Narrative Subject: Between Continuity and Transformation
As the analysis in this chapter demonstrates, the various understandings of narrative are informed by two poles, or functions: on the one side, it has an important function of providing cohesion and integrating separated elements within a larger framework and, by doing so, facilitating the generation of meaning. On the other, narrative can be implicated with interruption and break, and has internal mechanisms that allow it to become an event-generating as well as a meaning-generating tool. While the first function is critical with regard to maintaining the continuity and cohesion of psychological functioning, the second function appears to be necessary to account for changes and transformation.
While formalist and structuralist studies of narrative valorized such features and functions of narrative as cohesion and continuity, with a move towards stability and resolution, the line of argument stretching from post-narrative to poststructural thought mobilized concepts of multiplicity, flux and excess to demonstrate how narrative is implicated in the very process of transformation. The concepts generated by poststructuralist, postmodern and post-narratological thought challenge and qualify the trend to expand one of the central functions of narrative—integration and cohesion—to an exclusive understanding of narrative as a stabilizing force and a means of peace-making. These conceptual developments outline the internal mechanisms of transformation embedded in narrative and narrativity, demonstrate the ability of narrative to go beyond reflection and representation, and thus make possible the use of narrative as a means and a tool of psychological change and development.
A conflict between static and dynamic definitions of narrative bears directly on the understanding of the nature and scope of stability and change of identity. That seems to be a significant factor in the appropriation of the notion of narrative by McAdams, Hermans, and White and Epston. As with many other aspects of understanding of narrative, the view on these important issues seems to change particularly from post-structural and postmodern perspectives.
While there is seemingly a provision for change in McAdams”s model of personality functioning, a closer analysis reveals that McAdams”s theorizing limits the extent and nature of possible changes. McAdams”s strictly chronological understanding of development following Erikson”s eight stages sequence of identity changes across the lifespan provides a restricted model of the temporal dimension to personality. Furthermore, McAdams”s particular take on the concept of the story is considerably influenced by formalist and structuralist approaches. Identity as a life story is understood by McAdams both as a deep structure, similar to the concept proposed by Lévi-Strauss in his studies of myth, and is articulated as a formulaic plot-episode sequence, as suggested by Propp in relation to fairytale. As such, this model operates with an “achronic” and closed understanding of time, delimiting the possible extent of change: there is no room for real contingency, unpredictability or spontaneity in human life. Overall, McAdams”s view on developmental aspects of identity privileges modern values of equilibrium, stasis, predictability and closure over postmodern emphasis on instability, flux and chance.
While Hermans”s theory of the dialogical self provides a more open and dynamic way to address change than McAdams”s notion of identity as a life story, the former also has limitations. In particular, my analysis shows that Hermans has significantly simplified Bakhtin”s ideas of dialogue. For Bakhtin dialogue constitutes an encounter of two subjectivities as equal, an encounter that is predicated on the incommensurability of different human worlds. Furthermore, this is an incommensurability that cannot be resolved, even dialectically, but presupposes a complex unity of differences. In contrast, Hermans reduces dialogue to the dynamics of turn-taking in conversation, focusing narrowly on issues of power and dominance. Dialogue in Hermans”s reductive theorizing becomes two-dimensional, with the status of a “channel” in the communicative situation. While for Bakhtin, dialogue represents a way of accounting for the unfinalizability of human life and the excess of humanness, Hermans”s paradigm seriously delimits the explanatory power of dialogue and its ability to address the dynamic issues raised by the problematic of change.
In contrast to these two approaches White and Epston”s therapeutic model not only makes a provision for psychological change, but also places the temporal dimension at the very core of the model. The impetus behind White and Epston”s theorizing is a general analogy between the unfolding of human life and narrative. This approach differs from those of McAdams and Hermans in several important respects. While all three approaches adopt some kind of textual analogy, in White and Epston”s model this analogy doesn”t imply any particular content or subject matter. The metaphor of narrative therapy does not presuppose particular development stages or social functions, and there is no assumption that the variety of human stories can be reduced to certain basic structures (shared by both Hermans and McAdams), or, moreover, that there might be a particular ideal scenario for the developing of life story, such as the redemptive self. The nature of narrativity corresponds to the nature of life experience in that they are both fluid and evolving, and that they come together at the point of generating meaning, a meaning that is, however, open to constant revision.