Stability and Change: Psychological and Narratological Perspectives - Narrative Subject: Between Continuity and Transformation

Narrative Psychology: Identity, Transformation and Ethics - Julia Vassilieva 2016

Stability and Change: Psychological and Narratological Perspectives
Narrative Subject: Between Continuity and Transformation

This chapter addresses the issue of stability and change of personality, self and identity through the prism of narrative theorization. The chapter begins by sketching the context of discussion of the issues of personality stability and change in academic psychology. It then outlines a range of positions in literary studies on the issue of narrative continuity. Narrative, change and self are thus positioned as connected by a matrix of functional links that create a range of possibilities in thinking through the issue of change. The chapter then demonstrates how some of these possibilities are realized in McAdams”s model of identity as a life story, Hermans”s dialogical self theory, and White and Epston”s narrative therapy.

The issues of stability and change, while being central concepts for psychology, have proven to be among the hardest to explore. In academic psychology the answer to the question “Can personality change?” depends on how personality is conceptualized, how change is defined and measured, and in which context—from childhood and adult development to therapy—the change is addressed (Heatherton and Weinberger 1994). From the position of the nomothetic approach to the study of personality, epitomized by the discourse of traits, there is little ground to talk about change or the malleability of personality. An avalanche of nomothetic research conducted in the 1980s and 1990s strongly supported the conclusion that personality is indeed “set like plaster”, as Costa and McCrae suggested in their article of the same title—that individual differences in traits show substantial longitudinal consistency, especially in adult years (Costa and McCrae 1989, 1994).

On the other hand, developmental psychology recognizes changes in motivations, current concerns, thought content and defence mechanisms. The most dramatic re-configurations of psychological organization were initially outlined by Freud (1933) in his model of psychosexual development form birth to adolescence. The model elaborated later by Erik Erikson (1963, 1982) from the position of ego-psychology extended the understanding of stages to cover lifespan development. Erikson postulated an eight-stage progression in psychosocial development, characterized by a shift from self-orientation to other-orientation. Each stage is defined through a crucial issue to be resolved and the nature of the outcome achieved through such resolution. Four stages are identified in the development from childhood to adolescence, progressively dealing with the issues of (1) trust versus mistrust; (2) autonomy versus shame; (3) initiative versus guilt; and (4) industry versus inferiority. The other four stages cover the development from young adulthood to old age. They are centred on issues of (5) identity versus role confusion (where successful outcome is an achievement of fidelity); (6) intimacy versus isolation (with the successful outcome of love); (7) generativity versus self-absorption (with the positive outcome of care); and (8) ego integrity versus despair (with the positive outcome of wisdom). Overall, the changes outlined within various models of developmental psychology are conceptualized as stage-related and gradual. By and large, these changes are understood to lead in the direction of greater maturity (Bengston et al. 1985; Vaillant 1977).

However, the circumstances in which human life unfolds in the real world cannot be restricted to the “generally expected environment” postulated by the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V as a background against which psychological functioning is measured and judged. A relatively new trend in psychology has sought to correct this deficiency by looking at non-normative events and changes, such as sudden and unpredictable life transition, illness and loss, trauma and stress (Schaefer and Moos 1992; Stewart 1982; Taylor 1983; Tedeschi and Calhoun 1995). This context is often regarded as being most strongly associated with personality change in adulthood. Importantly, this line of research addresses not only the non-normative but also the subjective character of such transitional processes (Gibson and Brown 1992). This line of inquiry culminates in the exploration of the abrupt and total transformations of personality that Miller and C”de Baca (1994) aptly call quantum changes.

Similarly, counselling and psychotherapy not only assume the possibility of change in personality, but actively strive to bring such change about. The almost opposite view that practical psychology takes with regard to the issue of stability and change is just one of the aspects that reflects the great divide separating academic psychology, which addresses theoretical issues and experimental research within the confines of the laboratory, and practical psychology, which attends to living, breathing individuals. Using different notions to conceptualize and facilitate change depending on a particular framework—such as classical psychoanalysis, ego-psychology, cognitive-behavioural intervention, family therapy or humanistic psychology—the process of change is positioned not only as an overriding goal of the therapeutic process but also as its very core (Rogers and Dymond 1954). In classical psychoanalysis, while the progression of ever-deepening interpretations within the broader framework of a transferential relationship between the client and the therapist represents the general mechanism of psychoanalytic intervention, ideally, an act of interpretation recognized by the client as accurate and associated with a sense of insight and new understanding is at the core of transformation and ego-growth. The vocabulary developed by different therapeutic schools to capture the character of change they are dealing with is indicative: from the psychoanalytic notion of “insight” and the “aha-experiences” of the Würzburg school, to the concepts of “reframing” used within family therapy and “encounter” postulated by humanistic psychology, each strives to put a finger on the important phenomenological dimension of transformation.

Finally, as discussed in the previous chapter, postmodern models of personality, such as Lifton”s “protean self”, assume that self is in a constant state of flux, and that change as such is personality”s most definitive characteristic. Overall, the diversity of positions on the issues of stability and change in psychology attests to the underlying tension between theoretical perspectives and approaches as they move from modernist towards postmodern assumptions.

Similar tensions can be detected with regard to the issue of stability and change in narratology, where some of the multiple connotations of narrative align it more readily with stability than with change. This is precisely the view taken by Jerome Bruner in his key contribution to the discussion of stability and change of narrative organization of personality in his monograph Acts of Meaning. One of the central threads running through the book is the idea that narrative helps to achieve synthesis, coherence and integrity, and serves as an instrument of social negotiation working against and through conflicts and deviations. This argument is embedded within the larger framework that Bruner proposes for understanding folk psychology as an instrument of culture, where the viability of the latter “inheres in its capacity for resolving conflicts, for explicating differences and renegotiating communal meanings” (Bruner 1990: 47). To ensure this, he suggests, “while a culture must contain a set of norms, it must also contain a set of interpretative procedures for rendering departures from those norms meaningful in terms of established patterns of beliefs. It is narrative and narrative interpretation upon which folk psychology depends for achieving this kind of meaning” (Bruner 1990: 47). While from an evolutionary point of view Bruner is inclined to link the very emergence of language with the necessity for social negotiation and resolution of conflicts, he argues strongly that, in everyday life, stories arise in response to some kind of deviation and strive to render this deviation comprehensible. As Bruner writes, “The function of the story is to find an intentional state that mitigates or at least makes comprehensible a deviation from a canonical cultural pattern” (Bruner 1990: 49—50). It is of primary importance for this discussion that at the centre of such conflict or deviation Bruner positions human motivation and intentionality:

It begins to be clear why narrative is such a natural vehicle for folk psychology. It deals […] with the stuff of human action and human intentionality. It mediates between the canonical world of culture and the more idiosyncratic world of beliefs, desires, and hopes. It renders the exceptional comprehensible and keeps the uncanny at bay — save as the uncanny is needed as a trope. It reiterates the norms of the society without being didactic. And […] it provides a basis for rhetoric without confrontation. It can even teach, conserve memory, or alter the past. (Bruner 1990: 52)

In his earlier book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Bruner had addressed the issue of interaction between narrative and human intentionality from a structural rather than functional point of view, but similarly emphasized the canonical nature of narrative. In doing so he supported the view formulated earlier by scholars of orientations ranging from Russian formalism to cultural anthropology. In their various formulations, Bruner discerned and stressed a common argument that plot, or rather its particular stable and repetitive structural configuration, becomes a means of ensuring and achieving the return to the normal, original, or unproblematic state:

Narrative deals with the vicissitudes of human intentions. And since there are myriad intentions and endless ways for them to run into trouble — or so it would seem — there should be endless kinds of stories. But, surprisingly, this seems not to be the case. One view has it that lifelike narratives start with a canonical or “legitimate” steady state, which is breached, resulting in a crisis, which is terminated by a redress, with recurrence of the cycle an open possibility. (Bruner 1986b: 16)

Bruner further builds such accounts into the development of his larger argument about the mitigating function of narrative. In doing so he relies heavily on formalist and semiotic explorations of narrative and among them privileges Vladimir Propp”s contribution.

In his seminal monograph Morphology of the Folktale, Propp outlines a formal model of a Russian fairytale. The model consists of thirty-one functions that follow each other in a particular order and that generally conform to the following sequence: reparation, complication, transference, struggle, return, recognition.1 Propp”s morphology proposes not only that within a large body of texts a common structural organization can be discerned, but that its very dynamics serve to mitigate against deviation, ensuring a return to the status quo. The various functions identified in Morphology of the Folktale establish mutually neutralizing pairs that indicate the overriding homeostatic orientation of Propp”s model.

While Propp”s analysis can be used alongside Bruner”s to support the claim that the functions of narrative are primarily the negotiation and resolution of conflict, it runs the risk of ignoring the “semiotic constraints on narrativity” that Paul Ricœur (1984—1988) explicates in Time and Narrative. Ricœur argues that Propp”s model is deeply marked by an internal tension: the tale is conceptualized by Propp as both a series and a sequence, and there is a latent conflict between a more teleological concept of the order of the functions and a more mechanical concept of their interconnection. For Ricœur, this tension indicates the indirect reference to the plot as an embodiment of temporality. Ricœur argues that it is precisely this aspect that will divide Propp”s successors, some of whom will try to preserve a chronological element in their models, while others, following the critique of Claude Lévi-Strauss, will seek to reduce the chronological aspect of narrative to an underlying combinatory system.

This linear sequential structural analysis as which we might characterize Propp”s method can be described as “syntagmatic” structural analysis, while Lévi-Strauss champions “paradigmatic” structural analysis. The latter seeks to describe the pattern usually based on an a priori binary dichotomy that allegedly underlies the folkloristic text. This pattern does not coincide with sequential structure: in order to see it, the elements are taken out of the “given” order and are regrouped in one or more analytic schema. Lévi-Strauss contends that linear sequential structure represents apparent or manifest content, whereas the paradigmatic or schematic structure reveals the more important latent content. This assumption underpins various two-level models of narrative advanced in structuralist-semiotic literary studies of narrative, such as those that see it as comprising “deep structure” and “surface manifestation”, content plane and expression plane, histoire and receit, fabula and sjuzhet, signifier and signified, or story and discourse.

The “classical” stage of such structuralist-semiotic approaches to narrative in Anglo-American literary criticism took place in the 1970s, and was exemplified by the work of such researchers as Mieke Bal, Seymour Chatman, Wallace Martin and others. This stage was concerned with macrostructures (global textual organization) and deep (semantic) structures, and privileged the study of narrative in general over the interpretation of individual texts.

It is instructive for narrative psychology, then, to acknowledge the important reconsideration of the notion of narrative structure undertaken by the generation of post-narrativists such as Gerald Prince, Peter Brooks, Barbara Herrnstein Smith and Judith Roof who, while critiquing the classical narrativist paradigm from a variety of positions—psychoanalytic, feminist, and reader-response theory—shifted the emphasis from structure to processes and re-thought a number of dualistic concepts that had been taken for granted in previous models of narrative.

Following Jonathan Culler, Peter Brooks (1992) calls into question our “normal claim” that fabula precedes sjuzhet, which represents a reworking of a given fabula. Brooks problematizes the relationship between fabula and sjuzhet, introducing the possibility that fabula is produced by the requirements of sjuzhet. In other words, there is an inherent contradiction in narrative, the contradiction between the logic of story and the logic of plot. For Brooks, this irreconcilability of two logics, rather than being aporetic, “points to the peculiar work of understanding that narrative is called to perform, and to the paralogical status of its solutions”. He elaborates on this in the following way:

[P]rior events, causes, are so only retrospectively, in a reading back from the end. In this sense, the metaphoric work of eventual totalization determines the meaning and status of the metonymic work of sequence — though it must also be claimed that the metonymies of the middle produced, gave birth to the final metaphor. The contradiction may be in the very nature of narrative, which not only uses but is a double logic. (Brooks 1992: 28)

For Brooks, the nature of narrative as a contradictory, double logic reveals why we have and need narrative, and how the need to plot meanings is itself productive of narrative.

While Brooks retains the notions of plot and story within his double-logic model, albeit in a much weakened form, Barbara Herrnstein Smith goes further towards deconstructing the dichotomy within narrative organization, whether its members are defined as plot and story or in some other way. She mounts a striking criticism against the very idea of story, which for her “bears an unmistakable resemblance to a Platonic ideal form: disembodied and unexpressed, unpictured, unwritten and untold” (Smith 1980: 211). Herrnstein Smith is wary of the fact that this idea “occupies a highly privileged ontological realm of pure being within which it unfolds immutable and eternally” (Smith 1980: 211).

Smith”s critique highlights the irreducible singularity of the narrative act, which always depends on the teller and occasion, and therefore human purposes, perceptions, actions and interactions. In the context of such critique, the issue of any original story that exists prior to its narrative rendering—particularly in the area of psychological functioning—almost loses sense. Narrative acts or narrativity acquire constitutive influence with regard to the experience at least as far as its meaning for an individual is concerned.

Developing the narrative metaphor further, Judith Roof argues that the logic of narrative cannot be stated but can only be narrated, advancing the argument that, if this is the case, “there is no subject, no “self” to narrate, that self, like narration cannot exist except through narrative” (Roof 1996: xv). Thus the narrative conceptualization of self, personality and subjectivity requires by necessity the introduction of a narrative method to be adequately studied. The border between ontological and epistemological grounds is thus blurred, and the two logics enter into mutually constitutive relationships:

Narrative constantly reproduces the phantom of a whole, articulated system, where even the concept of a system is a product of narrative, where the idea that there are such things as parts and wholes is already an effect of a narrative organizing. As a pervasive sense of the necessary shape of events and their perception and as the process by which characters, causes, and effects combine into patterns recognized as sensical, narrative is the informing logic by which individuality, identity, and ideology merge into a cooperative and apparently unified vision of the truths of existence. (Roof 1996: xiii)

These changing theoretical frameworks in literary scholarship to a degree reflect changes in historical modes of narration. These modes are most commonly divided into four literary-historical and aesthetic paradigms—the classical, realist, modernist and postmodern. The important parameters of narrative seem to change historically. For example, in Greek tragedy, the action is the most important structural element. In the literary canon from the Renaissance onwards, character and the transmission of emotions become increasingly important. In modernist and postmodern fiction narrative structures increasingly gravitate towards elliptical, forking, circular patterns. These narratives are further characterized by a loosening of the chain of cause and effect in the plot, permanent gaps in narrative motivation and chronology, radical manipulation of temporal order, lack of closure and resolution, and increased ambiguity regarding the interpretation of story (Bordwell 1997).

These changes in narrative are theorized through such conceptual apparatuses as the distinction between open and closed text, notions of “obtuse” meaning or “third” sense, and categories of play, excess and event developed by poststructuralist and postmodern thinkers such as Roland Barthes, Stephen Heath, Umberto Eco and Jacques Derrida. Poststructuralist and postmodern perspectives therefore consider text to be a much more fluid phenomenon both in terms of its organization and in terms of its interpretation. Such a view culminates in a recent valorization of the category of event, which, having been re-thought by continental philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century, now implies not only change of state but also “the explosion of the New” (Žižek 2006: 167).

Like psychological scholarship, literary studies and narratology thus exhibit a variety of positions on the issue of stability and change. These differences depend on the historical stage in the development of narratology and literary scholarship—the move from structuralist and formalist models towards poststructural and postmodern theoretical frameworks of analysis, as well as the historical mode of narration from which texts for analysis are drawn, such as classical, realist, modernist or postmodern modes. When narrative psychology brings these two discourses—psychological and narratological—together in theorizing change, it has to articulate its position within the range of conceptual possibilities informed by the two disciplines. In the following section of this chapter I critically interrogate how the notions of narrative, change and selfhood are addressed in McAdams”s model, Hermans”s dialogical self theory, and White and Epston”s narrative therapy.