to appear in Narrative Inquiry, 13(2)
End of Story. Toward an Annihilation of Language and History, by Crispin Sartwell. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000, 138 pages.
“‘End of story’ --- the talk is over - there’s no more to be said - US origin” --- that’s what it means to use the phrase “end of story”, according to ‘The Phrase Finder’, a British web site that assists in interpreting common and not so common phrases. Now then, does Crispin Sartwell really mean that ‘there’s no more to be said’ after the writing (and publication) of his 2000 book “End of Story: Toward an Annihilation of Language and History”? I don’t think so. He is playing; and he is playing with words – and he does this well! To write and to go public with one’s writings is always an invitation to others to respond; at least in my books. And “toward” in the subtitle of the book suggests more the preliminary nature of the proposed “annihilation”, and while offering pleasure to the writer, it is also the potential opening of a dialogue, implying that there is lots more to say, and that we shouldn’t lay language aside and engage in silence. Furthermore, to play publicly is an invitation to join in, unless Sartwell seriously had intended to play only with himself - in solitude, not intending anything, orienting ‘toward’ nothing, so-to-speak – but again, I don’t think so.
Sartwell muses over a lot of things, with a focus on language and narrative, but touching on more (or equally?) basic issues such as identity and self, human agency and life, development and history, meaning and the origin of meaning. But that is not all, he also inserts a sense of his own self – the writer, father, and lover Crispin Sartwell, i.e., he does not choose to write from a totally detached perspective, as if there were really nothing else to be said, as if he were speaking the truth and were right, once and for all. No, he is playing, and he decidedly inserted a voice or position from where he, as a writer and person, seems to pull this all together; though we don’t find out a lot about him as a writer, person, individual – as someone who is having fun in all this, as someone who likes to be a lover, father, and writer; he remains relatively unemotional about this all. One thing, however, is for sure, he feels bothered. He says he is imprisoned and “tortured” – because he is trapped in language and “a mania for the teleological ordering of time and of the lives that take place in time” (p. 8) -- by philosophers such as MacIntyre and Ricoeur (and behind them a battery of others who are asserting people and the world as texts which are open to interpretation – and some of these other go by the names of Rorty, Nussbaum, Quine, and Lyotard, to name a few).
Now, at face value, this is adding nothing new to a rather general uneasiness or dissatisfaction with language, discourse and narrative in the academy. My colleagues in my home department consistently try to caution me about my “overemphasis” of language, discourse, and of narrative. Their words and phrases “but Michael, there is more than language” and “not everything is discourse” – or “narrative is only one discourse mode among many others” – are constantly ringing in my ears – and those I consider the more friendly comments. To others, less friendly, the analysis of language and discourse has nothing to do with Psychology (it belongs into the realm of linguistics, or even better: ‘applied linguistics’), and working with narratives, in order to explore people and people’s lives, is strictly speaking ‘unscientific’. To some of them, I am “selling out” the ‘subject’ of psychology, i.e., the person, to language, discourse, and construction. For others it’s just talk, chit-chat – nothing serious. --- But Sartwell’s theses read more sophisticated than those of my (friendly, and not so friendly) colleagues; and as I will try to argue, his theses point up some interesting issues orienting toward even more interesting alternatives – interesting to play with. However, I am wondering whether there also may be parallels between Sartwell’s and my colleagues’ frustrations -- frustrations and anxieties that root deeper but are addressable. One, I think, lies in the systematically ambiguous use of ‘language’. And this ambiguity becomes intensified if ‘language’ and ‘discourse’ are given centrality as meaning making tools in the form of narratives. Another one is the fuss about temporality and time as the more central constituents to narrative and as more relevant for the analysis of narratives than other aspects. I will try to take up these two issues, but let me first briefly address Sartwell’s arguments about why he would like to ‘put language in its place’, and why he tries to point us toward an “annihilation” not only of language but also of history and development in general.
Sartwell’s attempt to annihilate language, narrative and narrativity targets the practice of collapseing narrative into the structure of human action and experience, and vice versa – a practice he traces back to MacIntyre and other philosophers and narratologists. He questions (a) whether life really has the purpose and meaningfulness that narrative theorists often attribute, and (b) whether narratives themselves have the kind of coherence and telic quality that narrative theorists assume. The particular problem Sartwell sees in this kind of approach is that the lived moment, the way it is actually ‘sensed’ and experienced, is said to only gain its quality in light of its surrounding moments which in concert add up to a meaningful temporal plot configuration. Rather than empowering the subject with meaning in life, Sartwell argues, narrative, conceived this way, drains and blocks the subject from finding pleasure and joy in the here and now. The subject is overpowered by narrative as the normalizing machine. “But what is left out”, says Sartwell, “is the moment of silence, the moment of death, the moment of inarticulate orgasm. One way to make this point … is to remind us of ecstasy: the extraordinary experience of letting-go into the divine, or into the lover, or into death: the extraordinary experience to which language seems radically insufficient” (p. 4). And to give up the belief in life as meaningfully and coherently tied into its own progress, living it only for its significance, could turn into one of those let-go experiences, potentially bringing “us face-to-face with our own complete actuality and physicality, letting us experience ourselves again as bodies” (p. 125).
As I said earlier, Sartwell is playing, and it would be wrong, in my opinion, to attempt to come to the rescue of ‘narrative’ (and ‘language’), by engaging the author in a more fine-grained textual analysis of what MacIntyre and Ricoeur “really” meant, attempting to show that Sartwell was ‘wrong’, ‘one-sided’ or ‘biased’ in his interpretations. That, I believe is not the point of the exercise Sartwell invites us to play with. This is not to imply that he was not serious about what he said and how he proceeded and launched his arguments. Although it is the business of philosophers (at least usually) to read and interpret other philosophers, I don’t believe Sartwell is primarily interested in the exegesis of words and texts of other philosophers. Engaging with MacIntyre and Ricoeur were helpful exercises to challenge and ultimately move narrative theorizing – and if not forward, because Sartwell does not seem to believe in any progress here, so nevertheless ‘out of its dominant position’. That’s at least how I read his book. And that is what I would like to respond to, supporting Sartwell, but also comforting him. Narrative and language are not as powerful as they appear in “end of story”.
Right, we do more than talk. We tie our shoes, we take in the beautiful panoramic view from a mountaintop, and we touch somebody’s hand and are touched by somebody’s lips. Talk is one activity among many we engage in in our everyday activities. So why would anyone privilege talk as more central to human meaning making over zillion other possibilities and start collecting and analyzing talk data? I think Sartwell is correct in assuming that there are no a priori grounds to privilege talk. The fact that talk seems to be so ubiquitous so that some of us even feel trapped in it, does not make it a better candidate for the production and interpretation of human sense than touching, smelling or seeing (or engaging in silence).
However, talking is different from most other activities. Inasmuch as it intrinsically involves others, it is oriented to be heard and understood, and it is woven into larger collaborative chunks of talk activities. This is where ‘language’ is nested: in the interface between self and others, as a tool or medium within which meaning is produced and preserved, for the process of making sense and becoming understood --- to foreshadow already here the important issue that there is a profound process of becoming in language and its use in interaction.
Now, what could be wrong with declaring this site where meaning and sense are in the process of ‘becoming’ as central and opening it up for some better understanding (i.e., making it the topic of investigation)? To me, this seems to be a pretty good starting point to explore and better understand what others call “the person” and “people”, rather than starting from a general and nebulous interest in others – as if others exist ‘out there’ in space and time, just waiting to be understood. So, in plain language, there is nothing wrong with being interested in language and talk as the sites where people are ‘becoming’ – rather than in “people” as always and already positioned ‘behind their talk’. In my opinion, this does not play into a “giving up” position of ‘the person’ as the central configuration in psychology, as my colleagues would like to have it, and handing it over to language as the tool and medium that produces the person. Rather, this re-creates a person as being involved (and agentively involving itself) in the empirical (and interactional) process of becoming -- locally, contextually, situationally.
If this sounds even remotely acceptable, where then is the misunderstanding – or disagreement – with Sartwell on the one hand - and my esteemed colleagues as representatives of the discipline of psychology on the other? Well, the way I referred to the role of language in talk-in-interaction thus far did not differentiate between language as serving referential, ideational, representational or cognitive ends, and language as serving interactional, pragmatic, or simply social ends. Focusing on the aboutness of talk as ‘givens’, the contents of stories, the chain of events including the characters and spatial arrangements, means to focus on the represented, on language ‘on holiday’, as Holstein and Gubrium (2000, p. 82) call it. Language ‘at work’ (and ‘at play’ I would like to add) incorporates and connects the former with its practical use, locally situated and contextually put to life. Sartwell’s denunciation of language as chatter (and ultimately meaningless) is targeting language ‘on holiday’, i.e., the type of narrative and narrative analysis that highlights and accentuates the story world. ‘Doing chatter’ or engaging in the activity of chattering – what could be wrong with that? Chattering can be very pleasurable; and in the process of chatter numerous versions of selves can be called into being, tried out, projected into the here and now, revised and discarded. Language ‘on holiday’, with its focus on the represented, is more distant and serious, and wants to be taken more seriously. It is more fixed, more prescriptive and powerful; and definitely less disposable and pleasurable than language ‘at work’.
To abbreviate my musings on language in talk, and talk-in-interaction, it seems to me that Sartwell takes language as what is given and what is sitting on the shelf, not what is at work or at play in interaction. And this, surprisingly, Sartwell shares with my colleagues who assume the policing role fro the discipline of psychology. No wonder that he feels imprisoned and tortured by language; and no wonder that he desperately seeks alternatives that can lead out of his imprisonment. But this problem only concerns language. What about narrative with its normalizing powers and its tendency to overwhelm and potentially torture us even more than language? The answer to this question hinges upon how much centrality we really want to attribute to time and temporality as configuring factors for narratives and narrativity, and whether analytic work with narratives should build on the claims by MacIntyre et al. at all.
Ever since the notion of ‘absolute time’ has been discarded, and our public awareness has begun to take into account that clocks have to be coordinated and brought into a commonly agreed upon tune in order to “measure” periods or stretches of time, space and spatial metaphors in human sense-making have gained public currency. Recent writings by Freeman (1998) and Mishler (in press), although still very tied to time and temporality as central to human sense-making, have attempted to fracture and differentiate between different notions of time (cyclical, mythical, and historical in Freeman, 1998; and clock-time versus narrative time in Mishler, in press). Benjamin, in his notes on Bertold Brecht’s ‘Episches Theater’, notes ‘interruption’ as more central to narrativity than continuity and coherence (Benjamin, 1977), and Fludernik (1996) has attempted to shift emphasis away from the teleology in the chronology and causality of linked plot items to the human experiencer and human consciousness as central to narrative and narrativity. De Certeau (1984a, 1984b) and others have noted that dipping into a narrative world of spatial connections can be equally (or more) rewarding than following a coherent, temporally woven plotline. Recent reviews and discussions on the web about the ‘Matrix’ (and its sequels ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’) suggest that conventional story-telling (i.e., plot narratives) has been replaced by ‘world creation’, “a rich, multifaceted, and complex environment that the viewer can enter and explore in a variety of ways (Kennedy, 2003).
However, from a more overall perspective, it may be futile to find (or work with) one (or two) single criteria that are assumed to be essential to narrative and narrativity. The most productive way to work with narratives may lie in Ochs and Capps proposal to view narratives as open to a number of dimensions and possibilities (Ochs & Capps, 2001, p. 20). Briefly, their proposal is that traditionally and conventionally, narrative analyses have privileged certain possibilities of narrative dimensions and underplayed others: (i) with regard to the dimension of ‘tellership’, conventional narrative analysis has privileged ‘one active teller’ in contrast to ‘multiple active co-tellers; (ii) high ‘tellability’ has been over-explored at the expense of low ‘tellability; (iii) detached ‘embeddedness’ from surrounding talk and activity has been emphasized over the a more contextual and situational ‘embeddedness’, (iv) a more certain and constant ‘moral stance’ has been assumed as the default case in contrast to a more uncertain and fluid one, and (v) with respect to linearity and temporality, the closed temporal and causal order has been privileged over a more open temporal or spatial ordering. Ochs and Capps suggest further that an orientation toward coherence in telling stories often clashes with an orientation to come across and to present one’s experience as ‘authentic’. They suggest for future work with narratives attention to the tensions and contradictions between these dimensions in order to become more productive and innovative.
All this may sound as (and possibly is) a defense of ‘narrative’, although that was not what I had originally intended with this review. Rather, I wanted to share what I had taken away from reading ‘end of story’ as something that is different and aspiring. So here it goes: Sartwell’s attempt to annihilate teleology (in stories, history, and development) and eclipse the regime of language is governed by a deep concern about ‘the here and now’ as a potential and equally valuable (or better?) territory for human sense-making. In addition, his focus on the present attempts to reconfigure human agency by replacing a more mechanistic view in which the person is always the object through which world and history acts by a person who seeks actively and agentively to incorporate spontaneity, newness, and unpredictability into the existence of being. – How so? By letting go of the contingencies and the control mechanics of a “self-regulating self” that is programmed into the matrix of preexisting plotlines. In contrast, the newly emerging agent takes the moment for what it is, and does not attempt to ‘see it’ (as in ‘take it out of its contextual flow’) and integrate it into a past moving toward a future, i.e., into a socially already ‘given’ plot formation. The focus mode here is one of ‘becoming’ or ‘emergence’, rather than ‘being made’ or ‘making’, and resembles strongly Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987, 1994) ‘relational process’ model.
Playing with the concept of time along those lines I find very appealing; and closely resembling what in developmental theorizing is termed “microgenesis”. Turning our metaphorical conception that objects and events are at rest (and what we need to explain is how they change from one state to another) onto its head, and this by assuming that change (flux) is the fundamental process (and what needs to be explained are our abstractions of what we ‘see’ as stable, constant and same) sheds a different light onto the relationship (dynamics/tensions) between constancy and change in general, and human identity, its ontogeny and development, more specifically. The idea of the world as process where everything is in constant transformation is indeed a challenge to the assumption of a limited number of socially given scripts or plotlines according to which lives have always already been lived and are livable. Human ‘understanding’ then becomes the process by which we make objects or events visible in their geneses. We describe the moments in which they emerge, come into being – not the objects or events per se, but the contextual process.
Now, this admittedly may sound obscure; but relating back to ‘language at work’ and ‘narratives at work’, that is, placing language and narrative in their process of ‘becoming’, interactionally, relationally, in talk-in-conversation, we are close, I believe, to where Sartwell wanted to move those ‘obsessed with language and narrative’ and their teleological and (self-)controlling capacities. The implications are clear. Life and story are not reflections of each other; rather, both come into existence in these acts as instantiations, and both are always preliminary, testing, and tentative. This, I think is the ground in which alternative and counter stories as well as unimagined futures can be constructed and can flourish; not by the subject that construes itself, and not by the subject that is already socially and biologically constructed (subjected), but by a subject/agent who itself comes to existence in this process with its dual “nature” of being subjected and agentively subjecting. Opening up and analyzing narratives in talk-in-interaction is a pretty good site to me – and maybe not so far from what Sartwell was playfully suggesting.
--to be continued…
Armstrong, A. (2002). Agency reconfigured: Narrative continuities and connective transformations. Contretemps, 3, 42-53.
Benjamin, W. (1977) What is Epic Theatre? in W. Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, (trans. By A. Bostock ) (pp. 12-13) London: NLB.
De Certeau, M. (1984a). Heterologies: Discourse on the
other (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
De Certeau, M. (1984b). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1994). What is philosophy? New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Fludernik, M. (1996). Towards a ‘natural’ narratology. London, UK: Routledge.
Freeman, M. (1998). Mythical time, historical time, and the narrative fabric of the self. Narrative Inquiry, 8, 27-50.
Freeman, M. (2003). Identity and difference in narrative inquiry. Narrative Inquiry, 13(2).
Holstein, J. A., & Gubrium, J. F. (2000). The self we live by. Narrative identity in a postmodern world. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Kennedy, L. (2003). Forget about beginnings,middles, and ends. The new storytelling is about making your way in a fragmented, imaginary world. Boston Sunday Globe, June 1, 2003, N1 + N5.
Mishler, E. (in press). Narrative and identity: The double arrow of time. In D. Schiffrin, A. DeFina, & M.Bamberg (eds.), Discourse and identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Ochs, E., & Capps, L. (2001). Living narrative. Creating lives in everyday storytelling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 Interestingly, I think this is exactly the problem Freeman (this issue, p. <NEEDS TO BE FILLED IN>) seems to be struggling with.
 This is not the place to follow up on the parallels between Deleuze & Guattari’s ideas and Sartwell’s (though Sartwell seems to be heavily influenced by Deleuze & Guattari. See Armstrong (2002) for more detail.