Rereading(,) Narrative(,) Identity(,)

and Interaction


JosŽ Angel Garc’a Landa

University of Zaragoza


There has been a change in my title since I first began to work on this paper: often we only discover what we wanted to say once we have said it--and who we are once we see what we have done. The paper is also about that. I will address the configurational nature of discourse, bringing together a number of distinct topics: (1) rereading, (2) narrative, (3) identity and (4) interaction. The title should point that way: it also attempts an initial configuration of these terms by partially joining them in a (problematized) sentence: "rereading narrative identity and interaction".[1]

         We might attempt an initial integration of these disparate terms through tentative comparisons or partial syntheses, by seeing first the elements of our title in terms of one another. For instance, "identity" and "narrative", to begin with, and then "rereading" and "narrative", by examining narrative as a form of rereading.



Identity and Narrative


Identity and narrative agree well from a broadly Heideggerian perspective which argues the constitution of Being through language. We could in fact go as far back as Parmenides if we find that a yet more general identification of being and thought is relevant to the subject.[2] But one can easily get lost within such broad ascriptions, especially when their relevance to narrative and identity (the subject at hand) is only implicit. I will concentrate on a line of thought which is more congenial to me, and one which I think is a more immediately relevant classical locus to ground any relationship between self-identity and narrative. I am referring to Hume's assumption that our sense of self is constituted through our associations of ideas, as an effect of memory. Narrative, though not explicitly mentioned by Hume, is certainly one basic instrument in associating memories and providing a sense of identity. Hume's discussion of personal identity begins with a more general reflection on the concepts of identity and diversity:


1. We have a distinct idea of an object, that remains invariable and uninterrupted thro' a suppos'd variation of time; and this idea we call that of identity or sameness. We have also a distinct idea of several different objects existing in succession, and connected together by a close relation: and this to an accurate view affords as perfect a notion of diversity, as if there was no manner of relation among the objects. But tho' these two ideas of identity, and a succession of related objects be in themselves perfectly distinct, and even contrary, yet 'tis certain, that in our common way of thinking they are generally confounded with each other. (Hume 1896: 253).


If Hume's diagnosis is accepted, it will readily be seen that a narrative connecting a diversity of events will easily lead to the generation of an ideal object (e.g. a historical event) whose identity is the product of narrative configuration. For "our propension to confound identity with relation is so great, that we are apt to imagine something unknown and mysterious, connecting the parts, beside their relation" (1896: 254). Both narratives and selves seem to be among the clearest instances of the general principle which generates the identity of ideal objects--even if the principle itself is questioned as a basis for the generation of all manner of ideal objects.


2. all objects, to which we ascribe identity, without observing their invariableness and uninterruptedness, are such as consist of a succession of related objects. (1896: 255).


The identity we ascribe depends, as usual in Hume, on habit as much as on direct experience: certainly, "where the changes are at last observ'd to become considerable, we make a scruple of ascribing identity to such different objects" (1896: 257). But if identity is created by the "uninterrrupted progress of the thought" (1896: 256)--then any interruption of the thought will also interrupt the unproblematic ascription of identity. Therefore, we might add, debate over identities which questions received notions and mental habits can seriously shake the means whereby identities are usually conveyed--or constituted.

One more interesting aspect of Hume's conception is that identity is ascribed by the observer, it is not inherent in the associated things themselves. (1896: 260). Actually, personal identity seems to require for Hume a reflective dimension, as it is ascribed by the self-observer, in his reflective capacity, not by the spontaneous connection of ideas in the mind. Identity is cimented by repetition, by semiotic doubling, whether in the form of reflection, or in the form of memory:


3. the memory not only discovers the identity, but also contributes to its production, by producing the relation of resemblance among the perceptions. . . . As memory alone acquaints us with the continuance and extent of this succession of perceptions, 'tis to be consider'd, upon that account chiefly, as the source of personal identity. (Hume 1896: 261)[3]


The fluid concept of the self which rears its head in Hume's conception finds a decidedly modern formulation in the work of Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, the self is not a substance, but a becoming, a construction, which turns back on itself to know and remake itself indirectly through signs and symbols of self-interpretation (Polkinghorne 1988: 154). Less spectacularly perhaps than in Nietzsche, the modern self as theorized by the existentialists and by hermeneutic social science after Heidegger and Paul Ricoeur is a self which has a narrative dimension as an essential constituent. To quote Donald Polkinghorne,


4. human beings exist in three realms--the material realm, the organic realm, and the realm of meaning. The realm of meaning is structured according to linguistic forms, and one of the most important forms for creating meaning in human existence is the narrative. (Polkinghorne 1988: 183)


From the point of view of hermeneutic psychology, the self is a product of action and of representation, with narratives of the self as a major representational and structuring principle. In this sense reality is interwoven with narrative fictions. Ricoeur's analysis of temporal configurations in Time and Narrative, of the interpenetration of history and fiction in any narrative representation, is perhaps the major contemporary theoretical statement in this line of thought.

In Narrative and the Self, Anthony Paul Kerby notes that the implications of narrative hermeneutics are equally relevant for historiography, literary theory and psychology:


5. The stories we tell of ourselves are determined not only by how other people narrate us but also by our languages and the genres of storytelling inherited from our traditions. ( Kerby 1991: 6)


Self-narration is an interpretive activity: the meaning of the subject's past is refigured in the present: "our conscious narratives inevitably refigure and augment the prenarrative level of experience" (Kerby 9). For thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Hannah Arendt, self-understanding involves the emplotment of one's experiences: we are "storytelling animals" (MacIntyre 1981, quoted in Kerby 1991: 12). As I argued in my discussion of Hume, there is a link between access to memory and emplotment (cf. also Kerby 28). The narrative structuration of memories generates our understanding of the past.  There is no definite meaning of the past, as we cannot escape "the historicity of our gaze and our interests." For Kerby, "our talk of the self is self-constituting rather than referential to an ontologically prior subject. . . . The meaning of a life can be adequately grasped only in a narrative or storylike framework" (Kerby 31, 33). The distance noted by analysts of the novel between the experiencing self and the narrating self is essential for the study of subjectivity at large (Kerby 38).

Narrative is a cognitive instrument which conveys social articulations of identity. Each act of communication involves to a greater or lesser extent an act of interpretation and reconfiguration. Narrative patterns, therefore, are communicated, but they are also  transformed in their application to specific instances. This is all the more the case when the narratives are self-reflective, deliberately experimental. If narrative is configuration of meaning and time, complex configurations such as are developed by artistic narrative are essential models and prototypes for creative social communication.



"Narrative" and "Rereading"


Narrative can be read as a mode of rereading. Not so much from the viewpoint of the receiver, who is usually informed of something new through the narrative, but rather from the perspective of the teller, who already "knows the story" but has to give it a new configuration every time it is told. Narrativity has many dimensions, but re-tellability is certainly one of them. The more repeatable, the more narrative, the clearer the narrative protocols. For instance, as regards conversational narrative, the narrative protocols are but lightly present in 'one-off' narratives (e.g. when I give my wife an account of my morning activities at work), but grow more definite in narratives which have acquired an identity--such as, still at the level of conversation, celebrated anecdotes acquaintances goad one another into telling, but also of course culturally significant stories: stories with titles, written and published stories (which develop narrative conventions of their own), myths, novels, films... Fiction, of course, can hardly be said to be a "re-reading" of events in the literal sense, but its communicative protocols derive from those of narratives which are a re-reading of events, and moreover any fiction recycles existing narrative patterns, archetypes and character types..

Reading itself has elements of rereading, since it requires a retrospective moment of revision and re-configuration of the past--there is not a clear-cut demarcation line between reading and re-reading. As noted by Wolfgang Iser,


6. during the process of reading, there is an active interweaving of anticipation and retrospection, which on a second reading may turn into a kind of advance retrospection. (1974: 282)


Rereading is a complex phenomenon in which a number of dimensions may be differentiated--e..g. the rereading inherent to the linearity of language, the rereading of discursive and rhetorical patterns, and the rereading which is a consequence of narrative reconfiguration.

David Galef has argued that "rereading heightens certain aspects of the text and blunts others" (1998: 21). The same thing could be argued with respect to other forms of semiological doubling, such as the adaptation of a novel into a film, or critical interpretation--in each case there are gains and losses, with some issues vanishing in the transformation of one text into another. And the same applies as well to narrative configuration considered as a rereading: it heightens certain aspects of the prenarrative event series and blunts others. Narrative as a reading of events is inherently open to conflict when events are factual and public, as in the case of history writing. Conflict over narrative reading/rendering applies even to those fictional events which in a sense could be argued to be the author's property and personal invention: conflict may arise nonetheless, since they draw on previously existing archetypes, valuations and preunderstandings, character types and plot models etc. Conflict over narrative configuration is thus a prominent mode of narrative interaction (fortunately there are others).

If narrative is in a sense a rereading, then, actually rereading narrative is always already a doubling of an initial rereading. Some narratives recognise this, and create rereading effects in their first reading--e.g. Gide's Les Faux Monnayeurs, a paradigm for much reflexive fiction (cf. Galef 1998: 28). In so doing, they take the implied rereading process one step further. Repetition, then, is as much conducive to difference as to identity; there can be no exact repetition, but only a conventional identity for certain purposes between two distinct semiotic phenomena.

Of course, we might take this principle to an extreme, and deny the possibility of identity altogether. For instance, if our hindsight as rereaders modifies second reading (since we know the ending of the story), we no longer read the same thing, so paradoxically rereading leads to the negation of "rereading" stricto sensu (see Birkets 1998). But it can readily be seen that for most practical purposes we need a measure of abstraction which allows us to speak both of identity and of repetition in the phenomena we analyze.

When narrative becomes literature, the density of meaning proceeding from rereading becomes more intense.[4] Literature (in the sense of 'something which is written as literature, or in order to become literature') is a kind of writing which is meant to be reread. Literature (in the sense of 'consecrated classics, canonical works') is that which has already been reread by a cultural tradition. It reaches us already evaluated, ready for use in communicative interaction--and with many potentially useful intertexts and semiotic doublings (readings, criticism, allusions...) attached to it. There are many selves and contexts we may choose to interact with through the vehicle of a classic.[5]





"Reading" and "Interaction"


Before I pursue this issue, let us take up two further terms from our title to see the way they intersect, or interact: "reading" and "interaction". Reading should be conceived as (including) interaction with textualized roles for receivers, as theorized by Walker Gibson, Wayne Booth or Wolfgang Iser, through their diverse notions of implied authors and, implied readers or mock readers.

The literary theorists' emphasis on textual interaction should be understood alongside with parallel developments in the study of conversational interaction, or of language use at large. Text linguists and discourse analysts have also emphasized the collaborative protocols that enable textual communication. Michael Hoey, for instance, argues that


7. Writers anticipate our needs by presenting information in the order we need it and in which we have received it in the past and we in turn have expectations that are shaped by our confidence that the writer will anticipate our needs. (Hoey 2000: 49)


A text is an interactive interface where author and reader meet for a communicative encounter which has been designed by the authors, but is initiated by readers, and develops within a frame of common understanding which might be roughly described with Grice's maxims of communicative behaviour: ("be relevant", "be orderly", "do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence", etc.--see Grice 1989). Besides,


8. Not only is text a site of interaction between author and reader, but it may be where a writer records earlier interactions, or fictionally represents interactions, invoking one or more participants than the writer and reader themselves. (Hoey 2000: 186-87)

Text, then, is the site of an interaction between many intentions (cf. Sell 2000, 202).

The interactive patterns described by Hoey develop nonetheless along the lines calculated and designed by an author. Other theories of linguistic pragmatics offer a more flexible and open notion of meaning in interaction. For Jenny Thomas,


9. meaning is not something which is inherent in the words alone, nor is it produced by the speaker alone, nor by the hearer alone. Making meaning is a dynamic process, involving the negotiation of meaning between speaker and hearer, the context of utterance (physical, social and linguistic) and the meaning potential of an utterance. (Thomas 1995: 22)


Which is the role of pragmatics in linguistics? According to Thomas,


10. pragmatics is concerned with issues not addressed within other areas of linguistics, such as the assignment of meaning in context--utterance meaning and pragmatic force--speech acts, implicature, indirectness and the negotiation of meaning between speaker and hearer. (Thomas 1995: 184).


It can readily be seen that there is a continuum here between pragmatics and literary theory--as soon as we realize that pragmatics does not apply just to face-to-face interaction, and substitute "writer" and "reader" for "speaker" and "hearer" in the passage just quoted. This brings up the problem of the multiple contexts of written communication. We may take into consideration the author's context, the reader's context, and the implicit context of literary communication where they can meet. But the relationship between these contexts is not predetermined.

Perhaps these matters may be usefully approached via the common ground they have with the proposals of symbolic interactionism in other social sciences. There are important methodological coincidences between the approaches of George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer and Erving Goffman and contemporary developments in literary pragmatics deriving from the work of Bakhtin (1981, 1986), as well as with the integrational linguists' critique of formalist linguistics.

According to symbolic interactionism, the study of social interaction must take account of the actors' global interaction, and not merely of those features of action preselected by a structural model: "Social interaction is an interaction between actors and not between factors imputed to them" (Blumer 1986: 8). This tenet of the symbolic interactionists brings to mind Geertz's (1973) call for a 'thick' description of concrete social phenomena, as well as the integrationalists' account of language use as anchored in a wider communicative process.[6]


11. By virtue of symbolic interaction, human group life is necessarily a formative process and not a mere arena for the expression of pre-existing factors. (Blumer 1986: 10)


Self-indications, the reflexive communication and self-representations of the subject, are a part of an ongoing process of self-interaction (1986: 13). Narrative structuring could be taken to be one of these processes of self-indication (although there is no talk of either narrative or hermeneutic vocabulary in Blumer). Pre-established action patterns do not govern future action:


12. Repetitive and stable joint action is just as much a result of an interpretative process as is a new form of joint action that is being developed for the first time. . . . It is the social process in group life that creates and upholds the rules, not the rules that create and uphold group life. (Blumer 1986: 18-19)


Symbolic interactionism denies the fixed reality of the empirical world: "the reality of the empirical world appears in the 'here and now' and is continuously recast with the achievement of new discoveries" (Blumer 1986: 23). Blumer's emphasis on interpretation accords well with a hermeneutic approach to social science. There are here, as already noted, interesting points of contact with integrational linguistics, in that the whole situation of meaning is not predetermined by whatever is considered to be the preexisting code. Blumer's critique of formalist models in social analysis has much in common with the integrationalists' rejection of "rules" as preexisting and governing linguistic activity.[7]

Mainstream pragmatics, too, has had to do away with rules in favour of more flexible communicative principles such as relevance. In the use of speech the openness of interaction is taken into account by speakers and hearers. For instance, the intended force of an utterance (whether it is a question, a request, etc.) may be left deliberately indeterminate by the speaker or by the hearer's interpretive response to it: "it may be in the interests of both participants that the force of the utterance should be negotiable" (Thomas 1995: 195). The same may apply, incidentally, to literary practices. When Defoe published Robinson Crusoe as a first-person memoir, its factual or fictive nature was left open for readers to negotiate.

Language at large is, according to Thomas, "not simply a reflexion of the physical or social context, or of the role relationship between the two speakers", rather, its use is creative and dynamic, it is used both to establish and to change the nature of the relationship between the speakers and the nature of the activity in which they are participating. Language can be used to "break frame"[8] or recontextualize the ongoing interactive encounter by redefining aspects of context:


13. context cannot be seen only as a 'given', as something imposed from the outside. The participants, by their use of language, also contribute to making and changing their context. (Thomas 1995: 194)


Which is done, in part, through their reinterpretation of the relevant context and their communication of this reinterpretation. [9]

This contingency of context has recently been emphasized by Roger Sell (2000)--context is not a given, it is established not just through presupposition, but also through negotiation. It can be changed through interaction. Such co-adaptability is a major principle of communicative interaction. He emphasizes the importance of both contexts, the context of writing and current context of reading, in order to develop a historical yet non-historicist pragmatics (Sell 2000: 183). However, when Sell speaks of the creativity of artists to change conventions and to respond to their predecessors we might do well to remember, too, the creativity of critics to change conventions of reading. Both textual activities reveal the importance of peripheral vision, of an attention to what is relevant in the precise communicative context in which we are engaged. Successful communicators, whether they are speaker, creative writer or critic, will adapt the politeness norms which regulate interaction and changing them creatively to fit the situation (cf. Sell 2000: 219-20).

         The integrational nature of the communicative event must be taken into account in the analysis of context and its transformations. Communicative situations are dense, and include more elements than are signalled as relevant by speakers or writers. But again, what is irrelevant for one interactant may be signalled as relevant by another. Goffman (1981)  notes that  an interactional response is not the same as a reply. In a response the second speaker may address a part of the message plus a piece of the overall context not contemplated by the first speaker. This is true of spoken interaction,  and it is true likewise of the critical debate between schools in literary theory. A New Critic may wish to concentrate on the formal dynamics of a text, while a feminist critic will see the relevance for her own critical project of many aspects of the text which are disregarded by formalism. This involves a recontextualization of the proposed interaction, "changing the subject" of critical conversation and reasserting the fact that the interventions of readers and critics are not subordinate to the plans of creative authors. The text's proposed mode of communication may be reoriented, and the text may be reused for a communicative purpose not calculated by its author--for instance, as the subject of a further interaction between a critic and his own interlocutors, who in turn may wish to counter the critic's intervention, and not just to acquiesce or agree.

A reverential attitude to literature still misleads many scholars in their assesments of the interactive function of criticism. For instance, what I find missing in the literary pragmatics of both Wolfgang Iser and Roger Sell is an account of the interaction between readers (or critics) through authors and their works --both Iser and Sell tend to take into account only the author-reader interaction.


"Interaction", "Identity" and "Rereading": Resisting Reading


Narrative is, among other things, a drama of identities, in which the author and the reader interact in a complex way, thorugh the symbolized interaction of a variety of textual selves: implied authors and implied readers, narrators and narratees, characters. The reader is invited, sometimes through a complex rhetoric of address to fictional narratees, to assume an identity proposed by the narrative--to behave as the implied reader. The implied reader position, then, is the provisional locus for the reader's installation--as reader, not as a fully authorized interactant. From the moment the reader becomes someone else, a writer, a critic, etc. there is a choice between remaining a friendly ideal reader, or delimiting a stance outside the text's calculation, becoming a resisting reader.[10] Resisting reading involves the delimitation of the subject's ideological positioning vis ö vis the text. Resisting reading finds its most congenial space in critical writing: we should speak of resisting criticism  or resisting writing, actually. Reading proper invites participation, temporary surrender (except in the case of offensive material); only writing after rereading invites the subtler kind of ideological analyses.

We may now reexamine from this perspective the concept of narrative configuration developed by theorists such as Mink and Ricoeur. Both of them emphasized that narrative has a retrospective or even retroactive dimension, bringing out an interpretive pattern from the events of history or personal experience. In Polkinghorne's account,


14. The act of the plot is to elicit a pattern from a succession, and it involves a kind of reasoning that tacks back and forth from the events to the plot until a plot forms that both respects the events and encompasses them in a whole. The 'humblest' narrative is always more than a chronological series of events: it is a gathering together of events into a meaningful story. (Polkinghorne 1988: 131)


The hermeneutic approach to narrative as a distinct mode of knowledge has resulted in a revaluation of the concept of plot. For Paul Ricoeur, "Plot can be isolated from judgments about the reference and content of a story, and be viewed instead as the sense of a narrative" (Polkinghorne 1988: 131). Of course, the plot of a narrative is 'the' sense proposed by the narrative itself. An unfriendly critic's eye may detect the violence done to the events through their configuration into a plot. This is the thrust of those trends in narrative hermeneutics which denounce the "hindsight bias" and the perspectivistic illusions imposed through narrative form, such as the illusion of fatality or the artificial imposition of tragic or comic patterns on experience (Bernstein 1994, Morson 1994).

Narrative has a retrospective configurational force which may become even a kind of retroaction, as past events are 'generated' by present perspectives and given the kind of ideal identity noted by Hume. What we should emphasize here is that the observation or assessment of a narrative amounts to a new type of reconfiguration, especially when the narrative is critically recontextualized.[11] A new plot is generated, one which includes the observer or reader. One of the main tasks of criticism (of friendly hermeneutic criticism, even) is making explicit what was implicit. But this means also transforming, interpreting, shifting emphasis, appropriating, giving a new configuration to events and relationships.

Ready-made ideas, tradition or dogmatism may impose a predetermined closure, a standardized narrative configuration in imaginative or in factual narratives. But, Kerby argues,


15. closure is often belied by the actual subtext of action (the prenarrative level); a subtext exhibiting divergences and contradictions that are not taken up in the explicit narrative enterprise. Self-understanding rides tandem with an encountering of otherness, with an imaginative empathy for the other that in turn discloses or develops possibilities for oneself. (Kerby 1991: 63-64)


The analysis of such textual faultlines, or the return of the repressed marginal elements, has been a major task of deconstructors and other post-structuralist critics. What is interesting in Kerby's formulation is the way he points to the self-fashioning and interactive dimension of such critical stances.

A narrative's complexity of configuration is assessed retroactively, especially through rereading and criticism, which is a form of textual interaction. The retroactive ingredient is essential, both to narrative as a cognitive form and to criticism in its evaluations of the cultural significance of narratives. New forms of complexity, new relationships, are continually being discovered in apparently simple or well-known texts, on which apparently everything had been told, once they are recontextualized within a new critical frame or paradigm.

The critical reconfiguration of a text has consequences for the evaluation of those configurations which had been accepted on the basis of a community defined within the text (Gee 1999). Criticism, more clearly than milder modes of textual interaction, generates a dynamics of confrontation or dissent, as against a mere communicative community. A dissociation produced by rereading and by overhearing a text addressed to an other (ideal) audience--a dissociation which, like all doublings, is productive of meaning. In the experience of critical reading we are run through the hermeneutic circle of distancing our self/ourselves from the self posited in the text. The commonsensical notion that a text should be read first in order to grasp its overall meaning and then reread to achieve a better understanding could perhaps be given an alternative formulation (which again is altogether too neat): that a text should be given first a friendly hearing and then rereading should be the occasion for resisting reading, assuming a critical distance which should define our stance vis ˆ vis our interactants in the specific communicative encounter (by interactants I mean not just the author of the text, but also previous readers of the text and our own addressees). Kerby has proposed a "Systematization of the self in terms of a play of semiotic positions--of speaking, spoken, and implied subjects" (1991: 64). To this conception we should add an interactional and critical dimension, since all of these aspects of the subject are communicative representations, and are therefore subject in any given instance to a dialogic play of reconfiguration and reevaluation.



Truth and interpretation


We could approach the problem of truth in critical interpretations by way of a related problem: truth in self-narration, as it is formulated by Kerby:


16. Guiding our present investigation is this question: to what degree can the truthfulness of a self-narration be considered more a matter of pragmatic and creative adequacy than of a correspondence to the way things actually were or are? (Kerby 1991: 83)


There is a problem of circularity in this formulation, in the sense that the word "actually" used by Kerby is a metaphysical not an interactional symbolic concept.[12] The way things "actually" are-- for whom? That is, once we recognize that the observer is also situated we revert to the definition of truth as a matter of pragmatic adequacy.

The meaning of our acts tries to achieve such adequacy in terms of two kinds of motives: "because-of" motives and "in-order-to" motives (in Schutz's terms).


17. The meaning of our acts, however, as this is worked out in terms of because-of and in-order-to motives, is a product of retrospective and prospective emplotments that draw upon the prenarrative past, refiguring it in light of the present demand for sense and coherence. Here again we find the dialectic of the prenarrative and narrative, a dialectic that is, to borrow a useful phrase from Merleau-Ponty, one of creative adequation. (Kerby 1991: 83-84).


Merleau-Ponty argued against the traditional notion of truth as something previous to experience, and in favour of a notion of truth constituted throught experience and expression--a notion, again, that is of kin to the tenets of symbolic interactionism.


18. Merleau-Ponty proposed that 'truth' is not a natural property of the world in itself but that consciousness discovers truth in contact with the world. Truth is inseparable from the expressive operation that says it; it does not precede reflection but is the result of it. In short, truth is a creation within speech that presents itself as adequate. (Polkinghorne 30)


Just as Roland Barthes spoke of "reality effects" created by a given rhetoric rather than of"realism", we could perhaps speak of 'truth effects' which, again within the outlook of a symbolic interactionist theory of meaning, would be created locally in specific communicative encounters (for instance, here). This notion could also be associated to other well known anti-metaphysical conceptions. Interaction and critical debate in specifically situated contexts seem also central to Richard Rorty's polemical contention that "keeping a conversation" might be a sufficient aim for philosophy (1979: 378). Of course the conversation should acknowledge a number of interactants, in order to be relevant at all.

From the viewpoint of narrative hermeneutics,


19. The truth of our narratives does not reside in their correspondence to the prior meaning of prenarrative experience; rather, the narrative is the meaning of prenarrative experience. The adequacy of the narrative cannot, therefore, be measured against the meaning of prenarrative experience but, properly speaking, only against alternate interpretations of that experience. (Kerby 1991: 84)


It is apparent that the prenarrative experience alluded to will not be lived by others in the same way as it is experienced by the narrator. Differences in interests, in agendas, in ideology will give rise to a debate between narratives or between interpretations of those narratives. The account by Kerby just quoted does not emphasize the role of otherness in narrative debate: of the others, and of other agendas and projects, which will result in the "unfriendly criticism" or "critical criticism" alluded to, beyond the hermeneutic drive to understanding.

Poetic language has a potential for overturning ordinary categories, speaking from a prenarrative and presubjectived locus (as theorized by Kristeva, for instance--see Kerby 85). Psychoanalysis, too, uses narrative dynamics creatively, "overcoming prior and perhaps well-established interpretations of ourselves. This is also a reason why literature, at its best, is both disturbing and liberating" (Kerby 86). If critics are aware of those potentialities, they should also be aware of the creative potential of their own discourse, which is, like creative literature itself, a critical encounter with otherness--a story in the making.[13]

(Reread this paper, or a different paper, now).



This paper was printed in the collective volume Interculturalism: Between Identity and Diversity. Ed. Beatriz Penas Ib‡–ez and M» Carmen L—pez S‡enz. Bern: Peter Lang, 2006, pp. 207-26.

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[1]        Narrative identity: from Ricoeur, Taylor, Polkinghorne, Kerby. Communicative interaction: Goffman, Bruner, Blumer. With a few dashes from literary narratology, especially from Walker Gibson, Wayne Booth, and Wolfgang Iser.

[2]          This posited identity of thought and being could also, of course, be used to lead us, by virtue of what it leaves out, to another relevant subject, namely the conflict of perspectives and interpretations: whose thought? Being--for whom?That is, not all being is thought at once, or in the same sense, or by everyone. Therefore the identity of thought and being dissolves the moment we take the diversity of minds into account and is revealed as metaphysical in the worst sense of the word--as  an evasion of real-life situations and conflicts.

[3]        Nevertheless, Hume stresses, possibly as an objection to Locke, that memory does not entirely produce our identity, as we extend it beyond our memory (1896: 262). He goes on to emphasize the importance of habit and of received notions.

[4]          "Hence the need to repeat the work, as a temporal, sequential experience, if on wishes to repeat the apprehension of its otherness (though exact repetition can never occur)." (Attridge 1999: 27). Rereading enhances literariness, as well.

[5]        This brings to mind Anatole France's boutade, that criticism is only an elaborate form of autobiography: "To be quite frank, the critic ought to say, 'Gentlemen, I am going to talk about myself on the subject of Shakespeare, or Racine, or Pascal, or Goethe, subjects that offer me a beautiful opportunity'"  (France 1971: 671). It must be conceded that the critic may deal with his self by way of talking of interpretation by way of talking on Rousseau or Poe, on "The Purloined Ribbon", or "Excuses (Confessions)"--to take a famous instance. But just pull the ribbon, and you find "it provides us with a textual event of undeniable exegetic interest: the juxtaposition of two confessional texts linked together by an explicit repetition, the confession, as it were, of a confession" (Paul de Man 1979: 279). Paul de Man's strange excuses for Rousseau's lies amount to the occultation of an occultation, in plain view... almost,  the confession of a confession.

[6]        This goes together with an interest in bodily and gestural communication which is present too in G. H. Mead  (Blumer 1986: 9), and of course in Goffman as well.

[7]          See the essays in Harris and Wolf 1998, as well as Toolan's (1996) monograph.

[8]          On frame-breaking and recontextualization Goffman (1986) is and will remain a classic.

[9]          Gee (1999) also emphasizes the constitutive (or "reflexive") property of language: it not only adapts itself to a context, it helps to define and create that context or social situation.

[10]         The term is Judith Fetterley's (1978). Cf. Abbott's "symptomatic readings" (2002: 97ff), and my paper on the transformations of triangular communicative situations when they are interpreted by a third (or rather fourth) party (2004).

[11]         Cf. Kerby on self-narratives: "A split or noncoincidence in the subject is also apparent here due to the interpretive nature of this participation. One may not, for example, accept the expression as an adequate representative of oneself, which may cause the cycle to continue again. This cycle of ever new signification and appropriation is, of course, none other than the dynamic framework within which personal develoment takes place" (1991: 108). Kerby's account of the self's circular and hermeneutic predicament in achieving interpretation through self-expression is also influenced by Taylor (1985).

[12]         Actually, Kerby himself observes that "true" narratives of the past are only canonical versions of stories (Kerby 1991: 38).

[13]         This interactional conception of the play of self and other in criticism is indebted, too, to Derek Attridge's notion of otherness as that which transforms us when we innovate, "Otherness, that is, is produced in an active or eventlike relation--we might call it a relating" (Attridge 1999: 22).