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Narrative identity and narrative imperialism: a response to Galen Strawson and James Phelan.

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 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": (l) 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 should. For an extreme version of the normative ethical narrativity claim, Strawson cites the philosopher Marya Schechtman, who believes that a person "creates his identity [only] by forming an autobiographical narrative--a story of his life." Further, Schechtman argues that one must be in possession of a full and "explicit narrative [of one's life] to develop fully as a person" (qtd. in Strawson 435-36). Strawson associates Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Paul Ricoeur with this position. While I think that an ethical concern with matters of conduct is likely to involve a narrative of actions and motives, I too bristle at Schechtman's prescriptive view. Strawson would be more convincing, though, in his dissent from the examined life as the sine qua non of the good if he presented what a distinctly nonnarrative model of ethics would look like. In response to Taylor, Ricoeur, and Schechtman and to their view of a narratively-inflected accounting of self and life story, Strawson contents himself with asking "why on earth, in the midst of the beauty of being, it should be thought to be important to do this" (436).

I believe that the problems entailed by the "ethical narrativity thesis" are much greater than Strawson suggests. So eager is he to make a claim for himself as a normal person in non-narrative terms, so convinced is he that the hegemony of "narrative" theses in our culture is merely the result of "intellec lofty norm of the examined life, whereas I'm worried about deep-seated social conventions that govern narrative self-presentation in everyday life. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, identity narratives, delivered piecemeal every day, function as the signature for others of the individual's possession of a normal identity: "The verdict of those for whom we perform is virtually axiomatic: no satisfactory narrative, no self" ("Breaking" 120). Failures of narrative competence, triggered by various forms of memory loss and dementia, may entail institutional confinement. When we prescribe what it takes to count as a person, and we certainly do so tacitly when we follow such behavioral norms, we enter dangerous territory.

If ethics is perhaps the motor for Strawson's inquiry, with psychology we arrive at its heart, his claim that narrative identity does not square with the testimony of his own experience of his "self." Strawson comments, "I have no significant sense that I--the I now considering this question--was there in the further past." Distinguishing with an asterisk his present self from those of his past, he can thus say: "So: it's clear to me that events in my remoter past didn't happen to me*" (433). With these striking statements, Strawson affirms what is a commonplace in the literature of autobiography. Henry James (whom he cites by way of illustration), Malcolm X, Christa Wolf--these are only a few of the many autobiographers who insist on their experience of discontinuous identity. Strawson does not disavow his possession of autobiographical memories nor their "from-the-inside character" (434), yet he cannot access previous identity states; he cannot re-experience or re-inhabit them. There is both psychological and neurological support for this position. Novelist and autobiographer David Malouf makes this penetrating observation about the impossibility of recapturing earlier, embodied identity states:
   That body is out of reach. And it isn't simply a matter of
   its being forgotten in us--of a failure of memory or
   imagination to summon it up, but of a change in perceiving
   itself. What moving back into it would demand is an act of
   un-remembering, a dismantling of the body's experience that
   would be a kind of dying, a casting off, one by one, of all
   the tissues of perception, conscious and not, through which
   our very notion of body has been remade. (64, emphasis

Consciousness is not a neutral medium in which memories can be replayed and the past repeated intact. While we may have the sensation that we are capable of reliving the past--Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Nathalie Sarraute and many another autobiographer have claimed they could--received opinion in brain studies offers no support for belief in invariant memory. Nearly twenty years ago neurologist Israel Rosenfield argued that memories share the constructed nature of all brain events: "Recollection is a kind of perception.... and every context will alter the nature of what is recalled" (89, my emphasis). (1)

Strawson delineates two "styles of temporal being" (430), which he terms the Episodic and the Diachronic. Episodics, like Strawson, believe that identity states are discontinuous, whereas Diachronics believe they are continuous. I say "believe" advisedly, because Strawson never makes clear whether he is describing a given of phenomenological experience or an attitude toward it. He asserts that "the fundamentals of temporal temperament are genetically determined" (431); however, although he states that his Episodic and Diachronic categories are "radically opposed" (430), he describes himself as only "relatively Episodic" (433). There are two serious problems with Strawson's Episodic/Diachronic distinction, which he sets up as the basis for his attack on the "psychological Narrativity thesis": (1) he dilutes his otherwise bold claim of discontinuous identity by invoking continuous identity to underwrite it; and (2) he fails to establish that a narrative outlook on experience is exclusively the attribute of the Diachronic "style of temporal being." Contrary to Strawson's claim, narrative is a resource available to anyone, regardless of belief in continuous or discontinuous identity.

As to the first problem, Strawson prefaces his position on discontinuous identity by distinguishing "between one's experience of oneself when one is considering oneself principally as a human being taken as a whole, and one's experience of oneself when one is considering oneself principally as an inner mental entity or 'self' of some sort" (429). Strawson may well insist that the events of his past didn't happen to "him*," but he doesn't push his insistence on his sense of discontinuous identity in the direction of pathological dissociation. To the contrary, he protests that he's "normal," that he has a past, that he has autobiographical memories, that he has a sense of himself "as a human being taken as a whole." And what is involved "when one is considering oneself principally as a human being taken as a whole"? According to Strawson, "there's a clear sense in which every human life is a developmental unity--a historical-characteral developmental unity as well as a biological one" (440, emphasis original). Provided with an endowment like this, Episodics begin to resemble Diachronics after all.

But where does narrative fit into Strawson's typology of modes of temporal being? Strawson claims that a narrative outlook on experience is exclusively the property of Diachronics, who, once they employ it, become for him "Narratives." How do individuals sort out into Strawson's Diachronic and Episodic categories? Strawson believes that Episodics inhabit a minority position--hence his need to champion himself and them. As I suggested earlier, though, from a neurobiological perspective we are all Episodics in the sense that past consciousness is irrecoverable. I think that Strawson is correct, nonetheless, in his conviction that most people would identify themselves as Diachronics--that is, if they ever gave much thought to such identity questions, and they probably don't. I think most people probably believe in continuous identity at some level, and they probably think of their lives in developmental terms. Do they believe, with Wordsworth, that "the Child is Father of the Man"? Well, sure. But, as with opinion polls, the answers you get to a question depend on how it is asked. If you ask people whether they believe in continuous identity, most, as Strawson reports, will say they do. If you ask them, though, about the extent to which they can call up the past, about whether they can actually rein-habit earlier periods of their lives, pressing them as to whether they can in the present re-experience earlier states of consciousness, I suspect that many of these previously unreflecting Diachronics would admit to being Episodics too.

Some recognition of this sort seems to have dawned on James Phelan, who describes himself as "an Episodic who is a recovering Diachronic." There's no way to close the gap, he confides, between "the Jim Phelan who is now writing this column," and "the Jim Phelan who went to St. Joseph's grammar school in Kings Park, Long Island" (209). So he's an Episodic for sure, but that doesn't stop him from thinking of his life in narrative terms. "This damn story and that damn story and that other damn story," he reports of his own experience. Confessed Episodic though he may now be, he doesn't escape what he calls "the narrative identity thesis," although he claims to when he writes, "The narrative identity thesis simply doesn't correspond to my experience of my self and the plausible stories I can tell about that self" (209). He's still telling such stories, whereas Strawson claims that only Diachronics go in for narrative. Strawson's categories for modes of temporal experience simply don't connect coherently and predictably with a narrative outlook on experience. Strawson seems to admit as much when he comments, "I've made some distinctions, but none of them cut very sharply" (446). In the last issue of Narrative, James Batters-by systematically dismantles Strawson's binary thinking, and concludes that "we should then reject his whole scheme, eliminating in the process any concern about aligning ourselves on one side or the other of the Diachronic/Episodic divide" (42).

So why would Strawson attempt to assign an attraction to narrative and narrative identity exclusively to Diachronics? Because he himself has "absolutely no sense of [his] life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form" and no "great or special interest in [his] past" (433), he assumes that this must be the case for all Episodics. (2) Many an Episodic turned autobiographer, however, including writers such as Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Stendhal (all of whom Strawson cites as models of the Episodic type), do take a narrative interest in their experience. Take John Updike, for a characteristic example. He definitely describes himself as an Episodic: "Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead" (221). Yet he proceeds in Self-Consciousness to reconstruct his past in narrative precisely to recover something of those earlier selves. That is to say that Episodics may have a special motive for an interest in narrative precisely because they are Episodics, as seems to be the case with Phelan, who writes, "Even though I never reach a single coherent grand narrative, and any small narrative I settle on is provisional, this process enables me to convert my life from one damn thing after another to more manageable clusters of events and their significances" (209). Given that Strawson sees no value in narrative strivings like these, he makes a surprising choice for the editor of Narrative to embrace as a model for thinking about narrative.

I can't share Phelan's enthusiasm for Strawson because I believe that Strawson grossly undervalues the power of narrative not only as a form of self-representation but as an instrument of self-understanding. Is it the case that most narrative understandings are false as Strawson claims? He interprets neurophysiological research as supporting his claim that "the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk moving away from ... the truth of your being" (447). Psychologist Daniel L. Schacter, however, reviewing memory research, rejects the idea that the constructedness of memories necessarily yields the distortion that Strawson alleges. Instead, he finds that "when adults retrospectively assess the general character of more extended periods in their pasts, they are usually fairly accurate" (94). Moreover, what about the power of narrative to reveal the failings of particular narrative understandings of one's experience? There is a whole literature of narratives of deconversion, of which Sartre's The Words would be only the most striking example, which demonstrates narrative's potential to expose false narrative understandings. (3) When it comes to self-knowledge, narrative is value neutral, available as an identity resource to Episodics and Diachronics alike.

It's time to lay my own cards on the table. Most mornings I wake, breathless and relieved, from some heavily emplotted world of agitated dreams, only to resume, as William James suggests we do, the unfolding of my own stream of consciousness which, despite astonishing jolts and cuts as memory jumps from one time frame to another, pulls to a steadily invented storyline of present and future plans. Strawson, I infer, is radically different from me when it comes to the rhythms of consciousness, which in my case, sleeping and waking, are invariably narrative in cast. Strawson celebrates a fleeting and absolute present--"what I care about ... is how I am now" (438)--and he invokes the Earl of Shaftesbury as the patron saint of this Episodic mode:
   [But] what matter for memory? ... If, whilst I am, I am as I
   should be, what do I care more? And thus let me lose self
   every hour, and be twenty successive selfs, or new selfs, 'tis
   all one to me: so [long as] I lose not my opinion [i.e., my
   overall outlook, my character, my moral identity]". (qtd. in
   Strawson 438, Shaftesbury's emphasis original)

What would it be like to live without memory? What would it be like to lose one's "self" every hour, indeed every few seconds? Oliver Sacks reports just such a case, that of "Mr. Thompson," a man whose memory has been gravely damaged by Korsakov's syndrome. In "Mr. Thompson" Sacks portrays an Episodic in extremis, an individual who "must literally make himself (and his world) up every moment." It's this man's desperate condition that prompts Sacks to reflect on the narrative anchor of human identity: "We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative--whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. 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 is precisely the formulation of narrative identity that Strawson devotes "Against Narrativity" to contesting. The clinical context of Sacks's observation is instructive and sobering. Note that "Mr. Thompson," unlike Strawson, doesn't enjoy the safety net of a sense of himself as a "human being taken as a whole," that sense of continuous identity that underwrites Strawson's comfortable claim of discontinuous identity. Strawson's brief for the Episodic life, which he characterizes as "truly happy-go-lucky, see-what-comes-along" (449), strikes me as breezy and untested. To be sure, who is to say that "Mr. Thompson" is not a happy man? Who would judge him to be diminished as a person? Strawson, I take it, would not, for he rightly opposes an ethics that would link narrative capacity and personhood. But would he--or the Earl of Shaftesbury--really want to be "Mr. Thompson"? Perhaps, but I've never encountered anyone who didn't hope that his or her memory and the sense of life story it supports, would survive intact to the end. In my experience, most people fear memory loss and the death of the extended self that follows from it--witness the widespread anxiety about Alzheimer's Disease and aging in the U.S. today. It is this fear that Sacks captures when he wonders whether loss of memory entails loss of identity: "has [Mr. Thompson] been pithed, scooped-out, de-souled, by disease?" (113).

But enough of Galen Strawson's Episodics and Diachronics. What is more to the point is that Strawson has prompted the editor of Narrative to question the nature of the interest in narrative that his journal should pursue in the time to come. James Phelan's worries about "narrative imperialism," about students of narrative making grandiose claims for the importance of their subject, pale beside the very real imperialism of narrative requirements that structure our social encounters and define us as persons. Strawson's error is to attribute the dominance of the idea of narrative identity to "intellectual fashion"--if that were true, then his self-congratulatory essay with its feel-good iconoclasm would have the power to change the present social arrangements in which narrative features so prominently. It's all very well to attack "narrativity," but it's much harder to escape it in self-presentation. We're part of a narrative identity system whether we like it or not. (4) Should Narrative stick to narrative narrowly conceived as a literary form or forms, or should it entertain a more adventurous approach to narrative as something to do with society, with identity, with the body? As examples of this larger view of narrative, I'd point to two books, one old, one new, that deal with the work that narrative performs in us and in the world: Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending and Antonio Damasio's The Feeling of What Happens. Is narrative only a function of language, I'd ask, or is it rooted more deeply still in the bodies that we are?


Barbour, John D. Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith. Charlottesville, VA: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1994.

Damasio, Antonio R. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. New York: Harcourt, 1999.

Battersby, James L. "Narrativity, Self, and Self-Representation." Narrative 14 (2006): 27-44.

Eakin, Paul John. "Breaking Rules: The Consequences of Self-Narration." Biography 24 (Winter 2001):113-27.

--. "What Are We Reading When We Read Autobiography?" Narrative 12 (2004): 121-32.

Hartman, Geoffrey. "The Humanities of Holocaust Testimony." Paper presented at Autobiography Across the Disciplines. Whitney Humanities Center. Yale University. 29 October 2005.

Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1968.

Kraft, Robert N. Memory Perceived: Recalling the Holocaust. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Linde, Charlotte. Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1993.

Malouf, David. "12 Edmondstone Street." In 12 Edmondstone Street, 1-66. Ringwood, Victoria, Australia: Penguin, 1986.

Phelan, James. "Who's Here? Thoughts on Narrative Identity and Narrative Imperialism." Narrative 13 (2005): 205-10.

Rosenfield, Israel. The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain. New York: Basic, 1988.

Sacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. New York: Harper, 1987.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Words. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Braziller, 1964.

Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past. New York: Basic, 1996.

Strawson, Galen. "Against Narrativity." Ratio 17 (2004): 428-52.

Updike, John. Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. New York: Knopf. 1989.


(1.) Yet consider the testimony of persons who have experienced a deep trauma of some kind and who report the sensation of literally repeating past consciousness. Describing his research in the Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, Geoffrey Hartman cites the case of Jolly Z., who was asked what she sees when she is "back there." "Struggling for words, and still not entirely present," Hartman writes, "she answers: 'I'm not here.... I don't even know about myself now. I'm there ... somebody else talks out of me.... You see it's not me. It's that person who experienced it who is talking about those experiences'" (ellipses original). Hartman comments: "An entire phenomenology of traumatic memory is encapsulated in statements like these." Unlike the more usual stance of the individual engaged in recollection who, as Malouf suggests, needs somehow to traverse the gulf that separates the past from the present, Hartman's victim of trauma is already "'back there"; so completely is she inhabited by that earlier identity state that she can say, "I'm not here." (The testimony of Jolly Z. quoted by Hartman appears in Kraft 22.)

(2.) In generalizing from his own experience, Strawson is guilty of precisely the kind of univeralizing that he attributes to advocates of the narrative thesis, who "generalize from their own case with that special, fabulously misplaced confidence that people feel when, considering elements of their own experience that are existentially fundamental for them, they take it that they must also be fundamental for everyone else" (439).

(3.) See Barbour.

(4.) See Linde's investigation of a particular form of "life story," the vocational accounts offered by white, middle-class professionals in answer to the question, "What do you do?". Linde concludes that the notion of narrative identity is so deeply embedded in our culture that it functions as a criterion for normalcy: "In order to exist in the social world with a comfortable sense of being a good, proper, and stable person," she comments, "an individual needs to have a coherent, acceptable, and constantly revised life story" (3). Such an expectation is culture-specific: as Linde sees it, we happen to live in a culture that subscribes to "the idea that we 'have' a life story, and that any normally competent adult has one." Following Clifford Geertz, she presents narrative identity as "part of the interpretive equipment furnished to us by our culture" (20).

Paul John Eakin is Ruth N. Halls Professor Emeritus of English at Indiana University. His most recent books on autobiography are How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves and an edited collection of essays, The Ethics of Life Writing. He is writing a book on autobiography and narrative identity.
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Date:May 1, 2006
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