Inventing the Self

Narrative and Mr. Finston (Me!)

October 1st, 2013 by matthew finston · 5 Comments

As I mentioned in class, I entitled my concentration at Gallatin while at NYU “Narrative Theory.” I thought this was an apt title for numerous reasons. It sounded exotic enough. And it suggested the study of many things I was interested in. In retrospect, I cannot say that I really did “narrative theory” as it has evolved in the academic world nor can I say that I actually fully understand it. There was an idea, a type of study that I was interested in doing, but I don’t know if I ever did it, or whether it actually has to do with “narratives.”


This class is kind of exciting because it is the first time that I have taken a class that directly deals with “narrative theory.” And I have to admit, I don’t know if I like it. Not that I don’t enjoy the class. I do. But I am not sure whether thinking in terms of “narrative” actually adds anything to an object of study or  further obscures it. It definitely reorganizes our conception about the object of this course’s study. This week, psychologists affirm the value of using narratives for psychological analyses of identity. While at first, there may be an “aha” moment when we read McAdams and Laszlo, since their approach makes sense, especially after reading Damasio. Well, really, all the readings support this method. But Damasio is the “real” scholarly support because his work presupposes the cultural currency of “scientific” authority. “Storytelling is something brains do, naturally and implicitly” (Self Comes to Mind 311). But how? And why?


On the other hand, there is also a type of reductionism that occurs in recapitulating identity analysis through story grammar. By invoking narrative, the object of study (consciousness, identity, self) becomes imaginitive. Its existence has only a sociolinguistic reality. At the same time, now we have to figure out what the hell a narrative is and why brains do it “naturally and implicitly.” McAdams makes the same claim without substantiating it, “Human beings are storytellers by nature . . . many scholars have suggested that the human mind is first and foremost a vehicle for storytelling. We are born with a narrating mind, they argue ” (27-28 my emphasis). Who exactly says this? Well, Damasio claims that evolution selected the storytelling gene, teleologically presuming that individuals and cultures had a better chance of survival if they could tell stories. Maybe.
I still see narrative analysis useful. I decided to read the UN’s HDI report today, “The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World,” and I thought I should share it. Reading this study after reading McAdams and Lazslo article, there was a second “aha” moment for me. If you apply story grammar to the study you can see that a moral narrative is at play. Particularly how nation-states are conceived as individualized characters and how this type of configuration erases and homogenizes their populations. Even embedded in the title one can here an echo of Christopher Nolan’s the Dark Knight Rises. There is a lot more, but I don’t want to spoil the fun. Also, check out page 4 where Amatrya Sen discusses Thomas Nagel’s paper “What is it Like to be a Bat.”
I suppose I can find narrative analysis is useful as long as so called “truth” isn’t presupposed from it. What was interesting to me about the idea of “narrative theory” was using story grammar to analyze society and history. That you could see in studies like the UN’s HDI report that objects, social groups, and/or individuals were being privileged through the mechanisms of storytelling. And, by recognizing the narrative grammar embedded in this study we can subsequently deconstruct the rhetorical hegemony being produced.
If I have to sum up my “irked” feeling, I would say that by applying narrative analysis to the study of the “self” we can understand how this self comes into existence. This week’s reading we are reverting back to the study of identity through a cartesian lens. I think Alva Noe is right to say that the science of self privileges the mind without acknowledging how the world and body are fundamentally integral to its existence. “Narrative identity” produces the same barriers by isolating the subject. The closest we come to moving beyond this is when Lazslo discusses “life story as a social construct” (126). But the analysis is limited.



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5 responses so far ↓

  • John Giunta // Oct 1st 2013 at 10:48 pm

    I guess my question about life narratives and selves and autobiography and their relationships is kinda chicken or the egg-esque. Being born into a culture of storytelling, do we have the capability to understand anything beyond stories? Is there a point where enculturation impacts brain development at a completely fundamental level, so it becomes “natural” for humans to think of their life the way they would a follow a protagonist through a novel? Are these rhetorical questions ever going to end?

  • John Giunta // Oct 1st 2013 at 11:02 pm

    Sorry my second comment is on your post – your narrative theory idea just seems to mesh with my english major background and I love Batman. What did you (and hopefully all of our other classmates who are reading my comments) think about pg. 25 of the Macadams where it’s argued that children need stories like “The Night Before Christmas” to develop a sense of story grammar, and thus make reading someone like Beckett possible at some (far) point in the future? Did you think, I cannot wait to read my child only Beckett and Pinter and Stoppard and Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons” and maybe “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and make a study of how they develop and perceive their life/environment?.. Because, err, I definitely didn’t…

  • Jason Tougaw (he/him/his) // Oct 2nd 2013 at 8:13 am

    I just posted the UNDP report to our “Readings” page. I can imagine a fascinating research project on the representation of nations as “selves.” But, also, the Sen piece is just plain fascinating in the context of a report like this. Nagel’s little essay certainly has a long reach!

  • Adam Wagner // Oct 2nd 2013 at 2:09 pm

    I like at the end when you tied the limits of favoring the mind/brain versus the limits of favoring the narrative subject. I agree that Noe is right to attempt to combine the two, however badly he posits his arguments, and that is kind of what I have been saying all along. I am a huge proponent of neuroscience and I think it is fascinating and will unlock a lot of life’s mysteries, however, it is limited in explaining what is outside its realm of biological inquiry. That is where I think the self and identity can be shown through biological processes but the analysis lacks the phenomenology of it all and the linguistic conceptions presupposed in the words themselves.

  • Yana Walton // Oct 2nd 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I’m glad you brought up the question of where truth-claims on the self come from, as I agree that empirical, scientific research on the brain has held the privileged position of creating the most valued knowledge of identity, self, and consciousness. I don’t think we should discount such contributions, but if we don’t think at all about the societal narratives and interactions with the world that form the questions they aspire to objectively answer, we’ll never see how THEIR work is created by interactions with their environments.

    Also, I’m not sure that theories of the narrative self limit us in the same way that Noe criticized neuroscience for doing. My understanding of the narrative self is that it is similarly produced by the options around us – the larger myths, shaped by what is externally possible. If we think of selves as realized from separation from mother and develop language to interact with others (since we are now separate subjects), then we use that language to create our stories of selves – they are not limited to internal psychological processes, but those processes are developed in relation to others/environment.

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