Wounds, Agency and Ethics

Small Epiphanies: December 16

One of the small things the dissertation committee wanted me to do to revise was to talk a bit about what, exactly, I mean by “breaking the narrative.”

The need for this part of the revisions is all my fault.  I wrote this paragraph:

But I think it’s not until you need the freedom that you can break the narrative. I didn’t break the narrative until years after I wrote that first essay, until I needed to break it. Living within a comfortable narrative is easier, sometimes, than breaking out of one.

And underneath it I wrote myself a note that said, “MORE ANALYSIS HERE.”

And although I have a distinct memory of deleting that note in the final draft I sent to the committee, somehow, it was still there, staring us all in the face, during the defense.

My committee members thought it was meant to be there–part of the dissertation disrupting itself. My face of course gave it away, and then it was decided that clever although that might have been, more analysis was indeed needed.

So here I am. What do I mean by “breaking the narrative?”

Do I mean, simply, changing the stories we tell about our lives? Not all the stories, though–just the ones that are preventing us from moving forward, from making meaningful, positive change in our lives. I do mean that. But then, why “breaking” the narrative, and not simply “changing” the narrative?

I think “breaking” speaks to the power of narrative, to the hold that narratives, ideologically-bound stories, have on our lives, reinscribed as they constantly are by all the communities of which we are a part. For me, “breaking” evokes shattering, not just modifying or adjusting but becoming free of something. Burning a bridge, even. Seeing something in such a new way that you can’t even imagine how you used to see it differently–or how you didn’t see it before. An epiphany of sorts.

Re-seeing. Revising. Revising yourself, your life, your story. Writing a new story that changes how you think about who you are and what you can do. Agency. Freedom.

And I’m back to Pollyanna. But this is a nice segue to tomorrow, whcn I will write about whether this is ethical, desirable, in the classroom.

William H. Epstein, in Contesting the Subject, tells us, “Traditional biographical narrative habitually enacts the scene of an abduction because, in order to discursively repair the biologically irreparable fracture (the alterity, the otherness, the discontinuity) between any two human individuals (reified generically as biographer and biographical subject), biography recesses the broken parts and causes the gaping of a wound.”

My dissertation argues that breaking the narrative is exposing Epstein’s wound. There is discontinuity among our subjectivities; when we represent, even momentarily, a subjectivity in language, we recess all the others; we shove them aside, or push them down; we hide them. Our self-narratives recess the parts of our lives that don’t fit. When we break the narrative, we expose the wound. We expose the parts that don’t fit. We expose the 23-year-old single, pregnant woman who surrendered a child and who was subsequently silenced. We expose that being chosen implies that someone was left behind, or that your position, as a chosen baby, is/was precarious. We expose the chaos, and the possibilities, in stories that seem inevitable and natural.

Is it ethical to push students to expose the wound in their stories? When is it ethical? And if it is, how might it be done with the least amount of risk?

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