Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, and Culture (review)
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Modernism/modernity 11.2 (2004) 358-359



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Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, and Culture . Rukmini Bhaya Nair. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. Pp. xi + 425. $80.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

The intersections between cognitive science and narrative theory are gaining increasing critical interest, and Rukmini Bhaya Nair's detailed and creative study applies this synthetic methodology to the rhetorical analysis of postcolonialism in the discourse of disaster. Narrative Gravity argues that narrative should be the basic analytic unit of pragmatics and other forms of discourse analysis. Nair engages sociolinguistics, speech act theory, deconstruction, Paul Grice and David Lewis's semantics, and Daniel Dennett's arguments about the narrative illusion of intentionality. She then uses this interdisciplinary theoretical apparatus to uncover constraints in official administrative accounts and resistance in villagers' oral narratives of the West Bengali floods of 1978.

Nair's first five chapters serve to establish her complicated theoretical stance. Conversations (the examples of which in the early chapters are generally taken from J. Svartvik and R. Quirk's A Corpus of English Conversational Interaction) are her analytic focus, and she adopts the sociolinguistic premise that the "fundamental structures of narrative are to be found in oral versions of personal experience."1 The first chapter derives rules for "inferential constraint" in narrative processing from the sociolinguistic story grammars in William Labov and others' work (62). Chapters two and three discuss speech act theory and Derrida and De Man's response to it. Nair argues for the importance of speech act theory by noting that narrative itself is a "basic unit of communication" (113). Another of Nair's main theses is that narrative is a "species of natural theory" (2). Therefore, J. L. Austin and John Searle's analyses of the contexts in which speech occurs provide evidence of how the narrative property is "felicitously adapted to exploring the multiple, often paradoxical ways in which 'truth' is presented" (128).

The student of literary narrative might ask what conversational analysis has to do with poems and novels. Nair's chapter "Performatives, Perlocutions, Pretence," on Derrida and De Man's criticisms of speech act theory, partially addresses this question by arguing that in literature the intersubjective elements of conversation are elided. In other words, the immediacy and transactional nature of conversation establishes a moral framework of privacy and witnessing that is not shared by literary narrative (164). Another recent work which examines the intersections of cognitive science and narrative theory, David Herman's Story Logic, adopts the opposite approach, choosing to analyze the performance of speech acts in the "Mutt and Jute" episode of Finnegans Wake.2 Nair extends her conception of narrative into a more social realm in her fourth chapter, which considers Paul Grice and David Lewis's conversational maxims and narrative conventions. In the fifth chapter, Nair explores the ramifications of Daniel Dennett's observation that "narratives create the illusion of self" (205) and also argues that narrative is adapted to transmit memes.3 Earlier story-grammars relied on "segmental units of narrative such as setting, complicating action and resolution," to which Nair opposes a series of inferential transformative rules for a narrative grammar (213). She then analyzes a series of very short stories and folk tales according to this transformational model to illustrate the hidden complexity of even the simplest of narratives. [End Page 358]

The final three chapters develop the practice of Nair's narrative theory. "Turns at Talk," the sixth chapter, discusses ethnomethodology. She argues that "boredom," "fragility," and "plausibility" are interactional criteria for the shared construction of narrative in conversation. The types of "cultural maneuverings" that establish these qualities reveal the national tensions of the speech community, an archaeology of discourse explored in the last two chapters. These chapters are the most effective, as Nair moves from the often staid examples drawn from Svartvik and Quirk's Corpus to recordings of flood narratives from the Midnapur district of West Bengal. These illiterate rural women's "subjectivity is narrativized around a thematics of survival rather than of self-expression" (300). Nair contrasts their accounts with the bureaucratic writing of...