Continuing, in a sense, from a stream of thought in my previous posts I wanted to think briefly about the idea of ‘narrative’ within the concept of personal identity.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to recent political upheaval and the role of narrative through political events – narrative as a means of understanding as well as a means of developing power. This was quite nicely illustrated, for me, in a recent interview on the ‘On-being’ podcast relating to the development of story and narrative in relation to the Civil Rights movement in America.
I think that narratives, or ‘bundles of stories’, represent intrinsic parts of our personal identity, like planks laid down to generate the hull of a ship. Individual planks can be taken out, restored, replaced but the overarching identity of the ship may remain
The idea of ‘narrative medicine’ is enjoying something of a renaissance currently, with clinicians being asked to listen to their ‘patient’s story’ – but this runs the risk of an interesting counterargument; how do we avoid a ‘narrative imperative’ wherein a person is either compelled to provide a ‘story’ in a certain manner, or the feeling that in a repeated call for story the mode of communication has been shut down.
Herein, I believe, lies a problem in our employing the word ‘narrative’ in this manner. A narrative can be taken as implying that the ‘story’ is ‘complete’ – that it can be subjected to some form of analysis with regard to its structure. This, to me, is not necessarily the purpose of understanding experience in terms of narrative. There is a risk of assuming that ‘narrative’, or even ‘identity’, exist as phenomena that could be in some way ‘real’ in the world.
I do not believe that ‘narrative’ exists in this sense: Instead, narrative comes into existence only through being shared with another through some means of symbolic communication. In this manner however the ‘narrative’ can exist only in the manner in which it is communicated and ‘witnessed’ by the Other. I am not certain that ‘internal narratives’ could exist without the Other, as they would, obviously, have no psychic role.
There is a quote here, that I have unfortunately misremembered both in terms of its original source and its phrasing to the extent that I have most likely simply retrofitted it to my own purposes:
History is a story that we tell to an audience in the present, to serve a function for the future
That for me is the essence of narrative in interpersonal communication. I believe that formulated in this manner narrative can have a powerful influence in our answer to the eternal question – ‘Who am I?’ and is therefore of great value. But, it can not exist without the involvement of the subject and the Other…
If anyone can enlighten me as to the origin of the bastardised quote above I’d be grateful…

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