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Book Review - Narrative and Identity

by Jens Brockmeier and Donal Carbaugh (editors)
John Benjamins, 2001
Review by Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Ph.D.
Feb 4th 2002

First, there was a psychology as a science dealing with “something.” We have all, I guess, attended so many courses and read so many books aiming to prove that we all have various (in number and nature) elements or units, some kind of personality structure. There were traits, factors, instances, cognitive structures, emotional and temperamental dispositions. We were also taught that there is a core of the personality – Das Selbst, the Self, the Proprium. We were supposed to become scientists who try to understand characteristics of these elements, their relationship, and development.

            Then, suddenly, this position lost a lot of its value. Structures mattered no more. We discovered ourselves as “creatures of relations.” There was almost nothing significant in us but sediments of relationships. We had been born into a culture, we perceived, we internalized, and almost whole of our intrapsychic world was once interpersonal. Even Freud’s best disciples wrote that “[t]he primary psychological configuration (of which the drive is only a constituent) is the experience of the relation…” (H. Kohut The Restoration of the Self, IUP, 1977, p. 122).

            But, there still was some consistency, some way to predict and to cure. As in a famous short story written by Milan Kundera, it was still possible to say, “I am I” and enjoy the reassuring pleasures of tautology. Despite being made out of  “lost objects,” we knew who we were. However, first person singular was being more and more discredited, cogito was being made more and more fragile basis.

            And, then, another change came along. A change that can properly be called “a tectonic shift” (Brockmeier and Harré, this volume, p. 39). Far away in the background, there still were some elements. Relations, transferences, constructions were closer, but that was still a background. So, what came to the foreground? Simply put: a story. Or, if you like: Le récit, a narrative. If you were to claim certain identity, it only could have been a narrative identity: there was a story in whose plot I played the central role. Let us look closely at my too brief summary of this book.

            Narratology is said to have emerged during 1960s and ‘70s (Brockmeier and Carbaugh, this volume, p. 5). One of the rare problems of the book is that it does not deal with the predecessors as extensively as they deserve. To mention but the few, Mikhail Bakhtin and James Joyce are mentioned almost en passant, and Ricoeur’s Narrative and Time – considered by Hayden White to be the most important synthesis of theory of history and theory of literature in the twentieth century – is never sufficiently elaborated, while their influence makes a foundation for whole approach. Be that as it may, the book deals mainly with the most important among more contemporary authors in a field that had rapid evolution, and is said to have become a composite of more than “one, well-defined theory or school” (Brockmeier and Carbaugh, this volume, pp. 5-9) that, nevertheless, form an indisputably valuable approach to various topics of contemporary human sciences.

            Now, try to imagine all those solemn gray heads that once taught your general psychology courses while reading thoughts ranging from “…there are no mental states as such, only attributes of the flow of personal and interpersonal action…” (Harré, this volume, p. 71) to “…narrative is a central hinge between culture and mind“ (Brockmeier and Carbaugh, this volume, p. 10) to “there is no history apart from the narrative event in which it is told…” (Freeman, this volume, p. 286).

            And look what happened to our good old self: it is said to be reified, since “[t]he sense of self has its origin in certain narrative practices in which an infant is treated as a nascent person. It is sustained or undercut by their abandonment” (Harré, this volume, p. 59), and “For Bourdieu, self is contextualized to an extent that it is absorbed by its milieu and therefore so totally different in different environments that the very notion of self becomes meaningless” (Vonèche, this volume, p. 220). The self is also considered decentered and multiple (Freeman and Brockmeier, this volume, p. 90; see also Harré’s chapter “Metaphysics and narrative. Singularities and multiplicities of self”, this volume, pp. 59-73).

            It seems that there can be little doubt that this is very thought provoking. The book does not aim at answering this question, but I can not help wondering about its therapeutic implications: Are we only to help our clients discover (or invent?) new life narratives, since “[w]e need to reflect on whether telling a life and living a life are essentially the same kind of thing” (Brockmeier and Harré, this volume, p. 51)? But, more importantly: Who am I? (Or should I say: Who is me? Or: Which one is me?) Just a bunch of stories I had been listening ever since the childhood and those I made myself? I do not like this application of the theory I find very exciting. I prefer myself as solid and rooted. As an answer, there is Eco (as quoted in Brockmeier, this volume, p. 249) resounding: “Life is certainly more like Ulysses than like The Three Musketeers – yet we are all the more inclined to think of it in terms of The Three Musketeers than in terms of Ulysses.” So, be aware that this story in a form of a book review is written by a specific composition of various narrative identities and one or more narrative integrities and that you who read it are mere “bearers of the stories.” And also, feel free to refigure my story here told, refiguring by that very act my world, myself…

            Now, let me try to summarize this review more discursively. I have never written a review of, and have not recently read, a book I would more wholeheartedly recommend. It is not only elegantly written, full of important information and conclusions, edited so to provide a wide-ranging insight into an original and provoking field of human sciences. It will confront a reader with new questions, and force him to think (and write!) in a new fashion. Never exhibitionistic or eccentric, it almost turns our sciences upside-down – both heuristically and ontologically - in a profoundly contemplated and exercised way. An excellent beginning for the new century.



© 2002 Aleksandar Dimitrijevic


Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Psychology, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.