In July 2000, CNS was invited to teach at a special summer school in Tashkent, capital of the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. Conducted in Russian for a group of philosophers and teachers from Russia, Ukraine, Mongolia, Georgia and Uzbekistan, the seminar proved to be an exciting cross-cultural application of narrative method.
Instead of lecturing, we decided to conduct a series of narrative experiments to demonstrate our practices. From these, we deduced 12 guiding maxims of our work.
Uzbekistan is extremely poor and still searching for a way to escape its communist past. With half its people under 25, the country has yet to experience real democracy. The young people we met shared stories that revealed a great yearning for change. Not wanting to sound like evangelists for American capitalism, we introduced them to a narrative method of searching their own collective memory. We were interested to discover where and how people had kept their voices alive in the face of oppression. What we found was a rich tradition of jokes, songs and stories that celebrated a resilient Uzbek spirit and pointed a way to the future. At the end, they told us our method “felt much more Eastern than Western” and that they were having too much fun for it to be a philosophy lecture!
CREATING A LISTENING SPACE
In both its local and international work with communities, CNS has tested the following assumptions. Though inspired by postmodernism, the Center is less concerned about theories and more concerned about what approaches open up space for community dialogue and renewal. We work to create a listening culture where reality is discovered to be richer because more voices are invited into the conversation.
The following maxims are offered as starting points rather than conclusions. They grow out of the stories of our current practice.
1-We recognize that we are born into language before we are born into life. Language both precedes us and outlives us as both ecosystem and ‘echo-system.’
As soon as family get news that we have been conceived, an expectancy is set up, an expectancy regarding ‘who we will be’ boy or girl, whose name we will have and where we will fit into the family system, first born, last born etc. News of birth contains notions of prophesy, hope, threat and promise into which we must fit ourselves. For example, examine the pregnancy narratives of sacred texts, Luke 1,26 announcing that Jesus will be born. The irony of personal identity is how language, that which becomes most personal and first hand to us, is what is also most impersonal and second hand. We mint original identities using a borrowed language.
A favorite exercise for us is to give people a free writing exercise that begins “When I think of my name……… I think………”. In Tashkent, one of the professors from Russia reflected on how he was named after his dead uncle, Nicholas, who was a Red Army war hero. We examined what story he was born into by being given that name. Was it family grief? Or national Russian pride? Had he ever imagined being in the Army? My own brother is named Steve after an uncle killed in 1942 by the Japanese in the fall of Singapore. What does that suggest about family memory and expectancy, about how a birth is stitched onto the story of another’s death? Another teacher from Russia tells me of the tradition of celebrating your name day which in his culture replaces the birthday.
2-We recognize that to enter the human community of language, we give up our primal voice for the borrowed voice. We must find the “unsaid” of our unique existence in the “already said.”
To join the community of meaning-makers, we pay a price. We must alienate our unarticulated desires for the articulated desires of the culture. As Lacan said, desire is educated through language. We only know what we want by learning the language of desire, but in so doing, we apprentice ourselves to what the culture wants us to want.
Doing a workshop where one has to use a translator is a funny and sometimes difficult experience. Yet it demonstrates perfectly how we are struggling to translate the unsaid into the already said. At the end of one session, the moderator asks me on behalf of Elmira,” Does she have permission to live?” “Live?” I say,” She looks very much alive to me.” “No, live, live, live.” “Oh leave. Oh yes, of course.” Later at lunch, I am eating a rather sorry looking peach. “You find warm?” I am asked by one of my hosts.” Yes, it is very warm, but I am used to heat coming from Australia’s north.” “No warm?” “What? Oh worm, worm.” We both broke into prolonged laughter. And we delight in retelling these stories for the rest of the seminar. At the end, he apologizes, “Your English is too bad for me to understand.”
3-We recognize that finding integrity is a life project bound up with making language serve our purposes rather than our serving its’ predetermined or borrowed intentionalities. Our quest for personal identity is a story about stories, about who owns them and who tells them, and who hears them.
Bakhtin warned us to be careful of words because “you don’t know where they have been.” Language forms this wonderful echo-system and archive of borrowed intentions and fragments of memories. Mixed together, they form a sediment of meaning out of which we try to form our identity. In every conversation, however, language is speaking us before we are speaking it, recreating resonances of its own past. Language pre-shapes our power to shape it.
One way to gain an insight into whose language and whose story we might be echoing is to ask “Who are your heroes or heroines? Who inspires you?” Being in Tashkent, a city full of decaying memorials to the Great Heroes of the 1917 Revolution, the class was not so keen on heroes. Yet they shared stories of who had inspired them-one spoke of his love for the philosopher Spinoza, a thinker who had to endure much rejection for his unorthodox teachings on God and free will. Another woman professor spoke of her little daughter, struck down with a grave illness, who inspired her mother never to give up hope. The stories that inspire us most carry the signature of our spirit through which we breathe life into our language.
4-We recognize that our identity exists within language and only comes alive in stories.
Experts in language acquisition tell us that children do not simply learn words as isolated units. Rather they learn language within larger narratives of meaning. (Bruner) The experience of world literature tells us that the words we treasure most are songs, poems and great stories rather than congressional reports or scientific tables. Language survives and thrives through stories. If we have no story to tell, we cannot be fully recognized within the language community and will be impeded from growing an effective identity.
If part of our identity is contained in our name, another part is contained in our place. We ask our participants to do another exercise-Write freely beginning with the following sentence stem,” When I think of the place that I call home, I think of…….” It is always exhilarating to hear people, often the most inarticulate, bring a special house or street, river or mountain to life through what they share. As the American poet William Stafford says, a place is “a story happening again and again.” It does not exist in the language unless we give it a story. The group shared stories of the mountains of Georgia, the place that God created last and best. Others of their special village or farm. Others spoke of Moscow and the mist. If place is a larger story into which we can insert our identity, then what is Uzbekistan or Russia or the USA or any nation if not a larger narrative construction that we keep recreating
5-We recognize that our identities stay alive by those tellings and re-tellings that effectively recruit an audience and thereby replenish the language pool.
Stories shape us and we shape them through the living ecosystem of a language. Stories keep our identity alive at the same time as they keep words alive. When a story dies, the ecosystem of language is depleted. When people lose their stories, language loses its resonance. It is robbed of its capacity for depth since meaning is a layering process. (Imagine how much meaning would be lost if English forgot the Bible or Shakespeare.) Stories also implicate audiences. Finding our voice is first of all a function of listening to how others “voice” us. As we learn to speak our life, the crucial audience becomes the self. Identity is the “me” that I hear when I say “I.”
In our seminar, we always play the traditional kids’ game of “Telephone” I gave out the story “They married in Moscow. He wanted to divorce her because he said she drank too much. She said he drove her to drink. She wanted to take the children to Grandmother Olga’s farm in the Caucuses. He said if she did, he’d take her to court. She said “Try it.” As it was passed down the line, what was lost was all of the woman’s voice. What stayed as anchors for transmission were place-Moscow-a person-the Grandmother- and the fact that there was a conflict. Imagine that was a story about you-what has just happened to your identity? And why does story orbit on the axis of conflict?
6-We recognize that stories are passed on in response to real community needs and desires, the dreams they cherish and the disasters they keep reliving. The oral tradition of any community is not an accidental memory but part of what the community needs to know it knows and what it is trying to forget it knows.
In our work, we presume that the stories that are told and remembered have stayed in circulation for a reason. They preserve a “worth remembering” account of how the community hears itself speak its identity and its destiny. The theologian Johann Metz calls them “dangerous memories of human suffering engaged in for the sake of the future.” They form the most accessible material for inviting a community to self-reflection, to hear and make new meaning out of what it is saying about itself and its purposes.
We like to use the exercise that Rick Stone introduced to us-asking the group to think of and then tell a story that involves water or fire. We got some fascinating accounts of magic carpets and being lost as a child in a Siberian forest. “Why remember these stories that involve the elements?” “Because stories carry the soul of a people,” Katernia said. And perhaps, I added, water and fire are keys to the human tribe’s sustainability. I shared my work with Aboriginal cultures where stories function as maps for survival, and where finding water and making fire are basic technologies.
7-We recognize that for as many stories that get passed on, as many die out or are silenced. Some die with their narrators, some for lack of audience. Others die because they are overwhelmed by contesting stories or have simply outlived their relevance.
Every community is a site for the “contest of memory over forgetting,” (Kundera) and of stories that make claims on other stories or crowd them out of the listening spaces. For every story told, there is a story that is not told, especially in situations of conflict. The damage violence does to language and collective memory too often goes untold, and yet, it is its most telling effect. Reconciliation becomes a process of making room for these untold stories and deferred dreams to resurface. A path to healing opens when the voices of the unjustly silenced are heard at last e.g. South Africa’s Truth & Justice Commission
To look at recent works of history on the old USSR, it staggers the imagination to read the toll of terror and death. World War one cost Russia 2 million victims, the following civil war 7 million, the famine of the 1920’s 6 million, Stalin’s purges another few million and in World War Two, 25 million perished. (Review Washington Post July 23, 2001) As a region, what does so much death and destruction do to intergenerational wisdom? How can one ever recover so many memories aborted and legacies obliterated? It makes sense that Russia and its former Republics would develop a culture of forgetting as a way of coping with their overwhelming loss. But the dominant story becomes the story that is not told. I was very interested in how my participants were very guarded about telling stories that were critical of the State. They remembered what they had to forget.
8-We recognize that stories are related like families. They hang together in clusters and cycles that mark special times, map special places, ritualize significant events and portray special people. Stories live in their own narrative families. We ‘relate’ stories because they are related. They never exist by themselves.
In group process, one notices how stories of one kind lead to more stories of the same kind. Stories shape the listening space for relational fit, meaning that some stories are always more likely to be told than others. In any group culture, select experiences of reality will be heard as more acceptable than others, not because they are truer but simply because they better fit the established pattern of telling.
I ask the group to share their childhood memories of fairy tales-they are now eager and ready to go into their small story circles and as I walk around, there is great laughter and high energy. I am always amazed at why that is-for something so simple to generate so much vitality.
Some of the stories they bring back to the whole group have to do with the Mullah Nasrudin- the Sufi folk hero. One story that Georgie shared and that I love concerns Nasrudin borrowing a large pot. When he returned it, he added a smaller pot telling his neighbor that his pot had had a baby. The neighbor laughed and accepted it. Later, Nasrudin borrowed two large pots and only returned one. When asked where the other was, he said it had died. The neighbor was outraged. “Give me back my pot.” But Nasrudin told him, “As surely as you accepted that your pot could give birth, so just as surely your pot could die.” Bettelheim says fairytales are life-rehearsals for children in that they educate the imagination. Of what kind of future is this story predictive? Perhaps how wit becomes the weapon of the powerless-and even more, how the real contest for power resides as much on the field of language as on the field of battle.
9-We recognize that stories and their exchange create our relational reality. Therefore, to study society means to study communities as narrative systems.
Post-modernists like to claim that reality is totally constructed, that we inhabit this prison house of language. Avoiding this epistemological battlefield, we concern ourselves with what seems at least pragmatically true; that language is our primary means of naming whatever we take to be “real.” Moreover, it is only through language that we create awareness that “we” and the “real” are in relationship. This approach makes us less focused on narrative as content and more interested in how narratives construct relationships. If stories are constantly creating communities of meaning, storytelling becomes a fundamentally ethical act. Thus, we need to find a new narrative ethic because stories matter more than they let on. They are never innocent.
10-We recognize that stories bind tellers and audience into networks of shared significance, or what we term “genres.” By studying these distinctive genres, we can come to understand how genre generates culture and vice versa.
If culture is about how meanings and symbols are exchanged, we believe that narrative method gives us a special window into how culture is created. As Ortega y Gasset says, every era (and culture) tends to favor a particular genre. By identifying the genre that underpins a culture, (Irish Tragic, American Epic) we can understand and even predict what will claim its attention. We can identify what makes its “reality” real. If the genre does not embrace certain parts of our experience, (genres can be exclusive) those parts will fall out of the story. By exploring the role genre plays in making or breaking meaning, we can better understand how culture is transmitted and transformed.
Working as an Australian, living in the USA and constantly training young people in the cross-cultural settings of Northern Ireland, I have got used to what I hear as predictable cultural genres. They may be stereotypes but they are rooted in particular literary traditions. When the young people from Northern Ireland come to the USA, they are amazed at the American optimism, the “can do” attitude. Americans who return the visit to Belfast are equally struck with the pessimism, the problem saturated peace narrative, that hovers between brink, breakdown and breakthrough. As Yeats says, the Irish are in love with tragedy, whereas Americans cannot tolerate an unhappy ending. What is the genre of Russian and Uzbek’s and Georgian stories? Meaning comes in patterns that are repeated. If we listen, we will soon find ourselves being able to predict the story form.
An American and an Irishman stand at the bottom of the hill and look up at the mansion at its summit, its lights blazing in splendor. The American points to the mansion and tells his friend, “One day I am going to BE that guy.” The Irishman points to the mansion and he says in reply, “One day I am going to GET that guy.”
11-We recognize that in a globalized world, media multinationals accumulate a narrative power that supports and often supplants military and economic power (e.g. Hollywood, ABC-Disney, Microsoft-NBC). If we are to understand and challenge these imperial voices dictating our personal and political agendas, we must learn and teach a narrative way to understanding culture.
Since the fall of Communism and the discrediting of the socialist critique, the West has been able to sell the world a story about democracy premised on globalism and capitalist consumption. We believe this to be a dangerously misleading story because it drowns out the voices of other cultures and ways. It is inherently exploitative because it is so transparently self-serving. A true democracy in narrative terms is a Republic of Stories, not a chorus of the powerful drowning out the powerless.
We talk about genre and power. What kinds of stories do Empires and Emperors tell? And what kinds of stories do colonies and provinces tell? Empires speak with the “imperial I” owning an agency that easily provokes envy and resentment from the less powerful. What stories did Russia tell in their glory days of Empire? It wrote its stories in the local geography. Tashkent still has crumbling monuments to Lenin and the October Revolution. And what stories do the provinces tell: that they never have a say, that they are too far from the center, that they are always ignored, that they are never recognized. Provincial narratives are prone to disown agency. Newly independent countries like Uzbekistan often have to learn a new story to claim their own power and take their place in the world.
…..All of this is taking place in a college campus guarded 24 hours by armed soldiers with machine guns. It feels like an outpost of an old Empire now under threat from terrorists, not since September 11th but since they were born as a newly independent nation.
12-We recognize that we always come late to reality. Our stories are always belated attempts to catch up to what has already happened. Being open to reality means keeping our stories open to constant revelation and revision and giving up our obsession with closure. As an “emergent reality,” the world resists being imprisoned in the word. Reality keeps breaking free from the chains of fixed meaning.
The paradigms of the new science (Einstein, New Physics) that speak of an emergent reality have yet to be adequately translated into mainstream philosophy or the human sciences. Our stories of the human reality are mostly out of date because they cannot capture the pace of social change that we now experience, nor describe how this reshapes cultural identity. If we are serious about giving reality a fresh voice, we always need to be in quest of another story. If as we say in our work ‘you have to tell a story to find a story,’ every story is prologue.
How do you build a civil society in Uzbekistan? One professor tells us that civil society cannot happen here because the traditional Islamic society is too strong. I understand what he means, having spent a day with one 21-year-old man who took me on a tour of the market and proudly told me how very soon, his father would choose a bride for him. But we discuss the professor’s claim, ask what kind of story ‘that something can never happen’ is? Is it a story that can ever entertain another possibility? What genre is it? Does the story reflect the reality or does it lock the reality into an unchanging pattern of interpretation? But imagine if things do change. All that story can do is either ignore it or label it “more of the same.” Stories focus our attention to find what fits the story. They become self-fulfilling until a new reality repudiates their usefulness.
What if we took the Nasrudin stories that are so funny, and so disrespectful of oppressive authority, and saw them as stories of the folk keeping alive a memory of resistance. What if they are stories that are armed with humor as a weapon to humanize regimes that terrorize? Russian humor tends to have the same feature. What if we revived the oral tradition of the local communities and put back into circulation some of the stories about local heroes and heroines, about ordinary people who create a better life for their children-who bring up their children with hope for a better future. Would these stories challenge the story of powerlessness that is endemic to most societies that have endured great oppression? Is not the story of power somehow connected with the power of story? We have no more time in this seminar- but my challenge to you here is my belief that finding a future for Uzbekistan is not only about political or economic reform- it is about finding a better story. And this seminar has at least been a start.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
Since September 11th and the start of the war in Afghanistan, the world has heard more about Uzbekistan than it ever has before. A country that is extraordinarily hard to gain a visa to visit, it is hyper vigilant about terrorists. The army and police seem to be ubiquitous, never far away from the streets.
I had one day free to play tourist and took the obligatory trip to Samarkand with a driver-guide who didn’t know a word of English. What a trip, screaming along narrow roads at speeds close to 100mph, passing all kinds of dawdling farming traffic and stopping every few miles to go through military check-points. I was miffed that if I managed to arrive in one piece, (which I seriously doubted) I would have to interpret Samarkand unaided.
But once we got there, a guide was superfluous. To see the shimmering blue domes that competed with the blue of the sky, and walk the courtyard of an ancient University that existed long before most of the famous European centers of learning, I was awestruck. Why had I never heard about this before? What other stories were buried with the great tombs of their kings and warriors?
We may only hear of Uzbekistan today because American planes are using their bases to fly over Afghanistan. But 600 years ago, people living here might have been forgiven for thinking that they lived at the center of the civilized world. They are rediscovering their own story, freed from a century of Russian imposition. They now claim their own heroes like Tamerlane the Brave. And to meet them in the streets and the market place, they strike one as wonderfully friendly people who have an earthy humor and a remarkable resilience.
As I flew home to Washington, I became painfully aware of how easy it is to become imprisoned within one’s own cultural story- the story of America and the West and the supposed triumph of our civilization. Terrorists may challenge it, and we may have a fight on our hands to defend it from the “new barbarians.” But here on the Silk Road, and close to where the bombs are now dropping, the West learned its math and astronomy; it rediscovered its Plato and Aristotle. Our story and their story were once intertwined, and somewhere along the way, they became separated. We forget theirs. They forgot ours.
If the world is to build a firmer foundation for peace, perhaps we have to let another Nasrudin loose, to poke fun at the arrogance of any power that claims to have the only story worth telling. And we could reinvent the United Nations as a Global Storytelling Festival. I know a few friends from Tashkent who have stories to tell.
The Center for Narrative Studies Washington DC