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New publication helps us understand how narratives expand our sense of the possible

University of Turku


IMAGE: The Ethics of Storytelling was published in the book launch organised by the Literature Departments of the University of Turku on 14 March 2018. view more 

Credit: Maria Vasenkari

Cultural models of sense-making shape our views about who we are and who we could be - what is possible for us as individuals and as communities. Hanna Meretoja's new book, The Ethics of Storytelling, provides us with tools for analysing cultural narrative models and understanding the power of literary narratives to expand our sense of the possible.

The Ethics of Storytelling: Narrative Hermeneutics, History, and the Possible, a new research monograph by Hanna Meretoja, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Turku, Finland, brings into dialogue narrative ethics, literary narrative studies, narrative psychology, narrative philosophy, and cultural memory studies. The book was published by Oxford University Press.

The Ethical Significance of Literature

The discussion on the ethical significance of storytelling has been dominated by polarised views on the benefits and dangers of narrative. Against the backdrop of this debate, Professor Meretoja develops narrative hermeneutics as a nuanced theoretical-analytical framework for engaging with the ethical complexity of the roles narratives play in our lives.

- The ethical potential of literature is crucially linked to the ways in which literary narratives open up new possibilities of thought, experience, action and imagination, and cultivate our awareness of and sensitivity to different perspectives, Meretoja argues.

Narratives Shape Our Sense of the Possible

The key question in the book is how literary and historical narratives shape our sense of the possible.

- The sense of the possible refers to our sense of what was or is possible to experience, think, feel, and do in a certain historical and cultural world. Our sense of the possible also concerns our ability to imagine how things could be otherwise, Professor Meretoja explains.

She argues that our sense of the possible is shaped by the relationship between our narrative unconscious and narrative imagination.

- Cultural narrative models shape how we perceive, for example, good life, gender and success, and they condition our actions and attitudes without our awareness. Literary narratives that make such narrative models visible can enrich our narrative imagination and help us gain critical distance from culturally available narrative identities.

The Power and Dangers of Narratives

Professor Meretoja analyses literary and autobiographical narratives that deal with 20th century historical traumas. Most important of these narratives are Julia Franck's The Blind Side of the Heart (2007), Günter Grass's Peeling the Onion (2006), Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (2007) and David Grossman's To the End of the Land (2008) and Falling Out of Time (2011).

- In dialogue with these narratives, I address our implication in violent histories and argue that it is as dialogic storytellers, fundamentally vulnerable and dependent on one another, where we become who we are, both as individuals and communities, Meretoja summarises.

The legacy of the Holocaust and the Second World War shows the dangerous power of storytelling.

- The Nazis built a mythology that provided the Germans with a strong narrative identity as "Aryans", but at the same time it drastically diminished the possibilities of the Jews and several other minorities to the point of denying them the right to live.

In the book, the European legacy of fascism is discussed in relation to more recent political turmoil, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the rise of right-wing populist narratives.

- In order to understand the atrocities of the past, such as the Holocaust, and contemporary terrorism we should, instead of demonising the evil-doers, try to imagine not only the perspectives and experiential world of the victims but also that of the perpetrators and various implicated subjects. Only then can we properly engage with the conditions that made the atrocities possible.

Model for Evaluating the Ethical Potential and Dangers of Narratives

The book develops a heuristic model for evaluating the ethical potential and dangers of different kinds of narratives. It provides six evaluative continuums on which narratives can be placed. These continuums explore whether narratives 1) expand or diminish our sense of the possible, 2) develop or distort our self-understanding, 3) promote or impair our ability to understand the experiences of others in their singularity, 4) participate in building inclusive or exclusive narrative in-betweens, 5) cultivate or impede our perspective-awareness, and 6) function as a form of ethical inquiry or dogmatism. Instead of binaries, these are differentiating continuums on which different narrative practices can be placed. They provide us with analytic tools to engage with the narrative dimension of human existence in all its complexity.

Award from the American Educational Research Association

On 6 February 2018, the Narrative Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) awarded Hanna Meretoja the Early Career Award for her "substantive contributions and commitment to narrative research" and for "her work with a large cohort of graduate students". The award is designed to "recognize a researcher's outstanding accomplishment in the area of narrative research".


Discussion Event on the Book at the Centre for Narrative Research in London

Meretoja's book will be discussed at the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London (University Square, Stratford Campus, London). The Centre organises a symposium around The Ethics of Storytelling on the 11th of May. The event involves a roundtable in which the book is discussed by Prof. Matti Hyvärinen, Dr Maarit Leskelä-Kärki, Prof. Jakob Lothe, Prof. Ann Phoenix and Prof. Brian Schiff.

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