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  • The Social Minds in Factual and Fictional We-Narratives of the Twentieth Century1
  • Jan Alber (bio)

This paper deals with factual and fictional we-narratives of the twentieth century. Like Amit Marcus, I refer not only to narratives told wholly or mostly in the first-person plural, but also to “narratives in which there are thematically significant shifts from ‘we’ to other pronouns and vice versa” (“We Are You” 2). The first-person plural pronoun always refers to two or more protagonists to represent collective or otherwise shared experiences. Multiple agents are subsumed under the heading of shared world views, assumptions, intentions, or thought processes. Either the speaker speaks for him- or herself and somebody else or we listen to a collective voice, which consists of several speakers at the same time. Also, the “we” may refer to different groups during the course of a narrative.

In this paper, I compare factual and fictional we-narratives with regard to the connections between the represented minds included under the “we,” as well as the ideological ramifications of the depicted transpersonal experiences. I distinguish between different types of we-narratives, while formulating connections between the use of “we” and ideological purposes.2 I do not posit an intrinsic connection between [End Page 213] this narrative form and certain ideologies. Rather, I claim that forms are never used neutrally and that one has to look at the specific context in which they are deployed to determine their functions. According to Brian Richardson, “no form has any inherent essence or tendencies . . . Ideological stances are frequently enmeshed with practices of narration, but never in a way that can be reduced to an easy equation” (“I etcetera” 321).3

The minds that are represented in we-narratives form what Alan Palmer calls a social mind. Palmer explains that

an important part of the social mind is our capacity for intermental thought. Such thinking is joint, group, shared, or collective . . . Intermental thought is a crucially important component of fictional narrative because, just as in real life, where much of our thinking is done in groups, much of the mental functioning that occurs in novels is done by large organizations, small groups, work colleagues, friends, families, couples, and other intermental units.


The social mind is certainly a productive new concept, but like Manfred Jahn (249), I have problems with the analogy between real and fictional social minds that Palmer postulates. To be sure, in the actual world, we have access to the minds of our fellow human beings through facial expressions, bodily positions, gestures, vocal intonations, or conversations. However, since we primarily have to rely on hypotheses about another’s interiority, we can never be sure whether our theories are correct—and this guesswork is partly what makes real-world interactions so captivating. Since I have frequently been mistaken about the thoughts or feelings of people very close to me, I have learned that I cannot always trust my mindreading.

This lack of certainty in real-world encounters guarantees a certain degree of privacy that should be cherished. Frankly speaking, I do not want to live in a world in which my thoughts, feelings, wishes, and dreams (or those of others) are no longer private and secret but known by others—and such a transfer of knowledge can often be observed in the world of fiction.5 The African-American J. Saunders Redding also has problems with the collective voice in Richard Wright’s fictional we-narrative 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States: “When one presumes to speak for me he must reflect my mind so accurately that I find no source of disagreement with him. To do this, he must be either a lack-brain parrot or a god” (9). We-narratives potentially involve the danger that those who are spoken for and included under the first-person plural do not actually want to be subsumed.

Moreover, the concept of the “social mind” does not necessarily have a positive connotation. In order to maximize control, totalitarian systems typically try to turn their citizens into what Palmer calls a “large intermental unit” (48). This idea is critiqued...