July 7, 2019

Barbara Hardy, Louis Mink, and David Carr

Historical theory about "narrative" has tended to fixate on experience versus language, often showing little or no respect for the way stories take root and play out in our minds.

In an obscure literary journal from 1968 Barbara Hardy says “narrative, like lyric or dance, is not to be regarded as an aesthetic invention used by artists to control, manipulate, and order experience, but as a primary act of mind transferred to art from life.” That quote is preserved by Louis Mink and David Carr, who each cited Hardy against one another while debating the correspondence between life and narrative. Unfortunately, both men misunderstood her severely. What Hardy was actually talking about could be called cognitive storytelling; in her own words, “a pre-aesthetic state in routine acts of human consciousness” and “the narrative structure of acts of mind.” Her stated purpose was “to suggest the deficiency of our commonly posited antagonism between dream and realistic vision.” That is, Hardy was attacking a scholarly divide between fiction and realism. Among other points, Hardy defended fiction’s value by observing that depictions of realism incorporate various shades of the fantastic (and vice versa).

The article, “Towards a Poetics of Fiction,” found an audience among scholars of Victorian literature. It deserves more attention from narrative theorists and philosophers of history.

In calling narrative “a primary act of mind transferred to art from life,” Hardy was complicating an old dichotomy, but apparently Mink and Carr thought she was taking a side. The dualism of realism held dominance from Aristotle’s Poetics (identifying mythos with mimesis) through Thomas Carlyle (“Narrative is linear, Action is solid.”) and it grew stronger in 1976 when Louis Mink wrote “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument.” While that article is famous for (correctly) denying that “the past” amounts to “an untold story,” Mink’s argument that narrative offers “ways of making the flux of experience comprehensible” subsumed the composition process into written literature itself, and so missed the mediating stage of cognitive processing. That is, the “flux of experience” can also become “comprehensible” via personal reflections which never become verbal narrations. In refuting Hardy, Mink said the mind doesn’t put life upon art. He thought she had her ideas exactly backwards. In truth, he misread her words. In her phrase, “a primary act of mind transferred to art from life,” Mink saw only life and art. According to Hardy, the “act of mind” is the central dynamic. 

For Mink, the problem with words was their imperfect alignment with things. Hardy saw a middle stage: (1) life, (2) cognition, (3) art.

David Carr's famous rebuttal to Mink (in 1986) reinforced the same false dichotomy and simultaneously, again, misunderstood Hardy's ideas. In defending “narrative features of everyday experience,” Carr described action “as a temporal configuration.” Arguing that narration can and does represent experience accurately, Carr also missed the cognitive stage in-between. Carr quoted Hardy in support against Mink, as if she was affirming “the structure of everyday experience and action." Essentially, Carr imputed his own thoughts into Hardy’s work, but it was Carr’s work that most desperately needed to learn from what Hardy was saying.

In fairness, Carr’s thinking may come nearer the truth than his writing. When Carr talks about “life” and “experience” he would more accurately be describing the ways in which our subjective processing makes sense of chaos in the physical universe. Personally, I make the most sense out of Carr by supposing he could not see "action" except in its truncated form, in his memory. He could not see as Carlyle did. He could not step out of his literary imagination in order to think like an engineer or a physicist. At least, that would explain why Carr so often speaks about “action” itself having the same structure in life as it displays in narrative. Well, no, it absolutely does not. Then again, yes, it does seem to be that way when we look back on our own experiences.

Mink was technically right, and Carr was technically wrong, but Hardy’s view adds the nuance we need. Life is not like a story but our minds make it feel like a story, in hindsight. Unlike Carr, we must step back and see the chaos around us, as could Mink and Carlyle. Action is solid, but narrative is primarily an act of human cognition. Unlike Mink, we must escape the dualism of realism, as Aristotle and Carlyle did not. Narrative is linear, but so is the experience of human consciousness.

Most common narrative structures evolve naturally due to hindsight and cognition.

Here’s my own view. In between human experience (lived, researched, imagined, or vicarious experience) on the one hand and narrative representation (diaries, reports, oral tradition, and/or written histories) on the other, the subjective mind takes time to reflect, process, attend, and remember constructively. For any writer composing history, biography, autobiography, research synopses, or journalistic reports, the process of non-fiction storytelling is necesarily preceeded by two stages: experience comes first and cognition comes second. Narration and depiction comes no sooner than third. This trichotomy holds as firmly for receivers of non-fiction narratives, who test the purported representation of an author not by comparing that literature against the actual past, but comparing that literature, once received, against their own recollections and previous knowledge.

In sum, there is actually (1) experience, (2) cognition, and (3) narrative.

Mink subsumed (2) within (3) and Carr subsumed (2) within (1), which left both men theorizing about a dichotomy, which is why both men misunderstood Hardy. For her own part, I believe, Hardy saw (2) mediating between (1) and (3). Whenever we re-live past experience, or visualize future activities, we present ourselves with silent stories, narrativizations that take shape exclusively in our minds, which become fully formed without verbalization. Cognitive processing develops stories without discourse, the structured and truncated residue of experience which Mink and Carr each failed to recognize properly.

In recent years, multiple articles in History & Theory feature continued attempts to work through the perceived dichotomy of narrative versus experience. Meanwhile, lots of practicing historians who contributed to “the memory boom” since the 1980’s have been shrwedly applying the rubric of “memory” to get defensibly meta (e.g., Jan Assmann, Barry Schwartz; for a broader survey see Patrick H. Hutton, The Memory Phenomenon in Conteporary Historical Writing (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). On some level, all this rubric of “memory” is based on a key insight of psychological research, that mental narratives (not unlike written narratives) are not always 100% accurate recollections. Still, philosophers of history do not yet appear to have taken a cognitive turn. Although there has been laudable progress in bridging the divide between experience and narration (e.g., Frank Ankersmit, Jonas Grethlein, Kate Mitchell, the innovative "triangulation" of Chris Keith and Anthony LeDonne), a large number of historical theorists remain stuck on the problem of language.

Barbara Hardy knew better. Narrative is primarily an act of the mind. Cognitive Scientists call this process “Remembering”. Personally, I suspect if we focus on remembering as the mediating process between experience and language, we might begin to discover some mnemonic dynamic that governs the roots of all narrativity… but perhaps that’s a radical tangent.

One easy path forward may begin from observing that Louis Mink and David Carr were both wrong about Barbara Hardy. There is indeed an inner storytelling that fills our waking hours, and this psychic narrative has a structure which comes from acts of the mind - what Hardy aptly described as pre-aesthetic routines of consciousness. In the 1960's, working in fiction with other women, she happened to point out something more subtle and inward than anything yet observed by the boys club of historians. Her basic insight suggested that story structure derives neither from experience itself, nor exclusively from composition, but rather it derives from what our minds do after perceiving an experience, and what our minds do before attempting to verbalize narratives about it.

In academic discussions, Mink usually gets the better of Carr, but cognitive processing must not be subsumed within the composition process. If the framing of Carr's arguments could be transformed by Hardy's perspective, we might finally be approaching actual bedrock. Although there is not one untold story of “the” actual past, there have indeed been countless stories which remain untold up to a given moment. Those untold stories may not correspond to actual experience but they do correspond with that which the mind makes from its perception of actual experience. There is a common narrative structure that our minds naturally lend to events. In my own humble opinion, that structure derives from the necessities of forgetting and remembering. It deserves far more attention. At the very least, we might start by taking a much closer look at Barbara Hardy's “Towards a Poetics of Fiction” (1968).

Just as writers of history are wise to anticipate and contend with the collective remembering of their prospective audiences, philosophers of history should begin to consider the cognitive processing which precedes literary narration in the mediation of human experience. Such pursuits might even help us begin to distinguish standard patterns of cognitive structure as something independent of authorial bias.


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