abused me of this illusion, and rather than replacing it with another more plausible Di-
achronic narrative, I came to see my life in Episodic terms. I am not as strongly
Episodic as Strawson; I have much more interest in my past and much more concern
for my future than he does for his past and future. But when I look at snapshots of the
Jim Phelan who went to St. Joseph’s grammar school in Kings Park, Long Island and
believed he was singled out for a great destiny and the Jim Phelan who is now writing
this column, I have thoughts much like those of the elder Stephen Wheatley in Spies.
My greater interest in the past and the future makes me more likely than Straw-
son to construct narratives about periods of my life. But my Episodic nature means
that I am skeptical of any narrative that covers more than about a five-year period.
More than that, I cannot shake the awareness that whatever narrative I construct is only
one of many possible narratives and that the relations among the subsets of these pos-
sibilities range from entirely compatible and mutually illuminating to entirely incom-
patible and mutually contradictory. To put it another way, I am not just an Episodic but
also a Multiple: not only am I more struck by discontinuity than by continuity when I
think about “who’s here now” in relation to “who was there then,” but I also find that
there are numerous plausible narratives about “who’s here now.” It is not as if I regard
my life as only one damn thing after another, but I do regard it as this damn story and
that damn story and that other damn story. And these stories do not coalesce into a sin-
gle, coherent Master Damn Story. The narrative identity thesis simply doesn’t corre-
spond to my experience of my self and the plausible stories I can tell about that self.
This extension of Strawson’s analysis leads to two other points. First, while giv-
ing up the universal claims of the narrative identity thesis also means scaling back
claims for narrative’s power, this move does not mean that narrative is no longer im-
portant for self-understanding. It does mean that narrative’s importance will vary
from individual to individual, as the difference between me and my fellow-Episodic
Strawson indicates. Strawson has no place for narrative in his self-understanding (“I
have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form or indeed as a narrative
without form”), but narrative functions for me as a valuable tool for trying out expla-
nations and understandings of the ongoing stream of my experiences. Even though I
never reach a single coherent grand narrative, and any small narrative I settle on is
provisional, this process enables me to convert my life from one damn thing after an-
other to more manageable clusters of events and their significances.
Second, making this comparison gives me more sympathy for the narrative
identity thesis. Surely, I find myself thinking, Strawson must rely on narratives about
his life at least to some extent. Surely, in other words, Strawson must be more like
210 Editor’s Column

me than he admits. But I catch myself in this act of reproducing the problem with the
narrative identity thesis: reducing the numerous and complex relations between the
self and one’s narratives about the self to a single model. Built on the principle that
one size fits all, the thesis overlooks the diversity contained within that “all,” and
fails to ask whether everyone can fit comfortably into the shape it has designed. Fur-
thermore, because the narrative identity thesis itself fits so well with the impulse to-
ward narrative imperialism, it is very seductive for those of us who are convinced
that narrative matters. No wonder that, despite its being, as Eakin acknowledges,
both “counterintuitive and even extravagant,” it has become so widely accepted.
If these thoughts about narrative identity and narrative imperialism make sense,
then they lead to a few general conclusions. First, it is one thing to name the phe-
nomenon of narrative imperialism, quite another to recognize the problems with
some of its apparently more benign manifestations. This lesson in turn means, sec-
ond, that we should be especially grateful for the Strawsons of the world—those de-
bunkers who do us the service of pointing out our blind spots. Third, those of us who
champion narrative and narrative theory should worry at least as much about claim-
ing too much for their powers as about claiming too little. Indeed, now that so many
disciplines have made the narrative turn, now that narrative and narrative theory are
so firmly established as important objects of study, the overreaching accompanying
unsustainable extravagant claims may be more harmful to our field than the mis-
placed humility accompanying overly modest ones.

1. Castle referred to Strawson’s essay in her talk, but she didn’t deeply engage with it.
2. Strawson does not equate being a Diachronic with having a narrative of one’s life. To go from being a
Diachronic to being what he calls Narrative requires form-finding, a way to construct the continuous
self into a coherent story.
3. It is possible that developmental psychology or neurobiology may eventually produce evidence that
trumps Strawson’s claims—and my later claims—about our own self-understandings, but so far no
one is claiming that such evidence exists. Furthermore, as both Damasio and Eakin are aware, con-
necting the findings of neurobiology to the concept of self-understanding is a complicated business.

Bruner, Jerome. “Life as Narrative.” Social Research 54 (1987): 13–32.
Butte, George. “I Know That I Know That I Know: Reflections on Paul John Eakin’s ‘What We Read in
Autobiography.’” Narrative 13.3 (2005): 299–306.
Castle, Terry. “The Talk Formerly Known as ‘iPod, Therefore I Am.’” Paper delivered at the 2005 Inter-
national Conference on Narrative, Louisville, Kentucky, April 8, 2005.
Eakin, Paul John. “Selfhood, Autobiography, and Interdisciplinary Inquiry: A Reply to George Butte.”
Narrative 13.3 (2005): 307–311.
———.“What Are We Reading When We Read Autobiography?.” Narrative 12.2 (2004): 121–31.
Frayn, Michael. Spies. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.
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Sacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for His Hat and Other Clinical Tales. London: Duckworth,
Strawson, Galen. “Against Narrativity.” Ratio 17 (December 2004): 428–52.