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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

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 an article that I just read, and that I’m going to use in my book project. But I’ll use it over at News from the Zona as well, so I think I'll cross post it. By the way, I'd love to be able to signal, on this site, that I have a post up at NFZ - could one of my kind readers refer me to some widget for that?

The article is a study of an insurance firm with the truly great title, “The acquisition of a speaker by a story: how history becomes 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 introduces 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…” (2000:608)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. Most graduate students have concluded, from experience, that the best way to make a point is to hide it somewhere, perhaps on page 5, and hope that their advisor doesn’t see it for fear of being attacked. The rough and tumble of intellectual debate is the Ur-traumatic experience of the classroom – funny that this hasn’t been investigated, rather than mindlessly celebrated. But alors, avancez, boys and girls!

Narrative induction properly locates story as part of a process of initiation (which, being a “native” thing, or occult, failed to qualify for the verbal place held by identify with). 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.

ps - I cut this off a bit too abruptly. The notion that it is all chance for the blue collar worker, all vocation for the white collar, actually tallies well with the political economists notion that abstract labor is a thing like clay, to mold as you want to: we will train workers over here in the steel producing sector, and take off some here who are growing tomatoes. They won't mind - human products are infinitely re-trainable, and have no feelings about what they do.

That this story has become, in a positive version, the story parents and teachers tell their children - you can make a lot of money doing "x" - led to the cultural conditions against which The Human Limit turns its stony face.

On the other end - the financial strata is read out of the upper class in a wonderful op ed piece by Judith Warner in the NYT this morning. Warner is what I want my bourgeoisie to be like: neurotic, protective, literate, and forever in thrall to a college experience in the Ivies, as my friend M. calls them. She is the kind of liberal who cried at Obama's inauguration speech - and I am another.

Anyway, I find it interesting that the NYT is belatedly sounding like LI from, say, 2005:

"When was it, exactly, that the titans of Wall Street, among their many other perks and privileges, got to be crowned with the title of “best and brightest”?

Certainly not in the early 19th century, when Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his love poem “The Invitation,” called, “Best and brightest, come away!” Nor in the early 20th century, when “The Education of Henry Adams” featured a sad, exalted tribute to the geologist Clarence King as the “best and brightest man of his generation.”

The ability to make big bucks wasn’t the chief characteristic of the “best and brightest,” “each new man more brilliant than the last,” whom David Halberstam described in the 1972 book that brought the phrase into our common parlance. His “best and brightest” were ultimately no better than ours; their “arrogance and hubris” led us into the debacle of Vietnam. But they did at least embody a different order of aspiration. They “wrote books and won prizes (even the president had won a Pulitzer prize), climbed mountains to clear their minds. Many of them read poetry and some were said to be able to quote it.”

And this image of best and brightness — however ironic, however laced with foreshadowing of deserved downfall — was, says Susan Jacoby, the author, most recently, of “The Age of American Unreason,” a best-selling account of contemporary anti-intellectualism, the sense that endured behind the phrase for decades. Until this last boom cycle — that irrational bubble-world of the late 1990s and beyond — stamped its values upon every aspect of our world, right down to the language we use to talk about it."

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just a brief note of the credit where credit is due sort. I hope Linde indicated that her title parodies Gillian Sankoff article on Tok Pisin, first published in 1973, "On the Acquisition of Native Speakers by a Language." Linde has simply narrowed the scope.

Chuckie K

roger said...

Where is the Tok Pisin article published? Do you know? I'd like to check it out, Mr. K. One of the enduring puzzles of world history, to my mind, is the spread of Spanish over the New World imperium, and the comparative paucity of native spanish speakers. Maybe this Pisin article would help me understand that.