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Damaged Identities is a
fascinating study of the ways that narratives can oppress some groups of
people, and how they can resist that oppression through creating
counterstories. One of her central examples concerns a group of nurses at Cranford
Community Hospital. Some of those nurses were troubled by the way that their
experience and wisdom was ignored when making decisions about health care.
They were marginalized in the hospital. However, through a group meeting
together and sharing their experience, they made progress in gaining greater
recognition from the doctors and administrators. Nelson argues that through
such counterstories, groups can not only empower themselves but also repair
their own damaged identities. She grounds this in work by Paul Benson and
other philosophers who have worked on the nature of freedom. Benson argues
that one's freedom is related to one's normative competence: one's freedom can
be reduced when one's normative competence is diminished, and one's competence
is relative to one's environment. Nelson claims that normative competence can
be understood through three conditions:
(1) the ability to understand and act on moral norms,
(2) the ability of others to recognize by one's actions that
one is a morally responsible person, and
(3) the ability of the agent to see herself as a morally
Nelson uses this analysis to argue that oppressive
narratives can reduce one's normative competence and thus reduce one's freedom.
Nelson endorses the importance of
narrative in ethics as argued for by philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum,
Michael DePaul, Richard Rorty, Alisdair McIntyre and Charles Taylor. However,
she also has some criticisms and suggestions for how to improve their ideas.
She argues that those philosophers have presented a narrow conception of the
role of narrative in moral life, focusing on sophisticated literary texts,
well-respected social roles, or quest narratives. She suggests that people can
also make use of narrative in their moral lives through constructing
In addition to ethics, Nelson
addresses the nature of the self, arguing that personal identities are constructed
through narrative. Here she draws on the work of Marya Schechtman in The
Constitution of Selves, and refers also to the philosophers Harry
Frankfurt, Christine Korsgaard, and Iris Marion Young, among others. She
discusses the constraints on the kinds of stories that can constitute an
identity, and to what extent an individual has the power to create herself.
Nelson's remarks are somewhat programmatic rather than offering a whole theory,
since her main interest is in the importance of counterstories in shaping one's
own self. As she summarizes her conclusion, "personal identities are
complicated narrative constructions consisting of a fluid and continual
interaction of the many stories and fragments of stories that are created
around the things that seem most important, from either the first- or the
third-person perspective, about a person's life over time."
With this conception of identity,
Nelson is able to provide an account of how oppression can damage the self.
She explains the role of exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural
imperialism, and violence. She also goes into some detail in examining the
cases of gypsies, transsexuals, and mothers. In each case, she spells out the
ways that the standard narratives concerning these groups serve to oppress them
and reduce their freedom. For example, she sets out what she calls the
"Clinically Correct" story, which is the "master narrative"
about transsexuals. It says that there are just two sexes, male and female,
and there are two genders, masculine and feminine. According to this story,
transsexuals have always felt that they were trapped in the wrong body, but
since they can never achieve a perfectly transformed body through medical
procedures, they can never become real men or women, and inevitably at
best can only try to pass as male or female. Nelson argues that this treats transsexualism
as a birth defect and leaves transsexuals with only an incoherent and morally
degrading story to tell about themselves.
Nelson finishes with an extended
discussion of counterstories, which resist the pressures of master narratives.
Since master narratives are so powerful and quash opposing views,
counterstories need to themselves be strong and to exploit weaknesses in master
narratives in order to help oppressed groups. Nelson spells out some of the
ways in which counterstories are able to overcome master narratives, and she
also explains how counterstories can fail.
Damaged Identities is an
original piece of work that deserves attention from philosophers and social
theorists. There are, however, a number of questions it raises. A central
issue that it is largely silent about is the relation of master narratives to
other methods of oppression such as legal exclusion, poverty, and violence.
Reading Nelson, one is reminded of the French structuralist theory that reduces
all of human life to discourse and text. While the focus on narratives may
have explanatory value, it is implausible that one can understand narratives in
isolation from these other forces that have been discussed at length in other
discussions of class systems, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Furthermore, it
is not clear how narratives relate to stereotypes, degrading visual images.
Nelson also does not spell out how her narrative theory and the concept of
counterstories relate to psychological theories of self-esteem, the importance
of role models, and the main psychodynamic theories of the twentieth century.
One is left wondering whether Nelson's account is an alternative approach to
these others, or whether it is instead simply a different conceptualization and
synthesis of familiar ideas.
Many philosophers, psychoanalytic
theorists and especially literary theorists have enthusiastically defended the
importance of narrative in understanding human life. Others have raised
concerns about the explanatory value of the idea. Possibly the central worry
here is that the concept of narrative is itself so vague and open to diverse
interpretations that different "narrative theories" are in fact
addressing widely disparate issues and cannot be profitably compared with each
other. This worry is increased by Nelson's use of the term
"identity," which is clearly very different from that used in
analytic philosophy. While Nelson argues that narratives constitute identity,
it seems that she means that narratives influence people's self-image. Indeed,
it is not clear that Nelson makes a clear distinction between self and beliefs
about oneself, which is an essential distinction for any careful discussion of
the nature of identity. Issues such as this will probably mean that
philosophers familiar with the debate over the nature of personal identity will
be unsatisfied by Nelson's approach.
Nevertheless, Nelson makes a strong
case that the concept of narrative is an important one in understanding
oppression. It could be especially useful in understanding the way that stigma
operates keeping people with disabilities and chronic illnesses marginalized
from the mainstream of society, and this is a topic that deserves a great deal
of attention. Despite its problems, Damaged Identities has the
potential to be an important part of a future research program on the way that
narratives shape our lives, and other philosophers could do useful work by
refining and improving on Nelson's approach.
© 2003 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities
Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also
editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on
philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.