Constructing the Narrative Subject
This chapter has explored the narrative organization of the subject. It critically analysed how self, subjectivity and agency are conceptualized in McAdams”s, Hermans”s, and White and Epston”s approaches to narrative psychology. It paid particularly close attention to how these models are positioned with regards to the debates concerning modern versus postmodern conceptualizations of the subject.
McAdams consistently rejects postmodern critique and responds to the debates by reiterating his commitment to modernist values and assumptions. He posits the subject as the centred, transparent, reflective and self-directing individual. His view is in accord with the modernist perspective in psychology which, as Nikolas Rose notes, approaches the self as “coherent, bounded, individualized, intentional, the locus of thought, action, and belief, the origin of its own actions, the beneficiary of a unique biography” (Rose 1998: 3). Epistemologically, McAdams”s view is in line with a modernist objectivist orientation that Neimeyer defines as grounded in the understanding of reality and self as singular, stable, and, in principle, knowable (Neimeyer 2000: 208).
The DST developed by Hermans differs substantially from McAdams”s model of identity as a life story, engaging with postmodern critique on a number of levels. The model of dialogical self defined as polyvocal, embodied, socially distributed and open takes a substantial step towards a conception of the self as inherently social, multiplistic, decentred, contingent and evolving.
On a metatheoretical level, Hermans”s DST attempts to reconcile traditional, modern and postmodern understandings of self. Hermans argues that these perspectives can be placed alongside each other, each being an instrument both of exploring and of producing identity and subjectivity, providing a repertoire of identity strategies. His position corresponds to that of Elliott, who suggests:
[W]e should not see contemporary identity strategies as simple alternatives: the postmodern as something that eclipses the modern. Modern and postmodern forms of self are better seen as simultaneous ways of living in contemporary culture. Constructing a self today is about managing some blending of these different ways of living; a kind of constant intermixing and dislocation, of modern and postmodern states of mind. (Elliott 2005: 150)
At the opposite end of the spectrum, White and Epston”s narrative therapy embraces the postmodern “repudiation of traditional ontological assumptions (bearing on the nature of “reality”) and epistemological frameworks (bearing on the nature of knowledge)” (Neimeyer and Raskin 2000: 5). However, White and Epston”s approach to the subject is not nihilistic. While it is critical of modern assumptions about a bounded, unitary, given subject, it strives to address the issue of agency.
Such a position corresponds to what Holstein and Gubrium describe as an “affirmative” reaction to the postmodern critique of the subject. These authors delineate two ways in which postmodernists respond to the question of the continued existence of the self in the context of the “crisis of confidence” ushered in by postmodernism. While sceptical or radical postmodernists dismantle self as the central agent of experience, affirmative postmodernists strive to transform the crisis of confidence by “reconceptualising the self as a form of working subjectivity” (Holstein and Gubrium 2000: 57). From this perspective the self becomes a “practical project of everyday life” that is situated and plural, “locally articulated, locally recognized and locally accountable” (Holstein and Gubrium 2000: 70). Within this context, the self “no longer references an experiential constant entity, a central perspective or presence, but rather stands as a practical discursive accomplishment” (Holstein and Gubrium 2000: 70). White and Epston”s narrative therapy puts in practice precisely such an affirmative approach to the subject, informed by postmodern critique.
The issue of narrative organization is however closely bound up with the issue of the subject”s stability, both from a narrative point of view and the point of view of the specifically psychological realm of experience. In Chap. 4 I move on to consideration of the important issue of the continuity and change of the narrative subject.