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  • Narrative Identity and Narrative Imperialism:A Response to Galen Strawson and James Phelan
  • Paul John Eakin (bio)

What is narrative identity? In an article I published in this journal two years ago, I defined it as "the notion that what we are is a story of some kind." Before investigating its social and somatic sources, I added that I regarded this idea as "counterintuitive and even extravagant." James Phelan liked my characterization of narrative identity enough to quote it twice in an article of his own in Narrative last October. In that "Editor's Column," Phelan praises the British philosopher Galen Strawson for "his overall effort to debunk the narrative identity thesis" as "both effective and salutary" (209). As the lead-in to his commentary on Strawson, Phelan casts me as the apostle of narrative identity, and it would seem to follow, accordingly, that my views have been "debunked" by Strawson. As Phelan concludes, I'd be guilty—along with Oliver Sacks, Jerome Bruner, and others—of "reducing the numerous and complex relations between the self and one's narratives about the self to a single [narrative] model" (210).

When I finished reading the "Editor's Column," I didn't recognize myself in Phelan's "Eakin," not surprisingly because Phelan quotes me selectively to suit his own agenda, a protest against what he calls "narrative imperialism," "the impulse by students of narrative to claim . . . more and more power for our object of study and our ways of studying it" (206). So to set the record straight at the outset, permit me to run the entire passage in which Phelan found his cue. In what follows, I reflect on Oliver Sacks's observation that "it might be said that each of us constructs and lives a 'narrative', and that this narrative is us, our identities" (110, emphasis original):

"This narrative is us, our identities"—surely the notion that what we are is a story of some kind is counterintuitive and even extravagant. Don't we know that we're more than that, that Sacks can't be right? And our instinctive recoil points [End Page 180] to an important truth: there are many modes of self and self-experience, more than could possibly be represented in the kind of self-narration Sacks refers to, more than any autobiography could relate.

("What" 121–22)

Before considering what Phelan and Strawson have to say about narrative identity, I want to make clear that my own view of self and self-experience is quite different from theirs. Self has been conceptualized variously as a transcendental endowment, as a social script, as one of the cultural technologies of power. Whatever it is, I'm convinced that self is not some invariant monolithic entity. While Phelan and Strawson like to speak of the self, I prefer to stay away from the definite article. Instead, as the passage from which Phelan quoted is meant to suggest, self is a name I'd give to reflexive awareness of processes unfolding in many registers. Narrative identity, then, is only one, albeit extremely important, mode of self-experience.

In "Against Narrativity" Galen Strawson attacks two "theses": (1) a "psychological Narrativity thesis," which holds that "human beings typically see or live or experience their lives as a narrative or story of some sort"; and (2) an "ethical Narrativity thesis," which holds that "experiencing or conceiving one's life as a narrative . . . is essential to a well-lived life, to true or full personhood" (428). The problems with Strawson's exposition begin right here with his formulation of his theses: "see or live or experience," "experiencing or conceiving"—the wobble between the conceptual and the experiential provides a shifting foundation for the rest of his argument. Does Strawson manage to refute either of his "theses"? Let me consider the "ethical" thesis first, for the real-life consequences that follow from it are more urgent and compelling than those that follow from the "psychological" thesis. Moreover, I suspect that it was resistance to the "ethical" thesis that motivated Strawson's essay in the first place.

Strawson does not see himself or his life in narrative terms, and he resents the proposition that he...


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