LINGUIST List 12.2686

Sat Oct 27 2001

Review: Narrative & Identity: Studies in Autobiography

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  1. Bingyun Li, Review of Brockmeier & Carbaugh, Narrative and Identity

Message 1: Review of Brockmeier & Carbaugh, Narrative and Identity

Date: Fri, 26 Oct 2001 12:05:37 +0800 (CST)
From: Bingyun Li <>
Subject: Review of Brockmeier & Carbaugh, Narrative and Identity

Brockmeier, Jens, and Donal Carbaugh, ed. (2001)
Narrative and Identity: Studies in Autobiography, Self and
Culture. John Benjamins Publishing Company, hardback ISBN
1-58811-056-7, vi+302pp, $68.00, Studies in Narrative 1.

Reviewed by: Bingyun Li, Foreign Languages Institute, Fujian
Teachers University, Fuzhou, Fujian, China

The present volume under review is the first of a new series
launched by John Benjamins Publishing Company called 'studies in
Narrative", which recurs to narratives as approaches or
methodological tools to expound aspects of life, language, and
literature as well as studies that explore and contribute to the
notion of narrative from theoretical and epistemological
perspectives. Based on a conference on narrative and identity
that took place at the International Research Center for Cultural
Studies in Vienna, in December of 1995, this volume aims to
explore "the importance of narrative as an expressive embodiment
of our experience, as a mode of communication, and as a form for
understanding the world and ultimately ourselves" (p. 1). As the
editors assert, "all the contributions are focussed on one
particular issue: the relationship between narrative and human
identity, and the question of how we construct what we call our
lives and how we create ourselves in the process" (p. 15). This
book is divided into three major parts, plus the Introduction
(Chapter 1) and the Concluding Commentary (Chapter 12). Part 1
made up of Chapters 2-5 is devoted to introducing a number of
theoretical perspectives on the problem of narrative and self-
construction. Chapters 6-8 comprising Part 2 explore particular
life stories in their cultural contexts, and Part 3 consisting of
Chapters 9-11 focus on specific issues, empirical and
theoretical, of autobiographical memory and narrative identity.

Chapter 1, "Introduction" (pp. 1-24) is written by the two
editors Brockmeier and Carbaugh. In this introductory chapter,
the two editors first addresses the historical development of
narratology and contemporary narrative theory. The study of
narratology experienced radical changes in the 1960s and 1970s
when it emerged as a particular structuralist way of studying
written narrative texts, primarily of fictional literature. In
contrast, an increasing part of today's narrative theory, in
extending its scope and cultural interest, has distanced itself
from the "grand narratives of structuralism" and its focal
concerns upon invariant rules, deep structures, sentences, and
dualism. (cf. pp. 4-5). Second, another break with the
structuralist project of narratology has taken place in
sociolinguistics, conversation analysis, and the ethnography of
communication. The editors point out that in these studies, it is
the context of structuralism in which we find the starting point
of the narratological study of nonfictional and everyday
narrative, with William Labov and Joshua Waletzky as two major
representatives. As Jerome Bruner (1997) notes, their work has
helped to blaze a trail for students who seek to explore situated
uses of narrative structures. Another figure who has also
contributed to reshaping traditional conceptions of narrative and
narrative theory is Michail Bakhtin. Bakhtin (1973) describes the
richness of the language of life narratives in terms of tropes
which, are constituent features of novels. To Bakhtin's mind,
what is distinctive about the modern novel "is a basic
characteristic of the narrative construction of a life" (p. 7).
In this introductory chapter, the two editors present a detailed
account of the past and the present of narrative studies before
briefing the focus of this book (cf. 15-20).

Chapter 2, 'self-making and world-making"(25-38) is contributed
by Jerome Bruner, who raises and tries to answer the following
question: how people give account of themselves or, in its
broader form, what they do when they set forth an
"autobiography"? Bruner claims that narrative accounts must have
at least two characteristics. They should attach great importance
to people and their intentional states (desires, beliefs, and so
on) and to how these intentional states led to certain kinds of
activities. A narrative must answer the question "Why", "Why is
this worth telling, what is interesting about it?" In other
words, the "why tell" function imposes something of great
significance on narrative (cf. pp. 28-29) Bruner also agues that
an autobiography serves a dual function. On the one hand, it is
an act of "entrenchment". The objective of narrative is to
demystify deviations. And Bruner calls our attention to one
feature of Western autobiography: the highlighting or "marking"
of turning points. As Bruner notes, turning points represent a
way in which people free themselves in their self-consciousness
from their history, their banal destiny, their conventionality.
"Turning points are steps toward narratorial consciousness" (p.
33). After that, Bruner argues that autobiography involves not
only the construction of self, but also a construction of one's
culture. Bruner concludes that self-construction begins very
early and is a strikingly systematic process that is deeply
enmeshed with the mastery of language itself (p. 36). Chapter 3,
"Narrative: Problems and promises of an alternative paradigm"
(pp. 39-58) is co-authored by Jens Brockmeier and Rom Harr�. This
chapter begins with an attempt to outline their view of the
concept of narrative. They claim that narrative "is the most
powerful mode of persuasion" (p. 41) and that "every culture of
which we know has been a story-telling culture" (p. 42). The
authors hold that it is no easy matter to define narrative.
First, the forms and styles of narrative are most various and
many-colored. Its cultural phenomenology is amazingly manifold
and open. Second, there are elements or structures of narrative
in most other discourse types, such as scientific, legal,
historical, and religious or political texts (cf. 44-47). And
there exist two persistent fallacies in narrative analysis: the
ontological fallacy and the representation or translation
fallacy. The first one appears to reify the metalinguistic
category of narrative, while the latter one tends to suppose that
there is one and only human reality to which all narratives must
in the end conform. The authors point out that these two
fallacies in reality, can be seen as two sides of the same coin
because "both presuppose the existence of a hidden level of
prediscursive meaning structures" (p. 49). In this chapter, the
authors propose narrative as a new model for the human sciences.
They argue that the increasing interest in the study of
narratives suggests the emergence of another strand to the post-
positivist paradigm and a future refinement of interpretive
methodology in the human sciences. The authors conclude that it
is the narrative function that endows the human condition with
its particular openness and plasticity.

Chapter 4, "Metaphysics and narrative: Singularities and
multiplicities of self" (pp. 59-75) is contributed by Rom Harr�.
In this chapter, Harr� dwells on how narrative can structure both
singularities and multiplicities of self. Harr� begins with a
brief examination of the range of concepts that are carried by
the current usage of the words "person" and 'self". According to
the author, English speakers of our time seem to operate with a
standard model, in which "person" serves as the word for the
basic particulars of the human world, each which has or seems to
have attributes and components referred to by the multivocal word
'self". The word 'self" appears in person-centered discourse in
at least three psychologically diverse contexts: perception (Self
1), reflection (Self 2), and social interaction (Self 3). It is
argued that autobiography is an important part of the "narration"
of Self 2, and that is highly context dependent. And the author
proposes to work with the general thesis that "ceteris paribus,
singularity (uniqueness) of persons (except on so far as their
bodies are materially distinct) is not a brute fact about human
life, but the result of locally enforced norms" (p. 63). In the
section that follows, the author presents an ontology of
"selves". For Kohut (1977), "the self" is not an "agency of the
mind", it is a 'structure of the mind". For the author, selves of
none of the three "sorts" are entities, and "many seeming
personal attributes are not properties of the person at all" (p.
64). A larger part of Self 2, what a person is, must consist of
powers and capacities. The author then moves on to examine some
of the ways in which the dual grammars of discourses about human
beings and their powers and capacities are interconnected (pp.
67-69). In the last section, the author presents his Taxonomic
Priority Thesis, arguing that without the Taxonomic Priority
Thesis and the task/tool conceptual framework the materiality of
persons, the embodiment on which a sense of personal identity
(Self 1) ultimately depends, would collapse.

Chapter 5, "Narrative integrity: Autobiographical identity and
the meaning of the "good life"" (pp. 75-100), is co-authored by
Mark Freeman and Jens Brockmeier. This chapter begins with three
claims. The first is that one's identity, insofar as it is tied
to the interpretive appraisal of one's personal past as it takes
place in autobiographical narrative, is inseparable from
normative ideas of what a life is, or is supposed to be, if it is
lived well. The second claim is that the degree to which there
exists consensus about what constitutes good lives in any given
social surround will in turn affect the "music of man's and
women's lives", that is, the degree of narrative integrity that
inheres in the stories people tell about their lives, and,
ultimately, in their identities. The third claim is that
autobiographical narrative are useful vehicles for exploring not
only the ethical dimension of identity construction but also the
ethical fabric of the social worlds in which they emerge. The
authors then go on to demonstrate the three claims one by one.
For them, historicity, autobiographical memory, and narrative
identity emerge as an interlocking discursive configuration (cf.
Freeman 1993). In other words, autobiographical identity emerges
in line with specific social, historical, and discursive
conditions regarding the importance of the individual as well as
the importance of accounting for the life one has led in line
with an overarching cultural system of ethical and moral values
(cf. pp. 77-83). The authors conclude that what constitutes the
narrative integrity of an individual life is always embedded in a
web of ethical beliefs and commitments articulated in the
philosophical, religious, political, and moral views of the age
in question and that narrative integrity may be understood as the
conceptual space where autobiographical identity and the meaning
of the good life meet. This chapter, to the present reviewer's
mind, is well-written, clean-and-clear, and easy to follow.

Chapter 6, "The people will come to you: Blackfeet narrative as a
resource for contemporary living", contributed by Donald
Carbaugh, is the first of Part 2 titled "Worlds of Identity: Life
Stories in Cultural Context". In this chapter, Carbaugh presents
an ethnographic narrative that is based on the analysis of
several oral texts. Focusing primarily on a narrative told by a
Blackfeet, Native American man, Rising Wolf, Carbaugh endeavors
to show how the oral texts are embedded in a specific cultural
meaning system, and how such narrative can be understood and
analyzed in culturally sensitive ways. First, the author grounds
the analysis in the pragmatic context of its performance, which
shows the relationship between this narrative and the event in
which the text was produced, thus sensitizing one to the specific
communicative scene of its use. Next, the specific elements being
used to put the narrative together are examined. Third, the
author further interprets the deep mythic and dramatic resources
evident in the form of the text itself (cf. pp. 110-121). And in
the process of his analysis, Carbaugh treats the text as a
communication practice which itself invokes kinds of cultural
events such as ceremonies, and particular meanings such as
symbolic categories and semantic inversions, all of which presume
and create a particular Blackfeet discourse. The author concludes
that "consideration of narrative require cultural and
communicative analysis" (p. 123).

Chapter 7, "Narratives of national identity as group narratives:
Patterns of interpretive cognition" (pp. 129-144), is written by
Carol Fleisher Feldman. Feldman begins her exploration of group-
defining stories by noting a key difference between narratives
that students tell about their work in New York theatre groups.
Feldman goes on to propose that all national narratives are
typical of group-defining stories in that (a) they are highly
patterned, (b) that they also affect the form of personal
autobiography, and, (c) that they go underground as cognition
where they serve as mental equipment for the interpretation of
events (cf. pp. 133- 140). The author concludes that group-
defining narratives facilitate interpretation, or allow
particular events to be given a meaning, by supplying a
particular shared context within and with which they take on a
determinate meaning.

Chapter 8, "You"re marked: Breast cancer, tattoo, and the
narrative performance of identity" (pp. 145-184), is contributed
by Kristin M. Langellier. In this chapter, Langellier examines a
series of narratives told by a ten-year survivor of breast
cancer. Rhea, a married Franco-American from Maine with three
children, is in her forties and tenth year of survival after
being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32. In her narrative
performance, she seeks to redefine her self and tattoo by
strategically navigating the contradictory meanings of her
multiply marked body. Of course, for Langellier, approaching
narrative as performance entails two related but distinct
arguments about the pragmatics of putting narrative into practice
(cf. Langellier 1999; HopKins 1995). Langellier analyzes Rhea's
story as a "performance of identity" that moves from the lack of
agency in getting breast cancer to the forceful agency of getting
a tattoo on her scar. And narrative performance of identity
suggests that transformation and transgression are never given,
stable, or final. Rhea's narrative performance of identity is
recuperative to the extent that it inscribes her experiences
within existing structures of domination (cf. pp. 172-175).
Langellier concludes that the performance approach to narrative
asserts that every performance is unique, and therefore every
narrative identity multiple, fragmentary, and unfinished.

Chapter 9, "Richard Wagner's creative vision at La Spezia" (pp.
188- 218), the first of the third part titled "Between Past and
Present: Autobiographical Memory and Narrative Identity", is
contributed by Jerome R. Sehulster. In this chapter, Sehulster
investigates the "historical truth" and "narrative truth" of an
important episode in Richard Wagner's autobiography. In his Mein
Leben (My life), the composer recounts a wonderful creative
"vision" experienced at La Spezia, Italy, in early September
1853. The so-called "La Spezia vision" is a significant event in
Wagnerian lore because it is the sudden moment of creation, the
inspiration, the profound insight from which the opening music of
Wagner's monumental tetralogy, "Der Ring des Nibelungen", was
drawn. By examining Wagner's letters, diaries, notebooks, and
autobiography and secondary sources, the author finds amazing
discrepancies and contradictions. Though the vision at La Spezia
may not have happened in any literal sense, Sehulster argues,
Wager's reading of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer framed
his conception of himself and his creativity (cf. pp. 213-214).
Wagner invented the vision at La Spezia because it had narrative
truth. Sehulster concludes that in the broader light of identity,
"Mein Leben should be considered less an historical document,
more a mythical narrative of self-presentation" (p. 214).

Chapter 10, "Identity and narrative: J. Piaget's autobiographies"
(pp. 219-246), is contributed by Jacques Von�che. In his study
of Jean Piaget's self accounts, Von�che deals with a
particularly interesting case of multiple autobiographical
identities. Jean Piaget, the famous Swiss psychologist, wrote
several autobiographies aimed at different audiences, thus
presenting himself in different ways and on different scenes. In
all of his autobiographies, Piaget is both the same and
different. The facts are the same. The anecdotes are similar. But
the outcome is entirely different (cf. pp. 224-243). In this
chapter, the author tries to show how people use their
autobiographies as a form of self presentation
(Selbstdarstellung) that varies according to the target audience
in function of which they organize and re-organize the plots of
their lives. According to the target audience, Piaget can be a
post-Bergsonian metaphysician, a scientific psychologist, or a
disillusioned philosopher turned scientist.

Chapter 11, "From the end to the beginning: Retrospective
teleology in autobiography" (pp. 247-280), is contributed by Jens
Brockmeier. In this chapter, the author touches upon three
themes. First, it discusses the problem of reference in
autobiography: Who is the author, the teller of the story, and
who is the self behind or in this discourse? Is there a self, or
one self, at all? Second, the very idea of a life as a given
entity, taken- for-granted as it is, proves to be precarious; as
do the similarly common view that the (auto)biographical gestalt
of a life is circumscribed by a natural development from the
beginning to the end. The third theme tackled is the vision of
time and temporality that emerges in autobiographical narrative--
as, in turn, cultural notions of time provide a frame for the
autobiographical process. The author argues that human life is
shaped by words and pictures, in verbal and iconic narrative
texts. A main assumption underlying the study is that both media
are entities with semiotically comparable narrative functions.
Actually, "one quality of the narrative textures of
autobiographies, be it in linguistic or visual media, is to
create a fabric of cohesion and plausibility that is usually
taken to be the immediate reflection of a person's life" (p. 277).
And, as the author observes, what makes autobiographical narrative
such a powerful symbolic form of our experiences is the same
narrative process of meaning construction that evokes the
teleological order of our lives.

Chapter 12, "From substance to story: Narrative, identity, and
the reconstruction of the self" (pp. 282-298), written by Mark
Freeman, serves the concluding commentary. In this chapter,
Freeman offers a critical reading and summary discussion of the
preceding chapters. He identifies four basic dimensions involved
in explicating the relationship between narrative and identity:
historical (pp. 284-287), cultural (pp. 287-289), rhetorical (pp.
289-294), and experiential (pp. 294-296). Freeman argues that "on
some level, narrative is itself the source of the self's
identity" (p. 296). The author also suggests that art, in the
form of a certain "literariness" is in a distinct sense built
into a fabric of life. And narrative cognition is poetic, that
is, characterized by poiesis, by the creation of meaning. The
author concludes in this chapter that in moving into the poetic
realm, we will have opened the way toward a more expansive and
serviceable conception of truth as well as a more humane
conception of human lives and how they might be approached by
those of us who seek to understand them.

This volume, despite the independence of its various
contributions, nonetheless serves the important purpose of
exploring how we construct what we call our lives, and how we
create ourselves in the process. All these various contributions
point to a single focus, that is, the process of autobiographical
identity construction. This volume would help to open new ways to
narrative studies, shedding new light on human conception of
human lives and how they might be approached and be understood.

Bakhtin, M. (1973). "Literary and psychological models of the
self". In U. Neisser & R. Fivush (eds.), The remembering self:
Construction and accuracy in the self-narrative, 19-40.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1997). "Labov and Waletzky thirty years on".
Journal of Narrative and Life History 7 (1-4), 61-68.

Freeman, M. (1993). Rewriting the self: History, memory,
narrative. London: Routledge.

HopKins, M. F. (1995). "The performance turn --- and toss".
Quarterly Journal of Speech 81, 228-236.

Kohur, H. J. (1972). "Conceptual phenomenalism". The Monist 56,

Langellier, K. M. (1999). "Personal narrative, performance, and
performativity: Two or three things I know for sure". Text and
Performance Quarterly 19, 125-144.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Bingyun Li is a lecturer at Foreign Languages
Institute, Fujian Teachers University in Fuzhou city, Fujian
province, China. Her research interests include literature,
narratology, culture, communication, and discourse analysis.
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