Origins III – Narrative Theory

In my last post, I explored the relationship between socialism and democracy and how the two sides of the debate on Venezuelan education viewed legislation on its reform as either inherently democratic or inherently undemocratic, depending on their overall beliefs about socialism. I ended my post by quoting Georg Sørensen, who in “Democracy and Democratization” states, “In the debate about the relationship between capitalism and democracy, the liberalist tradition maintains that only a capitalist system can provide the necessary basis for liberty and democracy, [while] [t]he Marxist tradition rejects this view and argues that capitalism must be replaced by socialism as the necessary basis for democracy” (Sørensen 442). Ever since taking a course called Marx, Freud & Ethics as an undergraduate, I’ve thought a lot about the relationship between capitalism and democracy, and how capitalism to me seems ill-equipped to ensure the tenets of democracy the greatest champions of this economic system purport to hold so dear. After all, democracy is a political system in which each individual participant is supposed to have an equal vote, yet within the economic system of capitalism, he with the most money gets to cast the most votes and therefore wins. This overall attitude stems from my thirty-or-so odd years of (subconscious) data collection on the political, economic and social realities of these United States of America. It’s subjective, based on evidence and fact to be sure, but also intimately tied to my values, my beliefs about morality, and ultimately to how I define my identity as an individual. In terms of my initial approach to Venezuela, this deeply personal perception of the world influenced the preconceptions I brought to my research, as did the dominant US storyline that put socialism and capitalism on polar ends of the continuum of economic systems. Based on the narratives I believed about myself as an individual and the relationship between those systems, and drawing upon not much more than associations with a few key words, I assumed on what side of the Venezuelan debate I would be, and I was prepared to align myself with one of two Venezuelan political camps. In retrospect, the danger and naivety of my initial position is clear. Yet, as individuals within society we routinely make judgements about policies and our political adversaries in this same way, without research and often based only upon a few sound bites. That’s the power of narrative, and to understand the absolute influence of narrative and how that influence is wielded, we turn to Mona Baker’s Translation and Conflict.

Translation and ConflictIn Translation and Conflict, Baker defines narrative quite simply as “the everyday stories we live by” (Section 1.2). She expands on the definition, stating that narrative refers to the “public and personal ‘stories’ that we subscribe to and that guide our behavior,” and “the stories we tell ourselves, not just those we explicitly tell other people, about the world(s) in which we live” (2.2). In keeping with Baker, I use “narrative,” “story,” and “storyline” interchangeably in this post, and throughout my writing on Chávez; and although a discussion on “stories” may seem simplistic, a deeper look into narrative theory demonstrates its complexity. In Baker’s view, and within social and communication theory, narrative is understood to be the singular means through which we interact with and understand the world, and vice versa. Baker cites Walter Fisher, among the first to research this topic, to emphasize the primacy of narrative: “Narration is the context for interpreting and assessing all communication – not a mode of discourse laid on by a creator’s deliberate choice but the shape of knowledge as we first apprehend it” (cited in Baker 2.1, boldface added). Further, within social and communication theory, “narrative tends on the whole to be treated as the principal and inescapable mode by which we experience the world” (2.1, boldface added). In considering this absolute influence, we must also note that any discussion on this topic is ultimately a discussion on identity. And the complexity of the collection of stories that make up our individual identities becomes evident when we consider the volume of sometimes complementary, sometimes conflicting stories to be attended to and processed at any given moment.

While Baker notes the variety of narrative categorizations that exist among researchers, her discussion focuses on the following types: ontological, (collective,) public, disciplinary and master narratives. Of these competing storylines, ontological narratives, or “narratives of the self,” are the individual stories “we tell ourselves about our place in the world and our own personal histor[ies]” (3.1). These personal histories are usually told in a chronological format, in which we pull from the unrelated events that make up our lives important moments that are emphasized and remembered in such a way to give our overall story continuity and meaning. For example, if I were to recount the events of my life that led to my becoming a professional within the language services industry, I would talk about how tutoring Hmong and Spanish speakers in the English language as a volunteer inspired me to seek opportunities to work collaboratively with individuals of other cultures… Which led to a semester of study in Spain… Which led to my work as a bilingual educational assistant within a couple of local schools… At which point I wanted to pursue graduate studies, but seeing how undervalued educational professionals were becoming, I elected to direct my passion for language to translation studies. Cause and effect. Further, Baker emphasizes that our personal stories take meaning from their relationship to the collective. According to Baker, the term “collective narrative” (or shared narrative) is used broadly to refer to “any type of narrative that has currency in a given community” (3.2). She further notes that ontological narratives are very closely tied to collective, or the “symbols, linguistic formulations, structures and vocabularies of motive… without which the personal would remain unintelligible and uninterpretable” (Ewick and Silbey cited in Baker 3.1). That is, our stories of identity do not exist in a vacuum; instead, we draw upon and contribute to the collective narratives within which we find ourselves surrounded in the telling of our stories. Even naming conventions locate us within and reinforce a larger narrative framework. For example, the title Mrs. Rodriguez is replete with collective narratives on marital status, gender, sexual orientation, family relationships, ethnicity, origin, etc., and it’s not more than two words.

Here’s more from Baker on the relationship between the ontological and the collective: “shared narratives, the stories that are told and retold by numerous members of a society over a long period of time, provide the blueprints for ontological narratives, including the blueprints for the social roles and spaces that an individual can inhabit” (3.1). These narratives therefore “shape and constrain our personal stories, determining both their meanings and their possible outcomes” (3.1). In other words, narrative is the means by which identities are projected onto us, through the dominant storylines in circulation that speak to relationships of power, stereotypes, gender roles, etc. And Baker emphasizes the adverse effects these storylines can have upon our lives:

The ways others ‘story’ us can have very concrete implications for our material, professional, social and psychological well-being. It can enhance or destroy our careers, make us feel good about ourselves or throw us into despair, improve our social standing or turn us into outcasts. And all this naturally impacts on our own developing narrative of who we are and how we relate to the world around us, on how we ‘narrate’ ourselves. (Baker 3.1)

When reflecting on my own observations of the world, the very real impact of narrative is glaringly evident. I see that narrative determines who goes to what kinds of schools, which in turn heavily dictates the opportunities and limits of our futures. It determines the perceived gravity of and consequences for our errors. As Baker notes, it governs the volume and influence of our individual and collective voices, how we “talk back” to power and speak our truths, and where and how and to whom we listen as actors in different institutional and social settings. In other words, narrative is a really big deal, in that it “restricts the scope of [our] present personal narratives, [our] sense of who [we] are, if these are to be considered legitimate. In other words, it circumscribes the stock of identities from which [we] may choose a social role for [ourselves]” (2.3).

While the kinds of obstructions as a result of dominant narratives cannot be over-emphasized, neither can the necessity for certain narrative limitations be downplayed. Baker turns to Goffman to explain that necessity: “societies everywhere, if they are to be societies, must mobilize their members as self-regulating participants in social encounters” (qtd. in Baker 3.1). In other words, knowing “who we are” with relationship to the collective is a “precondition for knowing what to do” in response to that collective (qtd. in Baker 3.1). I noted earlier that any discussion on narrative is necessarily a discussion on identity, and here we see identity coming into play as a very malleable construct that takes shape depending on the social situations in which we find ourselves. The stories we tell and the way we tell those stories (i.e. formally or informally) will differ greatly in a courtroom, at our places of employment and in our homes, to give a few examples. Additionally, identity in any of these social situations is heavily influenced by cultural norms, since each culture has its own conventions for assigning status and authority based on such factors as age, gender, ethnicity, etc. But it’s our understanding of these conventions, of our narrative location and where we fit in that environment that allows us to successfully navigate social interaction. And interestingly, being that we draw upon and recycle the themes and frameworks in circulation in our everyday interactions, the stories we tell—even if those that are meant to deviate or subvert dominant norms—reinforce collective narratives to some degree.

Moving on to the specific types of collective narrative that we must attend to, public narratives are the “stories elaborated by and circulating among social and institutional formations larger than the individual, such as the family, religious or educational institution[s], the media and the nation” (1.3). Baker notes that public narratives shift in response to developments in the political and socio-economic environment, and some contemporary examples of public narrative include 9/11, movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and debates on such topics as marriage rights, information privacy, gender equality, and Citizens United. Baker notes that whether or not the members of a society will accept a public narrative depends on their ability to “easily accommodate [it] in[to] their own stor[ies] of identity” (qtd. in Baker 3.2). Thus, the often competing and contradictory views that are held as truths by different political parties and their supporters. Next, disciplinary (or conceptual) narratives are those disseminated within communities of researchers, or the “stories and explanations that scholars in any field elaborate for themselves and others about their object of inquiry” (3.3). Darwin’s theory of natural selection is an easily recognizable example of a disciplinary narrative, and among the narratives of this kind in circulation within the field of translations studies are “one-to-one correspondence,” “free vs. literal translations” and “domestication vs. foreignization.” Hopefully, unfamiliar readers will gain an understanding of these topics through this blog. Finally, the master narrative (or meta-narrative) is defined much more grandiosely as the “epic dramas of our time… in which we are embedded as contemporary actors in history” (qtd. in Baker 3.4). This category includes Industrialization, the War on Terror, and Capitalism versus Communism; and the defining characteristic of meta-narrative is its “currency… over considerable stretches of time and across extensive geographical boundaries” (3.4). How master narratives come to wield such reach and influence is truly awesome to consider, especially for those that gained global traction pre-globalization, and as Baker notes, “narratives do not travel across linguistic and cultural boundaries, and certainly do not develop into global meta-narratives, without the direct involvement of translators and interpreters” (3.4).

I began this discussion noting that human beings understand all forms of communication as pieces of narrative, and after considering the different types—ontological, public, disciplinary and master—that all communication, whether email, posts on social profiles, medical studies or journalism, is a form a narrative should also be clear. This is a crucial point, since narrative theory acknowledges the human, and therefore subjective, construction of all narratives. This despite the tendency to weight the objective as more valuable than the subjective and to define certain practices, such as scientific inquiry, as more objective and therefore more valuable than what are considered to be more subjective arts. Narrative theory reminds us that stories like histories and religious texts, are just that…. human-constructed stories, and as a public we are becoming increasingly aware that activities such as statistical analyses, traditionally viewed as objective work with numbers, are manipulated to tell a particular story (2.1.1). This does not mean that there is no such thing as fact, only that any human description of fact is decidedly, subjectively human, a view which to me is very inspirational, in that it calls for a new perspective on authority. When the objective and subjective are seen as malleable, liquid sides of an interdependent yin and yang, rather than as the delimited, opposed entities of a binary pair, it offers the opportunity for us each to be the authorities on our own experiences, which in turn gives each of our stories value.

I’ll be returning to Mona Baker and narrative quite a bit over the course of my series of posts on the origins of this project, and the concept of authority will come up again and again as well. In the meantime, I highly recommend Baker’s Translation and Conflict, a book that asks that we think critically about the stories that dominate our worldviews, challenge assumptions, research and come to our own conclusions, and actively seek out contact with perspectives that significantly differ from our own—what better argument for learning another language and for reading translations. In my next post, we’ll return to Chávez by exploring the features of narrative and how they can be manipulated to influence through the lens of his political discourse. Until then!


Works Cited

Baker, Mona. Translation and Conflict. New York: Routledge, 2006. Kindle file. Kindle e-Reader. 18 Jan 2016.

Sørensen, Georg. “Democracy and Democratization.” Handbook of Politics: State and Society in Global Perspective. Eds. Leicht, Kevin T. and J. Craig Jenkins. New York: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, 2010. 441-458. Web. 28 Apr 2012.

About alainab

Alaina Brandt is an Assistant Professor of Translation and Localization Management at MIIS. She holds a Master of Arts in Language, Literature, and Translation from UW-Milwaukee.

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