What Do We Mean When We Say “Narrative Literature?” Looking for Answers Across Disciplinary Borders



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The Book of Virtues
, which is introduced as a ‘how-to’ book for moral literacy Bennett 11), is only the most recent in along line of efforts to foreground the immediate educational function of literature. Conversely, it is possible that we can read the new historicist’s dark version of Shakespeare in the same platform-like way. That is, we can enjoy the worlds that Shakespeare creates while being convinced somewhere in our minds that all this fun is really covert support for the status quo through complex subversions of the subversive. In other words, in each case of instrumentality, we seem to be able to switch off awareness of instrumentality as we enjoy the non-instrumental status of the text. We can put the text momentarily in the space off but we are not surprised to reconnect from time to time with its instrumental status Pope’s intention to excoriate Thomas Shadwell and the This content downloaded from
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What Do We Mean When We Say Narrative Literature
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bad poetry he stands for, George Orwell’s warning of the danger and hypocrisy of certain ideologies, Shakespeare’s jingoism. Instrumentality/non-instrumentality, then, would appear to be a kind of toggle switch that, when switched into the on position, also acts as a platform on which we can load all kinds of things, including states of non-instrumentality.
How can this be The answer lies in my treatment of narrative, for the percep-
tion of instrumentality is the perception of a certain kind of narrative situation.
Instrumentality, in other words, is the narrative condition in which we live our lives. This perception of the narrative condition of the real world arena in which we and the rest of the world’s population must do things and have them done to us is something we can turnoff from time to time to enjoy both narrative and non- narrative material alike in a space off. To summarize this additional point, then instrumentality is a platform, always standing in readiness, because it is a special instance of narrative. It is our life in time. What the non-instrumentality setting of this switch permits is disengagement, not from narrative (since the space off can swarm with narrative, but from the real world as narrativized.
I’ll conclude with two final points and a caution. First, in the culture/psychol- ogy interface, it would appear that the toggle switches I have discussed here are culturally inducible modes of perception. In other words, they can be turned on and off by suggestion, persuasion, education and other such mechanisms by which one or more people exert an influence over others. Here we seem to be pretty firmly in the realm of behavior by influence. But the narrative platform, when cued, cannot be uncued. It cannot be seen as something other than what it is. This platform-like gift, then, would appear to go deeper into our wiring.
Second, in the special instance of the toggle instrumentality/non-instrumentality, which operates in the on mode as a species of narrative platform, there maybe important reasons of cognitive health that allow awareness of its platform status to be turned off like a switch. This is so because instrumentality is the narrative condition of the real world, including our own lives. Turning off our awareness of real-world instrumentality maybe as important as sleep. It allows us to enter another world where we can be free for the moment from the often intense demands—with their very real states of suspense and expectation—that fill the narrative arena in which we live our own lives. In fact, it allows us to enjoy another world where narrative maybe just as prevalent as it is in our own. And this pleasure of narrative in a non-instrumental mode maybe chief among the pleasures of non-instrumental states—the experience of narrative without its pressing demands.
Finally, as a caution, I have avoided in this essay the term art in order to leave open the possibility of special instances that my argument may fail to accommodate. More specifically, it would be a mistake at this stage of our awareness to count out the possibility of real intrinsic responses that may belong to art alone. At the least, I do not want to discount the conviction that many of us still have—
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272
H. Porter Abbott and unpredictable in what we call art. Art, after all, is often produced by people who fly in the face of the agents of cultural and social control. Nor is this flying in the face of cultural expectations, in its particularity, reducible to some inherent human will to resist. In this realm, in other words, some people do seem capable of exceeding both cultural and genetic determination.
Notes
1
For one example Psychologists tend to use the term concept to mean a mental representation of a category, whereas philosophers use it to denote (roughly) a relation that mediates expressions and their referents (Rips n For David S. Miall’s extensive work and that of many others, visit his site at
dmiall/reading.htm>.
3
I owe the term “polythetic” to Dan Sperber (108). Wittgenstein’s use of the term Family resemblance can be found in his Philosophical Investigations, paragraphs 77 and 78.
4
For more on this acronym, see Tooby and Cosmides.
Works Cited
Auden, W. Hand Norman Holmes Pearson. Elizabethan and Jacobean Poets


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