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Several years ago, while writing my doctoral dissertation, I came across an essay by the Russian neuropsychologist, Luria, where he reflects on how his ideas, theses and career grew out of encounters with his teachers, and their teachers' teachers, his mentors, and life experiences. This got me thinking; I thought I'd incorporate a chapter on my own academic relationships, a venerable line of teachers that, incidently goes back to Luria. I discarded that plan, later because it made my dissertation too unwieldly. My research in that direction was interesting, however, for it unearthed little bands of other thinkers who reflected upon their connectedness with diverse others: computer scientists have what they term, their "academic genealogy". Piaget, likewise, became intrigued by this when he developed a field called "genetic epistemology". The Chinese philosophy of Taoism, too, has a keen awareness of the intertwining relationships of self and others: parents, siblings, teachers, mentors, shop assistants, etc; even the interconnectedness with other creatures and the fundamental relationship we have with the physical world: trees, wind, footpaths, and so on. When this collection of self-reflexive essays from psychotherapists, psychologists and psychology teachers, Narrative Identities, was offered for review, I grabbed it.
Curiously, this book makes no mention of the other precedents for this line of thinking. The Preface tells us that the idea arouse from earlier works of the editors, Yancy and Hadley, which isolates the enterprise somewhat for me. Their idea for the book was suggested by another, but to think that this self-reflexive process has not been done before in the field of psychology is a little presumptuous. Such an assertion as this is all the more strange, given that the various contributors to the essays in this book are mostly workers in the fields of narratology, social constructionism, feminism, existential phenomenology, and similar psychological traditions. Most contributors already situate themselves within their theoretical narrative; their self already is seen as part of the multicontextualized worlds of work, life and everything. That this is so makes this book at once curiously glorious and peculiar at the same time. The enterprise is not new, as the disciplines of narrative therapy and social constructionist theses already indicate.
George Yancy and Susan Hadley, to 'help shape the process of epistemic autobiographical self-reflection and exploration' (their words), 'provided each contributor with a long list of questions, some generic and others that were tailored to the contributor's specialized work in psychology' (p.11). Such an enterprise, the editors realized, was wrought with risk. How might the contributors want to be remembered, how to write a life that is coherent for 'storied selves are elusive, complex, and multicontextual' (p. 11), how to do this requested task, was very much at the forefront of the editors' minds. Any story, however, is, in the end, just this, a story. Thus we readers get the innovative, the self-centered, the inhibited, the ordinary life that hides behind academic honours, the sweet and funny, the extraordinary, ...that whole panoply of human folly collected here in this one book. What is absent, though, are the stories from the editors, they preferring to keep their 'voices to a minimum by limiting [their] remarks to [the] Preface'; the book's weakness, as far as I'm concerned. By absenting themselves they, I suggest, perpetuate the premise of Cartesian thought that it is possible to observe without changing the fabric of that which they observe. After all they provided the contributors with questions! The "what" questions, with their responses, are laid out faithfully by Tod Sloan (pp. 228-244). The editorial presence was already there. Their efforts to categorize the contributors already place boundaries around the possibilities that might otherwise have arisen.
I am delighted by John Shotter's gift to this book. He reveals (p. 150) that 'George Yancy originally asked me to contribute toward this volume as one of the originators of the movement in psychology and social theory known as social constructionism. However, I have to say that for me, social constructionism has been a station on the way to somewhere else.' Shotter's somewhere else is social ecology (p. 151). Categories and the urge to categorization, in a life, can be slip-knots to something else, something far more spontaneous, far more responsive. They can, however, stultify, sometimes kill, possibilities. I feel that possibly some of the contributors to this book have been so limited by the questions given them, for there are hideously inhibited pieces among the reedbeds of reflexivity.
Narrative Identities provides a rich field for researchers and the genetic epistemologists among us. Another criticism before I finish: how very much more interesting this enterprise might have been if the editors requested self stories from representatives of psychotherapeutic traditions not given to self reflexivity. Maybe, though, this would have been like trying to bleed stones. We already need to recognize our embodied situatedness in the richness of our academic and non-academic environment to give justice to an autobiography of self as members of an academic family. To do the task well we need 'participatory ("with-ness" writing rather than representational ("about-ness") writing', as Shotter puts it in another context (p.160).
There is "with-ness" writing in this volume and there is "about-ness" writing. It is probably impossible, anyway, to maintain "with-ness" writing when writing about oneself, for the autobiographical consists not only of remembered connections and engagements, but stories told about oneselves by others who don't always have a participatory relationship. We make up a profile of ourselves that consists of these two kinds of accounts. The contributors to the book weave in and out of "with-ness" and "about-ness", that sometimes err on the safe representational account ('I joined ...staff at the ... Institute', etc) and sometimes focus on the phenomenological (eg "I" was always a "we" and an "I", Ilene A. Serlin, p.246). I suppose there are readers who will be most interested in representational accounts; they will be happy. My own interest as a therapist-in-training and ex-academic philosopher, is and has always been, with the experiencing "I" and I am only partly happy by this book. Less editorial guidance and more editorial transparency could have improved my view of the book. I suggest Yancy and Hadley, in the next edition of the book, write two self-revelatory stories in "with-ness" writing, so we readers can know where they are really coming from. Such an addition would make a good book a lovely book.
© 2007 Elizabeth McCardell
Elizabeth McCardell, PhD, Independent scholar, Australia.