The CEA Forum
Summer/Fall 2009: 38.2
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Paul John Eakin. Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008. 208 pp. $17.95 (paper).
by Vanessa Cozza, Bowling Green State University
When thinking about autobiographical works, we may view them “simply as convenient containers for our life stories” (ix). However, Paul John Eakin, in Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative, examines the importance of sharing our life stories with the world, by specifically looking at how narrative and identity function in literature and in our lives. He opens the Preface by introducing the term, narrative identity, which “is an essential part of our sense of who we are” (ix). The purpose of Eakin's text is to explore “the construction of identity that talking about ourselves and our lives performs in the world” (x). More importantly, Eakin believes “that our life stories are not merely about us but in an inescapable and profound way are us” (x).
Divided into four chapters, the “two-part structure” as described by Eakin, contributes to the text's readability and clarity. The first two chapters focus on “the raw materials of the pervasive self-modeling that structures our living,” while the last two chapters demonstrate “this identity work in action” (xi). Specifically, the first chapter, titled “Talking About Ourselves: The Rules of the Game,” examines “the social sources and ethical implications of narrative identity” (x). The next chapter, “Autobiographical Consciousness: Body, Brain, Self, and Narrative,” “presents a neurobiological perspective on self and narrative” (x). Chapter three, “Identity Work: People Making Stories,” explores several authors' works and theorists who have written autobiographies and have studied narrative. Lastly, Chapter four, titled “Living Autobiographically,” “proposes that our narrative self-fashioning . . . may even possess an evolutionary, adaptive value, helping to anchor our shifting identities in time” (xi). Eakin's organization and approach throughout the text—defining and explaining concepts in the first two chapters and offering detailed examples in the last two chapters—makes his argument easy to follow and understandable.
Eakin's approach in the first chapter is “social and cultural” (xi). Several theorists have influenced Eakin's work; Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and one of the key theorists that Eakin refers to in this chapter, claims that “each of us constructs and lives a 'narrative,' and that this narrative is us, our identities” (1). In considering Sacks' statement, Eakin uses narrative identity to argue that when “talking about ourselves . . . we perform a work of self-construction,” creating an “interplay between what we are and what we say we are” (2). He views autobiography “as a discourse of identity,” rather than simply life stories that we write or read. Furthermore, Eakin presents differing perspectives focusing on how narrative identity occurs in autobiographical works. More interesting is how Eakin closes the chapter, examining how societal expectations of what constitutes autobiography can positively or negatively impact a writer's success at self-narration. In this case, Eakin approaches autobiography “as an integral part of a lifelong process of identity formation” governed by rules on how the literary genre must be performed (34).
While the first chapter focuses on the social and cultural perspectives of narrative identity, chapter two takes a neurobiological approach (xi). The cognitive scientist Antonio Damasio inspired Eakin's exploration of “the somatic, bodily sources of narrative identity” in this chapter (61). Eakin seeks to answer the central question, “What really happens when we read autobiography?” using Damasio's theory of the self (61). Damasio, Eakin explains, “argues that self is a primary constituent of all conscious experience” (71). Eakin complicates this notion of self-awareness by exploring how “the body [manifests] self,” how “Damasio articulates this bodily manifestation of self,” and how “self [is] expressed in autobiography” (72). In attempting to answer these questions, Eakin reveals that narrative identity is “rooted in our lives in and as bodies,” rather than simply a “social convention” (74). He concludes chapter two by revealing that “doing consciousness”—emphasizing “autobiography as performance, as action”—will be the overarching theme of the last two chapters (85).
As the first two chapters define and explain the notion of narrative identity, chapter three focuses on the social and cultural aspects that were discussed in chapter one. Eakin poses the question, “To what extent are the selves we think we are and the life stories we think we've lived the product of our position in a field of large-scale cultural forces?” (89). Eakin adds, “[We] never experience the cultural forces in our lives in a simple and transparent way” (89). Drawing from his discussion in the first chapter, Eakin closely examines a few autobiographical works in chapter three. For instance, he opens the chapter with an excerpt from Henry Mayhew's interview with “an eight-year-old girl selling watercress in the streets of the East End” in London (87). Referencing Carolyn Steedman, a historian who researched “the lives of working-class girls,” Eakin notes Steedman's commentary on the child's story, claiming “that such children learn at an early age to know their places in an economic system” (88). Eakin explains that her analysis “suggests: the child is equivalent to her work (' her labour was . . . herself '), or, alternatively, the child 'uses' her work to articulate 'what she knew herself to be'” (89). His insight reveals how culture influences “identity formation” (125). The chapter concludes with an examination of “how people make sense of their experience, drawing on the models of self and life story available to them in their cultures” (104).
In the last chapter, Eakin explores the question, “Why do people tell and sometimes write their life stories?” (151). He revisits Damasio's perspective of self, arguing “that the body's story” offers “important insight into their function and value as maps of our lives in time” (153). Adapting Damasio's theory, Eakin agrees that our bodies are connected to our mental state (153). He adds, “Not only do bodies have stories, then, but the telling of these stories has an adaptive value” (153). Thus, sharing our experiences with others is a valuable activity because it not only “[bridges] the gap” between the past and the future, but it also helps us understand “our journey across time in narrative terms” (157).
Eakin's text reveals that self-narration not only reflects our life stories, but it also represents who we are. Offering an interesting perspective regarding narrative identity and autobiography, this text may change the way we share our experiences with the world and the way we read others' stories.
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