Mark Freeman: What Have We Wrought? Narrative and Its Dangers

It has been suggested that some of the problems currently being faced regarding “alternate facts,” “fake news,” and, more generally, what Michiko Kakutani has called “the death of truth” have emerged in part owing to the work of postmodern theorists and the like (including some theorists of narrative), who have promoted forms of inquiry that paved the way to the current crisis. Whether this is so is open to question; it is not at all clear how much to credit academic theorists for large cultural trends of this sort. Nevertheless, it seems important at this juncture to examine the relevant ideas and to craft some suitable means of addressing the crisis at hand. This presentation has a threefold focus: to assess the connection Kakutani and others have posited; to enumerate some of the dangers of narrative, particularly as they have emerged in the Trump era; and, in light of these, to determine how these dangers might meaningfully be addressed.  Doing so will not whisk away the current crisis; its roots go deep.  But it may serve to provide a measure of direction for those of us committed to exploring ways of speaking to the strange and often dispiriting sociopolitical landscape we have come to inhabit.

Mark Freeman is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Society and Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.  His writings include Rewriting the Self: History, Memory, Narrative(Routledge, 1993); Finding the Muse: A Sociopsychological Inquiry into the Conditions of Artistic Creativity(Cambridge, 1994); Hindsight: The Promise and Peril of Looking Backward(Oxford, 2010); The Priority of the Other: Thinking and Living Beyond the Self(Oxford, 2014); and numerous articles and chapters on issues ranging from memory and identity to the psychology of art and religion. Winner of the 2010 Theodore R. Sarbin Award in the Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, he also serves as editor for the Oxford University Press series “Explorations in Narrative Psychology.”


Andreea Deciu Ritivoi: Stuck in the Past: The Narrative Shape of Convenient Histories

Narratives about a remote heroic past have long played a crucial role in the legitimation of nationalist political movements everywhere. These narratives create legacies of power and glory that demand to be maintained or, in some cases, restored. They have a temporal arc that extends from a constructed idealized past into the present, and renders the present responsible for the preservation of the past. Conveniently, such narratives cultivate a sense of crisis demanding intervention, while often also artfully constructing the crisis they claim to address. The crisis, furthermore, never gets “solved” and is instead perpetually bemoaned as the apocalypse it announces continues to loom large on an increasingly darker horizon. In recent years, we have seen an emotionally intensified resurgence of nationalist rhetorics that employ such narratives of lost grandeur and issue urgent restorative pleas—“Make American great again”—that often mask (or don’t even bother to mask) xenophobic and broadly discriminatory policies and practices. Rather than being well developed and clearly articulated around a plot and with particular characters, these are condensed narrative nuclei developed over time across different discourses—in politics writ large as well as in broad public and cultural conversations from the media to literature, low- but also highbrow. In this paper I examine the affect and temporality associated with and emerging from such narrative nuclei.  Specifically, I inquire into the contemporary political origins of the sense of crisis that grows out of these narrative nuclei, and the way it has been influenced by loss, rupture, and belatedness, as narrative themes embedded in particular temporal and affective frames. Beyond its immediate political force—such as the legitimization of populist movements—this sense of crisis more generally justifies a vision of democracy understood narrowly (as Western or American) but applied expansively (as a universalist civilizing mission). In the long run, the rhetorical role of crisis is to offer a moral justification to political and military interventions by one nation into others.

Andreea Deciu Ritivoi is professor of English and department chair at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on narrative and identity, narrative empathy, political rhetoric, hermeneutics, and is especially interested in the figures of the refugee and the exile. She is the author of three books (Yesterday’s Self: Nostalgia and the Immigrant Experience; Paul Ricoeur: Tradition and Innovation in Rhetorical Theory; Arendt, Marcuse, Solzhenitsyn, and Said: Foreign Intellectuals in American Discourse), as well as co-editor of three collective volumes on interpretation, controversy, and identity, plus a number of articles. She teaches courses on rhetorical theory, globalization, and narrative. She is editor of the journal Storyworlds, and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Etudes Ricouerienne/Ricoeur Studiesand Advances in the History of Rhetoric. She is currently working on a book on narratives of refuge and exile and their role in legitimating western democracy.


Greta Olson: Why We Need Narrative Research for a Nuanced Analysis of Political Trends?

In this talk I wish to demonstrate why and how narrative analysis is central to performing political critique. Using examples from anti-immigration discourse in Germany as well as from debates in the so-called porn wars and pro and contra #MeToo positions, I show how the form-function analysis that is at the basis of narrative research is a necessary means to comprehending the political present.

Greta Olson is Professor of English and American Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Giessen and was Fellow at the Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities “Law as Culture” in Bonn (2014, 2016). She is a general editor of the European Journal of English Studies (EJES), and the co-founder of the European Network for Law and Literature. Olson’s work focusses on overlaps between political, aesthetic, and academic practices.


Jakob Lothe: Narrative, Memory, Identity: Leni Riefenstahl, Edith Notowicz, W. G. Sebald, Jenny Erpenbeck

Starting from the premiss that narrative, memory and identity are closely linked, the lecture will discuss how the interplay of these three aspects of human thought and experience shapes and accentuates the ethics of four different texts by four different film directors and authors: Leni Riefenstahl, Edith Notowicz, W. G. Sebald and Jenny Erpenbeck. Aided by narrative theory and by significant contributions to the field of narrative ethics, the lecture will respond to, and partly assume the form of a dialogue with, two key points made in Storytelling and Ethics(edited by Hanna Meretoja and Colin Davis, 2018): Colin Davis’s understanding of ethics as “a place where the contest over values takes place, not where it is resolved” (p. 33), and Mieke Bal’s assertion that storytelling, “the presentation in whatever medium of a focalized series of events,” has two properties that make the text’s ethical aspect more specific: “It concerns others, and it is always, at least in part, fictional” (p. 37). Documenting the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) presents the viewer with a narrative ethics that, more subtly yet possibly more effectively than in Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1935), is complicit in Nazi ideology. Although the film is documentary, Riefenstahl’s rendering of the “focalized series of events” includes a fictional component which is ethically significant. In Holocaust survivor Edith Notowicz’s first-person narrative in Time’s Witnesses(2017), an ethically charged question is whether her testimony is “at least in part, fictional.” Turning to two novels published in the twenty-first century, the last part of the lecture will discuss how the narrative ethics of Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) and Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (2012) is generated, intensified and qualified by constituent elements of narrative fiction.

Jakob Lothe is professor of English literature at the University of Oslo. His books include Conrad’s Narrative Method (Oxford University Press, 1989, reprinted as paperback 1991) and Narrative in Fiction and Film (Oxford University Press, 2000). The author of numerous essays and reviews, he has edited or co-edited many volumes, including four volumes in the series “Theory and Interpretation of Narrative” published by Ohio State University Press. He has also edited The Future of Literary Studies (Novus Press, 2017) and Time’s Witnesses: Women’s Voices from the Holocaust (Fledgling Press, 2017).