Spaces of the Mind: Narrative and Community in the American Westby Elaine A. Jahner
Spaces of the Mind reveals how both immigrant European and modern Native communities and individuals use oral and written narratives to define and center themselves in time and space. Elaine A. Jahner skillfully weaves together years of fieldwork among the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, her own memories of growing up in a German-Russian town across the/i>
Spaces of the Mind reveals how both immigrant European and modern Native communities and individuals use oral and written narratives to define and center themselves in time and space. Elaine A. Jahner skillfully weaves together years of fieldwork among the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, her own memories of growing up in a German-Russian town across the Missouri River from the Standing Rock Sioux, and an illuminating set of narrative concepts.
Spaces of the Mind proposes a theory of cognitive style that emphasizes the ways in which distinct cultural identities are expressed through the structure of a narrative and the unfolding of its performance, telling, or reading. Themes of creativity and survival amid loss pervade the stories told by Natives about themselves and their past when discussing the inundation of the original Standing Rock Sioux village during the Oahe Dam construction in the 1950s. Immigrant Germans and Alsatians struggled to reconcile the hardships of the northern Plains with what they left behind in the Old World, and the narratives of a German-Russian community reflect and encourage survival in the face of transition. Jahner also studies how two prominent novelists—James Welch, a member of the Blackfeet community, and Mildred Walker, who left her native New England for the West— perceive a single landscape, the state of Montana, and how it has influenced their thought and narratives.
Spaces of the Mind provides a fresh understanding of Western literature and culture, encourages a reconsideration of the formation and modern character of the American West, and contributes to a fuller appreciation of the significance of narrative.
“Storytelling as survival is at the core of Elaine A. Jahner’s sophisticated Spaces of the Mind: Narrative and Community in the American West. . . . Her claim that narrative is the key to the way in which reality is—literally—socially constructed, seems relevant to the questions and aims of other westernists. Moreover, her focus on stories told by the putative historical losers rather than the winners accords with the New Western emphasis on nonheroic western narrative. . . . Approaching [James] Welch and [Mildred] Walker with the idea that stories are not only about, but are themselves agents of survival, she finds that both the novelists import storytelling styles and motifs from the repertory of the communities represented.”—Nina Baym, American Literary History
“[Jahner] has threaded together the insights of half a dozen disciplines to reveal the ways in which narratives encode the most fundamental meanings of individuality and community and what narratives can tell us about humanity writ large.”—Raymond J. DeMallie, author of The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk''s Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt
"[Jahner's] critical discussion of the Welch novels benefits from her knowledge of Native American myth and reaches the level of exquisite analysis, offering proof of her method and a model for the analysis of narrative literature invoking cultural continuity. She was a gifted writer and a master/mistress of the postmodern sentence." —Beverly Stoeltje, Journal of Folklore Research
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Spaces of the MindNarrative and Community in the American West
By Elaine A. Jahner
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2004 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
IntroductionNarrative and the varied ingenious uses we make of it as we negotiate among different cultures, histories, and locations constitute the primary focus of this book. As anyone realizes, though, that statement implicates much of the theoretical debate and strategic maneuvering that have characterized recent research in several disciplines. All the talk and writing has created a situation in which, as Bill Nichols has said, "narrative's not the thing it used to be. More than standing as one form of artistic expression to be worried over by those attending to the nature of art, narrative has become a central preoccupation in its own right, pushing matters of art and levels of culture to the side.... This was always, however, a science with a difference."
If levels of culture are set aside when narrative takes center theoretical stage, that move merely emphasizes narrative's central role in any study of culture, a role that takes on some extra and time-honored importance when the critical perspective is cross-cultural. Narrative orchestrates the organizing principles setting up an entire cultural field within which agents improvise on the cultural script. And as for art, well, that term is but our way of designating the transformations of experience occurring when virtuosity informs high-intensity improvs; and when thecritical spotlight is on cross-cultural narrative, it reveals previously unsuspected artistic moves and countermoves. But this book is by no means an unrelentingly abstract rehearsal of academic theory. It is a book about actual people and places and the stories that these people use to account for who they are in relation to where they are. It is a book about stretching critical boundaries a bit to include more art in social science and to encourage the poetic speculation that can be a happy side effect of detailed empirical analysis. Therefore, each chapter tells a theoretical story that is no more or less than a precisely plotted critical design to allow a few people to have their say on the global stage and to give the worldwide audience some clues about how to find contemporary significance in these historical and local dramas.
The first chapters of this book contextualize narratives that I learned in two strikingly different communities: the Yanktonai Sioux in North Dakota and their German-Russian neighbors. These communities exhibit about as much cultural, historical, and linguistic contrast as can be found anywhere in the world. Both have had a history of colonial rule even though the two colonial experiences encompass as many variations as we can imagine or account for with our academic understandings of what colonialism has meant for different peoples in shifting political relationships to nationalisms. What the contrasts and similarities characterizing each group's historical experience might have to do with the narratives told in each community is one of the controlling questions around which my critical narrative develops. And, of course, today both groups share a landscape and they have both used stories to transform its places into spaces of the mind; therefore that process of transformation can focus our contemporary interest as we give more nuanced attention to what kind of variable place is in the dynamics of human agency.
Colonial and postcolonial studies now come in for enough academic discussion that one no longer need rehearse all the terms of academic efforts to find a legitimate position from which to develop responsible criticism that recognizes how power relations cross-cut just about every other relational category. But the question of how to factor in the countless variables engendered by personal history in definite communities seems more intractable, precisely because it is a task more appropriate to the poet than to any theoretician. The local frames the irreducible splendor of what is unique, even idiosyncratic, and the theoretical generalities of any discipline insist on eclipsing that quality. If, however, we think of theory as a form of translation, perhaps even as a kind of subtitling allowing audiences from diverse positions to follow a performance that takes place in the mind and follows the energies of individual intellect and spirit, then theory is no more or less than a convenient adjunct to help the international crowd keep up with what is happening as the exquisitely detailed and immediate is gathered into some bigger picture, which theory communicates to global participants. That easy observation implies a process of getting quickly to the theoretical perspective and comment that counts, that communicates something that really matters to actual audiences. And that achievement is by no means easy or guaranteed by any method.
In other words, theory does not just have to connect; it really should do so in ways that respond to audiences that we may choose to make more inclusive than just that group of colleagues who share our current predictable methodological moves and assumptions. To do this we have to remember that theory can be narrative too; as metanarrative, hopefully it can gather in some of the momentum by which any really good plot engages readers and listeners of all kinds. As we elaborate our theoretical plots about human knowing, we do well to enrich our critical tales with details that we can gain only by listening to what ordinary people actually say about their own places on the map. Or, to get at the more common twentieth-century condition, we have to listen to what people say about what it has meant for them to move from place to place, about what has given them a necessary security in the midst of transitions of all kinds that take them from place to place. And giving some actual detail to the narrative process that accounts for what has been called "the interpenetration of person and place" is a primary purpose of this book.
Even though there is a growing body of theoretical literature about place as constitutive of subjectivity, I find that much of it still remains aloof from the literal actualities of place, the kind of thing that the western writer Ivan Doig was asking about when he said, "Tell me why it is that details like that, saddle stirrups a notch longer or sunshine dabbed around on the foothills some certain way, seem to be the allowance of memory while the bigger points of life hang back?" I decided to place a lot of my theoretical bets on commonplace details, trusting them to advance me one definite step at a time to some of those bigger points of life and theory. And for me, at least in relation to what I do in this book, the commonplace is empirically exact. It is actual spoken or written language that can be traced back to a real human interactional context that opens out onto others and so on to community after real community. Furthermore, these speakers and writers remain in touch with places where the weather changes and so do other definite factors like real estate taxes and the distance to the best supermarket or school; and all these changes pose yet other questions about narrative that can take us anywhere, even into cyberspace. But the real interactional contexts where it all begins have their histories, and I have listened to how real individuals talk about the histories that give them a definite purchase on the meaning of their present positions in their present communities.
By referring to "listening" instead of reading, I allude to another theoretical and methodological subtext occurring in every chapter of this book. The primary texts I analyze in the first three chapters are oral. The exceptions are memoirs written by amateur historians, usually with family members as the intended audience; therefore one can argue that these texts are, for the most part, transcriptions of the oral traditions or that their function is the same as that of the oral texts. Such texts pose a whole series of questions about context that can be summarized by saying that the critic always has to move back and forth between questions about history as narrative, narrative as history, and narrative in history. As a practical heuristic strategy, concentrating on narrative's meaning-effects also allows for the critical insertion of the analytic incongruities set up by distinctions between oral and written texts. Each perspective implies slightly different critical procedures, different approaches to cognitive style. And that brings me to the most basic critical subtext in this book. It is a book about cognitive style in narrative.
All of my work on cognitive style goes back to my initial efforts to understand the strategic vitality of oral narratives that I was learning among the Yanktonai Sioux. People told me that their stories were an indispensable part of how they managed to live with their past and present experience. I believed them. But at first I had to take it all on faith. I could not really understand why the material I was hearing and recording should be so important. What I was learning was so different from the tales I had found in earlier collections that I had to question whether any continuity connected the older to the more recent narratives. I entertained-and rejected-the idea of a complete cultural break as a consequence of changes imposed first by reservation culture and then by a second relocation as a result of flooding when the Oahe Dam was built on the Missouri River. I chose to try to interpret the texts as evidence of how narrative is an active force at work in all spheres of adaptation. That decision, though, did not quickly lead to any theoretically adequate approach to this material.
As I studied the Sioux language, analyzing text after traditional text, examining all the available manuscript material on Sioux culture, I began to see distinctions at work that revealed a cognitive terrain quite different from any that can be directly translated into European categories. The sheer excitement of that first insight has never diminished; and if linguistic research is admittedly tedious, its results are such rich testimony to the options available to human intelligence that I now believe that comparative linguistic studies should receive as high a priority in research about the nature of human knowing as that which we give to any physical science. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis deserves further exploration. Only when I began to concentrate on specific features of spatial categories in Siouan languages and their effects on narrative forms did I begin to catch on to the experiences behind narrators' insistence that the life of local narratives was intimately bound up with the community's geographical setting.
The next step was to find ways to move from all that detail to something other than a purely formalistic study of narrative. I had to gather all the detail derived from analysis of specific semantic and pragmatic categories back into the bigger questions that had motivated the search for all that detail in the first place.
We can document historical events. It is far harder to document a history of interpreting those events. I was fortunate enough to go on living for many years in the communities whose narratives focused my work, so I could follow through and test what I was beginning, tentatively, to understand as a comprehensive relationship between cognition and narration that was communicated at the level of style and not just through content. More to the point, that set of factors summed up by the word style was a verifiable set of traditional features that supported and guided changing adaptive content. The effort to formulate theory with enough descriptive adequacy and predictive power to generate a critical account of the relevant features of continuity motivated my revision of my developing theories of cognitive style. Clearly the narrative features that I was trying to specify were defined by a communal context. Equally clear was the fact that these features derived from narrative performance conditions rather than from semantic content alone. Simply by taking seriously what people said about their stories, I had wandered into all the questions and problems of relationships between narrative structure and developing ideas about how to address narrative context and pragmatics. Some of these problems admit of exact methodological framing, and what is learned by so doing opens the way to other critical considerations that are more daring, more creative, and, therefore, less easily reined in by precise theoretical models. These less constrained pursuits have proven, at once, closer to the emergent strategies characterizing cultures and more likely to motivate collaborative explorations of a changing matrix of questions. The intensely detailed empirical focus and the more widely ranging speculative critical studies proved to be necessary, balancing perspectives.
Over the years I have published different phases of a developing theory of cognitive style. One basic early analysis gives some of the technical linguistic data supporting critical judgments I make in my chapter on Cannon Ball narrative traditions. That article along with the first chapter in this volume, "Theoretical Foundations," gives evidence of the ethnolinguistic foundations for discourse theory that generate the hypotheses guiding more general chapters. I want the material published here to retain a certain lively readability even though each chapter derives from precisely developed analytic foundations that I address in the theoretical chapter that sets up the rest of the book's organization.
The concept of cognitive style, as I was developing it, seemed to work as a method for marking surprising features of continuity within Sioux narratives. But what about other traditions? Could the critical strategy work for oral materials from altogether different cultures? That question was an important impetus and guide for my research in German-Russian communities. Of course, it was not the only one. Equally basic was a whole set of questions about the role of the researcher. From the beginning I remained vigilant and distrustful of the academic tendency to make observations and data fit the needs of imposed theory. I worried about the ingenuity that lets a researcher find whatever fits the theoretical bill, even as I pursued a range of theoretical means to account for observations about collected narratives. By combining analysis of my own culture with that of another group, I hoped to use each situation as a way to guard against inevitable blind spots, unrecognized presuppositions, and sheer theoretical creativity. I tried to make productive use of the equally inevitable dynamics of insider/outsider. I also tried to let what I was learning in each community assume its own appropriate critical narrative structure, because I believe that many of the implications of the experiment can become manifest only through the actual process of writing as the critical narrative sought and dictated its own form and style. I believe that is what happened, but my critics will necessarily see and understand more than I do. That anticipated exchange is part of the purpose of this book. The Yanktonai Sioux and German-Russian chapters are paired and placed in their Dakota setting. These chapters explore aspects of cognitive style as it operates to establish specific textual communities.
Excerpted from Spaces of the Mind by Elaine A. Jahner Copyright © 2004 by University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Elaine A. Jahner (1942–2003) was a professor of English at Dartmouth College. She is the coeditor of Lakota Myth and Lakota Belief and Ritual, by James R. Walker, both available in Bison Books editions.
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