Monday 25 March 2013

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

The following is an essay from Mubashir Khan from the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University and relates to the sciSCREEN discussion following a screening of Robot and Frank.
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, when referring to states of interrupted conscious, 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 the 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 the 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? 
John Locke

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 memory based on that story and a narrative both for itself and for Frank based on that shared history?


[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:
[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.

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