The power and prejudice of narrative. . .   2 comments

Wow. I am emotionally exhausted from this week’s reading assignment. Really, put a fork in me—I am done. My initial reaction is a testament to the power of the cultural study and Jackie Stacey’s strategic insertion of her own personal narrative within it.

After reading the introduction, it was clear to me that Stacey was addressing what happens when narratives, which can be powerful tools for understanding ourselves and others, become standardized discourse rather than individualized, honest storytelling. She describes the “kinds” of narratives available to cancer patients, and they were familiar to me. They have become a cultural construct through which cancer patients and their loved ones are meant to recognize themselves and their struggle. We are meant to take comfort in these stories, to relate to them. However, when your perception of what it means for one to have cancer does not match the rhetoric of cancer narratives which comes from a very patriarchal (“hero” v. “monster” binary) of biomedical discourse, what is one left with? This, Stacey points is the power and danger of standardized narratives.

She eloquently points out the gaps in which she lives, in which her story is told. She admits that her own “imagination” has been structured by these standardized narratives (6). They are ubiquitous. What Stacey illuminates is how she came to recognize these constructs, these standardized/sanitized narratives as not of herself: “the whole episode felt as though it was somebody’s else’s script, not mine” (6). Stacey recognizes the power of the dominant discourse to affect the way that we see and understand ourselves, and she acknowledges that there is some measure of psychic discord when how we feel and think does not seem to match what we have been taught through conventional wisdom that we should feel and think.
This rings true, in a general sense, to any kind of marginalized identity. One might think that she knows what society thinks of her and what she should and should not be and do, but there is something else; There is an alternative way of knowing and understanding that requires one to look inside oneself and to question conventional wisdom. We saw a glimpse of this with Our Bodies, Ourselves, which Stacey invokes as an example of a narrative text that has “enabled many women to resist the passivity and alienation of the patient role and to combat their dependency on the masculine medical profession” (103). Stacey goes on to explain how “guilt” is used as a tactic to get patients to comply, and she marks this as a gendered move that affects women differently from men, though it is not acknowledged as such (196).

It is in Ch. 6 that I start to see exactly what Stacey means when she says that “race, class and gender” inscribe inequity in addition to the inequity in the doctor, patient relationship (102). The narratives of cancer prove to be insufficient because they tend to address the world view and needs of only a certain type of cancer patient: the hero. This universalizing leaves a lot of individuals in the dark to navigate cultural and biomedical practices without a map that they can read and relate to.

It was tough but so very valuable to read about how Stacey came to navigate uncharted territory and how she is lighting out for the territory to pave the way for others to at least question the value of the current trajectory of cancer narratives and culture. As she acknowledges in Ch. 8, it is a lot of pressure to live up to—to be a survivor, to be wiser, to have some special knowledge of how to dispel the mysteries of mortality. Isn’t all that just stories we tell ourselves rather than the challenging reality of the permanent mysteries of death and indeed, recovery?

If, as Stacey asserts, both standard medicine (relying on objectifying the body) and alternative medicine (relying on objectifying the will of the person) both encourage “mastery over mystery,” are we to understand that the illusion of that mastery is a good thing for some and not for others (238)? It seems that these narratives have to have been predicated on some working model, right?

Posted October 26, 2010 by jenwojton in Uncategorized

2 responses to “The power and prejudice of narrative. . .

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  1. Hi Jen:

    Your post brought to mind a concept I’ve read about lately while planning my presentation for class this evening: the ethnographic present.

    The notion that once the ethnography is complete the researcher moves on but the subjects are frozen, stagnant, exactly as they are in the ethnography forever is a problem that Critical Ethnography attempts to address.

    This idea of frozen stagnant stories seems connected in my mind. “Here’s a story about people with cancer, for people with cancer” works only if we assume that all people with the cancer are the same, need the same things at the same time, identify with the same tropes.

    It seems to me that this problem is one that Epstein and Wells–and maybe even Rapp–tried to address in their research and writing.

    This makes the work emotional and painful to read at times, but certainly worthwhile.


  2. Stacey goes on to explain how “guilt” is used as a tactic to get patients to comply, and she marks this as a gendered move that affects women differently from men, though it is not acknowledged as such (196).

    Ok – so I have a love hate relationship with this concept. And the first scenario it brings to my mind is the catholic mother. Works equally as well with both sexes – how the tactics of guilt differ is definitely the aspect to be discussing, still it 95% of the time works regardless of the sex of the child:). (disclaimer – based on my personal experience…not proven hahahah).

    So, that leads me to think that maybe to make her point clearer and even more powerful she should have looked into how different guilt tactics are used on different sexes, instead of assuming that there has not really been a differentiation between the response of a male and a female – since it very well may just be the presentation of the guilt that is the differentiation:). The power of guilt rhetoric:)…haha.

    Just maybe:).

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