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Author: Rukmini Bhaya Nair
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN/UPC (if available): 0195657004
This work explores the anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist idea that our stories make us up, rather than we (make up) our stories. The cognitive scientist Daniel C. Dennett has suggested that human beings tell stories as compulsively as beavers build dams or birds nests.
‘Narrative Gravity’ explores the anti-foundationalist, anti-essentialist idea that our stories make us up, rather than we (make up) our stories. The cognitive scientist Daniel C. Dennett has suggested that human beings tell stories as compulsively as beavers build dams or birds nests. Our basic identities are conferred on us by the myriad tales we hear and narrate throughout our lifetimes. All ‘selves’ are ‘centers of narrative gravity’.
But even if it is true that we are born to weave stories, why is it that we are so ‘programmed’? ‘Narrative Gravity’ attempts to answer this question by carrying the important but embryonic notion that stories are obsessive self-constructions, to its logical conclusion. The book argues that narrative—a universal form found in every known human culture — functions as a ‘species of natural theory’. The ‘lazy machine’ of fiction is extremely useful in that it extract intellectual labor from us while giving us the illusion of enjoying our leisure.
Narratives provide us with relatively low-cost means of taking mental risks. The author contends that the growth of narrative as a mental structure and of fiction as a form of the ‘lie’ has provided huge selective advantages to our species. Stories tie in causal, logical explanations of actual concrete events with emotional affect in a powerful way, so that the ‘lessons’ taught to us as children, and then throughout our lives via stories, lay the cornerstones of our most crucial beliefs. Stories are, paradoxically almost always ‘co-authored’ by their listeners. This point is emphasized in the three inter-related words ‘conversation, cognition, culture’ of the book’s subtitle, as well as in ‘talk-exchanges’ the author sets up between contending theorists such as Searle, Grice, Dennett, and herself in various chapters.
In the final chapters of ‘Narrative Gravity’, there is a shift from philosophical ‘problems and paradoxes’ to emotional ‘enigmas and empathies’. Here, the reader is urged to tread the deepest waters of narratives. Issues of power, institutional control, agency and notions of explanation, coincidence, and the incomprehensibility of death are examined utilizing the metaphor of the Sanskrit ‘sutra’, a textual device that lets a reader ‘un-knot’ an argument or leave it bereft of interpretation, just as she wills.
This is a foundational text for students of linguistics, philosophy and literary theory. It will also appeal to the general reader interested in the psychology and sociology of language and cultural cognition.
This remarkable book builds on Chomsky’s key insight that language provides an inbuilt key to our identity as a symbol using species. To the role of grammar as a cognitive tool enabling us to construct “selves”, Nair adds a second tool in the realm of discourse: narrative. She has a wonderfully subtle account of the psychology of narrative as a “species of natural theory”. I anticipate that with this book she will be recognized as a major figure.
—Stephen Greenblatt, Cogan Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University
Nair’s brilliant study of narrative combines anthropological and sociolinguistic perspectives with cognitive ones to bring out the magical impulses that animate this genre.
—Michael J Toolan, Professor of Applied English Linguistics, University of Birmingham, and author of Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction
Introduction: First Conversational Steps
Structural Simplicities: The Grammar and Context of Narrative (Guru: Labov)
Force, Fiction, Fit and Felicity: Narrative as a Speech Act (Gurus: Austin, Searle)
Performatives, Perlocutions, Pretence: Deconstruction and the Narrative Speech Act (Gurus: de Man, Derrida)
Cooperative Conventions: Implied Meanings in Narrative (Guru: Grice)
Rationality and Relevance: Mental Codes and Cultural Memes in Narrative (Guru: Dennett)
Turns at Talk: Ethnomethodological Analysis of Narrative
Self, State and Solidarity: The politics of Narrative
Explaining Enigmas from Evidence: The Cause of Narrative
Conclusion: Final Narrative Sutras
Appendix I: The Flood
Appendix II: Transcription and Translation
Appendix III: Putative Emotive and Emotional Registers: An Evolutionary Perspective
Appendix IV: Placements
Appendix V: A Possible Course on Narrative Based on this book