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Narrative Theory

Teacher Education Quarterly

The Rise of the Life Narrative

Once again then, Springsteen tries to link his narratives to a broader tradition, but this time the link is largely rhetorical, for the stories now are fragmentary and individualised without reference to broader social movements (beyond the nebulous “folk tradition”). As he says, he now writes “specific narrative stories” about people and the passivity of the response is reflected in his phrase that these people are “at risk from where they are in the world or what the world is bringing to them.” The scope and aspiration of narratives is finely elaborated in this quote, and it illustrates the seismic shift in the narrative capacity that has happened over the past two centuries.

The same redefinition of narrative capacity can be seen in filmmaking. Many filmmakers articulate their use of specific life narratives in contemporary filmmaking. Jorge Semprun, for example, who has made some of the most resonant political films, said recently in an interview that “the atmosphere in May ’68 and its aftermath created an appetite for political films.” “But today the mood is different. If you are to make a political film now you have to approach it not from the point of a nation

or national struggle, but one of individual choice” (interview with Jorge Semprun, 2004, p. 4). Gil Troy (1999), a history professor writing in The New York Times, put it the same way when contemplating the possibilities of action in the contemporary world: “Our challenge today is to find meaning not in a national crises, but in an individual’s daily life” (September 24, p. A27).

Reviewing new books on Derrida and Marx, Dolon Cummings (2006) recently reflected on these changes in the reach of theoretical narrative in looking at the differences between the two writers:

For theory to “grip the masses,” as Marx puts it, there has to be at least the foundation of a mass movement for it to address. Without such a movement, theory lacks direction, discipline even. Consequently the obscurity of contemporary philosophy as exemplified by Derrida and his followers is not a purely intellectual phenomenon. Disconnected from political engagement reading lacks urgency and how we read and what becomes almost arbitrary. (p. 39)

Cummings adds a very significant last sentence: “But the question of how to read any author cannot be entirely separated from the question of how to live, and that is a question that never really goes away” (p. 39).

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