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  • Editor’s Column:Form, Politics, and the Recent History of Narrative Theory

Margaret Homans's fascinating essay in this issue, "Adoption Narratives, Trauma, and Origins," concludes with a recommendation for those who adopt, who have been adopted, or who work with these two groups. "Rather than struggling to recover lost origins," Homans suggests, "members of the adoption community could be better off accepting the fictiveness, the artificiality, of what represents or replaces those origins. The adopted and those who speak for and about them might do well to celebrate the generation of stories about what stands in the place of origins, while learning to live without the illusion that what we have made is or could be (if only we tried harder) itself the origin" (23). Homans arrives at this conclusion through a skillful analysis that weaves together narrative theory, trauma theory, and close reading of fictional and nonfictional narratives about adoption. But I'm most interested here in the unusual nature of her conclusion: its claim about the practical consequences of her analysis for the lives of a specific segment of her potential audience. Although Homans's essay is as far from a self-help manual as we—or, for that matter, the publishers of such manuals—could want, her conclusion has something in common with such books. Like them, it offers a recommendation for its readers to shift their understanding, attitudes, and behavior in a nonacademic realm. Although I can't recall any similar conclusion to an essay in narrative theory in the 1970s, 1980s, or even the 1990s, I want to suggest that this concluding move represents not a radical new departure for our field but rather a consequence of other developments within those areas of it concerned with the relation between form and politics. (My remarks about these developments will be necessarily brief, partial, and schematic; for a much fuller account, see Fludernik.) [End Page 1]

It wasn't so long ago that those who were primarily concerned with narrative form and those who were primarily concerned with the politics of narrative were suspicious of each other. Formalists complained that political critics imposed their politics on narrative texts and, in so doing, ran roughshod over matters of form. According to this line of argument, if the political critics paid closer attention to those formal matters, then they would have to abandon—or at the very least revise—the claims they wanted to make about the relation between their agendas and the narratives they worked on. Political critics, for their part, contended that formalists removed narrative texts from any meaningful contexts, and therefore (a) glossed over important elements of those texts (elements often signified via the shorthand "gender, race, and class") and (b) produced knowledge that was simply sterile or empty. But by the late 1980s things began to change. Feminist narratologists such as Robyn Warhol and Susan S. Lanser and rhetorical critics such as Peter J. Rabinowitz were among the first to demonstrate that what looked like an opposition could become a productive alliance. The feminists showed that inquiry into form could provide an excellent basis for conclusions about narrative and gender. Rabinowitz showed that identifying reading conventions could provide insight into the politics of interpretation. In addition, critics and theorists interested in narrative ethics, most of whom were also influenced by political criticism, saw strong connections between the formal elements of narrative and their ethical consequences.

What's striking about these earlier efforts to unite form and politics is that they typically develop a two-step analysis, even if the steps aren't broken out separately: first, we work to understand elements of form and, second, we work to understand the political or ethical consequences of those formal elements. Rabinowitz's Before Reading, for example, has an explicit two part structure with Part One devoted to the conventions governing the ways readers interpret narrative (rules of notice, signification, configuration, and coherence) and Part Two devoted to the political consequences of certain applications of those conventions. This two-step method is still appropriate for many inquiries, but over time another method has developed, one that merges formal and political analysis. This method takes as its underlying...


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