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Monday, June 05, 2017

political stories

narrative induction
Charlotte Linde is a rather brilliant ethnographer broadly within the symbolic interaction school – although not participating in that schools downhill slide into the irrelevance of infinitely coding conversations to make the smallest of small bore points. Rather, she has taken Labov’s idea that a story is a distinguishable discursive unit and researched Life Stories – she wrote the standard book on the subject.

In 2000, she wrote a fine study of an insurance firm with the truly great title, “The acquisition of a speaker by a story: how history becomes memory and identity.” https://www.scribd.com/document/209339886/Linde-How-History-Become-Memory-and-Identity
 Identity, with its columnally Latinate Id seemingly standing for noun in general, has during the course of my lifetime been dipped in the acid of the verbal form, and now little leagurers talk of identifying with their team – their grandparents would, of course, used identify to talk not of a subjective process of belonging, but an objective process of witnessing, as in, can you identify the man who you saw shoot mr x in this courtroom? Conservative hearts break as the columnar Id falls to the ground, but that’s life, kiddo.

Linde’s article circles around a marvelous phrase: narrative induction. “I define narrative induction as the process by which people come to take on an existing set of stories as their own story…” My editor’s eye was pleased and did a little dance all over my face to see that this was the second sentence in the article – getting people to forthrightly state their topic is, surprisingly, one of the hardest things about editing academic papers.  

Narrative induction properly locates story as part of a process of initiation. Linde, in this paper, is obviously moving from her concern with stories people tell about themselves – the point of which is to say something significant about the self, and not the world – to stories people tell about the world. Those stories often are about experiences not one’s own. They are non-participant narratives.

Linde divides the NPN process– as she calls it – into three bits: how a person comes to take on someone else’s story; how a person comes to tell their own story in a way shaped by the stories of others; and how that story is heard by others as an instance of a normative pattern.

There is an area, as Linde points out, where work on this has been done: in religious studies. Specifically, the study of metanoia, conversion stories. But there’s metanoia and then there’s metanoia. There’s St. Paul on the way to Damascas, and there’s Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, on the way to the relative wealth of a Toyota Car Dealership, owned by his father-in-law. Linde, not having access to St. Paul, opted to study the trainees of a major American insurance company in the Midwest. Like Labov, Linde is interested in class issues. In particular, stories of occupational choice. In her Life Stories book, she presented some evidence that professionals present their occupational choice stories in terms of some vocation or calling, while working class speakers present it, more often, in terms of accident or need for money. Philosophy professors rarely will say, for instance, well, I needed a steady paycheck, looked at the job security of tenure, loved the idea of travel and vacation time, so I went into philosophy. They will give a story rooted in their view of themselves as emotional/cognitive critters. Labov’s work was done in the seventies, and my guess is that there has been some shift. The NYT recently published an article about “quants” in finance, many of whom came from physics, and their stories were all without a moral/personal dimension – they were all about money, not interest in finance. Interestingly, as a sort of saving face gesture, they all talked about how there are “deep problems” in finance.
Narrative induction is obviously about politics. It is one of the great instruments by which power is made into action and organisation.  To my mind, the discourse about democracy, which has become the central discourse in political philosophy, has become sterile; using the insights of narratology might liven it up a bit. There has to be more than democracy in democracy, or democracy just becomes another gimcrack put up job. There has to be stories within a democracy that sustain it. If the stories are simply about who is being elected, I think it is a symptom of democracy’s decay – its surrender to the old monarchial narrative.  
We need, in other words, to start looking at political stories. How they work, and how they do self-work This is an area that has not  been very well explored by political philosophers who want to infinitely suss out what Locke meant, or stuff like that. We need something  more novelistic. We need more ‘what is it like to be’ questions that will allow us to understand the political stories people tell.  And not stories that give political agents the character depth of lab rats pressing buttons for pellets.

Cause those stories, though cynically satisfying, are ultimately untrue. They are even untrue about rats. 

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