Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Notes on Narrativity

When I was a Crit, it was all about narrative.

But as a blogger, it still is all about narrativity.

Go figure.

I liked this article from the New York Times, This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It). Yes, I'm pasting in a gratuitous amount from the article, but it's worth reading:

[I]n the past decade or so a handful of psychologists have argued that the quicksilver elements of personal narrative belong in any three-dimensional picture of personality. And a burst of new findings are now helping them make the case. Generous, civic-minded adults from diverse backgrounds tell life stories with very similar and telling features, studies find; so likewise do people who have overcome mental distress through psychotherapy.

Every American may be working on a screenplay, but we are also continually updating a treatment of our own life — and the way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find. By better understanding how life stories are built, this work suggests, people may be able to alter their own narrative, in small ways and perhaps large ones.

“When we first started studying life stories, people thought it was just idle curiosity — stories, isn’t that cool?” said Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, “The Redemptive Self.” “Well, we find that these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.”

Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent.

During a standard life-story interview, people describe phases of their lives as if they were outlining chapters, from the sandlot years through adolescence and middle age. They also describe several crucial scenes in detail, including high points (the graduation speech, complete with verbal drum roll); low points (the college nervous breakdown, complete with the list of witnesses); and turning points. The entire two-hour session is recorded and transcribed.

In analyzing the texts, the researchers found strong correlations between the content of people’s current lives and the stories they tell. Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail. The pride of college graduation is spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.

By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as others nearby suffered.

In broad outline, the researchers report, such tales express distinctly American cultural narratives, of emancipation or atonement, of Horatio Alger advancement, of epiphany and second chances. Depending on the person, the story itself might be nuanced or simplistic, powerfully dramatic or cloyingly pious. But the point is that the narrative themes are, as much as any other trait, driving factors in people’s behavior, the researchers say.

Mental resilience relies in part on exactly this kind of autobiographical storytelling, moment to moment, when navigating life’s stings and sorrows. To better understand how stories are built in real time, researchers have recently studied how people recall vivid scenes from recent memory. They find that one important factor is the perspective people take when they revisit the scene — whether in the first person, or in the third person, as if they were watching themselves in a movie.

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students’ essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

“What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you’re feeling upset,” instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study’s lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.

Taken together, these findings suggest a kind of give and take between life stories and individual memories, between the larger screenplay and the individual scenes. The way people replay and recast memories, day by day, deepens and reshapes their larger life story. And as it evolves, that larger story in turn colors the interpretation of the scenes.

“The idea that whoever appeared onstage would play not me but a character was central to imagining how to make the narrative: I would need to see myself from outside,” the writer Joan Didion has said of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her autobiographical play about mourning the death of her husband and her daughter. “I would need to locate the dissonance between the person I thought I was and the person other people saw.”

On the heels of my previous post quoting Dave Hoffman on Jonathan Franzen's complaint about the erosion of the public sphere, this is a kind of interesting addendum. Maybe there's a point, after all, to personal blogging. For a person like myself (who hates keeping diaries and deletes emails with impunity), blogging is another way of storytelling. It's not public airing of dirty laundry for me--it's a sort of performative art.

One that can be taken or left, of course, but most art is. I write an awful lot that no one ever sees. I have only published once, and the rest will probably die a quiet, whimpering death on my hard drive. But blogging, for me, is a more robust exercise than my poetry writing or oft-abandoned attempts at prose. I blog, and I hit "publish." I do this often too quickly--I know that I should proofread more. I know that. I know that I should buy a new keyboard that doesn't have sticky keys. But I like the quickness of this medium. I like the ability to publish fearlessly.

I like being able to arrange my thoughts and experiences in a narrative. And now I see that there's a cognitive benefit to doing so. The funny thing about my years in CRT was that so many of my classes were like group therapy. So many of us relating our personal experiences rather than discussing the articles themselves, much less "The Law." That's one of the things that eventually eroded my stamina to keep up with CRT. Another thing was my anxiety over whether I was in the appropriate position to tell anyone's story other than my own--could I really speak for the "voices at the bottom" if I was an elite-educated academic? Was my own story relevant to any legal issue I happened to discuss?

Nowadays, I tell only my own story. I tell it to shine a light on a slightly different take on the academy, from a slightly different person than one would usually expect to be pounding at the gates of the Ivory Tower. But I also tell it because it's fun to tell, and see if anyone will listen. I don't expect anyone to, and am pleasantly surprised when others identify with my stories. I no longer insert a personal narrative into my articles (even though there are one or two in which I could), but I like having a forum for my personal narrative. I don't see it as being completely independent from my scholarship--but right now, my story has no place in my legal analysis. But I think it has a place here. Mainly because I've created the space for it here. It's my shingle.

It is interesting to come full circle to narrative. To accept its important place in my life and how I relate it (and relate to it). And to reject its place in my working life is not a repudiation of CRT completely--it's my reticence with respect to one aspect of CRT. I am still engaged in the anti-subordination project. Most of my work deals with anti-discrimination law, specifically employment discrimination. One of my articles even deals with Asian American stereotypes. And I could have talked about my personal encounters with such stereotypes in the workplace (there are some doozies). But I think not. Not now. My article deals with the structural inequality of the workplace and how individuals consciously or unconsciously exclude heterophilous (women, minorities) individuals from career enhancing social networks (i.e. social closure). My personal experiences with slurs or stereotypes don't really speak to that. So I leave them out of the article.

But one day, I might relate it here. It's a narrative for another space. I think the phrase is "That's a whole other story, and one I'll tell you one day."

For now, on this blog, you'll get the narratives I leave out of my work. As I try to make sense of my life and myself, I will tell you stories that hopefully make a little more sense. I think you should all start with The Vietnamse Yentl though. But for those of you with less patience, there's always the Cliffnotes version.

For more on stories:

Go here first.

Then here.

And don't forget, here.