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Narrative 14.1 (2006) 27-44
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Narrativity, Self, and Self-Representation
James L. Battersby
In the December 2004 issue of Ratio, Galen Strawson published an important essay in which he mounted a groundbreaking attack against what has become virtually the standard view of how we construe our lives: the narrative identity thesis, which insists that our identity is a function of the story that we construct about ourselves. Specifically, he forcefully challenges both the descriptive and normative aspects of the thesis, the judgment, on the one hand, that, in Oliver Sacks's words, "each of us constructs and lives a narrative" (105), and the judgment, on the other, that, as Marya Schechtman puts it, we ought to construct our lives narratively, that, indeed, we must do so to achieve full personhood (119). The overall argument of Strawson's piece divides into two major sections, each of which has two parts: (1) a defense of what he calls an Episodic approach to self-experience, in which the self, considered as self, is a "now" phenomenon disconnected from the past and the future, and an attack against what he calls the prevailing Diachronic approach to self-experience, in which the self, considered as a self, is understood to persist in time from the past into the future; and (2) a defense of a non-Narrative form of self-representation and an attack against the dominance of the Narrative form of self-representation. The aim of Strawson's case at large is to reconfigure the terms and the conditions of the discussion of the relations obtaining between the self and its representation. In my view, one cannot read this piece without being impressed by its iconoclastic turn, by its temerity in facing down the almost universal endorsement of the narrative identity thesis, and by its unflinching insistence that the Episodic/non-Narrative approach to self-representation has equal standing with the Diachronic/Narrative approach, that in point of fact it just might be primus inter pares. [End Page 27]
On a second reading, however, one's initial enthusiasm is slightly tempered by the recognition that many of Strawson's principal terms are not clearly and precisely defined and that many of the concepts to which the terms are attached are not explored in any depth. Moreover, one feels again and again that claims are being supported, not by strong evidence and compelling arguments, but by counterclaims, interesting and satisfying in their own way, but counter-assertions nevertheless. On reflection, then, one looks upon the essay with an auspicious and a dropping eye, at once gleefully conscious of how dramatically one's understanding of the issues has changed for the better and painfully aware of how much more needs to be said and done. In short, Strawson shows that the broad claims of the prevalent narrative identity thesis cannot withstand close scrutiny, but he does not provide an adequate alternative view of the relation between the self and narrative. In the following examination of and reflection on Strawson's essay, although much attention is directed to what I perceive to be the essay's limitations, my ultimate goal is to build on the strengths implicit in its distinctions, using its conceptual categories as entry points into what I take to be a more commodious understanding of the relation of narrative to the self than the one postulated by Strawson. More specifically, in the end, I shall (1) offer a brief in support of a conception of self-experience that is complicatedly Diachronic and Episodic, one that also puts special emphasis on the self's elusive, ungraspable, but somehow readily available nature. In addition, I shall (2) speak in defense of various forms of self-representation, both Narrative and non-narrative, in keeping with my pluralist understanding of the manifold relations obtaining between our protean self and our available means of representation. In the editor's column to the previous issue of Narrative, James Phelan finds that, thanks to Strawson's argument—which he accepts more readily than I am willing to do—he can now identify himself as "an...