The Dialogical Self: Between Polyphony and Power - Narrative Ethics

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

The Dialogical Self: Between Polyphony and Power
Narrative Ethics

While for McAdams the event of September 11, 2001, and the ethical, moral and political issues that were raised in its wake have served as a catalyst for his model of the redemptive self, giving a dominant voice to a particular stream within the collective American psyche, in this context the proponents of the dialogical self made a strong argument for the heightened relevance of the polyvocal self that is open to internal and external interchanges. In the recent book Dialogical Self Theory: Positioning and Counter-Positioning in a Globalizing Society Hubert Hermans and Agnieszka Hermans-Konopka have provided persuasive reasons why the processes of globalization and localization, the central driving forces within the world”s political, ideological and cultural dynamics, would require a dialogical conceptualization of self and identity, “one that can account for the different and even opposing demands” resulting from these processes (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 22).

Dialogical Self Theory: Positioning and Counter-Positioning in a Globalizing Society drew on the ideas expressed earlier by Hermans and Dimaggio when they stressed the relevance of the dialogical model in the context of uncertainty resulting from growing globalization and the parallel processes of intensified localization:

[G]lobalization is not to be equated with homogenization or uniformity but finds localization as its counterforce. Whereas globalization challenges people to extend their selves and identities beyond the reach of traditional structures, this extension implies the pervasive experience of uncertainty. Intensification of this experience motivates individuals and groups to maintain, defend, and even expand their local values and practices by establishing a niche for the formation of a stable identity. (Hermans and Dimaggio 2007: 40)

The pivotal role accorded in this model to the experience of uncertainty is indicative of the broader socio-political focus that Hermans articulates in his research, which differentiates his work from the more narrow traditional view of academic psychology. While anxiety has been at the forefront of psychological inquiry for as long as psychology has been operating as a science, it was approached as naturally given or developing within the circumscribed world of an individual”s family—either as a result of early childhood emotional experiences (psychoanalysis) or as a result of the formation of maladaptive beliefs in the immediate social environment (cognitive-behaviour approach). Hermans”s understanding of anxiety as uncertainty, conceptualized within a broad social and political landscape, is radically different and falls in line with the recent scholarly interest in the cultural history of emotion evident in sociology and anthropology.1

Addressing uncertainty as a phenomenon of the twenty-first century globalized world, Hermans differentiates four aspects within this experience:

(a) complexity, referring to a great number of parts that have a large variety of relations; (b) ambiguity, referring to a suspension of clarity, as the meaning of one part is determined by the flux and variation of the other parts; (c) deficit knowledge, referring to the absence of a superordinate knowledge structure that can resolve the contradictions between the parts; and (d) unpredictability, implying a lack of control of future developments. […] the experience of uncertainty characterizes a global situation of multivoicedness (complexity) that does not allow a fixation of meaning (ambiguity), that has no superordinate voice for resolving contradictions and conflicting information (deficit knowledge), and that is to a large extent unpredictable. (Hermans and Dimaggio 2007: 40)

Hermans and his colleagues outline three reasons why global—local connections require a dialogical conception of self and identity, namely “The increasing multiplicity of self and identity, the need for developing a dialogical capacity and the necessity of acknowledging the alterity of the other person with whom one enters into a dialogical contact” (Hermans and Dimaggio 2007: 40). They further suggest that, with increased globalization, individuals and groups cannot be located within one particular culture, internally homogeneous and distinctly differentiated from other cultures. Instead, people are living in the context of cultural interface. The increasing interrelatedness of nations and cultures not only involves inter-individual relationships but is also reflected and paralleled on the intra-individual level. The self of an individual person provides a locus for different cultures to come together and meet. Thus, the global—local nexus has become incorporated within the individual as a constituent of a dialogical self in action.

In contrast to earlier closed and homogeneous societies, Hermans and Hermans-Konopka note, cultural differences, contrasts and oppositions are prominent in the globalized society of today. Various cultural practices, worldviews and ideologies reveal their fundamental differences and enter into seemingly irreconcilable struggles. Hermans and Hermans-Konopka thus suggest that “when the world becomes more heterogeneous and multiple, the self, as part of this world, also becomes heterogeneous and multiple” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 30). This argument resonates closely with Hermans and Dimaggio”s conviction that, “fundamental differences in an intensely interconnected world society not only require dialogical relationships between people to create a liveable world but also a self that has developed the capacity to deal with its own differences, contracts, tensions, and uncertainties” (Hermans and Dimaggio 2007: 10).

It is of critical importance, Hermans emphasizes, that such dialogical relationships be able to recognize and respond to the difference of the position of groups or other persons—that is, to recognize the perspective of the other party in order to re-examine its initial standpoints in light of the interaction with the other. Such differences, however, are not absolute and can be resolved and overcome with time.

While anchoring his dialogical model of self in Bakhtin”s work, Hermans and his colleagues nevertheless take a decisive turn from the Bakhtinian position in developing an “operationalized” model of dialogue, power and dominance, as has been discussed in the previous chapters. This move has particularly far-reaching implications for ethics. Hermans argues that the understanding of dialogue as an interaction among perfectly equal partners can be regarded as no more than a “romantic ideal” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 38).

Defining dialogue as “a well organized turn-taking process”, Hermans and Hermans-Konopka insist that “[r]elative dominance is not extrinsic but rather intrinsic to the dialogical process” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 38). For Hermans, the participants in dialogical interactions have to continually alternate the roles of “power holder” and “power subject”.

This move requires close attention as much more is at stake here than a change of the rhetorical register from the notions of recognition of absolute alterity to the algorithm of turn-taking, which is dictated by the need to “operationalize” the philosophical notion of dialogue for psychological use. It can be argued that it is in fact the substitution of one ethical position by another: from the ethics of answerability and responsibility inherent in dialogue, as defined by Bakhtin, we are moving to the ethics of power and control, power that deeply penetrates social interactions and intra-individual dynamics. Hermans illustrates his model of dialogue by referring to the role social dominance and institutions play in the practices of “question and answer” and relationships of agreement and disagreement. Hermans observes that the freedom to ask questions of each other in a conversation depends on the “difference in dominance between parties” and that, in a similar way, “relationships of agreement or disagreement are organized on the basis of institutional positions” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 39). While it is hard to dispute such an observation regarding the social context of many interactions, the critical question remains where to go from there. While for such thinkers as MacIntyre and Bauman, as we shall see later on, such an observation becomes a point of departure for critique for a postmodern ethics, for Hermans, even though with some qualifications, this point becomes a foundational given, which not only directs social practice but also organizes the internal structure of the self.

As noted earlier, Hermans approaches the self as a fundamentally social phenomenon, where concepts, images and understandings are deeply determined by the relations of power. From this position, Hermans conceptualizes the self as incorporating within its structure the division between internal and external domains, containing such entities as subject, object and abject (that Hermans defines, following Julia Kristeva, as an unconscious part of the self representing an “enemy”) (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 42). The self is characterized by the “position repertoire” with which individuals, as agentic subjects, do or do not identify themselves at any given moment. These positions within the self are imbued with various degrees of power reflecting the power relationships in the social world, and can be regulated by such principles as “belonging to myself” and “not belonging to myself” and distinctions between “superior” and “inferior”.

With regards to the challenges and dynamics of globalization, Hermans and Hermans-Konopka note that while on the one hand the boundaries between the external and internal domains of self have become increasingly permeable, on the other, positions that correspond to one”s own national, religious or ethnic group are often construed as representing purity, order, truth, beauty, good and right, whereas those on the outside are seen as affected by pollution, falsity, ugliness, badness and wrong. For Hermans and Hermans-Konopka such a dynamics represents a logical and unavoidable result of balancing biological needs for stability, safety and security, and the fluidity in the social world ushered in by globalization:

At the interface of the social and the biological, we witness a paradoxical situation: whereas globalization has the potential to increase the density and heterogeneity of positions of the self in unprecedented ways, it evokes, at the same time, forms of localization that are driven by deeply rooted biological needs that cause a serious reduction and restriction of positions in the repertoire of the self. (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 50)

Clearly, in the current political context, Hermans”s interpretation of certain social processes from a dialogical perspective represents a constructive step forward:

From a dialogical point of view, religious orthodoxy, the rise of fundamental movements, and the phenomenon of patriotism find their expression in collective voices that encourage a hierarchical organization of the position repertoire of the self and a reduction of the heterogeneity of positions with a simultaneous avoidance of internal disagreement, conflict, and uncertainty. The dominance of one voice or a few voices over the others leads to a reduction of the experience of uncertainty, but at the same time, it has the questionable effect that other voices, as possible contributors or innovators of the self, are silenced or split off. (Hermans and Dimaggio 2007: 57)

From this point of view, McAdams”s model can be seen as precisely an attempt to limit and control anxiety in the increasingly unpredictable political landscape post-September 11 through the recourse to patriotism and religious orthodoxy. While not discussing McAdams”s intervention, Hermans does refer to Kinvall (2004), who noted that global changes intensified “ontological insecurity” and “existential uncertainty”, producing institutionalized religion and nationalism as identity markers in times of rapid change and an uncertain future.

The critical question, however, is how far Hermans is prepared to take the dialogical position he advocates and how exactly he unpacks its ethical implications. It is here that some tensions appear in Hermans”s theorizing, tensions produced by the increasing limitations imposed on the notion of dialogue in the process of developing its “applied” definition. Initially, Hermans acknowledged the potential open-endedness of dialogue, arguing that, in principle, dialogical relationships are open and move towards an unknown future. However, he later questioned the truth of Bakhtin”s claims by referring to common-sense logic and everyday observations.

Hermans concludes that in real life, contrary to Bakhtinian theory, dialogue bears more resemblance to confrontation and defensive interaction:

The fact that people exchange opinions in a conversation is no guarantee of an open dialogue. In case of disagreement, they defend their point of view against the opinion of the other, and in case of agreement, they use the opinion of the other party as a means to further corroborate or even expand their initial viewpoint. In a globalizing environment, people are confronted with myriad opinions and ideologies that are different from those that they have learned in their local environments. When these views are experienced as threatening or undermining their local point of view, they are motivated to defend their local positions, often in emotional ways. Self-defense restricts the dialogical self. (Hermans and Dimaggio 2007: 57)

What becomes apparent here is that the logic of dialogue cannot be combined with the logic of power and dominance, the dichotomies of outside and inside, self and enemy. The logic of dialogue carries within itself the impetus of another ethical system, a system that insists on thinking outside these categories. If this potential is not acknowledged then there indeed appears to be a gap in the ethical system, a gap that Hermans strives to fill by the incorporation into his system of what he calls “emotion work” and “emotion rules”: “Emotion work takes place under the guidance of emotion rules. Such rules are standards used in internal and external dialogues to determine what it is right or wrong to feel. Emotion rules serve as standards that tell us what is “due” in a particular social or personal position” (Hermans and Dimaggio 2007: 59). Hermans analyses emotional positions in terms of privileges, restrictions, obligations and entrance requirements:

There is a privilege when, for example, a person in love may engage in sexual behavior that otherwise may be viewed as socially inappropriate. Restrictions refer to limits on what a person can do when acting under emotion. For example, lovers are expected to be discrete and honorable in their affairs. Whereas restrictions forbid a person to feel and do particular things, obligations instruct the person what should be felt or done. For example, in all societies those who are bereaved are expected to perform particular mourning practices. An individual who fails to comply with these expectations is often subject to severe sanction. Finally, most social positions have entry requirements, that is, they can be occupied only by persons of a certain age, sex, training, or social status. (Hermans and Dimaggio 2007: 59)

As this passage amply demonstrates, what Hermans defines as “emotion rules” correspond to ethical norms and moral prescriptions, and moreover, to a particular system that is itself historically constructed. Thus, it can be argued that Hermans”s essentialist understanding of emotion represents an incorporation of a normative substantive ethical system in which overtones of Enlightenment discourse, Kantian reasoning and Protestant ethics are clearly discernible.

The introduction of “emotion rules” as an ethical foundation doesn”t agree easily with the Bakhtinian paradigm. Bakhtin explicitly opposes the grounding of ethics in empathy. But Hermans”s emphasis on power in this context appears to be even more problematic. It can be argued that dialogue and power make rather incompatible theoretical partners. While dialogue presupposes differences and is organically linked with the notion of multivoiced polyphony, power (at least as it came to be understood in the modern period) is closely associated with a univocal position, which by definition excludes all differences.

The recourse to power and dominance is predicated on Hermans”s earlier reduction of alterity to difference. The critical distinction here relates to alterity as an irreducible singularity that cannot be appropriated, while difference, with time and effort, can be understood, and therefore appropriated. For Hermans, alterity is not an irreducible given, as it is for Bakhtin, but a temporary and unfortunate state that can be overcome. But absolute alterity is structurally and philosophically essential for Bakhtin”s system and its implications for ethics: it is only against alterity and unpredictability that choice, decision and freedom can occur; it is only the presence of that irreducible other that calls for answerability on my side, and it is only in this context that human actions become truly responsible (Bakhtin 1993). The core of Bakhtinian theorizing encapsulated in the principle of dialogism, of polyphony and multivoicedness understood as clash and constant refraction of consciousness through each other, becomes increasingly limited as Hermans”s model acquires psychological sophistication. From a Bakhtinian perspective, such a loss is a critical one as this is the very core that allows Bakhtin to ground freedom in his model.

It can thus be concluded that in many important ways Hermans departs from Bakhtinian insights and resorts to a less ambitious position. It seems that such a stand is to some degree a reaction to the pressure to generalize, to come up with rules, norms and principles applicable to large groups of people, to operate on a broader than case-by-case basis—the pressure of the positivist-orientated model of science that psychology shares. The question then arises as to whether the new ethics, based on the principles of dialogue and respecting irreducible singularity and alterity, can be implemented in psychology at all. It should thus come as no surprise that the greatest advance in this direction so far has been made by narrative therapy—the mode of psychological practice that, by definition, addresses individual subjects.