Dramatic Scotland photo - Charles Taylor

#CertStudy, Day 4: Charles Taylor on narrative

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

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Today ended up being a big writing day and a short study day, but I’m trying not to break the chain. So in the interest of time, I want to start assembling some ideas that can contribute to “a richly theorized account of digital storytelling” (thanks, Lalitha). I’m starting with Charles Taylor and Paul Ricouer because they’re theorists read by church intellectuals too.

These are from the chapter “How Narrative Makes Meaning” in Charles Taylor’s The Language Animal.

On a sort of “social turn” reading of narrative theory:

We cannot in any moment after infancy be without a rich sense of what motivates people, of what is important and unimportant to them, of the differences people exhibit in this regard, of the different kinds of characters, which show themselves in different modes of response, of the different possibilities of response, of life plan, of aspirations, and so on. To which we must add ours sense of the different contexts in which people operate—intimate, familial, political, ecclesiastical, governmental—which grows and develops with our maturity. (p. 296)

Increasingly succinct ways of saying that narrative (diachronic) meaning is irreducible to other modalities:

The hero comes through this story to an understanding of his vocation, what his life should be about; and what this consists in can’t just be detached from the story, and fully expressed in its ending. The insight emerges through the story itself. A new way is offered of defining what a human life can take as its central direction … A novel, as a work of art, doesn’t assert anything about human life. It is made up of assertions, but these are about the world of the novel. Nevertheless there emerges what I called a nonassertive portrayal of human life, of its choices, issues, travails, fulfillments; and this can open new horizons for the reader. (p. 298-299)

To convey the insight, we can’t rely simply on the formulation [moral of the story, etc.], but must somehow convey the experience, the felt intuition. This throws us back into narrative: the narrating, first, of the episode; but then also of the key features of our preceding life against whose background the episode had the meaning and the impact that it did. These two faces are linked. (p. 302)

My concluding insight constitutes a reading of the strong experience that triggered it; you can’t really understand the conclusion without some sense of the experience. (p. 308) (elsewhere he calls this “reasoning through transitions”)

A further restatement/expansion of the idea above that emphasizes its compatibility with a constructivist learning model:

understanding the outlook (O) at which some agent has arrived may inseparably require that one understand the experience (E) which led her to it (p. 311)

On the contingency this narrative-based learning:

understanding oneself or others through biography is a potentially endless process. Any interpretation which we reach can be upset, challenged, or amended by a new insight, which will ramify through the whole diachronic gestalt, modifying previous takes, including the one I hold at the present moment. (p. 315)

Who cares?

my plea here is to see the telling of stories in fact and fiction as a creative or constitutive purpose of language. But you can only see this if you go beyond the single sentence and look at texts, complex, drawn-out accounts. This constitutive power is of the greatest importance, because it is through story that we make sense of our lives. We live across time. (p. 317)

however I do it, through my story, I define my identity. And this is central to being a self. (p. 317)

It is through story that we find or devise ways of living bearably in time. (p. 319)

Where is this heading? To put it briefly: If you don’t give faith learners opportunities and encouragement to do this work of growth/integration/sense-making throughout the process of living the story and appropriating the tradition (including early on in life), they miss out on the ongoing opportunity for hope that comes from believing oneself to be on a journey.

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