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The Intersection of Narrative and Science in Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 323-341 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0022

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The intersection of science and literature has been an interesting study throughout the past two decades, one that not a few academic scholars have taken up. From Philip Coleman’s collection of essays addressing the collective need to synthesize all forms of knowledge to Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities which “call[s] for upheaval; for new theory, method, and ethos; for paradigm shift” (xii), academics have been trying to understand how literature and science can exist as polarities and yet, simultaneously, can interact with each other to suggest, fascinatingly, that one can only reach its full potential when enhanced by the other.1 Again and again within this intersection literary critics attempt to apply chaos theory to literature.2 In 1997, critics Carl Matheson and Evan Kirchhoff claimed that “[b]y a conservative estimate, over fifty papers have been published which link chaos theory to literature or literary theory” (29), yet it is curious to note that to date no attempt has been made to use chaos theory to further our understanding of the field of auto/biography studies.3 The question I ask in this paper is, “Why not?” The answer I propose is that using the vehicle of auto/ biography studies to refocus our attention on why literary critics seem so interested in the literary application of chaos theory helps us understand much about the function narrative technique can serve in life writing or life telling.

Within this context, Robert M. Sapolsky’s autobiography, A Primate’s Memoir, on its own a fascinating text and one that has yet to be discussed by literary critics, is ripe for analysis. Sapolsky is professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research at the National Museum of Kenya, and according to a New York Times reviewer, “one of the finest natural history writers around” (Nixon). In A Primate’s Memoir, Sapolsky chronicles the twenty-five years of his life spent alternating between conducting field work with a baboon troop in Kenya and connecting his field work to neurological research done in his lab back in the United States as he studies, on a molecular level, how stress hormones kill brain cells—how a neuron dies after a stroke, a seizure, Alzheimer’s, and brain aging. In his narrative, Sapolsky can seamlessly transition from a comedic discussion of his baboons and himself while on their turf, to a moving articulation of the diverse, often-sobering subject material he also includes in the memoir. While there are many aspects of A Primate’s Memoir that make it a useful study to auto/biography scholars, in this paper I take a Lacanian approach to A Primate’s Memoir in order to look carefully at the specific narrative style for which Sapolsky is known, and I do so by using Judith Butler’s theory of performative identity formation. Sapolsky’s narrative technique in A Primate’s Memoir is interesting not only because it assumes the split nature of both subject and object (Sapolsky and the baboons in his troop), but furthermore, because it suggests a need for some state of subject/object identification and self-study beyond what can be offered by the typically binary categorization of Western identity structures (us/them, you/me, we/they, etc.). When one discusses Sapolsky’s text within the framework of performative identity formation, one can consider the establishment, within the field of auto/biography studies, of a state of subject/object identification I refer to as “not-order.” This state of “not-order” creates room for subject/object identification other than what can be described in terms of binary opposition and suggests a new way of approaching the study of memoir and the self-narrating subject.

The notion of identity has been a curious one, fraught with ambiguity and evasiveness ever since Lacan’s revisions of the Freudian account of the id/ego construct minimized the efficacy of the classic psychoanalytic movement that “had treated with undue respect the idea that the self or the ego was the seat of personal identity” (Bowie 75). Lacan, in other words, completely disrupted the possibility of a...

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