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Published: Mon Nov 16 2015
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Are We Stories?

The philosopher and literary critic Galen Strawson recently posted a thought-piece, “I Am Not a Story,” in which he struggled to be more specific.

The provocation is as clear as the question “When did you stop cheating on your wife?” Who told Strawson he was a story? Is he implying that I think I am a story? What do he and his shadowy accusers mean by “I” and “am” and “story?” It’s far too easy to think that Strawson is telling himself he is not a story, as part of the story that he tells himself “is not him.”

He immediately sets up the case against himself, with would-be straw men who are too sturdy to be actual straw men. Oliver Sacks: “Each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative,’ and this narrative _is _us.” Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner: “Self is a perpetually rewritten story.” And: “In the end, we _become _the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.” Psychologist Dan P. McAdams: “We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell.” Moral philosopher J. David Velleman: “We invent ourselves… but we really are the characters we invent.” Philosopher Daniel Dennett: “We are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.”

The case against himself is clear, and provocative in a better way than the initial question was: we begin to think about what it means to tell a story generally, and what effect it has on teller and told; and specifically to ask ourselves, of ourselves, who is telling us who we are, why, in the service of what, and to what end? We are obviously biochemical organisms, but is it perhaps what therapeutic psychologists call self-talk that owns and runs the organism. It seems pretty clear à la the chicken and egg puzzler that the organism came first and therefore has status as the primary cause, but where does self-talk—self as story about self—come from if it’s not latent in the biochemical?

Sacks is referring to the continuous effect of the back-and-forth of neurochemicals between storage (what happened) and analysis (what will happen). The sense of a piloting, executive self is also an effect of the same process. Sacks puts “narrative” in quotes for a reason: there are stories, and then there are “stories.”

Bruner is referring to a truly bizarre psychological phenomenon that comes of Sacks’s back-and-forth, in which the self takes hold of its past and future and tries to ensure that the latter will be better by making the former better: he said, she said, should, would, could, if, as if, they had no right, we had every right, and so on, ad infinitum (and I’m not kidding about the infinitum). It’s impossible, but we can’t not do it. Most researchers refer to this as “the Default Mode Network.” The taking hold of past and future, which do not exist, is a story in every sense I can think of.

McAdams means only that there are consequences in the world outside the self’s brain. Everything we say reflects the stories we tell ourselves inside the brain, and everything we say is in turn interpreted by other brains locked in story mode. As I suggested above, the teller and the told are both changed by the telling, which argues for primacy of “self as story.”

Velleman is talking about a very ordinary trick of identity-swapping that we learn to love as children and which actors do as part of their job. We have only to look at Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author for a truly entertaining refutation of Strawson’s claim. We must invent ourselves if we are to be, in a word, presentable.

Dennett is once again demonstrating his poor understanding of art and of learning outside reductionist /materialist / empiricist/ physicalist inquiry—he has been explicit about his contempt for modernist humanities—but his misunderstanding plays directly into the author’s strangely naïve definition of a story: that the stories that human beings are, are the work of a creative writing workshop, are novels “virtuosic” and otherwise, or even PR marketing. That is to say: they are well crafted and manageable.

What could be further from the truth?

The stories that we are, in fact, are inherently incoherent, neither poorly nor well crafted because that is the nature of consciousness.* Just as Strawson seems to say, our story-selves are in bits and pieces and threads and fabrics, memories and imaginings, thoughts and actions, beliefs and verifiable documents, and all that resides in other story-selves, too—in places where we have no control of them.

That is exactly what literary artists know to be the nature of the stories they tell because that is exactly the kind of stories they suspect they are. Everything that Strawson’s would-be straw men say about what characterizes the making and manner and manifest consequences of our stories is demonstrably true. A lot of it comes out of the super-funded laboratories cranked up for “The Decade of the Brain” (now in its third decade) and from rigorous analysis of careful field experience. They are just not…wait for it…the whole story. There is no separation at all between what goes on inside a brain and what goes on outside a brain, and stories as artists understand them are the only way a brain can make sense of anything.

Modernist novelists learned as much in kindergarten.

  • This is why AI and projects like “Build-a-Brain” must fail as they insist on coherence, and cannot “install” simultaneous comprehension of finitude and infinitude.

Gary Amdahl is the author of Visigoth (stories) and I Am Death (novellas). He has won a Pushcart Prize and, as a playwright, a Jerome Fellowship. (updated 10/2011)

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