Back to the We

John Sutton and Evelyn B. Tribble, ‘The Creation of Space: Narrative Strategies, Group Agency, and Skill in Lloyd Jones’s The Book of Fame’, in Mindful Aesthetics: Literature and the Sciences of Mind, ed. Chris Danta and Helen Groth (Bloomsbury / Continuum, 2014), 141-160.

Right back at the beginning of the blog I noticed an article about the ‘we-mode’. I posted about it then. Recently I’ve been talking to the authors of that article, and others, about further ways in which the idea of joint action and/or joint experience in literature might connect to ways of thinking about these things in philosophy and cognitive science. The key thing about the we-mode, if I am understanding it correctly, is that it’s about how collective experience adds something to individual experience. Often the assumption seems to be that being part of a group entails a loss for the individual. It may also be the case that being part of a first-person-plural gives us new ways – other people’s ways to add to our own – of perceiving and understanding the world.
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Here’s a hypothetical Shakespearean case. I have argued somewhere (maybe in my 2013 article ‘The Shakespearean Grasp’) that the end of Measure for Measure might configure the individual and the group in an unusual way. At the end of most comedies we (we the audience) are in cheerful harmony, near enough, with the happy ending; but sometimes Shakespeare may make it so that I (meaning me the individual) am no longer confident that we are in tune any more. When the Duke proposes to Isabella, I don’t know what we want. Now, in the light of we-mode thinking, I could restate that more positively, as an ending that makes the we into something that opens up new perspectives to me: not a merged group but an enrichingly complex collective. I am not sure about this: it suits Measure for Measure to see this as an uncomfortable experience. But I like the possibilities of this more generous ‘we’.
      This essay by Sutton and Tribble was one of the treasures I came across in reading up for a Workshop I ran with Mattia Gallotti (School of Advanced Study, University of London; his details here). Jones’s novel is about the famous 1905 tour by the New Zealand rugby team, and it traces the development of the groupthroughout the tour. It represents very well, through a range of stylistic techniques, how diverse individuals merge into a collective that is greater than the sum of its parts, while their individual differences remain crucial. Sutton and Tribble draw out the ways in which fiction can represent psychologically convincing accounts of how skilled groups operate.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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