Thursday, October 06, 2005

Shore and self-identity in Rowlandson's and Kaysen's autobiographies

(Sorry for this extremely late posting!!!)
It seems hard for me (with no background in anthropology) to critisize Shore’s Culture in Mind. With his model genres, his positioning in the midst of all past and present research traditions in anthropology and psychology and his rich description of examples of culture in mind, his assertions seem so all encompassing, that it is hard for me write from a distant critical point of view.

However, while reading the book, a paper came to my mind that I wrote in an English literature seminar a couple of semesters ago and I started to think about how differently I would interpret the two books now after having read Strauss & Quinn and Shore. The paper was on Mary Rowlandson's A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted – two American autobiographies, the first from the 17th and the latter from the 20th century. I compared the changes in both authors’ self-definition with regard to their cultural experiences.
(I’m so sorry, this won’t make much sense to anybody who has not read these books, but it would take too much time now to establish a “common ground” and I do not know what else to write about.)

In my paper I interpreted that “Hospitalization and captivity share the fact that both Rowlandson and Kaysen were brought up in a society and culture that defined civilization on the one hand and mental normalcy on the other hand, thus defining who belonged to the in-group and was classified as ‘us’ and who was regarded as belonging to ‘the other’.” Today I would definitely leave out the word “define” and interpret the concepts of civilization and mental normalcy, which are central in the struggle of both women with their experiences, as cultural models or schemas that originated from interactions among individuals and were internalized by both women as they grew up. When I wrote the paper, I assumed that these cultural models (as I would term the concepts now) existed somewhere “out in the world” and were unchangeable and fixed. What I did not realize when I wrote about how their experiences changed both women’s perceptions, was that what actually changed was their mental versions of the cultural models that they had internalized.

I also wrote about the crucial importance of the concept of “the other” in autobiographical writing in the United States. “The general idea of self-identity is that the self is defined contrasting it with the traits and social behavior that it does not encompass, which means that the self is positioned in an in-group and an out-group is defined which is termed ‘the other’.” How would Shore explain the formation of self-identity? My understanding/interpretation is that he would define self-identity as a personal mental model that has emerged from the interactions between internalized cultural models and idiosyncratic interpretations of these models and personal experiences. Or would Shore assume that self-identity is more flexible and consists of several models? One could assume e.g. that there are culturally shared models of self-identity that are displayed in public and a personal model of self-identity that exists in parallel with the salience of the models changing from situation to situation.

Also, I now question my assertion that “the line between ‘us’ and ‘the other’” as experienced by Rowlandson and Kaysen “is a mere social and cultural construction.” I now assume that this “line” is both a cultural construction, a cultural model maybe functioning as a social orientation model, and an individual interpretation guided by personal and conventional mental models.


Blogger mdl said...

I like the way you apply the anthropological concepts in Shore to a different discpline and to your own project. It's always sorta interesting to look back at past papers and see the changes in the way you think about things.

2:09 PM  

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