LIFE AS FICTION
PhD by Kevin Murray
Department of Psychology, University of Melbourne, 1990
1. Introduction; 2. Narrative making sense; 3. Life manuals; 4. Life construction groups; 5. Travel space; 6. Travel and personal change; 7. Travel talk in context; 8. Narrative partitioning; References; A. Appendix
4 Life construction groups
At this point, to take further the question of making sense of personal change requires an extrapolation from life manuals to ordinary conversation. One way of bridging these two regions would be to assume a commonality of structure between them; one might point to their expressive function as a shared ground from which abstract structures may be established (this is to posit a shared textuality of representation). This shared ground is implicit in Harré's (1981) dramaturgical approach, which proposes the presence of ‘theatrical' conventions, or scripts which characterise the general expressive life of a community: e.g., rituals of introduction on stage and the street as markers of respect. An early strategy (Murray, 1985b) was to move beyond the scale of everyday social encounter to the level of biographical construction. I argued then that one could generalise the mythic forms found in literature to biographical construction in other regions, such as gossip. While the alliance between social psychology and literary theory may be extremely generative, I would argue now that it is more cautious to wait until the materials have been presented before structuring it according to mythic forms. The search for these forms in the way ordinary people construct their lives could blind one to the differences between the regions of text and conversation. The same could be said for the school of ‘collective representations' (see Moscovici, 1981 and discussion in British Journal of Social Psychology, 1985), even though those structures of meaning are not grounded in a literary tradition; still there is the prior assumption of the existence of ‘static' structures by which individual acts of making sense conform regardless of the region.
In social cognition, the collective representation approach has recently come under criticism for not taking into account the constructive function of talk (Potter & Litton, 1985). The approaches of Shotter (1989) and Harré (1983) typify a structurationist position which emphasises the process in which identity is constructed through talk. For these theorists, the central phenomenon is not an abstract representation, but the practice of conversation .
According to this model, an examination of life construction must take into account the practices entailed in revealing a life as much as the values it is seen to prove. At this point, therefore, no connection will be assumed in the means of making sense that are present in the forms of text and conversation in this study. However, the four causes used to analyse life manuals will be employed here in order to make comparisons from which an understanding of their similarities and differences of making sense might be created.
4.1 The life construction method
The task of constructing a fictional life entails drawing upon preconceptions about what elements and connections are necessary to give the semblance of a life. How is it that a person has a ‘life'? What does one look at in a person to begin thinking about the ‘life' they have lead? No doubt the answers to these questions are obvious in particular conversational regions such as gossip. However, they are not so obvious when using the formalised language of social science. The major problem is simply gaining access to the regions in which lives are constructed. The life construction method was shaped in response to this problem.
What is the region in which lives are constructed? In the previous chapter I presented materials that belonged to the practice of reading: the relationship between text and solitary individual. In this chapter the materials come more directly from conversation: the gathering of voices around a topic. There are a number of differences between these regions which should be considered before drawing links between them. In life manuals, a biography is presented readymade before the reader as a ‘text'; and it is as a text that I have approached the contents. In conversation, however, the frame used to represent a life is not so clear. How does one differentiate a conversation that attempts to make sense of a person to one which idly contemplates the weather? In everyday language, the former conversation is known as ‘gossip'. To formalise this region let it be defined here as ‘talk between people present within a conversational setting about individuals outside it'. So what happens in gossip?
According to Sabini & Silver (1982), gossip is a venue in which moral values are exercised. As they write (1982, p.105),
[Gossip] is a means of social control in that it allows individuals to express, articulate, and commit themselves to a moral position in the act of talking about someone publicly. Thus it is a way we come to know what our own evaluations really are.
In their terms, gossip lays out for display the values that may serve for future moral action: it is an exercise. As such it relates most directly to the evaluation of others' actions: Is what they have done good or bad? What this definition lacks is consideration of how gossip not just evaluates, but represents actions. Certainly the process of evaluation can be expected in the attribution of various motives to actions, but one must first present what they have done for evaluation, particularly if someone is said to have changed as a person. The conditions in which that change is represented are at least as important as the causes attributed to it.
In short, this study attempts to relate its findings to the description and evaluation of a personal history within the conversational region of gossip. Simulating this region is the main methodological problem to be dealt with.
4.1.1 Group process
There were two significant methodological decisions made about the simulation of gossip: the choice of groups rather than individuals, and asking groups to create their own person.
The decision to use groups was not taken out of a specific interest in their functioning. The concern is not how individuals are assigned different roles within the group. To use Shotter's (1983, p.41) phrase, the focus is the ‘dance' not the ‘dancer'. Rather, groups were chosen to preserve the dialogical context specific to gossip. The fear that individuals would not be able to recreate lives on their own without this context was confirmed by pilot studies, where individual participants admitted to either describing someone they already knew, or retelling a story from a novel. What was lacking was the argument between opposing points of view that would reveal the significance of events for making up a life. Without the transmission of information between participants, it is difficult to determine what are the essential ‘crystalline parts' (Levi-Strauss, 1981, p.626) and what are idiosyncratic references to experience and mood. One would expect a group to knock out those individual corners and come up with something that resembled more a collective product.
A parallel form of research can be found in action psychology. von Cranach (1982) attempted to reveal the social negotiation of means-end hierarchies by analysing transcripts of a husband and wife pair given the task of wrapping a pram. The life construction method has a similar interest in exposing the embedded practices by which a reality is constructed, though in this case the question is what makes up a life. Closer to the theme of this study, Kippax (1988) employs the ‘memory group' method pioneered by Haug (1987) in order to reveal the presence of ideological structures in the contradictions of personal narratives. Though the method is not fictional, the attention to the resulting stories as evidence of generalised narrative frames of meaning is shared with this study.
The second decision concerns the degree of structure provided for the groups. Given the familiarity between members of the groups it would have been quite possible to ask them to begin to discuss someone they all knew in order to capture the process of gossip in action. Instead, groups were asked to make up a fictional person. There were two reasons for this. The first reason is ethical. The presence of an investigator with recording equipment inevitably frames the event in terms of research. Given the uneasy boundary that separates informal gossip from official public declarations of value, this frame would make doubtful the genuineness of the group's gossip. This is in addition to the ethical complications in working on the gossiped version of someone else's life.
The second reason concerns the richness of the material. If a specific real individual was the focus of the group's discussion, whatever sense the group made of that person's life could be dismissed as already present in the material. Thus if the group described a person of bad character, no doubt a series of events could be presented as evidence that this was not a construction. Whereas if there is no ready information for the group to base these assertions, a clearer picture can develop of what sorts of facts about a person are necessary to describe and evaluate his/her actions.
The Life Construction Group has thus been devised to provide material for questions about making sense. What is seen as important to make up the life of an individual? What sorts of changes are seen to occur within that life, and what causes are given for that change?
Table 4.i Make-Up of Life Construction Groups
Ten groups were set up, consisting of between two and four people. 1 presents the details of the groups. They are distinguished by the name assigned to the fictional character constructed. In an attempt to generate a range of groups, various sources (university, cricket club, community group, secondary school) were contacted and asked to gather a small group of friends together. The 31 participants represented a wide range of ages (mean = 29 years; standard deviation = 11.65), however there are twice as many women participants as men. The difference between male and female practices of life construction is not under investigation in this study, though the imbalance of gender may be worth taking into account, particularly when examining the end to which lives are seen as directed.
Using the number of words in the transcript as a guide to the length of the construction process, it seems that most groups used about 10,000 words to construct a life, whereas there were two (both with all female participants) which used about half the number of words. The word counts give an indication of the degree of compression involved in presenting the constructed lives in this chapter.
Participants were familiar with other members of the group, and a relaxed atmosphere was assisted by the presence of refreshments. One of the participants, usually the contact person, volunteered his/her home for the life construction session. I explained to the groups that they had as much time as they liked to create a fictional person. The only requirement for this person was that he or she be possible. At regular intervals, I presented summaries of the group's progress. Only rarely was I called on to help settle arguments, and in those cases I repeated the arguments already presented and left it up to the group to resolve the problem. In particularly intractable situations, the group ignored the difference and moved on in the hope that the issue would be resolved later.
4.2 Constructed life narratives
This section presents a summary of the lives constructed by the ten groups. Each life is represented by a synopsis and brief analysis. The analysis employs the four causes used in the previous chapter. Each life is analysed through the identification of the trait, form, event, and end entailed in personal change. A more detailed description of the process of construction for each group is provided in the Appendix. In the following section I will attempt to draw from the transcripts in order to reveal the assumptions about the nature of the personal change.
4.2.1 Ten lives
18.104.22.168 Samara: A woman out of nature finds evil in the world
Story: An Indian born woman grows up in Africa with animals under the tutelage of a kind teacher. Travelling to Tibet she stows away with an American director and experiences the plastic world of Hollywood. She leaves to go to New York, then down South where she finds herself on the outside of both blacks and whites. While there an elderly woman patron introduces her to a male writer with whom she returns to Africa and is imprisoned during a military coup. She is eventually released and granted a notoriety that enables Samara to present her point of view about racism.
Analysis: Samara has trouble fitting into society: born into a nomadic lifestyle that is subject to various influences, she is at home in nature as much as society. This trait grants her a status outside racial categories and sets her on a course of wandering until she arrives in America. In America education provides the form of her ambition. This gives her an awareness of the injustice of sexual and racial relations in America. She finally is set on a course of action by the event of meeting a female patron, who introduces her to an appropriate mate. Their experience in Africa gains her the publicity she needs to further the end of justice. Samara's life shows that one can made a difference in the world.
22.214.171.124 Jean: Self-sufficient woman discovers her dependency
Story: A single mother is working in a children's clinic. Her desire for a relationship is brought into conflict with her professional career when her neglected son is befriended by a child psychologist who is chasing her. A talk with her mother reveals that Jean likes the psychologist and they get together.
Analysis: The story of Jean concerns a person who stands outside conventional roles. The reason she does not fit in is given as the trait of independence: she wants others to see her as a person first and a woman second. This trait takes the form of her profession of medicine in which she strives for success. However, unlike the other lives, Jean's story is not about gaining the power to change things. If anything, Jean forgoes her independence in order to accept her need for others. The event which prompts this awareness is a talk with her mother. This recognition is partly orchestrated by having the pursuer and pursued change roles. Travel overseas provides the action that allows this. The end of the story was left deliberately uncertain by the group, though the matter at stake was Jean's concern for the other.
126.96.36.199 Nicola: Artistic architect gains expression for her talent in the world
Story: The daughter of an Italian born builder studies architecture, and while overseas is forced to come back due to the death of her father and look after her family. Nicola soon gets married and has children, but then picks up her career again in New York, where she joins up with an archaeologist and travels around the third world doing useful work.
Analysis: The trait that alienated Nicola from normal society was an artistic streak associated with her Italian background. The form of expression of this trait was the dream she established of being an architect. This dream was developed by two scenes: seeing her builder father working on plans, and spending work experience in an attractive architect's office. Her interest in architecture took her overseas, away from her family, though she was brought back by her father's illness, and then her own family commitment. Travel to New York was the event which provided the opportunity for her to separate from these responsibilities and to achieve her dream of being an architect. After she does this, she travels to Africa and becomes aware of her own luck in life: she could be like them, starving and poor. Though her initial fulfilment was of self, the construction ended with her life devoted to the cause of justice.
188.8.131.52 Untitled: Someone on the outside discovers their capacities
Story: A person suffers in his/her youth from not fitting in. S/he is a Catholic in a Protestant neighbourhood, and takes on the role of joker in order to be accepted. Later in his/her adulthood s/he has a personal crisis which prompts him/her to have it out in a talk with his/her spouse and enables him/her to discover inner resources.
Analysis: Although Untitled seems to be the least successful construction in terms of narrative cohesion, it is interesting as a demonstration of the same narrative movement carried out in different ways. Although the constructors disagreed about the initial terms of the life, whether wealthy, Catholic, extrovert, etc., they all granted that life the trait of a loner, who existed outside of social categories. Each of their propositions involved a character who possessed a quality that sets them off from the categories of normal society: extrovert/introvert, Catholic/Protestant, etc. Mention was made of the dream as the form his/her individuality took in its isolation. Though the constructors did not agree on a specific event as a catalyst for change, the one possibility suggested was that talk between the person and his/her spouse would be an event to stimulate change. Where the difference became more significant within the group was the disagreement between two participants about the manner in which this displacement is resolved. One participant would have the romantic resolution of his character turning to the self, whereas the other participant would have it end with a turn to others.
184.108.40.206 Adrian: Boy grows up to live his mentor's stories
Story: A normal boy becomes friends with an old adventurer up the road. Adrian's ambition of being a pilot is successfully realised, but his work is mainly restricted to domestic flights. Adrian is left Arthur's diary which inspires him to go off around the world in adventures, eventually to return and become another mentor to a boy like he was to Arthur.
Analysis: Like other characters Adrian does not fit well with the people he should. The trait responsible for this is his sense of independence. The form taken by this is a dream of being a pilot, stimulated by the experience of being up in a crop duster. Though he seems to realise this dream in gaining his qualifications, Adrian is restricted to domestic service. The triggering event which breaks him out of this is reading his mentor's diary. Adrian sets out on a course of adventure which puts him in the position of hero rather than audience of stories. Though the end of self is predominant, there is one brief episode when Adrian meets his brother and finds common ground with him. Adrian thus in the end understands others like his brother and the children he will inspire to adventures.
220.127.116.11 Missy: A girl who thinks she is different finds people the same as her
Story: The daughter of upwardly mobile parents finds herself alienated from her family by her new private school and turns to writing. At university Missy finds an outlet for her work and becomes involved in journalism, travels to England, and settles down with a history academic who already has children.
Analysis: As in previous lives, Missy is constructed in a way that makes it initially difficult for her to fit into society. In her case the trait which distinguishes her from others is being a loner who does not readily form relationships with others. Missy is rejected by both middle and lower classes. Her thoughts are given form by the books she reads, and she begins to write. Going to university is the event which changes her from being mother's ‘puppet' to being a person who can express herself. For the first time Missy meets people like herself and they accept her for who she is. She finds a relationship and settles down to a life whose principle end is satisfaction of self. Complementing her gain in autonomy, Missy also recognises the debt she owes to others, particularly her parents, despite her earlier hostility to them.
18.104.22.168 Alex: The servant finds a way of overcoming his master
Story: An adopted son of a German yodeller is taken up by a rough master who tours his act of juggling monkeys. After losing his innocence on the streets Alex travels to America and escapes down South, where he is taken up by a Baptist preacher. Alex gets out, is imprisoned in Mexico, finds a home in a rebel camp in Brazil, and goes back to USA to kill his master.
Analysis: Alex is a person who cannot fit into social categories. Having the trait of loner, he fails to make meaningful friendships. Wandering around Europe his ideas take their form from the street, where he begins to get a perspective on the corruption of his master Zac. When he arrives in America Alex feels just as alien in the virtuous world of the Baptist preacher who abducts him. He gains the power to finally take control of his destiny and turn the tables on his master by entering a guerrilla camp in Brazil. This event sets him on the course of revenge against his ex-master. In finally killing his master, his life conforms to an end determined by self.
22.214.171.124 Naomi: A backward girl is transformed into a flawed genius
Story: A neglected daughter of academic parents suffers brain damage in a swimming pool accident and is restored without memory several years later. Naomi develops a great mental capacity through surgery, brain-enhancing chemicals and tuition. She opens a centre in the States, but takes up drugs, is knocked down by a car and dies.
Analysis: Though Naomi's life has obvious fantastic elements, it bears formal similarities to a number of the lives already discussed. Naomi possesses the trait of a loner, who is not integrated into established social groups. Her individuality is denied by the academic world of her parents and she is abducted by unconventional rebels. The form of Naomi's ambition is established through the education she receives. Through medicine she obtains the mental capacity to take enormous amounts of knowledge and establish herself as a practising professional. Naomi's life ends tragically in a meaningless death: her life amounts to nothing.
126.96.36.199 Acrobat: Dancer attempts to work in the world but is rejected
Story: A gypsy girl who is touring Ireland with her father's circus, leaves with a group of contortionists to live in Dublin. After learning to read and write the Acrobat becomes involved in politics and promotes the IRA cause. Her husband is killed by the IRA in an explosion intended for her. In response to a letter from the contortionists she goes to New York and tries to establish herself as a dancer, but once the money runs out she is left nowhere.
Analysis: Although the group did not express a great deal of confidence about its character at the end, there were points of strong agreement along the way. The experience of being ‘in between' was played out in the attack on the Acrobat by the force she had once fought for, the IRA. Like Samara, the trait responsible for this was her status outside established racial categories: she was a gypsy. Associated with this trait was an impulsive character and a talent for dancing. While in Dublin her education enables her to read and write and provides the form for her ideas, teaching her about the world. Receiving unexpected money gives her the means to travel and it is the event of receiving the letter from the contortionists which directs her to New York where she can test her self in dance. However, this cannot guarantee her success. The ending shows the Acrobat's life to have been a mistake; in the end there is nothing.
188.8.131.52 Heinrich: A genius fails to change things
Story: A German genius, whose father was a Nazi with a pornographic collection, becomes disillusioned with politics and is gaoled in Vienna. While there Heinrich is introduced to criminal contacts and goes to America, where he sets up his own pornography business, and recognises his sister in one of the films. He returns to Germany to find that nothing has changed and is killed in cross-fire.
Analysis: The group granted Heinrich the trait of genius which it associated with the figure of the German romantic intellectual. Heinrich gains a political picture of the world through reading books, which provide him with the form of his ideas and set him up against the values of his father. He begins a period of wandering which eventually leads him to capitalist America, where he experiments in the more worldly forms of life. There he reproduces the evil code he originally sought to subvert. In America his life is resolved tragically when he finds part of himself in what he exploits—he identifies his sister in a pornographic video—and this event triggers a recognition of the suffering his life has caused others. When he returns to Germany he dies a meaningless death which proves that the end of his life has been nothing. He is aware of the futility of change.
4.3 Evaluation of lives
The groups were not equally pleased with their products. For example, the constructors of Heinrich feared that their life verged on a plagiarism of German romantic film; by contrast, one goal that governed the construction of Nicola was that she be a person whom the group feels ‘good' about. While these internal evaluations of character do not undermine the significance of the discussions within the group—to a certain degree mistakes encourage argument which brings assumptions to the surface—they should be taken into consideration when making comments about the overall narrative of the constructed life. To give a limited sense of the ‘successfulness' of the lives a small rating study was conducted. Fifty two second-year psychology students were given summaries of five of the lives and asked to rate them for Consistency, Believableness, Familiarity, and Admiration on a seven-point scale from one (‘not at all') to seven (‘extremely'). The results are shown in 2. The figures should be taken as very rough guides, specific to a young educated sample.
Table 4.ii Evaluations of Lives
It is worth noting that although Samara was the most admired life, hers was perceived as relatively unbelievable and unfamiliar. The least successful life in these data was Naomi, which perhaps reflects the lack of argument that was involved in her construction. The two most successful lives were Missy and Nicola. This might be partly explained by the fact that they relate most directly to local tertiary studies.
Though the significance of these ratings is obviously restricted to the dominant values of the judging group, it is interesting to note where this appears not to be the case. The relatively high ratings for Jean indicate that the appeal of that life is fairly wide. Jean's life reflected a large degree of consciousness, unlike the narratives of Acrobat, Naomi and Alex. In general, the lives which were given a conclusion that affected world of others (Samara, Missy, Jean, Nicola & Adrian), rather than a subjective state of mind in the hero (Heinrich, Alex, Naomi, Acrobat & Untitled), were favoured as more intelligible and admirable by the sample. This suggests that lives were favoured which related to the general welfare of others.
Table 4.iiiFour Causes of Personal Change in Ten Constructed Lives
Table 4.iiicontains the four causes of change identified for each of the lives. In general the tendency of the constructed lives is towards the acquisition of agency, seen as the empowerment of capacities. In the case of Jean and Heinrich the construction led to identification with the suffering of another, which is associated with a decrease in agency. Other lives, especially those of Nicola and Missy, show a mixture of the two forms of change.
One of the most consistent features of the constructions is the initial position of the characters outside of official categories. This is most often associated with a trait such as loner, which involves difficulty in relationships with others. In all cases the characters possess a trait which places them beyond the familiar social world. The constructions of Samara, Nicola, Acrobat, and Heinrich draw from racial stereotypes for their traits. The other traits name a space ‘in between' categories, such as middle class and working class for Missy. The effect of these traits is to make it necessary that each of the characters go in search of a form of action that has not already been assigned to them.
In three lives, this form is characterised by dream. For both Nicola and Adrian mention is made of a scene witnessed by the character as inspiration for their ambition. The formation of direction in another four lives comes from learning: two from reading books alone, and two from education. In the remaining three lives the form of change emerges from formal and informal institutions: medicine, the street and the circus. It is interesting to note that in the case of Naomi, the Acrobat, and Heinrich, the anticipated form of change fails them. And in the case of Jean, she has to forgo her dream for another interest.
There are two types of events which trigger the change. The first involves the intervention of another without the character's conscious mediation. So a patron intervenes in Samara's life to fix her up with an appropriate mate, or medicine gives Naomi supernormal mental capacities (it is worth noting that Naomi's life is the only construction where the form of her change occurs after the event which sets it in motion). The second type of event entails the process of recognition. So a talk with her mother helps Jean realise her own needs, or New York assists Nicola in the confidence necessary to leave her family and become an architect. The former events correspond to the external intervention of the patron in Smiles, while the latter entail the dialogical context of message in Saint Augustine and Sheehy.
Finally, the end towards which the lives are directed included four types of values: justice at a world level; recognition of the needs of another; fulfilment of an internal goal of self; and the futility of any aims. A life such as Nicola's contains a sequence of ends: the attainment of personal success as an architect and the project of assisting in Africa and South America. In Alex's life, however, the final goal of killing his master has no direct relation to the situation of others. Heinrich's life contains the possibility of both gaining personal powers and changing the world, though in the end these are shown to be hopeless aims. This tragic dénouement of a life is not present in the life manuals; their purpose in inspiring readers would not be furthered by a life that is shown to be useless.
In general, the four causes serve reasonably well in distinguishing elements involved in the construction of lives. This analysis helps point to the difference between change mediated by the consciousness and change which is enforced from outside. In the former, the life contains an episode in which one is shown something, while in the latter one gains a capacity. How a life is constructed so that a person can stand back from life and be shown a different perspective on it will be discussed later (see Section 4.4.2). However, what this analysis of four causes does not show is the position of the characters in relation to social categories. Why is this important? As was noted above, one of the most distinctive features of the construction process is that traits serve to place the characters in a marginal role. The dynamics of this calls for a separate analysis.
4.3.2 Life between opposites
Table 4.ivTwo Pairs of Opposites in Constructed Lives
This analysis begins by looking at the oppositions between which the life constructions fall. The second column of Table 4.iv contains these pairs of opposites for each life. For example, Samara's trait of belonging to a natural world positions her between the readily identifiable racial groups. The second type of opposition present in Table 4.iv represents the contradiction that occurs across time in the character's life. In this case, a life moves from one element of a pair to its opposite. So Samara moves from the untutored environment of nature to the world of politics. The pairs of opposites in the third column involve a more complex process of movement which is worth examining in a little more detail.
The type of movement through opposites is different within the ten lives. Half the lives show a change in which the character is transferred to the ‘other side': the side against which they had earlier struggled. Jean reached a position where she desires the man who had desired her; Adrian metamorphosed into the hero of stories told to a boy that he once would have been; Alex became a master over his previous master; Naomi was transformed into a person who is more intelligent than her academic parents; and Heinrich became the corrupt and pragmatic man of action like his father, whom he had always resisted. In each of these cases, the characters become the ‘other' against whom they had earlier defined themselves. The other five lives present a different emphasis. The lives of Samara, Nicola, Untitled, Missy and Acrobat represent a liberation of unrealised possibilities into the actual world. Samara gains a useful outlet for her beauty and intelligence; Nicola is finally allowed to reveal her artistic talents; Untitled gains the confidence to test out his/her dream; Missy finds an audience for her writing; and Acrobat is given the chance to publicly demonstrate her private talent. These lives are released from the realm of mere possibility, the form of their alienation, into a sphere where their capacities can be publicly recognised. Although a similar emphasis on liberation may be found in the other lives (e.g., the release of feelings of dependency in Jean), these five lives are not so readily characterised by ‘going over to the other side'.
Whether it is recognised by the character or not, the constructed lives involve movement from a state of passive displacement to active engagement. The form of these life narratives is pendulatory: characters are pushed into situations of uncertainty in order to return to the ‘normal' world of social roles. Sometimes there are oscillations between these two poles within the narrative. Samara returns to the world of her childhood, Africa, in order to gain the credibility that will give her voice back in America. On the other hand Heinrich, after gaining position of power in America, is thrown back into the political wilderness of Germany without return. Given the pendulatory form, one might say that the lack of place in which the life originates frees the narrative up for this type of oscillatory movement.
At this point it is possible to take advantage of having available group transcripts to see how this pendulatory form operated in the construction process.
4.3.3 Process of life construction
Statements made by participants while constructing a fictional biography provide information about the reasons for including particular events as part of a person's life. The groups had no instruction on the dimensions of the task and therefore had to decide for themselves basic parameters such as when it was appropriate for the person's life to be finished. The need to settle these matters helped give voice to assumptions about ‘life' that would normally be silent. In this section, I will attempt to present some of the regularities in this construction process which brought about the pendulatory structures present in Table 4.iv.
Table 4.v The Creative Process in Life Construction
At its most general, the process of life construction can be seen as an alternating pattern of creating and defining the events and themes of which it is made. During the creative period, a type of ‘brainstorming' was allowed when a variety of alternatives is considered. 5 presents a series of statements which indicate the call for creative input; this is particularly indicative of times when the group felt that its construction was not interesting, or too predictable.
Table 4.vi The ‘Definite' Period in Life Construction
The ‘definite' period narrows the various possibilities suggested by a life so that it appears more coherent. The statements in 6 concern moments when the construction appears to be heading in too many different directions. In the construction process, the ‘definite' period keeps the life on a track while the ‘creative' period keeps the life moving. For example, Heinrich's constructors expressed a desire to give their character a ‘thematic reason' behind his actions, while at the same time avoiding a story where ‘every step is pre-determined'. These two processes of construction deal with the balance of sameness and difference within the life. They represent the points of oscillation between loosening and tightening the story, between making a life interesting while at the same time still believable.
The progress of these periods follows a common sequence. The constructions begin with a period of uncertainty in which various traits are suggested, the sex of the character is determined, and often the political interests of the members of the group are brought into consideration. 6 presents early statements from each of the groups which marked the characters with a particular trait. Some groups took much longer than others to get their narrative moving. This is followed by a productive period in which the possibilities of the trait assigned to the character are played out. For instance, Adrian's independence finds expression in the dream of being a pilot, which entails a course of action to gain credentials, etc. However, in the case of every group, this period of continuity reaches a point of exhaustion. There is a sense that the characters have no life of their own. The statements in 5 occur at this lull. (This happened in all the constructions except Naomi and Untitled. Naomi involved only two participants and Untitled failed to settle on a singular life.) At this point the life seems to the group to be foreclosed and more complications are needed to make the character ‘real'.
The assignment of traits and the courses of action that follow seem relatively self-evident as a means to construct a life. However, the period of lull that occurs well into the biography is unexpected. As it concerns making the character more ‘life-like' it is important to examine the response of groups to this challenge. How were characters made more ‘real'?
4.3.4 The leap
As the story of a character appeared to be coming to a conclusion, the groups were prompted to look over their work in order to judge whether there was enough substance to indeed claim that what they had constructed ‘works' as a life. The group constructing Adrian provides an example of such a phase in the creation of a life. Perhaps as a result of the care with which the group ensured that Adrian was a ‘normal' boy, members of the group began to express their dissatisfaction with him in the middle of the session. At this point the life appeared to have reached completion: Adrian seems to have achieved his goal of becoming a pilot. In the following discussion the three constructors talk about the need to make him more ‘interesting'. ‘Arthur' is the old adventurer who inspired Adrian's goal and left him diaries of his exploits in his will.
Lynn: I suppose it's easier to say I'm bored with him cos I don't know how to end it.
Monica: But some people do just all of a sudden toss their job in and do something quite different. It's not that unrealistic at all, people do make radical changes.
Bernie: He needs something totally different out of the way.
Monica: He needs shaking up.
Lynn: He can take an indefinite leave off work and go on a discovery tour for a while.
Bernie: But did Arthur make him do this.
Lynn: After he read the diaries, Monica said. So he can go off anywhere.
To orchestrate the episode that would enable the completion of Adrian's story, the group decided to throw its character into a situation of uncertainty by sending Adrian off to have adventures overseas. Adrian experiences a ‘leap' into the unknown. The group then worked the story backwards to develop the plausibility of this incident: Adrian receives the gift of Arthur's diaries which provides him with the motivation to leave his job as a domestic pilot. This experience grants Adrian the power to then act as mentor for other possible future ‘Adrians'. While before there existed a linear plot in which actions lead to the successful achievement of a goal, the life is now granted a recursive form: Adrian re-discovers his earlier ‘dream'. From being simply an audience for his mentor's stories, Adrian ascends to the position of acting as mentor to others.
Comments in 5 suggest moments when the groups decide to ‘launch' their characters out into something different. Nicola is to be ‘thrown' out; and Alex needs to ‘start moving on his own'. The groups seemed to want to give their characters a life of their own, independent from their constructions. What propelled the characters along this course is the event, which in most cases introduces them to foreign influences. Despite the difference of their new lives, these events make possible the restoration of abandoned needs. In the case of Samara, Nicola, Adrian, Missy, Alex, Acrobat, and to a lesser extent Naomi, the event which changes them is an affirmation by others of potential capacities. For example, Samara's patron recognises her worth as a political reformer and introduces her to the man who will take her to Africa. And in the lives of Jean and Heinrich the effect is reversed: they are shown by others the hidden limits of their capacities. So Jean's talk with her mother makes her recognise that the goal of being a successful doctor cannot satisfy all her needs: Jean realises that she wants to be in a relationship as well. With the possible exception of Naomi, who is granted increased neurological capacities, the change that characters undergo are transformations of what they think about themselves rather than their capacities per se. The lives thus entail moments of reflection, in which the characters recognise themselves as positively different from others, or humbly the same as others.
In most cases, the group managed to give meaning to change as it is experienced in the eyes of the character. The two types of recognitions involved in change are reflected in 7 and 8. 7 contains a sample of comments that show the characters reflecting on themselves as different from others in the world. Although in the majority of cases this is associated with an increased sense of agency, in the lives of Samara, Heinrich, and Acrobat it also involves discovering a world that resists attempts to make it anything different. The first two cases in particular can be interpreted as carrying an implicit negative evaluation of the world, though only in Samara is the character given the power to change it. The stories of Alex and Missy both involve an act of realisation in the process of defining their position. Alex is given the political framework whereby America can stand in for the hated Brazilian regime, and Missy finds herself trapped by her parents in the role of an object rather than a potential agent. While Nicola and Adrian find opportunities to discover their own competence, Untitled requires a critical point of suffering before the character can reflect on his/her position and look for something different. Each of these recognitions entails a proposition regarding the possibility of making a difference in the world.
The converse recognition of similarity between people is the theme of the comments in 8. Jean, Missy and Heinrich are able to recognise a similarity in the object of their struggle. Jean recognises a common desire in the man whom she had been avoiding. Missy acknowledges the debt she owed to the people she cast as her enemies: her parents. And Heinrich, especially after seeing his sister in the video, is able to identify with the people he buys and sells on screen. In the cases of Jean, Acrobat and Adrian, they discover the ‘real person', or the ‘human' beyond the roles they inhabit. Jean sees Frank as more than just a professional colleague, Acrobat finds that the people in the circus are more than just performers, and Adrian discovers that his brother is also a ‘real person'. In the remaining cases in 8, there is a discovery of a more limited commonality: Alex finds affinity with other strugglers, and Untitled identifies a shared link in a special group of people. In the lives absent from 8, Samara and Naomi, the characters are granted no explicit limits on standing out from others. One could say that their lives are the most romantic, in the common sense of being about a hero who resists integration into the community. The others entail a theory of a human ‘essence' that exists outside of social structure, particularly in opposition to the instrumental relations between people.
When looking at the construction process in terms of both a leap into the unknown and recognition of similarity and difference, an overall picture of the construction of personal change emerges. In order to give a person a ‘life' it is necessary to make that person aware of who he or she is. This awareness is produced by sending that person into an environment which contrasts with the one he or she has inhabited previously. This reflects Wilshire's (1982, p.243) statement that, ‘We must “go out of ourselves” to find ourselves; to find ourselves we must “come back” to ourselves from the world'. From that point, the person is able to reflect upon the ways in which he or she is similar and different to others. In the majority of cases, this pendulation takes the form of a ‘push' out into the world—the person is set on a course of travel.
4.3.6 The function of travel
In the case of Adrian presented earlier (see Section 0) the constructors restored his ‘dream' by sending him overseas on a series of adventures. Taking a character out of the familiar environment to another country was the most common means by which groups gave ‘life' to their constructions. Travel performs the twin function of releasing a character's potential or taking them away from the familiar world. In eight of the ten lives, the characters travel overseas in order to realise their potential, to test their substance. The exceptions are Untitled, where few specific events actually occur, and Jean, where travel is used to disrupt the normal state of affairs.
In the majority of cases, travel is the site of action. It is where the character stops being the object of events and becomes their active creator. The construction of Nicola contains an example of this. The group had taken Nicola to New York to extricate her from the family restrictions that have been limiting her ambition to be an architect. When she arrives at New York, the group begins to question what she does there.
Fran: She's been practising architecture for some time but she's in New York with the archaeologist which means he goes off anyway. He's not really a social human being.
Peter: So what does she do?
Fran: That might be okay for her ‘cos New York is one of the most fascinating cities.
Thaïs: Then it's degenerating.
Fran: No maybe she likes the fact that she can look at a city and enjoy it and enjoy people. She doesn't have responsibility.
Peter: Does she indulge her childhood passion of painting?
Thaïs: She makes clothes doesn't she?
The ‘people' and the ‘fascinating' city are assumed by Fran to have a liberating effect on Nicola, something which Peter and Thaïs respond to by suggesting potential elements in her makeup which could now be brought into play. The hidden talents of painting and clothes designing are part of the ‘artistic' trait which had separated Nicola off from the normal world of family commitments and practical tasks. In New York, Nicola finds expression for this trait, which is then given the opportunity to be tested in the practical world of architecture. It is worth noting that, unlike the similar case of the Acrobat, Nicola's efforts are recognised in New York. The groups constructing Nicola and Acrobat may be seen to differ in the hopefulness of being able finding a place for a trait of individual talent in the world.
Besides inscribing the character's difference in action, the alternative role for travel is as a means of asserting a possible similarity that is shared between people of different positions in the social order. Nicola's group employed both these possibilities in travel in her construction. Nicola goes on to Africa, where she confronts a situation that is not present in Western civilisation.
Peter: As a part time project and as a need to fulfil she designs cheap communal houses for the natives in some country where her husband's doing a dig.
Fran: I think the philanthropic thing is very important ‘cos she realises she's had such a comfortable life and on top of it she's got this relationship with this man so she feels the need to contribute.
Thaïs: To contribute as a good citizen and a community oriented person.
Fran: So she does that and basically her life's not really changing from 42 on. Her central core isn't changing the environment's changing and her perceptions are.
Africa is the space where Nicola ‘expands her horizons' and puts her own position in perspective; she realises how lucky she has been. It is this recognition which supports her ability to ‘contribute as a good citizen'.
Parallel developments occur in other constructions. Besides Nicola's life, six other lives contain an episode in USA. America gives expression to Heinrich's real world organisational talents, provides an audience for the Acrobat's idiosyncratic dancing, and reveals Samara's intelligence and goodness. The other side of America is its corruption, and this plays a part in the lives of Heinrich, turning him into what he once abhorred, Samara, revealing the evil of racism, and Naomi, providing a drug culture in which she could do her work, but also providing the drugs. It is interesting that though the function of New York in the stories of Nicola and the Acrobat is almost identical, the fates of the respective characters are opposed: Nicola's success reveals a city which generously rewards talent, and the Acrobat's failure shows the converse, of how an unfamiliarity with contemporary fashions will lead to great loss.
The other destinations referred to in the lives are England, South America, and overseas in general. In all these cases, the experience of travel provides a release from dependencies. The only other reference to Africa occurs in Samara's life, where, as with Nicola, it provides a moral experience that enables her career to be given an altruistic end.
In almost all the constructed lives, the movement to a separate space, and release from normal constraints, is used to switch the development of character from one of unfulfilled potential to the possibility of its realisation. Travel reveals. For example, one of the constructors of Alex reflected as his character was developing: ‘I think what we're getting is a few background twists so when he gets to the States, all these things can start to come out'. Travel acts as a space to demonstrate the potential of lives outside of how the characters might be conceived of by themselves or by others. The event of a journey is like a beam of light that shines on the facets of character to reveal its inner qualities.
In general, what the constructions of lives have shown is the creation of a space in which the characters are granted access to a point of view that is alternative to that which has typified their previous life. In some cases this leads to a release of potential capacities, in others it entails their limit.
4.4 Implications of life constructions
One general point that can be made about the attempts of groups to construct characters is that the idea of a linear path towards selfhood is an insufficient model for what happened. The life course understood as a developmental sequence by these groups could not be characterised as being guided by a singular path. In all cases, the groups drew from sets of dualisms in the project of giving life to a fictional being.
4.4.1 Social and personal identity
The most powerful duality existed between conditions of similarity and difference. Where the characters achieved a state of recognition, it was usually in terms of their difference from the world or their similarity to others. This duality corresponds to the relationship outlined by Harré (1983) between social and personal identity projects. The former concerns the general role one may be granted in a community, and the latter one's individual trajectory through that role. Though Harré argues that particular groups experience problems with one or the other type of being—migrants in being given status, and the ‘privileged' in demonstrating personal ownership of their position—most of the characters constructed by groups needed to complete both hurdles.
Harré's dualism of constructing similarity and difference is considered less abstractly by anthropologists, who examine the ritual management of these processes. In his study of a Middle Eastern Moslem community, Bourdieu (1977) distinguishes between the ‘diacritical' intent of rituals that assert differences between people—e.g., tests of manhood—and the ‘synthetic' intent of rituals that assert a similarity that links people, whose way of organisation is to construct a passage across opposites. This dualism is also reflected in Turner's (1969) scheme for understanding ritual. Turner characterises society as composed of two elements: structure and communitas. The ‘structure' of a society includes the hierarchical separations that exist between people as they fulfil their roles. This structure is involved in the practical organisation of work. The other element of this pair is ‘communitas', or ‘anti-structure', which exists in opposition to ‘structure'. ‘Anti-structure' is a liminal organisation which represents the common human essence that links people. It is often created in carnival periods where subversion of the normal hierarchy is presented as proof that incumbents are not constituted solely by their roles. This is formally associated with the comic form, which refers to the rebirth of a new order and the exit of the old: ‘The King is Dead! Long live the King!' The role survives despite the absence of its incumbent.
The ‘anti-structure' of the life space is clearly indicated in the comments regarding the characters' recognition of similarity (see 8), such as Jean's realisation that Frank was more than just a professional colleague. In these cases, the characters find something they can identify with in the person they officially oppose.
Of the ten lives, some progressed towards a state of difference from others, and some towards sameness. What sort of logic best characterises these various trajectories? Turner makes a distinction which is allied to Harré's concepts of social and personal identity projects. Turner identifies two types of passage: one involves achievement of status and the other relates to its reversal. Both theorists relate these processes to a theory of balance: each passage is thus seen to redress a previous imbalance that consisted of being too different or too much the same as everybody else. This theory is reflected in the constructed lives where lack of agency is complemented by the promise of power, and self-sufficiency is placed with a recognition of dependency.
Despite the contrasts of these types of recognition, they both share the same structure of alterity for their construction. The ‘leap' from one trait to its opposite is what seems to ‘make' a constructed life. Such a structure was also found in the previous chapter in the analysis of texts that advise how to live a life. There the narrative structure used to present lives involved the act of ‘pendulation'. In this process the character experiences in crisis a swing from one state to its opposite: the swing from guilt to redemption in St.Augustine's Confessions; the rise from lowly origins to great success in Smiles' Self-Help; and the reverberation of mortification and hope present in the midlife crisis described in Sheehy's Passages. The generality of this structure suggests that its purpose extends beyond the construction of biography to the general construction of meaning. While this conjecture is beyond the scope of the present study, it can be augmented by Ricoeur's (1984) analysis of narrative, which involves a moment of alterity, or contingency, in which possibility rather than a determined course of events can emerge.
Turner (1980) finds an allied structure in the process of ‘social drama'. ‘Social drama' follows a standard general pattern: a conflict which is embedded in social life is transposed into a marked-off space where it is resolved through ritual. This ritual brings conflict to a head in a limited struggle and reincorporates the result back into social life. The Western system of legal arbitration is a clear example of this, though ‘social drama' may be seen to extend down to the level of everyday arguments and stories. This process is a way of relating the two processes in the construction of a life: the characters are placed in a situation of opposition (difference) and the outcome of that struggle becomes the ground for their reintegration (sameness). Without the component of reintegration, the life is made heroic, giving it the capacity for tragedy, as in the lives of Heinrich and Acrobat.
For Turner (1980) one of the outcomes of the process of social drama is the transformation of particular values into a system of consensual meaning. As argued in Chapter Three, it is possible to read lives as demonstrations of certain ideas as they are recognised through experience. The place of life construction in Turner's model reinforces the point made by Sabini & Silver (1982) about gossip as a form of exercising moral judgement. The groups may be seen to be constructing their lives in the process of presenting moral points of view. That one of the dominant moral points seemed to be the possibility of a ‘humanness' beyond roles may also be related to the context of the construction: a group of people passing time in a common project.
In summary, the construction of lives in groups can be seen to consist of two processes: making the person different from others by assigning them a trait that places them outside social categories; and making the person the same by having them experience what it is like to be the ‘other' of how they conceive themselves as different.
In this study, the movement that granted characters the experience necessary to form a picture of themselves as different or the same, occurred during a passage of alterity. The experience of opposites gained in this passage seems to indicate a consciousness which is beyond categorisation, and therefore a source of agency. In the majority of cases this passage occurred during an overseas journey. In order to feel that their character had ‘life' the groups mostly decided to have their character travel to another land, particularly America. Travel provides the space in which they can gather the experience necessary either to make a ‘difference' in the world, or to find their place in it with others.
In order to examine how the processes so far uncovered might occur outside of hypothetical scenarios and texts, the topic of travel seems likely to be a fruitful area of discourse. In travel talk there would seem to be a readymade source of practices about the making sense of personal change. Of all the spaces incorporated in the creation of characters, travel seems to one to most resemble the laboratory in which a person is revealed.
The creation of such a space as travel for the construction of life may be seen to involve a form of ‘partitioning': the background of the characters is separated off from the narratives that grant them awareness of who they are. Narrative partitioning is a term that I will apply more generally to characterise the division in a life between ‘normal' existence and an episode of contingency, in which events may occur to change one's point of view. The majority of life construction groups sent their characters out into the world, on a series of travels, in order to experience unfamiliar situations and thus gain their point of view. It remains to be seen what parallels emerge when examining the talk of real characters about their travel experiences.
. An additional note to this is the cyclical form present in the lives of Heinrich, Samara, Naomi, Nicola, and Adrian. In these cases the characters gain powers by personal transformation yet finish off their lives seeking to regain what it was they had originally. Nicola ends her days alone, Adrian goes back to living in a world of dreams and adventures, Naomi seeks drugs to counter the knowledge of the world, and Heinrich leaves his job.
. In this sense, it has a function of testing a character. As such, its role might broadly fit under the term ‘career', with the difference that travel involves a more provisional examination of character than vocational performance, which becomes fixed in the details of a ‘file self' (Harré, 1983).
. This is also the space characterised by Bakhtin (1984) as the ‘carnivalesque', where the undermining of normal power relations is partly exercised by popular ‘grotesque' demonstrations of body release.
. The advantage of looking at the life construction process is that in addition to this understanding of the function of travel for demonstrating character, one can examine the particular place it has in the narrative of the subject. The role of travel in liberating the potential of a character displays an affinity with the literary function assigned to the space of ‘green world'. This terms originates from criticism of Renaissance texts (Berger, 1965 and Frye, 1957), with particular reference to the forests in Shakespeare comedies. In these spaces, the characters who are outlawed from normal society find solidarity with a diverse collection of rebels hiding away from authority. These ‘utopic spaces' (Barton, 1985) provide time out from the divisions that are part of the normal social order. The concept of space termed ‘green world' introduces an evaluative dimension to travel which is absent from the analogy with an experimental laboratory.
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