Everything’s a Narrative, maybe . . .

Before he begins his full explication of narrative, Bruner says, “As with all accounts of forms of representation of the world, I shall have a great difficulty in distinguishing what may be called the narrative mode of thought from the forms of narrative discourse. . . Eventually it becomes a vain enterprise to say which is the more basic–the mental process or the discourse form that expresses it . . .” (Bruner 5). This passage struck me, especially when seen in the light of the problematic of the hermeneutic circle. Is thought the whole and language the part, or, as Bruner seems to intimate in this passage, is this line of thinking infinitely moot? If thought is the original design, and language a subsequent architecture, this seems to imply that the thought is something which is, at root, wholly distinct from language, and which can inhere in itself without the structure of language becoming operative. I find this dubious. Thought already supposes a subject which thinks–the Cartesian Cogito in its most basic iteration. Therefore thought possesses a certain grammar, a subject /predicate structure which is irreducible. Thought and language are, as Bruner suggests, equiprimordial. My cat is a conscious being–lives in consciousness–but I do not think it possesses the capacity for thought. The distinction is important. Thought, through its basic structure, manifests itself to a thinking subject, as a subject, and not as simply a consciousness grounded in instinct, self-preservation, and emotion. Thought is explicit and language is irreducible from thought. I agree with Bruner, it seems like a vain exercise to parse thought and language, or to attempt to–in practice the two are indistinguishable. Only a thought ever thinks this problematic, and so we begin to chase our tail.

The issue for Bruner rests on a distinction between narrative thought, and narrative discourse. The goal of his essay is to bring narrative discourse into the realm of narrative thought, and show that narrative is the primary mode of expression for both discourse and thought. Bruner argues that since the time of the Enlightenment science has become the privileged discourse because it effaces the narrative structure (and thus the human element) of thought. Science is lauded because its method allows for a localized objectivity in the face of the overwhelming human narrativizing impulse. I think what philosophy (and tacitly, science) shows us is the limit of science to objectively posit anything with certainty. Theories become theories in science because they have yet to be disproved, and so take on the character of absolute truth, but science as a discipline must hold itself open to the possibility that such theories can be disproved. This lies in the nature of language, and thus the nature of thought. 2+2=4, but we must hold ourselves open to the possibility that in some place it does not. The idea that 2+2=4 is founded on certain mathematical axioms, and an axiom in logic and math is something which is self-evident, something which assumes stability because it is self-evident, but which is itself unprovable. We need places to start, and in so doing take a leap of faith. 2+2 may always = 4, but doesn’t Orwell suggest to us that in some contexts 2+2 can be made to equal 5?

What am I fussing about here. Language is what is at stake, be it mathematical or verbal, specifically language as narrative. There are a couple points in particular which Bruner highlights in his description of narrative, which I think provide the most convincing evidence for its irreducible location within thought. First is the diachronic movement of narrative, which is clearly derivative from the diachronic element of language. In thinking, and thus in the positing of the “I”, there is always a diachronic element. The what I am is constituted by temporal structure–a must have been and a soon to be. Expand this out and we get history books full of interesting information. Next he says, “Narrative truth is judged by its verisimilitude rather than its verifiability.” My response is that all discourse, and thus all thought, is based on its verisimilitude. Narrative is not simply mimesis, it is generative, and creates new ways of being. To substantiate this claim I would look to his idea no 5, “canonicity and breach”. There is an asymmetry in narrative forms that requires that it be resolved–whatever form this may take. This asymmetry is what impels us to generate new ways of being. This is the most fundamental relationship between narrative (as it is traditionally conceived) and thought/discourse. There is a conflict, a breach, an asymmetry which demands that it be made equal. In narrative this occurs in thematic and ideological ways, whereas in language and thought this occurs in signification, in the gap between signifier and signified. Narrative is cathartic, it fills in the gap and brings one back to equal footing, however this claim must be qualified by the fact that no sooner has one hole been plugged than another one emerges, and so the process continues ad infinitum. This is the basic structure of language, and there is a whole body of post-structuralist and postmodernist theory which says this much better than I can.

I guess I have arrived at my point. Narrative is the irreducible form of thought/discourse, because it is defined by asymmetry. This assertion requires that we wrest narrative from its classical use, and understand its asymmetry (and thus is movement towards catharsis/resolution broadly conceived) as its defining characteristic, if we do this, we can see that it is the basic form of thought and discourse. Of course, if you define narrative according to other criteria, and do not see asymmetry as its defining characteristic, then I suppose everything I’ve just said is garbage–cuz where you finish depends on where you start. blahblahblah . . .

I suppose I should tie this back to composition, so I will ask a question: Does thinking about narrative in these terms help us write better? Does naming a cause ( however contingent it might be) help us effect a better piece of writing?

About Jake

I'm from San Diego. I like all things water related (surfing, swimming, fishing, floating), good tunes, and Mexican food for breakfast lunch and dinner, 7 days a week, 365 days a year ... you get the idea.

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