Toward a Phenomenological Understanding of Narrative Self-constitution and Narrative-based Therapy

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Toward a Phenomenological Understanding of Narrative

Self-constitution and Narrative-based Therapy

(7/7/11 Draft)

Travis Anderson, Brigham Young University (
I. Introduction

This paper is thoroughly propaedeutic in nature. It is meant to briefly and tentatively review, relate and explore some of the more compelling implications of philosophical and psychological texts which have suggested or entailed a claim that the ‘self’ (not the mind, soul, or metaphysical subject, but the ‘I’ to which each of us refers in thinking or saying ‘myself’) is best understood as an embodied, self-conscious, and prolonged activity of dramatic self-narration. The first major premise of this study is that Descartes, Hume, and especially Nietzsche and Heidegger, were right in implying, and at various times explicitly claiming, that the self is a function of creative existential processes having a narrative (though not always verbal) structure. The second is that while Freud committed himself to various questionable topological models of the psyche, both his clinical observations and the successes of his various investigative methods similarly attest to (and are best explained by) a narrative conception of the self. This paper will further consider whether non-narrative influences and determinants of the self (both genetically-controlled components like gender, race, and bodily features, as well as existentially-fixed components like native language, native country and culture, and historical situation—elements which situate and initiate the trajectory of self-narration even though they aren’t controlled by or reducible to it) are architectonically structured and assigned meaning by the narrative activity that weaves them together into a cohesive whole—thus functioning as threads of an animated tapestry the evolving pictorial configuration of which is what ultimately determines their significance and role. Lastly, this paper will argue that the time at play in the narrative structure of the self must be an interpersonal time like that articulated by the French phenomenlogist Emmanuel Levinas, a time which grounds the possibility of a personal history capable of therapeutic revision. Given these premises, this paper will suggest that many forms of psychotherapy—bad or good—could be profitably understood as interpersonal interventions which effectively contribute to or manipulate any and all of the pre-narrative, narrative and meta-narrative elements of the self that are continually legislating and structuring the lived activities of self-constitution, self-identity and self-affirmation. It may also follow that while scientific methods and reasoning can and should be used to the collect data and address physiological factors contributing to psychological issues, many forms of psychotherapy are fundamentally variations of textual hermeneutics, Hence, those forms of psychotherapy would be social sciences only to the degree that their hermeneutic interventions are guided and informed by theoretically sound methods and accurate data.

II. The Birth and Annihilation of the Modernist Self

On November 10, 1619, Rene Descartes initiated his famous metaphysical ruminations that were to result in the affirmation of an indubitable cogito, which Descartes was later to describe in his Discourse on the Method as a substance “entirely distinct from the body,” “whose whole essence or nature is simply to think, and which does not require any place, or depend on any thing, in order to exist” (1985, p. 127). In the Meditations, Descartes amplified this explanation of his ‘thinking substance’: “What then am I?” he asked himself. His answer: “A thing that thinks. What is that? A thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, is willing, is unwilling, and also imagines and has sensory perceptions” (1984, p. 19). In all of these descriptions—which identify not only activities constitutive of the cogito, but indicate a curious separation of the cogito from its empirically-affirmed environment—Descartes betrays his conceptual debt to Montaigne, who in searching for a universal human nature similarly discovered only his own thoughts, feelings, and emotions, separated from the world and from the ideas and affectations of other selves (Gaukroger, 1995, pp. 318-19).

And yet, in a skeptical reversal the significance of which cannot be overstated (but is often overlooked), Descartes pushed his analysis in the Meditations beyond the indubitability of a cogito and the identification of its constitutive activities, to a genuine aporia. Firstly, after remarking that his list of attributions to the ‘I’ is a considerable one, he asked himself if every activity on the list indeed belongs to him:

Is it not one and the same ‘I’ who is now doubting almost everything, who nonetheless understands some things, who affirms that this one thing is true, denies everything else, desires to know more, is unwilling to be deceived, imagines many things even involuntarily, and is aware of many things which apparently come from the senses? Are not all these things just as true as the fact that I exist, even if I am asleep all the time, and even if he who created me is doing all he can to deceive me? Which of all these activities is distinct from my thinking? Which of them can be said to be separate from myself? (1985, p. 19)

Descartes responded to these questions by affirming (twice) that the ‘I’ who is doubting, understanding, willing and imagining is indeed “the same ‘I’” whose existence is beyond doubt, even if the objects of that understanding, imagining or perceiving are in many ways doubtful. Said otherwise, while Descartes concluded that the objective correlates of ideas and affectations can be legitimately doubted, those mental activities themselves cannot. Hence, the existence of the ‘I’ is indubitable precisely because it is nothing other than the sum of those activities which both constitute and affirm it even in the very act of doubting it. Secondly, in a this singular observation which merits particular attention, Descartes confesses that he is haunted by this troubling discovery:

It still appears—and I cannot stop thinking this—that the corporeal things of which images are formed in my thought, and which the senses investigate, are known with much more distinctness than this puzzling ‘I’ which cannot be pictured in the imagination. And yet it is surely surprising that I should have a more distinct grasp of things which I realize are doubtful, unknown and foreign to me, than I have of that which is true and known—my own self. (1985, p. 20)

Descartes’ observation highlights the curious fact that the indubitable ‘I’ cannot perceive or picture itself despite its own self-certainty. While empirical objects can be made present to thought, and conceived distinctly (thoroughly submitted to analysis), however doubtful they may be, the nature or strange ‘substantiality’ of the ‘I’ itself cannot be thought at all apart from its own activity. Descartes tried to resolve this puzzle by distinguishing perception and imagination from intellect and judgment, and by attributing knowledge only to thoughts originating in the latter two sources. And even though such a distinction provides a workable account (however problematic) of why the truthfulness of imaginations and perceptions is less certain that that of judgments, it does not explain why the ‘I,’ apparently unlike all other substances, can ‘truly’ manifest its existence and activity without simultaneously revealing itself. Descartes never returns to solve this aporia. And with good reason, as we will discover: the only plausible answer to his perplexing question of how the ‘I’ can indeed exist without providing any way to perceive or picture that existence would undermine Descartes’ entire metaphysical system, which rests securely on the presumption of two fundamental substances, of which body is one—and mind the other.

Descartes’ aporia was deepened and almost solved by David Hume’s famous examination of the self in A Treatise of Human Nature—published in 1739, one hundred and twenty years after Descartes carried out his metaphysical ruminations. Hume noted that the various conceptions of the soul or mind authored by Western philosophy are predominantly those of an immaterial subjectum that is both simple (irreducible to parts) and permanent (invariably the same). He further observed that this subjectivity is presumed to be the enduring locus of all our constantly fluctuating mental states, willful activities and individual psychological characteristics. Accordingly, committed as he was to a belief that all objectively valid simple or complex ideas must be traceable to simple sense impressions, Hume attempted to trace our idea of the self to a simple and invariable sense impression—but without success. He therefore reasoned: “Self or person is not any one impression, but that to which our several impressions and ideas are supposed to have a reference. If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, thro’ the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable” (Treatise, p. 251, emphasis mine). Having thus failed to discover any enduring impression to which an idea of the self as such could be linked and thereby legitimated (and having refused from the outset to endorse without evidence Descartes’ dogmatic belief in a soul with which the self could be metaphysically identified and thereby substantiated), and yet, having affirmed Descartes’ assertion that the self is inseparable from the mental activities associated with it, Hume is forced to the inescapable conclusion (virtually identical to that which Husserl and other phenomenologists draw almost two hundred years later) that the self can only be identical to consciousness itself, since it ceases to exist when conscious activities are suspended or curtailed:

When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by a sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated. (Treatise, p. 252)

Consequently, explained Hume, the self must be nothing other than a bundle of fluctuating perceptions, while the mind is “a kind of theatre” on which those perceptions play out:

I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind, that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux or movement . . . The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance, pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at any one time, nor identity in different; whatever natural propensity we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity. The comparison of the theater must not mislead us. They are the successive perceptions only, that constitute the mind; nor have we the most distant notion of the place, where these scenes are represented, or of the materials, of which it is composed. (Treatise, pp. 252-53)

In sum, Hume concluded that the self—so long as it exists—can be nothing other than a rapid and ceaseless succession of conscious perceptions, played out as it were upon a stage. And since there is no subjective identity per se to be found in any of those staged impressions, the self per se is not a substance, nor even a genuine idea; it is a fanciful fabrication of which we speak through sheer force of habit.

Ironically, given Hume’s own cautionary advice not to let the metaphor of a theater mislead us, it is Hume himself who is ultimately misled—not by the metaphor, it is true, but by his own overly cautious reading of it. Like Descartes before him, he does not attend carefully enough to the implications of his own proto-phenomenological descriptions, and he dismisses them without recognizing their obvious importance to his analytic account. What Hume’s analysis nevertheless reveals, and what his metaphor underscores, is that the ‘I’ or self is not reducible to perceptions bundled ‘without unity,’ as he erroneously supposes. Furthermore, the self does indeed emerge on the stage where those perceptions are collected, rehearsed, and granted or denied an audience. While it is true that the self is not identifiable with any one (or the sum total) of the almost infinite mental activities or perceptions themselves, a unified self nevertheless takes shape on the stage of mental activity precisely through the unifying activity of collecting, rehearsing and experiencing them. In other words, it is the play, not the players, that constitutes the characteristic simplicity and misunderstood invariability of the self; the phantom ‘I’ or self that constantly slips through the glove of philosophers sensitive only to substance is precisely the activity of conscious life, an activity, moreover, that by virtue of its directionality, duration and logographic cohesion is best conceived (I will argue) as having a narrative structure. To employ a more contemporary and apt metaphor, Hume’s constantly fluctuating and staged bundle of perceptions is a ‘moving picture’ or ‘movie’ in which perceptions are sequentially presented, plotted out, and edited together into a dramatic narrative whole.

Hume (like Kant after him) was absolutely right to conclude, against Descartes, that we have no defensible justification for believing the self is reducible to a substance or thing, even a thinking substance. But Hume was wrong to suppose in consequence of that insight that the self’s irreducibility to matter, soul, or some other substantial form or entity precludes it being a non-substantial and temporally extended, but self-consciously connected series of lived activities, affective states and conscious experiences (as Descartes glimpsed, though through a glass darkly, and as I think Kant began to understand, as evidenced by his insistence on the unity of apperception). Yet even Kant was wrong to ground that unity, in accordance with the transcendental structures of reason, in a transcendental subject per se—however much he qualified that claim by insisting that one should never try to intuit or represent the transcendental subject, or even reference it except by way of an empty concept.

Nevertheless, it was Kant who illuminated the key to solving the ontological puzzle of the self by highlighting and further developing Hume’s insight that any and all experiences—be they perceptions, imaginations, affectations, or ideas—must be claimed as mine in order to count as experience at all. Martin Heidegger then supplemented Kant’s discovery with Edmund Husserl’s revived scholastic doctrine of intentionality to demonstrate that subjectivity thought as an underlying metaphysical substance is not only an insurmountably problematic construct, but an unnecessary and illegitimate one. Despite its own shortcomings, Heidegger’s existential analytic of Dasein (a conception of human being that refuses from the outset to relinquish its verbal emphasis on the activity of being human) was thus able to affirm, without positing any noumenal or transcendental subjectivity, the wholeness of what Kant tried to think thorough the unity of apperception. Heidegger was also able deepen that unity by phenomenologically and hermeneutically revealing it to be an existential and narrative whole.

According to Heidegger, Dasein can be disclosed as a unitary, logographic and self-understood phenomenon by beginning with an interrogation of its everyday being in the world, and then progressively articulating the existential and hermeneutical determinants and meanings of that being in their structural totality. Heidegger’s Daseinanalytik thus moves through four phenomenological stages (depending on how they are read). First, Dasein is revealed to be an apriori “being-in-the-world and with-others,” whose existential, factical, and fallen articulations are superficially unified through the propriety or “mine-ness” (eigentlichkeit) of its variable but continual projects, affects and experiences. Second, Dasein as my “being-in-the-world and with-others” is more fundamentally understood to be “care,” an ongoing concernful disclosure of the being of things, others, and of Dasein itself which is gathered into a extended personal narrative by Dasein’s discourse, self-understanding, and basic disposition of anxiety about its own being. Third, Dasein as “care” is demonstrated to be an “ek-static” (temporally extended and self-consciously engaged), “anticipatory being-toward-death” that is called by its anxiety, care for things, and solicitude for others to the existential wholeness of a resolute (guilty and responsible), authentic life. And fourth, “anticipatory resoluteness” is fundamentally revealed to be a finite and historical self-projection that both constitutes and belongs to a transcendent world in disclosing and making that world its own on the basis of its unifying ecstatic temporality, thereby opening a time and place for the meaning of being to be continually, but personally enacted—on the stage, as it were, of embodied Da-sein or ‘situated be-ing.’

The fact that conscious experience is in each and every case mine, and that it is not only articulated through its authentic and inauthentic projects and social engagements, but unified in a conscientious and discursive self-understanding that is itself grounded in an ecstatic disclosure of being played out as the lived experience of Dasein, all indicate that the self as such (what Heidegger might call the fundamental “who” of Dasein’s being in the world) has the structure of a dramatic narrative, as we will understand it. To see that narrative structure thematized in thinking that is explicitly attuned to the psychological (rather than existential) question of the self, we turn now to Freud and Nietzsche.
III. Early Freudian Contributions to Understanding the Narrative Self

Some of the more seminal of Freud’s insights into the narrative nature of the self are perhaps best approached through a brief review of his early discoveries concerning dream analysis. While lacking the voluminous case studies and resultant explanation of mind that are recorded in his monumental 1899 tome The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud’s later précis, On Dreams, may be the better text with which to begin, since it presents a concise explanation of latent and manifest dream content, of the wish-fulfillment function performed by dreams, and of the various dream work mechanisms that are relevant to Freud’s revolutionary dream analysis methods. And it is with these methods that we find yet another key with which to unlock the secrets of the self.

According to Freud, adult dreams express repressed wishes, either openly or disguisedly. The ‘work’ of dreaming entails the production of a condensed, displaced, and regressive code that requires psychoanalytic interpretation to decompress, defragment, and verbalize. Freud explains that dream condensation dramatizes and over-determines meaning, dream displacement breaks it up, and dream regression undoes the “logical links” or narrative connections which “hitherto held the psychical material together” (1952, p. 41). In short, what Freud calls “dream work” is a psychic process in which latent dream meaning (which itself derives largely from past conscious experience) is replaced by manifest content having formal characteristics in the dream’s “own texture” (Ibid.). For example, the work of dreaming may replace the logical connections common to waking consciousness with an oneiric pictorial approximation of those connections, represented temporally and spatially. Alternately, the dream work may replace a lived conflict of will with an image or feeling of inhibited movement. The work of analysis, on the other hand (what Freud sometimes calls “intellectual speech”), undoes the dream work by restoring to the manifest dream content the latent narrative forms characteristic of waking life.

This restoration is not to be understood by Freud as a mere recuperation of meanings that are themselves established and subsequently concealed by dreaming, however; the dream ‘text’ of interest to Freud is not written by an unconscious author, but by the conscious analysand in the process of recounting the dream. Responding to frequent contentions that dream interpretation can never be rigorously scientific—since we seem to have no actual knowledge of the dream itself, but only fragmentary and distorted recollections of it—Freud freely concedes in The Interpretation of Dreams that the recollected content of a typical dream is both mutilated and falsified by memory. And Freud seems to agree with at least one author (Spitta) who points out that not only does the reconstituting work of memory render our dreams hazy and disconnected, it also embellishes them with added details. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Freud seems to agree as well with the claim that the work of memory adds to the recollected dream content an “order and coherence” lacking in the dream itself (1965, p. 551). While all such observations would seem to argue against both the possibility of ever retrieving for analysis the original content of a dream, as well as the possibility of attaching any reliable meaning to a dream’s recollected details, Freud paradoxically insists that “precisely the most trivial elements of a dream are indispensible to its interpretation” (1965, p. 552). In fact, he claims that we must “attend to every shade of the form of words in which they were laid before us” (Ibid.). The reason for this, he explains, is that dream analysis produces a “text” of sorts—indeed, a “holy writ” (Ibid.). This text is not the product of an “arbitrary improvisation,” as some of his contemporaries assumed or contended. Neither is it always an accurate record of the dream itself. The crucial point in understanding Freudian dream analysis lies in the recognition that what really matters is our reconstitutive recollection and narrative recounting of the dream, not the dream itself—that, and the fact that there are right and wrong ways to carry out any narrated recollection.

Recovery efforts that aim solely at reconstituting the original dream are destined to prove largely unproductive, and perhaps even counter-productive, says Freud, since they will not only distort the dream thereby, but misunderstand the resultant distortions. The frequent mutilation of a dream that results from the dreamer’s own crude attempts to remember or recount it is to be properly understood, not as the lamentable consequence of an inability to remember dreams completely, but as “the secondary (and often ill conceived) revision of the dream by the agency which carries out normal thinking, . . . a part of the revision to which the dream-thoughts are regularly subjected as a result of the dream censorship” (1965, p. 552). Dream revision, in contrast to dream analysis, is a “psychical activity completely analogous to waking thought” (analogous, but not identical to) and it consists in a misguided “attempt at interpretation” which renders the dream “beautifully polished” and “surfaced” (1952, pp. 48-49). Dream revision thus produces a “well-constructed” but falsified dream recollection, the superimpositions of which have to be subsequently “demolished” as part of the dream analysis.

Furthermore, Freud insists that the various distortions produced by unguided (or misguided) interpretation, especially the subtle redactions and glosses belonging to the narration as such, are often much more revelatory than are obvious revisions of the dream—and sometimes more illuminating than correctly remembered aspects of the dream. Hence, while other writers of the period attended exclusively to the manifest dream content, or to overt aspects of a dreamer’s revisionist distortions, Freud claims that psychoanalysis should attend to the less obvious though much more far-reaching modifications and narrative gaps that have already developed the dream out of hidden dream thoughts—specifically in the course of its being remembered and put into words. There is “nothing arbitrary” about this determinative distortion, insists Freud; the changes and substitutions and gaps contributed by what he calls the “editorship of waking life” are associatively linked to the material they replace, revise or redact (1965, p. 553). Freud explains that in analyzing his patients’ dreams, he asks them to repeat their respective accounts. In doing so, he observes, they rarely use the same words. This discovery opens upon the possibility of applying a genuine method to dream analysis: Freud attends specifically to those parts of the dream account that are either described differently or remembered differently the second time around, since those differences reveal the weak spots in the dream’s disguise, the material hastily covered over by conscious thought in an attempt to hide its significance or otherwise alter what consciousness itself recognizes as the dream’s true meaning (it also reveals that consciousness must have some pre-narrative access to those supposedly unconscious elements, or they could not be identified and edited in their narration). A patient’s doubt about whether his or her dream has been correctly reported derives from this work of dream-censorship—that is, it indicates the patient’s resistance to any penetration of proscribed dream thoughts into conscious waking life (hence Freud’s first rule of psychoanalysis, “that whatever interrupts the progress of analytic work is a resistance” (1965, p. 555).

Freud’s explanations of dream analysis show that he is neither being disingenuous nor self-contradictory in conceding, on the one hand, that dreams are inevitably distorted in their subsequent recollection and recitation, while maintaining, on the other hand, that those distortions do not of themselves prevent a rigorous revelatory analysis of the dreamer—neither do they prevent us from recovering the truth of the dream. And this is not because Freud believes that those distortions can lead to a recovery of original dream content forgotten, hidden and mutilated by the dreamer’s recollection and narration of the dream (though he does apparently believe such a recovery to be possible on occasion). It is because the recovery of original dream content is not the aim of dream analysis. What must be noticed in Freud’s explanations is that the dream itself is relatively inconsequential. The dream is important primarily as the locus for a narrative encounter—as Freud points out: “It is often possible by means of analysis to restore all that has been lost by the forgetting of the dream’s content; at least, in quite a number of cases one can reconstruct from a single remaining fragment, not, it is true, the dream—which is in any case a matter of no importance—but all the dream thoughts” (1965, p. 556, emphasis mine). In other words (and contrary to the assumptions guiding much current dream therapy), a dreamer’s narration of the dream, not the dream itself, is the true object of analysis; the dream’s true significance lies in the occasion it provides for interpretation, for narrative intervention. As Paul Ricoeur notes, “It is not the dream as dreamed that can be interpreted, but rather the text of the dream account; analysis attempts to substitute for this text another text that could be called the primitive speech of desire” (Freud and Philosophy, 1970, p. ?).

What Freud grasped about dreams—dreams understood as oneiric analogues of myths, artworks, psychoses and prophetic utterances—is akin to what Nietzsche grasped about Greek gods and heroes, understood as waking models and creative precursors of cultural and psychic transformation: their narration both conceals and reveals the desires and the self-understanding of the narrators themselves. In the case of divine or mythical figures, it is the individual and cultural retellings of mythic lives and exploits that determinatively shapes the teller (just as the variable subjects of any artistic rendering determinately shape the artist); in the case of dreams, what is of seminal importance is the dreamer’s account of the dream. In both cases the narrative account constitutes what can be considered a ‘chapter of self-narration’ for the dreamer. It is the narration of the dream or the myth that is important. It is the narration that reveals the gaps in the analysand’s memory and fills the gaps in his or her account. It is the narration that both produces and reveals the redactions, edits, and other distortions of the dream affected by the analysand in recounting the dream. In short, it is primarily not the dream per se that is significant, but the meanings and desires attached (or denied) to the dream by the dreamer in recollecting and explicitly narrating the dream or some mutilated version thereof. Hence, it is to the narration that the therapist must primarily attend in any methodological work of dream analysis, not to efforts at recovering the dream itself in some impossible and non-existent purity. This was Freud’s first great discovery, and despite his questionable attempts at hypostasizing a substantial or metaphysical subject out of the activity of self-narration, it must be noted that hypnosis, free association, and the many other therapeutic methods employed or developed by Freud all depend for their success on narrative revision or intervention. And this led to Freud’s second great discovery: the cure for neurotic problems revealed through narrative-based analysis is narrative intervention—the so called “talking cure.”

IV. Nietzsche’s Concept of Self-authorship

In Ecce Homo Nietzsche boldly declares, “That a psychologist without equal speaks from my writings is perhaps the first insight reached by a good reader—a reader as I deserve him, who reads me the way good old philologists read their Horace” (1967, p. 266). What do such readers find in reading Nietzsche? They do not find a disembodied collection of Nietzsche’s ideas; if readers approach Nietzsche’s texts (especially the later texts) with such a discovery in mind, they will no doubt make that discovery, but they will not have read Nietzsche. Reading Nietzsche means reading along as Nietzsche writes his life. That is Nietzsche’s truth, pure and simple: we write our own life, and who we are is to be found in that writing—not in the text it produces, but in the very act of writing. This is, in fact, the truth he declares with the aphorism that prefaces the text of Ecce Homo (the subtitle of which is, “How One Becomes What One Is”): “On this perfect day, when everything is ripening and not only the grape turns brown, the eye of the sun just fell upon my life: I looked back, I looked forward, and never saw so many and such good things at once. . . . How could I fail to be grateful to my whole life? And so I tell my life to myself” (1967, p. 221).

Following many scholars, it is easy to read Ecce Homo as a backward-looking self-survey of Nietzsche’s texts, a kind of comprehensive critical postscript. But Ecce Homo is auto-biography in the true sense, a writing of Nietzsche’s life (or at least an exemplary moment of that project), for in Ecce Homo the exegetical light of Nietzsche’s praise and criticism is not so much directed at his books, but at his life, at the stages of self-narration to which each of his books contributes and of which they bear record. Freud is reputed to have said of Nietzsche that “he had a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who has lived or was ever likely to live” (Jones, p. 344; Nietzsche, 1967, p. 203). If this is true, it is because Nietzsche used writing as a constant means of examining his life in the very living of it; writing, for Nietzsche, was the analogue to what Freud would consider narrating and deciphering the latent meaning in the manifest content of dreams; just as Freudian analysis unravels the oneiric fabric of the dream work and reweaves it in accordance with the coherent logic of waking, conscious life, so too does the Nietzschean act of writing decipher the rebus of pre-ontological experience and reconstitute it into a coherent, self-referential narrative of self-understanding. In the process, Nietzsche discovers quite early in his life that the metaphysical notion of the subject is a spurious one, blindly endorsed on the basis of ordinary language and in consequence of a false analogy drawn between grammatical predication and ontological attribution (a mistake to which even Freud falls prey, especially in the 1895 “Project”).

Nietzsche’s first refined expression of the connection between language and subjectivity appears in his unfinished (and unpublished) 1873 essay “On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense,” bits and pieces of which he reuses throughout his later published works. But the clearest articulation of it is in The Genealogy of Morals, published in 1887, and prefaced with the tantalizing accusation that we are unknown to ourselves, insofar as present experience always finds us “absent-minded” (1967, p. 15). His point, in part, is that we are always and vainly searching after a ghostly metaphysical meaning to our lives rather than luxuriating in the plentiful sensibility of the present. But the correlative, and more important point is that we hyperopically look for self-identity in what Levinas will later call the second structural moment of hypostasis, the moment in which activity or being ostensibly petrifies into substantiality or beings, rather than recognizing meaning in the dynamic moment of action that necessarily precedes any reification of action into an act, or any hypostatization of acting into a subject or substance. Lamenting ressentiment’s refusal or repression of the constitutive desire to overcome, to express itself as strength, as force, and finding therein a mortification of being, not the agency of a neutral subject who can choose without any diminution of being whether or not to express that being, Nietzsche argues that one’s identity and nature is not to be located at the level of an ontological subject, to which actions can be independently predicated like verbs to a noun:

A quantum of force is just such a quantum of drive, will, action, in fact it is nothing but this driving, willing, and acting, and only the seduction of language (and the fundamental errors of reason petrified within it), which construes and misconstrues all actions as conditional upon an agency, a ‘subject,’ can make it appear otherwise. And just as the common people separates lightning from its flash and takes the latter to be a deed, something performed by a subject, which is called lightning, popular morality separates strength from the manifestations of strength, as though there were an indifferent substratum behind the strong person which had the freedom to manifest strength or not. But there is no such substratum; there is no ‘being’ behind the deed, its effect and what becomes of it; the ‘doer’ is invented as an afterthought,—the doing is everything. . . . The scientists do no better when they say ‘force moves, force causes’ and such like,—all our science, in spite of its coolness and freedom from emotion, still stands exposed to the seduction of language and has not rid itself of the changelings foisted upon it, the ‘subjects’ (the atom, is for example, just such a changeling, likewise the Kantian ‘thing-in-itself’). (Pearson, 2007, p. 26)

Clearly, the possibility that the subject in any substantial sense may be a purely metaphysical construct (even in its post-modern incarnations, like Heidegger’s Dasein or the topographical psyche of Freud) has far-reaching implications for both philosophy and psychology. Not least among those implications is the necessity of re-conceiving psychic and behavioral changes in a non-causal way, for while an objectified subject can be easily and perhaps properly thought causally, a ‘person’ conceived existentially as a series of transformative agentic actions or mental states cannot. Causality, as understood either by Aristotle or by Newton, may serve as an effective explanatory way of thinking about empirical things and states of affairs, but it does not serve as effectively for explaining human actions and choices.

A consequence of re-conceiving human being non-subjectively and narratively, is that changes in self-understanding can be understood and accounted for in much the same way we understand texts and narrative forms of art—hermeneutically and exegetically. And again, Nietzsche can help us here, since his writings right from the start, attend to the transformative power of art. The Birth of Tragedy is an extended diatribe on the transformative effects of Greek myths, tragedies, and sculptures on Greek culture. In both the third and the penultimate sections of that text Nietzsche makes the following startling claims, all the more startling if we read them not as cases of literary hyperbole, but as psychological observations:

Art is not merely imitation of the reality of nature but rather a metaphysical supplement of the reality of nature, placed beside it for its overcoming. The tragic myth, too, insofar as it belongs to art at all, participates fully in this metaphysical intention of art to transfigure. (1968, p. 140)

The same impulse which calls art into being, as the complement and consummation of existence, seducing one to a continuation of life, was also the cause of the Olympian world which the Hellenic “will” made use of as a transfiguring mirror. Thus do the gods justify the life of man: they themselves live it—the only satisfactory theodicy. (1968, p. 43)

Nietzsche’s belief, asserted and reasserted throughout his writings and his life, was that our stories and our art can transform life—not causally, but narratively. To the degree that we can imagine and narrate a possibility, we can realize it. So, if and insofar as the self is an incarnate narrative process—always becoming rather than being—then that indeterminacy, thought specifically as a narrative function, can open up futures that no metaphysical subject could produce of itself.

V. Levinas and the Possibility of a Redemptive Interpersonal Time

French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ contribution to this provisional meditation can only be fully appreciated from the perspective of his early, post-war writings, which are obsessed with hollowing out the Heideggerian project in such a way as to demonstrate phenomenologically that the everyday being of Dasein, considered in its care-ful being-in-the-world, its authentic being toward death, and its ecstatic temporality cannot of itself produce a true future—that is, a future that benefits from genuinely new possibilities (possibilities that are not Dasein’s own, produced out of Dasein’s own existential situation or collection of solitary achievements), and thus, a future that holds any hope of genuine change or novelty. According to Levinas’ reading of Heidegger, Dasein can at most realize possibilities that are destined to it by its thrown situation in the world and its subsequent choices, and it can realize those possibilities only as its own projects. In other words, at bottom Dasein suffers from its latent debt to Aristotelian subjectivity—like the acorn which ineluctably grows into an oak tree, when human being is conceived as of itself and for itself, it appears as a potentiality only for actualizing its own temporally distended possibilities, the uttermost of which is its own death, the impossibility of any further possibilities. (Ironically enough, Aristotle’s understanding of artistic action as a transformative change enacted by one being on another being, certainly points toward the Levinasian possibility of thinking self transformation interpersonally, but neither Heidegger nor Levinas seems to note the significance of that Aristotelian deployment.) Levinas’ later texts exploit the Heideggerian problematic by arguing that interpersonal relations are ontologically fundamental to the existential constitution of Dasein understood as ecstatic temporality, and thus, prior to being in the world, as well as to any conception or realization of self-initiated projects. Hence, according to Levinas, Dasein’s most primordial project is not a concern of its own making. It is an ethical concern for the other.

In Existence and Existents and Time and the Other Levinas investigates extraordinary experiences like insomnia and fatigue to argue that anonymous being is escaped through force of will, which indeed produces an identity born of power and authenticity (like Heidegger’s “mineness”). Yet insofar as that identity is solitary, deathbound, and vulnerable to every other (as Hobbes correctly perceived), its existence is a burden to be carried, not a life to be enjoyed. To this degree, Levinas’ argument follows the itinerary of French existentialism. Where Levinas diverges from his existentialist colleagues is in his profound attention to the question of time. Rather than simply parry the punctuality of scientific time as does Bergson (and Heidegger after him), by thinking time as duration (and as ecstatic temporality, in Heidegger’s case), Levinas moves in the opposite direction, employing insomnia, fatigue and indolence to articulate the moment as such and in its existential punctuality. Just as Freud exploits the narrative gaps in dream recitation to open a place for analytic interpretation, Levinas exploits the momentary gap between being and having, between action and reification. According to Levinas, this gap is illuminated by life’s extreme experiences—those experiences wherein one finds oneself powerless over one’s own being; those experiences wherein one is quite literally an impotent master of nothing. And as with the gap at play in Freud’s dream analysis, Levinas’ hypostatic gap breaks the hermetic seal of subjectivity. It opens onto a beyond and into a dimension that is not of one’s own making, the dimension of an other time in which not only the future, but the past can be determinately changed.

In Totality and Infinity, Levinas specifically targets Heidegger’s claim that human existence can be fully and properly understood in terms of care and projective understanding; human beings act not only in response to needs and projected ends, counters Levinas, but in order to enjoy the world. Said differently (though Levinas does not couch his discussion in these terms, nor seem to fully understand this aspect of his own analyses), Heidegger has ignored the aesthetic dimension of human existence, and particularly the aesthetic nature of interpersonal relations revealed in physical encounters like a sexual caress. So too, argues Levinas, has Heidegger misunderstood life’s ethical dimension. Heidegger sees that others are implicated in my existence from the start, as evidenced not only by everyday speech and the totality of reference relations that constitute the world of praxis (in which equipment and the shared nature of our worldly tasks constantly implicate others), but by and through discourse, the linguistic element of both self-understanding and the call of conscience to authentic being. And yet, observes Levinas, language itself testifies to a deeper involvement of others in my existence, an anarchic relationship reenacted in the turn to others constitutive of any and all speech acts (acts of saying), which are ontologically prior to what is said. Accordingly, Heideggerian being with and alongside others does not exhaust my interpersonal relations, argues Levinas; rather, those modes of worldly involvement rest on an ecstatic responsibility every bit as originary as Dasein’s ecstatic temporality. For Levinas, the erotic and the paternal are two phenomenal forms that this ecstatic relation to others can take. Furthermore, says Levinas, I must recognize an ethical responsibility for others in any call of conscience like that articulated by Heidegger. Guilt and the call of conscience are not simply summons to authentic being (being for oneself) from Dasein itself in the midst of everyday involvements and in the mode of “the they”; they are summons to anarchic responsibility for the other (and thereby, for the self that in its everyday being is a being for the other).

In Otherwise than Being, Or Beyond Essence, Levinas radicalizes these ethical claims, rendering selfhood dynamically as a being-subject to the other, a transformed subjectivity so extreme that even Hegel’s master-slave dialectic is inadequate to think it. For Levinas, one experiences true individuality and affirmation only in a substitution for the other that no one else can perform by proxy. No other father, for instance, can take my place in the relation that obtains between me and my children. And in that non-equivalency of terms, one realizes an identity that is neither the identity of enslavement, nor the self-affirmation of solitary subjectivity. But more importantly, the self that is realized through primordial interpersonal relations is a self whose future is constantly opened upon novel possibilities and whose past is transformed along with its future.

Understanding the existential self as nothing other than the embodied and ecstatic activity of dramatic self-narration is uniquely compatible with Levinas’ re-conception of time. If the future is thought in its relation to the other, then like narrative time, the past is never entirely past, because it never solidifies into an irrevocable history—it is never written in stone, as it were. Any postscript or narrative intervention not only supplements the whole, it alters the whole. Hence, the meaning of the past can be changed at any time by the intervention of a bon mot from outside, which (like Nietzsche’s intervention of art) occasions as a matter of course a revisionary reading of the narrative from within. Conceiving the self in the light of a future which originates in the ethical relation rather than in one’s own thrown situation and projected possibilities reveals responses like forgiveness and self-pity to be, not affective states of a passive subject, but formative choices in the meaning (self-narration) of a person’s life—the life entire, not just the event in question. This conception might also explain how certain traumas, false memories, post-hypnotic suggestions and the like can alter for better or worse a person’s self-understanding, since they are nothing less than alterations of the existential narrative that is the meaning and structure of a person’s life. And it would similarly explain why human freedom and agency cannot be properly understood within the structures of causal thinking and metaphysical subjectivity.

VI. Narrative Therapy

This section of the paper is still in progress. I intend to review some of the more influential schools of narrative therapy and analyze their successes and failures in the light of a narrative self.

VII. Conclusion

If, as Freudian-indebted psychoanalysts believe and a plethora of research has confirmed, the so-called “talking cure” is an effective therapy for phobias, obsessions, delusions and a wide range of other select non-physiological mental disorders, then the disorders being remedied might indeed be best-conceived as “talking disorders,” as it were (though the use of the word “talking” here is not meant to imply a strictly verbal, or even cognitive, understanding of narrative). Said differently, a narrative-based remedy implies a narrative-based problem—or at least a problem with fundamental narrative components. To the degree that the self or psyche can be determinately altered for good or ill by narrative forming/transforming influences and procedures, then the self-or psyche must admit to a narrative co-constitution.

Accordingly, this paper hazards the conclusion that Freud’s famous structure of the mind as an epistemological triumvirate consisting of an Ego, Id and Superego topology might be profitably reconceived as a constantly scripted and revised narrative, pre-narrative and meta-narrative tripartite activity. Additionally, it considers that some forms of psychotherapy could be correlatively conceived as narrative interventions which occasion a self-revision of any or all of the pre-narrative, narrative and meta-narrative elements continually legislating and constituting the activity of self-narration—in other words, precisely those elements subject to change and transformation by logical analyses, myths and folktales, religious discourse, superstitions, cultural narratives, discourse communities, literature and pulp fiction, popular music, idle talk, peer evaluation, socially-effected or media-mediated idolization or accusation, self-abnegation, self-recrimination, pop-psychology, etc. This paper also suggests in conclusion that what affords psychology a privileged place in this litany of transformative influences can only be its claim to scientific objectivity and rigor, and for that claim to be realized it must develop and apply in therapy a hermeneutic method systematically attuned to the constitutive functions of a narratively structured self.

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