David Utsler, PhD, is currently part-time faculty in philosophy for Texas Woman’s University and North Central Texas College. He is co-editor of Interpreting Nature: The Emerging Field of Environmental Hermeneutics (Fordham 2014) along with Forrest Clingerman, Brian Treanor and Martin Drenthen. He is also co-author with Cynthia R. Nielsen of “Fricker, Gadamer, and Honneth: Testimonial Injustice, Prejudice, and Social Esteem” in Recognition Theory and Epistemic Justice, eds. Paul Giladi and Nicola McMillan, forthcoming 2021 from Routledge.
I Narrative: Stories We Tell
“We are following therefore the destiny of a prefigured time that becomes a refigured time through the mediation of a configured time” (Paul Ricoeur. 1984, 54). Paul Ricoeur explains narrative as a three-fold mimesis (imitation of action). At the risk of oversimplification, Ricoeur’s narrative philosophy starts with the time we are in (prefigured), how we narrate the prefigured world, configuring it into a meaningful plot, and finally we refigure our lives with the passage of time. Narrative is never static. We never come to the end of the story. The passage of time, age, life experience, and events constantly create a new “plot twists” by which we narrate who we are and project who we wish to be forward in time. Another way Ricoeur refers to three-fold mimesis is the process to “describe, narrate, prescribe” (Ricoeur. 1992, 114). Description is where we find ourselves. Narration brings together disparate elements into a meaningful story. Prescription then asks how should we then live?
II Discordances that disrupt the story
Sometimes, things take place that Ricoeur calls discordances, those “reversals of fortune” that disrupt the ordered plot of our lives that even “threaten [our] identity” (Ricoeur. 1992, 141). Ricoeur places discordances within mimesis₂, configuration. Ricoeur sees discordances as plot twists, which we then must work into the narrative stage. I would further argue that discordances mediate between configuration and mimesis₃, refiguration. Such turns of events force us refigure our identity and to conceive of new possible worlds that, as Ricoeur would say, unfold in front of the text. When configuration is forced to take in plot elements that disrupt the flow of the narrative that we were comfortable with, then we are likewise forced to refigure who we are as the future becomes the present. Brian Treanor puts it succinctly: “Herein lies the real power of narrative of our purposes: the power to refigure our lives” (Treanor. 2014, 116). Treanor here is speaking of the power of reading stories and how we can see things from different perspectives and learn to think of ourselves and our world in new ways. But I would argue that discordances have the same effect, often unwelcome, but by which we can think and imagine new worlds on the other side of the disruption.
III After Social Distancing
COVID-19 can easily be understood as a discordance, a reversal of fortune that has deeply affected the story. Daily life is for the foreseeable future dramatically changed. The economy is on hold, lives are being deeply affected by sickness or the loss of jobs, and our freedom to interact is being governed and determined by the threat COVID-19 poses. In light of carnal hermeneutics, interpretation that goes “all the way down,” is it possible to reconfigure who we are and possible worlds in which we would like to dwell. Of course it is possible. Allow me to interject some cynicism in that with a global capitalist social order where the world is framed and determined by the will of the very few, I have little hope of great change. At least in America, I am painfully aware of our remarkable capacity to forget things that just happened in our rush to return to the status quo. On social media, I have read those who say that in our desire to get back to “normal” we should consider what we want to be normal and what was normal that we ought to set aside. But when the time comes that society can return to some semblance of normal, how much of a change will we really set ourselves to make?
My cynicism aside, the point of narrative as three-fold mimesis is that we are constantly refiguring our lives and even a very unwelcome global discordance can have positive outcomes. Several reports have indicated a great decrease in global pollution, for example. As people have been forced to do their work from home, could it be that economic life can be conceived of in such a way that does not require the travel to and from work that had been unquestioned in the past? I am hardly in a position or have the expertise to make projections or answer that question.
As someone who has for some time been greatly interested in Kearney’s and Treanor’s project of hermeneutics as carnal, I immediately began to think of the ramification of the global pandemic in this light. It seems to me what COVID-19, social distancing, and shelter-in-place shows is that interpretation is embodied and the body is integral to interpretation. Indeed, every other consequence and ramification of this pandemic is because of effect it has on bodies: how bodies are placed, the health and well-being of bodies, etc. There is not an economic consequence or any other seemingly non-carnal aspect of this pandemic that is not inextricably tied to flesh.
May future interpretations of our shared world, that is how we understand how we are to “be” and how we refigure shared life, be informed and guided a by good “sense.”
Ricoeur, P. (1984) Time and Narrative, Volume 1. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ricoeur, P. (1992) Oneself as Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Treanor, B. (2014) Emplotting Virtue: A Narrative Approach to Environmental Virtue Ethics. Albany: State University of New York Press.