The Nature of Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society

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Theme: How the capacity for both civic freedom and civic rationality depends on the practice of a certain form of narrative imagination
ESSAY 7: Civic Freedom and the Narrative Basis of Civic Rationality
 

  

 

  


Most forms of narrative imagination have the effect of binding the imaginer's desire and identity more closely to his or her current conception of the good life.

















 

 

 

 

 




Civic rationality can be fully developed only by the practice of a form of narrative imagination that can liberate desire from its narrative identification with its current object.














 

 







 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The liberation of desire from its narrative capture by its current object constitutes the condition for the development of a capacity for civic rationality.






 

 

 

 




Western philosophy has typically neglected the role of narrative imagination in both its conception of rationality and in its characteristic methods of training others in the use of reason.









 

 

 






To the extent that the narrative over-investment of desire in its current object represents a danger, we can understand civic freedom, as the liberation of desire, as a good worthy of pursuit for its own sake.

 
 
The narrative binding of desire to its object

          To develop the capacity for civic freedom, citizens must learn to develop and exercise an unusual form of narrative imagination. It is the task of civic education to cultivate this form of imagination. Cultivation of this form of narrative imagination is designed to generate the extra-narrational authorial perspective1 required for a recognition and affirmation of human identities as narratively-constructed. In learning how to adopt this authorial perspective, a citizen must learn to imagine him- or herself credibly as pursuing a number of different ways of life while retaining the same identity.

          As opposed to this sort of narrative imagination, most narrative imagining, most desire-motivated envisioning of narrative possibilities, is monocultural. It has the effect of binding the imaginer's desire and identity more closely to his or her current conception of the good life and therefore with his or her current narrative representation of life events.

          Thus, an athlete whose object of desire is athletic glory dreams of victory; a businessman whose ideal of happiness is the possession of vast wealth and financial power dreams of making a killing in the stock market; the fanatical patriot whose life's project is the realization of unlimited ethnic or national hegemony dreams of glorious conquest; the scholar whose life is invested in the goal of shaping the discourse and self-understanding of future generations dreams of discovery; and so on.

          In all such cases, the imagination of narrative possibilities serves to bind desire ever more securely to its current object. It serves to increase the imaginer's bodily investment in and attachment to his or her current way of life, wedding both desire and identity ever more completely to the particularistic cultural community and to the world view that currently determine their shape and direction.

          This kind of imagining is inevitable and plays a necessary role in the pursuit of any particularistic conception of the good. It can intensify desire and inspire hope and confidence. Compared to this kind of imagining, however, the special kind of narrative imagination that produces a capacity for civic freedom can seem to be virtually an exercise in self-contradiction.

Life-narrational de-centering and the liberation of desire

          To learn how to adopt the extra-narrational authorial perspective on all life-narrative representation required for the practice of civic freedom is to learn how to incorporate into a particular narratively-constructed self or identity a recognition of its own narrative construction. Without this recognition, a person cannot pursue a particularistic conception of the good either freely or rationally -- i.e., with the readiness to examine critically and dispassionately both means and ends.

          This sort of rationality can be fully developed only by the practice of a form of narrative imagination that can liberate desire from its narrative identification with its current object. The sort of narrative imagination I have in mind is the sort that can sometimes be generated by exposure to fictional narratives.

          In reading themselves into a fictional narrative, persons sometimes can learn to imagine credibly the possibility of pursuing different ways of life or the possibility of giving very different narrative readings to the events in their own lives. These possibilities are imagined credibly when they raise the possibility of actually desiring differently, when they imaginatively evoke and nourish a desire for a different set of life goals. The practice of this kind of narrative imagination can serve to loosen rather than tighten the bonds that tie identity and desire to the particularistic cultural community and totalizing world view that currently determine their shape and direction.

          By this kind of imagining, for example, the athlete might come to imagine the possibility of actually desiring the satisfactions proper to the scholarly life; the businessman might come to imagine the possibility of actually desiring the satisfactions proper to the life of religious seclusion; the patriot might come to imagine the possibility of actually desiring the satisfactions proper to the life of the creative artist; and so on.

          Let us call this kind of narrative imagination the practice of life-narrational de-centering, since its function is not so much to lead to the actual choice of a different way of life as it is to cultivate the capacity to give different narrative readings to the "same" life events. The purpose of cultivating this capacity is to liberate desire from total and exclusive narrative investment in its current object.

          Human desire gains its intelligibility and direction from narrative representation. Life stories are narratives of desire in that a particular narrative reading of life events constitutes a particular linguistic embodiment and self-interpretation of desire. But when the narrative investment of desire in its current object becomes total and exclusive, when the force and vitality of human desire become too dependent upon or even identified with a particular narrative reading of life events, desire itself can be threatened.

          For example, the birth of a child usually occasions a narrative investment of desire on the part of the child's parents. The bond between parents and child is a bond of desire, a bond forged by shared hopes and common goals. But, as a bond of desire, it is also a narrative bond, a bond whose very life consists in the ongoing construction of a common life story in which the lives of parents and child are narratively interwoven. The death of a child under such circumstances can produce a profound disruption in the narrative self-understanding of the bereaved parents.

          To the extent that their desire and their identities were heavily invested in narratives of parenthood and child-rearing, a child's death can produce in the bereaved parents something like a state of life-narrative shock. Narratives of parenthood and child-rearing can no longer provide meaning and direction to their desire. They must "put their lives back together," i.e., construct new life narratives embodying new hopes and goals, life narratives that do not invest desire heavily in narratives of parenthood and child-rearing.

          But what if, in some particular case, this cannot be done? What if, in such a case, the investment of desire in narratives of parenthood and child-rearing were so great that no other narrative reading of life events were possible? Desire that has been narratively captured in this way by its current object is at risk when events occur that threaten the narrative intelligibility and coherence of life. Such exclusive and total investment in a particular narrative reading of life events can produce obsession, apathy, and despair when that reading is rendered untenable by the unfolding of events.

The roots of civic rationality in the narrative imagination

          The practice of what I have called life-narrational de-centering is designed to prevent this sort of total and exclusive narrative investment of desire in its current object. The practice of this form of narrative imagination can elicit and nurture a sort of desire that is immune to capture by any particular narrative reading of life events. It achieves this by constructing narrative representations of desire that credibly and persuasively render alternative objects of desire -- i.e., alternative life plans, happiness ideals, and conceptions of the good -- in their desirability.

          These representations of alternative desires are credibly and persuasively rendered to the degree that they suggest different possible narrative readings of a particular course of life. Imaginative explorations of alternative narrative readings of life events are also imaginative explorations of different possible identities that could be constructed by those narrative readings. The practice of this form of imagination, then, promotes in this way recognition of the narratively-constructed nature of human identity in general.

          Here, in the liberating effects of this form of narrative imagination, is revealed the narrative basis of civic rationality as well as civic freedom.

          The capacity for civic freedom is the capacity to incorporate into every narratively-constructed self or identity a recognition and affirmation of its own narrative construction. The practice of civic freedom is the practice of adopting an extra-narrational authorial perspective on all life narrative construction, viewing the subject of every life narrative, i.e., one's own narrative identity in particular, as tentative and as subject to responsible narrative reconstruction and redefinition. To the extent that desire gets its primary intelligibility not from some particular narrative reading of life events, but rather from a relationship to this extra-narrational authorial perspective, desire is immune from capture by any particular narrative reading of life events.

          But this form of desire also constitutes the basis of civic rationality. To pursue a particularistic conception of the good rationally is to pursue it with a readiness to examine that pursuit critically with respect to both means and ends. Critical examination of the pursuit of a particularistic conception of the good is impossible to the extent that desire is narratively invested in that pursuit totally and exclusively. The liberation of desire from its narrative capture by its current object therefore constitutes the condition for the development of a capacity for civic rationality.

          Western philosophy has typically neglected the role of narrative imagination in both its conception of rationality and in its characteristic methods of training others in the use of reason. Since Plato, the faculty of reason has been identified with a capacity for logical inference and the primary educational means for developing this capacity has been restricted to training in logic, dialectic, or argumentation.

          However, if we understand rationality as the capacity to examine critically the means and ends involved in the pursuit of a particularistic conception of the good, then we must view logical inference and argument as playing a secondary role in the production and exercise of this capacity. There is no doubt that the critical examination the means and ends of action requires a capacity for logical inference and the exercise of argumentative skills. But these come in during the process of deliberation, when alternative means and ends are being considered. Before the powers of logical inference and dialectic can have any role to play, alternatives must be identified and affirmed as real possibilities.

          To the extent that desire has become exclusively and totally invested in its current object of pursuit, however, no other real alternatives can enter the field of decision-making and there will be nothing to deliberate about. Accordingly, in our conception of rationality and in our pedagogical means of cultivating a capacity for reason, the narrative liberation of desire must take priority.

          One way that this narrative liberation of desire can be achieved is through what I have called the practice of life-narrational de-centering. This means that the postmodern reconstruction of civic education must place no less an emphasis on the cultivation of this form of narrative imagination than it places on the cultivation of logical and dialectical skills.

The narrative liberation of desire as a problematic good

          Any attempt to use this form of narrative imagination in the development of capacities for civic freedom and civic rationality, however, must come to terms also with the difficulties and dangers attendant upon the narrative liberation of desire.

          We must understand that the complete narrative liberation of desire -- i.e., its complete disinvestment in any particular narrative reading of life events -- is no less a danger than its exclusive investment in one such reading. A delicate balance must be struck between the detachment and the attachment of desire.

          Human desire flourishes most completely, as we have noted, not in being satisfied, but rather in the anticipation of its satisfaction. Human desire flourishes most completely when its objects are clearly identified and represented in narrative terms as attainable. The role of life narratives is to provide the linguistic means for this flourishing of desire. This means that, to some extent, human desire must indeed heavily invest in a narrative reading of life events that provide the conditions for its flourishing. On the other hand, exclusive and totalizing investments in such narrative readings make civic freedom and civic rationality impossible.

          This leaves unanswered the central question raised by the teleological turn in post-metaphysical liberal political philosophy. In what sense can we understand civic freedom, as a component of the civic good, to be itself an object of desire, a substantive and final good?

          To the extent that the narrative over-investment of desire in its current object represents a danger, we can understand civic freedom, as the liberation of desire, as a good worthy of pursuit for its own sake. But to the extent that civic freedom itself can produce a narrative detachment from all objects of desire, it represents a threat. Civic freedom is a component of the civic good. If we are to understand the civic good as a final and substantive good, it must provide some measure for determining the limits and boundaries of the liberation of desire. That measure can perhaps be provided by the second component of the civic good, the exercise of a capacity for civic justice. (For a discussion of civic justice, see Essay 8: Civic Justice and the Narrative Neutralization of Social Hierarchies.)

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1 See "The Narrative Construction of Civic Freedom" (III, Essay 6)

  

 

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