Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jerome Bruner - On Amelie Rorty and the Self in Literature
Jerome Bruner's Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1987) is an amazing book, covering psychology, literary theory, and nearly everything in between. Here is Publisher's Weekly review of the book, from back in 1986:
If gaining maturity means being adept at seeing the same set of events from multiple perspectives and contemplating alternative futures, then this concept of adulthood says something about the way our minds work. Bruner's "constructivist" approach holds that we create our own realities through our interaction with our social world and with symbols. This collection of challenging, often difficult essays takes us beyond his popular On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand, as he explores controversies in the theory of literature, linguistics, cognitive psychology and education. His argument that characters, setting and action are inseparable elements in fiction helps explain why great novels have emotional power. Literature is seen as a vehicle that opens us to dilemmas. Bruner's outlook illuminates sundry topics, from the way a teacher's stance toward the curriculum affects the learning process to the idea of culture as "semiconnected knowledge of the world" that enables people to arrive at acceptable ways of acting.
Bruner is well-known in both psychology and education fields, both of which are influenced by his knowledge of literary theory, as this clip about the narrative structure of reality makes clear (this comes from Wikipedia, so the links are theirs):

The Narrative Construction of Reality

In 1991, Bruner published an article in Critical Inquiry entitled "The Narrative Construction of Reality." In this article, he argued that the mind structures its sense of reality using mediation through "cultural products, like language and other symbolic systems" (3). He specifically focuses on the idea of narrative as one of these cultural products. He defines narrative in terms of ten things:

  1. Narrative diachronicity: The notion that narratives take place over some sense of time.
  2. Particularity: The idea that narratives deal with particular events, although some events may be left vague and general.
  3. Intentional state entailment: The concept that characters within a narrative have "beliefs, desires, theories, values, and so on" (7).
  4. Hermeneutic composability: The theory that narratives are that which can be interpreted in terms of their role as a selected series of events that constitute a "story." See also Hermeneutics
  5. Canonicity and breach: The claim that stories are about something unusual happening that "breaches" the canonical (i.e. normal) state.
  6. Referentiality: The principle that a story in some way references reality, although not in a direct way; narrative truth can offer verisimilitude but not verifiability.
  7. Genericness: The flip side to particularity, this is the characteristic of narrative whereby the story can be classified as a genre.
  8. Normativeness: The observation that narrative in some way supposes a claim about how one ought to act. This follows from canonicity and breach.
  9. Context sensitivity and negotiability: Related to hermeneutic composability, this is the characteristic whereby narrative requires a negotiated role between author or text and reader, including the assigning of a context to the narrative, and ideas like suspension of disbelief.
  10. Narrative accrual: Finally, the idea that stories are cumulative, that is, that new stories follow from older ones.

Bruner observes that these ten characteristics at once describe narrative and the reality constructed and posited by narrative, which in turn teaches us about the nature of reality as constructed by the human mind via narrative.

There are many sections I would like to quote (and probably will) from Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, but this passage from Chapter Three (sorry, I'm reading this on my Kindle DX, so I have no page numbers), was one that really appealed to me. He is citing the work of Amelie Rorty (a philosopher teaching at Harvard) who has created a developmental model of human beings in their literary context, a 5-stage sequence of development.
Amelie Rorty offers an analysis that, I think, is to the point. It distinguishes characters, figures, persons, selves, and individuals. She begins with a sketch: "Characters are delineated; their traits are sketched; they are not presumed to be strictly unified. They appear in novels by Dickens, not those by Kafka. Figures appear in cautionary tales, exemplary novels and hagiography. They present narratives of types of lives to be imitated. Selves are possessors of their properties. Individuals are centers of integrity; their rights are inalienable." The use of these variant construals is, for Rorty, fraught with human consequences:
"we are different entities as we conceive ourselves enlightened by these various views. Our powers of action are different, our relations to one another, our properties and proprieties, our characteristic successes or defeats, our conception of society's proper strictures and freedoms will vary with our conceptions of ourselves as characters, persons, selves, individuals."
Let me very briefly sketch Rorty's views and then return more directly to the general point. She sees characters as evolved from their origin in the Greek concept of the hero. The hero is known by his deeds. "As the hero's distance from the gods increases, his heroism comes to be exemplified in his character rather than in the sheer glory of his action." Characters do not have identity crises, since there is no presupposition about their unity; but disharmony among their characteristics breeds trouble-in their action, not in their selfhood. To know what sort of character a person is is to know the circumstances that suit him best, for not all characters are suited to the same life. A character's tragedy is to be in circumstances where his disposition is no longer needed, no longer suited. "Characters in time of great social change ... are likely to be tragic." And then, "In fiction, characters are dear to us because they are predictable, because they entitle us to the superiority of gods who can lovingly foresee and thus more readily forgive what is fixed."

Figures "are defined by their place in an unfolding drama; they are not assigned roles because of their traits, but rather have the traits of their prototypes in myth or sacred script. Figures are characters writ large, become figureheads ... Both their roles and their traits emerge from their place in an ancient narrative. The narration, the plot, comes first . . ." Whatever else figures are doing, they are filling their roles. A confidante may have gone to buy fish, but her real role is the sharing of confidences. "A figure is neither formed by nor owns experience." They are Mary or Martha, Peter or Paul, Che Guevara or Paul Bunyan.

The idea of persons, Rorty proposes, comes from two sources: the dramatis personae of the stage, and the law. "A person's roles and his place in the narrative devolve from the choices that place him in a structural system, related to others." Central to it is the idea of a unified center of action and choice-the unit of both legal and theological responsibility. Interest in persons, then, centers upon locating liability. The scope of a person lies in his powers to affect those around him, a scope for which he bears responsibility.

When we conceive of persons exclusively as sources of responsibility, we think of them as souls or minds, engaged with res cogitans. When we think of them as possessing rights and powers, we think of them as selves. "When a society has changed so that individuals acquire their rights by virtue of their powers, rather than having their powers defined by their rights, the concept of person has been transformed to a concept of self." Jane Austen describes a world of persons on the verge of becoming selves, Trollope one that has already become a world of selves, one in which the property required for stature is no longer land but an assured income due one by virtue of one's qualities.

Finally, individuality, born out of the corruption in societies of selves: "It begins with conscience and ends with consciousness." At its core is a contrast of individual versus society: "an individual transcends and resists what is binding and oppressive in society and does so from an original natural position ... The rights of persons are formulated in society, while the rights of individuals are demanded of society." And so Molloy and Malone, the zaniness of the individual soldier in the midst of an insane war, rip-off as the redistribution of property.

Each is a mode of interpreting as well as a mode of depiction, and in both, the lines are not clear. Depictions achieve drama by embodying a conflict: is Leggatt in The Secret Sharer a "figure" or an "individual" in Rorty's sense? And as writers alter their "presentation" of personhood-from the figures of Homer to the characters of Euripides, from Jane Austen's persons to Trollope's selves, from Conrad's selves to Beckett's individuals-so too readers change in the approach to personhood.
The emphasis on that last sentence is mine. In this one sentence, he has summarized 2,000 years of human development, as it has been predicted or possibly even created by novelists and playwrights.

This ties in quite well with Bruner's theory of the narrative construction of reality, which like Rorty's theory, is a constructivist philosophical/psychological model (see this page for a wide assortment of constructivist views).

What I am reminded of here, and I believe Bruner mentions Jaynes in the book, is Julian Jaynes theory of the bicameral mind (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976). Jaynes theory was widely rejected in the years following his book, but as is often the case, he has been redeemed by more recent research and a more thorough understanding of brain/mind development.

Essentially, he argued that the human mind in pre-history (3,000 yrs ago or so) was not aware of its own processes and operation, so thoughts felt as though they came from outside the self, from a God, or spirit, of whatever explanation different cultures offered. However, with the advent of metaphoric thinking, modern human consciousness was born.

He provided a wide range of proofs for this theory, but the one that sticks in my head is his use of the Iliad (eighth century BCE) and the Odyssey, both of which attributed to Homer, but The Iliad having been written by a bicameral thinker, and The Odyssey having been written by a metaphorical thinker.
An aside: However, there are some who do not credit Homer as the writer, although he may well have been one of the original tellers of the tales:

Andrew Dalby, [author of Rediscovering Homer] explained to Discovery News that the earliest references to Homer by writers such as Herodotus and the Greek poet Pindar indicate the poet lived around 800 B.C.

But based on geographical references in the poems, Dalby believes the Iliad was composed in 650 B.C., while the Odyssey was written in 630 B.C., well after Homer’s supposed lifetime.

Aside from the poems themselves, no concrete clues exist to identify their author, but Dalby builds a case that the person probably was a woman.
Be that as it may, here is a summary of Jaynes' argument, again from Wikipedia:

Jaynes asserts that until roughly the times written about in Homer's Iliad, humans did not generally have the self-awareness characteristic of consciousness as most people experience it today. Rather, Jaynes argued that the bicameral individual was guided by mental commands believed to be issued by external "gods"—the commands which were so often recorded in ancient myths, legends and historical accounts; these commands were however emanating from individuals' own minds. This is exemplified not only in the commands given to characters in ancient epics but also the very muses of Greek mythology which "sang" the poems: Jaynes argues that while later interpretations see the muses as a simple personification of creative inspiration, the ancients literally heard muses as the direct source of their music and poetry.

Jaynes inferred that these "voices" came from the right brain counterparts of the left brain language centres—specifically, the counterparts to Wernicke's area and Broca's area. These regions are somewhat dormant in the right brains of most modern humans, but Jaynes noted that some studies show that auditory hallucinations correspond to increased activity in these areas of the brain.[3]

For example, he asserts that, in the Iliad and sections of the Old Testament, no mention is made of any kind of cognitive processes such as introspection, and he argues that there is no apparent indication that the writers were self-aware. According to Jaynes, the older portions of the Old Testament (such as the Book of Amos) have little or none of the features of some later books of the Old Testament (such as Ecclesiastes) as well as later works such as Homer's Odyssey, which show indications of a profoundly different kind of mentality—an early form of consciousness.[3]
As far as ascertaining the date of composition to support Jaynes' theory, it is clear from discrepancies in the text and what is possible in reality that the story was told and retold over many cycles and embellished along the way. For example, Ajax's shield (in The Iliad) was made of a layer of metal and seven ox hides, putting it about 300 lbs. Not likely. Jaynes addresses other issues as well (see pgs. 75-83).

Back to my original point - Jaynes theory is supported by (and supports) Rorty's model of character development in literature. Ajax is a hero by his actions, not by his interior qualities, making him a heroic character; on the other hand, Odysseus is a figure, whose traits as a hero are derived from his role in the heroic myth of which he is the exemplar.

Sorry I meandered a bit in this post - I highly recommend Bruner's book (and Jaynes' as well, for that matter). I am very intrigued by the idea of a narrative self, so I have been hopping around from one view to another, including cultural psychology, Bruner's constructivism, narrative self theory, and dialogical self theory (more here, from one of the founders of the theory), so I am juggling a lot of ideas trying to make a whole of them.

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