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Disordered narrative

At a simple level, disordered narratives are the converse of good narratives, in so far as they might lack basic coherence (we talk tellingly of someone "losing the plot", as in thought-disorder), express poor authorship and differentiation (an "all-over-the-place" quality), and have a restrictive, thin, or repetitive quality. According to attachment theory, healthy, secure attachment correlates with coherent narratives (not necessarily to "happy lives"), with the reverse true of disordered narratives. Those manifesting insecurities of attachment have inadequate self-representations, with poor self-reflection, and hence inhibited regulatory capacities. Some refer to specific disorders of narrative, whether of the emotion kind (e.g., alexythymia; absence of words for emotions), or as related to organic conditions (e.g., dysnarrativia, a severe impairment in the ability to tell or understand stories, associated e.g., with dementia). The latter is a particularly stark example of the dependence of identity on/in narrative, reducing those with the disorder to "no longer the people who they were ..."

Never on your own: parable of the "first word"

In a child and family service setting, I was privileged to see two sets of parents announcing their respective infants' "first word". Each was delighted and imitated the sound made by their babies, something like "Ada, ada". The first parents were overjoyed that their baby's first word was "Allah"; the other parents exclaimed in all conviction, "He was calling for dada!"

Infant derives from the Latin infans, "unable to speak", and parental delight in response to "first words" is probably universal; "first words" are marked because they imply a new kind of joining-in with the world (hence "talk") and are symbolic of the beginning of the long end of infancy. Part of the delight consists in the fact that something new has occurred, an expression of baby initiative; baby has "gone public" in a new way. Can, however, these truly be called words or early speech, as distinct from mere utterances, phonemes with no semantic content and limited in sound, as a result of an immature voice box? Surely there is something mythical about the quest for "first words". What is certain is that the baby is born into a world already saturated by speech, reference, and commentary, and is bestowed with all manner of attributions and desires from day one, and before. The phenomenon of "baby talk" by parents is a good illustration of this; we put words in babies' mouths. The scenario usefully demonstrates the work of culture and symbolic encouragement, the two babies "willed" into the speech and position desired by their parents within their respective cultures. Neither infant is disadvantaged by this, for it is not as if one set of parents is right and the other wrong, simply that each lends different semantic interpretations to the same, vaguely distinguishable baby sounds. The example brings home how from the "beginning", the infant is imbricated in the sheer delight and buoyancy of a shared world full of illocutionary potential. Early communications are prototypical in this sense of later language-use and speech-acts (Unwin, 1984), as well as being emblematic of the early intersubjecivity of life. As for the vitality and wider developmental significance of such communications, Stern (1992) uses the evocative imagery of narrative and pre-narrative "envelopes".

The concept of interpellation is useful here, using Althusser's (1971) classic essay as a point of departure. Drawing upon existential and Lacanian ideas, Althusser defines interpellation as a process of recognition, of how individuals are addressed and "hailed" as subjects in relation to a master Subject. Consider expressions as divergent as, "What a strong boy!", "We, the fellow members of this Communist Party, oppose .", or "God expects . ." In these cases, an agent or agents are positioned, "called upon", for example, as masculine subject, loyal political comrades, devout believer, and so on. Each depends, to put it crudely, on a recognising agent: a parent, the Party, Church. Thus, individuals are not so much pre-given as pre-constructed, invited to see themselves in the images presented, constituting the imaginary (but not false) dimension of identity—for example, "I am a growing boy", "We are proud members of this glorious Party", "I obey the Will of God", and so on. Hirst (1979) summarises Althusser's argument clearly: "It is the recognition in the 'imaginary', in the mirror form of the Other which (to use Althusser's phrase) 'interpellates individuals as subjects'" (p. 57). There are limitations to Althusser's view, not dealt with here (Hirst, 1979), and it should not be assumed that interpellation is passive in operation or is uniform in effect; far from it. Individuals are not empty subjects.

As for so-called first words, an active process of interpellation is in evidence, the baby offered, as it were, a relational incentive, a place beyond the crib, even rudimentary cultural "identity projects" in which to grow (Harre, 1983).2 The small biological creature known as the human infant is "brought in" to life—the difference between Aristotle's biological life or zoe and a human one or bios—through endless insertions into the narrative world, of which the emergence of early sounds, bordering verbal/pre-verbal, is but one example. It is not as if there is one, linear moment, or series of moments, within which the process pro-cedes. Stern (1989), in one of his lesser known works, skillfully analyses "crib talk" and observes that, initially, "the production of monologues, however, is quite continuous" (p. 311). His more general argument is that a new sense of self, the "narrative sense of self", emerges slowly, sometimes after the infant's second year. In terms inspired by social theory as much as by developmental psychology, it can be said that "the self" is always dependent on the narratives of surrounding social unconscious life, forever baptising the subject into new possibilities of meaning and articulation, throughout life. The "storied self" is born in the waters of the interpretive world of stories already being told.

From this point of view, what can be called a "narrative concept of self" offers a particularly dynamic notion of identity, capable of expressing both stability and change within the framework of one's lifetime.

Conclusion: bringing the narrative to the group analytic

• First-hand recordings of lived, group narratives would offer a rich source of material for research. Group analysts might be trained to write "process accounts", but something is lost if we do not have accurate transcripts, at least some of the time, which could be subject to principled, reflective inquiry. Having such material to study might help free group analysis from a tendency, all too easy to adopt, in my view, to espouse (premature), analytic formulations.

• Ideas of "positioning" and "illocutionary force", from discourse and speech-act theory respectively, could provide added depth and dynamism to traditional group analytic concepts such as resonance and mirroring. A great deal could be learned from closer consideration of the uses in group discourse of emphasis, tense, metaphor, tropes, and differing "speech positions".

• Groups carry incredibly complex, densely interwoven threads of narrative interaction. It would, in my view, be helpful to learn more about how individuals find voice, emerging from newcomers to more confident, experienced, contributing agents of group life, learning the art of "discursive democracy" (a theme developed in the final chapter). How do group members and therapists express and develop interest, deepen dialogue, describe, redescribe, and so thicken their accounts of self?

• In his analysis of "narrative space", Cox (Cox & Theilgaard, 1994) uses the dramatological notion of "prompting" as a means of narrative enhancement; as he pithily puts it, "prompting becomes necessary when narrative fails" (p. 89). As crowded arenas, groups contain narrative surplus and become congested; they can become overpopulated, as it were. Cox talks about the importance of "moderation" and helping members in crowded space avoid becoming involved in "near accidents".

 
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