Wednesday, 27 April 2011

On reading Arthur Frank's Letting Stories Breathe: a socio-narratology

I have been looking today at Arthur Frank’s recent book Letting Stories Breathe: a socio-narratology in the hope that I could helpfully summarise it. Sadly, that does not seem to be possible for me for a reason which is familiar when looking outside philosophy into social science but frustrating nonetheless. It is a useful and very readable book which gives a sense both of the sort of inquiry of a narrative researcher who focuses on narrative to look more broadly at the social world and of some practical recommendations for what the researcher / reader should look for in stories. Nevertheless, it is hard to isolate particular theses advanced and so to summarise or assess an argument or a concrete view of the nature of narrative or stories, which is what I was looking to it for.

I have a hunch as to why that is. (Perhaps it is foolish to use the word ‘hunch’. Perhaps this is just the obvious intended approach. Still, for me, it remains mere hunch.)

One theme of the book is exemplified in the title: letting stories breathe. Frank does not seem to want to provide a theory of stories so much as let them be. So when, late in the book, he discusses the idea of a typology of narrative forms, he addresses a worry that this is a vulgar thing to do in these terms:

Typologies risk putting stories in boxes, thus allowing and even encouraging the monological stance that the boxes are more real than the stories. In a world where simplification is a pretext for knowing, and knowing is a pretext for controlling, typologies are risky...
Elaboration of types of narratives allows recognizing the uniqueness of each individual story, while at the same time understanding how individuals do not make up stories by themselves. Each story is singular; none is a mere instance. Yet, stories depend on other stories: on recognisable plots, character types, conventional tropes, genre-specific cues that build suspense, and all the other narrative resources that storytellers utilize. A typology of narratives recognizes that experience follows from the availability of narrative resources, and people’s immense creativity is in using these resources to fabricate their stories. The types in a typology are of narratives, not people. No individual storyteller is reduced to any narrative type. [Frank 2010: 118-9]

‘Monological speech’ closes itself off from a response by another and asserts rather than engages, we learn. It is likened to a judge sentencing. So if that is a risk from setting out a typology and if typology is surely a fairly preliminary aspect of theory construction, it is no wonder that Frank cannot easily give us a theory of narratives or narrative understanding. He has, instead, to attempt to engage with us without theory.

And at its best, that is what the book does. It starts with a series of stories that can then be used – a little clunkily, I thought, but that’s perhaps just a philosopher’s drier taste – to illustrate some key claims (risking the monological!) but later describes uses of narrative in accident investigation, civic action and dementia care. These piecemeal discussions offer a kind of half way house between literary criticism and sociology and I found them very helpful. Sadly, that is quite a small proportion of the book.

There is also a helpful first chapter on the capacities of stories, of what they can do, from which it is possible to draw some sort of answer to the question of what Frank’s subject matter is because he says ‘Stories, to be stories, must have a sufficient number of these capacities’ [ibid: 28]. But this claim is in tension with the comment elsewhere ‘I make no attempt to define stories. The emphasis is on watching them act, not seeking their essence’ [ibid: 21]. Of course, a kind of family resemblance or cluster analysis does not seek an essence, but it might still be thought to be a definition of sorts.

In fact Frank does offer another ‘understanding’ (not a definition, he says, although he doesn’t explain the difference he has in mind between understanding and definition) of narrative: ‘one thing happens in consequence of another’ [ibid: 25]. If so, however, any causal connection in physics, say, will be a narrative but they will generally fail of the capacities he also outlines. So: a tension between articulating a thesis and letting stuff just happen.

The capacities form an interesting list. They begin:
Stories have the capacity to deal with human troubles, but also the capacity to make TROUBLE for humans.... Stories have the capacity to display and test people’s character... Stories have the capacity to make one particular perspective not only plausible but compelling... Stories make life dramatic and remind people that endings are never assured... Stories have the capacity to narrate events in ways that leave open the interpretation of what exactly happened... Stories are like the magic spell that Mickey Mouse creates in the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’... Stories inform people’s sense of what counts as good and bad... Stories echo each other... 
(There are four more listed.)

This suggests a question. If the subject matter of the book is picked out by what fits sufficient of these, do we have a sense of what that might mean? For one thing, the list starts with talk of ‘capacity’ (although, as above, that word then drops out). If a particular potential story does not display the capacity to make trouble, does it still have it? (Capacities need not be displayed all the time.) Again, it is not clear whether a claim is being advanced about the nature of stories or not. And so it is hard to know whether it is worth even seriously thinking whether what it says is true or not. That is, there is some doubt as to whether that is the game it is in.

Elsewhere substantive theoretical claims are advanced through the introduction of a terminology. For example ‘stories interpellate characters. In every story I can think of, at least one character is interpellated, or hailed, or cast, or called to a certain identity... Coyote is called on by the story to know himself as one who will inevitably do what he has done in the story. But while Coyote is hailed most directly, those who listen to the story are also being interpellated...’ [ibid: 50]. And a page later: ‘This casting is my socio-narratological version of the term SUBJECT POSITION: the character’s more or less reflective awareness of who the type of narrative requires him or her to be, of what being that character requires him or her to do. The subject, both in the story and hearing the story, feels a tension between hitching a ride on the immanent volition of the story and being carried where such a story usually goes’ [ibid: 51].

I must say that I found this kind of theory-introduction a little irritating. I want to hear some sort of justification – a justification I’m quite sure Frank could provide – or explanation for treating the subjects within stories and the hearers of the stories in the same way. That seems an interesting substantive claim. But because the theory is so insidiously injected, there’s no chance, as it were, to object.

A similar case is the claim that ‘narrative habitus’ – a kind of second nature – described as ‘the embedding of stories in bodies’ [52] (although I think the emphasis on body as opposed to person is not helpful) frames the way in which people react to and understand stories. It involves a repertoire, a competence, a taste and plot expectations. This is then compared to a psychoanalytic notion borrowed from Bayard of an inner library. But it is not clear how much Frank believes this idea (‘This whole line of argument is psychoanalytic in the best and worst senses’ [ibid: 58]) nor whether his own claim is meant to be analytic or empirical. Do we, of necessity, hear new stories only via the conceptual structuring of narrative second nature? It must, I guess, be empirical because we are then told that some ‘vital, breathing stories can break through the filters and grids’ [ibid: 59]. So it is not a necessary claim. Is it therefore a psychological truth? Again, it is hard to work out what kind of a framework this is supposed to be.

Some parts of the book seem starkly monolingual, however: ‘Interpretation begins with letting each point of view have its moment of being the perspective that directs the consciousness of storyteller and listener’ [106-7]. Does it? Persuade me! And even how we are supposed to ‘read’ this book: ‘These chapters are pervaded by a sense of the limitations of standardizing methods in social science’. A sense for whom? I am not sure they were for me. And thus given that the book sometimes risk direct assertion, I would have preferred a bolder but slower and more explicitly theoretical account in general of the nature of stories and our narrative understanding.

But perhaps I wouldn’t. There is, in fact, a body of bold claims about how stories are themselves actors who ‘conduct people, as a conductor conducts an orchestra’. They ‘make life social’. Stories and humans ‘work together’. They go even further (in a rare ugly sentence) in underpinning a form of idealism: ‘The story performs the truth of making a situation real because it is now narratable’ [ibid: 92] I am not sure what performing the truth is but this sentence seems to say that because reality is narratable, stories make situations real. This is all radical stuff and fine as a kind of metaphor. But it would be odd if on ‘–ology’ of stories, their logos or truth, were couched merely as metaphor. Frank can’t be serious about this, can he?

PS: Some time later I had the following thought. There is a suggestion in the book that narratives can accrue two kinds of truth. There is the familiar idea that stories can tell it as it is. They can be literally true. But there is another kind of truth: a truth in the story which inheres in it merely in virtue of the story being told. (That is not quite right but I hope Frank would forgive this crude summary.) Now if that is right (that is, if that is what the book says, whether the second claim is actually true in the first sense or not; by its own lights it might be true in the second sense merely by being said!) why assume that a lover of stories would aim, in his account of stories, at the first pedestrian sort of truth? Surely, the kind of truth proper to a story is the one unique to it: the truth in stories. And if that’s the case, then surely the point of the book is not an ‘-ology’ of stories as I suggested but a story about stories. And thus that is how one should judge the idea that stories sing reality into being. It is a much nicer idea.

Frank, A.W. (2010) Letting Stories Breathe: a socio-narratology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press