lunes, 16 de mayo de 2016

Biographical fragments and narrative smoothing

From John Shotter's Conversational Realities (Sage, 1993), ch. 7, "In Search of a Past: Therapeutic Re-Authoring"—in which he comments Ronald Fraser's account of his coming to terms with his past through psychoanalyis (in In Search of the Past,  1984). The last section, on "Biographical fragments as a practical corpus", has interesting comments on retrospection and narrativization:

But who was Fraser's new way of being? How did he re-relation himself to his past, if he didn't get rid of it? Well, to grasp the nature of the difficulty he was in, let us return to the hermeneutical approach, but now, to bring out one of hits central dangers, what Donald Spence calls (1986) 'narrative smoothing': it is a danger because a nice coherent, well-organized narrative, with everything in its place, prevents the appearance of alternative circumstantial possibilities, amongst which, if we are to be the authors of our own lives, we must be free to judge. In other words, it diverts our attention away from the fact that in our parctical-moral activities, we are embedded in a context, and quite often our circumstances surround us with possibilities. Our attention is diverted, because, in a hermeneutical construction, all the fragments which have occurred are decontextualized, and made into an orderly or systematic whole —often with, as Freud put it, the insertion of the 'missing portions' which must have 'originally' been there if things are to be orderly. This is the 'finding' of a narrative, and Freud, as we all know, used the archaeological metaphor.   Once we have found this correct whole, people's past actions are thought of as taking on their proper meaning within its context.memories of

But this, I think, is absolutely wrong. What their actions take on there is not so much meaning as intelligibility; that is, they becoem capable of being grasped reflectively and intellectually. The order has been constructed and the missing portions supplied, by drawing upon a 'grammar' implicit in our life and language, by drawing upon features implicit in our 'accepted' ways of coordinating our actions with one another—and to the reational intellect, such a grammar gives the appearance of a proper meaning. but it is, I shall say, a 'counterfeit' version. It has been 'minted' wrongly; it has the wrong origins. For it has issued from a desire for a single, particular way of ordering social life—which for Freud, concerned as he was with psychoanalysis as a natural science ('What else can it be?') was in terms of individuals achieving mastery and possession of essentially socially produced resources. This is what it debases: its own proper minting and currency in the 'hurly-burly' or 'bustle' of practical, everyday life events (Wittgenstein), in which there is no order, no one single, complete, proper or true order. 'A faithful account of . . . the context of discovery will very likely have the appearance', says Spence (1986: 231), 'of a disconnected series of fragments strung together. Surprise, bewilderment, and faint glimmers of understanding probably all circle around one another during the average [analytic] hour in much the same way as they appear during a dream state . . .'

But if this is so, the true meanings of the events in the living of our lives cannot be properly understood within the confines of any order, narrative or otherwise. They are only to be found in the not wholly orderly, practical living of our lives. And this was Fraser's discovery: that if he was to be a 'maker' of narratives, the author of his own childhood, the historian of his past, he had to find a new 'position' for himself in relation to his own past. What he needed to do was not just to carry the narrative of his past into the future, as if it were the only proper one, but to be able to draw upon the fragments of his own past as and when he pleased, as a practical-moral resource, to re-colelct from them enablements (and constraints) of moment by moment relevance in judging how at present to best proceed in the realization of who he felt he should be in the future. This is why I emphasized his account of how he now felt about those he had known, that they were 'like people in books you can return to time and again'. No longer imprisoned within a single narrative, he realized he could treat his own biographical fragments as, to use a phrase of Alan Blum's (1971: 301-2), 'a practically conceived corpus of knowledge'.


In other words, to sum up, first for Fraser and then for the therapist: from Fraser's new position, as now the author of himself, his life becomes both a temporally developed and developing event, understood as such in a two-way, back-and-forth process of construction, oscillating in fact between the tasks of formulationg two interlinked narratives: one a retrospective, re-collective, hermeneutically constructed narrative, and the other a prospective, pro-jective, rhetorically formed narrative—two quite different narrative forms, each modifying the other. It is a mistake to think that the kind of understanding we seek is the 'proper' narrative of our past lives, or that we need a well-ordered script to carry us into the future. Each prevents us from being present at that moment of judgment when, in contact with the  circumstances around us, we must recollect those aspects of our past relevant for our future. If we are to continually reconstitute our past in terms of the 'lure' of our future projects, we must continually, at least to some extent, reconstitute ourselves (Crites, 1986). Thus the 'I', who at any one moment we are, is poised in that tense bridging position (the 'present' moment) , and must link an indefinite number of remembered episodes from that present point of view, while being oriented toward a future project, while—and it is this which we all forget—also noticing what is made available to us by way of the new opportunities in our current circumstances. Fraser's problem was that he could not live with what he himself had so far made of his biography; it did not make sense to him, or for him; he could not easily use it; it limited rather than liberated him; he did not feel at home in it; it did not enable him clearly to 'see' how to 'project' himself into the future.

This was Fraser's problem: but what was it like for the psychotherapist? If we ask, What practically happened in Fraser's analysis? I think we must reply along the following lines: (1) That first, the analyst discovered the central feeling of insecurity and lack of belongingness at the heart of Fraser's 'dis-ease' with his life, and discovered also the well-formed narrative, and the 'position' within it from which Fraser had tried to collect the fragments of his past together to form them into coherent biography, and how his wanting to be an 'I' for his mother, not only made that task impossible, but made the biography practically unusable. Up until this point, the analyst faced 'finding' the well-made narrative within which Fraser had entrapped himself. (2) Then, the analyst faced the task of finding the biographically engenderesd source feeling which that narrative, indeed accurately, but in fact inadequately, formulated. (3) At this point, his task changed from primarily a hermeneutical to a rhetorical one: he had to 'move' Fraser to a new 'position' from which to make sense of his own biographical data, by first leading him himself to discredit his old position, and by second, helping him to 'make' a new 'position' and thus a new biography for himself.

In all of these activities, narrative instruments are in use in one way or another; hermeneutically and rhetorically. However, because there is no principled way in which we can decide which should have priority over the other, I want to end by emphasizing again the importance of the rhetorical-poetic, the 'doing' rather than 'stating' aspect of language use—for it has not so far been given sufficient prominence in our theories of language. It provides us with the resources we need to 'see' the 'movements' invovlved in 'doing' communicating. It enables us to 'see' the movement between the retrospective and prospective aspects of the process of understanding at towk: the differences between attending to what has already been said and the context to which it gives rise, and attending to the activity of saying something further, in which one persona materilly 'moves' or 'affects' another by their utterances in that context. By 'moving' us to new 'positions' in relation to our own styorytelling, it has enabled us to 'see' how . . . we might 'move' ourselves to new positions by our own storytelling . . . which is, of course, one of the great powers, and one of the great dangers, of all storytelling.


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