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  • Editor’s Column:Who’s Here? Thoughts on Narrative Identity and Narrative Imperialism
  • James Phelan

This issue contains a provocative dialogue between George Butte and Paul John Eakin about Eakin's essay in the May 2004 issue, "What Are We Reading When We Read Autobiography?" At stake in the dialogue are (1) our understanding of the roles of authorial agency and of deep subjectivity (one's knowledge that one knows that one knows) in the construction of autobiography; and (2) ideas about the relation between the disciplines of neurobiology (which Eakin draws heavily upon) and narratology. Since Butte and Eakin both do a good job of articulating their positions, I will just point you to their debate and invite you to adjudicate it on your own.

My interest here is in a feature of Eakin's argument that Butte doesn't directly address and that I want to link to the general narrative turn that many disciplines have taken in recent years: the narrative identity thesis, or, in Eakin's words, "the idea that what we are could be said to be a story of some kind" (307). Eakin is both attracted to and somewhat skeptical of this thesis: he sees "many reasons to believe" it (124), even as he labels it "counterintuitive and even extravagant" (121) and "surprising" (124). This double response motivates both his question, "what are we reading when we read autobiography?," and his turn to the work of the neurobiologist Antonio Damasio for some help in answering it. Eakin combines Damasio's findings and speculations about the neurobiological bases of the self with his own extensive experience as a student of autobiography to advance two provocative claims: "(1) that 'self' content might be distributed throughout an I-narrative and not merely contained in the I-characters and I-narrators where the conventions of autobiographical discourse condition us to look for it; and (2) that 'self' is not only reported but performed, certainly by the autobiographer as she writes and perhaps to a surprising degree by the reader as he reads" (311). [End Page 205]

Eakin shows that these claims and the narrative identity thesis are fully compatible, but I believe he stops short of demonstrating that they are mutually entailed. In other words, while the claims and the thesis may be interdependent, it is also possible that the claims can be true and the thesis untrue and vice versa. I make this point not to launch further commentary on Eakin's suggestive essay but rather to highlight the narrative identity thesis itself. The thesis is a noteworthy phenomenon within the broader narrative turn because it is an instance of what I call "narrative imperialism," the impulse by students of narrative to claim more and more territory, more and more power for our object of study and our ways of studying it. This expansionist impulse is natural—it follows from our enthusiasm for our object—and it is often well-founded: in many cases, narrative and narrative theory help enrich the new territory. But, like other colonizing projects, narrative imperialism can have negative consequences both for the colonized and the colonizer. Narrative imperialism can lead us to devalue existing insights from the colonized disciplines. It can stretch the concept of narrative to the point that we lose sight of what is distinctive about it. And it can lead us to oversimplify some of the phenomena it seeks to explain.

Eakin of course is far from alone in advancing the narrative identity thesis; he begins the original article with an epigraph from Oliver Sacks claiming that "each of us constructs and lives a 'narrative' and that this narrative is us, our identities" (121). Jerome Bruner has written that the "self is a perpetually rewritten story . . . and that in the end we become the autobiographical narratives we tell about our lives" (15). And to cite just one more of many possible examples, Terry Castle used her plenary address at the 2005 Narrative Conference in Louisville to exemplify the thesis; she analyzed the list of songs on her iPod and the photographs from her computer's screensaver as telling the story of her identity.

It is to Eakin's credit...


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pp. 205-210
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