A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, David Cronenberg, 2005

A History of Violence has as one of its main concerns the manner in which Selfhood is constituted and the various rival claims that impinge on constructing that identity. The work of Galen Strawson analyses the strategies and the ways in which human beings attempt to build those constructions. For Strawson, those strategies fall into two distinct categories: Narrativity and Episodicity.

Narrativity, according to Strawson, has two elements:

  • 1)     Psychological Narrativity: This is a straightforwardly empirical, descriptive thesis about the way ordinary human beings actually experience their lives. This is how we are, it says; this is our nature. It is informed by the narratives that we create for ourselves; the identities under which we construct a sense of Self. This Self is, in the words of Jerry Bruner, “…a perpetually rewritten story…in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives.”
  • 2)     Ethical Narrativity: This states that it does not matter whether we are storytellers by nature, but rather that we ought to live our lives narratively because a richly narrative outlook is essential to true or full personhood. As Charles Taylor argues, a “…basic condition of making sense of ourselves (and of each other – my parenthesis) is that we grasp our lives in a narrative and have an understanding of our lives ‘as an unfolding story’.” This ‘understanding is vital because it allows one to fully develop as a person and in turn allows others to understand “who we are.” (1)

Both these narrative views of the Self broadly align themselves to what Strawson calls “Diachronic Self-Experience.” (2) This is a Self whose past, present, and future has indelible continuity, stretched out across time, and is prone to think of itself in narrative terms.

This thesis, however, is challenged by what Strawson calls “Episodic Self-Experience.” (3) Here, although the Self is perfectly aware of its continuity aspect, the narrative drive is dispensed with. One’s decisions are informed by the particular demands of a situation as it presents itself and cannot be processed into an objective filter determined by a narrative of ‘how one has always gone about these things.’ This does not mean that Episodics obliterate their connection to their past, on the contrary, as Strawson makes clear,

Faced with sceptical Diachronics, who insist that Episodics are (essentially) dysfunctional in the way they relate to their own past, Episodics will reply that the past can be present or alive in the present without being present or alive as the past. The past can be alive – arguably more genuinely alive – in the present simply in so far as it has helped to shape the way one is in the present, just as musicians’ playing can incorporate and body forth their past practice without being mediated by any explicit memory of it. (4)

Thus, the memories themselves are not the most important thing, but rather the fact that we are creatures who are able to remember.

Strawson, himself a committed Episodic, argues that Narrative structures limit the ethical possibilities available to human beings,

…Many are likely to be thrown right off their own truth by being led to believe that Narrativity is necessary for a good life. My own conviction is that the best lives almost never involve this kind of self-telling. (5)

In A History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen plays one man, but two characters. When we first meet him, he is Tom Stall, he runs a diner, lives with his nuclear family on a small ranch in a small town in a sleepy part of Indiana where even the police know each one of its citizens by first name. We are soon made aware though that Tom Stall was once someone else: Joey Cusack. Joey was wild, ran with mobsters, and once tried to take a rival gang leader’s eye out with barbed wire. Once this past, which was kept hidden from his family, is revealed to them, the lines of tension between Tom and Joey come to the fore, both in his dealings with his family and with the people from his criminal past.

Which one, then, is the real man?

For Strawson, one would not need a narrative history to answer this question or to explain Tom/Joey’s violence. The recourse to some sort of over-arching ‘examined life ‘ or some systematic quest to define the personality and definitively trace the curve of its development in Tom/Joey is essentially a dogmatic one. It does not allow for the full flourishing for living in the present in which one is not fettered by the history narrated for it. Indeed, Strawson could be talking directly about Tom/Joey when he says:

I’m a product of my past, including my very early past, in many profoundly important respects. But it simply does not follow that self-understanding, or the best kind of self- understanding, must take a narrative form, or indeed a historical form. If I were charged to make my self-understanding explicit, I might well illustrate my view of myself by reference to things I (GS) have done, but it certainly would not follow that I had a Diachronic outlook, still less a Narrative one. (6)

On this account, the history of violence depicted in the film does not mean that Tom has to define himself as any particular ‘type’ of person at all, still less as Joey.

However, this thesis is disrupted somewhat by other strands in the film which pose problems for Strawson’s theory. Firstly, however much the Self may be able to resist the false consciousness of a psychological narrative for itself or the construction of an ethical autobiography built to make sense of its ‘personality,’ the Self is still at some level in thrall to wider societal objectification. Self-telling here is indelibly linked with Other-telling. In as much as all human beings are seen by others through whichever filter of assessment they may choose to use (including diachronic analysis, as well as psychological or ethical Narrativity), Narrativity appears to be a tool far more compelling in the way that we make sense of the world than an Episodic injunction to withhold from this kind of Self/Other-telling or Self/Other-assessing.

Of course, this does not wholly invalidate Strawson’s argument, it just makes his task of living in the moment so rigorous that it would seem difficult to say for certain that one could wholly delimit or resist some kind of Narrative grasp of who a person is.

With this in mind, it is clear in A History of Violence that not only do Tom/Joey’s family react to him differently when the truth about his past as Joey emerges, but also the citizens of his sleepy little town, including the patrons at the diner he runs, would feel differently (in a pejorative sense) should they too become aware of the diachronic facts about him.

The other important strand in the film which raises tensions about Strawson’s argument is the reaction of Tom/Joey’s son Jack. Before he learns of Tom’s history as Joey we see Jack struggling to come to terms with being bullied in High School and the way that he should react to it. Initially, he uses humour to save himself from taking a beating. However, after he learns of his father’s past, a violent side to Jack’s own personality is unleashed and we see him viciously attack his bullies when confronted by them.

The history of violence then is not just a strong Narrative that comes out internally within the relationship between Tom/Joey, but also internally within Jack, as well as externally between father and son. Indeed, this genetic aspect would seem to override Strawson’s construction of Episodics. In light of the linkages (the history of violence) between Jack and Tom/Joey, not only is there the possibility of genetic pre-disposition to being a certain kind of Self, but there is also a clear Narrative strand which cannot be so easily dismissed by a call to Episodic priority.

Again, this does not invalidate Strawson’s thesis. He accepts these linkages, but describes them as “piecemeal,” (7) which is to say that they do not represent some definitive, objective writing on the wall about who one is. In this light, Jack could (and according to Strawson should) still mark out his own path without the relapse into identity-thinking which would mark out his behaviour for this or that particular type.

Perhaps our definitions of ourselves (and each other) lie somewhere between Narrativity and Episodicity. The visceral sense of belonging which one associates emphatically with one’s own history cannot just be explained away as “piecemeal,” or as something which should be so easily discarded. Nor should we fall lazily into the bad habits of continually constructing pulp fictions about ourselves. The attempt should be instead, as Strawson quotes from V.S. Pritchett, to “live beyond any tale that we happen to enact.” (8)

Bash Khan

[1] Against Narrativity, Galen Strawson. Ratio (new series) XVII 4 December 2004 0034–0006. p. 428-432. Also available on: http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/reviews/against_narrativity.pdf
(2) Strawson, p.430.
(3) Strawson, p.430.
(4) Strawson, p.432.
(5) Strawson, p.437.
(6) Strawson, p.449.
(7) Strawson, p.448.
(8) Strawson, p.450.


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