Friday, January 20, 2012

Hana Owen - BAKHTINIAN THOUGHT AND THE DEFENCE OF NARRATIVE: OVERCOMING UNIVERSALISM AND RELATIVISM


Very interesting article from Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 2, 2011. Bakhtin's narrative theory is one of the foundational ideas beneath Dialogic Self Theory as developed by Hermans, so it has been of particular interest to me. For some reason, I never really paid much attention to this material in my literary theories classes in my first go-round of grad school.

BAKHTINIAN THOUGHT AND THE DEFENCE OF NARRATIVE: OVERCOMING UNIVERSALISM AND RELATIVISM.

Hana M. Owen

ABTRACT:
In light of recalcitrant global problems such as the prevalence of various levels and forms of inequality and increased environmental destruction, there is a growing recognition of the limitations, epistemological, political, social, cultural, ethical and ecological, of the modes of thought that have dominantly governed and continue to govern our worldview. The modernist project, despite various attempts to give voice to those previously denied, has come under criticism for tendencies to totalise experience and overlook or exclude differences. On the other hand, the postmodernist glorification of difference and tendency to isolate and fragment has generated a kind of debilitating uncertainty in the form of absolute relativism rendering any pursuit of meaning meaningless. Alongside the recognition of these limitations are attempts to overcome the negative effects of these modes of understanding and to create new ways of understanding ourselves, our relationship to others, human and non-human and to the larger world process in which we find ourselves. Despite the supposed opposition between the modern and postmodern projects, the two share in common the tendency to undermine another mode of understanding that by its very nature both precludes and succeeds them. The mode of understanding referred to is narrative understanding which has the potential to pave a middle way between modernity’s totalising exclusions and postmodernity’s fragmenting nihilism, furthermore when the narrative approach is seriously undertaken it becomes clear that the formerly polarised dominant modes of thought are part of a wider, more heterogeneous process. The following article examines and highlights in detail some of the problems surrounding the modern and postmodern modes of thought in order to demonstrate the usefulness of narrative theory in overcoming these problems. In order to augment the defence of narrative theory this article also draws considerably from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin whose philosophy, it will be argued, both compliments and enhances narrative understanding and has considerable potential for generating a more inclusive and creative understanding of humanity, its relationships to others and to the world in which it is inextricably linked.

The following essay examines and highlights in detail some of the problems surrounding the modern and post-modern modes of thought in order to demonstrate the usefulness of narrative theory in overcoming these problems. In particular, it argues that the abstract theories of both modernism and postmodernism are unfruitful for understanding humans as a process of becoming and tend to either limit humans to egoistic individuals or hinder the development of identity through fragmentation and relativism. It will be argued that modernity, through its tendency to totalise, excludes other modes of understanding and the postmodern response to this totalisation, an utter respect for and celebration of difference, has rendered the search for any kind of meaning unintelligible. In order to overcome these limitations and to augment the defence of narrative theory this article draws considerably from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin whose philosophy both compliments and enhances narrative understanding and has considerable potential in generating a more inclusive and creative understanding of humanity, our relationships to others and to the world in which we are inextricably linked. Through recognition of the dialogism inherent in the world, this article seeks neither to discredit nor destroy the two modes of thought in question, but to overcome their limitations and to recognise these modes of thought as apart of a wider process of interactive, intersubjective and creative becoming. Rather than accepting the modern dogmatism of absolute truths or the postmodern scepticism towards truth, it will be argued that narrative understanding, alongside Bakhtin’s dialogism, allow for truth to be provisional and alterable in light of an ever expanding horizon of understanding.

In light of continuing global issues including the prevalence of various levels and forms of inequality and increased environmental destruction, there is a growing recognition of the limitations, epistemological, political, social, cultural, ethical and ecological, of the modes of thought that have dominantly governed and continue to govern our worldview. Alongside the recognition of these limitations are attempts to overcome the negative affects of these modes of understanding and to create new ways of understanding ourselves, our relationship to others, human and non-human and to the larger world process in which we find ourselves.

The modernist project, despite various attempts to give voice to those previously denied, has come under criticism for tendencies to totalise experience and overlook or exclude differences. The orthodox Marxist movement for example aimed to defend the proletariat from exploitation but failed to include women in the emancipatory endeavour. Similarly, the first wave feminist movement to some extent sought to overcome inequality by extending suffrage to women, however their own endeavours were limited to white western women and failed to represent women of other cultures.

On the other hand, the post-modern attack on all things modern, its glorification of difference and its tendency to isolate and fragment, has generated a kind of debilitating uncertainty in the form of absolute relativism rendering any pursuit of meaning meaningless.

Despite the supposed opposition between the modern and postmodern projects, the two share the tendency to undermine another mode of understanding that by its very nature both precludes and succeeds them. The mode of understanding referred to is narrative understanding which has the potential to pave a middle way between modernity’s totalising exclusions and post-modernity’s fragmenting nihilism. Furthermore, when the narrative approach is seriously undertaken, it becomes clear that the formerly polarised dominant modes of thought are both are part of a wider more heterogeneous process.

Read the whole article.
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