From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").
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“Any story one may tell about anything is better understood by considering other possible ways in which it can be told.” Jerome Bruner, “Life as Narrative”
In 2006, TIME’s Person of the Year was You. The cover featured a reflective screen meant to show the face of the reader. Reactions were harsh as they were hilarious: The New York Daily News compared the choice to Stalin and Hitler, the essayist Frank Rich said the decision might ruin TIME, and countless college seniors listed on their résumés “TIME Person of the Year, 2006.”
TIME was prescient. Fast forward fifteen years, and there is now a term for the spotlighted self: a “main character.” Being a main character, like being TIME’s Person of the Year, is fraught business. A “main character” has an enviable presence, and the kind of outfit she would wear has “main character energy.” But one can also suffer from “main character syndrome.” Urban Dictionary describes the syndrome as “when someone thinks they are the main character of their life,” usually with “a side of individuality complex, quirky style and a self-centered point of view.”
There’s something natural about understanding ourselves as main characters, at least in stories that are our lives. We describe stretches of our lives as chapters or label them as eras. A canon event leads us to become who we are. Some philosophers argue that thinking of our lives as narratives helps us understand and direct our lives. It provides a sense of coherence, a shape to a life that can be satisfying and meaningful. Call this the Life-as-Narrative View of personal identity. Jerome Bruner, a psychologist, goes as far as to say that we seem to “have no other way of describing “lived time” save in the form of narrative.”
I used to worry about the Life-as-Narrative View in its capacity to encourage an ego-centered outlook on life. Is it possible to see oneself as a main character without casually adopting narcissism? How many of us naturally see ourselves as secondary characters in other people’s stories?
But then I saw “Joan is Awful,” the opening episode of the latest season of Black Mirror. I realized that we don’t want to be main characters per se. In the episode, the eponymous character complains to her therapist that she doesn’t feel like the main character in her own life story. And, as if cursed by the confession, she discovers a show that chronicles a (less flattering) version of her life.
What struck me was just how conditional Joan’s desire was. She didn’t enjoy being a main character when she didn’t get to present herself in a manner she chose. We want to be a protagonist, and not any main character, lest we find ourselves a villain. Perhaps we want to be authors more so than characters, and in the Life-as-Narrative View, it just happens that we’re both author and character.
So maybe the Life-as-Narrative View need not encourage egotism. It just acknowledges that we want interpretive control to decide what things “mean” in our lives. We want previous failures to connect to future triumphs, to retroactively determine or alter the meaning of earlier events.
I’m less worried about main character syndrome now. But I recently developed a new worry: being the author of our lives constrains us to one prescriptive story form. We’ve been peddling a particular form of narrative as the only acceptable model on which a life might be based: one that follows a character arc with a beginning-middle-end structure. And literary form, like anything else, is – or can be – political. It dictates what we consider a satisfying story, and thereby shapes what we take to be a satisfying life. Just as art imitates life, life imitates art – so it hasn’t been without cost that we’ve neglected other story forms, for in doing so we’ve neglected the value of life forms often belonging to the oppressed and marginalized.
The Life-as-Narrative View says understanding a life as a story allows us to put seemingly disparate pieces together – for instance, how my current neuroses might be responding to past bullying. Both times and selves are diachronically extended, and narrative structure imposes a causal link between events that helps us make sense of them.
But the catch: the Life-as-Narrative view implicitly assumes the operative narrative form to be one that is characterized by “an Agent, an Action, a Goal, a Setting, an Instrument – and Trouble.” This is the familiar story form, the kind that we learn in English classes with terms like “rising action,” “climax,” and “denouement”. In Life is Hard, Philosopher Kieran Setiya warns that assuming such a simple and linear model can be harmful: “To see one’s life as a narrative arc, heading for a climax that it may or may not reach, is to see it as a potential failure.”
Setiya accepts that thinking of one’s life as a narrative would be harmless enough if afforded different forms. To say that a life doesn’t fit a typical narrative shape isn’t to say that it doesn’t fit any narrative shape. Proponents of the Life-as-Narrative view are wrong to think that only a linear form with “incidents that build to a fulfilling climax, won or lost” can lead to self-understanding and self-formation. I love the suggestion that we think of our lives as a bricolage, a character study, or a riff – that we can choose not only the content, but also the organizational form, of our lives.
It is indeed harmful, and endlessly limiting, to mainly see one’s life as a quest, a potential success or failure. But that’s not all. What’s at stake goes beyond understanding a particular life, since we can’t understand what makes a life coherent without understanding what makes lives coherent. The assumption that the standard narrative model is best, if not required, for self-understanding and self-formation is a result of cultural conditioning that shaped our views on what story form – and what kind of life – is satisfying in general. And this is where we run into trouble.
In Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses disabuses the reader of the idea that literary craft is a politically neutral achievement. A story we take to be well-crafted – i.e., satisfying – is considered so because it meets the reader’s expectations, and our expectations are shaped by culture. One way to characterize a culture is to examine the narrative models it offers for describing a life. The way we narrate our lives is shaped by our culture.
To focus on a character’s actions is to suggest that agency is what chiefly characterizes our lives, which only reliably applies to members of the privileged class.
Western narrative forms that focus on main characters and conflicts (“the quest”) reflect western culture’s emphasis on individuality and agency. But to focus on a character’s actions is to suggest that agency is what chiefly characterizes our lives, which only reliably applies to members of the privileged class. Marginalized or oppressed individuals’ lives are just as characterized by coincidence and fate; for them, the world has a force that often overpowers their actions. Though we like to celebrate the exceptions, actions tend not to land the same kinds of results (to put it mildly) when one is up against unjust laws, customs, and attitudes.
It’s not just that the telos-driven Life-as-Narrative View set us up for failure, or that there is more to life than what the agency-driven quest story can capture. It’s also that the insistence on the telos-driven or agency-driven form belies a problematic view of which lives are satisfactory. Standard narrative forms with plot that progress through characters’ decisions take the dominant class’s life experience as “expected” and thus “satisfying.” Note – as Salesses does – how African American literature normalizes coincidence and reunion plots, and how luck or fate had largely been the domain of storytellers of color in America. As a result, we’re given the impression that a “universal” human story is one that doesn’t rely on coincidence. Insisting on the standard narrative form is harmful not only to the person who holds the Life-as-Narrative view, but also to those whose lives aren’t viewed as “standard”.
If storytelling expectations are colored by cultural hierarchies, then the Life-as-Narrative view inherits its assumptions. Bruner writes that autobiographical recounting of one’s own life is unstable (after all, one is author, character, and audience!) and therefore “highly susceptible to cultural, interpersonal, and linguistic influences.” Many people cite Bruner saying that “we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives,” but what follows is equally important: “given the cultural shaping. . . we also become variants of the culture’s canonical forms.”
So, to learn how to appreciate non-standard storytelling forms with “meandering plot” (Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus) or luck/coincidence (Vikas Swarup’s Q&A) or lack of central character (Tommy Orange’s There, there) is to learn how to see a life as coherent, and even satisfying, without assuming the lives of the socio-politically dominant to be the universal human experience. By questioning the default story form, we question the default views on what kinds of lives we’ve been trained to find satisfying.
By questioning the default story form, we question the default views on what kinds of lives we’ve been trained to find satisfying.
But wait: isn’t the goal to make sure everyone’s life is shaped by agency? If we acknowledge the forms of marginalized lives to be just as complete or satisfying as the standard form, doesn’t that detract from the need to improve those lives?
I think this is a difficult point, and I’m not sure I have a full resolution, but here’s where I am now. Sometimes, things can be satisfactory without being ideal. And narrative forms that reflect a life characterized by an external force can be satisfying because they give us stories that some can see themselves in. As Aristotle writes in Poetics, recognition of an imitation is a universal source of pleasure. In addition, the Life-as-Narrative view is meant to give us a way to understand and interpret our lives. For many individuals, non-standard story forms are going to match their lives’ shapes better, which means it’ll give them a better chance at making sense of the events making up their lives.
I’ve explored how non-ideal cultural assumptions are implicated in the preference for the standard linear narrative model. But if the standard model isn’t needed for the Life as Narrative view, can we salvage it with other approaches?
If what we’re really after is coherence, the sense that disparate parts are all coming together, telos isn’t the only way to find it. Associative ways of organizing events can also provide unity and connection. In Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival based on Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” (spoiler alert!) when the protagonist’s sense of time is disrupted by her growing knowledge of an alien language, she begins to use visual and verbal associations to connect events in her life: when her child plays with a stick that looks like the aliens’ legs, she recalls the first time seeing the aliens; when she struggles to remember a phrase her child is asking about (non-zero-sum game), her mind races to the time the concept was strategically important for responding to the aliens. Non-temporal and non-causal elements like value, object, place, beauty, and obsession can provide unity to a life without requiring an end goal we’re working towards.
One might also look to nature as an inspiration. Jane Alison notes that nature moves in a variety of non-linear ways, sometimes forming waves, meandering, spiraling, radiating, exploding, and creating fractals. Similarly, a narrative might form a wave-like symmetry, digress, form repetitions while progressing, gravitate towards a center, spring forth from a center, or branch out and create a network. If patterns provide sense and order, no grand finale is required to gain an understanding of a temporally extended experience.
If patterns provide sense and order, no grand finale is required to gain an understanding of a temporally extended experience.
In fact, non-western narratives have long made use of these non-linear forms. Ming Dong Gu traces the development of Chinese fiction, noting its emphasis on pattern, repetition, and rhythm more so than the forward-driven plot. Gu writes that because Chinese fiction grew in opposition to historical narrative – the recorded, official version of events – its features highlighted its fictionality, denied a stable point of view, and embraced more episodic form. For example, narrators would intrude, authors, commentators, and readers would appear in the same work, and conflicting accounts would be presented. In western fiction, the protagonist’s desire tends moves the plot forward, but in East Asian fiction, the point is not a quest or confrontation but a surprise that challenges what the audience thinks the story is “about.” No Country for Old Men pulls this surprise off in a brilliant manner.
Non-standard literary forms provide less pressure as a model for a life and better reflect life’s reality. Ocean Vuong says in an interview with Marginalia that “a broken history doesn’t need to be repaired into fullness if its story, in shambles, can be regarded complete as is.” Similarly, Salesses asks, “Why, when the protagonist faces the world, does she need to win, lose, or draw? […] What if she simply continues to live?” Literary theorist Ronald Sukenick writes that “the form of the novel should seek to approximate the shape of our experience,” and I imagine most of our lives are filled with a fair bit of meandering or spiraling. Being open to a story form that is marked by key coincidences also amounts to an honest acknowledgment that luck plays a large role in our lives.
Being open to a story form that is marked by key coincidences also amounts to an honest acknowledgment that luck plays a large role in our lives.
Non-standard literary forms also provide a chance to tell a collective story. Letting go of the need to center on one character allows the narrative focus to concern a group and go beyond the individualistic meaning-seeking framework. Many memoirs, like Elizabeth Miki Brina’s Speak, Okinawa and Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, zoom in and out to tell us about the individual, family, and country, braiding a structure that attempts to understand all in tandem. Seeing our lives as a story with no or weak focus on a central character might provide a more holistic understanding.
The Life-as-Narrative View might be salvageable if we can familiarize ourselves with ‘non-standard’ forms of storytelling. Setiya is right that if one is unable to shed the typical western narrative arc, then it’d be best not to see one’s life as a narrative. But if one can’t help but see one’s life as a kind of story, there is a way to avoid the problems Setiya highlights. We might even say we have an obligation to familiarize ourselves with ‘non-standard’ storytelling forms insofar as they’re inextricably linked to what we think a coherent, and satisfying, life looks like.
Recall that Joan didn’t enjoy being a main character when she had no control over how her life was perceived. Interpretive control is the key. As Milan Kundera puts it, “[t]he future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.” We want our lives to be a narrative because we want control over what the past comes to mean. In this way, we want to be authors more than we want to be characters. All the more reason we ought to give ourselves a richer set of narrative options to choose from.
Hannah H. Kim is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona. She works on aesthetics (esp. literature and music), metaphysics, philosophy of language, and Asian philosophy.
From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").
We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.