- Collective Experience in Narrative:Conclusions and Proposals
All human life and all human interaction are profoundly social: our everyday lives do not take place in isolation but constantly require our engagement with other people. That the shared, engaged, and joint aspects of experience feature prominently in narratives as well is beyond dispute. Yet literary critics have tended to privilege the private, individual aspects of experience over their shared dimension and neglected the powerful influence of group or collective experiences. Taking our cue from Palmer’s approach, the essays in this special issue have explored the ways in which collective experience is realized and functionalized in a trajectory that spans several centuries and genres. Together the essays show that collective experience covers a wide range of group phenomena that can themselves be represented through a variety of techniques. It can include collectives from dyads to nations and its representation exerts its full force when it is intertwined with such elements of narrative as focalization, time, character, and even action. These representations typically throw into sharp relief not only what is shared, but also what is individual and single—and they function in different ways in different narratives, but they always create effects different from representations of solitary experience. Contrary to individual experience, collective experience is necessarily rooted in (shared) patterns of action and behavior. The sense of a joint consciousness emerges from such patterns of action. [End Page 226]
More specifically, we highlight the following conclusions:
1. Study of the representation of collective experience benefits from a diachronically oriented and trans-generic approach to narration. The essays demonstrate that pre-Enlightenment periods in particular follow different rules for depicting and employing consciousness from post-Enlightenment ones because they have different conceptions of the self. In ancient Greece, as Jonas Grethlein argues, the representation of collective experience is connected less with an idea of interiority and more with ideas about temporality and perspective. What is more, much pre-Enlightenment narrative is not especially invested in the representation of consciousness. As Eva von Contzen argues, medieval literature, in line with the prevalent mode of exemplarity, privileges action instead. In addition, collective experience can be linked with practices of performance, which, as Miranda Anderson demonstrates, results in some remarkable interplay among characters on stage, the members of the audience, and each group’s relations to the events being performed.
2. The actual strategies authors employ to represent collective experience vary strongly, as authors respond not only to constraints of their periods but also to the needs of different genres and different purposes. Drama relies on the audience’s engagement with the performance to a large degree and plays out notions of embodiment, whereas early modern narratives, couched between the factual and the fictional, sometimes creatively deploy hypothetical focalization as a strategy of virtualizing an otherwise intramental activity, as Daniel Hostert shows in his contribution. Michael Sinding’s essay discloses how Rousseau relies on a complex metaphorical discourse in order to inscribe collective experience into his texts. Here it is significant that Lakoff and Turner’s cognitive metaphor theory and the social minds approach complement each other, which brings to the fore Palmer’s point that “social minds” are not only a subject matter but also above all a narrative technique.
3. Authors can assess collective experience as positive, neutral, or negative. While oral (factual) we-narratives typically strengthen social belonging and collaboration, as Jan Alber argues, fictional we-narratives can undermine such feelings of security and stability.
4. Similarly, collective experience can exist within mimetic and anti-mimetic or unnatural narrative. Alber and Brian Richardson both make this point, and Richardson in particular notes cases where we- and they-narratives collapse the distinction between homo- and heterodiegetic narrators.
We recognize that the work in this issue both relies on and goes further than Palmer’s valuable studies. To situate Palmer’s concept of “social minds” within the larger variety of collective experience, we propose reserving his term for representations of collective experience within the modern novel; we suggest the term “collective [End Page 227] experience” as a broader concept for the wide range of collectivist representations in historically...