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No Place Like Home: A Narrative Theory of Belonging

Laura Bieger, University of Freiburg

My project deals with the intimate and immensely productive relation of belonging and narrative. It is concerned with belonging as an existential condition of human being and with narrative as the quintessential mediator and enabler of this condition. What links the two is the yearning at work in and through belonging: not just be-ing, but also longing, the desire for a place in the world without which it would crumble. And yet to feel and direct this longing we need a mediating structure; narrative is that structure. This ‘need to tell’ is framed and limited by given sets of conventions and thus condemned to reiterating the norms and values inscribed into them. Yet at the same time, giving an account of uncertain states of belonging just as inevitably entails a wrestling with the unsayable. In fact, this inbuilt struggle pushes narrativization toward and across the limits of what can be said within given conventions with the effect of revising the narrative frames and formulas by which be live, and with the effect of engendering ever-new ‘life-forms’ for the narrative pursuit of belonging.

My interest in narrative is thus primarily as a cultural resource of orientation and emplacement; a practice that sustains our being through its capacities to articulate unsettling experiences, conduct the semantic, psychic and geographic movements unleashed by them within the shifting parameters of space and time, and in due process give meaning and mooring to life by giving narrative form. Narration must thus be seen as an indispensible component of dwelling in the world, a proposition with far-reaching consequences for our understanding of narrativity: (a) because it asks us to rethink the idea that humans are drawn to narrative because it elucidates the problem of temporality (Ricoeur, Brooks) by bringing out narrative’s distinct involvement with matters of space, and (b) because it challenges notions of narrative as a representational backdrop to the messiness of life with an ‘ontological’ understanding of narrativity (Somers). I further propose that literary narratives, although committed to ‘representing’ life rather than ‘living’ it, are deeply invested in the ontological narrativity engendered by the yearning to belong—by staging and exploring narrative as a life-sustaining practice that springs from the need to interpret one’s surroundings and express one’s being in relation to them.

The contribution that this study seeks to make to the field of American studies lies in its effort to go beyond the critical paradigm of resistance that has gained a hegemonic stance in the wake of the historical turn. Literary texts and other aesthetic objects are now predominantly studied to determine how they are situated in larger discursive fields and participate in regulating the subject positions contained in them. Yet this interpretive framework comes at a cost as it presupposes a relation between aesthetic object and recipient that is located first and foremost on a conceptual or cognitive level: a resistant reception intellectually penetrates its object while affective mobilization tends to be seen as manipulative. Aesthetic experience thus becomes a mere function of interpellation, and ‘aesthetic regimes’ are studied to understand how to resist them.

My study questions this paradigm in assuming a yearning for meaning and form that stresses the ambiguous relation of narrative to ideologies of place and self. No matter how idiosyncratic, any account of losing or regaining one’s sense of belonging is conducted within ideological constraints, but since giving an account of uncertain states of belonging also and just as inevitably entails a wrestling with the unsayable it makes these limits tangible and expands them. Which means, in turn, that we can make use of narrative’s inclination to give meaning and form to trace concerns and limits of belonging at particular conjunctions of time, space and social being. While the resistance paradigm seeks to oppose the subject-forming power of symbolic structuresthis study stresses the experientialdimension at work in and through any regimic mode of ‘distributing the sensible’ (Rancière), its relentless involvement with making and unmaking these structuring forces. The ontological narrativity of belonging posited here insists on an ecstatic dimension of being-in-the-world, a ‘need to tell’ that drives it. In doing so, it not only sets out to rethink the neglected relation of narrative, space and place, but also the troubled relation of narrative and agency.

John F. Kennedy Institute