Voicelessness and the Limits of Agency in Early Modern Finnish Narratives on Magic and the Supernatural

By Stark, Laura | Narrative Culture, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Voicelessness and the Limits of Agency in Early Modern Finnish Narratives on Magic and the Supernatural


Stark, Laura, Narrative Culture


Introduction: Self, Narrative, and Voicelessness

Given that narrative research has shown narration to be an innate trait of the human species (Abbott; see also Barthes; Nussbaum 230), the concept of narrative culture encompasses a vast domain. Here I define it as a system of conventions1 for representing temporally ordered events, conventions that are shared by a group. Such groups tend to be coterminous with linguistic communities. This definition implies that the conventions of a given narrative culture that are intelligible to one group may not necessarily be intelligible to another. Narrative culture is historically transmitted and inherited and can change over time. According to Cliffford Geertz (93), culture acts as a "model" in two senses, being both a "model of" and a "model for." In a similar fashion, narrative culture gives meaning or conceptual form to our social and psychological experience of reality by both reflecting the way in which its users understand themselves and the world around them and by shaping that understanding in the first place. This article is specifically concerned with the role of narrative culture in the social construction of self2 and agency through narrative, what narrative theorist Martin Kreiswirth (309) calls the inquiry into "narrative identity": how we use narrative to construct our sense of ourselves as "developing moral agents, with pasts, presents, and futures."

Narrative-by which I mean "a representation of events or series of events" (Abbott 12), is our only tool for understanding ourselves as agents operating through time (Abbott 3, 123). Conceptualizing our lives in terms of narrative thus facilitates the experience of self-continuity through time and explains why people have a tendency to perceive themselves as living out their lives in a temporally ordered narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Referring to this need for self-continuity, Anthony Giddens (54) portrays self-identity as "the capacity to keep a particular narrative going."

However, if we want to express and describe our experiences to others and ourselves through language, we cannot do it in any fashion whatsoever. We use our cultural conventions of narration to convey our identities, our personal histories, more intelligibly to others, thereby constructing a coherent social reality. People also use the characters they encounter in narratives as a means to express their selfhood. These characters are always "flattened" and typecast, in contrast to the fully rounded, constantly changeable and phenomenologically complex persons encountered in real life, because narrative characters are functions of the cultural norms used to tell stories. Norms for what is internally possible in a story are in turn shaped by the kinds of agencies seen to be possible, probable, and acceptable in real life. Such on-the-ground theories of personhood encapsulated in narrative are not just ways of expressing reality, they also shape how we experience it (Harré 22, 193). We seek to model ourselves after the kinds of characters narratively possible in our culture, since these will be the stereotypes and storylines others recognize. The limits of our narrative traditions are thus the limits of our identity, as sociologist Nikolas Rose (237-78) explains:3

We use stories of the self that our culture makes available to us, with their scenarios of emotions, their repertoires of motives, their cast-list of characters, to plan out our lives, to account for events and give them significance, to accord ourselves an identity as hero or victim, survivor or casualty within the plot of our own life, to shape our conduct and understand that of others. . . . Rules of this "grammar" of individuals-"language games"-produce or induce a moral repertoire of relatively enduring features of personhood in inhabitants of particular cultures, and one that has a morally constraining quality: we are obliged to be individuals of a certain sort. …

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