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Narrative Theory

Teacher Education Quarterly

The Rise of the Life Narrative

Writing in 1996, I argued that literature and art are normally ahead of other cultural carriers of ideology in providing us with new scripts, and define our personal narratives and “life politics.” I said we should locate “our scrutiny of stories to show that the general forms, skeletons, and ideologies that we employ in structuring the way we tell our individual tales come from a wider culture” (Goodson, 2005, p. 215).

Following this scrutiny I think we can see in contemporary cultural activity how the move to smaller, more individual life narratives is emerging. Interestingly this is often referred to as the “age of narrative”: of narrative politics, of narrative story telling, of narrative identity. Put in historical perspective against the last centuries following the Age of Enlightenment, we should see this as the beginning, not of the “age of narratives,” but of the “age of small narratives.” In our current individualized society, our art, culture and politics increasingly reflect a move to highly-individualized or special-interest narratives, which often draw on the literature of therapy and personal and self-development.

Perhaps a few examples from the work of some of our cultural icons will illustrate the point. Bruce Springsteen, the American rock star, has I think always been one of the best and most perceptive storytellers. He writes his songs very carefully and works on quite large canvases of human aspiration at times, such as his album The River. In this album he reflects, in line with Bob Dylan, who recently wrote that he “hadn’t got a dream that hadn’t been repossessed,” on the limiting of human dreams. Springsteen wrote, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” These reflections on the capacity of larger human aspirations to direct our life narratives have recently driven him in a more specific, individual direction. His album The Ghost of Tom Joad profoundly reflects in its title, as well as in substance, awareness of a massive shift in narrative scope. Tom Joad, of course, the figure in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, carries a storyline linked to mass movements at the time, which aimed to provide social justice at a time of global business depression. Once this link between individual storylines and collective aspirations is broken, we enter the epoch of small narratives, the world of individualised “life politics.”

In a sense Springsteen’s latest work, such as Devils and Dust, reflects the move we are describing: the move from grand narratives linked to political engagement towards individual life narratives and more specifically focussed life politics. We can see how this seismic shift in narrative capacity is explored and scripted in the work of our creative artists. Returning to the focus of Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, we see a retrospective look at narrative linked to social and political purpose; but his new album moves off into an individual life-narrative focus. Sean O’Hagan writes: “Unlike The Ghost of Tom Joad it possesses none of that album’s pointed social awareness. Instead we get a set of intimate and often fragmentary glimpses of ordinary people’s lives in trouble” (O’Hagan, 2005, p. 7). “What I have done on this record,” elaborates Springsteen on the DVD, “is to write specific narrative stories about people whose souls are in danger or are at risk from where they are in the world or what the world is bringing to them” (Ibid., 24 April 2005).

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  • Date of publication: 08/08/2012
  • Publisher: Teacher Education Quarterly
  • Subject:
    Narrative Theory
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