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Spinning Narratives, Spinning Selves

Pauline O’Flynn tells stories of how our language makes our selves, with contributions from Arendt, Ngugi, Dennett and Merleau-Ponty.

The ‘narrative self’ is now widely accepted by philosophers as an appropriate metaphor for the self. Philo sophical interest in narrative as representative of human lives was strongly influenced by Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958). In this book, Arendt, a political philosopher, proposes that the individual discloses his/her self to the world and to themselves through both action and speech:

“Action and speech are so closely related because the primordial and specifically human act must at the same time contain the answer to the question asked of every newcomer: “Who are you?” This disclosure of who someone is, is implicit in both his words and his deeds… This disclosure of ‘who’ in contradistinction to ‘what’ somebody is – his qualities, gifts, talents, and shortcomings, which he may display or hide – is implicit in everything somebody says and does. It can be hidden only in complete silence and perfect passivity.” (pp.178-179)

Arendt claims that the ‘who’ we reveal through speech and action always falls into an existing web of relationships “where their immediate consequences can be felt” (p.184). Here a new narrative eventually emerges as “the unique life story of the newcomer.”(p.184) However, while every individual life ultimately becomes a life-story, the individual is never the author of that story: “Somebody began it and is its subject in the twofold sense of the word, namely its actor and sufferer, but nobody is its author.” (p.184) Yet the ‘who’ that we disclose as we speak and act tells us more about the ‘hero’ at the centre of each story than any artefact tells us about the artisan who produced it. The personal disclosure or story therefore provides a measure of meaning to the individual lives so disclosed. This resonates with Paul Ricoeur’s concept of narrative identity and the role of memory in the formation and validation of identity.

The importance of language in defining or representing ourselves is aptly illustrated with reference to the question of colonialism. The psychological plight of the colonised has been documented with frightening clarity by the Kenyan writer Wa Thiong’O Ngugi. In Decolonising the Mind (1986), Ngugi describes the devastating effects of mental domination on the minds of the oppressed, and the consequent alienation from their own culture experienced by them:

“The most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.” (p.16)

So colonial domination is not only about the loss of political autonomy, but about the dispossession of a culture. And Ngugi gives a harrowing account of the continuing psychological legacy of the subjugation of the language of the colonised to that of the coloniser. He claims in Decolonising the Mind that any language is a carrier of culture as well as a means of communication, and maintains that mental control of the colonised was attained through the domination of their language. Ngugi gives a hauntingly graphic image to support this idea: “It is like separating the mind from the body so that they are occupying two unrelated linguistic spheres in the same person. On a larger scale it is like producing a society of bodiless heads and headless bodies.” (p.28)

The culture inherent in a language is a powerful aspect of the definition of self-hood, so to be dispossessed of a language is to be dispossessed of a crucial part of self-identity. Ngugi’s argument serves as a significant example of the importance of language in our self-identity or self-definition. It may be well compared with Arendt’s view of the significance and fragility of the narrative self, since through narratives the deeds of individuals and communities are preserved in memory. While Arendt demonstrates the political and personal importance of such narration, Ngugi deplores the personal and historical loss of self which arises when a language is displaced.

A Web of Self

Daniel C. Dennett, an evolutionary philosopher, also argues that language is vital to the human sense of self. In Consciousness Explained (1992), he also claims that language is the form of representation used by humans to present themselves to themselves and to others; and like Arendt, but contrary to other theorists, Dennett also suggests that we are the product rather than the source of our narratives. Dennett uses a biological example to illustrate this. He points out that the process of evolution has produced creatures and systems which must be concerned with preserving a “distinction between everything on the inside of a closed boundary and everything in the external world” (p.174), citing the human immune system as an interesting example of this sort of system. He also proposes that the boundaries of this ‘minimal’ or ‘primitive’ self are both permeable and flexible: they may be infiltrated from the outside and may accommodate what comes inside its boundaries. A snail grows a shell which then becomes part of its ‘self’; and a hermit crab may appropriate a discarded shell as a shelter, which is then inside the boundaries of its self-preservation. In demonstrating the adaptation of these creatures to their environment, Dennett is demonstrating the evolving of what we’re calling a primitive self, and the necessity for the enlargement and shrinking of boundaries so that that basic self is preserved. Moreover, the beaver will build a dam, the spider will spin a web, not because they’re working to some conceived purpose, but because that’s the way that they ‘preserve’ themselves. Dennett makes a link between this primitive preservation of self, and the human need to self-protect through narrative:

“Our fundamental tactic of self-protection, self-control, and self-definition is not building dams or spinning webs, but telling stories – and more particularly concocting and controlling the story we tell others, and ourselves, about who we are… we (unlike professional human story tellers) do not consciously and deliberately figure out what narratives to tell and how to tell them; like spiderwebs, our tales are spun but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us. Our human consciousness, and our narrative selfhood, is their product, not their source.” (p.418)

So, just as the spider instinctively ‘knows’ how to spin a web, in humans there is what Dennett calls a ‘center of narrative gravity’ which ‘knows’ without deliberate or conscious planning how to unify all of the narrative that streams forth ‘as if’ from a single source. It is as if all the narrative within us, in fact, all our language use, is somehow ordered and unified to present itself as if it comes from a single source. In other words, we start using language and, through the act of speaking, and especially through the repetition of our story, we spin a self. There is no conscious effort in any of this. We cannot do otherwise: “Our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t spin them; they spin us.” The self we are appears through this narrative, and is the product of our narrative. We cannot become a person without this representation of ourselves to ourselves, and to others.

Dennett suggests this ‘single source’ of narrative unity (i.e., the self) is an abstraction to be understood in the way that physicists posit an abstract ‘centre of gravity’ for physical objects. He proposes that although this centre of narrative gravity for “the narrative-spinning human body” – this psychological or narrative self – is an abstraction rather than a ‘thing in the brain’, it is still a “remarkably robust and almost tangible attractor of properties.” Conversely, if we take Ngugi’s point on the damage caused by the subjugation of ‘my’ language to that of an oppressor alongside Dennett’s notion of a ‘center of narrative gravity’, we can see the aptness of Ngugi’s metaphor of a society of ‘headless bodies and bodiless heads’.

Language Emerging From Silence

Dennett demonstrates how fragile is our sense of who we are, and how we are somehow, in some nebulous way, always ‘spinning’ our way into a self. This resonates with an idea that Maurice Merleau-Ponty has of the muteness of our pre-language state, in the sense of the silence we all encounter on a daily basis. In The Visible and the Invisible (1968) he said:

“Language is a life, is our life and the life of the things. Not that language takes possession of life and reserves it for itself: what would there be to say if there existed nothing but things said? It is the error of the semantic philosophies to close up language as if it spoke only of itself: language lives only from silence; everything we cast to the others has germinated in this great mute land which we never leave… language is not a mask over Being, but – if one knows how to grasp it with all its roots and all its folliation – the most valuable witness to Being.” (pp.125-126, italics mine)

Merleau-Ponty is suggesting here that language is ‘germinated’ in silence. His ‘great mute land that we never leave’ seems to relate to Dennett’s ‘center of gravity’ such that we spin our language use out of a great silence. Through language we get a sense of what we are; but we are always, as it were, living in a silence out of which we reach out to others. Here Merleau-Ponty does not mean ‘silence’ as a contrary to language in the way that we mean silence as the loss of sound or noise. Rather he is talking about silence as the ‘mute’ world of yet to be spoken language. In Phenomenology of Perception (1945) he outlines the Wittgensteinian idea that the spoken word has meaning because of how we attach meaning to it: “As for the meaning of a word, I learn it as I learn to use a tool, by seeing it used in the context of a certain situation” (p.469, PP). As meaning must be created for words, speech thus begins in ‘silence’. To speak our thoughts, we reach, as it were, into the silent world of things which Merleau-Ponty is speaking about: our thoughts are not ‘thought’ first and then cloaked with words. To Merleau-Ponty there is no such thing as a thought that exists without language, because, without speech, how can the thought move out of the void of silence to being a thought?

“Thought is no internal ‘thing’ and does not exist independently of the world and of words. What misleads us in this connection, and causes us to believe in a thought which exists for itself prior to expression, is thought already constituted and expressed, which we can silently recall to ourselves, and through which we can acquire the illusion of an inner life. But in reality this supposed silence is alive with words, this inner life is an inner language.” (p.213, PP)

Merleau-Ponty is saying that our thoughts develop as we articulate them (in Dennett’s words, as ‘the web is spun’): “Thus speech, in the speaker, does not translate ready-made thought, but accomplishes it.” (p.207, PP) To Merleau-Ponty language is our meeting place with the world and with others, but it is also the place where we meet ourselves. The mystery of that space, of that epicentre, is the mute appeal from which the search for understanding is launched.

Understanding Thinking

To understand language is not simply to understand the literal words and grammatical structure as it is spoken. Rather, as Merleau-Ponty demonstrates, it is about understanding the language behind the words, the creative process that goes on so that we ‘get it’ as the words are spoken or read. Just as, although a piece of music is made up of notes placed in a particular order, i t is not that these particular ordered notes themselves speak to us – rather, it is the creative response that is generated by the music played which causes the appeal, and by which music is understood by us to have meaning. So it is with language:

“In a sense, to understand a phrase is nothing else than to fully welcome it in its sonorous being, or, as we put it so well, to hear what it says. The meaning is not on the phrase like the butter on the bread, like a second layer of ‘psychic reality’ spread over the sound: it is the totality of what is said, the integral of all the differentiations of the verbal chain; it is given with the words for those who have ears to hear.” (The Visible and the Invisible, p.155)

In Merleau-Ponty’s concept of primary perception, our experiences of our relationship to the world and to others are given to us in such a way that we accept them as commonplace, as our way of being in the world. The role of sensation in revealing and interpreting our world for us is often overlooked simply because it seems such an ordinary fact. We see, hear, touch and feel our world, but we are, so to speak, immersed in the experience, so that we are unaware of the multiple links that present these experiences to us already with reference to human or physical (object) meanings. But Merleau-Ponty claims that it is only by trying to understand how these perceptions shape and reveal our world that we can we truly perceive it – almost by glancing sideways at ourselves and how we are in the world; almost by stealth we perceive our world. To understand how we relate to the world and to others, to become aware of how we as embodied beings can understand the phenomenon of a ‘self’ within this world of objects, Merleau-Ponty claims that we therefore need to step back from the world of our perception:

“Reflection does not withdraw from the world towards the unity of consciousness as the world’s basis [which was Kant’s theory of self-consciousness];… it slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice; it alone is consciousness of the world because it reveals that world as strange and paradoxical.” (PP, 2002, p.xv)

Merleau-Ponty is here claiming that it is the ‘intentionality’ [the directedness towards something] of perception which creates a meaning for our experience. We appear to have an instinctive knowledge of how to make sense of our world – it appears to be something that the body ‘knows’ how to do: “In a sense, if we were to make completely explicit the architectonics of the human body, its ontological framework, and how it sees itself and hears itself, we would see that the structure of its mute world is such that all the possibilities of language are already given in it.” (p.155, The Visible and the Invisible)

This echoes Dennett’s account of a ‘center of narrative gravity’: Merleau-Ponty’s mute world of the body has within it all the possibilities of language, just as Dennett’s center of narrative gravity is that which attracts words, speech, gesture. What Merleau-Ponty offers that is helpful to us in understanding how language provides our way of being in the world, is perhaps best illustrated by the following quote: “Like the natural man, we situate ourselves in ourselves and in the things, in ourselves and in the other, at the point where, by a sort of chiasm, we become the others and we become world” (p.168, The Visible and the Invisible). Merleau-Ponty uses this word chiasm [connected gap] to illustrate the sort of interconnection that exists between self and world, between self and others, so that we are not so much connected, but rather there is a point where we intersect and become one with others and the world.

Through language and the action that accompanies it, a life-story is created, a narrative is spun. Language, speech and gesture define us and create us, so that we are continuously spinning a narrative self that is both the preservation of our individuality and our connection with the world. Dispossession of language, of that which defines us, is, in a very real way, to be dispossessed of a unified self.

© Pauline O’Flynn 2011

Pauline O’Flynn combines philosophical research with her job as a primary school teacher: a combination of pursuits which has proven to be advantageous to both. She has an MA in Philosophy and Literature from Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick.

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