Narrative has regained prestige as a way of understanding the world

In History and social theory, second edition (2005), Peter Burke speaks of destabilization and decentring as features of postmodernity and postmodernism.

Of the latter two terms, Burke prefers to focus on postmodernity which is taken to refer to an acceleration or intensification of modern trends. He notes that postmodernism, in contrast, is a term used by some scholars, in opposition to ‘modern,’ as the description of a completely new epoch.

When I encounter the term ‘postmodernism,’ I’m reminded of Burke’s reference to a letter appearing in 1991 in the journal Past and Present in which Lawrence Stone speaks of “the threat to history from people who claim that ‘there is nothing besides the text’ or that ‘the real is as imagined as the imaginary'” (Burke 2005, p. 177).

Reality obtrudes

The role of imagination in the construction of reality and more generally in the telling of stories, including historical narratives, is a matter of interest for many people including Oliver Sachs. Stories are a great way to make sense of reality. At the same time, reality obtrudes. I’m reminded in turn of exceptions to the assumption that perception is reality.

I think, as well, of Alexander Lyon Macfie’s distinction in Orientalism (2002) between Edward Said’s “representational view of knowledge and the traditional (realist-Marxist) view taken by his principal critics” (Macfie 2002, p. 217) regarding the debate about orientalism.

Macfie notes (pp. 125-26) that Aijaz Ahmad, a noted Indian scholar, comments that Said fails to decide whether the orientalism he identifies is the product of a system of representation in a postmodernist sense, or a deliberate system of misrepresentation produced by the West.

From one perspective, one can say that orientalism is “merely the product of a system of representation in the post-modernist sense (Neitzsche’s ‘mobile army of metaphors’) attached to it by Derrida and Foucault” (p. 125). Orientalism viewed in another way, according to Ahmad, is “a system of representation, wilfully produced by the West.”

“The latter case,” notes Macfie, “would suggest that an objective reality exists, against which misrepresentation can be measured. The former case would allow no such positive outcome. According to Ahmad, it is a pecularity of the post-modernist mind that it elides [alters] objective experience into a purely textual notion of ‘representation’. In this respect, Said’s ideal reader is a Western reader. Asian and African readers would inevitably be tempted to enquire how the system of representation described actually compared with their own ‘real’ experience” (p. 126).

That being said, there are more choices in how we access reality aside from the choices that Macfie and Ahmad discuss in their treatments of the topic.

Decentring as a feature of postmodernity

Burke identifies destabilization, referred to in a previous blog, and decentring as features of what he calls at various times postmodernity or ‘postmodernism.’

According to Burke, decentring is, along with the synonymous term ‘displacement,’ the ‘spatial equivalent’ of destabilization. Burke adds that geographers have made an important contribution to the study of postmodernity (Edward Soya 1989; David Harvey 1990; Amin and Thrift 2002).

Decentring has also influenced scholarly writing. Instead of writing from a single point of view, scholars are now making an effort to view their subjects from multiple viewpoints. A pioneer in this approach was the German sociologist Norbert Elias, who recommended such an approach in What is sociology? (1970; English trans. 1978).

The philosopher Hans-George Gadamer made a similar point with regard to the interpretation of texts, suggesting “a dialogical approach starting from awareness of the necessary disagreement between the original writer and the later interpreter” (Burke 2005, p. 179).

There is a sense in which this approach draws on a tradition. Historians and anthropologists have long attempted to assess the viewpoints and attitudes of their subjects. These attitudes used to be treated as part of the data – in a context, however, in which they were used “but also overridden by the author, just as in the classic nineteenth-century novel the voices of the characters were subordinate to that of the omniscient narrator” (p. 180).

What’s new is the scholarly viewpoint as one viewpoint among others

What is new in decentring of the scholarly viewpoint is “the sense of presenting it as simply one viewpoint among others” (p. 180).

Scholars are more aware of the point made by the Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim in the 1920s and more recently, that knowledge, including contemporary scholarly knowledge, is socially situated. This awareness accounts, according to Burke, for the current appeal across the disciplines of the ideas on dialogue presented by the Russian cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1981) whose work is also discussed by Morson and Emerson (1990), pp. 231-68.

Burke adds that the dual perspective that Elias and Gadamer advocated has been replaced by a multiple one: “The people in the culture being studied never speak with one voice. The movement to write history ‘from below’, to reconstruct the ‘vision of the vanguished’ or the point of view of the ‘subaltern [of inferior rank or status] classes’, made this point very clear” (p. 180).

Decentring of the scholarly viewpoint – a process exemplified, for example, by experimentation with new forms of narrative as discussed below – stands in contrast to the revival of methodological individualism that Burke associates with the destabilization movement.

Device of the multiple viewpoint in narration

In working with a range of perspectives, some historians and others have experimented with new forms of narrative. “Once rejected by scholars who wished to be ‘analytic’, narrative has regained prestige as a mode of understanding the world (Stone 1979 [‘The revival of narrative’, Past and Present, 85, 1-24]; Ricoeur 1983-5; Burke 1991, p. 180).”

For example, the American anthropologist Richard Price (1990) has adapted the device of the multiple viewpoint – used in novels and films such as William Faulkner’s The sound and the fury (1929) and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) – to an account of eighteenth-century Surinam.

As the blurb at the Toronto Public Library website notes, Price’s 1990 study, entitled Alabi’s World, “relates the history of a nation founded by escaped slaves deep in the Latin American rain forest.”

“In a unique historical experiment,” the blurb notes, “Richard Price presents this history by weaving together four voices: the vivid historical accounts related by the slaves’ descendants, largely those of Alabi’s own villagers, the Saramaka; the reports of the often exasperated colonial officials sent to control the slave communities; the otherworldly diaries of the German Moravian missionaries determined to convert the heathen masses; and the historian’s own, mediating voice.”

Burke notes that the author links and comments on the three other perspectives, “but presents his commentary as simply another view, a fourth voice, that of an ‘enthnograhic historian’ (cf. Berkhofer 1995: 170-201). In other words, he exemplifies the ‘multivocal’ or ‘polyphonic’ narrative that was both described and recommended by Bakhtin” (pp. 180-181).

Decentring of the scholarly viewpoint stands in contrast to methodological individualism

Burke notes that for good reasons, “the last generation has seen the collapse of the so-called Grand Narrative (le grand récit) of the human past, essentially the story of human emancipation told in the Enlightenment” (p. 181). Alternative formulations, such as ‘Great Story,’ ‘Master Narrative,’ and ‘Metanarrative’ have been taken up and debated. Some scholars have, in the process, decentred all stories within the Great Story including the story of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, and the traditional Eurocentric narrative of world history.

With regard to such debates concerning historical narratives, the British anthropologist Jack Goody has published work that I’ve found of interest, for example, The theft of history 2006 and Renaissances: The one or the many?  The work of the British writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik, author of Strange fruit: Why both sides are wrong in the race debate (2008), also comes to mind, as does the work of the British historian Jeremy Black regarding narratives related to the world history of warfare.

I look forward to reading books that feature balanced and comprehensive overviews – as Burke (2005) and Macfie (2002) have provided regarding their respective topics – of debates regarding instrumental reason, neoliberalism, and climate change.

Jane’s Walk as conversation

I find Burke’s overview of decentring inspiring. I am reminded that a Jane’s Walk is in the nature of a conversation. The topic is also discussed in a subsequent blog post: What is the nature of a conversation?

I find it significant that the discussion related to decentring focuses on concepts such as the decentring of the scholarly viewpoint, and the introduction of the multiple viewpoint in historical narration. The role of the individual scholar – and thus of individualism – remains strong, in both destabilization and decentring.

In the latter movement, the scholar is in a position to set up multiple viewpoints, as Richard Price (1990) has done, but remains the source of the creative impulse; that person remains the director (among other roles) of the production. In the context of decentring, however, the scholar has more of an opportunity to stand back and let other voices be heard. In network analysis, such an opportunity does not appear as readily available.

How stories drive major economic events

A Feb. 18, 2020 London School of Economics article is entitled: “Book Review: Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events by Robert J. Shiller.” The reviewer argues that Shiller’s perspective covers a stretch of ground, but after that ground has been covered an alternative mode of narration may be more productive.

An excerpt from the review reads:

Shiller’s thesis exemplifies the more and more ‘successful’ behavioural economics framework. You identify behavioural error and then explore its implications for the economy compared to ‘rational’ behaviour. Hence his analogy is with disease epidemics. Narratives are potentially contagious, he thinks, and on the big occasions when they dominate, although not everyone becomes infected, they become the primary cause of behaviour – ‘for most people the narrative will be fundamental to their reasons for doing, or not doing things that affect the economy’.

1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    A study of interest: Metahistory: the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (2014)

    A blurb reads:

    This penetrating analysis of eight classic nineteenth-century thinkers explains how historians use literary techniques to write sophisticated historical works.

    Since its initial publication in 1973, Hayden White’s Metahistory has remained an essential book for understanding the nature of historical writing. In this classic work, White argues that a deep structural content lies beyond the surface level of historical texts. This latent poetic and linguistic content–which White dubs the “metahistorical element”–essentially serves as a paradigm for what an “appropriate” historical explanation should be.

    To support his thesis, White analyzes the complex writing styles of historians like Michelet, Ranke, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt, and philosophers of history such as Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Croce. The first work in the history of historiography to concentrate on historical writing as writing, Metahistory sets out to deprive history of its status as a bedrock of factual truth, to redeem narrative as the substance of historicality, and to identify the extent to which any distinction between history and ideology on the basis of the presumed scientificity of the former is spurious.

    This fortieth-anniversary edition includes a new preface in which White explains his motivation for writing Metahistory and discusses how reactions to the book informed his later writing. In a new foreword, Michael S. Roth, a former student of White’s and the current president of Wesleyan University, reflects on the significance of the book across a broad range of fields, including history, literary theory, and philosophy. This book will be of interest to anyone–in any discipline–who takes the past as a serious object of study.


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