Narration Identity and Historical Consciousness edited by Jürgen Straub

Straub, Jürgen, ed. (2005). Narration Identity and Historical Consciousness. New York: Berghahn
by Emily Ball Cicchini

This anthology of 12 articles by different authors is part of a series called “Making Sense of History.” And in this sense, it attempts to escape the boundaries of the trappings of “history” by introducing interdisciplinary ideas to create “a field of historical cultures.” The authors here are heavily influenced by psychological practices and theories. Piaget appears frequently throughout, with the frames of the theory of cognitive development and “genetic” espistemology playing a heavy role. Bruner also appears often as the entry point into the importance of narrative and autobiographical consciouness.

One weakness, as Rüsen puts forth in the foreword, is that psychology, overall, does not deal much with historical time before Freud. And as such, the great man appears often throughout, both in a kind of apriori reminder of the constructs of psychological truths, and also as the subject of criticism. “One might add that historical thought, as well as any other mode of historical meaning – construction, also still wait psychological investigation.” (xiii) Editor Straub warns for continued “skepticism about any universality claims for psychology’s theoretical constructs,” and encourages other possible forms of human reason, such as those offered by narrative study and practice. (xv).

Chapter 1. Polkinghorne. Narrative psychology and historical consciousness

Polkinghorne explores the postmodern distrust of objective truth. He comments on psychology depending upon animal and physical research and algorithms to explain independent psychological phenomena and the struggle towards post-postmodern psychology. He mentions that Freud, Murray, and Gordon Allport studied the individual, but for many years in the mid 20th Century, psychology was driven objective and positivistic search for behavioral laws. Now, the limits of positivism and postmodernism are leading the field back to narrative psychology.

Polkinghorne recounts Bruener’s paradigmatic process versus narrative process and Chomsky’s deep language structure as being physical and innate; Bruener is seen as socially acquired socially constructionist with some innate features, while Alyssa McCabe presents language as totally socially learned. Ricoeur is seen in the middle position. (p 6 and 7) Suffice to say the matter is not settled.

Structurally, Polkinghorne sees value in memory as reconstruction, notices narrative smoothing, and culturally available plots. And then he moves to the function of narratives, partly being the formation of personal identity, that is identity construction with reference to McAdams. He also mentions a Theodore R. Sarbin who provides “a narratively informed theory of emotion,” something I must take note to follow up more on. He brings the idea back to history by saying “Narrative psychology and the discipline of history share a commitment to the idea that human activity is best understood through narrative explanations rather than covering – law explanations.” (p 16) Polkinghorne places postmodern theory in the context of humanizing sciences. He is skeptical of all truth, as even narrative is fiction. In the end, all meaning is constructed, both narratives and facts, and there is “No privileged road to understanding”(Merleau-Ponty).

Chapter 2. Bruner. Past and Present as Narrative Construction

Bruner begins with the heuristic nature of stories, how they can be convincing without being rigorous. He outlines 10 universal narrative constructs, while acknowledging that how to tell narrative though narrative text is “as difficult as telling the dancer from the dance,” in reference to W B Yeats. Still, he offers

1. Structure of committed time
2. Generic particularity (universal in the detail)
3. The reasons for Action. (motivation intention desire)
4. Hermeneutic composition. Different interpretation possible
5. Canonicity and its vicissitudes (Making the ordinary strange again)
6. Ambiguity of reference… Linguistically horizontal or vertical. funny beef tribunal story play on words (p 33)

7. Imperative of genre, but also blur of such. “Genres … are culturally specialized ways of envisaging and communicating about the human condition.” (This is a helpful way of looking at genre, p 34).
8. The vehicle of changing norms (kenneth burke old—why pick on burke here? norms are norms and they change, don’t negate his pentad, except that there are multiple causes) (Six Degrees… ref. not by name (why not?) the play by John Guare—he was sued! I didn’t remember that) (p 35).
9. Inherent negotiability. Different versions, but suspend disbelief first.
10. The accrual of history, is ultimately evidence of minds working in common.

Chapter 3. Straub. Telling stories making history: toward a narrative psychology of the historical construction of meaning

Straub explores the functions of historical narrative as temporalization, identity formation, knowledge creation, orientation formation, moral and pedagogical function, social functions, and psychological function. The possible functions: self-justification; self-defense; alleviation of conscience; idealize the self or reference group; self-criticism; self reflection; denigration of others; displaced aggression; managing or reducing anxiety; healing; and wish fulfillment.

Straub is very structural, aware of how experiences and expectations affect both maker and receiver of narrative. He’s particularly concerned with the dissonant coherence produced by the composition of the plot (p 75). He digs into the Greek peripeteia; the reversal of circumstances/reversal of fortune, with Oedipus as prime example; the moment when everything turns. This is deeper than mere discovery of new information. He mentioned Jeissmann and a human desire for history, image, understanding, consciousness.

He asks simply: What is thinking historically? He does not dig into developmental psychology and the innate/learned argument, but references Ricouer, in that narrative ability equates with intelligent thought, and that narrative as instructional, engendering moral judgement. (p 78) By referencing both individual and collective unconscious and end of article. he points to the social aspect of narrative construction, but limits it by stating, “a past as a narrative construct shaped in the present perspective is inextricably bound to the intellectual linguistic and communicative basis of its production.” (p 80).

Chapter 4. Gergen. Narrative, moral identity, and historical consciousness

This essay provides an overview of the rise of social constructivist perspective on the value of narratives. Gergen assumes that the structure of intelligible narrative discourse includes a point or goal, relevant events, systematic ordering, stabilizing identity, causal linking, narrative demarking (which I take as frames, transitions, devices), although there are variations.

Posits there are three general types: a stability narrative, a progressive narrative and a regressive narrative. He puts examples of these into charts on the Y access time on the X axis progressive or regressive. This seems overly simplistic.

He mentions that Mary Gergen saw differences in women and men’s autobiography: interestingly “men are more likely to conform; women are less likely to have a goal or point.” (p 107) Note: This is consistent with beliefs/research/bias in the theatre/film world about men and women playwrights/screenwriters, but is glossed over a bit here.

Gergen provides an interesting way to look at narrative truth: as cultural convention and also a relational achievement. Those who tell the stories that travel the furthest, deepest; win influence, power, status, etc. Then, he moves onto narrative identity and paraphrases Scott saying the limits of our narrative tradition serves as the limits of our identity. Identity is social; also links to relationship “lived narratives are also essential to the achievement of identity” (p 112

Interesting foray into emotional expressions. Emotions do not have an impact on social life: they constitute social life itself. However, he proposes emotional expressions are meaningful (indeed, succeed in counting as legitimate emotions) only when inserted into particular, cross-time sequences of interchange. The example of the party hostess on page 113 seems problematic in judging appropriateness of emotion in proximal relationship to setting, as it’s relatively stereotypical of women who exhibit unusual emotions (hysterical). It seems insensitive, while he’s trying so hard not to be sexist.

Value generating function links to moral identity; that is, “one’s definition as a worthy and acceptable individual by the standards and hearing to one’s relationship….it creates accountability. Narrative solidity strongly depends upon others for affirmation.” (p 115)

However, Gergen seems to remain skeptical about the truthfulness of narratives. He makes a final point about people who doubt the Holocaust, as if we should believe it only in terms of what would be lost without it. That seems a really awkward note to end on.

Chapter 5. Spence. Narrative truth and identity formation: Abduction and abuse stories as metaphors

Spence’s essay really deals with lot of existential angst in the age of anxiety. He opens with a story of a woman dealing with multiple versions of herself, and how she is relieved when riding a motorcycle, being engaged in an activity. (p 121) He makes a lot of observations about modern man, about our thirst for a consuming passion, the lack of meaningful social interactions between individuals, our being both “uncomfortably aware of himself and does not know who he is.”

From this, he develops a thesis informed by multiple voices multiple personality disorder, spaceship abductions phenomena, and untrustworthy reports of early child abuse. He says that for a certain kind of victim, such stories provide identity and explain a cause of present unhappiness. He notes they are impossible to argue with because they take place in seclusion without witness, and that it’s terribly inviting for those who feel they are never listen to or believed in. (p 124) And I suspect, in SOME cases, this might be the case.

He makes another generalization in making a link between these false stories and enforced anonymity by caused by population explosion and technology. (p 125) He also talks about Eric Fromm, and the escape from freedom that has left us with unbearable feelings of aloneness and insignificance. One escape is to surrender one’s integrity into security and submerge oneself in the participation of power. Another is the escape from reason and the plunge into sensation, implying not only narrative fantasy but implied drug, substance, and sex abuse.

He questions narrative ethics. Smoothing makes him suspicious. “Caught up in the storytelling moment the survivor becomes a performer rather than historian and the shift in identity cannot fail to affect his or her credibility.” (p 129) He turns not back to the field, but to Henry James’ Turn of the Screw for the problem of the unreliable narrator. 130

He rather condemns the average survivor to resist any attempts to change his or her story. “It maybe better to believe wholeheartedly when something falls than to be at the mercy of many voices and not always know who you are and what you stand for.” But this cannot be taken without a trace of irony: Clearly, Spence thinks this the weaker stance. Although, he empathizes: “The narrator’s insistence on being heard and his relief after finding a sympathetic listening suggests that there is a piece of what he’s saying that goes beyond simple make-believe.” He leaves a crack open for the truth of narratives, although he clearly is more concerned with the “dangers of rhetoric which subordinates knowledge to action and reason to will.” (p 131). He ends with a very odd prediction: “Now that narratives have started to lose their golden voice, other means of persuasion may have to be found.”

Chapter 6. Brumlik. The concept of time in the faculty of judgment in the ontogenesis of historical consciousness

Short piece about developmental psychology and possibility of ontogenetic historical consciousness, leaning towards the innate.

Chapter 7. Seixas. Historical consciousness the progress of knowledge in a post progressive age

Seven issues encountered by historical thinkers:

historical epistemology
historical significance
continuity and change
progress and decline
moral judgment
historical agency and

Four types of historical consciousness:

The traditional type — we know because we were told
The progressive type or exemplary — to derive rules for the present
The critical type — challenges but at the cost of empathy
Genetic type — constructivist constant change (progress and decline at the same time the different groups)

Genetic as the link between concepts passed between an unknowable past and an uncertain future. This author does a good job of pointing out the weaknesses in arguments about differences of levels of knowing; That one investigation of the student’s work can’t really identify ongoing reasoning types on a longitudinal basis (related to issues in education research).

Chapter 8. Mahecha and Hausen. Psychological approaches to the historical consciousness of children

These authors are looking at different age groups and regions in concrete terms and how historical consciousness. They posit a lifespan process of historical consciousness dependent upon social cognitive competencies, social environment educational opportunities, and emotional and motivational factors. They survey psychological research on historical consciousness students and support claims that even infants have long-term memory capacity for non traumatic events. They also present a developmental model: isolated, linear, episodic, narrative stages (hierarchical).

Their methodology is interesting: retelling a story, picture questionnaires, completion tests, more questionnaires, participant observation, focus groups (group discussion). The content of this all is interesting: mummies and ice age discussion…what purpose do museums have. Article is basically a summary of methodologies for getting the historical consciousness of children, and it’s helpful and quite understandable. But it’s also highly psychological and not clearly taking to account any differences pedagogical influences in terms of content mastery. History for them is still heavily laden with right and wrong facts and universally agreed-upon content.

Chapter 9. Weinberg. The psychological study of historical consciousness.

This essay by Weinberg provides a good history of educational psychology in relationship to history. Most educational research has used the tools confections assumptions and techniques of measurement needed to the discipline psychology (p 188). He posits that there are differences in historic ability, and provides a list of a historical understanding operationalized (p 190). He speaks of a fateful move where “easy measurement, not priority of subject matter,” determined the course for research program on page 190. This points to today’s issues in American education, where facts easier to measure than understanding, and therefore drive both curriculum and assessment in K-12 education. He talks of four levels of understanding defined by British school curriculum of 1980s, and he cites a comparison group study where students perform better with an apparently project-based constructivist intervention.

He questions the implicit rules of writing academic history limited historian to hard evidence and what’s logical. Like many other disciplines he says we don’t know what we are doing or why. He reports on the self-reporting of a sort of historical sixth sense (intuition?). He criticizes authors for not bringing themselves into the story, and references Bruener that “language is never neutral.”

His section on the think aloud method of expert experts study comparing two experts accounts of this historical event or historical artifacts was most engaging. He complains that this kind of deep understanding is often just talked about in history classes both the postsecondary and university levels. (p 207) And advocates interdisciplinary study for better understanding of the cognitive processes used to decipher the past.

Chapter 10. Boothe. Biography – A dream? Self-chronicling in the age of psychoanalysis

Boothe has lots of interesting deconstructions and perspectives on storytelling that are thought provoking. She posits story and message are distant relatives, as if there is a pure message while stories are false constructions. She is particularly wary of stories giving out morals, as in her view, the teller decides the interpretation for the receiver if a moral is made evident or clear. She seems to be drawn to the idea of dreams as messages, without fully embracing their cognitive or moral efficacy.

“The practice of interpreting dreams or symptoms lends the dignity of deep messages to the productions, this does not reflect knowledge of the lawfulness of mental life.” (p 212). This is further complicated by her strong relativism that all morals are biased.

She then turns to problems with the self-referential character of accounting experience. She rightly defines story as linguistic scenes; and employs strong dramatic imagery and metaphor throughout to convey her criticism. Narrative competence, for Boothe, equals directing the scene and with a deep degree of involvement or noninvolvement that implies mastery and control. She proclaims Freud as the first experimental dramatist of the 20th century, which I’m not sure to take seriously or not.

She then goes into a very lengthy verbatim recapitulation and dramaturgical analysis of Freud’s famous Dream of Irma’s Injection. I have a problem with the re-interpretation of interpretation of dreams, although she does it well, and her staging seems relatively direct. (I just read a very fine novel riff on this same incident by Joseph Skibell, A Curable Romantic. He’s got a very different, far more generative take on it, particularly noses, social standings, and responsibilities). In the end, I find this article has more to do with a controversy over hegemonic psychoanalytic theory, particularly in the imbalance of representation and understanding of the sexes, than it is about narrative identity. It manages ultimately to deconstruct narrative and question history with few illuminating or constructivist alternatives.

Chapter 11. Meteraux. Authenticity and authority.

This is a very engaging report that centers around Primo Levi’s autobiography of the Shoah, or holocaust, and the politics of memory. It highlights the difficulty of authenticity when you are at the center of experience, although you certainly have some kind of special authority. I wonder how these accounts are complicated by Germany’s ban on the representation of Nazism.

Chapter 12. Welzer. Albert Speer’s memories of the future

This case study examines the autobiographies of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, in prison 20 years, the only one of the early leaders who confessed to his crimes. He was a technician, a planner, a manager, model everything…including prisoner. One theme of this story is that there are seeds of the future in stories of the past. Another is that “unconsumated hope provides the impulse for revolutionary change.” (p 249) The accounts of Speer’s process, perhaps grieving, that involved continued imaginary planning, miniature building, and the ruin value theory… how something will look when its abandoned, failed. Particularly haunting is the image of Speer explaining this concept to Hitler, and of Hitler unexpectedly approving. Welzer clearly brings himself into this work, as Weinberg should appreciate. He observes, quite rightly, that cognitive and emotional processing of the past takes place in completely different levels of consciousness. (p 254) However, he does not abandon one for the other. The result is a very well written essay…empathetic, deeply descriptive, and truly insightful.