Gare, A (2002) 'Narratives and Culture: The Role of Stories in Self - Creation', in Telos, 122: 80 - 101.
Narratives are supposed to be particularly threatened by postmodernism [see file on Lyotard] , but there has long been an attack on narrative as a form of knowledge, together with those academic disciplines, such as history or literature, which study them. The crisis in narrative development has been seen as particularly harmful by the likes of Jameson, as dislocating a sense of temporal development. [A note on page 95 also has a useful quote from MacIntyre --'Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions and in their words'] .
In fact, the history of philosophy shows a long ambivalence towards narrative, dating from Greek philosophy, and ranging through French and German scientism [and this early struggle to replace narrative with knowledge of eternal matters is summarised very well if schematically 81 - 84. The notes are crammed with really useful references]. The degrading of narrative received an additional boost from the development of economic progress, and its close alliance with empiricism and positivism. As a result, 'Narratives are even less important. They are nothing more than decoration surrounding factual statements' (84) [as in advertising].
Despite this scepticism, narratives have retained an important cultural role since Greek times. Vico was one of the first to argue that the bedrock of European culture --'customs, conventions, traditions and stories' (85) -- should be studied as the fundamental form of knowledge. Maths and science become seen as human constructions, expressing embedded ideas and mental processes. A 'genetic' approach to knowledge is required, which traces the genesis of specific disciplines through history, not basing it on falsely abstracted reason. The specific and unique were to be studied as well as the repetitive and the universal, the concrete as well as the abstract, change as well as rest, inner as well as outer reality, quality as well as quantity, and 'what is culture-bound rather than timeless' (86).
Similar occurrences in German thought, associated with Herder, also stressed the centrality of culture and the way in which cultures came to be expressed in more specific forms of knowledge. This view led to the development of hermeneutics [see file] . Hegel was inspired by Herder, and came to argue that human and individual development 'consists in three interdependent dialectical patterns: symbolic representation, which operates through language; interaction on the basis of reciprocity of recognition, which operates through moral relations; and labour, which operates through tools' (87) [The connection with Habermas's quasi-transcendental human interests is clear]. As is well-known, he used these three processes to arrive at the notorious description of the current political arrangements in Prussia. His legacy led to more familiar approaches, such as structuralist analysis, on symbolic representations, marxism on the labour process, and American interactionism on the processes of reciprocity of recognition. Indeed, there has been little later work that has managed to escape this general system. Nevertheless, it was Marx who argued that it is possible for social constructs produced by these processes to develop important dynamics of their own -- his example was the economic system. Simmel also developed this insight, and his work has led to studies of 'a variety of such [independently acting] formations' (88) -- including Foucault's discursive formations and Bourdieu's cultural fields. Existentialists were to argue that human individuals too can 'become more than the conditions of their emergence dictate: they become self determining' (89).
However, knowledge produced by these techniques has long been seen as inferior to the universal truths uncovered by science -- until the transformation of science, the discovery of irreducible complexity, the importance of the human subject in the process of discovering. Positivism has failed to find an unquestionable basis for mathematics or science, while studies of actual scientists revealed the importance of belonging to communities, and working within traditions [se file on Kuhn]. There scientific activity itself came to be seen as an historical process. The problem of relativism then ensued.
This leads to the final triumph of narrative, since relativism is overcome in practice by the construction of narratives, especially those that managed to successfully challenge earlier explanations, while still maintaining their achievements. [This process is seen for example in the attempt by British Cultural Studies or Critical Criminology to both retain all the insights of earlier forms of social science, while reinterpreting them using the new concepts. Reverting to natural science, if I remember Kuhn properly, he argues that new sciences sometimes manage the achievements or problems defined by the old ones by simply ignoring them -- Newtonians accepting that gravity is a mysterious force that operates at a distance, for example, and ignoring the problems established by earlier theorists in trying to actually explain its dynamics]. It follows from this that narrative forms are integral to science and to argument about science, and that the consolidation of the discipline involves somebody producing a set of narratives to link the various strands of research.
Only recently has there been work trying to display the mechanisms of narrative, largely in structuralist semiotics -- [and Barthes on the narrative is cited in the notes, 93]. These analysts soon made the claim that narrative forms were universal. The argument is taken up in Ricoeur and his turn back to human action and experience [so that everything becomes a narrative, or, in a famous phrase, action becomes a text]. Human experience enables elements to be brought together into narratives, in a cycle of 'prefiguration, configuration and refiguration' (94). In the first stage, it is assumed that life itself expresses some 'inchoate narrative' (94); in the second, human beings attempt to represent action by inventing a kind of structure to configure it, as in 'emplotment' (94); and a third stage, there is an active attempt to actualize this structure, by acting within it. Thus, in specific terms, novelists can base their characters on real people, and real people can return the compliment. Actions can become seen as lived narratives, both situated action and permitting new action. The same mechanisms are seen at work in the common activity of producing and telling stories, whether this be ordinary individuals or historians. Thus 'narratives must be regarded as the matrix within which all other forms of representation must be legitimated' (95). The social nature of these narratives sustain individual resistance to particular linguistic representations [ discourses or ideologies?]. It also lies beneath the apparently independent activity of labour.
Narratives are in constant tension with forms of life that have emerged and become semi-independent, especially where these appear to be dehumanised. In bureaucratic organisations, for example, founding narratives are lost and displaced, and 'careerists indifferent to these goals, interested only in their own personal bonds and in power struggles, not only penetrate such institutions, but displace those who take the original goals seriously' (96), including those posing as objective social scientists. They are often opposed by those 'struggling to reformulate narratives which will subordinate such forms to human ends' (96). Marx was one of those who wanted to develop a narrative subordinating the economic system to human intentions [and Habermas's work obviously is included here too].
Individuals can find space within narratives, thanks to the 'inherent reflexivity of the narrative form' (97). We can question these stories and consider alternatives, and thus become '"authentic" authors' (97). The possibilities may be limited by social conditions, however -- thus early capitalism permitted active and engaged citizens to play a role in both economic and cultural life, leading to a typical cultural product the 'Bildungsroman -- a [novel containing a] narrative of self-development and self education' (98). The chaos and irrationality of later capitalism leads to the existential narrative. The struggle to develop a narrative against this incoherence is still a major feature of modern culture.
The conclusion admits that this whole article has also been an 'emplotment', linking together various themes in Greek and European philosophy. The crisis in attempts to explain eternal truths using logic is to be celebrated, since such a culture 'will tend to be aggressive, in Torrance, domineering and oppressive towards other cultures' (99). We should make every effort to defend the narrative, in philosophy and literature, and so show how people 'can become authentic agents by reflecting on the narratives, gaining access to new ones and by participating in the creation of their own' (99). The postmodernist scepticism towards narrative arises from the earlier success of positivist and scientist forms of thinking and the domination and control that they led to. It is also the case that people have now become this empowered by changes in social forms 'pre-eminently the global economy' (100), which makes it difficult to live authentically. As a result, experience and culture have become fragmented and 'reduced to mere forms of entertainment or amusement', and a fundamental crisis of the imagination. Imagination is to be stimulated again by 'storyspinners, that is, historians, writers and artists who can give people back their future' (100).
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