Saturday, March 11, 2023

Rhizo Narratology: Narrative Identity

I confess that I am losing interest in Donald Trump, as evidenced by the long pause in my blogging here; however, I am not losing interest in rhizo narratology. Rather, my interests are expanding as I learn more about narrative and as I write my own stories. I'm writing, but in other spaces. Still, I've recently read several articles by Dan P. McAdams about narrative identity and how he uses the concept in his study of the life stories of people, and I want to discuss his ideas here, drawing implications for how I might apply the concept to stories in general and Donald Trump in particular.

I'm working mostly with McAdams' article "'First we invented stories, then they changed us': The Evolution of Narrative Identity" found in Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, Vol. 3, No. 1, Symposium on Evolution and Narrative Identity, Spring 2019, pp. 1-18.

McAdams defines narrative identity as "a person's internalized and evolving story of how he or she has become the person he or she is becoming" (2). This definition embodies McAdams' own psychological orientation to narrative; however, he clearly considers narrative identity as an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary concept, quoting a range of scholars from biology through sociology to humanities. Still, he focuses on the emergence and evolution of narrative identity in the scientific sense to the exclusion of the literary senses, for instance.  He views storytelling first as a social mechanism for providing groups of hominids evolutionary advantages for getting along and getting ahead in the world and then as a psychological mechanism for providing "the self with temporal coherence and some semblance of psychosocial unity and purpose" (2) within their worlds.

I am not criticizing McAdams' point of view, which I think is quite important for understanding why people tell stories to themselves and to each other. The important lesson for me is that storytelling, narrative, is one of the defining characteristics of humanity. We've been telling stories since we became human, or possibly, we became human as we began telling stories. I can't say which was first, but I believe that telling stories is intimately bound up with the emergence of humanity along with speaking and writing, counting sheep and cattle, building fires, burying our dead, and singing and dancing in our rituals. Indeed, I tend to put story ahead of those other early human capabilities, except for speaking. I think we learned to count sheep in order to support our stories about whom these sheep belonged to and how much you owed me if I transferred some of those sheep to you. Though that is speculation and probably scholarly bias on my part, I am confident that story emerged very early as one of the key ways that humans make sense of themselves and their world, to the point that storytelling was one of the features that distinguished humans from the other hominids. Storytelling is core.

McAdams traces this evolutionary arc in our species within the life of each individual. He claims that most humans follow an arc from actor, to agent, to author, all roughly corresponding to three levels of narrative maturity, hence the literary terms for each stage.

  • Actor, roughly age 0-3: humans act within a social context, expressing "temperament dispositions that dictate the characteristic emotional and interpersonal styles they display as they engage the social moment" (5). By the age of 2, most humans become aware of themselves as actors on a stage (social context) among other actors, but they have little sense of a narrative arc, consequently very little memory or sense of a past or future.
  • Agent, roughly age 3-adolescence: humans become more sharply aware that they and other humans are motivated agents, acting as they do because they are pursuing or avoiding some outcomes. Humans also develop a sense of time, with a present, an autobiographical memory, and episodic future thought, all encoded and expressed through a growing command of language.
  • Author, roughly adolescence to adult: building on capabilities developed as actors and agents, humans create a narrative identity which provides each life with meaning, unity, and purpose and "situates the individual as a moral agent in the world" (8).
The emergence of the narrative identity forever changes the author, fixing the framework through which the author sees herself and her world. As McAdams puts it:

There is no going back to a simpler time when I was nothing more than a social actor, or a motivated agent striving to achieve a handful of goals. Now I cannot help but make narrative sense of what I do as a social actor and what I want as a motivated agent within the encompassing frame that explains to me, and to others, what it all means for the story of my life. (8)

Narrative identity, then, is a core characteristic of humans. This does not mean that our stories are all the same, though. Like fingerprints, narrative identities may look the same in general, but they all look different in details. The details come from our own peculiar mixes of inherent capabilities and dispositions in dynamic interactions with our particular ecosystems. Narrative identity is that sense we create, almost always conceived and expressed in story, of ourselves as unique characters interacting with other actors on a particular stage, and this identity is precious to us. We will do most anything to develop and to protect our narrative identity.

Note that this narrative identity is not merely veridical but also imaginative. While our narrative identities certainly include actual facts and incidents drawn from our own experiences, they also include imaginative facts and incidents. To my mind, the narrative structures we use to arrange the facts and incidents are more often a work of imagination than of fact and are usually informed by the stories of our cultures.

Cultures create and are defined by what McAdams calls master narratives, or what I think of as myths. In other words, cultures have narrative identities, and our individual narrative identities are informed by those larger stories. McAdams explores the master narrative of the redemptive self in which the protagonist (1) has some early special advantage, (2) recognizes and empathizes with the suffering of others, (3) suffers their own setback and trauma, (4) which leads to the redemption of positive outcomes or lessons learned, and (5) the emergence of goals to improve the lives of others. This narrative structure, of course, is informed with the details of each individual who tells the story. 

The United States has a number of these master narratives, or myths, that people apply to their own stories. My favorite, and one that applies particularly well to Trump, is the gunslinger myth: the lonely, brooding, exceptional man (almost always a man) who sweeps into town on the wind, shoots all the bad guys to save the day from extreme evil, kisses the pretty girl, and rides back onto the lonely plains of his exceptionalism. We Americans love this myth, as evidenced by the many movies and television shows that use it. Many Trump stories follow this narrative arc, and it made the careers of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Vin Diesel, and many other male actors with a limited range of acting skills.

Narrative identity, then, emerges from the interactions of our individual details with the general narratives of our cultures. McAdams identifies five characteristics of master narratives that help shape our own identity narratives:

  1. Utility: Myths provide the guidelines, goals, and meanings of the culture with which individuals identify.
  2. Ubiquity: Most everyone in a given culture knows the myths of that culture, even if they don't agree with them.
  3. Invisibility: People absorb the big stories without thinking about them much, instinctively coming to know what it means to be good or bad in a culture. Usually, people don't examine the big stories until they are violated or challenged.
  4. Compulsory: Myths carry a moral dimension which tells people how to feel, think, and act.
  5. Rigidity: Because myths reinforce cultural power and privilege structures and affirm deeply held values, they are not particularly elastic or negotiable. (12)

McAdams concludes that narrative identity is a compelling construct for most humans. We each must go through the agony of creating a story that makes sense of our own life, but we do not struggle alone. We are supported and informed by the culture within which we work. As McAdams summarizes it:

In constructing narrative identity, human beings plagiarize shamelessly from their respective cultures, borrowing and appropriating master narratives, common images and metaphors, and prevailing plotlines from a set of canonical cultural forms, each culture showcasing its own favorites. Biology guides and culture fills in the details. Narrative identity, therefore, is a joint production, an invention of the storytelling person and the culture within which the person’s story finds its meanings and significance. Other people in the author’s life, along with groups and institutions, may also exert an authorial force. Therefore, the autobiographical author is, in reality, a co-author. (14)

I like much of what McAdams has to say about narrative identity, but I can't help applying the concept of master narrative, or myth, to his own writing. McAdams concludes his article with a broad overview of the benefits of storytelling to the rise of humanity:

The story of narrative identity begins with the evolution of hominid hypersociality and runs through the emergence and proliferation of cultural modernity. From the beginning, stories have served the individual function of simulating social experience, providing those who are able to create and tell scenarios a significant adaptive advantage in social life. For hunting-and-gathering human groups, stories helped to coordinate diverse activities of different individuals while consolidating group cohesion and morale. As humans became more proficient in using language, they were able to refine and expand their narratives, paving the way for significant expansion and increasing complexity in social life. For good and for ill, stories continued to serve individual and social needs, through the invention of agriculture, the rise of kingdoms and city-states, and the further transformations of human society and culture that have transpired over the past 3,000 years, leading up to the current historical moment. (14)

Note that McAdams is using a master narrative, a myth, common to modern anthropological studies. In his review of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) by David Graeber and David Wengrow, William Deresiewicz summarizes the conventional story told by scientists from Hobbes and Rousseau to Diamond and Harrari to McAdams:

Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men. 
Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).

It's a wonderful mythic story of human progress, widely accepted by the academic community and very complimentary of us moderns as we are the crowning achievement of humankind, the very best that humanity has to offer, perhaps the best the Universe has to offer. 

But Graeber and Wengrow say the story is wrong. They offer exhaustive facts dug up in the past 100 years that counter the story. Still, academics are more than reluctant to give up the story and what it implies about humanity and themselves. They like their myth, and they will fight to protect it.

So do we all, including supporters of Donald Trump.