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The Ethical Self in the Play of Affect and Voice

Philip Lewin

In recent years, there has been a great deal of interest in what an understanding of narrative can contribute toward our understanding of human lives. The ability to develop a cogent account of one's own life, a life story, has been explored as a basic means through which we organize experience. Yet a fundamental question concerns how we are to regard the image of "life as narrative." Is this merely a metaphorical way of understanding human life, of no more significance than similar metaphors, for instance, "life is a book" (as in, "my life is an open book" or "we began a new chapter of our lives when we moved here")? Or, on the contrary, is there a deeper connection between lives and narratives such that their association, far from being adventitious or arbitrary, is motivated by isomorphisms between the constitutive components of narratives and the enabling conditions of human lives?

My discussion begins from the assumption that such a link exists. I would argue, following Ricoeur and Heidegger, that our understanding of ourselves in terms of emplotments, of stories, is not simply a heuristic or even an epistemic mode of human being. Rather, it is ontological; it is a primary condition of how we live out our embeddedness within the world, how our concerned involvements find expression. The understandings that arise from such involvements are the stuff out of which our selfhood emerges. The metaphor here is indeed textual for the self is a way in which various strands and threads of personal experience are woven together. That is, despite our predilections for unity, the accumulation of experience can result in a mere Humean concatenation of parts as well as a Kantian synthetic whole. The coherent self, in other words, is a project to be achieved rather than a given to be presupposed.

In this paper, I emphasize one aspect of the process through which the coherent self arises. I highlight how experience receives narrative determination through the mediation of affective involvement and linguistic appropriation. These considerations, in turn, pose the question of ethics, for ethics is ordinarily understood to require a self sufficiently unified to sustain an ethical posture. How, then, can a tenable ethics arise from the play of affect and voice?

I. Protonarrativity

In themselves, the events that constitute our everyday lives are hermeneutically indeterminate. Such phenomena as "going to work," "getting the mail," "playing with my son," and so forth, cohere as identifiable episodes, but they need not have any particular determinate meaning. They simply compose the ongoingness of everyday life. Their epistemic status is one of "protonarrativity"; they are themes that have not yet crystallized into particular experiential configurations. Only as they are incorporated into one of a number of potential narrative threads do they become determinate.

Though I can not develop this idea here, I would suggest that protonarrativity is the form that experience takes as its ontological condition. That is, our living is not simply known to us reflectively as protonarrative. Rather, experience is lived as protonarrative. For instance, each distinguishable moment of my walking to the mailbox -- each tensing of my stomach preparatory to raising my foot, each sensation of ground below and of breeze above, of posture, of shifting balance from leg to leg, of reaching toward the mailbox, and so on -- can be reflectively subsumed under the single gestalt of "walking to the mailbox." That we unify lived-time is worthy of noting in its own right. However, the description of this act is only epistemic. I want to suggest more: that the act itself (and not merely our reflection upon it) is protonarrative, that the actions are lived, and not merely understood, as "getting the mail." Reflective intentionality can be understood as protonarrative; but bodily intentionality is already lived as protonarrative.

Most of our everyday experience takes this form: getting our mail, preparing meals, arriving at the office, all are coherent units of activity as such. Ordinarily they have only background significance. However if we have a testy encounter with a neighbor at the mailbox, or finally fold an omelette in just the right way, or have an automobile accident on the way to the office, then these mundane events, protonarrative in character, can become significant by being emplotted within a narrative frame. The first story might well include elements of irritation; the second of joy; the third of guilt.

Narrative determination, in other words, is not arbitrary. As my examples are intended to illustrate, a significant factor constraining which narrative determination is ultimately chosen is the affective charge accompanying the event. Indeed, negotiating affectivity is fundamental to both the narrative project and to the sense of self that accompanies that project.

II. Affective Projection

Understanding affectivity is a basic human task. Ontogenetically, it is grounded in prereflective experience; infants express anger and excitement and pleasure long before they can think about these emotions. Indeed, understanding affectivity is slow to develop, much slower than social and cognitive intelligence. By six months of age, for instance, infants already engage in social smiling, already evoke surprise when physical causality is not obeyed, already sense continuities in patterns of caretaking and recognize specific caregivers. But events are comprehended as a whole whose emotional weight is inherent within them for a much longer period. For example, when a pre-school child cries because someone takes away a favorite toy, the ensuing distress seems not to be experienced by the child as localized within itself. Rather, the distress arises from the total situation -- from the child, but also from the toy, from the desire for it, from its removal, from the other removing it. The child already "knows" cognitively that the toy and the other are not extensions of the self, but the affective distress accompanying the toy's removal is not so clearly localized. It requires years to develop a secure differentiation of the affective qualities of the world, an understanding that the emotional charge accompanying events resides not in the events themselves but in the person's involvement with them.

Indeed, this differentiation is rarely completely achieved, nor do we wish it to be. Even as adults we continue to read affect into the world, finding the completion of ourselves in projections onto objects and others that we desire or fear, around which or against which we deem fundamental aspects of our selves to be at stake. Lacking affective projection is to lack basic psychological health. It is precisely because our affective lives are so deeply entangled with the stuff of the world that the world can become a source of meaning for the self. As Robert Romanyshyn has suggested, "Our psychological life is not in things, or because of them, it is given through them."

Obviously this is the case when we speak of important others: of lovers and enemies, of children and colleagues. But in these cases, there is an ontic mutuality of affective projection between self and other that may mask the degree to which we read the world more generally through affect, through what Heidegger referred to as the existential of Befindlichkeit. This becomes clearer when we think of our relations to non-living objects -- to the old car on which we tinker, to souvenirs and memorabilia of our youth, to photographs and old clothes, to particular mountains and natural settings, to favorite songs that evoke the memory of specific encounters, specific situations. Our entanglements in the world transform a house into a home, a street into a neighborhood. In what only seems a paradox, we find our selves by looking into the world.

III. Ventriloquation

But if affective arousal serves as an enabling and even a necessary condition through which protonarrative episodes receive narrative determination, it is not sufficient to provide that determination. For instance, having an automobile accident on the way to work is likely to be affectively arousing. But in itself, it will not determine which construal this protonarrative will receive. Will it figure in a narrative of self-deprecation, in which my poor driving is symptomatic of my general incompetence and low self-esteem? or will it figure in a narrative of victimization, in which once again I have been set upon by malicious forces? or will it figure in a narrative of gratitude, in which the power of society (in the guise of insurance agencies, police, tow trucks, auto repair shops, etc.) rescues me from potential ruin? and so forth. How do I choose between self-deprecation, or victimhood, or rescue, or any of a number of other construals? Or more precisely, since many real-life narratives are not interpreted univocally, how do I allocate the proper proportions of explanatory power to each of several relevant narrative threads?

Negotiating the affective charge of protonarrativity, then, includes the process through which I appropriate everyday events within an explanatory account that is coherent with respect to my understanding of myself. If I think of myself as an excellent driver, I may be resistant to understanding the collision as a result of my carelessness; I may prefer a story of being victimized to one of being at fault. But my resistance is ordinarily not irrevocable; our saving grace is our capacity to acknowledge that we can be wrong. And insofar as self-understanding is a project, a work in progress, and not a final and rigid accomplishment, ongoing interpretive activity may lead to revisions in it. I may entertain other voices, other meanings than the ones I habitually affirm.

The concept of such an internal dialogue of voices was described by Mikhail Bakhtin as "ventriloquation," a process through which construals of experience receive linguistic formulation in the "speech genres" available in a given cultural frame. As pointed out by both Bakhtin and the sociocultural approach to human development that originated in the work of Bakhtin's contemporary Lev Vygotsky, at first I speak my self through the voices of others. The process of forming a coherent self becomes a process of sorting through this heteroglossia, this multiplicity of voices that co-exists first around me and then within me, until discourses that are "internally persuasive" emerge. In Bakhtin's words, Language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other. The word in language is half someone else's. It becomes "one's own" only when the speaker populates it with his own intention....Consciousness finds itself inevitably facing the necessity of having to choose a language (pp. 293, 295).

But how do I make this choice? In my accident example, I have available the discursive practices of police and insurance agencies; the speech genres of victimhood and self-incrimination; the languages of guilt and anger. I carry the voices of my driving instructor's praise, my friend's admiration at my skill, my wife's nervousness at my tailgating, the curses of the other party in the accident, my boss's chagrin. I am inscribed within my culture's sense of the sullen and proprietary self-righteousness that accrues to drivers when behind the wheel, but also its languages of litigiousness and entitlement when harm is done. Which of these voices will I credit?

Bakhtin saw the novel as exemplary in that it was the genre in which heteroglossia was most fully developed, and he saw the work of a writer like Dostoevsky as exemplary within that genre insofar as Dostoevsky allows the distinctive and contrary voice of each of his major characters to be fully heard. As opposed to a writer such as Jane Austen, who famously tells us what to think about her characters, Dostoevsky shows them to us both in their opposition to each other and with full regard for their internal contradictions and tormented logic. We understand them as individuals to a degree of depth in comparison with which Austen's characters remain types.

Yet Dostoevsky's authorial voice, however well attuned to the polyphony of his characters, remains authoritative. That is to say, the most dialogic and the most monologic of authors equally confers coherence on their work. In the best cases according to Bakhtin, that coherence is achieved by preserving the contradictions of competing voices rather than subverting them. Analogously, I can hear the polphony speaking around the accident, all of it. But out of that polyphony, certain voices will be credited more fully. It is in that crediting that I wish to locate the ethical act.

IV. Ethics

Choosing a language is both an epistemic moment and an ethical moment. In authoring one's actions, one also becomes answerable for them. A position consistent with this understanding of responsibility is that of Emmanuel Levinas, who locates the ground of ethics in the infinite responsibility the self assumes for the Other. Bakhtin complements Levinas at this point. The Bakhtinian suggestion is that the Other already inhabits the self as the multiplicity of voices one already speaks as a member of a variety of social collectivities. To acknowledge heteroglossia within oneself is an epistemic act, an act of self-knowledge. This epistemic act, in turn, informs the answerability of the ethical stance.

Levinas would differ -- and differ strongly -- from Bakhtin in that Levinas would stress that the play of heteroglossia within the person is an act that reduces the Other to the Same. Levinas finds the possibility of ethics precisely in the impossibility of such a reduction, in the absolute irreducibility of the Other. But I would argue that Levinasian ethics requires the epistemic supplement that Bakhtin can be seen to provide.

I would suggest that it is the epistemic that lays the foundation for the mature ethics required by Levinas. My point is that it is only after an epistemic reduction of the Other to the Same has been undertaken that a mature ethical posture that preserves Otherness as Otherness, with respect and care, is possible. Without the epistemic, one's responsiveness to the irreducible appeal of the Other can be merely formal. It can become in practice the undertaking of a requirement whose enaction precedes reflection, a kind of automatic responsibility, an inauthentic caring, or worse, a ritualistic ethic based in fear and trembling. It can become a responsibility for the idea of the Other, a responsiveness to a type, a class, a gender, a race, and not to a particular other, this other in this specific circumstance that is the hallmark of the Levinasian face-to-face.

Complementing Levinas with Bakhtin, ethics can be seen as embedded within and emergent from the process through which one forms and re-forms the self. This is simultaneously the process through which one becomes answerable to otherness. In Levinas' formulation, answerability is to other persons as I assume infinite responsibility for them, while in Bakhtin's it is to otherness as implicit and initially unconscious aspects of the self. Levinas finds ethics in the singularity of the face-to-face, while Bakhtin's authorizing imperative integrates a polyphony of voices within the context of self. But these two imperatives, while apparently distinct, may be two aspects of the same process, one we can call a process of self-authorization.

Self-authorization is the struggle for my authorial voice. In most affectively charged situations, this struggle can be profound. There may well be a complex mixing of voices as one appropriates experience. In my example of the automobile accident, registers of guilt and responsibility as well as accusation and self-righteous anger are likely to come into play. A subtle negotiation between these voices is likely as I measure what each of them says against how I already understand myself.

At the same time, I also respond to the imperative presented by the claims of the other which supercede my need to legitimate myself. Which of these voices, of these appeals, cohere with my prior self-understanding of myself as an ethical agent? Which challenge it? Of those that challenge it, which are plausible? The final resolution of this negotiation can be swift, and ordinarily it may be. But it also may be postponed as its terms shift over time, only gradually after a period of months or even years settling into a composed moment of self-knowing.

It should be clear that the authorizing imperative is an ideal one struggles toward, not a given. If an affectively charged event is sufficiently traumatic to one's sense of self, the ensuing internal polyphony may never be resolved; it may indefinitely mark a sore spot, a psychological complex, sensitive to further wounding, simultaneously protected and paralyzed by psychological armor. Alternatively and much more commonly, the dialectic may be short-circuited entirely by ignoring the contradictions within one's beliefs and behaviors, by repudiating the Levinasian imperative altogether. The coherent but shallow self is probably the cultural norm. So the issue of self-formation, especially insofar as it includes an ethical moment as necessary to it, is more one of depth and complexity than of simple coherence. A deeper coherence is inevitably complex precisely because we are not smooth and consistent beings, precisely because we must negotiate our way through our failings and shortcomings equally with our successes. And, indeed, the first task is often to acknowledge that we have failings and shortcomings at all.

At our best, as fully ethical beings, we achieve not a unified self but a coherent one. We come to have a developing and revocable sense of ourselves that is available as an object of reflection. Its ethics is based in respect and self-knowledge; it enjoins us to provide the truest possible stories of self and other. The coherent self is thus the teleonomic (not teleologic) outcome of the dialectic between affective projection into the world and the appropriation of experience through narrative structuring, carried out before the Face of the Other. How we emplot our experience tells us who we think we are. But how we emplot our experience with respect to our responsibility for the Other tells us, as well, how we stand ethically.



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[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]