The Nature of Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
Life stories are narratives of desire both in the sense that they provide a linguistic representation of the quest for the good and in the sense that they constitute the way in which desire itself becomes intelligible to itself as human desire.
The development of a capacity for civic freedom runs counter to the central role played by totalizing world views in the fostering and direction of human desire. This is because the capacity for civic freedom is the capacity to adopt a standpoint that is independent of any specific totalizing world view or life ideal.
But the attainment of this sort of independence requires a certain externalization of the standpoints and attitudes defined by one or another particularistic life ideal -- an externalization, therefore, of the cultural perspectives that nurture and direct desire. Development of a capacity for civic freedom is thus bound at the very least to introduce into the quest for the good life a certain ambiguity and complexity. This complexity and ambiguity can affect the very intelligibility of desire itself.
To the extent that human desire is a form of animal desire that is bound up with the representation of time, the intelligibility of human desire -- i.e., the way in which human beings achieve self-understanding as desiring, living beings -- is embodied linguistically through narration, in the form of the life story. Life stories are narratives of desire in both the subjective and objective senses of the genitive.
Life stories are narratives
of desire in the sense that they provide a linguistic representation of the quest for the
good, the quest for the object of desire. But life stories are narratives of desire also
in the sense that they constitute the way in which desire itself becomes intelligible to
itself as human desire. The story of his or her life that a person relates to others
(including self as other) is a construction of hope, ordered by a plot that anticipates,
as the narrative closure or conclusion, the eventual possession of the object of desire,
the eventual realization of some particular conception of the good life. But if human
desire gets its intelligibility in this way through narrative interpretation, we must
attempt to understand in narrative terms also the alteration of desire brought about by
the development of a capacity for civic freedom.
The extra-narrational standpoint of civic freedom
The capacity for civic freedom is the capacity to achieve an identity independent of the interpretive framework defined by any particular conception of the good. It is therefore a capacity to achieve and maintain an identity that is independent of any narrative representation of the pursuit of a particularistic happiness ideal. An identity whose standpoint is defined simply by its independence of or its externality to any particular narrative representation of desire is one that cannot itself become the subject of such a narrative representation.
The capacity for civic freedom is thus the capacity to achieve and maintain an identity that cannot itself be represented in narrative terms, that cannot itself be rendered intelligible by a narrative of desire. To the degree that this capacity is developed and exercised, this unnarrated and unnarratable identity or standpoint emerges in explicit contrast to the identity whose standpoint gains its intelligibility through narrative representation.
The capacity for civic freedom is measured by the degree to which this contrast is incorporated into the narrative representation of desire itself. Development of a capacity for civic freedom, then, is to be understood in narrative terms as the incorporation of a certain counter-narrative principle of intelligibility into the narrative representation of desire itself.
It is this counter-narrative force that gives civic freedom its difficult and even paradoxical character. Full cultural citizenship requires that persons develop a capacity for civic freedom. They must come to consider the development of this capacity a highest-order interest, giving its full realization the highest priority. Citizens must learn, in other words, to desire civic freedom as a good, as a component of the civic good.
Yet what is being desired in the desire for civic freedom is the development of an identity whose defining standpoint cannot be rendered intelligible in narrative terms. This civic identity, as we have seen, exists as a modification of the primary identity that is defined through a particular life narrative. A particular life narrative defines an identity, a self -- i.e., the subject or leading character of the life story -- in terms of a quest for realization of a particularistic conception of the good. This self or identity is the subject of a life narrative encompassing the whole of life, from birth to death. This narratively-constructed self or identity is one that adopts one or another totalizing perspective upon the general life issues of sex, friendship, work, justice, suffering, sin, death, and salvation.
The capacity for civic freedom, however, requires a modification of this narratively-constructed identity, a modification consisting in the incorporation of what we might call an authorial perspective on every particular life-narrative emplotment -- an external perspective that itself escapes definition through any particular narrative representation and from which every particular narrative representation of desire is viewed as constructed or invented.
This extra-narrational or authorial standpoint obviously cannot itself provide the basis for a narratively-represented identity or self. The author of a fictional narrative can represent his or her own life in a narrative that gives narrative significance to the creation of that fictional narrative. The extra-narrational authorial standpoint proper to civic freedom, however, cannot itself be comprehended this way in narrative terms, for that would in effect incorporate that extra-narrational standpoint into a particularistic narrative of desire.
The standpoint proper to
civic freedom is one that is external to all particularistic narratives of desire. A
highest-order interest in the adoption of this extra-narrational authorial standpoint,
i.e., in the development of a capacity for civic freedom, can therefore never be an
attribute of a narratively-constructed identity or self. Rather, this highest-order
interest in the practice of civic freedom must be conceived of as an interest in the
incorporation into every narratively-constructed identity or self a recognition and
affirmation of its own narrative construction -- a recognition and affirmation that every
narratively-constructed identity or self can be constructed differently and therefore
exists only through a responsible authorial choice.
The stories we tell: closed-criterion narratives
If this authorial standpoint proper to civic freedom is one that cannot itself be represented in narrative terms, it is nevertheless a standpoint that can be acquired and maintained only through the cultivation of a special kind of narrative imagination.
It is the task of civic education to cultivate this kind of narrative imagination. To understand the nature of this sort of narrative imagination, we must keep in mind once again that life narratives or narratives of desire have a rhetorical function different from other sorts of narratives.
In general, to tell a story is to define a pattern of relationships between events in the light of a narrative closure, i.e., in the light of an anticipated end of the story. An event taken as a mere brute fact and in isolation from other events, if such a thing can even be conceived of at all, is one that would have no narrative significance whatsoever. Events gain narrative significance only by being incorporated into a coherent story.
The closest approximation possible to a linguistic representation of events taken as brute facts, i.e., with all narrative significance stripped away, is the chronicle. But even a chronicle, no matter how bare of narrative interpretation, in its selection of detail describing the events chronicled, already suggests at the very least an anticipation of the narrative significance that the chronicled events might have for a specific audience.
A narration is thus a human reading of events, a representation of events that first invents and defines their specific narrative significance and connection. The narrative significance of a series of events is invented when those events are incorporated into a story that refers them to an outcome, a narrative closure, to which events "in themselves" -- i.e., as merely listed or chronicled -- do not intrinsically refer.
Thus, when a witness during a criminal trial casts his or her observations in narrative form, the events themselves and the narrative connections between them are defined by their relationship to and relevance for a specific narrative closure -- one that consists in the judgment of guilt or innocence. Trial witnesses are asked to construct a coherent story out of the events they have witnessed, incorporating into that story only details that are or may be relevant to the proceedings at hand. In the same way, when a military historian tells the story of a particular battle, the events depicted in the story are defined in their narrative significance by reference to a specific narrative closure -- typically, the outcome of the battle and the final outcome of the war.
Life narratives or narratives of desire, on the other hand, differ from narratives such as witness testimonies or military histories in their rhetorical function. Witness testimonies and military histories define the narrative connections between events in accordance with criteria of relevance drawn from socially mandated or conventionally designated narrative closures. Such stories are told for specific socially-defined reasons and are, in effect, speech acts that get their function from the more comprehensive language games or patterns of interaction of which they are components.
For example, when a military historian tells the story of a particular battle or campaign, the story aims at representing the narrative connection between events by reference to some specific later consequence of interest to the historian's audience, as determined by the rhetorical occasion for the narration. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 will be defined in its narrative significance, i.e., will be narratively connected to other events, differently depending on whether the event is viewed in its relevance to the outcome of the Pacific War, to the attainment of Hawaiian statehood, to U.S.-Japanese economic relations in the postwar era, or to the biography of the narrative's author.
In the same way, witness testimonies are stories embedded in a more comprehensive language game governed by criteria of relevance drawn from the judicial process and mandating a specific narrative closure -- a judgment of guilt or innocence. The events that occurred before, during and after, say, a convenience store robbery could be represented in their narrative connection in many different ways depending on the different narrative closures to which they might be referred.
For example, those events will be given different narrative readings if they are represented in their relationship to some later event in the biography of the store owner or in their relationship to the economic decline of a city. In a court of law, however, society mandates that the relevant narrative closure with a view to which the events are to be described is the judgment of guilt or innocence. Narrative interpretations of the events surrounding the robbery not relevant to that consequence are therefore ruled out.
Narratives like witness
testimonies and military histories, then, characteristically define the narrative
significance of events in terms of a narrative closure or criterion of relevance that is,
in one way or another, known, fixed or identified in advance. Let us call narratives like
these closed-criterion narratives.
The stories we are: open-criterion narratives
Life narratives or narratives of desire, on the other hand, are open-criterion narratives.
Life stories embody the intelligibility of human desire. In life stories, desire becomes intelligible to itself as specifically human desire. Human desire is fostered, shaped, and directed by particular conceptions of the good, by particular totalizing world views that define a specific way of addressing the general human issues of sex, friendship, work, justice, suffering, sin, death, and salvation. Life stories are narratives of the quest for the attainment of the good life as conceived of by one or another comprehensive doctrine.
The attainment of the good, the attainment of a particular happiness ideal, is the relevant narrative closure in terms of which the events related in a life story are given their narrative significance. When a person relates his or her life story to others (including self as other), the events narrated are defined in their narrative significance and connection by reference to the particular happiness ideal that is the ultimate object of desire. The rhetorical function of a life story is to render intelligible and to represent in narrative terms the status of desire with respect to its object -- i.e., to represent in narrative terms "how things are going."
Thus, the life story of a person who has lost hope or who has become cynical and embittered in the pursuit of his or her life plan will interpret the narrative significance of past life events accordingly. Such a person will tell a story of defeat, injustice, and ultimate frustration. On the other hand, the life story of a person whose desire flourishes in anticipation of ultimate satisfaction will also give narrative significance to past and present events by reference to the expected future fulfillment. Such a person, however, will tell a story that anticipates victory and the consummation of desire.
In the case of life narratives, then, the narrative connections between events are not determined by reference to some previously decided or socially mandated narrative closure or criterion of relevance. Life narratives are not closed-criterion narratives. Rather, life narratives define the narrative connections between life events by reference to a state of affairs that is not already decided or socially mandated, but only willed or desired -- the attainment of a particular happiness ideal. The function of a life narrative is not to relate events "as they actually happened" (in terms of one or another predetermined criterion of relevance), but rather to render intelligible the present state of desire in relation to its ultimate object.
It is this characteristic of life narratives that makes them open-criterion narratives. In the case of life narratives, the criterion of relevance for the determination of narrative significance, i.e., the narrative closure to which all events are referred, can never be fixed once and for all. The narrative closure of a life narrative remains forever (at least for the person who tells his or her own life story) in the future and therefore undetermined. The narrative closure of a life narrative is not a fact, but an object of desire, a wish, a state of affairs that is willed rather than known.
Because this is the case, life narratives are uniquely subject to continual reinterpretation and reconstruction. In the case of closed-criterion narratives, this is not the case. In the case of military histories or witness narratives, consensus and even practical certainty can be attained about the narrative order of events because the criterion that determines their narrative order is undisputed. But in the case of a life narrative, the opposite is true.
In the case of a life narrative, the criterion that determines narrative order and significance remains always finally undetermined -- even after the completion of the life that is the subject of narration. Thus, the Greek proverb asserting that no one's life should be judged happy until after death does not even go far enough. The life story that is today a story of victory and flourishing desire can by misfortune be transformed tomorrow into a story of tragedy and defeat.
But even after a life is over the story of it is not. Those who make judgments about the luck or misfortune of the dead make those judgments in view of their own ongoing and unfinished life narratives. The criterion that they apply to the lives of the dead thus also remains open and the person judged today to have lived a tragically unhappy life may, with the changing perspectives of those who judge, be judged differently tomorrow.
Life narratives, then, are open-criterion narratives because their rhetorical function is to render intelligible the present state of desire with respect to its ultimate object. Because possession or loss of that ultimate object is forever futural, the narrative closure by reference to which the events represented in a life story are given their narrative significance can never be finally determined. In life stories, the criterion for assigning narrative order and significance to events remains always open or subject to revision.
The events in a life story are represented in their narrative significance by their relevance to the attainment of one or another particularistic conception of the good. As a person's conception of the good changes or as a person's changing life circumstances affect the prospects for attainment of the good, so also will change the narrative significance attributed to life events.
Thus, for example, the
bankruptcy whose narrative significance is today understood by a businessman as final
ruin, may tomorrow, following his conversion to Christianity, be interpreted as an act of
God's mercy. In such a case, it is not a matter of a false interpretation being replaced
by a correct interpretation of the event, but rather a matter of giving a second reading
to the event that places it in the narrative context of a different conception of the good
and gives narrative representation and intelligibility to a the pursuit of a new object of
The capacity for civic freedom as the capacity to construct open-criterion life narratives
The fact that it is possible for human life narratives to be constructed as open-criterion narratives makes possible the cultural construction of a capacity for civic freedom.
A capacity for civic freedom consists in a capacity to incorporate into every narratively-constructed identity or self a recognition and affirmation of its own narratively-constructed status. This is to say that the capacity for civic freedom is the capacity to construct a human life narrative as an open-criterion narrative.
Note that there is no metaphysical issue here about the possibility of human freedom. There can be no doubt that, even though it is difficult and perhaps rare, human life narratives can indeed be constructed as open-criterion narratives. They don't have to be so constructed. Cultural support for their construction in this way is generally found only in liberal democracies.
If it were in fact the case that for some reason human life narratives could not be constructed as open-criterion narratives, then there could be no capacity for civic freedom and liberal democracy as a form of political association would not exist. The narrative closures of life stories would then be viewed as fixed once and for all -- whether by fate, biology, or historical circumstances -- and it would be impossible to adopt the authorial perspective on human life narratives that permits recognition of the narratively constructed nature of human identity.
Once again, with regard to the question of the possibility of civic freedom, the battle between opposing metaphysical theories of freedom and determinism is simply irrelevant. The question of the possibility of civic freedom is a cultural and political one -- do we want to teach citizens to construct their life narratives as open-criterion narratives or not? The political health of any liberal democracy, of course, depends on an affirmative answer to that question. Persons who construct their life narratives as closed-criterion narratives -- i.e., who represent their destinies as determined by fate, biology or historical circumstances -- have not learned to adopt the extra-narrational authorial perspective on their life narratives that would enable them to view the narrative closure of their lives as a matter of their own responsibility. Such persons can never become free and responsible citizens.
The perception that human life narratives are open-criterion narratives accounted for the partial truth of Sartrean existentialism. But the Sartrean conception of freedom misread what is properly understood as a fact about the rhetorical function of human life narratives as a metaphysical property of human consciousness. Civic freedom became, for Sartrean existentialism, a universally defining trait of human beings as such rather than a linguistic capacity required for the attainment of full cultural citizenship in modern constitutional democracies. In conceiving of civic freedom in metaphysical terms, Sartrean existentialism stripped it of its political function and therefore could offer no program of civic education designed to promote its development.
If a capacity for civic freedom is made possible by the fact that human life narratives can be constructed as open-criterion narratives, then liberalism may be understood as a form of political association that, because it requires the practice of civic freedom and responsibility, requires citizens to construct their life narratives in that way.
In the case of monocultural communities, the opposite is the case. Monocultural communities -- tribal or village communities, in particular -- mandate or at least encourage adherence to a single conception of the good, a single way of life. Life narratives in such communities therefore tend to be represented in terms of a limited range of possible narrative closures. Monoculturalism thus supports and even mandates the construction of human of life narratives as closed-criterion narratives. Members of such communities tend to see their lives as determined by birth, family, divine command, or fate. Rather than learning to conceive of the events in their lives as open to an indefinite number and range of interpretations, those events seem to express the iron law of necessity.
Liberal political communities, on the other hand, are not monocultural but multicultural. Liberal political communities encourage the cultivation of a multiplicity of diverse and conflicting conceptions of the good among which citizens may choose. The exercise of such choice presupposes an interpretation of human life narratives as open-criterion narratives. It requires a capacity to form an identity that is not wholly determined by one or another particular narrative reading of life events. It requires a capacity to adopt different narrative readings of life events by referring them to a variety of diverse and conflicting ideals of happiness.
Page last edited: January 20, 2002
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Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
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