Daily Archives: April 15, 2013

‘Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life’ by Jerome Bruner


Good grief, I thought- is Jerome Bruner still alive? I remember reading his work  back in my educational designer days.  But there he was, in 2002 at the age of 87,  giving the first Lezioni Italiane of the new millenium- a lecture delivered at the University of Bologna by a foreign visitor on a topic of his or her choosing.


2002, 107 p. & notes

The lectures formed the basis of this book and although they might not say anything new, they form a distillation of Bruner’s life-long fascination with narrative and its relation to identity and literature. According to his webpage, Jerome Bruner in 2011 (by then aged 96) was still recorded as a Senior Research Fellow in Law at New York University.  Although at first glance this seems an odd position for a cognitive psychologist and educationalist,  in this book he brings together the idea of story and the law.

The book consists of four chapters, each about 25 pages in length.  I’m not sure if he gave four separate lectures, but certainly these chapters, with their discursive and yet easily-followed narrative thread, read  as if they might have been self-contained presentations at some time.

In Chapter 1 “The Uses of Story” he commences by noting that we are all adept at narrative, which is almost as natural as language itself.  Stories commence with a breach in the expected  or peripeteia– a sudden reverse in circumstance, and the tension between what was expected and what came to pass. The story goes on to explore efforts to cope or come to terms with this breach and its consequences. A story often closes with a coda, a retrospective evaluation of what it all means.

In the second chapter of the book “The Legal and the Literary”  he turns his attention to legal stories, told before a court of law within a tight set of procedures that keeps them within recognized bounds.  Such stories, when told by lawyers for the prosecution or defence, are always partisan and adversarial, but it is our confidence in the legal process that sanitizes them.

The law has evolved over the centuries not only to render just and legitimate verdicts between two opposing narratives but to do so in a way that removes the risk of precipitating a cycle of revenge after the verdict has been pronounced.  To achieve this dual objective, the courts must be accepted as authoritative and legitimate, and they must also be seen as fair and disinterested, capable of rising above the self-serving and adversarial narratives by which cases are presented. (p. 37)

As with other stories, legal stories are also based on peripeteia.  The tension between what is possible and what is established is built into the texture of Anglo-Saxon common law.  The common-law writ is itself a plot summary of an actionable offence against what is customary and established. (p. 58).

He then turns to literature, even though courts and judges would bristle at the thought that law and literature could be coupled together in this way. He distinguishes literature from other forms of story in the intent that lies behind the fashioning of a literary narrative.  Legal stories aim at making the world self-evident, whereas literature evokes familiar life with the deliberate aim of disturbing our expectations.

The challenge of literary narrative is to open possibilities without diminishing the seeming reality of the actual (p. 48)

The third chapter “The Narrative Construction of Self” turns to the role of story in our telling of our self to our self. He argues that there is no such thing as an intuitively obvious and essential self, sitting there ready to be portrayed into words.

Rather, we constantly construct and reconstruct our selves to meet the needs of the situations we encounter and we do so with the guidance of our memories of the past and our hopes and fears for the future.  Telling oneself about oneself is like making up a story about who and what we are, what’s happened, and why we’re doing what we’re doing. (p. 64)

This self-telling accumulates over time and is patterned on the conventional genres privileged by our specific culture.  The narrative we create about our self must create a conviction of autonomy where we have a will of our own, but it also has to be related to a world of others- our family, friends, institutions and the past.   He notes that most autobiographies and self-tellings have turning points, which are themselves influenced by culture. He suggests that once a person becomes unable to tell a narrative (through, for example, Alzheimers or Korsakov syndrome) then they have virtually lost self-hood.

The final chapter ‘So why narrative?’ returns to the themes of the earlier chapters. We see more of Bruner the academic here, as he explores the anthropological origins of the ability to tell stores, and the features of language that make it possible.  He cites one of my favourite books on language, Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words which examines the language practices of white and negro children in North Carolina and the way that education privileges the “just the facts, ma’am” narrative structures of white children over the imaginatively elaborated tales of white children.  He closes with a discussion of the importance of narrative in medicine and rehabilitation.

I’m not quite sure yet what I’m going to do with this and how I’m going to use it in my own work.  I’m thinking about narrative and the ways of telling a life …but I haven’t quite worked my thinking out in my own head yet.  I’ll leave with a paragraph that I think sums up Bruner’s argument across these four lectures:

For better or worse, it [narrative] is our preferred, perhaps even our obligatory medium for expressing human aspirations and their vicissitudes, our own and those of others.  Our stories also impose a structure, a compelling reality on what we experience, even a philosophical stance.  By their very nature, stories take for granted that their protagonists are free unless ensnared by circumstances.  They also take for granted that people know what the world is like, what can be expected of it, as well as what it expected of them.  In time, life comes not so much to imitate art as to join with it.  It is “ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary places for ordinary reasons”.  A seeming breach of this ordinariness is required to trigger the rich dynamic of narrative- how to  cope with it, to domesticate it, to get things back on a familiar track. (p. 89)….Story making is our medium for coming to terms with the surprises and oddities of the human condition and for coming to terms with our imperfect grasp of that condition. (p. 90)

As it happens, I’ve just found a lecture based on this book and echoing its title given  by Inga Clendinnen who is right up the top of my Favourite Historians list.  The lecture, ‘Making Stories, Telling Tales: Life, Literature and Law’ was delivered as the 18th Lionel Murphy Memorial Lecture in 2004. It’s a wonderful presentation that references this book, Janet Malcolm the biographer, Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation . It’s beautifully crafted, as Clendinnen’s work always is, and well worth reading.