- The I that Tells Itself:A Bakhtinian Perspective on Narrative Identity
The ambiguity of the title, borrowed from Derrida's The Ear of the Other (13), is not accidental: the I as both the addressee and the subject-object of a performative telling is precisely what is at stake in the question of narrative identity, a literary concept which has attained a near-Kantian magnitude since the 1980s and crept into, or perhaps even, as some have argued, taken over and colonized the discourse of philosophy, psychology, and historiography.1 The cost of this narrative imperialism is a certain dilution and trivialization of the conception of the human subject as a story-telling being, which calls for a more rigorous probing of the narrative identity thesis, its heuristic value, and its philosophical, psychological and ethical implications. This challenge has been taken up by Galen Strawson in an article entitled "Against Narrativity," premised on a clear-cut distinction between the "Psychological Narrativity thesis"—"a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives," and the "Ethical Narrativity thesis," which states that experiencing or conceiving one's life as a narrative is a good thing" (428). Appealing as this neat distinction may be, I believe that we have more to gain by taking on board the essential and productive messiness of the concept, which does not lend itself to waterproof compartmentalization. Indeed, the most interesting feature of what has become a buzzword in those disciplines which deal with human beings is precisely this evident transition, made by so many of its proponents, from a descriptive (psychological) to a prescriptive (ethical) conception of narrative identity.
The difficulty of extricating the psychological from the ethical aspects of the debate is evident in the critique of Narrativity thesis, mounted from two diametrically [End Page 1] opposing positions, which—for lack of better terms—I would call the "right" and the "left" sides of the field of psychotherapy. On the "right" side, we would find, for instance, ego-psychologists, who argue against a conception of subjectivity which, they argue, postulates a fictitious, fabricated structure of selfhood, those who claim that the "coherence and continuity of the self . . . [is not a provisional construction, but] a fundamental biological value, a homeostat," or those who argue against the overrating of the socially constructed self and emphasize the capacity of the private self to break out of socially or culturally imposed narratives.2 On the "left" side of the issue, we find those who would argue that the "narratological imperative" operates in the service of an adaptational, regulative, and "identitarian" professional ideology, that it inevitably gets caught up in the need for a recognizable pattern and thus imposes a false sense of coherence on human subjectivity.3 As we can see, the debate among psychotherapists is not confined to the issue of narrative as a heuristic concept or a therapeutic approach, but boils over into questions of ethics: does the thesis of narrative identity liberate or imprison human subjectivity? Is individual agency enabled or suppressed by a narrative conception of subjectivity? To what extent are we bound by the generic rules of our self-narratives? To what extent can we author ourselves? In the following discussion I would offer a Bakhtinian perspective on this intersection of the descriptive and the prescriptive conceptions of narrative identity.
Working at the edges of several disciplines, Bakhtin describes his own project as a kind of "philosophical anthropology," a default label, as he quite openly says in a retrospective essay: "our analysis must be called philosophical mainly because of what it is not: it is not a linguistic, philological, literary, or any other special kind of analysis. The advantages are these: our study will move in the liminal spheres, that is, on the borders of all the aforementioned disciplines, at their junctures and points of intersection. The text (written and oral) is the primary given of all these disciplines and of all thought in the human sciences and philosophy in general" (The Problem of the Text 102). Without a shade of anxiety about this breach of disciplinary boundary-lines, Bakhtin's self-conscious liminality suggests why...