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Contemporary Philosophy


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



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The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony by Leigh Gilmore (Paperback) (Cornell University Press) Memoirs in which trauma takes a major--or the major--role challenge the limits of autobiography. Leigh Gilmore presents a series of "limit-cases"--texts that combine elements of autobiography, fiction, biography, history, and theory while representing trauma and the self--and demonstrates how and why their authors swerve from the formal constraints of autobiography when the representation of trauma coincides with self-representation. Gilmore maintains that conflicting demands on both the self and narrative may prompt formal experimentation by such writers and lead to texts that are not, strictly speaking, autobiography, but are nonetheless deeply engaged with its central concerns.

In astute and compelling readings of texts by Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Dorothy Allison, Mikal Gilmore, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jeanette Winterson, Gilmore explores how each of them poses the questions, "How have I lived? How will I live?" in relation to the social and psychic forms within which trauma emerges. Challenging the very boundaries of autobiography as well as trauma, these stories are not told in conventional ways: the writers testify to how self-representation and the representation of trauma grow beyond simple causes and effects, exceed their duration in time, and connect to other forms of historical, familial, and personal pain. In their movement from an overtly testimonial form to one that draws on legal as well as literary knowledge, such texts produce an alternative means of confronting kinship, violence, and self-representation.
Leigh Gilmore is Associate Professor of English at The Ohio State University. She is the author of Autobiographics: A Feminist Theory of Self-Representation.

Narrative and Identity: Studies in Autobiography, Self and Culture by Jens Brockmeier, Donal A. Carbaugh (Studies in Narrative, Volume 1: John Benjamins) The focus of this book and the series is constructing human identity. Editor’s summary: This theoretical landscape of narrative study provides a background upon which the scope of the essays presented in this volume can be located. The essays included here set out to focus on one particular issue: the relationship between narrative and human identity, and the question of how we construct what we call our lives and how we create ourselves in the process. All authors of this volume share the conviction that the question of what type of construction is at stake here, can neither be separated from the question of what type of identity is being created in this construction, nor isolated from the question of the cultural and historical context of this construction. They also share the assumption that these questions are productively engaged from the perspective of narrative. Moreover, some of the papers in this book set out to show that such a complex and fleeting construction as human identity‑the self in time ‑ can only exist as a narrative construction. Without the narrative fabric, it seems difficult to even think of human temporality and historicity at all.
The study of narrative, thus, appears to be not just one sub‑discipline among others, one that is particularly helpful for our understanding of the twists and turns of human identity. There is a deeper, philosophical point about the relation between narrative and identity. We believe the essays of this volume demonstrate that narrative proves to be a supremely appropriate means for the exploration of the self or, more precisely, the construction of selves in cultural contexts of time and space. What these studies ultimately suggest is that the very idea of human identity ‑ perhaps we can even say, the very possibility of human identity‑ is tied to the very notion of narrative and narrativity.
We have divided the papers of this volume into three parts. The first part introduces a number of theoretical perspectives on the problem of narrative and self-construction. The chapters of the second part explore particular life stories in their cultural contexts, presenting the distinct worlds of a Blackfeet man, a woman who survived breast cancer, and the fictional and real heroes of collective American identity narratives. In the third part, essays focus on specific issues, empirical and theoretical, of autobiographical memory and narrative identity, studying self-accounts (fictional and non‑fictional) by a composer, a scientist and philosopher, writers, and painters. A summary commentary sets out to sketch a little colloquium among the authors, outlining several questions for further inquiry.
In the first chapter of the first part, Jerome Bruner offers a view of the autobiographical process as a process of narrative self‑making. Like all other aspects of "worldmaking"‑a notion Bruner borrows from philosopher Nelson Goodman‑self‑making (or "life‑making") depends heavily upon the symbolic system in which it is conducted, its opportunities and constraints. Bruner explores these symbolic systems as cultural constructions, focusing especially on the construction of autobiographical life narratives. He lists a number of features that characterise modern life stories, discussing several examples drawn from natural and literary autobiographies. Against this backdrop, Bruner brings to the fore a strange contradiction: While the self is regarded, in Western ideology, as the most private aspect of our being, it turns out on closer inspection to be highly social and discursively negotiable. To study autobiographies, in this view, involves not only examining the cultural construction of personal identity, but also the construction of one's social culture.
All studies of this book draw heavily upon particular notions of narrative. Brockmeier and Harre's chapter can be read as an introduction into narrative as a new model for the human sciences. They argue that the increasing interest in the study of narrative and its cultural contexts reflects the emergence of another strand of postpositivist method in the social sciences. Drawing on socio‑ and psycholinguistics as well as on literary and philosophical studies, Brockmeier and Harre offer a working definition of narrative that differentiates it from other patterns of discourse. In discussing various examples, they highlight some of the qualities that have made the study of narrative such a productive approach. But they also identify some theoretical difficulties and possible dangers of which, they believe, students of narrative should be aware. The understanding of narrative that is outlined in this essay lays a strong emphasis on its fleeting character and its particular discursive embededness, qualities, the authors argue, that make it particularly appropriate for investigating the dynamic patterns of human identity.

 In his chapter, Rom Harre explores how narrative can structure both singularities and multiplicities of self. His central thesis builds upon a notion of the self as three‑fold: "self‑1" being a context of perception, "self‑2" being a context of reflection, and "self‑3" being a context of social interaction. Harre points out that "self‑1" and "self‑2" are generally singular, with "self‑3" being generally plural. These ideas are being applied to the analysis of two prominent narratives about humans and human identities: One conceives of persons as neuro‑material entities, the other understands persons as psycho‑moral actors. Examining the limitations of both views, Harre proposes their integration within a tool‑task narrative frame.
In their study, Freeman and Brockmeier claim that one's identity, insofar as it is tied to the interpretive appraisal of one's personal past as it takes place in autobiographical narrative, is inseparable from normative ideas of what a life is, or is supposed to be, if it is lived well. They call these ideas conceptions of the "good life", drawing attention to the fact that the narrative construction of identity not only has a psychological, social, and aesthetic dimension, but also an ethical one. In discussing distinct cultural and historical genres of life narratives from Greek Antiquity, Christianity, Modernity, and Postmodernity, the essay suggests that, whatever the specific form of the autobiographical process, it will inevitably be conditioned by some notion of narrative integrity. This notion unavoidably encompasses both an aesthetic and an ethical dimension. The authors`argue that cultural ideas of the "good life" will affect the degree of narrative integrity that inheres in the stories people tell about their lives and, ultimately, in their identities.

Donal Carbaugh's chapter presents an ethnographic narrative that is based upon the analysis of several oral texts. The main concerns of his study are to show how the oral texts are embedded in a specific cultural meaning system, and how such narrative can be understood and analyzed in culturally sensitive ways. Carbaugh's analyses are focused primarily upon a narrative told by a Blackfeet, Native American man, Rising Wolf. The study points out how the particular event in which Rising Wolf's story was told influences its structure; how that structure implies a particular view of history, memory, and identity; and how the deeper meanings and significance of that structure are dependent not only upon physical places, but also upon a system of cultural discourse that includes ritual, myth, and social drama. As the narrative activates this system of expression, it demonstrates how intercultural dynamics and cultural preservation, as well as resistance, can be managed today by traditional Blackfeet people.

Carol Fleisher Feldman begins her exploration of group‑defining stories by noting a key difference between narratives that students tell about their work in New York theatre groups. She wondered how dramatically different stories could be told about seemingly similar life worlds. Her analysis treats narratives as cultural patterns that can be conceived of as cognitive genres for creating and interpreting experiences. The same is true, she argues, for narratives of extended cultural communities such as nations. National identity narratives are a special case of a "group defining story". By examining historical themes in American national narratives, from the plots of the romance and the quest, she proposes several properties of national identity narratives. Feldman's essay shows that national identity narratives, like all group narrative, can provide basic forms through which personal autobiographies gain shape and meaning.

Kristin Langellier examines a series of narratives told by a ten‑year survivor of breast cancer. During her ordeal, the survivor, Rhea, has confronted several potent cultural events, in addition to the cancer, radiation treatments, and surgery‑ all of them, as the essay points out, are deeply embedded in cultural discourses of gender and ethnicity. Rhea responded, in part, by getting a tattoo on her mastectomy scar, writing over the "writings" of cancer and surgery. Langellier's chapter analyzes Rhea's story as a "performance of identity" that moves from the lack of agency in getting breast cancer to the forceful agency of`getting a tattoo on her scar. Five segments of Rhea's account are transcribed and analyzed for their individual and cultural meanings, features of performance, and verbal strategies. Langellier argues that Rhea's narrative performance of identity holds transformative potential for the cultural discourses of tattoo and breast cancer. 

Jerome Sehulster investigates the "historical truth" and "narrative truth" of an important episode in Richard Wagner's autobiography. In his Mein Leben (My Life), the composer recounts a wonderful creative "vision" experienced at La Spezia, Italy, in early September 1853. Ever since, Wagner's vision has been referred to as a pivotal event in the extended drama of the creation of his epic four opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Examining Wagners' autobiographical writings, letters, and other historical documents, Sehulster finds amazing discrepancies and contradictions. A detailed analysis of the account of Wagner and other contemporary documents leads to the conclusion that Wagner invented and elaborated the autobiographical account of the vision to present himself, in hindsight, to others as the Genius and Artist, as described by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, whose work Wagner encountered a year after La Spezia. However, Sehulster argues, the reinterpretation or even "rewriting" of an autobiographical experience does not necessarily lack "narrative truth". The account of the vision, like many other accounts in Mein Leben, is far less a historical document than a mythical narrative of self presentation. It is part of Wagner's personal myth, which supports a major component of his identity.
In his study on Jean Piaget's self accounts, Jacques Vonehe deals with a particularly interesting case of multiple autobiographical identities. The famous Swiss psychologist wrote, during his long life, several life narratives. In each of them he presented himself in different ways and on different scenes to different audiences. The comparison among these different life narratives is revealing. In all of his autobiographies, as the study shows, Piaget is both the same and different: The facts are the same, the anecdotes are similar, but the outcome is entirely different. Autobiography, for Vonehe, is an enormously flexible genre of Selbstdarstellung (self presentation). It varies according to the target audience in function of which the plot of a life and an identity is fashioned. Focusing on two wide‑spread autobiographies of Piaget, Voneche aims at pointing out the different interactions among actor, scene, plot, and audience. Facing different scenes and cultural target‑audiences, Piaget changes hats and intellectual identities. This is all the more striking, since the "scientific" Piaget presented himself as a developmental theorist for whom individual development is the explanatory factor in epistemology and psychology.

 Brockmeier's essay tackles three themes. First, it raises the problem of reference in autobiography: Who is the author, the teller of the story, and who is the self behind or in this discourse? Is there a self, or one self, at all? Second, it examines the commonsense view that the (auto)biographical gestalt of a life is circumscribed by a natural development from the beginning to the end. This view is closely associated with what Brockmeier calls the "retrospective teleology" of life narratives, the fact that a life, if told in hindsight, seems to have been lived towards a goal, a telos. The third theme is the vision of time and temporality that emerges in autobiographical narrative. The authors argue that human identity construction is essentially the construction of a particular mode of time, "autobiographical time", the time of one's life. To explain his arguments, he discusses the "visual narratives" of paintings, reading examples of portraiture as life narratives. In doing so, the essay makes the point that the history of art since the Renaissance offers a genre of (auto)biographical painting that is not only a fascinating form of pictorial life narrative, but also allows for insights into the nature of the autobiographical process.

 In the final chapter, Mark Freeman offers a critical reading and summary discussion of the preceding chapters. He identifies four basic dimensions that are involved in the various explorations into the relationship between narrative and identity presented in this volume: the historical, cultural, rhetorical, and experiential or poetic dimension. In focusing on some key concepts that emerge from the discussion of these dimensions ‑ "autobiographical consciousness", "narrative imagination", and "narrative connectedness" ‑ Freeman suggests seeing the identity of the self as a unique narrative style, a style embodied in our life narratives. Taking this idea one step farther, he argues that there is a form of "literariness" that is in a distinct sense built into the fabric of life. Viewed in this way, the question of identity and narrative merges into the question of life and narrative. In fact, as Freeman concludes, we might speak of the poetic dimension not only of the narrative construction of identity, as it takes place in autobiographical narrative, but of experience itself.

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