Narrative Therapy: Between Subjectivation and Agency
Constructing the Narrative Subject
Michael White used to open his workshops with the following questions to the audience: “Has anyone experienced some family dynamic this morning?”; “Has anyone been working through resistance lately?”; “Has anyone been trying to actualize his/her inner self?”; “Has anyone been dealing with the effect of maladaptive basic beliefs?” The point of course was that, as human beings, we can construe our psychological life in a variety of ways—a position that White shares with constructivist and social constructionist perspectives. As Niemeyer highlights, “because the very terms in which we construe ourselves are cultural artefacts, our selves are deeply penetrated by the vocabularies of our place and time, expressing dominant modes of discourse as much as any unique personality” (Neimeyer 2000: 209). By comparison with McAdams”s framework for the analysis of personality and identity or Hermans”s take on the self, in White and Epston”s approach, personality organization is not specified. This stems not only from the fact that the latter authors have developed a therapeutic model: a predominant proportion of therapeutic approaches in psychology, from psychoanalysis to cognitive-behaviour, anchor their therapeutic ideas in a particular understanding of personality structure. For White and Epston it is rather a deliberately conceived position that refuses to define a human being and instead draws attention to the combinatory work of discourses, practices and techniques in which persons find themselves operating. Consequently, narrative therapy does not offer a personality model, and avoids using terms such as “self” and “personality”.
White and Epston”s position corresponds to Gergen”s critique of objectifying cultural practices: “For, in postmodern perspective, we find the culture in constant danger of objectifying its vocabularies of understanding, and thereby closing off options and potentials” (Gergen 1992: 26). Furthermore, their practice responds to Gergen”s call for a critical, self-reflexive and vigilant professional position: “a form of professional investment in which the scholar attempts to de-objectify the existing realities, to demonstrate their social and historical embeddedness and to explore their implications for social life” (Gergen 1992: 26—27).
Such a view doesn”t imply that the thorny issue of subjectivity or agency are of no interest to White and Epston. The issue of personal agency was at stake for them in adopting a narrative model from the very beginning:
The narrative mode locates a person as a protagonist or participant in his/her world. This is a world of interpretative acts, a world in which every retelling of a story is a new telling, a world in which persons participate with others in the “re-authoring”, and thus in the shaping, of their lives and relationships. (White and Epston 1990: 82)
On the basis of narrative therapy”s commitment to agency and self-directionality, some critics argue that White and Epston”s understanding of the subject has affinity with the modernist paradigm. Along these lines Polkinghorne suggests that “narrative therapists were selective in what they drew from postmodern writers. Some of the postmodern ideas, such as the centrality of language and discourse, were adopted, whereas other themes, such as the rejection of the creative subject, were not adopted” (Polkinghorne 2004: 54). Polkinghorne argues that narrative therapy places at its core the notion of a creative, authorial, self-constructing subject. His verdict is that narrative therapy “primarily makes use of existential themes, such as self-agency, empowerment, and responsibility, in its therapeutic work while using postmodern themes for diagnostic purposes” (Polkinghorne 2004: 54).
But as Besley argues, White rejects the view that narrative therapy is “a recycled structural/humanist practice” guided by the “discourses of psychological emancipation” (Besley 2001: 78). In doing so, White highlights that while he appreciates the positive impulse of humanist tradition that motivated people to challenge domination, discrimination and oppression, he strongly opposes the essentialism underlying both humanist and structuralist conceptions of the self. In this, the influence of the Foucauldian poststructuralist paradigm on White and Epston was crucial, and thus merits closer inspection in this context.
Foucault”s interest in self and subjectivity was governed by three critical questions: “How are we constituted as subjects of our own knowledge? How are we constituted as subjects who exercise and submit to power relations? How are we constituted as moral subjects of our own actions?” (Foucault 1984: 49). The first two questions were addressed extensively in the works produced from 1969 to 1980 (The Archaeology of Knowledge, Madness and Civilisation, Discipline and Punish and History of Sexuality, Volume I), while Volume II and Volume III of History of Sexuality, The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, which appeared in 1984, indicated a change of focus, and were concerned mainly with the third question. The early version of narrative therapy presented in Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends drew on the early and middle years in Foucault”s work, encompassed by the frameworks of archaeological and genealogical analyses. However, Foucault”s work continued to exert a powerful influence on White later on, as he sought to integrate Foucault”s ideas on ethical self-constitution into his theorizing.
Foucault”s early archaeological, or epistemological, studies recognize the changing frameworks of production of knowledge through the history of such practices as science, philosophy, art and literature. In his later genealogical practice, he argues that institutional power, intrinsically linked with knowledge, forms individual human “subjects”, and subjects them to disciplinary norms and standards. Foucault”s earlier archaeological analysis was instrumental in paving the way for the particular view on subjectivity that he later formulated. The conceptual apparatuses of episteme, discursive formation and discursive practices create a basis of the archaeological method and are critical for the view on the subject that Foucault elaborates at this stage. According to Foucault, “epistemes or discursive formations represent systems of thought and knowledge that are governed by rules, beyond those of grammar and logic, that operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought in a given domain and period” (Gutting 2011). These possibilities include the very notion of “man” itself, which is understood by Foucault as an epistemological concept. Foucault argues that this concept only appears during the Classical age, as previously “there was no epistemological consciousness of man as such” (Foucault 1970: 309).
Discursive formations and discursive practices are further implicated in the production of the subject through a mechanism of enunciative function. Besides the conceptual components, discursive formations also include institutions, disciplines, rules and practices, as well as material sites of production and the particular way they are organized. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault writes:
[W]hen one speaks of a system of formation, one does not only mean the juxtaposition, coexistence, or interaction of heterogeneous elements (institutions, techniques, social groups, perceptual organizations, relations between various discourses), but also the relation that is established between them — and in a well determined form — by discursive practice. (Foucault 2005: 80—81)
Foucault further describes discursive practice as “a body of anonymous, historical rules, always determined in the time and space that have defined a given period, and for a given social, economic, geographical, or linguistic area, the conditions of operation of the enunciative function” (Foucault 2005: 131). Enunciative function defines the place affecting any speaking subject that enters a particular discursive fellowship, and thus defines a subject as such. Consequently, in Foucault”s analysis the factors that can be considered external to the definition of the subject become definitive and determining of its position, function and experience:
In the proposed analysis, instead of referring back to the synthesis or the unifying function of a subject, the various enunciative modalities manifest his dispersion. To the various statuses, the various sites, the various positions that he can occupy or be given when making a discourse. To the discontinuity of the planes from which he speaks. And if these planes are linked by a system of relations, this system is not established by the synthetic activity of a consciousness identical with itself, dumb and anterior to all speech, but by the specificity of a discursive practice. (Foucault 2005: 60)
For Foucault, discourse creates “a field of regularity for the various positions of subjectivity” (Foucault 2005: 60). What is crucial from the point of view of the present discussion is Foucault”s sustained critique of the ontological precedence of the subject as a founding, unitary, self-evident category. Foucault subverts the essentialist understanding of the subject by connecting the problematics of the subject with the work of social, political and historical forces.
As Michael Guilfoyle notes, “White has sought to build a therapy that uses as theoretical platform Foucault”s account of power/knowledge and his critique of humanistic, sovereign subject in particular” (Guilfoyle 2012: 626). Foucault”s power/knowledge nexus lies at the core of White and Epston”s contextual understanding of people”s lives and of the narrative frameworks that people use to constitute their lives. Drawing on Foucault, White and Epston maintain that the “storying of experience” is dependent on language and that people therefore ascribe meaning to their experience and constitute their lives and relationships through language. In doing so, they mobilize the existing stock of culturally available discourses regulated by and associated with a particular norm and values, indicating what is appropriate and relevant to the expression and representation of particular aspects of experience. Thus, people”s understanding of their lived experience takes the form of value-laden constructions, informed by and embedded within particular discursive practices, predicated on certain forms of unitary knowledge and techniques of power.
White and Epston observe that the people who consult them often share beliefs related to a sense of failure to achieve certain expectations, to replicate certain specifications, or to meet certain norms. These expectations, specifications and norms embody “normalizing judgments” in the modern discourse of power, which define successful personhood as “the encapsulated self” and emphasize a form of autonomy and independence that is characterized by self-possession, self-containment, self-reliance, self-motivation and self-actualization. “The very concept”, notes White, “of “autonomous and independent action” and for that matter, of what it means to be a “real” or “authentic” person—is founded upon these constructed norms, and an inability to reproduce these norms categorizes people as “personal failures in their own and each other”s eyes”” (White 2007: 268). As Guilfoyle notes, in narrative therapy there is no assumption of essential, given, internally coherent, sovereign self waiting to be released, and “therapy cannot be oriented around the quest for such an essential figure” (Guilfoyle 2012: 628).
Yet, in Maps of Narrative Practice White re-articulates his view on personal agency as associated with “intentional state understanding of identity, whereby people are seen as living out their lives in line with their intentions and values” (White 2007: 103). This raises an important question of how Foucault”s ideas of the discursively constituted subject can be sustained alongside White”s commitment to a subject imbued with the power of agency.
The tension between White”s view on agency and his commitment to a view of the subject as discursively produced in some ways stems from the tension in Foucault”s own theorization of the subject. Many critics have drawn attention to the controversies in Foucault”s position regarding power and the possibility of resistance as they present themselves within a particular context of power/knowledge constellation. Some claim that while Foucault generally objects to domination, his position on this issue is considerably weakened, if not discredited altogether, by his own insistence that any resistance to power is an offshoot of power itself and can therefore only lead to a reproduction of power in a new guise. The critique often centres on the absence of an “outside” in Foucault”s paradigm, which also, according to some authors, leaves the question of truth within Foucault”s model in principle unanswerable (Colebrook 1997). Other critics suggest that it is not necessary (and, in practical terms, probably impossible) to be “outside” the episteme determining a specific epistemic condition in order to effect changes or resistance. They argue that the method of resistance proposed by Foucault is, rather, to try to strengthen some epistemic alignments and to challenge, undermine or evade others (Rouse 2005).
It should be emphasized, however, that Foucault is one of the few theorists of power who recognize that power is not just a negative, coercive or repressive force that compels individuals to do things against their wishes, but can also be a necessary, productive and positive force in society. A key point about Foucault”s approach to power is that it transcends politics and sees power as an everyday, socialized and embodied phenomenon. In this context, to challenge power is not a matter of seeking some “absolute truth” (which is in any case a socially produced power), but “of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time” (Foucault 1991: 75). Discourse can be a site of both power and resistance:
Discourses are not once and for all subservient to power or raised up against it. […] We must make allowances for the complex and unstable process whereby a discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart. (Foucault 1998: 100—101)
As Judith Butler notes: “What he is saying to us is that in the practice of critical thought we are forming ourselves as subjects, through resistance and questioning. Foucault does not presuppose a pre-existing subject that can say “no” and criticize authority. Rather that the subject forms him or herself through the practice of criticism” (Butler 2008). It is precisely in this way—paying simultaneous attention to the repressive effects of power and the possibilities of resistance through critical questioning that discourses create—that Foucault”s work on power was appropriated by White and Epston.
This has consequences for the overall understanding of the subject in their work, and specifically, of its alignment with modern versus poststructural and postmodern positions. The adoption of a poststructuralist understanding of language and postmodern view on discourse by White and Epston has also significantly reconfigured their understanding of subject which, as my previous analysis shows, is different from the essentialist, given, stable, fixed and autonomous subject of the modernist paradigm. For them selfhood is both narratively constructed and active: its actual presence is enacted through life actions and decisions. However, for White and Epston the agency and self-directionality of the subject represent not a given resource, but rather a challenge for narrative therapy. From this perspective narrative therapy can be thought of as one of the techniques of selfhood, and the self-descriptive narratives that emerge in this process—as practices of identity.