Monday, April 26, 2010

Introduction in Nair's "Narrative Gravity"

Introduction in
By Rukmini Bhaya Nair
Published by Routledge: New York, 2003

Prof. Rukmini Bhaya Nair at Indian Institute of Technology offers a very good theoretical framework of narrative.

Working definition of narrative:

Nair's working definition of narrative is "a dynamic structure that converts 'talk' into 'text'". Narrative turns conversation "detachable and iterable" to make a story, one that can be "repeated in other conversations, other contexts, other cultures." As she puts it, "the structure of narrative appears beautifully adapted to time-transfer, to taking away, to having and holding in some kind of formal permanence." (p. 5)

"Fragility" and "durability" as a critical criterion in narrative:

Nair does not see narrative in terms of 'truth' and 'non-truth'. her framework is a "cline from most fragile(implausible, boring and culturally alienated) to most durable(plausible, interesting and culturally salient). So an apparent fiction, if it is a good story, still retains 'durability' and tits audience has a "willing suspension of disbelief". (p. 9)

N.B. Nair uses "plausibility" to mean "durability" on page 10.

Balance between the expected and the unexpected:

One interesting feature of narrative is that it must have the foreground of what is unexpected, a surprise in the story against the background of what is expected and taken for granted. A story teller must maintain a good balance between them and cannot make her story too fancy or too mundane. (p. 11)

Reviewing and reforming ourselves with wider horizons:

Because the criterion of narrative is durability/fragility rather than truth/falseness, understanding caused by narrative allows "contradictions and irrationalities without having to abandon a basic commitment to 'rational' choices, causal explanations and so on" (p. 16). Thus, narrative gives us wider horizons of understanding.

Story-telling seems to me to permit high quality resolutions of experience, either representing it analytically as fiction or reappraising its contingencies as factual narrative. It is this ability to crystallize experience, re-form it, so that it allows us to reform, or at least review, ourselves, that we celebrate when we share our stories. (p. 11)

"Authorless narrative" or "co-authored narrative"?

Nair takes the view, together with Dennett (1991), that narrative is not produced bu a singular 'self'. However, she "wants to replace Dennett's 'authorless narrative' with the idea of a 'co-authored narrative'" (p. 22). Describing her position, she explains as follows.

All our narratives have to be communally authored, and authorized, by listeners whose job it is to 'correctly' process tellers' implicultural meanings. Even though the single authorships of selves is a convenient fiction, which, given our physical separation from each other, all societies must, in general, underwrite, Nair holds that narrative activity depends on tacit acceptance of the notion of multiple authorship in all human communities. (p. 22)


Narrative is an integrated story made from detachable and iterable parts of our daily discourse. It is evaluated by its degree of durability/fragility rather than by the dichotomy of true or false. It allows wider horizons than the positivist dictum of truth, making flexible understanding of ourselves. It is an act of a community, not an act of an individual person in isolation.


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