ROBOT & FRANK, Jake Schreier, 2012

The Stories We Tell About Ourselves: Narrativity, Episodicity and Identity

Robot: The truth is I don’t care if my memory is erased or not.
Frank: But how can you not care about something like that?
Robot: Think about it this way: you know that you are alive. You think therefore you are…In a similar way I know that I am not alive. I am a robot.

For John Locke, memory is the key to personal identity: it is, more than anything else, the fact that I carry within me a living awareness of my own history that makes me the person I am. In resting on memory, personal identity relies upon psychological continuity to identify a person. Locke gives the example of a prince taking over the body of a cobbler. For Locke, as long as the prince’s thoughts are transferred across to the cobbler’s body, he remains the same person – the prince – even though his physical appearance has changed. On this account what matters then is not the body or physicality but a consciousness bound by memory which over time creates a sense of who one is. But what happens when our memories become disrupted? Are our present and future so inextricably tied to our past?

In answer to this question Locke claims that, ‘in all these cases, our consciousness being interrupted, and (our) losing sight of our past selves, doubts are raised whether we are the same thinking thing.’[i] This notion of not being able to hold on to our own personal histories; of not being the “same thinking thing” over time, may strike us with an existential dread and a fear that it marks the beginning of the end for us giving a meaningful account of who we are. A life where we cannot rely on memory seems too much to bear. Indeed, in one telling exchange between Robot and Frank, Robot declares, “The truth is I don’t care if my memory is erased or not,” to which Frank replies, “But how can you not care about something like that?!” How else, we may ask, are we to constitute a sense of selfhood if the stories that we tell about ourselves are not grounded in psychological continuity? Do we even need a narrative as a clear foundation on which our sense of identity is established?

Some philosophers have addressed these questions by way of a distinction between two categories that act as rival claims in the construction of selfhood: Narrativity and Episodicity.

Narrativity has two main elements:[ii]

  • 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’[iii] and that, ‘in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we “tell about” our lives.’[iv]
  • 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 is that we grasp our lives in a narrative’ and have an understanding of our lives ‘as an unfolding story.’[v] This understanding is vital because it allows one to fully develop as a person and in turn allows others to understand who we are.

Both these narrative views of the Self broadly align themselves to what Galen Strawson calls ‘diachronic self-experience.’[vi] 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 (let’s call defenders of this position, Diachronics).

This narrative viewpoint, however, is challenged by the concept of episodicity, or what Strawson calls ‘episodic self-experience.’[vii] 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 defenders of episodicity (let’s call them 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.[viii]

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.’[ix] In a sense, then, one is freed up to be whatever one wants to be unencumbered by what they might have been in the past. Strawson continues, ‘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.’[x] So, Episodics would want to claim that such a storyboard relationship with one’s past is unnecessary because it does not allow for the full flourishing of living in the present in which one is not fettered by the history narrated for it.

But can we reasonably argue this thesis to be the case for Frank? Can we really take the position that Frank is better off without some sort of systematic engagement with his past? Can we make the claim that the past need not have a bearing on the present, and even less so on the future? I would suggest no as an answer to all these questions and that there are strands in Robot & Frank which pose problems for Strawson’s theory.

Firstly, however much we may argue that the Self may be able to resist the construction of an ethical autobiography built to make sense of its ‘personality,’ it is still at some level in thrall to wider social 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. This is brought home most tellingly in the film when Frank’s daughter Madison defends him against suspicion that he has burgled one of his neighbours, “Come on, that’s ridiculous. The police have been hassling him for his entire life about a few mistakes he made when he was a kid.” 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 resist some kind of Narrative evaluation of who any person is.

Furthermore, there is also a familial aspect in the film which would seem to override episodicity.  It is clear that Frank’s past has left an indelible mark on his relationships with his family, perhaps most fractiously with his son, Hunter, and most poignantly with his ex-wife, Jennifer. This suggests that 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,’[xi] which is to say that they do not represent some definitive, objective writing on the wall about who one is.

However, 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.’[xii]

There is a moving scene at the end of the film when Robot convinces Frank to wipe out his memory. Does Robot do this in an episodic manner to best meet the immediate requirements of the situation? After all, we learn earlier in the film that Robot’s primary function is to best serve Frank’s health, even if that means lying, or in this case, his own extermination.  Or is there something else going on? Is there a notion of a deeper story from a shared history which emerges here? Does Robot develop a narrative both for itself and for Frank based on that shared history?

Bash Khan

References:

[i] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Book II, Chapter XXVII, Section 10.

[ii] The definitions entailed below are put forward by Galen Strawson. See, Galen Strawson, Against Narrativity. Ratio (new series) XVII 4 December 2004 0034–0006. pp. 428-452. Also available on: http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/reviews/against_narrativity.pdf

[iii] Jerry Bruner, Life as Narrative, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.435.

[iv] Jerry Bruner, The “Remembered” Self, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid.

[v] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.436.

[vi] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.430

[vii] Galen Strawson, Ibid.

[viii] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.432

[ix] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.437

[x] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.449

[xi] Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.448

[xii] V. S. Pritchett, The Myth Makers, quoted in Galen Strawson, Ibid., p.450.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006


Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others tells the story of an agent for the East German secret police – the Stasi – Cpt Gerd Wiesler, who is tasked with spying on a playwright, Georg Dreyman, and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland. Over the course of the film, Wiesler comes to question his beliefs about the nature of the East German state and his role in upholding it. This expresses itself in Wiesler’s surveillance activities, which move from a detached, cold professionalism – early in the mission Wiesler notes that Dreyman and Sieland ‘unwrap presents, and then presumably have intercourse’ – to an ever-closer involvement in the lives of his subjects.

Much of the power of the film comes from its unremittingly unsentimental look at the brutality and repression of the East German state. The DDR – the Deutsche Demokratische Republik –was founded after the Second World War and, owing to its position on the frontiers of Soviet Europe and as half of a divided country, soon developed a particularly comprehensive surveillance apparatus. By the mid-1980s, in a country of 17 million people, there were over 175,000 Stasi informants – a rate of penetration almost unmatched in modern history. The Stasi were the ‘shield and sword of the Party’ and took that role very seriously. The bugging and surveillance tactics shown in the film seem extreme but were a real risk if you were a DDR citizen deemed to be subversive. Of course, there were other tactics as well – when the 1960s arrived and some East Germans experimented with hippydom, they were rounded up and their hair shaved off. In fact – as an aside, and as something which is alluded to in the film – cultural surveillance was a big part of the Stasi’s role. Not only because artists are notoriously difficult to control and are very often politically dangerous to authoritarian regimes, but because the DDR was very open to Western cultural influences. Virtually the entire country could receive West German radio and TV signals, and there were import shops where one could buy Western music, even if books and the press remained tightly censored. But if one were unwise enough to listen to Western radio or watch Western TV too loudly or openly, and if one showed an unusual interest in Western culture, then you could expect a visit from the Stasi… or at least to attract their attention.

One distinguishing feature about the film is its interesting critique of the Marxist-Leninist system of the DDR. This critique is rooted in the theme of moral goodness, which runs through the plot of the film. Each character represents not only a different way of coping with the repressive political system but a different answer to the question of what it means to be good. Wiesler, for example, begins the film as a true believer; an idealist who really thinks that the people need to be helped along the road to socialism, and that it is the job of the Party and its agents to get them there. Wiesler’s ‘good’ therefore involves the maximisation of future ends, even if it requires one to get dirty hands in the meantime. But these ends are frustrated: the utopia Wiesler hopes to bring about will never be reached by the DDR. In order to understand why this is, we need to adopt a broadly virtue ethical approach. The good person to a virtue ethicist is one who possesses and expresses the right set of virtues – such as kindness, honesty, courage etc – rather than one who acts according to a certain prescribed manner or maxim. In the Aristotelian milieu in which we find the earliest full-fledged account of virtue ethics, the development of virtue is a necessary condition for the attainment of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. A society in which the development of virtue is made difficult or impossible, therefore, is one in which it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia.

The film therefore charges the DDR with frustrating human potential by punishing virtue and rewarding vice. This is most clear in the film’s treatment of honesty and integrity. The higher-ups in the system are portrayed as uniquely dishonest hypocrites. Wiesler’s superior, Anton Grubitz, is a flat-out careerist, interested only in his own personal advancement within the system; the Minister Hempf, for whom the investigation into Dreyman is taking place, is a decadent bureaucrat who pursues Dreyman in order to get a love rival out of the way. Grubitz sees nothing wrong with this corruption, reminding Wiesler on many occasions to ‘think of their careers!’ Success in the DDR seems to require this sort of careerism, hypocrisy or cynicism: Wiesler really means it when he tells a prisoner that the ‘humanistic system’ of East Germany is incapable of arresting people arbitrarily, and that’s why he’s only a captain; Hempf, on the other hand, quotes Stalin mischievously and is under no illusions about what the system is capable of and he is the Minister for Culture.

So much for honesty and integrity, then. This is confirmed towards the start of the film. Dreyman complains to Hempf about his friend’s blacklisting. Hempf’s response is a masterpiece in Eastern Bloc doublethink – paraphrasing, it is ‘blacklisting? We don’t do that here. You should choose your words more carefully.’ The reality of the situation is covered up by a creative use of language and a not-exactly-veiled threat. No wonder that in such a situation it is the liars and hypocrites who rise to the top. But the film does not only criticise the DDR because it had bad leadership. Its effects on public morality are also questioned.

This is epitomised by the case of Georg Dreyman, the writer who is spied upon throughout the film. Dreyman is an intelligent and well-meaning man with liberal sympathies, although he is also (like Wiesler) a believer in the Communist ideal. Unlike most of his fellow writers, however, Dreyman remains loyal to the regime: though he takes Western newspapers and lives a broadly middle-class lifestyle, his work is politically acceptable and he keeps a low profile in his personal life. Dreyman, in short, has traded the courage of his convictions for the comfort of remaining unconvicted. But this personal dishonesty comes at a price: Dreyman is torn between his desire for an easy life and the urge to tell the truth about the regime. In the end, Dreyman chooses honesty, after a series of events which shatter any residual faith in the system and confirm to him its brutality.  But this is an agonising decision for anyone to take, and others are not so courageous. Dreyman’s girlfriend, Christa-Maria, shows this other side of the coin. Chased after by libidinous Minister Hempf, she surrenders to his advances in order to retain her career as an actress and, disgusted by this prostitution of herself, she becomes addicted to prescription painkillers which she obtains illegally but with the tacit blessing of Hempf. Christa-Maria reasons that, if this is the price to pay, then she has to pay it: when Dreyman confronts her about the affair, her response is simply to say that, well, Dreyman’s in bed with the regime as well, and there’s no real difference between his intellectual prostitution and her actual prostitution. And there is something to this claim – both of them, after all, end up fucked and feeling dirty.

So this is a society in which virtues like honesty, personal integrity, and courage are valued less than keeping your head down and doing what you’re told. Even Wiesler, the idealist, recognises this from the get-go, telling a prisoner that he may as well comply: ‘senseless heroics’ will only land him in prison and the Stasi will get what they need anyway. And Dreyman and Christa-Maria show us that such a society does not lead to human flourishing. In fact, the East German state is a kind of anti-eudaimonia. When one attempts to be good, you’re punished.

I haven’t touched yet on the main development in the plot, which is Wiesler’s attempt to redeem himself. His experience spying on the rich lives of Dreyman and Christa-Maria, and his learning that his mission came about not from genuine national security concerns but for the sexual advancement of a powerful man, humanise him and make him realise that the regime does not fulfil the ideals he thought it did. Wiesler comes to realise that true human flourishing – the sort which he hopes Marxism-Leninism is leading towards – cannot be achieved in the repressive society which he has attempted to uphold. It requires love, care, and above all openness and honesty, all of which can be brought about by free artistic expression. This expresses itself – because Wiesler is no natural dissident – in his increasing attempts to protect those he is meant to be intruding upon. But this requires him to step outside and beyond the system. Virtue and repression are incompatible. And this is the main message of the film. If you like, it is the liberal critique of tyranny: you cannot flourish when you are downtrodden. A state which is itself paranoid and hypocritical produces paranoid and hypocritical citizens. And this is wrong.

Jack Price

References:

http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/3183/the_dreams_of_others/

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.